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Slain El Salvador Jesuits paid price for their advocacy


Memorial to slain El Salvador Jesuits

On November 17, 1989, I was in Thailand at a meeting of Jesuit Refugee Service workers. There I heard of the death of six Jesuits, their cook and her daughter. Jon Sobrino, the Jesuit theologian from El Salvador, was due to visit us in the evening.  He came, and we celebrated Mass with him for his friends and colleagues. 

I remember that on the front page of a Bangkok newspaper was a photograph of the murder scene. Jon looked at it and said, almost in surprise, ‘That is my room... my typewriter...my bible. A Jesuit visitor had come to stay a few days, was offered his room, and died there. 

Elba Ramos cooked meals at the Jesuit community. Celia was her sixteen year old daughter. The Jesuits, Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Barro, Segundo Montes,  Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquín López y López and Amado López,  taught at the University and its associated institutes. It was a time of civil war, and the University and Jesuits were identified by the Government with the armed resistance.  The crime that led directly to their death was their advocacy of a negotiated settlement to a war that the Government thought it could win unconditionally.

The roots of the civil war lay in the Government’s seizure and selling of communal land earlier in the century. It was accompanied by the massacre of the Indigenous population. A few families owned most of the country’s wealth and exploited the rural population. The Catholic Church as an institution was associated with the better-off. 

The Second Vatican Council committed the Catholic Church to take seriously its mission to preach the Gospel to the poor.  Many priests in Latin America  began to reflect with their congregations on what the Gospel meant in their situation. They began to ask why they were exploited, and how they could act to shape a more just society. In El Salvador this local organising led to conflict and to a violent response. As part of the Government’s counter-insurgency tactics catechists and villagers were murdered.  Theologically conservative priests like Jesuit Rutilio Grande and Archbishop Oscar Romero saw what was happening to their people, called it for what it was, and were themselves killed.  

Before the killings the Jesuits were advised to hide from the death squads. They decided it would be safe to stay at the University because it was surrounded by the army. But the decision to kill them, taken at a high level of government, was entrusted to an elite army squadron. The soldiers made their way into the house, shot all the Jesuits and finally Elba and Celia Ramos. They tried clumsily to make it appear a rebel attack. Fr Ellacuría’s brains were scattered on the grass, a gesture of contempt for his ideas and an unwitting tribute to their power.

The murders caused international outrage and focused attention on the atrocities sanctioned by the Government. Enquiry followed enquiry, and the Government of El Salvador came under increasing pressure to seek a negotiated settlement.  The Salvadorean defence minister later described the decision to kill the Jesuits as the most stupid thing the Government had done. 

Two years later I spent six months in El Salvador reading in the library abutting the house where the Jesuits were killed, and visiting communities of rural people who had returned after fleeing to neighbouring countries from the Salvadorean army.  The cost to the Jesuits there was palpable: they had lost six of their friends and their most talented colleagues, but were determined that they would continue their work. Grieving had to be put on hold.  

The whole country seemed to be a memorial to the dead Jesuits. One community was named Segundo Montes. In another I was handed a liturgical Stole to wear with some reverence, and told that Ignacio Martín-Barro used to wear it.  Bullet holes were still to be seen in the doors and walls of the Jesuit library. 

One of the consequences of any civil war is the explosion of guns in the population.  So it was in El Salvador, where most of the guns for both sides came from the United States, some on-sold by corrupt army officers to the rebels.  So after the war ended many unemployed young men on both sides, trained only to kill, earned their living by the gun. Freed from a cause and from military discipline they were the seeds of a violent future.

My most moving memory of El Salvador was of a week spent in the community of Ita Maura – named after Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke who had been raped and murdered by the military. I was there to celebrate the Eucharist for the Community’s tenth anniversary. In preparation I gathered a list of relatives who had been killed in the war so they could be remembered in the Service.  A woman, then living alone, had lost seven children.  She listed each of them. Some were catechists and so had been targeted by the military. Others had been killed trying to flee, many at the River Lempa. Then she mentioned her youngest son, Juan Luis. Tears came into her eyes as she whispered, ‘And I had such hope in him’.

In the garden of the house where the Jesuits died there is a garden with eight rose bushes.  The six Jesuits are inseparable in death from Celia and Elba Ramos, Juan Luis and his brothers and all the ordinary Salvadoreans whom they served.  In their deaths they helped keep hope alive.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, El Salvador, Jesuits, martyrdom, civil war, Central America



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Existing comments

I finished reading Narrow Road to the Deep North last week. Andrew's sad, sad piece brought it to mind: a perfect illustration of Eric Bogle's masterly summary of humanity: "But, young Willie McBride, it all happened again / And again, and again, and again, and again."

Frank | 13 November 2014  

It is hard, in a country like Australia, where we have the Rule of Law and the military are not part of a repressive regime, to realise the recent horrors those in Central and South America suffered, where murder, rape and torture were a common way many governments had of enforcing their will. The Jesuits martyred in El Salvador, as well as their cook, daughter and so many others are a sign that human decency and courage and their fame will outlast sordid dictators and their murderous goon squads. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.

Edward Fido | 13 November 2014  

Thank you Andrew for simply reminding us. Alas, how quickly the sands of time close over so much that is precious.

