What I learned from El Salvador's Jesuit martyrs

UCA MartyrsOn the day that six Jesuits — Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Arnando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno — together with the community cook and her daughter, Julia Elba Ramos and Cecilia Ramos, were murdered in El Salvador, I was at Cha Choeng Sau outside Bangkok, at the Jesuit Refugee Service meeting held there.

It was 16 November 1989. We had heard from JRS workers of the suffering and resilience of refugees around Asia. We now looked forward to hear from Jon Sobrino, the El Salvador Jesuit theologian, who had been speaking at another meeting in Bangkok. But at breakfast we heard the dreadful news.

That evening Jon Sobrino did join us for the Eucharist, still in shock. Next morning he read the account in the Bangkok Post. A photograph showed one of the dead Jesuits in a room. Jon looked at the photo, and said slowly, 'That's my typewriter: that's my Bible. That is my room.'

A Jesuit visiting from another community had spent the evening and died in Jon's room.

Two years later I spent six months in El Salvador. I wanted to understand Latin American theology and to visit the communities of refugees who had returned from camps in Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua. In the theological library where I worked there were still bullet marks in the walls from the night of the murder. In many communities there were other relics — the stole worn by Fr Martín Baró, and so on.

The Jesuits were still bearing the weight of their loss. They were determined not to allow the deaths to affect their commitments, and were intensely focused. One wit had remarked, 'In 1989 the Salvadorean Army martyred the six Jesuits; in 1990 the six Jesuits martyred the rest of the Province.'

Although I had intended my stay to be a gesture of solidarity with the Jesuits in El Salvador, I came to realise that guests with less than fluent Spanish must have been more of a burden than an encouragement. The Jesuits in El Salvador lived under great pressure, constantly standing up to a government that had turned its arms against its little people, and following Jesus in the midst of a civil war.

Those who were killed were good people, good Jesuits. They were not picture book saints, just ordinary martyrs. I was heartened to hear that one died swearing at the soldiers who had just broken in the door.

It was in the campesino communities that I began to understand the six Jesuits and the theology evolving in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America. The figures of Julia Elba and Cecilia Marisela Ramos, the community cook and her daughter, then came into sharp focus. With that came some understanding.

These communities had been forced to leave the mountainous parts of El Salvador as the army conducted its counterinsurgency campaign. This consisted of sweeping through villages and killing indiscriminately, and more systematically murdering catechists. In this way they hoped to deprive the guerrillas of a population where they could hide and to intimidate its leadership.

The families, all poor, fled and gathered in camps across the border. There they centred their lives around reflection on the Gospels, eventually returning to settle on deserted land. They lived precariously, protected to some extent by foreign volunteers who accompanied them.

In the communities I was given simple tasks where I could not do too much damage. In one community that was preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary, apart from joining the children in whitewashing the school for the occasion, I was asked to gather the names of their martyrs to remember in the Eucharist.

It was deeply moving. The list grew and grew as each family remembered parents, sons and daughters, many of whom had been catechists. One lady offered the names of her seven sons, describing each, and how he had been killed. When she came to the last, Juan, she wept gently. 'I had such hope in him,' she said.

Harvesting the names made me think of Julia and Cecilia. The Jesuits had died because they refused to regard the poor of El Salvador as expendable, and would not allow those murdered to lie forgotten. They kept memories and hopes alive. Julia and Cecilia had thought they would be safer staying the night in the Jesuit house than at home. But the Jesuits had made themselves unsafe by joining themselves to the expendable poor like Julia and Cecilia.

So I began to see the six Jesuits as just some of thousands who had died, represented by the faces of the cook and the daughter.

The theology done in El Salvador, too, was about listening to the Gospel through the lives and the simple words of the poor, and seeking larger, connected words in which to speak of it. It made sense in the communities that I visited. The learned criticism of it that I had read made no sense, just as the political analysis of the threat posed by the poor of El Salvador made no sense. It all began and ended in the wrong place.

The message I learned from Julia and Cecilia and the six Jesuits who died, and from the theology that honoured their faith, is that in the Kingdom of God the first will be last, and the last will be first. If we want to follow Jesus we must be simple among those normally thought of last, like Julia and Cecilia, and so like Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Arnando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. The 20th anniverary of the deaths of the UCA Martyrs has been commemorated by a resolution of the Congress and Senate in the United States.

