On March 12th, 1977, Fr Rutilio Grande SJ was brutally gunned down along with his sacristan Manuel Solorzano and young assistant Nelson Lemus.
In murdering Fr Grande, the oppressive Salvadoran regime had taken its savagery to a new level hard to imagine amid the already existing environment of abduction and torture.
Inspired by the social teaching of Vatican II, Fr Grande was a driving force for change in this corrupt and unjust context.
Whether teaching at the seminary, where he met Oscar Romero, or establishing base communities where the marginalised poor could gain the skills, faith and courage to speak out against the military dictatorship, Grande articulated the fact that the Gospels contain a clear social message, what Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ referred to as ‘the preferential option for the poor’.
The influence that the Second Vatican Council had on Grande brought him to see the role of the clergy as accompaniment of the poor in their journey.
Following his work at the seminary, he became the pastor of the parish of Aguilares, a town near his birthplace. Here he worked with the laity to promote lay collaboration in the work of the gospel.
This in turn, fostered a growing awareness among the people of the injustices endemic in their society. Together they looked for opportunities to create a more just, a more Christian world. This threatened the power of the government and the aristocracy.
In speaking out against the corruption of the regime and on behalf of the dignity of the poor Grande set himself on a collision course with the authorities.
In February 1977 he preached the sermon that would cost him his life. He spoke in honour of Fr Mario Bernal, a Columbian-born priest who had been arrested in El Salvador and deported without being charged.
Grande said: “I am fully aware that very soon the Bible and the Gospels will not be allowed to cross the border.
“All that will reach us will be the covers, since all the pages are subversive…. So that if Jesus crosses the border at Chalatenango, they will not allow him to enter.
“They would accuse him, the man-God, … of being an agitator, of being a …foreigner, who confuses the people with exotic and foreign ideas, anti-democratic ideas…. ideas against God. …they would undoubtedly crucify him again.”
The assassination of Fr Grande was a defining moment in the life of his close friend Oscar Romero.
In this carnage, Romero remembered his origins amongst the poor and gained a new insight into the suffering of the Salvadoran people. He became the voice of the voiceless in large part because he took up the mantel of the pastor from Aguilares.
In due course friendship with Rutilio and with Jesus would also lead Romero to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Salvadoran people.