Rutilio Grande, SJ, who is being beatified today along with Franciscan Fr. Cosme Spessotto, 70-year-old sacristan Manuel Solórzano, and teenager Nelson Rutilio Lemus, the latter two of whom were murdered alongside him, is best known as a personal friend of St. Oscar Romero. The usual story is that Grande’s assassination inspired Romero’s move away from his conservative defense of the status quo and closeness to El Salvador’s far-right government and towards the strong witness for the poor and oppressed for which he was eventually martyred. Although some Romero biographers have said that his theological and political evolution had earlier roots, it’s indisputable and confirmed by Romero’s own words that Grande’s martyrdom had an enormous impact on him and did become to some extent a model for his own, and for the path that led to it.
I believe that Grande’s beatification is timely not only because of the recurrence of certain historical patterns in El Salvador and elsewhere (the country has a right-wing dictator again, just to name one), but also because of a unique feature of the days in which we live. Politics today is not physically fratricidal, but spiritually. Everywhere from physical spaces like schools and restaurants to virtual spaces like social media platforms and even dating apps, people advance their political ideologies as the skeleton key to their whole personalities and refuse to share space, to share their lives, with anybody who does not share them. Recent surveys show that more Americans today would be unwilling to marry a member of a differing political party than a member of another religion. Even consumer buying decisions are influenced by corporate self-declared political stances to an unprecedented degree, as if anybody seriously concerned about ethical consumption would consider buying designer sneakers to begin with.
In this environment, we should all celebrate the beatification of Fr. Grande, a man whose social activism involved taking his life into his hands, and who yet maintained a friendship with somebody closely aligned with the structures that he agitated against. Indeed, Romero was aligned with the very structures that ultimately killed him. We should celebrate Romero, too, for being open to his friend’s witness, the witness of his life and of his death, and for being willing to change his mind because of the example of a friend–not to change his friends to flatter his own mind.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.