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Reflecting on the inalienable humanity of martyrs



This week is the fortieth anniversary of the death of Ita Ford and Maura Clarke in El Salvador. An event distant in place and time, but worth remembering and honouring in its distance. And also worth reflecting on for its significance for our own time.

 Mural of Maryknolls sisters (Global Opportunity Garden/Flickr)

Ita Ford and Maura Clarke were Maryknoll Sisters. On December 2, 1980 they returned to El Salvador from a Maryknoll gathering in Nicaragua. At the airport they were picked up by Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Lay missionary Jean Donovan. The four were stopped by Salvadorean military acting under orders, were taken to an isolated place, beaten, raped, murdered and left lying there.

At the gathering Ita Ford had read an excerpt from a sermon preached by Oscar Romero shortly before his death earlier in the year. It concluded: ‘Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, he who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be captive — and to be found dead.’

My personal interest in Ita Forde and Maura Clarke began 12 years later through a brief association with a Catholic community named after them. In the aftermath of the killing of the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, I spent six months in El Salvador visiting communities whose members had fled from military violence into surrounding nations and had returned to settle on deserted lands. Jesuit Refugee Services supported some of these communities. I also wanted to read Latin American theology in its own context. During the week I worked in the theological library, still scarred by the bullets fired during the murder of the Jesuits in the house, and at weekends visited different communities.

The community in which I spent most time was the Comunidad Ita Maura, named after the two Maryknoll Sisters. The people had fled some years before from villages in the Cabanas region. The counter insurgency policy of the Salvadorean army was to drain the lake so that the insurgent fish could not live there. They destroyed villages, killing their leaders (especially the catechists), and terrorised the people. The people who later settled at Ita Maura were among those who fled across the Rio Lempa border with Honduras and were fired on from both sides of the river. In the Honduras camps they had reflected on the Gospel and its meaning for them, and from frightened individuals had become a strong community. Against the wishes of the Government and accompanied by young volunteers from the United States, they re-entered El Salvador and settled on deserted land where they tried to be self-sufficient. They were regarded as intruders by the people in the neighbouring towns but were supported by sister communities in the United States.

To reach Ita Maura I would catch a ramshackle bus at 5.00 in the morning to the nearest town and padded along a dusty unmade road for half an hour or so as the sun rose. The community comprised about fifty families in fibro cottages and some space for livestock and crops. At this time the community was preparing for its anniversary by tidying the houses, whitewashing the school building, decorating the public spaces, and making ready to welcome guests.

As one lacking in all the skills necessary for village life, I was asked to visit the families in the community to gather the names of its martyrs — those who had been killed by the army in Cabanas and at the Rio Lempa. They were to be remembered with the martyrs of the early Church and Ita Ford and Maura Clarke in the anniversary celebration of the Eucharist. My task brought home how central martyrs were to the people. An elderly widow spoke of her seven sons, many of them catechists. All seven had been killed. She spoke of each by name, and a little about their lives and deaths. When she came to the youngest, Juan Pablo, a tear came into her eyes, and she added simply, ‘I had such hope in him’.


'The larger significance of martyrs is that they insist on the value of each human being in the face of overwhelming power. The powerful treat the lives of the powerless as expendable in order to guarantee national security or to lock in individual gain.'


Martyrs and hopes betrayed were central themes in El Salvador then, as they remain elsewhere. Martyrs linked places together and helped shape communities. Thirty miles up the dusty road from Ita Maura was the village of Paisnal where Rutilio Grande, a gentle Jesuit, had been murdered for his ministry to workers on the coffee plantations. Grande was a friend of Archbishop Romero whose own uncompromising and courageous response to Grande’s death led inevitably to his own murder.

The larger significance of martyrs is that they insist on the value of each human being in the face of overwhelming power. The powerful treat the lives of the powerless as expendable in order to guarantee national security or to lock in individual gain. That those disposed of are held and honoured in memory corrodes the mystique of state sponsored violence. In the Christian faith shared by the Ita Maura community the fate of the martyrs is aligned with Jesus’ death and rising, which overcame sin and death. The martyrs are a sign of hope, not an acceptance of defeat.

More broadly to honour martyrs is important because they affirm the value of the life of the most disregarded people. Those publicly honoured within the Church are mostly distinctive either because of their position or, like Ita Ford and Maura Clark, because of their connection with religious communities. The list of martyrs in the community affirmed the value of the life of each of its members and the need to focus on the faces of the apparently least significant. This insight, that also underlies the Catholic insistence on the value and inviolability of human life, is important in any society, particularly in one marked as Australia will be by the growth in inequality after COVID-19. Here people seeking protection have already been systematically demonstrated to be expendable. Others, equally disadvantaged and disregarded, will surely follow.

