A painting at the Museum of the Central American University in San Salvador, El Salvador, commemorates the six Jesuit priests who were killed during El Salvador’s 1980-92 civil war. CNS photo/Luis Galdamez, Reuters

Murders of six Jesuits continue to inspire mission of defending the poor

By  Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service
  • November 17, 2019

WASHINGTON -- No one can deny that the act was horrific. Six priests found face down on a lawn with bullet holes through various parts of their bodies. One was in his bathrobe.

“Before the end of darkness on the morning of Nov. 16, with unspeakable and barbaric cruelty, armed men burst into the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America in San Salvador and shot six Jesuit priests to death. At the same time, the community’s cook and her daughter were murdered in their bed. According to reliable reports, several of the priests, my brothers, had their brains torn from their heads,” wrote Georgetown University president Fr. Leo Donovan Nov. 19, 1989, three days after the killings, in The Washington Post.

He had known well one of the victims, perhaps the most notable, Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, who along with Fathers Ignacio Martin Baro, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramon Moreno, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez and Amando Lopez were beaten, then dragged to their deaths in a garden. 

The bodies of their Salvadoran housekeeper Elba Ramos and her teenage daughter Celina Ramos were nearby.

But 30 years after their murders, and well before then, what they left behind in their heroic deeds, their writings and speeches has inspired others to continue the slain Jesuits’ work on behalf of the poor.  

“When I’ve been at the commemorations, it always strikes me that the celebration is filled with joy, with a sense of resurrection, and with the sense that these men and these two women continue to be alive, that they are present and they are present in a way to remind us that in every Christian life, we are supposed to try and make a difference in the world,” said Mercy Sr. Ana Maria Pineda, a theologian born in El Salvador who teaches at California’s Santa Clara University.

The murders took place at Central American University in San Salvador, the capital, and the school — popularly known as the UCA (pronounced oo-kah) — becomes a place where people from all over world gather on the date of their martyrdom, said Pineda. They discuss the priests’ writings, their legacy and how they can carry out the mission of these Jesuits, of serving the poor and vulnerable, in their respective parts of the world.

The school holds a special place for Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, who, in the aftermath of the murders, assumed the director’s role of the school’s Human Rights Institute. The position had been held by one of the murdered priests, Montes. Every year, he sends a message to the school on the Nov. 16 anniversary of the deaths of his fellow Jesuits.

Though they are largely lauded for their academic work and for trying to broker peace through political circles, the murdered priests also were men of action and close to the people, recalled U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern, who came into contact with them in the 1980s as a staffer for then-Congressman Joe Moakley of Massachusetts.

“If somebody disappeared, they would show up at the security forces, then police headquarters, demanding to find out where they were. When there was a massacre, they were there. When people were hungry, they brought them food. They would (celebrate) Masses in some dangerous parts of the country,” he recalled during a Nov. 6 chat with students at Georgetown University.

“The fact that they were being threatened, persecuted, that was OK because so were the poor,” added McGovern.

Ellacuria had been the most vocal of the group and was likely the main target. He urged for years a peaceful end to a war that had dragged on for more than a decade thanks to U.S. aid that was only leading to more civilian deaths in El Salvador. They would total more than 70,000 in the end.

Ellacuria often took to the radio to urge negotiations, at great risk debated on television with Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, who commanded death squads in the country, and often met with U.S. delegations urging a stop to military aid. 

Though the Jesuits’ deaths helped put an end to U.S. aid, justice for their murders has been elusive through the decades, McGovern told CNS in an interview.

“The intellectual authors of the murders were members of the high command of the Salvadoran armed forces and nothing happened to them. They had a trial and a couple of them were to be convicted, but then there was an amnesty that followed. So, everybody essentially skipped justice,” he said.

However, that doesn’t mean Catholics and others haven’t found meaning in the priests’ deaths, added McGovern.

“So, 30 years have gone by. What is gratifying to me is that every time I go to the commemorations in El Salvador, the crowds of people get bigger and bigger and bigger, from all over the world,” he said. 

“People want to be inspired and live their lives in a way that honours the Jesuits.”

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