A retreat talk delivered by a Jesuit one year before his martyrdom

Salvadorans gather at the candlelight service in San Salvador to commemorate the killing of six Jesuits during El Salvador's civil war. The priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, were killed at the Central American University on Nov. 16, 1989, by members of an army unit during a military offensive. (CNS photo/Luis Galdamez, Reuters)   

Father Juan Ramón Moreno was one of the six Jesuits assassinated in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989, at the Central American University, along with a housekeeper and her daughter. They were martyred by Salvadoran soldiers equipped and trained by the United States.

Father Moreno, born in Spain in 1933, entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1950. After his theology studies in the United States, he was ordained a priest in 1964 at St. Mary’s, Kansas. In the Central American Province of the Society of Jesus, he served as master of novices, retreat director, president of the Conferences of Religious of Panama and Nicaragua and professor of theology.

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He took part in a literacy crusade in Nicaragua in 1980 and helped in parishes in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The following is the abridged text of a retreat talk given by Father Moreno to members of the Christian Base Communities in Nicaragua in 1988, one year before his martyrdom.

The fundamental key to interpreting the whole life and work of Jesus is perhaps his relationship with God—a relationship of absolute trust, a relationship which can be summed up in that word with which Jesus spoke to God: Abba, Father. But Father in the sense of that immense tenderness and trust felt by the child whose whole experience of his father is positive. That has led the child to believe and trust in his father without any doubts. He believes in his father’s love.

That absolute trust in the Father, that certainty that the Father’s love for him would never fail, is what allows Jesus to hurl himself into the great adventure of living out his self-giving to the end, of overcoming all the trials, all the darkness, all the moments of crisis when God seems to be absent—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). But all this is not able to break that absolute trust which is shown by his self-offering: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

For us Christians, it is fundamental that we learn to view God in the way that Jesus did. As long as our way of relating to God, of viewing God, of dialoguing with God, of hoping in God, is not like that of Jesus, we will not be able to live our Christianity in all its maturity, depth and intensity.

So let us ask insistently for that grace which is fundamental, which is the origin and foundation of all Christian life and of every Christian response—to feel loved by God.

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 "Dios crucificado," a book by Jurgen Moltmann, stained with Juan Ramón Moreno's blood, is displayed in El Salvador.

In our experience we know that it is impossible for a person to reach human maturity without having passed through the experience of love—to feel loved and appreciated by someone. Psychiatric hospitals and prisons are full of people who never felt themselves seriously loved and appreciated by anyone. Rather, they have felt used, abused. They do not believe in love, therefore they are not able to do the works of love and are not able to become part of a community.

The same happens in Christian life. It is impossible to construct a mature Christian life capable of overcoming all the trials of life and capable of maintaining a firm commitment to follow Jesus if it is not built on the solid rock, the fundamental experience of feeling loved by God. To believe in this love, to experience the presence of this love in my life, in me, is a grace that we must pray for insistently: Lord, help me to feel the force of your love, to feel loved by you and to let myself be overcome by the force of that love.

This was something of the experience of the people of Israel—a people enslaved who, little by little, began to feel the closeness of a God who cared for them, who listened to their cry, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Gradually they became aware of being loved by God. This gave them a sense of dignity, security and worth so that they could take up their mission.

Like them we must learn to recognize the presence of the God of love in history, in the reality of our own life. The people of Israel always proclaimed the greatness of that love manifested in the historical events of their experience.

We must learn to recognize the presence of the God of love in history, in the reality of our own life.

Let yourself rest in and be embraced by the force of the Lord who wants to tell me today, once again and with renewed strength, how much he loves me, how important I am to him—and precisely because of that love he calls me. The origin of my vocation is his tremendous love for me.

And for what does he call me? For what do I exist? The response we find in the Scriptures is along these lines: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Also: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Love communicates life. It is not a feeling; love must be expressed more in deeds than in words—deeds which communicate life to others, helping that life to grow to its fullness. In this way, love gives happiness. Love asks us to wear out our own life in service of others. This is what the Lord calls us to.

I am the object of God’s love and at the same time subject of love for God and for God’s children, my brothers and sisters. We are made “in the image and likeness of God”—to be the image and likeness of God, who is love and life and whose only concern is that we have life and have it in abundance.

God is glorified when people have life and life in abundance, especially when those who are denied a life with dignity—the poor, the oppressed—in reality receive life, are liberated from their poverty by a love which commits itself to them in solidarity.

In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, starting with verse 35, we read:

 

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon (John 1:35-39).

John the Baptist knew that the role of the apostle is to prepare the encounter with the Lord—so that the disciples can see and hear for themselves what the Lord wants to tell them and so that they can let themselves be captivated by the Lord. The apostle does not keep people for himself but brings them to a personal experience of Christ.

Jesus took the initiative with John’s disciples, asking them, “What are you looking for?”—a question which appears to be very simple but which is a tremendously important question. Basically we all, even without knowing it, are searching for the infinite, for God—the only one who can fill and satisfy our longing for fullness.

But the question is: What goal do we set for ourselves in this search? What do we want to make of our life? What are we searching for—with all our worrying, suffering, struggles? What is the purpose we set for our existence?

