Rutilio Grande was born and raised in El Salvador. It was in El Salvador that he was brought into the Faith that would preserve and empower him for years to come and it is in El Salvador that he would lay down his life as a witness to the liberating and saving power of his Lord Jesus Christ. His family was very poor and so he was well acquainted with the life of poverty and the uncertainty that follows in its wake day after day. At the age of twelve he expressed a desire to become a priest. This was perhaps partly because it represented a way out of “accidental” poverty by entering into a vow of poverty–if he was going to be poor at least he could choose it and find some comfort in it as a calling. He joined the Jesuits five years later and studied to become a priest. The life of a priest represented comfort to Rutilio and so he adhered to the many rules and regulations with zeal since they gave his life structure. Yet, as he further invested himself in administration and education he began to drift slowly away from a life of grace and mercy and into a life of regulation and comforting security. He was ordained into the priesthood but he feared that it was beyond him and that he was painfully inadequate in this calling.
In 1965 he returned to El Salvador from abroad (mostly Spain) to serve as the Director of Social Action at the Jesuit seminary in El Salvador. He had an incredible impact on the formation of new ministers in his years there. Though it was the norm for priests to be socialites and people of status in El Salvador, Rutilio was beginning to feel like there was a different calling at work in his life and in the lives of those close to him.
He beganinsisting that seminarians spend more time with the poor and that priests become deeply and emotionally invested in the lives of the poor in their parishes. He coordinated ministers and ministries so that the poverty of many became the concern of those who expressed a desire to be the hands and feet of their homeless Lord. This work continued even as Rutilio took a position as priest of a parish. He began to attract attention from the government because of his compassion on the poor and disenfranchised in El Salvador.
The powers that ruled El Salvador feared that Rutilio would excite people to rebellion in his preaching and in his proclamations of liberty for the poor and outcast. Men like Rutilio and Oscar Romero were increasingly unwelcome in El Salvador. This point was driven home when a priest was kidnapped, abused, and then exiled from the country.Soon after, Rutilio preached a sermon that would cost him his life. In it he said:
I’m quite aware that very soon the Bible and the gospel won’t be allowed to cross our borders. We’ll only get the bindings, because all the pages are subversive. And I think that if Jesus himself across the border to Chalatenango, they wouldn’t let him in. They would accuse the man…of being a rabble-rouser, a foreign Jew, one who confused the people with exotic and foreign ideas, ideas against democracy—that is, against the wealthy minority, the clan of Cains! Brothers and sisters, without any doubt, they would crucify him again. And God forbid that I be one of the crucifiers!
Less than a month later, Rutilio Grande–the man who had said, “It is a dangerous thing to be a Christian in this world“–was killed by government agents with machine guns. He was gunned down and the government’s role in his death was covered up. It was only through the tireless work of his friends (including Romero) that the truth was finally uncovered. Rutilio Grande was a friend of the poor and a proclaimer of liberty to the disenfranchised. It cost him his life in 1977.
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