November 16, 2018, marks the 29th anniversary of the martyrdom in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests together with their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter. Early on the morning of November 16, 1989, commandos of the Salvadoran armed forces entered the campus of the Jesuits‚ Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), and brutally murdered the six Jesuits, together with two women who were sleeping in a parlour attached to their residence. The soldiers made them lie on the ground on the university campus and were then ordered to shoot them in cold blood by Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinosa who had been a student of one of them at our Jesuit high school "the Externado San José." The commandos also went and killed the two women who were sleeping in a small room attached to the residence.
The Jesuit priests included the university rector 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 Amando 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 killed to ensure that there would be no witnesses.
The massacre was one in a long series that included the martyrdom of Fr. 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.
Why were they killed? They all shed their blood with tens of thousands of lesser-known civilian victims of El Salvador's civil war of 1981 to 1992. They were looking for peace, but the peace they longed for was not peace at any price. They were one with Archbishop Romero who, shortly before his martyrdom, declared: "Let it be quite clear that if we are being asked to collaborate with a pseudo-peace, a false order, based on repression and fear, we must recall that the only order and the only peace that God wants is one based on truth and justice."
These remarkable, heroic martyrs were Jesuits and their friends believed in the value of a Catholic, critical education; because the education which they shared with their students touched the enormity of human suffering and pain all around them in El Salvador. What happened in El Salvador to these men and women and what continues to happen to similar people in Iraq, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Mexico, South America and so many other violent places on earth is not so much a barbarous tragedy; it is also an anomalous, because authentic Catholic Education educates students into a disciplined sensitivity toward the suffering in the world, whoever and wherever they may be. Without a specific Gospel-rooted effort to bring about such a religious and humane education in and within our Catholic educational institutions, we simply graduate students unaware of pain, suffering and the real cost of being Christian and being disciples.
The martyrs of El Salvador whom we gratefully remember today stood for a Church of the poor which would herald a new society, modeling equitable social relations and solidarity; a prophetic Church like the one that now Saint Oscar Romero symbolizes, which gives credible witness to the fullness of life that God promises. These martyrs of the Catholic University of El Salvador knew they were risking their lives. They understood the cost of following Christ. Twenty-nine years later we give thanks for them, and many like them who inspire us to live up to the challenge of our own time. It is about them that Tertullian wrote long ago: "Our numbers increase every time we are cut down by you: the blood of martyrs is the seed of new Christians" (Apol. 50, 13; CCC, PL 1,603).
The faith that was planted in El Salvador during those violent years did not die with Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Juan Ramón Moreno, Armando López, Joaquín López y López, Julia Elba Ramos and young Celina. The martyrs of El Salvador, and so many others who are brutally murdered each day are the antidotes to a culture that tells us that another person's presence is not necessary. In the midst of conflict, hostility, suffering and martyrdom, they remained present to the people around them. During times and crises of immense fragmentation and division, they kept their feet firmly planted on earth and their eyes fixed on their heavenly homeland. They model for us authentically human relationships that begin on earth and lead us into heaven. They teach us how to make room for God in our lives. They give us the courage to never be afraid of announcing the Gospel in the cities where we live and in the academic environments in which many of us breathe.
May the memory of the Jesuits and the members of the Ramos family who died in El Salvador in 1989 help us move to a deeper understanding of the demands of justice and guide us to speak your truth to those in power. Give us the courage to raise our voices for those who suffer oppression and violence. Grant us your joy as we work to bring your kingdom to this world. Amen.
Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Juan Ramón Moreno, Armando López, Joaquín López y López, Julia Elba Ramos and young Celina, pray for us. Give us the boldness and courage to give witness to Christ and to authentic Catholic education today.
(Resources: "Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador: Twenty Years On" by Dean Brackley, SJ; "The Six Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador" by M C-J SJ; Prayer Service: Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador)
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