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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

University of Central America Endorses the Beatification and Canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero

Archbishop Oscar Romero
Archbishop Oscar Romero

 

In the midst of its commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the murders of its martyred Jesuit priests and professors, El Salvador’s University of Central America (Universidad de Centro America), also made news regarding the beatification and canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.

 

In early November UCA’s website had an article by Jon Sobrino, S.J., the Director of its Archbishop Romero Center, entitled, “Beatification of Bishop.” He reported that Salvadoran Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar recently had said that Pope Francis had told him that Romero would be beatified next year (2015).

Subsequently Sobrino corrected this to say that he had not attended the meeting of the clergy where Archbishop Escobar made the announcement, but instead Sobrino had received the information second-hand from someone who had conveyed erroneous information.  In particular, Sobrino clarified that Archbishop Escobar had not spoken to Pope Francis, but instead to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator (advocate) of Romero’s cause for beatification and canonization, who had said beatification would “possibly” be in 2015.[1]

After the publication of the initial Sobrino article, Archbishop Escobar said that he hoped beatification of Romero would occur in 2015, which will be the 35th anniversary of his assassination and part of the Triennial, 2014-2017, ending in 2017, the year marking the centennial of his birth. But although beatification “was in its final stages, no date has been set,” said the Archbishop.[2]

On November 14th UCA published on its website an editorial, “Holy to the World,” endorsing the beatification and canonization of Romero. It started, “The news [by UCA] of the possible beatification of Archbishop Romero [in 2015]spread like wildfire, both inside and outside the country. The UCA has received many reactions from many countries of the continent. The vast majority of these reactions expressed joy and hope for good news. Only a very small group of people was opposed.”

The editorial continued “Eventual beatification and subsequent canonization of Romero will be an act of justice to his career, qualities and generous dedication to the Salvadoran people. Definitely, Monsignor Romero was and still is . . . good news for the poor. To recognize this is to recognize the causes he defended, by which he lived and why he was murdered. Beatification and canonization [will recognize his] complaint against structural injustice and his fight for justice for the victims of senseless violence and an exclusionary and undemocratic system that concentrates wealth in a few hands.”

“Doing justice to Archbishop Romero is also doing justice [for those] he championed:  the work of [Fr.] Rutilio Grande, the suffering of many victims of state violence who found comfort, encouragement and hope in Romero and the Archbishop’s legal aid office. Doing justice to Archbishop Romero also is doing justice to the victims of the violence he denounced, victims before and after their death, and the poor.”

Beatification and canonization also “implies a moral condemnation of his opponents, who reviled him, persecuted others and rejoiced with his murder.” This anticipated recognition of Romero leaves “in the pit of shame and disrepute the mainstream media, which systematically slandered him, branded him a communist agitator and even suggested the way to silence him.” It also will “bare the guilt of those who constantly threatened him, the masterminds who forged his death.”

“In short, to do justice to Archbishop Romero is to accept that he was right, that he was telling the truth, and makes these points clear to those who until now have remained rooted in lies and injustice.”

Beatification and canonization “will only be a formal recognition of what most people have in their hearts and cries. Romero said that if he were killed, he would be resurrected in the Salvadoran people. But his life and resurrection have transcended borders, religions and ideologies. Archbishop Oscar Romero is holy not only for El Salvador, but for the whole world.”

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[1] A Salvadoran newspaper (Diario CoLatino) had an article about the Archbishop’s correction of the story. A fascinating, detailed examination of Sobrino’s error is provided in an article on the “SuperMartyrio” website that is dedicated to advocating Romero’s beatification and canonization:

[2] Earlier posts have discussed the Roman Catholic Church’s processes for beatification and canonization of Romero: Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero? (May 23, 2013); Progress on Vatican’s Canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero (May 20, 2014); Pope Francis Urges Swift Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Aug. 22, 2014). My attention to this issue prompted the writing of another post, A Presbyterian’s Musings About Saints (Sept. 19, 2014).

Other Details About Commemoration of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Murders of the Jesuits of El Salvador

A prior post reviewed some of the ways in which El Universidad de Centro America (the University of Central America or UCA) is commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the brutal murders of six of their Jesuit brothers and professors on November 16, 1989. Here are some of the other ways.

Memorial Mass

Memorial Mass, November 16, 2014
Memorial Mass, November 16, 2014

On November 16th a memorial Mass was celebrated for the martyrs at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the Crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador.

