Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

El Salvador reality upends justice romance



Thirty years ago, on 16 November 1989, the Salvadorean Armed Forces murdered two women and six Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana El Salvador (UCA). The killings took place in the Jesuit community house. The housekeeper and her daughter were killed to ensure no witnesses survived.

Portaits of the El Salvador martyrs by Mary Pimmel.The event had a great impact on Jesuits around the world. It made barbarity personal. For me it was a significant stage on the journey from fascination with the romance and the rhetoric of the struggle for justice to recognition of the hard, unyielding daily reality that it involved.

I heard the news when attending a Jesuit Refugee Service meeting in Thailand. Jon Sobrino, a prominent Jesuit theologian from El Salvador who had been lecturing in Thailand at the time, came to the meeting to join us in mourning his dead companions. On the front page of the Bangkok Post was a photograph of one of the murdered Jesuits killed by his desk. Jon stopped to look, and said slowly that the bible and typewriter pictured were his.

Unspoken was the recognition that the bullets were also meant for him. Another Jesuit coming to the city for the weekend had stayed in his room.

Two years later I spent six months in El Salvador, reading theology and visiting local Catholic communities. I was attracted to El Salvador by the theology of Sobrino and other Latin American writers. It interpreted the Gospel and its promise through the life of the local poor who lived in an oppressive society.

The stories and images were vivid and challenging: communities driven from their villages and nation as part of counterinsurgency tactics, catechists and religious sisters tortured and killed for staying with their people, the vilification of theologians for their writing, and the defining image of Oscar Romero murdered at the altar after protesting against the persecution and oppression of his people.

In the Catholic tradition stories of martyrs have always had a central place. For all their horrors, they represent the triumph of life over death and of grace over sin. Their iconography offers the long triumphal view. This was true also of the images of El Salvador, full of colour, naïve in style and colour, and offering hope. In this sense they are romantic, and coloured my fascination with El Salvador. This was a right place to be, a right church to which to contribute.


"Some Jesuits joked that in I989 the Salvadorean Armed forces had martyred the six Jesuits, and that in 1990 the six Jesuits martyred the rest of the Province."


On weekdays during my visit I read in the UCA library, still marked by bullet holes and with a memorial garden for those murdered. At weekends and festivals I visited the communities returned from exile in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. They were victims of the Salvadorean armed forces in the civil war. In the refugee camps their lives had focused on reflection on the scriptures read in the light of their experience. They gained the courage and confidence needed to return to settle as communities on deserted land.

In El Salvador reality took over from romance. In daily life nothing was easy, from catching a bus to negotiating military checkpoints, to sitting through seemingly unprofitable meetings in the communities. Fanciful thoughts that I might be helpful to a battered church and Jesuit Province soon yielded to the recognition that I was a burden, not a gift. Spanish that was adequate for reading, but barbarous in my speaking and insufficient for understanding, excluded any useful role.

Some Jesuits joked that in I989 the Salvadorean Armed forces had martyred the six Jesuits, and that in 1990 the six Jesuits martyred the rest of the Province. The struggle to ensure that the deaths did not affect the Jesuit mission to the church and national life dominated the life of the Province, making it difficult to deal with trauma, anger and the pain of loss, let alone to find space for visitors.

That was the hard reality of the killings in El Salvador, reflected also in the life of the communities that I visited. There the icons of martyrdom were seen in the dust, pain and heat of the daily struggle to live with little space for rest or optimism.

To celebrate the anniversary of the killing of Jesuit Rutilio Grande I travelled in the back of a ute with Grande's brother, sharing the heat and the dust. In one of the communities I met a mother whose seven sons, mainly catechists, had been killed. She spoke of each, wiping away a tear as she said of the youngest, 'I had such hope in him.' Another woman in the community walked several miles to hospital to seek treatment for a painful foot. After discovering a screw had become embedded in it she walked back again.

This, and the relentless hostility to people who struggled for a better life, was the stuff of daily life in El Salvador and the context in which people, the Jesuits among them, lived and died. Their mission was to hang in with their people even in — perhaps especially in — the midst of doubts that they were of any help or making a difference for the better. And to keep faith with life in the midst of death.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Portaits of the El Salvador martyrs by Mary Pimmel.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, El Salvador, martyrs, South America, Oscar Romero



submit a comment

Existing comments

Your words reveal the trauma and sadness the Jesuit community suffered at the time, and in the aftermath, of an horrendous event, Andy. A hard reality was realised. I am thankful for my faith, yet I am often unsmiling in the midst of it. These words in the Book of Job looked me squarely in the face last evening: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him; but I will maintain mine own ways before him." (Job 13:15). Job was alive but felt the weight of his struggle to live. The commentary spoke of unquenchable faith, like your article.

