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El Salvador reality upends justice romance

  • 06 November 2019


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.

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