On 22 January 2022, four Salvadoran martyrs were officially beatified. Two of them were clergy, Frs Rutilio Grande and Cosme Spessotto, and two laity, Nelson Lemus and Manuel Solórzano. All of them were martyred for their advocacy of the poor either in the lead up to, or at the beginning of, the civil war that tore El Salvador apart and resulted in the deaths of more than 75,000 people.

Fr Rutilio Grande, Nelson Lemus, and Manuel Solórzano

Fr Grande is the most well-known of the four, since he was a friend of St Oscar Romero, the courageous Latin American Archbishop who was assassinated while saying Mass several years after Grande’s death. In fact, according to Grande’s biographer, it was Grande’s death that radicalised Romero, causing him to speak more forcefully and more prophetically against the government.

According to Rhina Guidos:

Father Rutilio’s brutal killing almost instantly changed Archbishop Oscar Romero that day. Before becoming archbishop of San Salvador, Romero had been reluctant to get involved in addressing El Salvador’s growing social problems and how they disproportionately affected the poor in the areas of land reform, housing, hunger, education, health care, and so forth ... With the killing of Father Rutilio, however, Archbishop Romero had to confront the issues head-on because the Jesuit, who was a close friend, had died precisely because he was calling attention to them.”

Grande worked at a Jesuit mission in Aquilares, advocating for worker’s rights, land reform, and speaking against the unjust treatment of the poor at the hands of the rich. A major theme of his ministry was bringing the faith to life in concrete ways for the poor of the earth. ‘The Gospel must grow little feet,’ he would say, against the tendency of making theology an abstract affair that had no impact on the lives of those who were suffering.

Pbro Rutilio Grande SJ 2014 02 26 09 49
Fr Rutilio Grande (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Grande was fearlessly critical of the El Salvador government, and in February 1977 he preached his famous Apopa Sermon, in which he called the government ‘a clan of Cain’s.’ This is widely thought to be the sermon that precipitated his martyrdom at the hands of a death squad. Whilst in a car with two of his parishioners, Nelson Lemus, age 15, and Manuel Solórzano, age 72, they were sprayed with gunfire from a vehicle that had been tailing them. The gunfire killed all three of them.

Lemus was only in seventh grade. Solórzano was one of the most active members of Grande’s parish, and when the bodies were recovered Solórzano was seen to have used his body to try and defend his companions from the gunfire, to no avail.

Fr Cosme Spessotto

Fr Cosme was an Italian Franciscan priest who, upon arriving in El Salvador, knew almost no Spanish. He spent several years learning the language before becoming a parish priest in the town of San Juan Nonualco. He, too, was a vocal critic of the Salvadoran government, especially Revolutionary Government Junta which came to power in 1979. A significant portion of Spessatto’s ministry was burying the dead. In the midst of the civil war, corpses were left unburied and discarded in ditches, and he made it his work to tirelessly gather them and bury them with dignity.

His denunciations of the Salvadoran military forces led him to receive many death threats, but on 14 June 1980, while preparing to preside at Mass, he was shot point-blank and died.

Fray Cosme Spessotto Zamuner 1978
Fr Cosme Spessotto (Source: Wikimedia Commons/LaNetaSV)

The witness of martyrdom

The process of beatification and canonisation is one that has fascinated Catholics and non-Catholics alike for generations. In 2017, Pope Francis introduced a new category for those being considered for beatification: those who make an oblatio vitae, an “offer of life” for the sake of another. Generally speaking, some evidence of a miracle is needed to consider someone for beatification, but in the case of martyrdom, this is not needed. It is needed only for the next step: canonisation and sainthood.

In his 2015 address to El Salvadorans, Pope Francis said that a martyr ‘is not one who remains relegated to the past, a lovely image that adorns our church and that we remember with a certain nostalgia …

No, a martyr is a brother, a sister, who continues to accompany us in the mystery of the communion of saints and who, united to Christ, is not indifferent to our earthly pilgrimage, to our suffering, to our pain.’

Many Christians continue to be martyred ‘in the battlefield of the world,’ and through their witness we hope God will bring ‘an abundant harvest of holiness, of justice, reconciliation and love of God.’