A Time to Speak —
Martyrs of El Salvador

Father James Flynn

On Saturday, January 22, four Salvadoran martyrs will be beatified in the Cathedral of San Salvador. They are Jesuit Padre Rutilio Grande, two lay persons Manuel Solórzano and Nelson Rutilio Lemus and Franciscan Father Cosme Spessotto.

Salvadoran Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez will preside at the service at noon in that cathedral in a country that has witnessed so many people, nuns and priests assassinated for their struggles for dignity, justice and life for the poor. The great majority of those assassinations were perpetrated by government-backed “death squads” and military personnel.

Padre Rutilio, Manuel and Nelson were driving on a rural road toward their town of Aguilares in Northern Salvador when several heavily armed men ambushed them, repeatedly firing into the vehicle, killing all three. It happened on March 14, 1977.

Padre Rutilio was a close friend of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a quite conservative man who had been appointed Archbishop of San Salvador only a month before, in February of 1977. But the assassinations of these three profoundly affected Romero and began his conversion to be a voice for the voiceless of the suffering people in El Salvador. Romero himself would become a victim of the same sinister forces only three years later, on March 26, 1980.

Rutilio (affectionately called “Tilio”) was born one of six children in the very poor town of Paisnal, a village not far from Aguilares. He was reared by his grandmother, went to the seminary in San Salvador, studied in Europe and was ordained a Jesuit priest on July 30, 1959.

After teaching in the seminary in San Salvador for several years Padre Rutilio became pastor of the parish of Aguilares. It was there that he devoted himself to upholding the dignity of poor farmers around that parish, including those of Paisnal.

So often his parishioners felt (and were taught) that they were poor because it was “the will of God.” But Padre Rutilio challenged these parishioners to read the Scriptures and hunt for any indication that they were poor because it was “the will of God.”

Opening the Scriptures, a new consciousness gradually awakened in his parishioners. It was not “God’s will” that they were poor, without drinking water or access to health facilities among other indignities. His people began to realize there were systemic causes for their lack of water, and that their poverty was related to the riches being hoarded by the few wealthy Salvadorans and oppressive oligarchs, including those who owned so much of the land around Aguilares where landless parishioners worked.

This growing new consciousness among the poor aroused the suspicions of the wealthy and their disaffection with Padre Rutlio.

These were the suspicions that led to the brutal martyrdom of Padre Rutilio, Manuel Solórzano and Nelson Lemus.

Padre Cosme Spessotto, a Franciscan missionary from Italy, served in the diocese of Zacatecoluca and spoke out against injustices suffered by the many poor people in his parish. He was killed in a similar way as Padre Rutilio at point-blank range on June 14, 1980, by unknown agents, only a few months after Romero’s martyrdom.

Forty-five years after these three were martyred, they will be beatified amid the cheers of so many poor Salvadorans. No doubt chants of “Rutilio, Manuel, Nelson: PRESENTE” will resound in the streets and homes of Paisnal and Aguilares as well as from the cathedral in San Salvador.

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