Mural in El Paisnal, El Salvador. A mural of St. Oscar Romero and Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande adorns a plaza in El Paisnal, El Salvador. (CNS photo by Octavio Duran)

40 years after St. Romero’s death, El Salvador sees a harvest of martyrs

WASHINGTON (CNS) — As the Catholic Church in El Salvador declared a jubilee year for its martyrs, rumors already were circulating that several Salvatorans might be beatified this year.

The whispers began with a poster circulated in early January on the occasion of the World Day of Peace, featuring St. Oscar Romero, Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande and Franciscan Father Cosme Spessotto. Was this a hint, some wondered, that the Franciscan and the Jesuit would be beatified this year?

On Feb. 22, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had recognized the martyrdom of Father Grande and two companions, clearing the way for their beatification.

There’s also the hope that this year will see a declaration of martyrdom for Father Spessotto, an Italian who lived for decades in El Salvador and was killed in 1980 after denouncing government injustices against the country’s poor and vulnerable.

Like St. Romero and Father Grande — both similarly killed for siding with the poor and demanding that their rights be respected — Father Spessotto is expected to be declared a martyr. If that hope is realized, El Salvador could celebrate four beatifications this year.

“Martyrdom is the greatest testimony of faith, because it faithfully reproduces Christ, giving his life so that others can have life in abundance,” the episcopal conference of El Salvador said in announcing the Jubilee Year of the Martyrs, which was scheduled to begin March 12 with the observance of the 43rd anniversary of the martyrdom of Father Grande and his companions.

Pandemic raises scheduling questions

The opening of the jubilee year was to be followed by several 40th anniversary observations, including the March 25 observance of St. Romero’s martyrdom; the killing of more than 650 civilians a massacre at the Sumpul River May 14; Father Spessotto’s killing July 31; and the assassination of four U.S. churchwomen — two Maryknoll missionaries who were raped and assassinated on Dec. 2, 1980, along with another U.S. nun and a lay missionary.

All died during the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, which began in 1980. The conflict arose from great socioeconoic disparity that many members of the Catholic Church denounced.

In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is unclear which, if any, of the commemorations will take place as scheduled. Official observations of Father Grande’s martyrdom were canceled due to precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, but hundreds still turned out March 12 to mark the day. At that time, El Salvador had not yet registered any cases of COVID-19.

The Vatican has not announced a date nor location for the beatification ceremony for Father Grande and his companions, but before the pandemic, the archbishop of San Salvador speculated that it would be a matter of months. “Our martyrs intercede for us,” the Salvadoran bishops said in a joint statement announcing the jubilee. “They gave their lives and are with us in our pilgrimage of faith.”

Romero: first Salvadoran saint

Until the canonization of St. Romero in 2018, El Salvador had no official saints, but many Salvadorans prayed for his intercession in the decades between his death an canonization, and considered him a holy person.

Though not as well-known as St. Romero, Father Grande also has had a following of his own. When Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador held a news conference in late February to answer questions about events following the Jesuit’s declaration of martyrdom, he told the media that many may already have attributed miracles to the heavenly intercession of Father Grande.

Pope Francis, a fan of the Salvadoran Jesuit, has said Father Grande’s first “miracle” was St. Romero, who was believed to been inspired to more boldly defend the poor after seeing the bullet-ridden bodies of Father Grande, an elderly parishioner and a teenager after they were shot on the way to a novena to St. Joseph in 1977.

Father Grande had been ostracized, even by the church in El Salvador, for defending the rural poor of the area he served from 1970 until his death. But his denouncement of injustice became a model followed not just by St. Romero, who later was called “the voice of the voiceless,” but by many Catholics in El Salvador who continued calling out violations against civilians until they, too, were silenced.

Forty years later, the bishops of El Salvador hope those martyrs’ voices become louder than ever, which is what’s behind highlighting their lives in this jubilee year. Taking up the martyrs’ calls for justice, the bishops called out what they see as modern injustices in El Salvador.

In their letter announcing the jubilee year, they asked the general assembly for an authentic law of reconciliation to serve those with grievances or loved ones killed during El Salvador’s civil conflict; for a “general water law” blocking the privatization of water and guaranteeing it as a public good; and for a new pension system for retirees.

The bishops also expressed solidarity for migrants and those who are victims in one form or another: “We pray for them and advocate for their rights to be respected.”

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