Monsignor José Gregorio Rosa Chávez, the Auxiliary Archbishop of San Salvador, delivered the homily. He quoted the words of one of the martyrs, Ignacio Ellacuría: “With Archbishop Romero, God passed by El Salvador.” Chavez then said that God also passed through the country with the martyrs. They along with Archbishop Romero and Fr. Rutilio Grande “devoted their lives for the defense of the poor and the needy during a brutal armed conflict.”

All of the current Jesuits of El Salvador and others in attendance joined in songs and prayers to celebrate the work of the martyrs and to condemn the injustice of the perpetrators of this horrible crime not having been tried and convicted.

Comments by Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J.

Separately Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., who escaped murder 25 years ago because he was in Asia giving lectures, remembered these words of Ellacuría: “It’s up to the university awakening more and more hope.” In other words, said Sobrino, “Hope is not optimism and, therefore, the crucial question is how hope is generated. Not every university exists in a time for hope, but it does so exist when, humbly and honestly, it works for the poor of this world, learns from them and is willing to give everything it has for them.”

“That’s exactly what our martyrs did at UCA,” continued Sobrino. “And they still generate hope. As Ellacuría wrote, ‘Let new men and women always continue to announce firmly a greater future, because El Salvador envisions God, the God of liberation.’”

Comments by Fr. Rodolfo Cardenal, S.J.

Rodolfo Cardenal, UCA’s Vice Rector for Academics and Social Projection, also separately recalled the university’s six years of “institutional depression” after the murders of the Jesuits. “This was overcome thanks to the work of the surviving Jesuits and others who came from abroad, and the active collaboration of a group of lay people who were very capable and committed to UCA’s vocation. In the end, they overcame the depression with the obstinacy of reason, truth and justice.”

In this effort they were aided by the martyrs who “were present with great clarity” in “the communion of saints. Their presence encouraged us to follow, despite uncertainty and fear during the remainder of the civil war and with the postwar academic, organizational and administrative challenges that seemed insurmountable. Among those challenges were dignifying the victims of state terrorism, demanding justice for the perpetrators of human rights, containing social violence and combating new forms of poverty and exclusion.”

 UCA’s Website

 The UCA website contains statements by today’s students on why we should remember the martyrs and the following words describing the legacy of the martyrs, each of which is linked to a statement about the word’s importance:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989

For my second Salvadoran asylum case, I decided that I needed to go to El Salvador to do investigations for the case and to learn more about the country. In April 1989 I made my first of six trips to the country. I went with a group led by Minneapolis’ Center for Global Education at Augsburg College.[1]

The Salvadoran Civil War was still going on, and on the day we arrived her Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. In response, the Salvadoran military forces were in the streets with their automatic rifles at the ready, stopping everyone to provide identification. People in the “popular organizations” were being arrested. It was a very dangerous and tense 10 days in the country.

These days turned out to be the most intense religious and spiritual experience of my life. It was and still is a major reason why I now say that El Salvador liberated this American lawyer in many ways and helped him integrate his religious faith with his professional life.

We went to a service of solidarity for a Catholic priest who that week had received death threats. The service was in a screened recreational building next to a very dusty soccer field. As we entered, we were handed mimeographed sheets with words for hymns of the people about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had been murdered nine years earlier. Thus began my learning about Romero.[2]

Our group visited the office of COMADRES in a small house in the city. (It is the committee of the mothers of the disappeared and assassinated). A young woman talked about her jailing and torture earlier that week. Right behind her I saw a bust of Robert Kennedy representing the very first Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. It was granted to COMADRES for its struggle for amnesty for political prisoners, information regarding the “disappeared” and punishment for those responsible for human rights violations.[3] (During the Reagan Administration, the U.S. would not grant a U.S. visa to a COMADRES representative to come to the U.S. to receive the award.)

At the COMADRES’ office I also saw a framed copy en espanol of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[4] which I had never regarded as important and about which I knew nothing. Even though I could not read the Spanish text, I could see that it was an inspirational document for these people. This experience came rushing back to me when later I learned about the Universal Declaration.

Our group met with Phil Anderson, a Lutheran pastor from Minnesota who was working in El Salvador for Lutheran World Federation. Earlier that week he had sent faxes to the Federation’s headquarters in Switzerland with information about the arrests of many people from the popular organizations so that the next day the headquarters could send faxes of complaints to the Government of El Salvador. I gained a new appreciation for the work of international organizations around the world and about the sinister messages that are sent when they are kicked out of a country.