Jim Bowler | 13 November 2014  

Like Frank, I recently finished reading Richard Flanagan's "Narrow Road to the Deep North" and this piece did remind me of the premise of that fine novel. Flanagan took pains to explore the situation from both sides - what forces drove the cruelty and inhumanity and the response of those so treated. Horrendous events do bind people together and we have to continue to hope that love will always find a way.

Pam | 13 November 2014  

Thank you for recalling the fate, the murder, the martyrdom of the Jesuits and nuns of El Salvador. Tragically they were but few instances of many throughout Latin America and the murdering dictatorships were supported by countries outside Latin America. In 1999 President Clinton expressed regret for the role the USA played in backing a brutal campaign that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Guatemala's civil war. In 1981 1000 civilians of the village El Mozote, El Salvador were annihilated by the US School of the Americas-trained Salvadoran Army unit known as the Atlacatl Battalion. There is no shortage of examples. Regrettably, the Liberation Theology, supported by such heroic figures as Archbishop Helder Camara and Leonardo Boff ofm, condemning the violence and oppression of dictatorships received no support from the Vatican and successive popes. Camara wrote: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a communist."

John Nicholson | 13 November 2014  

I wholeheartedly endorse the previous comments and as a psychologist, I'm further indebted to the work of Ignacio Martin Barro and his liberation psychology frameworks.

Paul Jensen | 13 November 2014  

It was a "stupid" decision by the El Salvador government but it was far worse, though seemingly the Defence Minister was too morally purblind to recognise the fact: it was an unspeakably evil act. What an irony it is for the benighted country to bear the name, El Salvador!

John CARMODY | 13 November 2014  

Perhaps, John Carmody, it's not irony. Perhaps every time they speak their country's name, the people can call on the hope of the hopeless, the comforter of the afflicted. A sign of the faith?

Joan Seymour | 13 November 2014  

The recent film "Killing the messenger" details another twist on this Central American story, namely the relationship of CIA financial support to the nasty regimes with funds raised through importation and sale of drugs to the most vulnerable and poor in US cities, with resulting disintegration of Black communities in particular. Good `ole USA! When I once raised the issue of Vatican support for nasty right wing regimes to a senior Australian cleric recently moved to a big job in Rome, he was mockingly dismissive.

Eugene | 13 November 2014  

I was born in El Salvador and I came to Australia in November the 8th 1989, I was shocked by the news about but most at all my friend Celina was there, she was not involved in anything political at all, just helping in the communities ,25 years later still I am asking myself why such a nice soul, along the priest as well and many millions of people getting killed so horribly and to think there are many days and many battles to fight. My only consolation I had the honour and the blessing in meeting them, I know their souls are with Mandela, Patricio Lumumba, Che Guevara, John Lennon, Gandhi, Arbishop Romero, Mother Teresa, Bolivar, Whitlam and many other millions, never ever , there will be a space for a dictator.

Roberto | 13 November 2014  

Mr Nicholson might note: #"The Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez The founder of liberation theology, Latin American-inspired Catholic theology advocating for the poor, received a hero's welcome at the Vatican as the once-criticized movement continues its rehabilitation under Pope Francis".[AP] #"Latin American theologians welcomed and wrote commentaries on Pope John Paul II's encyclical laborem exercens (1981)".[New Cath Ency.[2003].

Father John George | 14 November 2014  

Updates on Oscar Romero: "In 2013, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stated that the Vatican doctrinal office has been "given the greenlight" to pursue sainthood for Romero.[ In 2014, Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, said that the canonization process is in its final stages. On Monday, May 19, 2014, an online news story article appearing on the Catholic News Service (CNS) website homepage stated that the incumbent Archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Escobar Alas, and three other Salvadoran Catholic bishops, meeting with Pope Francis, urged him to come to San Salvador to personally beatify Archbishop Romero if and when he is beatified. To be beatified, a posthumous, usually an unexplainable medical, miracle (verified by the prelate members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints after an archdiocesan and Vatican-based medical and theological investigation, and signed by the Pope) would need to be attributed to an intercession to him, or alternatively, he could be declared a martyr or the Pope could, extremely rarely, use his right to waive both of these requirements for beatification, which somewhat like canonization, is meant to be a definitive statement about his sanctity. The controversy, beyond any concerns about the pace of his beatification and credentials being met, alluded to in the article and in the preceding paragraphs, is whether his assassination was solely out of hatred for the faith (the requirement for martyrdom), or was influenced by politics, liberation theology, or by his vocal criticisms of the regime at the time during the civil war. On August 18, 2014 Pope Francis said that "The process [of beatification of Romero] was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, blocked “for prudential reasons”, so they said. Now it is unblocked." Pope Francis stated that "There are no doctrinal problems and it is very important that [the beatification] is done quickly".[Wikipedia]

Father John George | 14 November 2014  

I lived in San Salvador in 1992 and 1993 teaching in a small Christian school. Several of us would go off into guerrilla held areas during the weekend with doctors and dentists as well as sharing gospel messages. At the time I was 20 and wasn't exposed to the truth since we lived and worked among the elites. I have recently contacted a catholic priest responsible for having us stoned in Arcatao. He's invited me "home." I ended up leaving after being kidnapped in 1993 upon my parents and the embassies insistence. Too many wrongs down there at the time. So sad.

Timothy Malloy | 13 July 2016  

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