Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador

In my first visit to El Salvador in April 1989 I did not know anything about the University of Central America (Universidad de Centro America or UCA) or about its Jesuit professors.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Fr.  Jon Sobrino
Fr. Jon Sobrino









That started to change when the other members of my delegation and I visited UCA’s beautiful, peaceful campus, in contrast to the noisy bustle of the rest of San Salvador, and when we had an hour’s calm, reasoned conversation with one of its professors, Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., a noted liberation theologian. I came away impressed with UCA and with Sobrino.

I, therefore, was shocked six months later to hear the news of the November 16, 1989, murder of six of UCA’s Jesuit professors and their housekeeper and daughter. How could such a horrible crime happen to such intelligent, peaceful human beings in that tranquil, academic setting?

Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter
Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter

I was even more appalled when I learned about the selfless, courageous lives of the murdered Jesuits who used their minds, education and spirits to help the poor people of that country and to work for bringing about a negotiated end to its horrible civil war.

Their deaths were repetitions of the horrible assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, who like the Jesuits had used his mind, education and spirit to help the poor people of his country and to condemn violent violations of human rights. The same was true of another Salvadoran Roman Catholic priest, Rutilio Grande, who was murdered in 1977 because of his protests against the regime’s persecution of the poor people, and of the 1980 murders of the four American churchwomen, who worked with the poor in that country.

Thus, Romero, Grande, the four American churchwomen and the murdered Jesuits are forever linked in my mind as profound Christian witnesses and martyrs. Their examples have strengthened my Christian faith to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia


All of these experiences have inspired me to learn more about El Salvador, Romero, Grande, the churchwomen and the Jesuits’ Christian witness in the midst of violence and threats to their own lives. On my subsequent five trips to that country, I always visit UCA for prayer in the Romero Chapel where the Jesuits’ bodies are buried and in the beautiful chapel of a cancer hospital where Romero was assassinated.

On my 2000 visit to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Oscar Romero’s assassination, my group visited UCA to spend time with its then Rector, Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest from the U.S. who went to El Salvador to help UCA after the murders of his brother priests. He impressed me as a calm voice of reason and passion in UCA’s ministry of helping the poor and the country.

In 2010 I returned to El Salvador for the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. On my delegation’s visit to UCA, we spent time with its then Rector, José Maria Tojeira, S.J.. He was an amazingly serene and soft-spoken man. He told us he was a new “church bureaucrat” (the Jesuit Provincial for Central America) at UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 15th-16th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said to our group, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same casual manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

As a result, my cloud of Salvadoran witnesses includes Oscar Romero; Rutilio Grande; the American churchwomen; the Jesuit priests; Fr. Brackley; Fr. Tojeira; Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, who escaped a death squad on the night the Jesuits were murdered; Salvador Ibarra, who in 1989 was a lawyer for the Salvadoran Lutheran human rights office; and my Salvadoran asylum clients. Outside of El Salvador, of course, I am impressed by another Jesuit, Pope Francis.

I have been humbled to learn about the incredible courage and minds of the Jesuits, not just at UCA, but at other Jesuit universities that are generally regarded as the best of Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning. Simultaneously I am puzzled how such a marvelous group of religious men could have emerged from the Jesuits who were the shock-troops of the Counter-Reformation and did so many horrible things during the Spanish Inquisition.

All of this also inspired me to become a pro bono lawyer for Salvadorans and later others (an Afghani, a Burmese man, two Somali men and two Colombian families) who were seeking asylum or other legal status that would enable them to remain in the U.S. and escape persecution in their own countries. I always have regarded this as the most important and spiritually rewarding thing I have ever done. As I did so, I often reflected that I was able to do this in the secure and comfortable legal office of a large Minneapolis law firm. I did not have to risk my life to help others as did my Salvadoran saints.

After I had retired from practicing law in 2001, the Jesuits along with Archbishop Oscar Romero continued to inspire me to learn more about international human rights law as I co-taught a course in that subject at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2002 through 2010. In the process, I was amazed to discover the array of inter-related ways the international community had created to seek to enforce international human rights norms in a world still based essentially on the sovereignty of nation states.

I then was inspired to use my legal research and writing skills to investigate how these various ways had been used to attempt to bring to justice the perpetrators of the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the rapes and murders of the American churchwomen and the murderers of the Jesuit priests and then to share the results of that research with others on this blog. Many posts have been written about Romero, including the various unsuccessful legal proceedings to identify and punish those responsible for that crime. Other posts have discussed the criminal case still pending in Spain over the murders of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and daughter while another post summarized other legal proceedings that unsuccessfully sought to assign criminal responsibility for the murders of the Jesuit priests other than the brief imprisonment in El Salvador of two military officers.

I also have written the following other posts prompted by the 25th anniversary celebration of the lives of the priests and commemoration of their murders:

I give thanks to God for leading me in this path of discovery and inspiration.





















Fr. Dean Brackley, S.J., Another Brave Jesuit Priest

Fr. Dean Brackley, S.J.
Fr. Dean Brackley, S.J.

