The Sainthood of Rutilio Grande, SJ: The Holiness of Servant Leadership

The Sainthood of Rutilio Grande, SJ: The Holiness of Servant Leadership

By Thomas M. Kelly, PhD

What would most people say if they were asked what makes a person holy? Our images of holiness say much about how we understand religious faith and its purpose for human beings. The answers can differ wildly. Daily Mass, constant prayer and ever-deepening spiritual conversion could characterize one version of “holiness.” A deep and abiding care for others, personal humility, and self-sacrificial service and solidarity with the dispossessed could characterize another. While these are not mutually exclusive understandings of “holiness,” they do represent different visions of what it means to live according to God’s will.  

On Feb. 20, 2020, Pope Francis beatified a Jesuit priest who very few people know. His name is Rutilio Grande, SJ. When a pope beatifies a person, they are raised up as a model of holiness to inspire others. This particular beatification was possible because of a change Pope Francis made to the criteria for becoming a saint on July 11, 2017. To the three traditional criteria of “martyrdom, living the virtues of Christian life to a heroic degree and confirmation of an ancient tradition of veneration of the saintliness of a person,” Francis added “those Christians are worthy of special consideration and honor who, following in the footsteps and teaching of Jesus, have offered their life voluntarily and freely for others and have persevered in this to death.” We will see shortly how Rutilio fulfilled this final criteria.

In the Catholic Church, the lives of saints are deemed inspirational for how they responded to God’s call, in such a way that the Church holds them up as examples. Fr. Grande was murdered by his own government, along with two members of his congregation, on March 12, 1977. He died a martyr for his faith. To stop with only that knowledge would be to miss out on why Pope Francis believes Fr. Grande is worthy of emulation and someone we should come to know better.

In his letter to the church titled “On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World,” Pope Francis is careful to say that not all models of holiness are meant to be followed — even though they may inspire. He writes, “We are called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.” Chances are most of us are not called to be a martyr in a Central American country anytime soon — but there are aspects of Fr. Grande’s life that could inform our own.

Rutilio Grande was born July 5, 1928, the youngest of six children, to a poor family in El Paisnal, El Salvador. His parents divorced when he was young. His mother left the family and his father worked as a migrant farmer in neighboring Honduras. He was raised by his older brother and grandmother, a devout and strong Catholic woman. As a child, Rutilio experienced hunger and poverty at a level which affected his own physical health for the rest of his life. At the age of 12, Rutilio was noticed by the archbishop of El Salvador during his annual visit to his village and was invited to attend the high school seminary in San Salvador, the capital of the country. And so Rutilio left his village and began to study for the priesthood.

After progressing through seminary and entering the Jesuits, Rutilio came of age as a priest just as the Second Vatican Council was concluding. At the end of his formation, he finished a course of studies on Vatican II and the new directions in pastoral ministry at the Lumen Vitae Institute in Brussels, Belgium. He was particularly influenced by his experiences of an inclusive liturgy that insisted upon the widest and deepest participation by lay people possible at that time. As his biographer stated, “Very probably in this moment his fundamental lines of pastoral action matured. Certainly, a part of this epoch in pastoral theological development was to always look for the greatest participation possible by the base or least empowered part of a community and to never proceed autonomously or without hearing the community.”

The commitment to include the voices of everyone in a community would come to mark Fr. Grande as a priest who did something much better than most priests at that time — he listened. The “listening” required an orientation toward others outside of himself in humility and service. This listening is what eventually got him killed.

Shortly after his ordination, Fr. Grande returned to El Salvador and served as prefect of theology from 1965 to 1966 in the major seminary. There, he taught a variety of subjects including liturgy, catechesis, pastoral theology and introduction to the mystery of Christ. He also fully utilized the social sciences to understand the reality within which he lived and ministered. During this time, he initiated a program of formation for seminarians which included pastoral “immersions” in the communities they would someday serve. This included time with poor rural farmers where seminarians listened to their problems in the midst of their own daily reality. Fr. Grande put the goal of immersion this way, “The first contact with the people was to be characterized by a human encounter; to try to enter into their reality in order to leave with a common reality.”  

This innovative aspect of formation lasted for a year or two, and then the bishops asked that seminarians be sent back to their dioceses during their breaks so they could be better supervised. Fr. Grande eventually had a falling out with the leadership of the seminary in San Salvador over his methods for formation and evangelization. He disagreed with the insistence that seminarians separate their intellectual formation (their studies) from their pastoral formation (how they functioned as a priest in the communities they would serve).  

While Fr. Grande had been born and raised in the same extreme poverty as the communities he was serving, he realized that he did not understand the causes of such poverty or why it continued to dehumanize the population. He traveled to an Institute of Pastoral Ministry in Ecuador to learn more about how to best serve the poor of El Salvador. What he experienced there would change his life and the lives of the people he served.

