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Rutilio Grande, SJ: Homilies and Writings

Book Review: Rutilio Grande, SJ: Homilies and Writings. Edited, Translated, and Annotated by Thomas M. Kelly. College-ville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2015.

Reviewed by Mark and Louise Zwick

On February 13, 1977, Mark stood next to Rutilio Grande, the priest who would soon be assassinated, as he waited in the procession to begin Mass. It was a Mass with the rural communities of El Salvador protesting the deportation of Fr. Mario Bernal back to Colombia after working with the poor for five years in Apopa.

Mark came home after the Mass to tell Louise that the atmosphere was tense at the Mass. In the car parked next to his, he had noticed the gun on the seat. He told Louise that in his sermon that day Fr. Rutilio had said that soon the Gospel, the Bible, would not be allowed in El Salvador because it was considered subversive. He said that if Jesus returned to El Salvador he would be arrested and put in jail.

A month after that Mass, Rutilio Grande was assassinated.

Having just arrived in El Salvador in January of that year, we had already begun to meet with a small base community organized by Fr. Bernard Survil, where poor people reflected on the realities around them in the light of the Scriptures in the See, Judge and Act approach. We observed there that, contrary to what those entrenched in power and wealth were saying, the groups were not using Marxist rhetoric, but reflecting on reality in the light of the Bible.

As we studied this book of Rutilio Grande’s homilies and writings, the memory of that day in Apopa and the time after his death came starkly and clearly to our minds.

This valuable collection makes available in English for the first time Fr. Rutilio’s published writings and sermons, along with introductions, commentary, and possible discussion questions for students or study groups provided by the editor and translator. It includes the homily Mark heard in person in 1977.

The first several chapters in the book are organized according to the See, Judge, and Act method of bringing the Gospel to reflect on social realities. This method was used in the formation of base communities in El Salvador and throughout Latin America.

Fr. Rutilio’s writings not only bring these reflections and responses to bear on the social realities and injustices of El Salvador, but show how the implementation of this approach formed the communities with which he and fellow priests worked.

Rutilio Grande framed his homilies and writings in the the Gospel, in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and the writings of Pope Paul VI. In a significant homily on the Transfiguration, he preached that each baptized person is also to be transfigured into a new person in Christ. He pointed out, however, that “Many baptized in this country have not accepted the demands of the postulates of the Gospel that demand a trans-figuration…, not transfigured in mind and heart, they put up a dam of selfishness in front of the message of Jesus our Savior …”

Fr. Rutilio  spelled out what baptism should mean:

“Baptism is a holy and demanding commitment… To be baptized is to be squarely focused on the purpose of the Gospel. To be baptized is to accept the Gospel of Christ and its final consequences! To be baptized is to enter fully into a change of attitude toward life, toward the world, toward values, toward God. ’Change of attitude’ was a slogan of Jesus from the beginning of his public life as a messenger of the Good News. And every follower of Jesus has to be in continuous change of attitude, turning his or her own life toward the light of the Gospel and interpreting it under the light of the signs of the times.”

In his commentary, Fr. Rutilio made clear the connection between baptism, faith, and a just response to socioeconomic realities. When he quoted Pope Paul VI from the document On the Development of Peoples as he applied it to life in El Salvador for so many poor:.

Pope Paul wrote:  “In certain regions a privileged minority enjoys the refinements of life while the rest of the inhabitants, impoverished and disunited, are deprived of almost all possibility of acting on their own initiative and responsibility and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of the human person.”

The same sermon noted the rejection of Paul VI’s teaching by the powerful: “The Wall Street Journal qualified this papal document as ‘warmed over Marxism.’” The support of the United States for the repressive Salvadoran government in the ensuing years, with death squads in the streets terrorizing the population (during the time we lived in El Salvador, for example) shows the resistance of the powerful to the Gospel message that Fr Rutilio preached.

Key themes in the newly translated articles include the need for comprehensive agrarian reform in a country where a tiny minority owned all the land and the vast majority could barely scrape out a subsistence living, as well as reflections on violence in Salvadoran society.

Fr. Rutilio spoke clearly against violence:

“We are living in Latin America amid continuing acts of savage violence. It goes without saying that we reject this violence. We cannot be in agreement with these systems so contrary to freedom and to the rights of the human person… We have a problem with violence on two levels: Institutional violence and armed violence. The two are unjust, the two are prejudicial to the rights of human beings, the two are contrary to peace…. We want to say that in El Salvador there is no place for any type of violence.”

Rutilio’s work, and that of the priests he trained in their work with the vast communities of the poor in his country who had no voice or opportunity, was a prophetic witness and faith formation for many. He was assassinated as many prophets before him. His assassins would have done well to listen to his voice, rather than trying to silence it, as he said:

“In the pursuit of justice, we can expect to encounter discord and opposition; and in such cases, conflict is sometimes unavoidable. Yet love does not allow us to stand on the sidelines of such conflicts; it commands en-gagement. In such situations we do not advocate physical violence. Instead we should engage in the struggle by employing the moral force of the power of love. Therefore the code is one word, LOVE: against all anti-love, against sin, against injustice, against the domination of peoples, against the destruction of peoples.”

 Houston Catholic Worker, January February 2016, Vol. XXXV, No. 1.