My fellow travelers on this trip were from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (the successor of the Lutheran Church in America, my client in the Sanctuary Movement case). Through their connections I was introduced to the significant work in El Salvador of its small Lutheran Church and its Bishop Medardo Gomez, who is frequently regarded as the spiritual heir to Archbishop Romero.[5]

We also met Salvador Ibarra, a lawyer for the human rights office of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador. He told us that in late 1980 a judge had appointed him to represent one of the Salvadoran national guardsmen accused of raping and murdering the four American church women.[6] Someone from the U.S. Embassy then asked Ibarra to call a press conference and announce that he had investigated and had found no involvement of higher officials in this horrible crime. This, however, was not true, and he refused to hold a press conference. In response he received death threats that prompted him and his family to flee the country. His wife told him that he was stupid to put her and their children’s lives at risk, and she took the children and divorced him. Yet Ibarra subsequently returned to his country to be a human rights lawyer and thereby continued to put his life on the line. He spoke about the joy he had in his work as a lawyer for people whose human rights were at greater risk.

In my subsequent work as a pro bono asylum lawyer and human rights advocate, I continued to be inspired by Salvador Ibarra. How easy it was for me as a large law-firm lawyer in Minneapolis to do this work. I did not have to risk my life as he did.

Our group visited the “22nd of April” community in San Salvador. This community was a three-block area of land on a steep hill between railroad tracks above and a road below. It had been used as a garbage dump, but on April 22nd in the early 1980’s displaced Salvadorans (“desplazados”) started to occupy it. In April of 1989 there were at least 10,000 people living there. They were mainly women and small children because teenage and adult males were fighting in the civil war or had been killed or disappeared. The people lived in “houses”– some of concrete blocks and tin roof; others of cheap tin or aluminum sheets or scrap lumber; yet others made with cardboard.

We walked around “22nd of April” with its pastor–Father Jim Barnett, a Dominican priest from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He talked about his ministry of accompaniment and solidarity. He was inspired by the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had entered the total experience of the poor–physical, spiritual, social, economic and political–and who had spoken about the church’s need to be incarnated in the life of the people and the institutional injustice and violence in El Salvador.

Another stop on our trip was UCA, the Universidad de Centro America, a Jesuit institution with a beautiful, serene campus on a hill in the capital city.[7] We spent an hour with Father Jon Sobrino, a noted liberation theologian.[8]  Only seven months later six of his fellow Jesuit priests were brutally murdered at that very place by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. (Sobrino escaped this fate because he was in Thailand giving lectures.)[9]

We went to the small, modern, beautiful, serene Chapel of Divine Providence on the quiet grounds of a cancer hospital. This is where Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980. (Across the street was the three-room apartment where Romero lived. No luxurious Archbishop’s palace for him.) Along the way to the chapel I saw graffiti messages: “Romero vive!” (“Romero lives!”)

The Cathedral of San Salvador, on the other hand, is in el centro with all the noise and hurly-burly of buses and other traffic. In April 1989 the building was not finished. (Romero had halted all construction because he did not think it was right for the church to be spending money on its building when the people were suffering from poverty and human rights abuses.) On the steps were women from COMADRES with their bullhorns protesting against the latest wave of repression. Inside, scraps of linoleum were on the floor along with scattered plain wooden benches. In the right transept was Romero’s tomb–plain concrete and covered with flowers and prayers of the people. As I stood there, the words “My body broken for you” from the Christian sacrament of communion echoed in my mind.


[1]  Center for Global Education, http://www.augsburg.edu/global/.

[2]  Later posts will discuss the life and witness of Archbishop Romero and why he is my personal saint.

[3]  Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, http://www.rfkcenter.org/ourwork/humanrightsaward.

[4]  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/b1udhr.htm.

[5]  Medardo Gomez, Fire Against Fire (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress 1990); Medardo Gomez, And the Word Became History (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress 1992).

[6]  E.g., Ford v. Garcia, 289 F.3d 1283 (11th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1147 (2003); Gonzalez, 2 Salvadoran Generals Cleared by U.S. Jury in Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times, Nov. 4, 2000, at A3.

[7]  Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas,” http://www.uca.edu.sv/.

[8]  Wikipedia, Jon Sobrino, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Sobrino.

[9]  Sobrino, et al., Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1990); Center for Justice & Accountability, Jesuits Massacre Case, http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=84.