April 4, 2016 — Fr. Brian Christopher, SJ, who serves at Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Antonio, has spent much time as a Jesuit in Central America. Here he reflects on visiting El Salvador.
El Salvador. I've been
there three times. I've spent most of my time,
in terms of Latin America, in Honduras. That's where I've had big
transformations. But in terms of El Salvador, the first time I went was 1997,
the summer before I entered the Jesuits. I went with two scholastics, both of
whom have since left the Society. I had been studying Spanish in Guatemala, and
the three of us were on our way to Honduras, but we wanted to stop through El
Bullet holes still riddled the walls of buildings. It was only four years after the peace accords were signed. My overall impression was that God had walked here. God's footprints were everywhere. So much of my faith formation since the age of 16 had been nourished by the stories of bold Catholics standing up for dignity. Of course, there were the famous names: Oscar Romero; Rutilio Grande, SJ; Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ; Jean Donovan. But there were so many others.
People hold pictures of four American churchwomen — lay missioner Jean Donovan, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford — at a memorial service commemorating the 35th anniversary of their murder in Santiago Nonualco, El Salvador, in 2015. (CNS photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters)
We went to the Romero sites: his crypt in the cathedral and the hospitalito where he was murdered. We saw the sights at the UCA. The tombs of the six Jesuits in the wall of the chapel, with several additional spots in the wall unoccupied, as if ominously waiting for more martyrs. The Jesuit residence where they were murdered was still unoccupied out of respect for the dead.
An image of Blessed Oscar Romero in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador, where he was shot as he celebrated Mass March 24, 1980. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)
But for me, the most powerful part was visiting the neighboring towns of Aguilares and El Paisnal. Rutilio Grande, SJ, was born in the latter, worked in the former, and was murdered on the road between the two. The roadside shrine commemorating the spot of his murder was much smaller then. The towns were like any other rural towns: kids running around, active market square. It was ordinary, common. But you walk in the church in El Paisnal and there are three graves in the floor in front of the altar: Fr. Grande and the two people who were murdered with him.
A mural of Blessed Oscar Romero and Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, in El Paisnal, El Salvador. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)
The more I've learned about Rutilio Grande since then, the more I like him. He was a man riddled with doubts and anxiety. He didn't journey far from his hometown; he was one of the people. He didn't do big, showy things. He was just compassionate. He loved his own, spoke on their behalf, and was murdered as they were.
Even now, these remain powerful stories for me. Far from the place of war and despair I imagined it to be, I have experienced Latin America as a place of struggle and hope. In many ways, things are worse there now than during the wars (especially in Honduras), but the women and men I've had the privilege of getting to know in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize are still symbols of the gritty kind of hope that remains, as Jon Sobrino, SJ, once remarked, Central America's greatest export.
Six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15 year-old daughter were murdered at the University of Central America November 16, 1989.