25th Anniversary of the UCA Martyrs: Lives that Draw Us into Mystery
As a sophomore in high school, the news of the massacre of two women and six Jesuits in El Salvador in November 1989 rocked my world. Not that I knew Jesuits at that time, but just the thought that people who used their brains and communication skills — their voices and presence — could become such a threat that their government would savagely kill them jarred my sense of the world. The insular reality of a “wise-fool” was turned upside down and marked, marked to eventually discern that God might be calling me to not simply follow Christ as a Jesuit, but to live and work 16 years later in the shadows of these “prophets in our midst.”
While there is something about their brutal deaths that draws my heart, it is their lives that continue to compel me. I am not entirely clear what it is: their academic and pastoral rigor focused on giving “voice to the voiceless”; the courage they demonstrated as they stood out in a society crashing in; their humanness. There is something mysterious about their lives, the way they lived and united their lives to the plight of the Salvadoran community. What stirred their hearts and compelled them to stay in the midst of violence, to identify — even to the point of death — with “el pueblo”?
Fr. Ellacuría, who was martyred that November day, said, “We are companions of Jesus; that's the mystery of our life.” Mystery? What is this mystery that animated their lives? I know from my own experience of the Salvadoran people there is an incredible graciousness in how they receive you. Every time (literally) I visited the communities of Arcatao and Carasque on the Honduran border my cup of atol (a thick corn drink) never went dry. I know the passion of the Salvadoran people as they gather at every anniversary for every martyr remembered from the civil war to sing and cry, pray and dance. I know the deep faith in the Salvador people that proclaims life conquers death, always! Yet, there is more to this mystery…
The eight martyrs of the UCA knew the reality of the country because they lived it. They saw suffering and allowed themselves to enter the suffering. They experienced countless friends and colleagues disappear, whether by murder or fleeing the country or by literally being “disappeared.” An archbishop was killed in broad daylight, and yet they lived with hope. This seems to be part of the mystery — a hope in promoting justice for the sake of reconciling all people to creating and sharing solidarity. Theirs was a hope that imaged a better world … why … because they believed in a God of infinite possibility!
The mystery at the heart of the martyrs seems to go further: a God of infinite possibilities is a God of abundance. Their life work seemed to focus on challenging the theory that there is a scarcity in our world that leaves some (too many) left out and without. They rejected a belief that the world rests on an economy of scarcity. Impossible though it seems, there can be enough for all. It does not have to be an “us versus them” world! Were the martyrs free from the grip on imagination that says status quo is destiny? They dared to imagine a better life.
In the weeks before their deaths they worked hard to broker peace. Fighting was in the city and the insurgents were winning. To ask for dialogue and possibly even compromise was a treacherous act. For the Salvadoran elites, peace was dangerous because they feared losing what they had, or having less; so their fate was to clutch their property and privileges. The martyrs challenged this and asked for compromise. Despite the horrifically violent reaction, the martyrs’ lives proclaim the belief that creation is about abundance.
Did the martyrs connect with this — this hope in a God of infinite possibilities … this sense of a God of abundance … maybe — they lived and died as if they did.
One more facet of this “mystery of their lives” that screams, and it is Pascal. The UCA martyrs make explicit what tens of thousands of Salvadorans murdered during the civil war witness implicitly: that uniting ourselves in the suffering and death of others unites us to Christ’s resurrection. While my hunch is they would never have spoken of their plight this way, their lives and deaths break open the relevance of this mystery for us today. Twenty-five years later we continue to find encouragement, challenge, hope and life in them. Their deaths, and the deaths of too many Salvadorans, matter. Their lives and the life they continue to stir in us, matters more!
Maybe we need to tell this story over and over so that the Mystery that compelled their lives might take hold of our own. Thanks for all who make it a little easier to believe in the Mystery!