Pam | 06 November 2019  

Thank you so much for this article Andrew. I missed it yesterday and have just been alerted to it. I will put the link out. Your personal connection makes for absorbing reading. The world has a great deal to thank the Jesuits for. Our Sisters of St Joseph are among the most deeply grateful for the strong support of Mary MacKillop which your brother priests gave, separated from you and us only by time. I didn't really know the story of the El Salvador martyrs well, and have still much to learn. Our community used parts of the homily at their funeral Mass for our prayer yesterday. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/11/16/solidarity-slain-jesuits-el-salvador

Susan Connelly | 07 November 2019  

To compare the life that you describe here, Andrew, with the impositions on our lives that we complain about in our society, something screams out that we are lot of indulgent spoilt brats and sooks. You might well have felt impotent in the face of the reality you encountered - the worrying thing is that in this country we, the people, are becoming increasingly impotent with our freedoms being challenged every day by government and vested interests in what is rapidly becoming a dictatorship rather than a democracy.

john frawley | 07 November 2019  

Thank you Andy for this article which brought back so many memories of that week in Thailand when we received the news of the killing of your Jesuit brothers in El Salvador. For me it was a time of shock and a tragic reminder about the sad reality of the dangers faced by many in some parts of the world. It was also a privilege to meet Jon Sobrino and witness his deep sadness and shock. I was so impressed by the solidarity of you and your Jesuit brothers in support of him as we gathered together for our JRS Meeting. The memories of that week will never leave me. Thanks. Carole

Carole McDonald | 07 November 2019  

Brilliantly written and very interesting as usual from Andrew Hamilton

ANDREW LUKAS | 08 November 2019  

Thanks Andy, Your recollections bring back vivid memories about that event. I was teaching at the time and doing my Grad Dip (RE) at ACU. We were studying Liberation Theology, which continues to energize my thinking . With family connections to the Philippines, I was only too well aware of the attempts by vested western interests to suppress the aspirations of the ordinary people, as I had been made aware by friends of similar atrocities by the Marcos Regime in the Philippines. The sad fact is that in the name of "political freedom" in the West, as the "Cold War" was still raging, the C.I.A. was actively supporting right wing forces and Governments in Central and Latin America and in the Philippines, despite the awareness that extrajudicial killings were happening. One will never know how many innocent souls 'disappeared ' in the name of 'freedom'.As far as I know none of the perpetrators have ever been brought to justice .

Gavin | 08 November 2019  

Gavin said - "The sad fact is that in the name of 'political freedom' in the West - - the C.I.A. was actively supporting right wing forces and Governments in Central and Latin America and in the Philippines, despite the awareness that extrajudicial killings were happening." Its still happening. Most of the unrest in Latin America is because the USA, where I have close family ties, is intent on stifling Latin American socialism to the extent they will condone murder to get their way. We need a global rebellion against this repression.

Malthus Anderson | 08 November 2019  

Thank you for the reminder of this significant anniversary. Let us remember that the Martyrs of the UCA were murdered because they advocated an educational paradigm that raised questions about the dominant social order. This anniversary should be a feast day for all educators in the Ignatian tradition. May our schools call out 'death' in all its forms. May we put our bodies on the line for justice. May roses bloom where we fall.

Anne Muirhead | 08 November 2019  

Thank you for this personal reflection. It reveals to all of us the losses and pain endured by the people and by the Jesuit community in El Salvador as well as the centrality of Christ in living with on-going terror.

Marianne McLean | 08 November 2019  

An electrifying memoir, Andy. I well remember being asked shortly afterwards to arrange a window display at the Brisbane Catholic Education Centre in Dutton Park for Holy Week. In great shock and sadness, I chose the theme of the Stations of the Cross and for the 12th Station simply displayed The Australian's frontpage picture and story of the assassination of Oscar Romero. The reaction was immediate, including a complaint from right-wing fundamentalists that it depicted a Christ who was co-opted to serve a liberation theology agenda.

