The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador: Lessons to the Faithful

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Imagine this scene:

It is the middle of the night at the Jesuit residence on a university campus. It’s dark outside, and all is quiet. The university is located in the heart of an urban metropolis which is fast asleep at this hour. Likewise, the six resident Jesuits are peacefully at rest.

The community, like many university communities of Jesuits, counts among them the rector and vice-rector of the university, a couple of professors, and others who work in social programs at the university. In a small house next door sleeps a university employee and her visiting daughter.

It’s a familiar scene, recognizable to any alumnus of a Jesuit university.

Suddenly, the sound of fists pounding on the doors of the residence pierces the midnight silence. Shouting ensues, and five of the six Jesuits emerge from the back door, groggy-eyed and clothed in nightgowns. Armed men command them to lay face down in the grass.

An order is given. Each one is shot in the back of the head.

Startled by the noises, the oldest member of the community emerges from the doorway, but he sees the carnage and turns back inside. He makes it only a few steps before soldiers confront him, take aim, and fire.

At the cottage next door to the Jesuit community, another soldier is standing guard over the community cook and her daughter. “Leave no witnesses” was the directive. He shoots them both.

So it came to be that in the early morning hours of November 16th, 1989 at the University of Central America (UCA) in the city of San Salvador, American-trained Salvadoran soldiers massacred this group of eight, adding them to the list of over 75,000 victims of a civil war that raged for over twelve years.

Let us remember the names of all six Jesuits who were killed, plus the cook and her daughter.

  1. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.
  2. Ignacio Martín-Baro, S.J.
  3. Segundo Montes, S.J.
  4. Amando López, S.J.
  5. Joaquin López y López, S.J.
  6. Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.
  7. Elba Ramos
  8. Celina Ramos

As we commemorate the anniversary of this tragic event today, what lessons can we learn from these modern day martyrs?

*****

  1. The Gospel is dangerous: now as much as ever.

It is tempting to think of martyrdom as a remnant of an earlier age. We conjure up images of Christians being fed to lions in ancient Rome or European missionaries killed by indigenous populations, wary of the newcomers as much for their politics as for their faith.

Yet Christians continue to be persecuted and outright killed for their faith. The UCA martyrs show clear evidence of this. Their loss continues to be felt by those who knew them.

One member of that Jesuit community at the UCA, Jon Sobrino, was traveling to present at a conference when his fellow Jesuits were murdered. He avoided being shot in the head by a coincidence of his travel plans. Now in his early 80’s, Fr. Sobrino continues to carry the mantel of his Jesuit companions and speak against injustice.

Beyond the UCA martyrs of El Salvador, we have various other examples of the dangers of preaching the Gospel in our world today:

  • In September, the Church beatified the first American-born martyr, Stanley Rother, who was killed working with Mayans in a Guatemalan village in 1981.
  • In 2014, Fr. Frans van der Lugt, a Jesuit priest, was shot and killed by jihadist terrorists in the garden of a community center in Homs, Syria.
  • In March of 2016, four Missionaries of Charity sisters (the religious order founded by Mother Theresa) were among a group of 16 people murdered by ISIS gunmen in Aden, Yemen.

Yes, persecution persists. These examples show how the very nature of being a professed Christian, in these cases as vowed religious or ordained clergy, can be sufficient cause for assassination.

Of course, not of all of us will be martyrs. Nonetheless, even for those who live farther from the outright violence of the above examples, being prophetic witnesses to the Gospel can still be a dangerous prospect. In increasingly secularized societies, it is often unpopular, if not downright detested, to speak with strong religious conviction. Look no further than the comments sections of many religious articles.

Compelled by our faith, we must continue to take up the charge to preach the Gospel, however dangerous that might be. It is unlikely to cost us our lives, but what might it cost us?

Let us pray that through the example of the UCA martyrs, God might give us the courage we need to boldly proclaim the Gospel, dangerous though it is.

*****

  1. Our faith should inform our life and work.

Our faith is not something we wear once a week on Sunday mornings and put back in the closet afterwards. It is something that should inform our daily life, our work, our relationships, even our politics.

The UCA martyrs are inspirational examples of integrating faith into the activity of everyday life, including the very functioning of the university where they worked.

The target of the state military-led attack was Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., the Jesuit rector of the University. He had been outspoken on defending the rights of poor majority of the country and criticizing the military dictatorship. The oppressive government viewed him as subversive and a threat to their control. But Fr. Ellacuría could not separate his faith from his work as university rector. His faith compelled him to speak out against injustice, proclaim the Gospel, and make this central to the mission of the UCA.

Fr. Ellacuría says it best in his own words, given during the commencement address at Santa Clara University in 1982:

“A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor…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. We have attempted to do this.”

Fr. Ellacuría knew the risks that came with proclaiming the Gospel. Referencing Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980 while celebrating Mass, Fr. Ellacuría reflects, “In a world where injustice reigns, a university that fights for justice must necessarily be persecuted.”

He experienced the fullness of that persecution with his own martyrdom.

Instead of boxing up our faith as a “private matter,” we must allow our faith to inform our public life and the daily decisions that we make. We must ask ourselves, “How is what I do every day born out of my relationship with God?”

Let us pray that, inspired by the UCA martyrs, we might place God at the center of our lives and allow that to inform our life and work.

*****

Nearly three decades have passed since their assassination, but the legacy of the martyrs lives on. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Jesuits from around the world volunteered to come to El Salvador to keep the UCA running and ensure that the martyrs death would not put a stop to the valuable work of the university. To this day, it continues to be one of the strongest universities in Central America.

Every year, thousands of people gather in El Salvador for the vigil ceremony that commemorates the life and witness of the UCA martyrs. In the US, the Ignatian Solidarity Network hosts the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice every November to bring people together to reflect on issues of justice and faith, as well as advocate for policy change with their members of Congress.

The bullets fired from the Salvadoran military took the lives of eight martyrs. But their legacy lives on. We carry on their mission when we preach the Gospel, knowing how dangerous it is. We carry on their mission when we integrate our faith into our life and works, placing God at the center.

In learning these lessons and putting them into practice, we continue to keep the UCA martyrs alive and present.

Martyrs of the UCA, pray for us.

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