On my 2010 trip to El Salvador, I had the honor and privilege to be a member of a group of Americans who spent some time with our fellow American, Fr. Dean Brackley, S.J., then the Rector of the University of Central America (Universidad de Centro America or UCA). I recall being impressed by his warm and engaging manner as he shared his experiences in that country and urged us to tell our friends in the U.S. about our experiences.[1]

He came to UCA in 1990 soon after the murders of his Jesuit brothers in November 1989. Brackley had seen a notice that UCA was looking for replacements for the slain priests. Although he admitted to being scared, the job description seemed to have his name on it. He told a friend,  “They wanted a Jesuit. They wanted someone who had a Ph.D. in theology. They wanted someone who spoke Spanish. I started looking around and realized there weren’t that many of us.”

Brackley, therefore, volunteered to leave his teaching at Fordham University in New York City and to go to UCA to help it surmount its many challenges in the aftermath of that brutal crime.

He taught and served on UCA’s staff. He also became pastor to two municipalities and started the Scholarship Program of the Martyrs of the UCA to support poor students at the university. In his 2010 book, Spirituality for solidarity: Ignatian new perspectives, he said, “”The world will change only if human beings are changed, if people are free to love, to resist the lure of wealth and to be in solidarity with the poorest of their brothers and sisters.”

Brackley is remembered especially “for his tireless efforts to build awareness and solidarity between churches and universities in the United States and the poor in Central America. He wrote and lectured extensively on the need for higher education to connect scholarship to service and resources to the social reality of the poor.” Brackley laid out the radical challenge that education and privilege place upon the shoulders of those with resources, often describing what contact with the poor does to us: ‘First, it breaks your heart, then you fall in love, then you’re ruined for life.’”

In the summer of 2011, after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he wrote to friends, “”The faith factor is decisive, as you know. When I ask you and Monseñor Romero to pray, I mean: Let us pool our faith. Mine is weak enough, but with all of us, that is another matter. God wants to give life more than we want life. St. Ignatius wrote to Francisco Borja: ‘I consider myself wholly an obstacle to God’s work in me. In other words, the exercise of faith, our fundamental human challenge, gets us out of the way of God’s work. So, let us pray.’”

After his death of the disease at UCA on October 16, 2011, Congressman James P. McGovern of Massachusetts said that Brackley “was a bridge between two worlds:” the U.S. and El Salvador. He offered “his talents, his passion and his life to . . . [UCA] and to the Salvadoran people. He was our anchor and our conscience, not just for the faith community, but for all of us in American who share his love for the Salvadoran people and who remain engaged in their hopes and struggles. [He] . . . became our bridge of solidarity, our commitment to justice, faith and love. . . . On my many trips to El Salvador, his enthusiasm, humor and passion kept my spirits lifted, my mind focused, and my heart engaged.”

McGovern added that Brackley “joins Monseńor Oscar Romero, my friends the martyred Jesuits, the four American churchwomen, and so many Salvadorans as a beacon of integrity and hope. He will always be ‘presente’ in our lives and work.”

On the third anniversary of Brackley’s death this October, a memorial mass was held for him at UCA. Rocio Fuentes remembered that in the last six months of his life, he was “full of joy and gratitude . . . [for] his family supporting his vocation; [for] the Society of Jesus for their support in the pursuit of justice; [for] Salvadorans, because through them he learned to know the true meaning of solidarity; and for God’s presence.”


[1] This post is based upon personal recollection, my blog post, Annual Commemorations of Oscar Romero’s Life (Oct. 20, 2011); Marrin, Jesuit who replaced slain Jesuit priests dies, Nat’l Cath. Reporter (Oct. 17, 2011); Vitello, Rev. Dean Brackley, 65, Dies; Served in El Salvador, N. Y. Times (Oct. 29, 2011); Letter, Congressman James P. McGovern to Fr. Jośe Maria Tojeira (Oct. 18, 2011); Rocio Fuentes, Dean, exemplary Christian (Oct. 26, 2014).

Annual Commemorations of Oscar Romero’s Life

Memory is important in all aspects of human life, especially when we consider religious and moral leaders and exemplars. Oscar Romero was such a man, and as we have seen, Oscar Romero is remembered in music, film, art and books.[1]

Perhaps the most important way he is remembered and honored, however, is the series of annual commemorations of his life on March 24th, the day he was assassinated in 1980. They happen in many places around the world.

Romero celebration @ Chapel, March 2000
El Salvador de Mundo

In San Salvador, the commemorations are especially poignant. The central event is a gathering of people from all over the world at the chapel where he was killed and where a special memorial service is held. Then the people march through the city, passing a traffic circle appropriately called “El Salvador de Mundo” (the Savior of the World), before going on to the Cathedral where Romero is buried. There a worship service with music is held in the plaza in front of the Cathedral.