The community of Ita Maura also provided a context for understanding the theological approach developed in El Salvador and similar societies. Its distinguishing mark was to encourage people to read the Gospel in the light of the conditions in which they lived. These differed from country to country, as did the theological emphases, but they were all marked by disparity of wealth and the ruthless use of power to maintain privilege. The theologians asked what would Jesus have made of the lives of people in this situation, how would he have responded, and how his followers could respond. This led people to recognise injustice, to seek justice, and to hope in a better life in their community. Reflection focused on Jesus’ path to death and rising, and the hope for life and freedom.

The response of the powerful was to kill the people who asked this question, and to politicise the question itself by identifying the theological approach with Marxism and other ideologies. We have seen the same politicisation of faith and wilful misreading of tradition in the recent American election campaign, where truth was identified with whatever suited individual interests and hatred of minorities was encouraged.

The implications of the anniversary for both church and the wider society is the need for a threefold focus. It is essential first to make central the faces of the people who are excluded, discriminated against and abused in our society. These are the modern day ‘martyrs’. Second, it is important to see them within the network of relationships, personal, economic and institutional, that ensure their victimisation. And third, it is important to set these faces and set of relationships with an ethical framework and tradition based on the inalienable dignity of each human being, and consequently refuses persons to be used as means to larger ends. Those three linked principles underpinned the lives of Ita Ford and Myra Clarke and the hope of the community named after them. They also keep us honest in responding faithfully to the predicaments of our own day.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Mural of Maryknoll sisters, Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan (Global Opportunity Garden/Flickr)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Ita Ford, Maura Clark, El Salvador, anniversary



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Existing comments

"What would Jesus have done in El Salvadore?" We don't know, but from his example in a world where those who followed his teaching were persecuted, hunted down and murdered, indeed martyred, by the Roman occupiers, he did not advocate taking up arms as did some Mary Knolls and Jesuits in El Salvadore.

john frawley | 03 December 2020  

Thank you, Andrew, for an article that made me think about the cost of bearing witness, of maintaining memory, but of the importance of doing so.

michael walsh | 03 December 2020  

What a moving piece of writing Andrew. Thanks you. As a disciple in a comfortable part of Melbourne, I give thanks for those martyrs and witnesses whose vocation is to bear witness to the cross in the giving of their own bodies. Their witness challenges and encourages my own witness in the context in which I am set. But how easy it is to be lulled into a comfortable Christianity remote from their witness. God give us wisdom and strength to be "faithful unto death" even in Melbourne.

Rod | 03 December 2020  

Latin America is Catholicism’s greatest lost opportunity, having been seeded there in a greenfields environment with a weak indigenous presence and no religious or cultural competition. We can assume with confidence, given the historical record, that Portugal and Spain, for all their ‘Catholicism’, were incompetent at knowing how to colonise even when conditions are optimum for the coloniser, being plenty of resource-rich land and a weak indigenous presence, while the British in ‘terra nullius’ circumstances do superbly, as in North America and Australasia. Belgium, Holland and Germany (a mix of Western Christianities) came late to the game and found themselves in places crowded with indigenes, a situation in which the British also did not do well, so we can’t say how they would have done. One wonders if the culturally Protestant US could have broken that mould had Catholic Filipinos in a referendum early last century voted for US statehood. In retrospect, the Protestant British should have colonised Central and South America, sparing us a national irony called The Saviour (and discombobulation about a Trumpian wall).

roy chen yee | 04 December 2020  

Such a fine article Andrew, thank you so much. Thanks for writing on your own experience there. I've been to Timor-Leste many times and West Papua once and resonate with your insight as to how central martyrs are to the people. There are other martyrdoms of course - those like of Bernard Collaery and Witness K, who chose truth and are enduring a long and relentless type of torture. There's a prayer that attracts me greatly - penned by one of your own wonderful men - Luis Espinal Camps SJ. "Train us Lord to fling ourselves upon the impossible, for behind the impossible is your grace and your presence; we cannot fall into emptiness. The future is an enigma, our road is covered by mist, but we want to go on giving ourselves, because you continue hoping amid the night and weeping tears through a thousand human eyes."

Susan Connelly | 04 December 2020  

roy chen yee, you are sooo right! The Catholic Church lost the plot in Latin America when it sided with the various governing powers and dictators, and also thanks to JP2's rejection of Liberation Theology. That left the door wide open to U.S. Tele-evangelists like Jimmy Bakker and so on. They wasted no time in exploiting the gap left by the Catholic hierarchy and JP2. john frawley, you seem to mirroring the comments made by top-ranking members of the (then) incoming Reagan Administration who either suggested that the four women had run a roadblock or claimed that they were more political activists than missionaries. Finally, why is it taking so long for these women to be declared saints? 40 years and not even beatified compared to Opus Dei's Josemaría Escrivá, canonised just 27 years after his death.

