El Salvador welcomes four new martyrs, symbols of the Vatican II Church
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CNS) – Contrary to the impeccable image of many holy men and women, a depiction of one of the Catholic Church’s new martyrs looks anything but polished.
The boy is a little stooped. His cuffed pants are slightly too big for his small body. His shirt, badly unbuttoned, hangs a little more on one side than on the other. Bullet casings are at the unpolished martyr’s bare feet.
This is the image that his parish in El Paisnal, El Salvador, presented to the world, with the message that the simplest and poorest, like Nelson Rutilio Lemus, a teenager, are worthy of the grace of martyrdom. Lemus was murdered in his rural hometown next to his pastor, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, and sexton Manuel Solórzano on March 12, 1977.
The three, along with Franciscan Father Cosme Spessotto, were beatified Jan. 22 in an evening outdoor ceremony attended by their families — some from the United States and Blessed Spessotto’s native Italy — in Salvador. del Mundo Plaza in San Salvador. Beatification is one of the final steps towards sainthood.
Salvadoran Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who presided over the ceremony, placed the role of the martyrs and the Catholic Church in the context of the country’s civil conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, which ended in peace agreements in 1992. The beatified martyrs were among more than 75,000 civilians killed.
“Those of us who have lived this experience intensely, those who have experienced firsthand the drama of institutionalized violence, the violence of armed conflict and the violence of everyday life, fill this place and its surroundings,” said the cardinal during the homily for the beatifications. “Of the four martyrs of El Salvador who have just been beatified, we can say what John (in the Gospel) affirms…that ‘they came from the great tribulation’ and ‘they washed their clothes and made them white with the blood of the Lamb.’”
The war and the period that preceded it, the “great tribulation” of El Salvador, brought with them hatred, revenge, pain, destruction, terror, death, slander and stigmatization against the helpless people, he said, and the blessed, like the poor, bore the brunt of its calamities.
Blessed Spessotto was shot at close range while praying inside his church on June 14, 1980. A bullet hole from the attack remains inside the church.
Blessed Grande’s car was ambushed on her way to a novena. His killers left his body and that of his companions, a teenager and an old man, riddled with so many bullets that parishioners had to carry them in blankets to keep their corpses from collapsing.
“In Latin America, martyrdom is linked to the experience of the Gospel and the doctrine of the Church especially after the Second Vatican Council,” and its adaptation to the realities that the Church in the region was facing, said Cardinal Rosa Chávez.
The poverty and injustices suffered by Blesseds Lemus and Solórzano—but also their devotion to remaining with a pastor whose life was in danger—represented “a window to peer into the reality” of what the Book of Revelations calls “a great multitude that no one could number,” a nod to all the Salvadoran Catholic lay people who died and disappeared during the war, Cardinal Rosa Chavez said.
To the criminals who took the lives of the martyrs, “we want to tell them…that we love them” and ask God that they repent and change their minds, the cardinal said, “because the Church is not unable to hate. The only enemies (the church) are those who declare themselves so.
In his native El Paisnal, Blessed Grande defended and denounced the crimes and injustices against his herd of rural poor, who did not have enough to eat even after their hard work in the fields of cotton, sugar cane and Coffee.
“Padre Cosme” did the same in San Juan Nonualco, where he confronted soldiers who had taken over a church and taken priests hostage. Seeing the poverty and meager wages of his parishioners, he tried to teach them to harvest grapes as a way to change their economic fortunes.
Beyond their denunciations, the priests were known for their kindness to the poor, but their family members remember personal times spent with them.
“The members of my family, my father, my aunts and uncles, have always considered Father Cosme a saint for his way of being: his simplicity, his… being completely available for everyone and always with a smile on the lips, never angry,” Giovanni Tellan, nephew of Blessed Spessotto, told Catholic News Service Jan. 21 as he visited the Convent of San Juan Nonualco where his uncle lived for nearly 30 years.
When Blessed Spessotto last visited Italy in 1978, he asked if he could take Tellan, then a boy, with him to El Salvador.
“My mum didn’t want to because I had heart surgery and she said there were no proper hospitals (in El Salvador)… ‘and then you took him in the middle of the war’ and she wouldn’t let me come,” Tellan told CNS. “Father Cosme, with a smile, said to her, ‘Look at me, nothing happened to me.'”
Tellan said that being able to witness his uncle’s beatification in the country he loved so much fulfilled Blessed Spessotto’s wish.
At the convent where Blessed Spessotto lived, Tellan knelt before a glass box that protects the bloodstained habit his uncle was wearing when he was murdered. He has a hole in his back from one of the bullets that cost him his life. Tellan kissed her hands and pressed them to the box again, then wiped away her tears.
Blessed Grande, along with his companions, also had family members in the crowd of several thousand.
“There is a feeling of great joy and gratitude that my tío (uncle) Tilo is joining the communion of saints,” his niece, Ana Grande, told CNS after the ceremony. “As a family, we pray that his life will bring peace and a sense of justice to all.”
Mercy Sister Ana María Pineda, a theologian from the United States also related to the Jesuit by marriage, told CNS during the beatification that the moment was an affirmation that Blessed Grande, who was called a communist even by members of the church mattered.
“What he did was in accordance with the Gospel, so there should be no question of how he lived his life, how he died and why he died. He died for the love of the people” , she said.
She called on others to pursue the peace and justice he fought for and said his beatification should be the beginning of what a just society in El Salvador should be, “and the place of the church, and its role to make sure the gospel is lived,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean the job is done or that its message is old and has no relevance today. It is, and perhaps in some ways it has more relevance because of what we are seeing…the lack of equality, equity and just government. The church must continue to be on the side of the poor and vulnerable and be a voice in protest against what is unjust.
At the Vatican on Jan. 23, Pope Francis, in comments after the usual Sunday Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, mentioned the blessed.
“They stood with the poor, testifying to the gospel, truth and justice, until their blood was shed,” he said. “May their heroic example inspire in everyone the desire to be courageous agents of fraternity and peace. Let us applaud the new blesseds!