In November 16, 1989 in El Salvador, six Jesuits, together with two women who were sharing their university residence, were murdered by the Salvadoran military. Dean Brackley SJ tells the story of the Jesuit martyrs, who were eventually posthumously awarded with El Salvador’s highest honor. These excerpts are from Brackley's work.
In the early hours of 16 November 1989, commandos of the Salvadoran armed forces entered the campus of the Jesuits’ university, the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), and brutally murdered the six Jesuits, together with two women who were sleeping in a parlour attached to their residence. The Jesuits were: the university
Ignacio Ellacuría, 59, an internationally known philosopher; Segundo Montes, 56, head of the Sociology Department and the UCA’s human rights institute; Ignacio Martín-Baró, 44, the pioneering social psychologist who headed the Psychology Department and the polling institute; theology professors Juan Ramón Moreno, 56, and Armando López, 53; and Joaquín López y López, 71, founding head of the Fe y Alegría network of schools for the poor. Joaquín was the only native Salvadoran, the others having arrived long before from Spain as young seminarians. Julia Elba Ramos, the wife of a caretaker at the UCA, and their daughter Celina, 16, were eliminated to ensure that there would be no witnesses. Ironically, the women had sought refuge from the noise of gunfire near their cottage on the edge of the campus. Julia Elba cooked for the Jesuit seminarians living near the UCA.
This was one crime in a long series that included the martyrdom of Rutilio Grande SJ in 1977, and those of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and the four US missionaries: Jean Donovan, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, in 1980. They all mixed their blood with that of tens of thousands of lesser-known civilian victims of El Salvador’s civil war of 1981 to 1992, which moved the world with its extremes of cruelty and of heroic generosity.
Like many others, the UCA martyrs were killed for the way they lived, that is, for how they expressed their faith in love. They stood for a new kind of university, a new kind of society, a ‘new’ church. Together with their lay colleagues, they wrestled with the ambiguities of their university in a country where only a tiny minority finished elementary school and still fewer could meet the required academic standards to enter university and to pay the tuition fees.
The Jesuits and their colleagues concluded that they could not limit their mission to teaching and innocuous research. Yes, they did steeply scale tuition charges according to students’ family income. More importantly, they sought countless ways to unmask the lies that justified the pervasive injustice and the continuing violence, and they made constructive proposals for a just peace and a more humane social order. As a university of Christian inspiration, they felt compelled to serve the truth in this way. That is what got them killed.
The UCA martyrs also stood for a different kind of society. Ellacuría, like the theologian Jon Sobrino who lived with him but was travelling at the time of the killings, was an eloquent advocate for what he called a ‘civilisation of work’ to replace ‘the prevailing civilisation of capital.’ With great prescience he foresaw that this would not be principally the work of governments but rather of civil society, whose different sectors have to organise and point the way to new social models, beyond both communist collectivism and capitalism. In this, Ellacuría believed, ‘the poor with spirit’ would play a privileged role.
Finally, the UCA martyrs stood for a Church of the poor (in the words of Pope John XXIII) which would serve as a vanguard of this new society, modelling equitable social relations and solidarity; a prophetic Church like the one that Archbishop Romero symbolises, which gives credible witness to the fullness of life that God promises.
The UCA martyrs knew they were risking their lives. But they understood that that was the price of being human in their time and place; that was the cost of following Christ. Twenty years later we give thanks for them, and many like them who inspire us to live up to the challenge of our own time.
In announcing that he would bestow the country’s highest honours on the fallen Jesuits, El Salvador’s president said that they had distinguished themselves for outstanding service in education, human rights, combating poverty and inequality, and in working for peace and democracy. He added that he and many members of his Cabinet regard them as ‘eminent Salvadorans who rendered extraordinary service to the country.’
At the Presidential Palace, on 16 November 2009, some of their relatives joined the Jesuits of El Salvador along with representatives of the poor communities that the martyred Jesuits served. In their stead, those present will receive this historic public recognition. It is fitting that campesinos, mothers and workers, representatives of the crucified peoples like Julia Elba and Celina, share in this tribute, which is all the more welcome for coming so late in the day.
Dean Brackley SJ is Professor of Theology and Ethics at the Catholic University in San Salvador.