We need more dangerous saints

This week is shaping up as a landmark one in El Salvador. It will be filled with painful memories being resurrected, but also with joyful celebrations that celebrate the resilience, strength and faith of the Salvadoran people. Thirty years ago this week, on Jan. 16, 1992, representatives of the Salvadoran government and of the FMLN insurgency in El Salvador signed the Chapultepec Peace Accords, bringing an end to that country’s long and brutal civil war. Over 75,000 people had died—with thousands more simply “disappeared”—and over a million Salvadorans had fled the country, but the peace accords offered hope for a new future for El Salvador.

A number of Catholic priests, lay missionaries and men and women religious, as well as Rutilio Grande S.J., were among those who died in the conflict between government forces and paramilitaries. This weekend, he will be beatified in San Salvador.

The people of El Salvador will celebrate the beatification of one of their own on Jan. 22, their beloved ‘Father Tilo.’ Let us join with them in crying out ‘¡Presente!’”

Father Grande and his two traveling companions, 15-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus and 72-year-old Manuel Solórzano, were murdered outside of the small town of El Paisnal on March 12, 1977. In addition to Father Grande’s witness as a martyr, wrote Ana Maria Pineda, R.S.M., in America last week, he is remembered by the people of El Salvador for his “personal contributions to the poor of his beloved country, his commitment to the church and the Jesuit community, his love for the people that he generously served [and] his love for his many friends and family.”

It was my great privilege to attend the beatification of Archbishop (now Saint) Óscar Romero in San Salvador in May 2015; if that celebration is any indication, Father Grande’s beatification will be a joy-filled and raucous occasion, putting to shame the more staid ceremonies one might find in Vatican City or elsewhere. The people of El Salvador, Pineda wrote, “will celebrate the beatification of one of their own on Jan. 22, their beloved ‘Father Tilo.’ Let us join with them in crying out ‘¡Presente!’”

Outside of El Salvador, Pineda noted, “Father Grande is primarily remembered as a close friend of Archbishop Óscar Romero. Of course, it is often overlooked that Father Grande was killed at the beginning of the civil war in El Salvador. Indeed, he was the first-born of the martyrs of this new era.” His prophetic stance and his solidarity with the poor of his native country, she wrote, “led directly to his death. His influence on the church of El Salvador and those who followed him on the road to martyrdom merits profound consideration.”

Father Grande’s murder came just three weeks after the installation of Óscar Romero as Archbishop of San Salvador; Romero would join his longtime friend in martyrdom just three years later, murdered while saying Mass. There would be many other martyrs, some well-known. America readers, like the “Churchwomen of El Salvador” in 1980 and the Jesuit martyrs from the University of Central America in San Salvador in 1989. 2018 AmericaReview Revolutionary Saint: The Theological Legacy of Óscar RomeroMichael E. Lee. Roger Haight, S.J., wrote a review. (someone who knows a thing or two about theology), noted that Lee did not seek simply to describe “Romero’s life story or the social and political forces that so distinctively shaped it.” Instead, he sought “to trace the way Romero understood his Christian faith in the midst of change, crushing social injustice, ecclesial upheaval and the self-interested political uses of power.”

We need more dangerous saints.

Lee observed in Revolutionary SaintRomero was not eligible for martyrdom or sainthood because church officials used traditional definitions of martyrdom for years. “But the argument to isolate the ‘martyr’ by canonical definition to a witness who dies for doctrinal truths pales when compared with a full life lived in witness to the values of the rule of God that Jesus too preached in the face of opposition,” Haight wrote. “Here again the life and motivation of the minister of God’s word break open the traditional language and let the substance emerge. Romero changed a restricted meaning of martyrdom by his lived commitment.” In her 2016 Review in America of Eileen Markey’s Radical Faith: Sister Maura’s AssassinationElizabeth Kirkland Cahill also made a similar point regarding the martyrdom of Maura Clare, M.M. a Maryknoll sister who was murdered in El Salvador the year after Romero, Jean Donovan and Ita Ford, M.M. and Dorothy Kazel O.S.U. The word “martyr,” Kirkland Cahill wrote, “has perhaps lost its power to move us. It is either rendered ridiculous through misapplication to minor situations or seems so sublime that our paltry mortal minds cannot grasp its meaning.” But in Markey’s account of the life and death of Maura Clarke, Kirkland Cahill found a martyr who had been “reclaimed from the remoteness of the pedestal.”

Writing with a reporter’s eye for detail (The book begins with “The grave was fresh,” and the final chapter opens with “The death squads came in the night.”), Markey told a story that “resounds in the reader’s heart as a deeply felt and profoundly stirring affirmation of life, of a singular life,” Kirkland Cahill wrote. “She succeeds brilliantly at transforming the martyr Maura, symbol of ultimate Christian commitment, into a recognizable human being—incarnate, immediate and arresting in her individuality. Markey makes it possible for us to explore all kinds of possibilities. Because if Maura, the martyr, is like us—imperfect, thirsty for God, responding to the challenges of her time and place as best she could—then perhaps we can be like Maura.”

I had a spiritual director many years ago who lamented that so many of El Salvador’s martyrs—including tens of thousands of disappeared lay people—would never be recognized by the church. Óscar Romero, he said, would have to stand in as the representative for all who paid the ultimate price over the years; while Romero was certainly a deserving candidate, “​​once we make them saints, they are no longer dangerous to us.”

Óscar Romero was finally canonized in Rome in 2018; it looks more and more likely that Father Grande will one day be declared a saint as well. Hopefully Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel will be too—we need more dangerous saints.

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James T. Keane