Bruce Stafford | 04 December 2020  

Thank you all for your kind responses to the article. John, your comment perhaps deflects attention away from the right questions posed respectively to those at risk of death and to those like us observing from a distance, by the stories of Ita and Maura and the community martyrs. Only those facing the martyr’s fate may properly ask what Jesus would have done in our position. We observers ought ask, What would have happened to Jesus in El Salvador, and who would have accompanied him on the cross? The Maryknoll missionaries, the later six Jesuits and the up to 70,000 people killed by the military and death squads, including the relatives of the Ita Maura community, certainly did follow him, and to my mind are entitled to our silent respect. Your remark about the behaviour of ‘some Jesuits and Maryknolls’ perhaps merits comment. The judgment has a long history. I can only say that I did not see or hear of anyone in either religious group in El Salvador who advocated taking up arms. In the field they were ministering to people displaced and terrorised by the armed forces. As priests and citizens, I know, Jesuits publicised and condemned the killing of their people and pressed for a negotiated peace on just terms in the civil war. Both their ministry in the field and their public advocacy enraged the army which dominated the Government. The army was supplied and its actions supported by the United States, which under President Reagan saw the conflict in the context of a global war between democracy and Soviet communism, and so identified as Marxists terrorists critics of the war and of the actions of the Salvadorean armed forces. Alexander Haigh, the then Secretary of State, hypothesised that the four Sisters were killed in a shoot-out at a check point. Jeanne Kirkpatrick described them in these terms: ‘The nuns were not just nuns…They were political activists on behalf of the Frente.’ Actually, the Maryknoll sisters were too busy trying to feed people to have time for that. But the association with the Religious as terrorists and revolutionaries was amplified by some prominent United States Catholics who politicised faith by identifying it with the strategic interests of the United States, and so vilified the Jesuits and the Maryknoll missionaries in ideological terms. Jesuits can cop that, but I don’t think that Maryknoll sisters should have to. Those interested can find a dispassionate account of the complexity of Catholic groups’ approaches during the civil war here: http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/ebook/diss/2003/fu-berlin/2003/122/Kapitel4.pdf

Andy Hamilton | 04 December 2020  

There was no time for speech/or nobly stated cause/they were simply there /among God's people/that is all:/stumbling blocks of prayerful service/ in the way of ideology and gun... Their presence is their elocution/ Christ, consummate the course/ they stayed to run.

John Kelly | 05 December 2020  

Thank you for the clarification of the place of the Jesuits and Mary Knolls in South America Fr Andy. I have not doubt that the vast majority of them acted in God's name with a primary option to care for the poor and dispossessed victims of government corruption and USA style business self interests and national anti-communist poicy. I seems to me, however, that those small revolutionary groups amongst the Mary Knolls and Jesuits who did take up arms in El Salvadore and Nicaragua were not representative of the whole but through their actions did harm to the Church which had a more damaging effect or overshadowed the good done by the vast majority of their fellow religious.

john frawley | 05 December 2020  

Bruce Stafford. I must say that I was not aware of the Reagan administration's politics and they did not influence my comment re the militant elements amongst some armed bands of Mary Knolls and Jesuits in South America, something well recorded in the public domain, including by Jesuit writer Malachy Martin. Apropos the canonisation of Jose Maria Escriva de Balagauer, it was a major anomaly, a bit like someone nominating themselves for the Order of Australia, which , if discovered, immediately disqualifies the self-nominator for the award. Pope JP2 was besotted by Opus Dei and its ultra conservative stance as the self-appointed God's moral police force and, as I am sure you know, established OD as a personal prelature. The highly contrived "miracle" supporting his canonisation was the resolution of a rash on a radiologist's hands believed to be due to years of working in the vicinity of X-rays, backed up by supporting testimony from De Balagauer's besotted supporters who had been advised by him to record all of his musings as evidence of his saintliness in the event of his canonisation. A bit like his false aristocratic title Escriva bestowed on him by the Fascist dictator, Franco, who had wiped out the family to whom the title belonged through heritage ( because of opposition to his fascism and mass killings) and gave it to de Balagauer in return for his support of the Fascist regime. A big charade orchestrated by an even bigger egotist!! What I have described here is of course the events surrounding his formal "sainthood". No doubt God has judged him in eternity where he is probably indeed a true saint together with all those departed faithful that no-one has ever heard about in this world. I suspect one day I will be judged for writing this comment and maybe have disqualified myself from sainthood!!

john frawley | 05 December 2020  

To Roy and John Frawley. Im quite scandalised and disedifided and incredulous that both of you appear to support the Just War theory in previous threads dating back many years. And yet in this blaringly obvious case in El Salvador where just war theory might legitimise the taking up of arms, you both escape into your predictable emperialist bunkers. The salvadorians who took up arms during this dirty civil war are the equivalent of a devoted father picking up a baseball bat to defend his daughter and wife from rape by a malicious intruder. Your comparisons astound and shock me, being one who has lived in this country and other nations in latin america for 6 or so years. God help us