In Ecuador, Fr. Grande learned that in order to “serve,” one had to “listen” to the people one ministered to. This is consistent with Jesus teaching the disciples how they should exercise power. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. Whoever wants to be important must be a slave of all.” (Mk. 10: 44) This listening took on a very interesting form within Fr. Grande’s ministry in El Salvador.

El Salvador was an overwhelmingly Catholic country, where priests were perceived to be the authority on just about everything — especially to simple, uneducated people. People went to priests with every conceivable problem and looked to the Church to help them in lives marked by extreme poverty and suffering. During Fr. Grande’s active years of ministry, 50% of the children in the rural communities of El Salvador died before the age of 5 years old. For centuries, the Catholic Church had told the people that it was “God’s will” that life was such.  

Armed with social analysis and the Gospel, Fr. Grande helped the people he served to realize that God’s will had nothing to do with their poverty or their suffering. He did this with a delicacy that was truly amazing. He would read the Gospel with groups of villagers and ask them whether, based on what they had read, God willed them to live lives of such desperation. Most said absolutely not. Jesus seemed to serve the poor and vulnerable while he challenged the rich and powerful. Fr. Grande asked them why they should not do the same?

At no point in the process of this growing realization by people of why they were poor, or suffering did Fr. Grande “take” leadership. He walked with the people he served, accompanied them in their questions, but allowed them to discover, ever so slowly, why they suffered from poverty and oppression. He realized that while poor people know they are poor, often they do not know or act upon the causes of their poverty. He encouraged communities to choose Church leaders called Delegates of the Word who would embody the values of faith, service, dedication to others, and commitment to the common good. One of his sayings was that a priest should never do what a lay person could do in service to the community.  

One of the methods he learned in Ecuador was the importance of “evocative questions.” For example, he would arrive in a village, greet everyone, and casually mention that the community up the road had running water. He would then ask the people he was engaging, “Why don’t you have running water here?” Then he would wait. Sometimes he would wait for weeks for the question to be answered — but the people had to answer it. Giving them the answer would have undermined their own agency. When the people discovered how the other community acquired running water and why they did not, he would accompany them in their search for a solution. The solutions were always enacted by the people themselves.  

The role of the priest, for Fr. Grande, was to bring out the gifts of everyone in the community and accompany them as a support, guide and equal. He would offer the sacraments in a way that highlighted important aspects of village life or respond to challenges that everyone was experiencing. In this way the Church corresponded and informed the daily life of its members. He did this, even as the country descended deeper and deeper into a violence that would ultimately become a civil war.

Servant leadership in the Church means allowing everyone to participate with and through the gifts they have been given and putting the needs and concerns of the community at the center of hearing and appropriating the Gospel. In service to the Kingdom of God, the Church is supposed to transform reality from human-caused suffering into social relations consistent with God’s will as understood in the Gospels. The priest walks with the people, not in front of them or behind them but next to them as he accompanies a community. He brings Gospel values and Church teachings into the struggles of normal people not by dictating or ordering, but by listening, empowering, embodying and exemplifying those values. In turn, he learns from the community and grows with them.

What Fr. Grande learned and lived out was a simple truth: Until the marginalized communities he served created their own agency, until they acted upon their own reality as a church community, nothing would change. An outside leader could not come in and transform poor communities. Only local lay church leaders could encourage communities to become agents of their own change. The role of the Catholic Church, he believed, was to help those leaders emerge, support them, form them and walk with them. Inspired by the Gospel, these community leaders would become the most effective agents for the integrated development of their communities.

For two years Fr. Grande and his team led a delicate “mission” to very poor communities around his hometown. Through their own reading of Scripture, these communities came to realize that it was not God’s will that they remain poor. Building the kingdom of God meant they needed to advocate for their communities in ways that were peaceful — but forceful. Slowly people began to change their mindset and realize their oppression was contrary to God’s love for them. As their awareness and demands for change grew, so, too, did the danger they faced. Soon threats came in against both Fr. Grande and the communities he served, mainly from wealthy landowners who felt threatened by the priest’s work encouraging rural farmers to organize and advocate for a better life. On March 12, 1977, Fr. Grande and two parishioners were assassinated by government death squads at the behest of wealthy landowners.

Pope Francis is calling us to sainthood through servant leadership. Fr. Grande exemplifies this as does the archbishop he inspired, Saint Oscar Romero. Such leadership refuses paternalistic tendencies and encourages communities to exercise their own agency with their gifts and identities. This requires patience, trust and a recognition that the Holy Spirit works in and through all members of the Church. If salvation includes both one’s individual self and the social relations that we live out (something the Church teaches) then servant leadership can inspire the realization of both.