I went to the 20th anniversary commemoration in 2000 with a group from Minneapolis’ Center for Global Education (CGE) of Augsburg College.[2] In 2010 for the 30th anniversary I went with a group organized by a Salvadoran NGO, Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS).[3]

Both institutions participated in the previously mentioned central event. They also visited the chapel where Romero was murdered, his apartment across the street and the Cathedral where he is buried. On both occasions we went to Universidad de Centro America (UCA) to see the Romero Chapel and the Monsenor Romero Pastoral Center with its museum of the civil war.

Romero banner, March 2000
Romero banner, March 2010
CIS Romero banner, March 2010
German Romero banner, March 2010
Mass @ El Salvador de Mundo, March 2000

They both also organize other activities, including meetings with local economists and political scientists to learn about the history and current conditions of El Salvador.  Other common activities are concerts and trips outside the capitol to learn more about the country.

In 2000 we met with UCA’s Rector, Dean Brakeley, a U.S. citizen who came to El Salvador in January 1990 to take over the leadership of UCA two months after the murders of the previous Rector, Ignacio Ellacuria, and his five brother Jesuits. Brackley’s “deepening analysis of the plight of the poor would connect the dots between Medellin and the complex inequities built into trade agreements, global capitalism, immigration policy and the war on terror.” All of this analysis always was within the theological understanding that “God is with the poor, making them ambassadors to the rest of us, evangelists who invite us to save ourselves by responding to their plight.” Brackley taught theology at UCA, but he identified a special role for himself in educating U.S. and European visitors to El Salvador about the realities of poverty and oppression in that part of the world and the roles played by the U.S. in helping to maintain that situation. Brackley died of pancreatic cancer in El Salvador on October 16, 2011.[4]

In the 2000 trip we learned about the work of Equipo Maiz, the Salvadoran NGO. We saw a special art exhibit about Romero in Parque Cuscatlan.

Our 20th anniversary group traveled to Oscar Romero’s home town of Ciudad Barrios in the northeastern part of the country. There we saw the house where he was born, the town’s church and the Radio Romero studio. We even had one day of relaxation on a beach on the Pacific Ocean.

In 2010 we again visited the chapel where Romero was murdered, his apartment across the street and the Cathedral where he is buried. We went to the Presidential Theater to see a new documentary film, “Romero by Romero.” I was touched to see the portion of the film showing Romero walking around a poor area and warmly greeting and touching the people he met without a lot of ceremony.

We met in 2010 with the UCA Rector, Father Jose Maria Tojeira, S.J. He was an amazingly light-hearted man. He told us he was new to UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 18th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus, and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same nonchalant manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

Romero mural & bomb shell, Cinquera
Helicopter, Cinquera

In 2010 we visited towns (San Isidro and Victoria) in the Department of Cabanas, where we learned about current controversies over gold mining and murders and death threats of people opposed to the mining. Another village (Cinquera) in the Department of Chalatenango on our itinerary was heavily damaged in the civil war, and a damaged helicopter sits on a pedestal in the town square.[5]

We were fortunate in 2010 to have in our group Dr. Marian Mollin, An Associate Professor of History at Virginia Tech University. She is working on a historical biography of Sister Ita Ford, who was one of the four American church women murdered in El Salvador in December 1980.[6] Professor Mollin shared her insights into Sister Ford and the other sisters on our visits to where the women were murdered and where they are buried; I will discuss these visits in a future post about the four church women.

U.S. Embassy, San Salvador

We also had a meeting 2010 at the new and very large U.S. Embassy with U.S. officials. There we learned the current U.S. perspective on El Salvador. We asked them tough questions on the U.S. position about gold mining in the country and the current violence directed at anti-mining activists.

My 2000 trip with CGE was my second trip with them. I went to El Salvador for the first time in 1989 with CGE. My 2010 trip with CIS was also my second trip with them. My other trip was in 2003 to be an election observer.

I was not aware of Oscar Romero during his life. I give thanks to God for helping me to discover him starting in 1989. He was and is a truly inspiring, brave, wonderful human being, servant of God and Christian.

[1] Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Music (Oct.14, 2011); Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Film (Oct. 15, 2011); Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Art (Oct. 16, 2001); Post, Remembering Oscar Romero in Books (Oct. 17, 2011).

[2] Center for Global Education, CGE also usually organizes November trips for the commemoration of the six Jesuits and December trips for honoring the four American church women.

[3]  Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad, CIS also usually organizes November trips for the commemoration of the six Jesuits and December trips for honoring the four American church women. In addition, CIS has regular election observation missions, Spanish and English language courses and grassroots organizing activities.

[4] Dean Brackley on the 20th Anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, (Nov. 1, 2009); Mike, Dean Brackley returns to El Salvador, ( Sept. 24, 2011); Jesuit who replaced slain Salvadoran priests dies, Nat’l Catholic Reporter (Oct. 17, 2011).

[5]  There is a new documentary film about the war in Cinquera that I have not yet seen. (Echeverria, A beautiful documentary about the war in El Salvador surprises in Biarritz [France], (Sept. 30, 2011)(Google English translation).)

[6] Virginia Tech Univ., Marian Mollin, Ph.D.,