Aurelius | 06 December 2020  

Aurelius: “The salvadorians who took up arms during this dirty civil war are the equivalent of a devoted father picking up a baseball bat to defend his daughter and wife from rape by a malicious intruder." Maybe. But committing suicide isn’t the answer, which is what happens when you trigger a response from the army. Incidentally, given the very likely fact that the children of the rich don’t enlist in the army, at least not as privates, which is who the men doing the actual slash, burn and slaughter would have been, from which classes of society would these enlistments have come? Most of the army come from the lower classes. Would they burn their own relatives? Why were other poor villages or people left alone? Mounting an armed response to injustice is no different from starting up a business project. If you can’t win, leave the idea for another day. In any case, the interests of the armed rebels and those of the poor in their villages do not coincide, The rebels can’t be found by the army. The villages are sitting ducks. Anyway, the US was the last country where the rebels actually produced a working democracy.

roy chen yee | 10 December 2020  

A timely reminder Fr Andrew. Might we not include as martyrs all the Jews massacred by the Nazis under Hitler? All the Timorese massacred during scorched earth by the Indonesian military? All the aboriginals massacred by white Colonials during the English invasion? The aboriginals in the Cape Grim massacre by white whalers? All the English Welsh, Scots, Irish massacred by Cromwell during the reformation? The women and children massacred at Drogheda? All the Indians shot by the British during the Raj and up to Independence? All the Maoris shot by the British during the Maori wars? And while I think of it: "Pope Francis has named the replacement for Cardinal Angelo Becciu at the Vatican's department of saints. Bishop Marcelo Semeraro is to be the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Bishop Semeraro, 72, succeeds Cardinal Angelo Becciu who was removed from office by Francis on 24 September amid allegations of financial misconduct. Until now Semeraro had been Bishop of Albano, a diocese in the Rome province, along with the secretary of the cardinal advisory body and is a widely considered one of the Pope’s trusted aides. " The Tablet Oct 15 2020. We cant confine the list to Catholics.

Francis Armstrong | 17 December 2020  

The Salvadoran Civil War from 1979 to 1992 was a brutal one. Unlike the Spanish Civil War, this ended with the Chapultepec Peace Accords which are still in place. The Jesuits have been vindicated. They were in favour of the Peace Process. The Maryknoll Sisters were not Marxists. They were not involved with the FMLN. To comment on the matter you really need to know your history, or at least read it before you comment. This was not a Spanish colonial war, but an internal one. Most Salvadorians are neither Spanish nor indigenes but a mixture of both. Spain did not 'lose' Latin America for Catholicism. In some countries, like Mexico, it is vibrant and alive.

Edward Fido | 20 December 2020  

Edward Fido: “Spain did not 'lose' Latin America for Catholicism.“ Mother Teresa said that Christ has no hands. The hands of the Spanish that inflicted the train of events that produced inept governance in most of Central and South America (and in Mexico) were meant to be the hands of Christ, and could have been those, there being no significant obstacle to sovereignty posed by natives. What was left of South America was in the similarly inept hands of their European neighbours, the Portuguese. The ambassadors of Christ to the new world, of the Catholic variety, made a hash of it from the beginning. One can only guess that Protestant and Orthodox hands wouldn’t have fared any better but speculation is only theory and, in practice, history has exempted them from responsibility for this debacle. Theories and their modes of practical application, ideologies, are meant to produce social dividends. Religion is both theory and ideology and is supposed to produce dividends when it hits the ground running, Christ bringing joy and joy to the full. In Hispanic America, unless one wishes to dispute Christ, the theory, as always, was perfect but the ideology was deficient when it hit the ground.

roy chen yee | 21 December 2020  


EDITORS | 22 December 2020  

I suspect you know little or nothing of the work of the likes of Bartolome de Las Casas or the Jesuit reducciones in Paraguay, Roy Chen Yee. Many of the early missionaries in South America tried to mitigate the rapacity of the conquistadores, sometimes with considerable effect. All Christian missionaries who went out with colonising nations faced a difficult task. Whose side were they on? The early Jesuits, both in North and South America, saw their responsibility to bring Christ to the indigenous people. The North American martyrs were a shining example of that. Much of the culture and religion of people like the Aztecs was brutal in the extreme. Many of their subject peoples fought for the Spanish, so brutal were their rulers. Jesus did have hands and many of his followers used their own to carry on his work. There is both good and bad in contemporary Latin America and the Catholic Church is often a tremendous force for good.

Edward Fido | 22 December 2020  

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