“What are you searching for?” We should hold this question before us during this retreat and take this opportunity to go more deeply into it. In what way do we want to spend our lives? How do we want to give meaning to our lives? And what is it that will give meaning to our lives?

The disciples answered: “Where are you staying?” At first glance this response seems to fall short of the stature of the question. One might expect a short speech showing some reflection. Instead they respond with a question, but a question which really has a tremendous depth of theological and spiritual meaning: “Teacher, where are you staying?” Where can you be found?

This points to something very important. What counts in our life? What can fill us with meaning? What can point us toward a goal which is worth striving for is to know where the Lord is found. Where is Jesus? From where does he call us in the concrete historical realities we are living?

Jesus replied: “Come and see.”

He responds with an invitation to go where he is, to have an experience of him, to enter into his school—a school where the learning is not through long discourses but rather through being with Jesus, opening our eyes to see what he is doing and our ears to hear his words.

“Come and see.” Have your own experience. Be able to leave all you have, all you are so engrossed in, and just come with me and you will see. We find this invitation so often in the Gospels: “Follow me.” It takes us out of the habitual, the routine—leaving all to listen to him.

In this connection we find in Mark 3 an expression which is very significant and profound: He called the 12 “to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the Good News.” There is a first moment in the apostolic vocation which is “to be with him,” to stay with him, to experience being with Jesus and to let oneself be penetrated by his way of doing things, of living, loving, struggling for the cause of the others, giving his life—to let oneself be filled with Jesus.

Only afterward, in a second moment, are they able to be sent out by Jesus. Captivated by this Jesus, the point of reference of our whole mission and of all that we do will be that Jesus whom we have allowed to penetrate and conquer us. Nothing can take the place of that experience of “being with Jesus”—not intellectual studies, not great theologies. The apostolic vocation is above all a vocation to be witnesses to Jesus; but the only one who can give witness is one who has lived with Jesus and whom Jesus has allowed to know him in the experience of sharing life together. “Come and you will see.”

This word is being heard here among us. The Lord has brought you here. You may say that you are here because you chose to participate. True, but what was the origin of that desire to come here, that hunger to deepen your encounter with the Lord? It’s the grace of the Lord, who calls us in different ways. It’s the Lord who says, “Come and you will see.” Leave behind for some days your problems, but not because they are not important to you; we do not come here to free ourselves of the obligations and worries of each day.

No.

We come here to get new eyes through our experience of Jesus—a new vision which allows me to return to the depths of those worries and struggles, but now with eyes that allow me to see them in the way that Jesus does and to respond to them in Jesus’ way. Because I have learned to look at reality through the eyes of the Lord and to feel it as through the heart of Christ.

So tonight let us try to rekindle in ourselves the desire, during this retreat, to have the experience of personal encounter with the Lord. When we say “personal” we don’t mean “individualistic.” No encounter with the Lord can be individualistic; if it is, that means that it is a false encounter, a false spirituality. Why? Because the calls of the Lord are always calls to come together, to unite with others, to form community with others, to serve the world, to serve history, to give our lives for others.

But this call must be assimilated personally. No one can give a response for me. I give the response because the deepest recesses of my being have been conquered by Christ—not because of the influences of others, not because of any kind of superficial collective enthusiasm maintained on the basis of pressures and slogans.

The Gospel continues: “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.” This is the same verb that we have seen in their initial question: “Where are you staying?”

They remained with him, having a first experience of encounter with the Lord—an experience that is not going to end here but that will continue throughout this Gospel. Through what they “see and hear,” they will continue to be transformed and to deepen their encounter with Christ.

In Jesus’ sermon at the Last Supper, he speaks about “remaining,” but now it is not a question of remaining with him but rather of remaining in him. “Abide in me as I abide in you…. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (John 15:4-5).

With very simple words Jesus is pointing to a process of going deeper in the encounter with him. Now it is not merely a matter of remaining with him externally but of being identified with him. As a result of the long process of being with him, of seeing his actions and hearing his words, they were coming to know the inner being of Jesus, knowing him intimately and deeply. They have entered into a process of identification and compenetration with Jesus that cannot be described adequately as remaining with him but rather as remaining in him and he in us.

Let us be open to what Jesus says to each of us. His call is not the same for all; each one has his or her work and charism. So we need times of private prayer, of encounter with Jesus, to discern what he is saying to me, what he wants of me as a member of a community, and to let myself be moved by that word and to deepen my grasp of his message.

We should get into the rhythm of prayer in a restful, peaceful way, not in a tense or anxious way—putting ourselves in the hands of God who, when he wishes, will help me to hear his word if he finds me ready, prepared and attentive to grasp it. The word of God is always demanding and surprising; at times it knocks us off balance. Nevertheless, the person of faith is one who wants to become docile to the word of God.

What’s more, we can say that the future of history, the salvation of humanity, depends on whether the word of God is put into practice.

Let us pray: Help us, Lord, to know you more profoundly, more personally, so that that knowledge may transform us, captivating us and bringing us to a greater love and greater self-giving in following and serving you.

 
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