On November 16, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, visited El Salvador’s Central American University (UCA), where the Jesuit priests lived and worked and were murdered, and he laid a wreath at their tomb.[i]
In a speech at UCA’s chapel, he said, “I encourage you to continue your search for answers, truth and accountability. Now it’s been 26 years since the Peace Accords were signed, but another 26 years should not pass before we see justice in this country. Reconciliation can only take place if the promise of justice is fulfilled.”
José María Tojeira, the director of UCA’s Human Rights Institute, added, We believe that after the Amnesty Law was invalidated, it is important that the case be reopened here. We do not want revenge or long sentences, but we believe that those who are intellectual authors of crimes and who now are in freedom should be judged.”
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?
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.
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:
Twenty-five years ago today (November 16th), six Jesuit priests and professors at El Universidad de Centro America (the University of Central America or UCA) in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, were brutally murdered along with their housekeeper and her daughter. The priests were: (1) Ignacio Ellacuría, the Rector of the University; (2) Ignacio Martín Baró, an UCA social psychologist whose research focused on the psychic problems of living in a context of structural violence; (3) Segundo Montes, an UCA anthropologist interested in the effects of social stratification and displaced victims of the country’s civil war; (4) Amando López Quintana, the chair of UCA’s philosophy department, a parish priest and director of a mass-literacy campaign; (5) Joaquín López y López, director of UCA’s Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy), a vocational training program for impoverished youth; and (6) Juan Ramón Moreno, who served at UCA’s Center for Theological Reflection, which addressed questions of faith and justice.
An U.S. journalist, Mary Jo McConahay, was in El Salvador that day, and after hearing reports that morning of the murders she was one of the first individuals to see the bodies of four of the Jesuits in a garden near their UCA apartments. In a recent article in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter she recounts what is was like to be there that morning:
“On the grass a few feet from the residence lay the forms of four bodies covered with white sheets. What appeared to be blood stained some of the sheets. . . .
In the hall [of the residence] with doors open to rooms on both sides, a body lay face down on the floor. A strip of what looked like blood marked the floor, as if the body had been dragged.”
[Fr. José María Tojeira, the Jesuit provincial for Central America] . . . bade me step inside one of the rooms, where another man lay dead . . . .”
We stepped outside past the white sheets and turned to descend a few steps to stand at the open door of a small apartment. Inside lay two bodies, a woman and a young girl, fallen backward a few feet from the threshold . . . . I recorded how the girl’s pelvic area looked as if the killer had emptied his gun there, how the woman’s legs had fallen over the girl’s, as if she had stood in front when the killers entered . . . . “
“[Back in the garden] the sheets came off [the bodies] and there in death were the priests I had known in life. . . . There was Ellacuría, his clear voice silenced, lying face up, as if he had looked at his killers at the moment of death” joined by Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró and Amando López.”
Subsequent investigations have revealed that members of the country’s Armed Forces under the direction and command of higher officials committed these horrible crimes. They did so in order to silence Fr. Ellacuría’s publicly criticizing social injustices in the country and calling for peace negotiations to end the civil war and persecution of the poor and to leave no witnesses to the murder of Ellacuría.
UCA is marking this anniversary with nine days of programs and masses. This post will discuss two of those events, and subsequent posts will cover others as they become available on the UCA website.
In a discussion about the legacy of the martyrs, Hector Saymour said the legacy was the mission of social projection for UCA and other universities. Such universities by engaging in rational and scientific research seek to increase understanding of the current situation and to create viable theoretical alternatives. For UCA and other Jesuit universities Jesus Christ is the inspiration for this struggle to transform unjust structures and to construct a new civilization based on solidarity. Omar Serrano, the Director of UCA’s Social Projection, added that UCA “has a continuing commitment to continue the legacy of the martyrs and to ‘transform the reality of Salvadoran society.’”
UCA also published an essay–“Freedom and Martyrs”—by the previously mentioned José Maria Tojeira, now the Director of UCA’s Campus Ministry and the former UCA Rector (1997-2010). It focused “on one of the fundamental characteristics usually common to all martyrs, since the dawn of Christianity until today, including, of course, Romero and many other Salvadorans. This is freedom. As St. Paul said, “for Christ has set us free” (Gal 5: 1).
The martyred Jesuits, Tojeira continued, were “universal fellow human beings of goodwill, [who] lived their freedom in an exceptional way. They started practicing it very soon with their youthful decision to come to America, leaving their roots, family and familiar environment. Their maturing love opened them to the new world . . . with a true devotion to the particular world of the poor of El Salvador. The option for the poor is already an act of freedom, and they demanded the Latin American Church take the matter seriously. And they used [UCA] . . . to find the roots of reality, not only opted for the poor, but also for their causes: social change, liberation from injustice, fully incorporating human rights into existence, creating a new culture in which they predominate over having and work over capital.”
“The severe social tensions (the fruit of injustice), repression and later civil war posed new challenges. . . . When words soar and thinking intellectuals become an enemy to the military, it is not easy to keep . . . [one’s] balance and safeguard life. The Jesuits’ decision to stay, to continue speaking freely, to continue publishing, to continue to defend the victims, risking life even looking at the face of death without defending their trust in reason and the Gospel, shows their tough libertarian convictions. For freedom is not measured by speeches defending money, property, or self-interest, but by the life choices of defending human rights.”
