SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A Salvadoran cardinal with a front-row seat to the country’s violent past said many have forgotten the country’s trials and tribulations, including its “fratricidal war,” but it’s necessary to remember the past if El Salvador is ever to attain peace.
Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez, during a Jan. 22 beatification Mass for the country’s four new blesseds, challenged Salvadorans to learn about the past through its martyrs.
“We are a martyrial Church, but we are quite passive: We are not fully aware of the treasures that we carry in our earthen vessels,” said Cardinal Rosa Chávez, comparing the four new blesseds to the gifts God provides, a reference from the second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
Those treasures can be found in the lives of the new blesseds, he said in the homily for the beatification of Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande; his sacristan, Manuel Solórzano; lay companion Nelson Rutilio Lemus; and Franciscan Father Cosme Spessotto.
The four were beatified in an outdoor evening ceremony in the capital city of San Salvador.
Cardinal Rosa Chávez recalled El Salvador’s “time of tribulation,” the period during and leading up to the country’s 1980-92 civil war.
It didn’t produce just violent physical killings, but also other forms of death.
“How thousands of families suffered in the face of slander, defamation and undeserved discredit that made their pain even stronger!” he said. “The tongue, says the word of God, can serve to praise God and can also become homicidal. The kingdom of God is just the opposite: It is light and truth, it is holiness and justice, it is love, justice and peace.”
The 79-year-old cardinal, who is the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, witnessed a world of darkness as a contemporary of St. Oscar Romero, who headed the archdiocese from 1977 to 1980.
He also knew Blessed Grande, who was at one point rector of the country’s main seminary, San Jose de la Montaña. The cardinal once met Blessed Spessotto when the Italian missionary based in San Juan Nonualco, in central El Salvador, visited the San Salvador seminary and asked if he could see the wine barrels used to store the country’s supply of sacramental wine.
“In our brief chat, he told me that his father was a winegrower and that wine is a living organism,” he said. “To illustrate it, he reminded me of the words of Jesus: ‘To new wine, new wineskins.’”
The cardinal said some have forgotten what El Salvador’s great tribulation yielded: “Hatred, revenge, pain, destruction, terror, death, slander.” Blessed Spessotto and Blessed Grande shared those “perverse components” with defenseless people, he said.
In life, as in death, they were accused of being communists, of being armed, and that’s how some justified their killing.
Blessed Grande and companions were killed March 12, 1977, on their way to a novena; Blessed Spessotto was praying and getting ready for Mass when he was shot point-blank inside his church. Both priests had been ardent critics of abuses, killings and injustices against the poor. Like with most crimes in El Salvador, no one has ever been brought to justice.
To their killers, the cardinal issued a message.
“We want to tell you, criminal brothers, that we love you and that we ask God for repentance for your hearts, because the Church is not capable of hating, it has no enemies,” the cardinal said. “The Church’s only enemies are those who declare themselves so.”
The new blesseds, he said, “Rutilio, Manuel, Nelson and Cosme, give names to all the innocent victims offered on the sacrilegious altar of the idols of power, pleasure and money.”
But they can become powerful examples, a “road map” — that began with El Salvador’s 1992 peace accords — toward a country of reconciliation, one where justice, peace and solidarity reign.
“The martyrs that we venerate today, that is what they did: They continued the work of Jesus, announcing the kingdom and making it present during 30 years of humble shepherding, as Fray Cosme Spessotto did; or in the ministry of Father Rutilio, both in his work as a teacher to priests and his contact with the harsh reality of the peasants and the marginalized.”
Cardinal Rosa Chávez said it was a matter of urgency to recover that historical memory.
“I ask the Lord that this celebration will awaken us and set us toward the path,” he said. “Memory will lead us to fidelity, that is, to the path of holiness.”