Fr. Ralph Rivera, SJ
Fr. Ralph Rivera, SJ
Fr. Ralph Rivera, SJ, is a theology teacher and chaplain at Xavier High School in New York City.

The Salvadoran Martyrs: Witnesses to God’s Love

It is important to recognize those who have gone before us not just in order to learn from them, but also to understand what in their lives moved them and stirred their passions into a discernible life of encounter and response to the world they shared with us. The Salvadoran martyrs, on the 25th anniversary of their murder, should make us ponder deeply the gifts and the lessons they bequeathed to us as “followers of the way,” the earliest description of the Christian community.

I did not know these men and women, but their lives have affected me and many others in profound ways. Their witness (the actual meaning of our word, martyr) stands for all time, while their lives were cut short in the quick and peremptory way that violence often chooses. As in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. before them, it is easy to kill the prophets. This was an ancient practice by the time of Jesus’ ministry in Judaea and Galilee. But, as my students have noted in their reading of MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the murderers were not able to kill the movement inspired and sustained through men and women determined to undo the injustices they suffered at the hands of their oppressors. You can always kill the prophets, but not the Spirit that vivifies and speaks through the lives of the men and women who have made the gospel of peace and mercy their own.

The lives and martyrdom of the Salvadoran martyrs lured me into the Society of Jesus. What I learned about their lives was that they had chosen a path with a heart and were willing to live this choice to its ultimate conclusion. This is very important: to choose a path that deepens our understanding of reality, and the actions we are to take to change that reality when it denies our human dignity. This life affirmation is classically and movingly evoked in Deuteronomy when God tells Moses to choose life and not death. It is strange to be presented with such an option; after all, who would choose death? Yet, we often do when we turn away from what must be done for the sake of the Great Commandment. The martyrs made their choice of life over death, and this could not be taken away from them. The act of murder that day in 1989, once again, proved that the seed that dies brings forth life in all its glory and speaks of God. This was Jesus’ teaching, and this was his life. The martyrs and their companions had chosen the better path and now sustain us with the vision, and the path that speaks to any woman or man who cares to listen from the wellspring of his or her humanity, which is God’s gift to all. This is life, and life in abundance. 

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