I remember being a first year novice at Loyola House in Berkley, Michigan, and answering the sole phone in the long hallway where our rooms were. It was an older woman’s voice identifying herself as a religious sister (I can’t remember her community now), and she just wanted to call a Jesuit to let him know how sorry she was for our loss of men who had been killed in El Salvador. She explained that she had worked with Jesuits in numerous places over many years of ministry, and she was horrified at the violence perpetrated against these men whose only crime was speaking out for the poor. I didn’t know what to say to this woman I’d never met before other than a humble “thank you” on behalf of the Society I’d been part of for all of three months at that point.
In the following days as details emerged from the newspapers and the Society itself, it became clearer that those responsible for the pre-meditated murders of the Jesuits meant to send a message with their deaths that no voices for the poor would be left for anyone to hear. In the following months it became clear that my own government gave tacit approval and training of the men who killed my Jesuit brothers. For a patriotic 21-year-old it was an experience of scales falling from my eyes. And once I could see, I was angry. Protests, marches and sit-ins followed. It was true that there was some grace from the blood of the Jesuit martyrs: outsiders were now paying attention to what was going on in El Salvador. There was some remorse that it took the deaths of these Jesuits to draw attention to the deaths of thousands that seemed previously invisible. There was acknowledgment that it was true that those Jesuits knew that they were in danger and they had a choice to leave. They didn’t choose to leave the people they were sent to teach.
That was a powerful lesson for a Jesuit novice to learn. Those men’s fidelity inspires me to this day. When encountering difficult moments in my own Jesuit life, when I had to answer the question of whether to stay or leave, it was sometimes the witness of my martyred brothers in El Salvador that came to mind. In no way have I ever been challenged in the way that the Jesuits at UCA were. They faced much more than personal discomfort or puny nuisances. Those men knew their lives were in danger, and they stayed because they had made a commitment to the people they were missioned to serve. It was — and is — a model for thousands of us in the Society.