Jesuits and their colleagues remember the El Salvador martyrs on the 25th anniversary of their deaths. Photo by Jennifer Smith-Mayo.

25 Years of Inspiration: Reflections on the Martyrs

By Tracey Primrose

Read more about the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit murders in El Salvador here and here.

November 21, 2014 — It’s been 25 years since six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered in El Salvador, but for Father James Prehn, SJ, the rector of the Jesuit Community at Loyola University of Chicago, it feels like yesterday.

“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 … 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 early morning hours of November 16, 1989, an elite battalion of El Salvador’s military forced its way into the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America, or UCA, dragged five priests out of their beds and into a courtyard and executed them. The soldiers went back inside and killed another Jesuit as well as their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, who were crouching in the corner of a bedroom.  Jesuits Ignacio Ellacuría, Juan Ramón Moreno, Amando López, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes and Joaquin López y López were outspoken government critics and champions for peace, social justice and the poor; Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter, Celina, were collateral damage.

For Jesuits, the murders at the UCA were the type of moment that’s forever seared into memory, the way people recall where they were when they learned about the 9/11 attacks or that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  In a series of 38 reflections on the national website of the Society of Jesus in the U.S., Jesuits and their collaborators talk about the meaning and the martyrdom 25 years after the murders. 

Father James Martin, SJ, editor at large of America magazine and author of “Jesus:  A Pilgrimage,” was also a novice at the time of the murders.  He remembers seeing the Boston Globe headline, 5 SALVADORAN PRIESTS ARE SLAIN JESUITS TAKEN FROM THEIR BEDS; MEN IN UNIFORM ARE SUSPECTED, and feeling “not only sadness and disgust and anger, but also a kind of pride, underserved and unearned, in being part of a group of men who would give their lives for Christ.”

Fr. Martin writes, “Their martyrdom came as the inevitable result of simply being faithful to Jesus and also staying with the people to whom they came to serve in Jesus’s name.”

As the 25th anniversary approached, Father Michael Linden, SJ, remembered his friend, Father Ignacio Martín-Baró.  The two lived together as students in the late 1970s in Chicago, and Fr. Linden recalls learning about the massacre while watching the news and seeing “a grainy black and white image of the dead on the screen” and then recognizing his friend. 

Fr. Linden says, “Our humanity remains compromised by hatred, capricious use of power, violence, greed, and neglect. … An anniversary such as this might help a little, if only to be less romantic about ourselves and our ‘commitments,’ to shun the ascribed heroism of our actions for justice, and to seek deeper intimacy with the wounded not for their sake, but for ours.”

Father Scott Santarosa, SJ, provincial of the Oregon Province Jesuits, spent last weekend in El Salvador commemorating the anniversary.  At the time of the murders, he was on a month-long silent retreat when he saw the headline in the Los Angeles Times.  He remembers his novice director saying, “I know what you’re thinking:  I wish it were me. I wish I were there.  But what I say to you is that it is you.  You are doing what the martyrs did by being here, where you are supposed to be.”  Fr. Santarosa reflects, “That is the wisdom I take from that day – that each of us is called to be where we are. ... We Jesuits today do not need to wish we lived in a heroic era.  We need to be where we are:  fully invested in the places and with the people to whom God calls us.”

Fr. Santarosa (third from right) visited Archbishop Romero's crypt in El Salvador as part of the U.S. Jesuits' delegation that traveled to the country last weekend. Photo by Jennifer Smith-Mayo.

Father Eddie Siebert, SJ, president of Loyola Productions, a Los Angeles-based film production house, was also part of the Jesuit delegation to El Salvador. His work on a recent documentary about the martyrs, "Blood in the Backyard," gave him the opportunity to listen to Salvadorans "vulnerably speak their truths, sometimes with raw pain, and sometimes with inexplicable joy." 

Fr. Siebert believes these stories are important not simply to keep the legacy of the martyrs alive, "but to witness examples of sacrifice, resilience and the real dangers that accompany living out the Gospel."

Father Drew Kirschman, SJ, the vocation promoter for the USA Central and Southern Province Jesuits, was a sophomore in high school when he heard the news of the massacre.  During his formation as a Jesuit, he spent three years in El Salvador and writes that the martyrs “continue to compel me. … There is something mysterious about their lives, the way they lived and united their lives to the plight of the Salvadoran community. … Twenty-five years later, we continue to find encouragement, challenge, hope and life in them.”

While the murders in El Salvador had a profound impact on the Society of Jesus, the tragedy’s influence was felt far beyond Jesuit communities.  Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, writes, “I still grieve the loss of their voices. I grieve for the women killed with them. … 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?”

Maura Toomb, who works in campus ministry at Saint Peter's Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey, writes, “The Jesuits, Elba, and Celina were martyrs because of the way they lived, the ways they dedicated their lives and careers to the poor, the ‘crucified people’ of El Salvador, as Fr. Ellacuría would call them. If we remember the way that they lived, rather than how they died, it will become easier for us to live as they live and to give our lives to the crucified people in our own midst.”

Kaitlin Campbell, Commonweal magazine’s marketing coordinator, spent a semester studying in El Salvador.  She writes, “It is important to me to commemorate them. Their witness challenges me to look at God’s purpose for me in the world and ask ‘to whom do I belong?’ We can’t kid ourselves and think our baptismal promises don’t need renewal.”

Francisco Mena Ugarte is the executive director of Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ) and the son of a Salvadoran army captain who defected to the guerillas during the war.  The Jesuits at the UCA were close friends of the Ugarte family.  He writes, “I will forever carry them in my heart for as long as I live.  They were a tremendous sign of hope in very dark times … the day the Jesuits, Celina and  Elba were assassinated is a day I will always remember, but more importantly … the way they lived is something I will never forget.”

The martyrs touched the lives of many people; read all 38 reflections from Jesuits and their collaborators in the right column.

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