I’ll never forget standing in the rose garden at the UCA—the Jesuit university of El Salvador—and being hit with the costliness of Jesuit education. On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper Elba, and her teenage daughter Celina, were dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, taken into the courtyard of the Jesuit residence, and murdered. This barbaric event followed fifteen years of death threats issued against the Jesuit community plus countless letters, phone calls, and radio announcements calling for the expulsion or murder of the Jesuits. Bombs had been placed around the UCA campus more than a dozen times in the preceding fifteen years—in the library, printing press, and computer center—to discourage and destabilize the Jesuits’ approach to education. The Jesuits’ call to end the civil war through dialogue and a commitment to peace was perceived as a betrayal and a threat to those in power. The Jesuits refused to be silenced. They paid the price with their lives. And this week, we remember them.
I return to El Salvador this week to commemorate the life and death of Joaquin Lòpez y Lòpez (age 70), Ignacio Ellacuría (age 59), Segundo Montes (age 56), Juan Ramón Moreno (age 56), Amando Lòpez (age 53), Ignacio Martín-Baró (age 47), Elba (age 42) and Celina (age 15) Ramos (the women stayed the night in the Jesuit residence because they thought it was safer than venturing home and they were killed following a military directive to “leave no witnesses”). This week delegates from several AJCU institutions will learn what these eight people lived and died for. We will reflect and pray with photographs of their bloodied bodies, wincing at the brain matter strewn over the grass, an intentional act to warn against the “danger” of being “subversive” like these scholars, teachers, and pastors. We will gather in silence in the rose garden, where bushes covered in blooms signal new life and hope: resurrection triumphs over violence and death. I am in awe of what the Jesuits sacrificed in love for the people they taught and served.
The Jesuits died in solidarity with 75,000 Salvadorans who were threatened, tortured, and killed during the civil war lasting from 1979 to 1992. This war was propped up by $4.5 billion in aid from the United States, with many soldiers trained at Ft. Benning in Georgia. Some analysts suggest the Jesuits’ death helped spur the end of the civil war, since it garnered international attention and a Congressional investigation led by Rep. Jim McGovern. The Stations of the Cross in the UCA chapel depict the crucified people of El Salvador enduring a brutality that Jesus unmasked and intended to end by his own suffering and death. In reflecting on the death of his Jesuit brothers, Jon Sobrino explains that the Jesuits were killed because they challenged the idols of wealth and power, interfering “with the idols by telling the truth about the situation [of the ordinary Salvadorans, the poor and oppressed], analyzing its causes, and proposing better solutions.” Sobrino adds, “This is essential work for a university and central to our faith. If I have learned anything during these years in El Salvador, it is that the world in which we live is simultaneously a world of death and a world of lies.…These Jesuits wanted to free the truth from the slavery imposed on it by oppressors, cast light on lies, bring justice in the midst of oppression, hope in the midst of discouragement, love in the midst of indifference, repression, and hatred. That is why they were killed.”
As a professor at a Jesuit university, I wonder how well we honor the legacy of the UCA martyrs. What are the idols in our cultural context that we need to unmask and destroy? What lies keep people from embracing their inherent dignity and freedom? What are the chief obstacles to hope, love, and justice? Are we living up to the “higher standards” for Jesuit higher education, as articulated by Dean Brackley, a Jesuit who volunteered to serve in El Salvador as a successor to the Jesuits who were killed? Do our Jesuit schools and universities put prestige above solidarity? Are our college budgets driven more by basketball operations or a robust bottom line than by making our institutions accessible to all, especially those who may not be able to afford tuition? Are we more focused on national rankings and reputations than social analysis and social (and ecological) responsibility? Do our goals and strategies focus more on currying favor among parents and alumni (to secure donations) than the unending conversion to ever more transformational love? Yes, Jesuit education should aim for excellence (academic excellence is needed to solve complex social problems, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach would remind us), but Jesuit education is about much more than ensuring rigor or assessing outcomes; it is about humanization, reconciliation, and liberation. The Jesuit value of magis is not about doing or having more, but creating a world that more closely reflects God’s hope for the fullness of life for all, aspiring toward a truly global common good. As Dean Brackley proposed, the measure of our success lies in who our students become, evidenced by their “downward mobility” in showing up to the marginalized and excluded, taking responsibility for healing a broken and sinful world.
In his 1982 commencement address at Santa Clara University, Ignacio Ellacuría, the president of the UCA and primary target in the November 1989 attack, proclaimed:
We as an intellectual community must analyze causes; use imagination and creativity together to discover the remedies to our problems; communicate to our constituencies a consciousness that inspires the freedom of self-determination; educate professionals with a conscience, who will be the immediate instruments of such a transformation; and constantly hone an educational institution that is both academically excellent and ethically oriented … A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor … the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.
This vision of Jesuit education is what the world needs today. Too many people think that college is a commodity, reducing it to preparation for a profession, a hoop to jump through to land a job. Some people are more interested in “return on investment” than the process of education that sparks and shapes personal development, critical and creative thinking, and social transformation. In a time of rising social fragility and fragmentation, we need people living as witnesses to Jesuit values like cura personalis, “women and men for and with others,” and serving a “faith that does justice.” We need people who do more than look for faith, hope, and love; we need people who become sources of faith, hope, and love in their everyday lives.
This is why it is so important to remember the UCA martyrs, who were not simply fated to suffer a cruel death. They were people like you and me who put love in action. Sobrino describes his Jesuit brothers as men of spirit, men of service, and men of courage. The Jesuits worked tirelessly to meet the needs of the Salvadorans because they genuinely loved the Salvadoran people. He reflects, “they believed in a God of life, who favored the poor.” True to the Jesuit charism of “seeking God in all things,” they found God everywhere, and especially “hidden in the suffering face of the poor…in the crucified people.” He adds, “They also found God in those acts of resurrection, great and small, by the poor. And in this God of the lowly—God ever littler—they found the God who is ever greater, the true inexhaustible mystery, which impelled them along untrodden ways and to ask what had to be done.” Sobrino recounts, “They saw the poor from God’s point of view and walked with them toward God.” For this reason, they were not only “contemplatives in action” in the typical sense, but “contemplatives in action for justice” so that those deprived dignity, rights, and the fullness of life would not continue to be ignored, silenced, and trampled. The Jesuits were killed “because they had become the critical conscience in a society of sin.” They could not be intimidated or threatened into conformity, silence, or inaction.
Thirty years later, we remember the legacy of the Jesuits’ fidelity, love, and commitment to peace. But it is not enough to remember how they lived or died; we should emulate their spirit, service, and courage. We should join their fight for truth, justice, and freedom. We should share in their willingness to endure persecution. We should be partners in mission as agents of humanization, reconciliation, and liberation. We should settle for nothing less than personal and social transformation. This is what it means to embrace the costliness of love.
* Quoted material is from: Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Orbis, 2003), 58-97.