"The six Jesuits who were killed 20 years ago at the University of Central America in El Salvador had lived the mission entrusted to the Society of Jesus by the Holy Spirit through the Church. They were at the frontiers of culture – an alien culture from the viewpoint of the poor – where others either could not or did not want to go. Their commitment led to their deaths and those of the two women, obviously of families living in poverty, who served in the Jesuits’ home. That mission goes on today in many different ways in many different parts of the globe, where men like them and many lay and religious colleagues are engaging culture at the frontiers.
We often say that the blood of martyrs is the seed from which local churches sprout. Interestingly the blood of the El Salvador martyrs has strewn seeds of growth around the whole world, including the United States, where the 'Ignatian Family' gathers yearly at the gates of the School of the Americas to reflect, pray, and encourage one another in following their call of service to those most in need, because that is precisely where they find Christ. Quite a gift to the Church in the United States! We should be grateful and humbled to share in their grace."
--Frank Case, SJ
"Before returning to Seattle University I had the privilege to go with a delegation of St. Aloysius Church parishioners to their sister parish in El Salvador. Like pilgrims we visited the site where the four Church women were martyred, the house and crypt of Oscar Romero, and the university chapel, room, and the rose garden at the UCA where the Jesuits and two housekeepers were murdered.
I felt a profound sense of solidarity with peacemakers; a pride of the Jesuits who committed themselves to mission and following Christ’s call; and a hope for the work of justice and peace that continues in the indigenous church. In our visit we heard the stories of atrocities and other deaths caused by the political unrest of the time, and the poverty still present. We saw signs of hope in a women’s farm cooperative, a community health clinic, and artisan Christian Life communities. May their work flourish and they be kept safe and blessed. Presenté. "
--Natch Ohno, SJ
"I was in Ireland when I heard of the murder of the El Salvador Jesuits, their housekeeper, Elba, and her daughter, Celina. My reaction was utter disbelief. All Jesuits knew that the promotion of faith and justice involved threats and danger. Fr Arrupe had warned the Society we would have many martyrs if we remained faithful to our commitment to Gospel values, and I knew Jesuits in several countries had incurred the wrath of Governments and the wealthy by their preaching and teaching. Archbishop Romero had been murdered at the altar in March 1980. However, the killings of the six El Salvador Jesuits, Elba and Celina made it all suddenly personal.
Fr Ellacuria had made his Tertianship in Ireland. I had heard from other Jesuits about his gentle charm and the depth of his social analysis. But Fr. Amando Lopez was a personal friend. He had studied theology with me in Milltown Park, Dublin. He was deeply human, smallish, a bundle of laughter and fun, passionate in his commitment to justice. Somewhere in the mid-1960s, when Jesuit scholastics didn’t have a cent, he found the money to take both of us to “The Sound of Music”. He loved sport and came with my brother and me to watch international soccer games. He was a frequent and welcome visitor to my family, some of whom were guests at his ordination. We loved him dearly. His death was personal. But it became more than personal – it made us realize the price many Catholics were willing to pay to spread the Kingdom of God. And we realized too we now had a friend who stood in the presence of the Lamb."
--Hugh Duffy, SJ
“When the Jesuits died in El Salvador I had just finished my own novitiate three months earlier and was in my first semester of philosophical studies at Loyola Chicago. So, I was very new to the Society and still in the process of discerning with my superiors what my future apostolate might be. I remember being astonished at how many people on campus at Loyola took me aside to express condolences on what had happened. Clearly, they linked me to these men I had never met, and it made me curious to learn more about them.
Eventually, I would go on to earn a Ph.D in History with a dissertation on the Jesuits’ involvement in the slavery system in the United States in the nineteenth century. In two ways, the example of the El Salvador Jesuits helped me come up with my course of studies and choice of topic.
First, I was moved by the thought that they took the freedom to speak the truth so seriously that they were prepared to die for it. For them, the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” were not just beautiful rhetoric but a promise of God’s presence in their apostolic work. I found myself wanting to take advantage of the freedom that was so cruelly taken from them by the assassins.
Second, the more I learned about their work in El Salvador, the more impressed I was by the courage which they questioned unjust social structures in which the Jesuit order itself had once been deeply involved. They made a corporate conversion from a Society of Jesus that supported the ruling elite in their country to a liberated Society of Jesus that sought to rectify the injustices to which it had contributed.
I saw that the involvement of the Jesuits in slavery in the United States was a similar example of something for which the Jesuits needed repentance. I was quickly encouraged to do my dissertation on that question.
In sum, then, the El Salvador Jesuits represent for me the courage to discern and the courage to follow the consequences of that discernment where they might lead.”
--Tom Murphy, SJ
"On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the deaths of the six Jesuits and their two companions I had the privilege of representing Seattle University at commemoration of the martyrs on the campus of the Jesuit University in San Salvador. It was not my first experience in Central America. I had spent a summer in Guatemala in the 1970s working in an Indian village and, later, in Nicaragua during the struggle between the Sandinistas and the Contras. Both experiences awakened me to the ambiguities and self-serving policies of our own government that had such devastating effects on the poor and marginal peoples of our southern neighbors. One of the factors that led me to come to Central America was the courageous response of the Jesuits there to the systemic injustices that oppressed so many they served. These Jesuits had had a decisive impact on the whole Society of Jesus. Their lived experience, discernment, decisions and actions impacted the 32d General Congregation, a grace that led to the Society’s own decisive commitment to the “service of faith and the promotion of Justice.”