Topic tags: Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martin-Baró, Segundo Montes, Arnando López, Joaquín López y López, Juan Ramón



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Existing comments

Thank you for this very well written piece. It is insightful and inspiring. I've studied Liberation Theology and the words of Sobrino and Ellacuria. It brought me to Nicaragua where I've interned and researched once a year for the past half decade. The Gospel speaks loudly in the presence of the oppressed and the marginalised.

Andrew, I invite you to read my short piece on the anniversary on regionalhiv.blogspot.com

Marco Ambrosio | 11 November 2009  

'Enjoy this article?' seems a strange introduction to both Jeremy Tarbox's and Andrew Hamilton's reflections on the El Salvador martyrs. A sobering start to my day. Lest we forget. Thank you.

Trish Taylor | 11 November 2009  

Thanks very much Andrew Hamilton. I found this very encouraging. I loved the words, 'They were not picture book saints, just ordinary martyrs'. Your reflection was a reminder to me that I can serve the Gospel by doing ordinary things shoulder to shoulder with those 'thought of as the last', and I don't have to be particularly brilliant or clever or talented, just be my best self with them.

Paul | 11 November 2009  

A beautiful piece, Andrew. What a wonderful sense of the Vatican 2 Church as 'the people of God' is given by your sentence, "So I began to see the six Jsuits as just some of the thousands who had died, represented by the faces of the cook and the daughter."

In shocking contrast to this stand the attitudes Paul Collins showed recently in those Cardinals who have gone against Vatican 2 to recast the English Liturgy. His superb, but frightening article, which can be seen at www.catholicsforministry.com.au, shows that the backlsh against the post-Vatican 2 liturgy is an attack on a sense of Church which puts the 'people of God' at the centre of our awareness. They say that they want to "restore" in us the sense of a 'vertical' church, to re-emphaise the transcendence of God.

I'm afraid that what they really mean (I hope without realising it) by a 'vertical' Church is one which maintains the Heirarchy in a false position above the 'people of God'. No wonder they can't appreciate the Liberation Theology that celebrates the equality before God of heroes like the people of El Salvador and the Jesuits who committed themselve to standing with them in their struggle for liberation.

Joe Castley | 11 November 2009  

Thanks, Andy, for this intimate insight into the events at El Salvador twenty years ago. It is a gentle reminder that the idea of 'liberation theology' is very much forged by and grounded in the lives of real human beings who each have a face and a name.

Fatima Measham | 11 November 2009  

Thank you for this article Andrew. It was very moving, very touching and easy to read and not too long. It made me reflect on what I would be prepared to die for.

Breda O'Reilly | 11 November 2009  

Thanks Andy, particularly for the sentence 'They were not picture book saints, just ordinary martyrs.' That makes sense, for the likes of me, of the whole business of martyrdom. But more importantly, it pays proper tribute to people who do what they do for the right reasons.

God bless.

Morag Fraser | 12 November 2009  

Thank You Andrew. In one sense it is something of a shame that an aspect of Christianity has to be called Liberation Theology...it would be good to call it for what it is: Christianity.

Andrew | 12 November 2009  

Thank you, Eureka Street, for reminding us of the consequences of preaching and practising Liberation Theology. The killing of the Jesuits at UCA reminds me of the reaction of the Pharisees after Jesus (with anger in his eyes) cured the man with a withered hand. "The Pharisees went out and at once began to plot with the Herodians against him, discussing how to destroy him." (Mark 3:6). By his liberating actions, be it from sin or from sickness, Jesus came up against those with a vested interest in power, both religious (The Pharisees) and political (The Herodians).

It is not for me to name who those who had vested interests in religious and political power in El Salvador 20 years ago and who would go to any lengths to preserve it. But I'm sorry to say, even with the election of a democratic socialist government in El Salvador, there are still centres of power in Washington and Rome who don't look kindly on Christian forces that stress the liberating good news brought by Jesus Christ to the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the diseased, and the weak.

Uncle Pat | 15 November 2009  

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