By William Bole
The second in a two-part series marking the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit murders in El Salvador. Read part one here. Additionally, click here to read reflections on the significance of the deaths of the martyrs from Jesuits and their lay people working in the United States.
There’s a story told by some high-level Jesuits about a revealing moment 25 years ago, involving the worldwide leader of the Society of Jesus and El Salvador’s president. This was in the wake of the shocking murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter, at a Jesuit university in San Salvador. At the time, President Alfredo Cristiani is said to have told Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, “Father, I hope that this sorry situation won’t lead you to withdraw the Jesuits from El Salvador.”
Those words came from a man who, by all authoritative accounts, was involved at least in the cover-up of the assassinations, which took place during the predawn hours of November 16, 1989. That morning, Cristiani went on national radio to proclaim that left-wing rebels had committed the atrocities. He knew then that his own military command, in fact, had issued the orders to kill, according to a 1993 report by a United Nations-sponsored truth commission. The report also found that the president was with the high command during the hours leading up to the raid.
The irony of a Salvadoran leader lamenting the possible departure of Jesuits was apparently not too much for Fr. Kolvenbach to handle. As the story goes, the Jesuit Superior General laughed and replied, “Mr. President, you don’t understand. We asked for six volunteers to take the places” of those priests murdered at the University of Central America, “and more than 100 Jesuits asked to be sent.”
Some of the aftereffects are well-enough known. The Salvadoran armed forces had targeted the Jesuits, especially the university’s president, Father Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, because they spoke out for human rights and peace. And, the U.S. Congress responded to the crimes by dialing back its military aid to El Salvador. Without crucial support from Washington, Cristiani’s government had little choice but to seek a negotiated settlement with the rebels. The 12-year civil war ended in 1992.
Far less known is the lasting impact of the carnage on Roman Catholicism’s largest religious order, and on many lay people whose lives intersect with this order, the Society of Jesus.
Scores of Jesuits did indeed volunteer to take the places of their fallen brothers at the University of Central America, the UCA. The bullets in El Salvador were still flying in the summer of 1990 when Father Dean Brackley, SJ, a theology professor at Fordham University in New York, stepped forward. “I need to be close to the struggle for life and death, and it just isn’t happening here,” he told an Associated Press reporter at the time, gesturing out to the tranquil campus. Fr. Brackley left that sheltered milieu to teach at the UCA and oversee a poor parish near San Salvador.
Another American, Father Charles Beirne, SJ, at the time an administrator at Santa Clara University, went there as well to become the UCA’s academic vice president. Both Jesuits died of natural causes: Fr. Beirne, in 2010; Fr. Brackley, a year later.
Paying the Price
More generally, the Jesuit massacre led the Society of Jesus to rededicate itself to a mission declared at its 32nd General Congregation in 1975. That is, “the service of faith” through “the promotion of justice.”
Around the time of that assembly in Rome, Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ, then Superior General of the order, said prophetically, “If we work for justice, we will end up paying a price.” Since then, more than 45 Jesuits have been killed for their work on behalf of the poor and marginalized around the world.
The slayings in El Salvador “symbolized this commitment in a very concrete and vivid way,” explained Father Douglas Marcouiller, SJ, who knew the six Jesuits and two women as a young priest studying theology at the UCA during the mid-1980s. He served for five years until this past summer as provincial of the Missouri Province of Jesuits.
The attack on the UCA’s Jesuit community was such a considerable moment for the Society of Jesus that members of the order often speak of where they were when it happened, in the way others might recall 9/11 or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Father Thomas H. Smolich, SJ, incoming international director of Jesuit Refugee Service, was serving at Dolores Mission Church, a Jesuit parish in East Los Angeles, when a fellow member of the Jesuit community there knocked on his door to tell him “they’ve killed the Jesuits in El Salvador.” Fr. Smolich said, “I remember it like it was yesterday.” He had been a priest for three years by that point and had visited El Salvador a couple of years earlier, which led him to react to the killings “a bit more viscerally” than he might have otherwise, the Jesuit recalled. Soon after, he found himself engaging in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience at the federal building in downtown Los Angeles, protesting U.S. support for the regime in El Salvador.
Others would find it hard to serve up a memory of that day in 1989. “I can’t tell you what I was doing when it happened. I was 11 years old,” said Christopher Kerr, a lay Catholic who works on justice issues. And yet, he added — “It’s been a defining event in my life.”
Kerr was a student at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, when he first heard about the shootings a few years after the fact. He recalls one of his Jesuit teachers telling the class, bracingly, “What if you showed up at school one day and found me dead on the lawn,” as most of the UCA Jesuits were found, face down on the grass in the courtyard of their residence. It was a ninth-grade class in the Hebrew Scriptures.
“Until then, I never really thought that my government could do anything wrong,” Kerr said, referring to the U.S. dollars that flowed to a military responsible (according to human-rights organizations) for killing more than 70,000 civilians during the Salvadoran civil war. “This gave me a more complex perspective on the world.”
Down to Georgia
As a sophomore at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio, Kerr took action in 1997. He joined many thousands of others in protests at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. Most members of the elite Salvadoran battalion that forced its way into the UCA Jesuit residence had received counter-insurgency training there. Kerr kept going back for annual demonstrations at the school.
In 2011, he became executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, a nationwide social-justice organization inspired by the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola. Founded a decade ago, the network grew out of the protests at Fort Benning and specifically the annual “Ignatian Family Teach-in for Justice” held in conjunction with the rallies, beginning in 1998. The teach-ins, offering workshops on issues such as human rights and spirituality, typically drew more than 2,000 people who packed tightly into a giant party tent. Many of them were students at Jesuit colleges and universities.
These days, the Cleveland-based Ignatian Solidarity Network holds the teach-in every year in Washington, D.C., on and around the anniversary of the Jesuit murders. It is billed as the largest annual Catholic social-justice assembly in the United States and includes a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill in support of action on issues such as the plight of unaccompanied minors fleeing from Central America to the United States. This year, nearly 1400 people signed up for the three-day gathering. Kerr is quick to note that three-quarters of the participants are high school or college students, and so “they weren’t alive in 1989.”
The Ignatian Solidarity Network is hardly the only organization or initiative that has arisen from the tragedy of “the Salvadoran martyrs,” as the victims are often called. There are, for example, immersion projects that bring American college students to El Salvador for a semester, a summer or during a break. The students are given an introduction to Salvadoran life and to living in a prayerful community much as Jesuits do.
One study-abroad program of this kind is Casa de la Solidaridad, sponsored by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and Santa Clara University together with the UCA. The stated mission is “the promotion of justice and solidarity through the creation of a meaningful academic experience where you can integrate rigorous academic study with direct immersion with the poor of El Salvador.” In addition to their academic studies, undergraduates work with local organizations on issues such as education, the environment, human rights and health care. They learn about the martyrs and live in a former religious residence, in walking distance of the university in San Salvador.
“In many ways, the martyrs continue to live — in the people who connect with them” and with the Jesuit mission of justice, said Kerr, who lives in Ohio with his wife and three sons. “It’s a very active way of living out your faith.”
The martyrs touched the lives of many people; read reflections from Jesuits and their collaborators in the right column.
William Bole is a contributing writer whose work has appeared in publications ranging from the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times to Commonweal and America, among others. Much of his writing explores religion, ethics, politics and intellectual life.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.