November 16, 1989, was a Thursday. I was living in Los Angeles that year, and a bunch of us would gather on Thursday nights for Mass and dinner at Loyola Marymount’s villa. Threads of information had drifted across the Jesuit network all afternoon: something bad had happened at the UCA, Jesuits might have been killed. That night, the villa group was bigger than usual — 10, maybe 12 guys, seeking comfort in numbers and craving news. We crowded around the TV for the national broadcast; I remember craning my neck to see the screen, and I recall being genuinely shocked when the network didn’t lead with the story. Perspective is a funny thing, isn’t it? I checked the Vanderbilt Archives yesterday; indeed, both ABC and CBS held the story until after the first commercial; it was seventh in NBC’s lineup, after two commercials.
Funny thing is, I don’t remember the newscast itself. I do remember what I felt: anger and outrage. (I’m ashamed to admit that heartbreak and compassion didn’t come until later.) The anger drove me to help organize nonviolent demonstrations that closed the downtown LA Federal Building every Wednesday morning for a few months. I was one of the thousands of people nationwide arrested for civil disobedience, and, just weeks after the attack, I was asked to escort a delegation of visiting Salvadoran union leaders back into their country. The capital was still under martial law; I remember being squeezed into a shuttered dentist office for a midday memorial service, a hundred people holding hands and singing the FMLN anthem in a whisper. Later, they took us to the Jesuits’ house, which was still sealed off, and snuck us in through the back. Dried blood stained the lawn, the rosebushes, the interior walls and terrazzo floor. That’s when the grief came: seeing my brothers’ blood.
My response that November wasn’t all that different than most Jesuits’. We were shocked and anguished; many of us got swept into some kind of political action, all of us spent years weaving the event into the fabric of our lives. For a truly extraordinary reaction, you need to look to someone like Dean Brackley. When the call went out for Jesuits to replace the six who were murdered at UCA, Dean immediately volunteered.
“They wanted a Jesuit. They wanted someone who had a Ph.D. in theology. They wanted someone who spoke Spanish,” he told a friend. “I started looking around and realized there weren’t that many of us.” (NY Times; October 29, 2011)
Dean assured his friends that it was only temporary and that he’d return to Fordham in a few years. He remained in the job for the rest of his life. A Jesuit’s Jesuit.