Thomas M. KELLY, When the Gospel Grows Feet: An Ecclesiology in Context.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013.  279 pages.  $29.95 paperback.  ISBN 978-0-8146-8077-3.  Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, RI.

 It might be fair to say that for most North Americans Fr. Rutilio Grande’s story has come to be known in reverse—from his death in March 1977 which touched deeply his friend Archbishop Oscar Romero, contributing to Romero’s own ongoing conversion to the side of the poor.  Asking why Rutilio Grande was murdered by powerful landowners leads us into an understanding of his pastoral ministry in Aguilares and El Paisnal, and then to the influences that shaped his life as a Jesuit priest ministering in the very same communty where he was born in 1928.  In fact his life and death reflect the reality of a Latin American church shaped by its commitment to the side of the poor.  His life itself is a pastoral theology, a story well told here by Professor Thomas Kelly.

     In the small church in El Paisnal the tombs of Fr. Rutilio Grande, Manuel Solorzano and Nelson Lemus are in the floor of the church directly before the altar, the place where one stands to receive the eucharist.  It is an enlightening context for an ecclesiology, reminding the participant that the gospel always takes pastoral shape within a specific social, historical, political and cultural moment.  Thomas Kelly focuses on the Latin American context as understood through the lens of Rutilio Grande’s life and ministry.  To place Grande’s life in this broader context he begins with two chapters on the church’s role in the conquest and colonization of Latin America, especially the philosophical and theological roots of the conquest—roots which emphasized a dualistic vision of the world, placing the spiritual over the material and seeing that world in static terms, leading to a focus on charity over justice.  These chapters offer valuable background for any reader, but especially for someone unfamiliar with this history.

The two chapters that make up Part 2, “Vatican II and a New Mission,” discuss the new ecclesiology emerging from the Second Vatican Council, especially through Gaudium et Spes and Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio.  The understanding of the church’s role in the world changed, and “this change was nothing less than astonishing.”  (But embracing the radical vision of Vatican II has not been an easy task; in truth “much of the contemporary tension in the church centers on differing interpretations, or outright rejection, of some of these changes.”)  The gathering of Latin American bishops at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, interpreted Vatican II for the Latin American context.  Kelly gives an excellent summary of the critical theological, ecclesial and methodological priorities initiated by Medellín, especially its call for a preferential option for poor.   This discussion of Medellín leads directly to the center of this book: “Perhaps no other person represented the new pastoral strategy of the bishops at Medellín better than a relatively unknown Jesuit priest named Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ.”  

The second half of the book moves to El Salvador, and even more specifically to the small towns of El Paisnal and Aguilares.  Here, in El Paisnal, Rutilio Grande was born in 1928 and later as a priest carried on a pastoral ministry which led to his assassination by Salvadoran security forces in 1977.   In five chapters Thomas Kelly gives us “an ecclesiology in context: the new evangelization” as it comes to be embodied in the life and work of Rutilio Grande.  Using Rodolfo Cardenal’s biography, Historia de una Esperanza: Vida de Rutilio Grande, as his main source, Kelly paints a compelling portrait of Rutilio Grande from his early years in El Paisnal through seminary years, Jesuit formation, priesthood, seminary work, and pastoral ministry in Aguilares and El Paisnal.  It is a rich and fruitful life shaped by significant encounters and opportunities—an early friendship with Archbishop Chavez y Chavez, study at Lumen Vitae in Belgium, five months spent at the Latin American Pastoral Institute (IPLA) in Ecuador, meeting Bishop Leónidas Proaño there, and so on. 

But it would be a mistake to categorize this book simply as a biography of Rutilio Grande.  Professor Kelly’s aim is to discern just what “an ecclesiology in context” looks like.  Here in Rutilio Grande, he says, we find a model for this pastoral, people of God-centered ecclesiology envisioned by Medellín.  And so Kelly spends time examining several of Grande’s writings from 1970 and 1975 respectively: “Violencia y Situación Social” (integrating social analysis as part of pastoral formation) and “Aguilares: Una Experiencia de Evangelización Rural Parroquial.” (Kelly includes his own translation—“Aguilares: An Experience of Rural Parish Evangelization”—as an appendix.)  It is this second article to which he devotes two chapters explaining Rutilio Grande’s pastoral team strategy whereby “the gospel grows feet in Aguilares.”  Here we also find Fr. Grande’s sense of priestly identity: “Between the priest who only performs sacraments and the priest who only works in politics, there is a spectrum of priests for everyone. Between these two extremes we tried to find our position.”

A helpful concluding chapter brings the discussion into the local context by asking what Rutilio Grande can teach the North American church.  Here Professor Kelly calls attention to the vision of a poor church faithfully serving the kingdom of God and “including a greater reliance on social analysis, a healthier collaboration of lay and ordained, and a stronger emphasis on the social dimension of the faith.”  With that in mind this book should be read by anyone concerned about pastoral strategy in today’s church.  Discussion questions at the end of each chapter make this book an ideal text for undergraduate or graduate courses and for parish discussion groups.