Michael Furtado | 09 November 2019  

It would appear that time travel cannot exist because the historical existence of a sin against God cannot be erased, God having a memory outside any channel of time. However, as correct Christian theology always determines the limits of what is possible in the physical universe, should the theology of the continuing revelation of grace lead to a different view, it would appear that the ‘Troubles’ in the country named after the Saviour might be erasable if his church could be given its proper due in its constitutional structure. The then Latin American Catholic Church occupied the contradictory and hazardous position of simultaneously being seen as highly influential with the elites while denied their constitutional voice. As with the House of Lords, Catholic prelates should have sat in an upper house from which they could have received petitions from the poor and been forced to declare their prudential, if not doctrinal, opinions. In another life’s ironic irrationality, it is easier for Roberto D’Aubuisson to approve the shooting of private citizen Romero at an altar than Lord Spiritual Romero at a red bench because an ARENA colleague on that same bench might object to being put in an embarrassing position.

roy chen yee | 10 November 2019  

Michael Furtado, while I share a sense of outrage and grief at the atrocities perpetrated on the Jesuits and co-workers, I think some of the events and views arising from the recently concluded Amazon Synod call for sober examination of terms like "liberation theology" and "inculturation" - and even for the synodal process implemented, for which I initially held high hopes. The concerns of Francis's papal predecessors have been proven prescient.

John RD | 12 November 2019  

One flaw each in the above two posts, I fear! Firstly, Vatican II emphasised the separation of Church and state. Therefore the suggestion, by Roy Chen Yee, that harmony in El Salvador will only be restored once its senior clerics are enabled to having a say in their Senate makes no sense in this regard, as no Catholic ecclesiastic occupies a position in the House of Lords, which is but one half of the Mother of Parliaments, and which sadly reveals a major flaw in regard to this 'establishmentarian' practice which inhibits the Lords Spiritual from speaking freely on matters of peace and justice. Indeed, the principle of erastianism (or that of a state church) is categorically NOT one espoused by the Catholic Church precisely because it hampers the ability of the Holy See to speak freely on matters of policy atrocity. Secondly, regarding John RD's post, the Amazon Synod is but another step in a process that since time immemorial has seen the Catholic Church accommodate itself to culturally contextual opportunities to evangelise. The integration of Pachamama's image at Mass is as much to emphasise the position of Mary as to express eco-solidarity with the gruesomely put-upon Amazonian 'Indians'.

Michael Furtado | 13 November 2019  

Invoking the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God, with and for the oppressed would , I think, be more appropriate and consistent with the Catholic tradition than confusing her with a pagan fertility goddess, Michael.

John RD | 14 November 2019  

Michael, that there are no Catholic prelates in the House of Lords (because only the Anglican Church is ‘established’) has nothing to do with the European roots of colonial Latin America in which it was the pope who brokered the Treaty of Tordesillas and in which the Catholic Church was in practice a state church because it held a monopoly of the people’s religious affiliations. Putting the prelates into colonial estates-general would have brought into open the connection between church and state in the de facto ‘erastian’ colonies and also brought the Church closer to the people through their right to petition their legislators for a civil injustice. (What’s the point of petitioning an ecclesiastical ruler without legislative agency for a civil injustice?) Does the ‘erastian’ virtue still hold today? The fracturing and receding piety-in-common of the people poses a problem. So too is the change to that atheistic concept, the republic, from monarchy, a constitutional system which recognises through the monarch’s duty to be Defender of the Faith that God is a principle of government. The value-‘neutral’ republic, which enthrones itself with authority to determine where in society a religious or libertarian philosophy fits, is the deification of atheism.

roy chen yee | 17 November 2019  

Not much to disagree with in your last post, Roy, and thanks for being so informative. I'm sure that, in the final event, you are as grateful as I am that the Church has extracted herself from an active presence in the official structures and authorities of the polity. It allows for more choice and informed decision-making on the part of the voters as well as enables the Church to speak with a free and, if needs be, a critical voice about what's on offer to the electorate.

Michael Furtado | 20 November 2019  

Similar Articles

Light and life found in humiliation

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 12 November 2019

Might the experience of humiliation open the possibility of turning out to others instead of in on oneself? Might it seed compassion for others in their humiliation, and lead in turn to a society more sensitive to the wounds that humiliation causes both to the humiliated and the bystanders?