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Northern Virginia Salvadorans share excitement over beatifications

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Ismael Alvarado, a parishioner of St. John Neumann Church in Reston, grew up during the civil war between the government and the leftist rebel forces in El Salvador. He was 20 in 1989 when the Communists fought to take over the capital, San Salvador. During those days of violence, he was a mile away when six Jesuit priests were assassinated. He could hear the gunshots.

The people of El Salvador, including members of the church, experienced great tragedy during that time. But Alvarado, who came to the United States in 1990, believes the Salvadoran martyrs are bringing healing. Four of them — Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, Franciscan Father Cosme Spessotto, Manuel Solórzano and Nelson Rutilio Lemus — are scheduled to be beatified, a step on the road to sainthood, in the Cathedral of San Salvador Jan 22.

During the civil war, the campesinos, or poor farmers living in the countryside, were being oppressed by the far-right forces, said Alvarado. When the church advocated for workers’ rights and fair wages, many were accused of being Communists, and were targeted by ultra-right death squads. Alvarado believes Father Grande, more commonly known as Father Rutilio, was one of the biggest advocates for the poor. “He was trying to open people’s eyes, (saying) ‘don’t let them take advantage of you.’ And that’s what the government never liked,” he said.

Solórzano, an elderly sacristan, and Lemus, a boy in his early teens, were traveling by car on the way to a novena with Father Grande when they were shot multiple times March 12, 1977. San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was friends with Father Grande, celebrated their funeral in the cathedral. The archbishop was killed while celebrating Mass March 24, 1980. He was declared a saint in 2018.

Father Spessotto, a Franciscan missionary from Italy, served in the Diocese of Zacatecoluca and also spoke out against injustice. He died after being shot at point-blank range June 14, 1980.

“We as Catholics believe that (St. Oscar) Romero intercedes for the people in El Salvador. As soon as he was declared a saint, I could see that El Salvador was changing a lot. The crime is a lot lower than what it used to be,” said Alvarado, who visits El Salvador several times a year with his wife, Maria. “Now that we're going to have four more saints, I think the whole country is hoping that we’re going to get more blessings from the Lord, and I’m sure we will. You can feel that joy in the whole country.”

Father Guillermo J. González, parochial vicar of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria and a native of El Salvador, believes the beatifications are a great gift to the people of El Salvador and Catholics everywhere. “Violence in El Salvador has always been on the international news during our long civil war and now with gang violence. It is good to have three Salvadorans and an adopted one who will make the news for something good,” he said. “It will teach the young that sanctity is possible in the midst of poverty and violence.”

He sees the four men as great examples of fidelity. “If (Fathers Grande and Spessotto) were able to literally give up their lives for the sheep, it was because they prepared for it by being faithful to their daily missions. (Father Spessotto reminds) us that our last home will be heaven and we have to love the people of God of all nations, languages and ethnicities because we are all one body in Christ,” he said. “Future blesseds Lemus and Solórzano are also great examples of good and faithful Catholics who love their priests. Although they knew Father Rutilio had received death threats, they still drove with him to help him.”

Deacon Atanacio Sandoval of St. John Neumann, who is from El Salvador, is proud of his small home country. The beatifications remind him of how the tiny town of Bethlehem was chosen to be the birthplace of Christ. “We’re not going to have another savior, but now we are going to have saints who are going to intercede for us,” he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2022