The Jesuits “ruined me for life” when I was 19. I was an undergraduate at Creighton University when I learned about the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador in an introductory theology course taught by Dr. Tom Kelly.
My life was never the same after that class. The Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador became the first of my social justice heroes — individuals who put their lives on the line to tangibly confront injustice. Their legacy inspired a profound shift in my understanding of the Gospel message and how I was called to live and work in the world.
When I traveled to El Salvador for the first time this summer with the Ignatian Solidarity Network, this legacy of the martyrs came alive as I visited the places where they worked, studied, prayed and spoke. I’ve spent so much time since then grappling with the impact these Jesuits have had on my life. In their honor, how do I live a life truly committed to social justice and to the most marginalized in our society? The truth is, I haven’t completely figured that out yet.
What I can do in this moment is practice radical empathy. The ability to deeply understand and truly share the feelings of another lies at the root of what the martyrs were trying to accomplish, and it is why they ultimately lost their lives. Only when we are able to feel and understand the suffering of people we encounter will we be capable of working for equity and peace on behalf of all.
Jesus was the ultimate practitioner of radical empathy; he accompanied the outcast, the downtrodden, the weak and the powerless. In a similar fashion, the martyrs made a conscious decision to accompany the marginalized, forgotten and oppressed people of El Salvador.
This is our ultimate challenge as Catholics, as Jesuit affiliates and as human beings. In response to our fundamental Gospel calling, we must seek to love above all else, as Jesus did and the Jesuit martyrs emulated. We must bring about social change in a broken world that desperately needs our radical empathy.