20th Anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs in El Salvador

Salvador song

Group of campesinos from Jayaque, El Salvador sing a Salvadoran version of We shall overcome. Photo courtesy of T. Michael McNulty, SJ

The morning of Nov. 16, 2009, an event took place in the Salon de Héroes of the Presidential House in San Salvador that I would have thought unimaginable even just a year ago. The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, in what one commentator described as an “act of reparation (desagravio)” conferred El Salvador’s highest honor, the Order of José Matías Delgado, on six Jesuits murdered on that date 20 years previously by the Salvadoran military. Victims of the same crime were their housekeeper, Julia Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celina, age 15.

The six Jesuits, Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baro, Segundo Montes, Juan Moreno, Amando Lopez and Joaquín Lopez y Lopez, were dragged from their beds and executed by a special platoon of the Salvadoran Army. Ellacuría, rector of the UCA, was likely the main target, but the soldiers had orders to “leave no witnesses.”

Sand painting

Alfombras (street paintings of colored salt and sawdust) decorate the streets of the University of Central America José Simeón Cañas campus. Photo courtesy of T. Michael McNulty, SJ

The reason for the award was the Jesuits’ extraordinary service to the nation in education, human rights, the battle against poverty, social exclusion and inequality, and their support of peace and democracy in El Salvador. The occasion was made especially poignant by the presence of a group of campesinos from Jayaque (a small municipality to the West of the Capital), who sang during the ceremony a Salvadoran version of We shall overcome. One of the campesinos was heard to remark later that she had never in her wildest dreams thought she would be in the Presidential House, much less sing there. The song they sang might well have gotten them killed during the Civil War (1980-92).

This extraordinary weekend began Friday night, Nov. 13, with the conferring of an honorary degree in human rights on Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA). McGovern had been chief of staff in 1989 to Congressman Joe Moakley, who headed the select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that investigated the murders. In what many say was a direct result of the massacre and its aftermath, the opposing sides in the Salvadoran civil war signed a peace agreement in January of 1992.

In his remarks accepting the degree, McGovern said:

The people on this university campus and throughout this country have greatly influenced me. The Jesuits here at the UCA and the Jesuit community have taught me that religion and faith are much more than going to church, or rituals or even prayer. Religion and faith are about action—and that’s why the Jesuit martyrs lost their lives: They acted on their faith and religion. They stood with the poor, the hungry and the oppressed. They made it clear that every single human being on this planet is important.

He called on the United States to be a “true partner” with El Salvador going into the future.

As has become the custom, Saturday was a day for creating “alfombras” (street paintings of of colored salt and sawdust) on the streets of the UCA campus. In the evening there was a candlelight procession around the campus, followed by a mass attended by thousands, including Jesuits from around the world and the Cardinal Archbishop of Edinburgh, Keith O’Brien. Also present were relatives of many of the slain Jesuits, including the brother of Ignacio Ellacuría and the sister of Segundo Montes. After mass there began an all-night celebration with music, dancing and a lot of food. For many years ownership of this celebration has been taken by the people from the countryside.

On Sunday a mass was celebrated in the Romero Crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral, during which the relatives were given particular recognition. The events ended with a mass on Monday evening, celebrated by Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary of San Salvador.

For me this was an extraordinary experience. I first went to El Salvador in 1990 for the first anniversary of the murders. The war was still going on, and the country was very tense. I had preached at the memorial mass celebrated at Marquette University when news of the massacre first reached us, and I felt a particular connection to El Salvador, a connection that deepened as I returned many times in subsequent years, often as a visiting professor in the philosophy department of the UCA. This visit was for me immensely joyful, and it filled me with hope for the future.

El Salvador recently suffered from the depredations of Hurricane Ida, which left almost 200 dead and thousands homeless, particularly in the area around San Vicente, to the East of the Capital, which also suffered greatly in the 2001 earthquake. May God bring solace to the suffering and touch the hearts of the world so that places like El Salvador will never be forgotten. We all need reminders not to let ourselves be seduced by our comfort and ease into believing that the rest of the world doesn’t matter. God’s preferential option for people struggling with poverty must move us to action on their behalf.

– by T. Michael McNulty, SJ

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