Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (now Saint Romero) has been a personal saint for this Protestant (Presbyterian) since 1989, and I was blessed to be able to attend the 20th and 30th anniversary commemorations of his 1980 brutal assassination and lament I was unable to attend the 40th anniversary this March 24th.
A moving reflection on the 40th anniversary has been provided by Carlos Colorado, the author of Eminem Doctrin, a blog about Romero’s teachings, and Super Martyrio, a blog advocating since 2006 for Romero’s canonization that in fact happened in 2018. Here is what Colorado said.
“In March 2000 I was in El Salvador for what was then the 20th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination. . . . At a reception in a trendy boarding house in western San Salvador, I brashly suggested to the guests that Romero could become El Salvador’s Socrates—who was forced to drink poison by fervid Athenians, but was later embraced by the city as its most quintessential son. It fell to the late, legendary NCR [National Catholic Reporter] correspondent Gary MacEóin to let me down gently, explaining that the entrenched hostility toward Romero from the powerful meant that he would be persona non grata to the political establishment indefinitely.”
“Of course, MacEóin was right about the elites; Romero is ‘not a saint of their devotion’—as the Salvadoran expression goes—to this day. But many things were already changing by the year 2000 and many more things have changed since, to make Romero’s remarkable rehabilitation possible. While Romero’s memory was suppressed in El Salvador during the 80s and 90s, it was kept alive abroad with glowing biographies and film portrayals, including Oliver Stone’s ‘Salvador’ (1986) and the modest indie pic “Romero” (1989). In 1990, the church opened its sainthood investigation, but it seemed as if, for the rest of the decade, that project was shelved.”
“While Romero’s sainthood file gathered dust at the Vatican, on the streets his image was ascendant, with larger and larger commemorations of his March 24 anniversary each year, not only in San Salvador, but also in London and Rome. Things began to change in official circles in El Salvador in 2004, when Tony Saca, who had been an altar boy for Romero, was elected president. Although a member of the party founded by the man thought to have ordered Romero’s assassination, Saca petitioned Pope Benedict XVI to permit Romero’s sainthood cause to advance. But the real sea change came with the 2009 election of Mauricio Funes, the first left-wing president, who promised to make Romero the moral compass for his government. Funes named a new traffic artery after Romero, renamed the airport after Romero, and installed a heroic painting of Romero in the presidential mansion’s great hall.”
“Perhaps the largest transformation occurred in 2015, when Romero was beatified in El Salvador, showing the country how admired he was when hundreds of thousands turned out for the large-scale spectacle. The church made a concerted effort then to educate the population about Romero. Many read his homilies and learned about his actions and actual views for the first time, often refuting what they had heard in official disinformation. There were many who actually believed Romero had materially assisted the guerrillas, supplying arms and openly espousing Marxist propaganda. The publicity campaign and educational effort that accompanied the beatification helped to blunt extreme views.”
“Ultimately, Gary MacEóin was right, though, that Salvadorans would not be ready to buy into Romero’s message. With all of the 40th anniversary commemorations, including an emblematic candlelit street procession, cancelled due to Coronavirus, this anniversary will be very reminiscent of the first ten years when Romero memorials were banned. This year, instead of public memorials, Romero devotees are being asked to light candles at home. Indeed, it appears that in El Salvador, Romero is “hidden in plain sight.” That is, he is everywhere: his name is at the airport, on the roadway artery, and his image is in the presidential state room and in street murals all over the country. But the current generation, including the new millennial president, find the most universal Salvadoran a stranger they do not know.”
“In a sense, the muted Romero commemoration will be the most faithful to the spirit of the man. Just when it seemed he was in danger of becoming “another little wooden saint” (as activists feared he would become), Romero is again associated with austerity, sacrifice and restraint. I suspect he would not want it any other way.”
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.