The murder of Ignacio Ellacuria, the president of the UCA, the other Jesuits, Elba Ramos and her daughter, occurred just five months after an historic meeting in 1989 at Georgetown University of 500 Jesuits from our 28 universities together with 200 of our colleagues. At the heart of the agenda at the gathering was the faith/justice challenge that the Society of Jesus discerned as a central animating vision for all Jesuit apostolates. The Jesuit Universities of Central America had placed their resources and expertise at the service of the poor and marginal and had directed their stature within the community so as to be a mediating force for reconciliation and peace. Their courageous stance represented for our own institutions a concrete example of what the role of a university might be in the transformation of unjust social structures. Their deaths witnessed to the cost such a vision and commitment might entail; their deaths, likewise, in the words of our most recent 35th General Congregation, became “a fire that ignited other fires.” Their spirit still moves among us inspiring a new vision of a university, summoning administrators, faculty, staff and students in faith and with hope to new frontiers, preparing and supporting our alumni/ae to enter the struggle for a more just, more humane, yes, more graced world."
--Patrick B. O’Leary, SJ
Chaplain for Faculty and Staff
"One of my close friends, Dick Howard, was among the first people to come upon the terrible scene of the El Salvador martyrs. He witnessed their blood seeping into the ground, and over the next twenty years I found their blood and sacrifice seeping more and more into my mind, heart, and imagination. Those university Jesuits and their two laywomen colleagues stretched the definition of what it means to be part of higher education, and they manifested in their deaths the risks involved in taking ethical positions. As one of my Seattle University students said to me some years ago, “Fr. Cobb, I have come to the conclusion that if you advocate for the poor, there will always be someone who wants you dead.”
I worked closely with the artist Sandy Richardson in her design and building of SU’s memorial to the El Salvador martyrs—“Bowl of Tears” just outside the east entrance to Pigott. I’m always surprised by how many SU community members do not realize that it is there, or what its purpose is. As outdoor sculptures go, it is unprepossessing, and yet if you are drawn close enough to contemplate it, it is one of the most radical works of art I have ever seen. There is even a tile with words from Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was also murdered in El Salvador—the words are printed upside down because, according to the artist, if we truly comprehended their meaning our lives would be stood upside down. The immense sacrifice of these men and women, when contemplated with an open mind and heart, do truly turn our perspectives upside down, in a way that Jesus would want."
--Jerry Cobb, SJ
"I entered the Jesuits in 1991, two years after the murder of the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter. I didn’t know any of the Jesuits who were put to death. But I have had the privilege of teaching about their courageous witness in a course on Ignatian Spirituality here at SU. While El Salvador is by no means perfect (what society is?) their lives and deaths did usher in a new era in their country, with more chance of genuine democratic processes, restraints on the military, etc. In this sense their own participation in the paschal mystery – which they shared with the El Salvadoran people – was intimately related to the possibility of new life for the country as a whole.
For me, their story is always a reminder of the importance of having what we are doing in the classroom connect with the important social issues in our own context. It is also a reminder that our approach should be one of a “faith that does justice.” It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are the primary actors in the struggle(s) for justice. But their lives and witness remind us that when our action for justice is rooted in faith in Jesus, who himself stood in solidarity with those on the margins, the oppressed, the mistreated and who came into conflict with the powerful of his own time, that they stand the chance of bearing much more fruit – even when they appear to be nothing but failure and devastating loss. This is the case because they are a participation in the dying and rising of Jesus, which reveals to us a love that is 'stronger than death.'"
--Pat Kelly, SJ
I remember the day we Jesuits here found about the assassination of our brothers at UCA in El Salvador. I was assigned to the Jesuit parish in Portland, Oregon, and I was visiting the community here at Seattle University, when they lived in Loyola Hall, now the School of Education. It was lunch time, and the news spread like a wave across that large refectory dining room. It cut particularly close to Jesuits here, because it was the University mission they shared with UCA that was being attacked as well. The women who labored in the community were integrally part of that commitment and apostolate. Everything is grace. Mind and spirit together are a profound alliance no violence can shake.
In the days and months following, we experienced the Society of Jesus at its best, grateful that these men were using their profound intellects, deep faith, and fierce solidarity with and for the people, and learning in new way what the mission of higher education truly costs when it is embraced by this holistic and heartfelt zeal. Jesuits from all over the world immediately asked to leave their positions and go and restore the community that teaches there. I was proud to be a Jesuit and grateful for the Church’s firm stand for the Gospel at this time. The University, we now know, need not be an ivory tower or defender of the status quo.
Since that time, when we have remembered that day with the Eucharist in the Chapel of St. Ignatius and been privileged to be asked to fall to the floor of the Chapel and carry their names and memories before the assembled community, I thank God again for these martyrs of our era. As the Catholic funeral liturgy says, “Saints of God, come to their aid! Go out to meet them, angels of the Lord.” They are now members of that solidarity for us, Companions of Jesus and all who hunger for peace and justice.
--Paul Janowiak, SJ
“They were always on the side of the opppressed, even when it was dangerous. To have known that great love is to say Yes. Behind the hatred on this planet, there is great love, which makes people work for justice. So the last word is not NO but YES.”