Fr. James Martin, SJ
Fr. James Martin, SJ
Fr. James Martin, SJ, is editor at large at America magazine and author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”

November 16, 1989

I was just leaving the chapel in our novitiate, after my hour of prayer, when I heard of the deaths of the Jesuit martyrs and their companions in El Salvador. It was only my second year in the Jesuit novitiate, which was then housed in a former convent, a big brick building, in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston.

And I couldn’t completely grasp what my fellow novice was telling me, as I stood in the hallway outside the chapel, about a group of Jesuits being killed in El Salvador.

In the year since I had entered the Society of Jesus, I had read many stories about Jesuit martyrs, especially the North American martyrs, those men who had given their lives, often after terrible torture, as part of their ministry among the Native American peoples in “New France” in the 17th century. We had celebrated their feast day just a month before.

I knew something about the modern Jesuit martyrs as well, like the Mexican Miguel Pro, who had shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!” before a bullet passed through his body in 1927, and Albert Delp, the German Jesuit executed by the Nazis for his resistance, in 1945. 

And I had also come to know more about the church’s prophetic role in Central America, a topic of huge importance in Catholic circles in the 1980s. On the wall of one of the stairways in our novitiate was a brightly colored poster of the Blessed Mother holding a crown of thorns. Next to her, stamped on the portrait, were pairs of ghostly white handprints. Underneath this image were the words Madre de los Desaparecidos, Mother of the Disappeared Ones, a reference to those who had “disappeared” (that is, were kidnapped or killed) during the Argentine “Dirty War” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But the idea that people would be killed today for their faith — that my brothers would be killed today — was shocking. And when I learned that the dead included the Jesuits’ cook and her daughter, I thought instantly — and I remember this vividly — “They are their companions.” Just as we had prayed to “St. Isaac Jogues and Companions” in October.

The next day in The Boston Globe the front-page headline read, “5 SALVADORAN PRIESTS ARE SLAIN JESUITS TAKEN FROM THEIR BEDS; MEN IN UNIFORM ARE SUSPECTED.” I’m not embarrassed to say that I felt not only sadness and disgust and anger, but also a kind of pride, undeserved and unearned, in being part of a group of men who would give their lives for Christ. I felt, and still feel, unworthy to be a part of such a group, when I think of a Jesuit vocation in those terms.

The more I read about the Jesuits and their companions the next day, the more their awful deaths in San Salvador fit with the other martyrs I had read about. They did not court death, as many people falsely think about martyrs; rather, their martyrdom came as the inevitable result of simply being faithful to Jesus and also staying with the people to whom they came to serve in Jesus’s name. How could they leave?

Their sacrifice moves me still. And when I think of what it means to be a Jesuit, I think of that day in November, and what I felt standing outside our novitiate chapel.

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