According to Tojiera, “In the exercise of this freedom . . . the martyred Jesuits maintained [UCA as] a quality university in a time that viciously persecuted intelligence and condemned the national university. At the same time, they multiplied their analysis and social criticism, their choice for peace with justice and human rights, while the government encouraged the creation of universities to promote conservative ideologies. The martyred Jesuits wanted to remain faithful to the intellectual quality of their voices so that victims would be protected, so that peace would emerge. And from that intellectually respectable quality, they started to speak of dialogue and negotiation as the only valid way out of the conflict.”
UCA’s “publications, conferences, studies [in 1989 and before] were mainly aimed at saving lives. The Jesuits said they stayed in El Salvador to fight for peace: ‘Basically what we want and where we direct our efforts is to save lives.’ Wanting to save the lives of many is what eventually led to the Jesuits’ death. Finally, the Army, by a compact of silence and concealment, took the decision to kill the Jesuits, a crime against humanity, for which the military still has not apologized nor has recognized it as such. What 25 years ago was cause for tears, now is a cause for rejoicing. Because our comrades still are alive generating critical thinking, lucid intelligence and true freedom.”
U.S. Jesuit Conference
Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ, who is the president of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, said, “The slaughter of eight innocents had a visceral impact on me and my Jesuit brothers, one that continues to shape us. More importantly, 25 years later, it helps highlight the continuing failures of U.S. policy toward Central America. Back in 1989, the UCA killers were instructed to leave no witnesses, but by silencing eight people, they unintentionally and, ironically, gave voice to a generation of activists proud to walk in the footsteps of the martyrs. We need that same sense of urgency and mission now, as we struggle to help those suffering in Central America today.”
Last week Fr. Kesicki led a visit to El Salvador by Jesuit provincials, the incoming international director of Jesuit Refugee Service, the president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the presidents of nine Jesuit universities. They visited UCA, participated in its forum and commemorated the martyrs at Mass at the Cathedral in San Salvador and at the Romero Chapel, where Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated in 1980.
In addition, more than 1,300 participants from Jesuit universities, high schools and parishes converged on Washington, D.C. this weekend for the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. It will feature a wide array of speakers and the premiere of a documentary about the martyrs, “Blood in the Backyard.” Other scheduled events include a Capitol Hill rally and congressional visits. Each of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities also marked the anniversary with lectures, panel discussions, Masses and prayer services.
An article this month in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter remembered these words by Fr. Ellacuría when in 1982 he received an honorary degree from California’s Santa Clara University, “Our work is oriented . . . above all on behalf of a people who, oppressed by injustice, struggle for their self-determination—people often without liberty or human rights. The university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.”
The website for the U.S. Conference of Jesuits has other fascinating relevant features: (a) “Legacy of the Martyrs: Lives Changed, Causes Embraced,” that contains recollections of 38 U.S. Jesuit priests and other religious workers of what they felt when they first heard the news in 1989 of the murders of the six priests in El Salvador; and (b) U.S. Jesuits’ recollections of the martyrs.
Fr. Michael McCarthy, S.J.
Fr. Michael McCarthy, another fellow Jesuit priest and a professor and the executive director of California’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University, also has expressed in the New York Times his inspiration by the martyred Jesuits. He credits Ellacuría’s recognizing “the responsibility of his institution as lending intellectual support to those who did not have the academic qualifications to legitimize their rights. His life has challenged me to keep my sights not on conventional measures of success but on what really matters: the contribution I am making to the world.”
In addition, McCarthy treasures Ellacuría’s “vision of a university that would be an ‘inescapable social force’ for good. That is no less important in 2014 than it was in 1989. I still believe that an education not grounded in justice is a farce and that we desperately need wise, courageous, even heroic academic leaders to realize the highest purposes of education.”
Many others have been transformed and inspired by the witness and ministry of the Jesuit priests of El Salvador.
One of them, Fran Rossi Szplczym, Pastoral Associate for Administration, Immaculate Conception Church of Albany, NY, said, “the lust for power, control, and domination is essentially the way of the world. That is one of the reasons we who are Catholic [and other] Christians live our faith as we do. We are not here to be against the world, nor to withdraw from the world. Jesus might have gone to the desert now and then, but he did not come here to simply be alone and pray, or to hide out with the apostles and feel superior to everyone else. Jesus came to transform us and the world with it.”
She added, “We cannot give up, we cannot turn away, we cannot turn to violence. To walk to the cross with Christ might mean lying face down on the ground with part of your brain splattered nearby, but it also means that we must all be changed. That is the call of discipleship put into action, no matter the cost. Let the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador remind us of this daunting task of loving and changing the world in Jesus’ name. No matter what tiny and beautiful, or grand and magnificent ways that we are called to be that change in Christ.”
As a Christian of the Presbyterian persuasion, I too have been inspired by the Jesuit martyrs as I will discuss in a subsequent post.