Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ
Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ
Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, is the Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University in New York. 

During a committee meeting the door flew open and a colleague announced with disbelief the murder of the Jesuits at UCA. The shock of that moment remains with me to this day. Perhaps because they were academics working at a university, a setting that in my experience seemed safe enough, the intrusion of death squad violence reverberated as particularly horrific.  

What were these educators doing that triggered the fear and hatred of powerful men, to the point where they “deserved” to be shot? They were not like Archbishop Romero (murdered March 24, 1980), publicly preaching to thousands from the cathedral pulpit. They were not like the four North American churchwomen (murdered December 2, 1980), visibly ministering to village women and children. They were in a school, for goodness' sake.

At a memorial Mass six days later, Fordham University president Fr. Joseph O’Hare, SJ, shed some light. “No university can be insulated from the agonies of the society in which it lives,” he preached. “No university which identifies itself as Catholic can be indifferent to the call of the church to promote the dignity of the human person.”

Committed to the following of Jesus Christ, these men were educating for justice. They held the lives of poor and marginalized people, the “crucified people” in Ignacio Ellacuría’s term, to be beloved by God and deserving of basic goods. Toward that end, society needed to be transformed. What a dangerous position.

I still grieve the loss of their voices. I grieve for the women killed with them, Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina, cut down in adolescence. They represent the tens of thousands killed during that wretched war. My current student Lauren Ross reports that one Christian base community’s meeting room is covered with pictures of those lost in the war, including the Jesuit martyrs. Above are the words, Hagan esto en memoria mía: do this in memory of me.

The witness of the UCA Jesuits and their companions has become a touchstone of authentic Christian life for me. The question originally raised by their death continues to challenge my own faith and practice. In the midst of a suffering world, what are we doing that we “deserve” to be shot, even metaphorically? And if the answer is nothing, then what is the use of our endeavors? Their dangerous memory intertwines with the cross: Hagan esto en memoria mía.

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Jesuit Retreat House of Cleveland
Nestled in the urban landscape of Parma, Ohio, the Jesuit Retreat House of Cleveland is “a place of peace in the forest.”