This weekend marks the 25th Anniversary of the Jesuit Salvadoran Martyrs. For those unaware, at the University of Central America, 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper and their daughter were brutally killed by ARENA, a government-run death squad in 1989 in El Salvador. The Jesuits, most notably Ignacio Ellacuria, were speaking out on government reforms for the poor, guarding against the oligarchy of the rich that was prevalent in their country at the time.
Civil War had already claimed the lives of thousands including 4 Maryknoll churchwomen and Archbishop Oscar Romero earlier in the decade. It was a brutal time for the people of El Salvador.
In 1989, I was a Sophomore in College and was blissfully unaware that things like this were going on in Central America. When I heard of the massacres, I was really shaken up. Our University President, Joseph O’Hare, SJ travelled with other Jesuit Presidents down to the University of Central America (UCA) to investigate. When he returned, he insisted on presiding at our 10PM mass that evening.
I was the sacristan for that mass and I cornered him before mass began:
Mike: Papa Joe, (As we called him) dare I ask, how was your trip?
Fr O’Hare: “Mike, it was horrible and beautiful. These men gave their lives for their faith and for the poor. (He started to tear up here) We know who did this! But there’s not a damn thing we can do about it!”
Then I stupidly asked him the following question:
Mike: “Does this mean the Jesuits are going to be leaving El Salvador?”
Fr O’Hare: (Smiles) “No, son, we already have guys lined up around the block volunteering to take their places.”
I think it was then, that I started to cry.
That was a faith changing moment for me. Seeing actual martyrs giving their lives for something that mattered much to me, the poor of the world inspired me and gave me much to consider. How often do I even mildly sacrifice for the poor in my life? Growing up as the son of a school custodian, we too, were of meager means, but by no means close to the poverty that existed in El Salvador. And yet, priests had given many opportunities to me to be able to climb out of that kind of poverty. The least I could do was to make some kind of effort to not merely speak for the voiceless but to pitch in now and again as well.
Needless to say, I signed up for several social justice initiatives that year of college.
This past summer, I went to El Salvador with students from Canisius and with Fr. Frank LaRocca, SJ, a good friend. We went to the UCA to see where the martyrs were killed and to look at the museum dedicated to the martyrs. It was more moving than I had imagined and less moving in many ways as well. in many ways it made me angry. Seeing the books of the Jesuits that had been “machine gunned” during the massacre–a message for certain that said not to use your intelligence to speak out against the government. There were two small photo albums that has the gruesome pictures of the Jesuits dead in the backyard with their brains splattered on the grass. Seeing the room where Elba Ramos, the cook and her daughter were murdered so their would be no witnesses was one of the more moving places there. They had huddled in the room and when the death squad heard them breathing, they blew rounds into the wall, killing these two innocents who had stayed there that night because they thought it was safer than trying to travel home at night with violent uprisings going on closer to their neighborhood.
Looking at the backyard today, you’ll see those spots where the slain Jesuits were dragged now marked by roses. The rose garden (pictured, here) is holy ground for me. In the chapel, you’ll find a tiny mausoleum where the Jesuits now rest. As I was about to leave, I turned toward the mausoleum and was about to walk over and say a prayer and touch the cold metal markers of the Martyrs. It was then I saw Fr. Frank do exactly that. He did so tenderly and prayerfully and as I followed him I realized that we are all following these men on our journey to care for the least of us. The Jesuits have led us in so many ways, but these men, men I have never known personally, have given me more than I had hoped.
This week, our President here at Canisius and a number of delegates are in El Salvador celebrating the 25th Anniversary. Celebrating seems like the wrong word. And yet, it seems so right to say. These men did not just live life, they celebrated it. And with their lives they looked to restore dignity to the poor. It was their indignant murder that now has been transformed into so many who have lifted up their lives to give them poor in Central America an opportunity to live peacefully and joyfully.
And if that’s not worth celebrating, then I’m not sure what is.
Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual life shine upon them. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.