Anyone who is familiar with the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero knows the name of Rutilio Grande. Fr. Grande’s murder by assassins associated with the Salvadoran military because of the ministry he was involved in was the catalyst of a dramatic conversion in Romero. His transformation from bookish ecclesiastic who was content with the status quo to outspoken defender of the oppressed poor of his homeland is sometimes called “Rutilio’s miracle.” That’s the extent that many of us know about Grande — he serves almost as a stage prop in the drama in which Romero is the central figure.
Thankfully, Thomas M. Kelly allows us to move far beyond that, putting flesh and blood on the name and exploring Grande’s ministry and significance in his own right, in his new book, When the Gospel Grows Feet: Rutilio Grande, SJ, and the Church of El Salvador; An Ecclesiology in Context. (Full disclosure: I work for Liturgical Press, the publishing company which published this book earlier this year.)
That last word in title, context, points to one of the rich contributions of the book. For those who don’t understand what Grande was up to or who might question the motivation or the orthodoxy of his thinking and his ministry, this book explores church and state relations in colonial Latin America, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the Medellin conference of Latin American bishops, and Grande’s own personal theological-pastoral formation.
This is no simple biography. It is also an intimate portrait of the Church as it existed at a particular time in a particular place.
Kelly allows Grande to stand as the protagonist of his own drama. He helps us understand why Grande did what he did, what formed him into the priest he was, and why he and his work represented such a threat to the system that ultimately and successfully sought to destroy him. We look very closely at Grande’s pastoral style, his plan for the evangelization of the parish he served, and the doctrinal, theological, and sociological principles that undergirded it all.
I was especially interested to learn the important place that the Eucharist had in Grande’s thinking. For him, the Eucharist provides the vision for humanity’s place in creation and for what human society is intended to be. He spoke often and forcefully of how there was always space at the Eucharistic table for all who cared to gather, a standard which exposes the injustice of social structures that allow a few rich to own vast tracts of land that go unused (Kelly reports that at mid-twentieth century, nearly 90 percent of the land of El Salvador was owned and managed by fourteen families descended from the original Spanish conquistadores!!) while millions live lives beneath the dignity of any human person.
One thing that might perhaps be missing from Kelly’s account is a fleshing out of the relationship between Romero and Grande. Obviously, Grande’s death had an enormous impact on Romero. Why? What was the nature of their friendship and how did it develop? Understanding this better would make “Rutilio’s miracle” much more understandable. As it is, even after reading this book, Romero’s transformation as a response to Grande’s murder retains a bit of a deus ex machina flavor.
Kelly covers a lot of ground and shines his light in many directions in an effort (a quite successful one) to provide a full and understandable context to this story. This book will therefore be well worth the time for anyone interested in Catholic social teaching, ecclesiology, evangelization, the Second Vatican Council, lay ecclesial ministry, or the church in Latin America.
It seems clear that we will soon be seeing some significant movement in the cause for the canonization of Oscar Romero. Exploring the life and ministry of Rutilio Grande may well, therefore, provide a unique window into the mysterious workings of God’s grace in life of one of the great saints and martyrs of the twentieth century.