Michael Czerny S.J. was director of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto when, 25 years ago, the eight men and women at the Central American University (UCA) were assassinated. The then Provincial Bill Addley S.J. accompanied Michael to the funeral and, shortly thereafter, missioned him to El Salvador to help re-build the UCA. This is Michael’s prayerful reminiscence:
During the 1970s in El Salvador, farm-worker movements, trade-unions and other grass-roots organizations were seeking economic, political and social change. In the 1980s this agitation became civil war, as several guerrilla organizations united in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front to fight the military-dominated government which, in the logic of the Cold War, enjoyed the unconditional support of the United States. The war came to a military climax in 1989 when the FMLN attacked and took control of half the capital city. At that point of maximum tension, the outcome which the armed forces most feared was that Fr Ignacio Ellacuría might be appointed mediator, forcing them to recognize – and make concessions to – the FMLN.
On Monday 13 November, Ellacuría returned from Spain and came home to the UCA of which he was rector. The Jesuit residence used to be located in the nearby neighbourhood, but for reasons of security, a new one had just been built on campus. That same evening, the house was raided by commandos of a U.S.-trained counter-insurgency battalion, allegedly in search of weapons.
On Wednesday evening 15 November, at the principal military base about a kilometre from the Jesuit campus, the High Command met. Assessing the risk of an Ellacuría mediation, the order came down: “Kill Ellacuría and leave no witnesses.”
Soon after midnight 16 November, members of the same battalion invaded the campus and forced their way into the Jesuit residence. Five of the priests were taken out, forced face down on the lawn, and shot in the head. The oldest was killed inside, along with two women who had taken refuge in a near-by room.
To make the operation look like a rebel attack, the soldiers committed the murders with a Soviet AK-47 assault rifle. They damaged the façade of the residence with machine-gun, rockets and grenades, and scribbled on a cardboard: “FMLN executed those who informed on it! Victory or death, FMLN!” No one ever believed anything like it.
Who are the eight martyrs of the UCA?
Let me begin with the two women. Frightened by the fighting near their gatehouse cottage, they had sought safety at the Jesuit residence. The husband and father, Obdulio, hidden in his post at the gate, survived … only to discover the 8 murdered victims when dawn came …
Julia Elba Ramos was a very simple woman, semi-literate, faithful and cheerful. She worked in the Jesuit seminary or theologate (where I lived for 2 years). While doing the cooking and cleaning, Julia Elba served as a “formator” of the young Jesuit students. Intuitive and discrete, she knew how to read the highs and lows in the young theologians’ faces and offered wise counsel to the discouraged. She taught them to remain near the Salvadoran majority poor rather than drift upwards … She was 42 years old.
Julia Elba died embracing her daughter Celina, 15, as if to shield her from the bullets. A first-year college student, Celina wanted to be a nurse and didn’t get around to telling her parents that she and her boyfriend were planning to marry soon. Her younger brother, staying elsewhere with relatives, survived; he was 12.
Julia Elba and Celina represent the people of God, for whom the UCA martyrs did their work and offered up their lives. In the garden where the bodies lay, the widower Obdulio planted roses and cared for them until he died, broken-hearted…
Let me continue with two of the Jesuits whom I had only briefly met:
Juan Ramón Moreno, well-prepared in philosophy and theology, used to be Master of Novices in the Central American Province and then the Provincial’s secretary. He was a pastoral Jesuit of great solidarity, gentle and soft-spoken, close to the poor. 56 years of age.
Joaquin López y López, from one of the richest families in El Salvador, was a Jesuit who embraced simplicity and humility. He exemplified that downward mobility which contrasts with the more usual “upward”. He founded Fe y Alegría, a Jesuit-founded programme of basic education for the poorest populations. Lolo died at the age of 71.
Let me continue with the two Jesuits whom I succeeded:
For over ten years, Ignacio Ellacuría was Rector of the UCA. An acute thinker, philosopher and theologian, he was most gifted in his political intuitions and as a mediator. The long-suffering poor motivated his zeal to promote a negotiated settlement to the war. His signature philosophy course was called “Producción latinoamericana” which meant that, rather than imitating European philosophy, Latin Americans needed to produce their own thinking, relevant to their continent’s reality. Besides teaching that course, I also took over his responsibility for the social outreach of the University and, as such, founded the radio station YSUCA which he wanted and of which I am still very proud. Ellacu died at 59.
Segundo Montes was so tall, red-headed and bearded, they called him “Zeus”. He was first among the Jesuits to show concern for the refugees displaced by the war and to research their situation. As a sociologist, he produced fine studies of Salvadoran agriculture as well indigenous culture and religious beliefs. Segundo founded the Human Rights Institute of the UCA (IDHUCA), where I succeeded him as director. I inherited his staff, his jeep, his office, his desk. On my first day, I pulled open the desk drawer and found everything just as he, on 15 November, had left it. He was 56, I succeeded him at 43.
Let me conclude with the two Jesuits whom I knew best:
It was in 1978 that I first met Amando López in Managua where he was rector of the Central America Highschool. A man of great heart, as his beautiful name “amando” conveys: kind, warm, approachable, easy-going. With a wry sense of humour, he showed care for souls, care for his fellow-Jesuits, solidarity with whoever in need. Amando was 53.
Around the same time in 1978, Ignacio Martín-Baró and I were both graduate students at the University of Chicago. With great intellectual capacity, Nacho put social psychology at the service of the “voiceless” people, founding the Public Opinion Institute at the UCA (IUDOP) in order to ascertain their concerns, feelings, preferences. He studied the social, psychological and spiritual costs of the war borne by ordinary people. In the rural parish of Jayaque, the illiterate farmworkers appreciated his sermons, and the children loved him greatly. He played games with them, handed out candies and led popular and pious songs with his guitar. Though unable to sing myself, I nevertheless followed Nacho as pastor there. He was 47.
All this happened in November 1989 just as the Berlin Wall was coming down, and so the massacre at the UCA may be one of the last atrocities of the Cold War. Little more than 2 years later, on New Year’s Eve 1991, the UN-brokered negotiations, which I followed as a kind of chaplain (a pledge of good faith all around?), brought the civil war to its formal end. The negotiated settlement, which Ellacuria and the UCA Jesuits had tirelessly worked for, was finally achieved thanks also to their sacrifice.
Ending an armed conflict, however, does not necessarily achieve justice and peace. The civil war which raged for a dozen years took about 75,000 victims. Since then, as of 2013, another 73,000 Salvadorans have been murdered. Yes: 12 years of war, 75,000 victims; about 20 years of ‘peace’, 73,000 victims.
According to the World Health Organization, anything above 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants counts as an epidemic of violence. The most recent report, 2013, shows El Salvador with a rate of 69.2 per 100,000, second only to Honduras as the most violent country in the world.
In El Salvador, the traditional oligarchy and the new economic elites (made up of ex-guerrilla politicians) solve their problems of insecurity by bullet-proofing their cars, throwing up walls around their houses as if they were medieval castles, hiring private security and installing sophisticated electronic alarm systems – the poor, by total contrast, remain utterly vulnerable to violence. Broken and dysfunctional families proliferate; there’s less and less respect for life; every basic norm of social, family and communal coexistence is flaunted. This would seem to suggest that family, school and church are all failing to form moral conscience.
As the current Rector of the UCA, Fr. Andreu Oliva S.J., accurately observes, the poor continue to be the main victims:
“It would seem that ordinary people are condemned to live in poverty and violence. This is the hard lot that far too many Salvadorans have gotten used to picking day by day. This generates a pervading weariness, a loss of social sense, the sense of life itself. It also explains the dehumanization of a society that the world used to admire for its commitment, generosity and solidarity. Some of the most authentically human and ethical values already seem lost. Unless violence comes under control and declines significantly in the medium run, the future of El Salvador is compromised.”
The legacy our companions have left us is their witness of faith and deep love for the poor and vulnerable. This is their great strength: as disciples of Jesus, they stood faithful to his Word to the point of offering their lives. So they are a sign, in the midst of growing misery and despite globalized indifference, mediocrity and selfishness, of the radical love of God.
Per fidem martyrum pro veritate morientium cum veritate viventium. Saint Augustine sums up the mystery: By the faith of the martyrs dying for the truth and living with the truth (City of God, IV, 30). Such truth is not true if it does not include Christ, justice and peace. For this fullness of truth, they gave their lives.