In solidarity with the slain Jesuits of El Salvador

Joseph A. O'Hare, S.J., former editor in chief of America, gave this homily at a memorial Mass for the slain Jesuits and their companions at St. Ignatius Church in New York on Nov. 22, 1989, less than a week after the killings.

The occasion for our liturgy is the tragedy of last Thursday, Nov. 16, when six Jesuits and two of their household family at the Central American University in San Salvador were brutally murdered and mutilated in the early morning hours. We mourn not only for them, but for all the victims of this wasteful war that for more than 10 years has bled a tiny, tortured country. We mourn for the 70,000 people of El Salvador who have died in this war and the hundreds of thousands who have been displaced by the fighting. We remember the martyrs that preceded last Thursday’s victims, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit assassinated in 1977, the same year that a right-wing paramilitary group ordered all Jesuits to leave the country or face a sentence of death. We remember Archbishop Oscar Romero, struck down by an assassin’s bullet in 1980 while celebrating Mass. We remember also the four American women missionaries who were kidnapped, assaulted and murdered by military forces in December of 1980.

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"Our sorrow is based on a strong sense of solidarity with the people and the church of El Salvador."

Our celebration today, then, is marked by a deep sense of sorrow at the loss of human life and the cruelty of 10 years of fruitless fighting. But our sorrow is based on a strong sense of solidarity with the people and the church of El Salvador. It is a solidarity based on a common faith in a God of justice, on a common mission that all Jesuits share with the Jesuits of El Salvador and on the common identity that unites a Catholic university in El Salvador with all Catholic universities throughout the world. Our sense of solidarity, however, also arises from the more troubling fact that the national policies of our two countries have been, for good or ill, inextricably linked. And finally, our solidarity with the people of El Salvador is based on fundamental Christian hope, which declares that no matter how dark the signs of death, in the end the radiance of life will prove victorious.

We are one with the people of El Salvador in a shared faith that this world is in the end God’s world and He is the Lord of our history. For this reason, we are committed to the cause for which the martyrs of Nov.16 died: the dignity of the human and the kingdom of justice to which the Lord of history calls us.

This faith in the primacy of God’s justice stretches beyond the divisions of race and nations to unite all of us in a common human family. It echoes the early call of the prophet Isaiah that we heard in the first reading this morning: The Servant of the Lord “brings true justice; he will never waver, nor be crushed until true justice is established on earth. … I, Yahweh, have called you to serve the cause of right, I have taken you by the hand and formed you; I have appointed you as covenant of the people and light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon” (Is. 42:1-7).

"We are committed to the cause for which the martyrs of Nov.16 died: the dignity of the human and the kingdom of justice."

This morning we confirm our commitment to this cause for which the Jesuits of Central American University in El Salvador gave their lives. They were not men of violence; they were men of peace and reason. Yet they died violently. Like the Servant of Yahweh, they did not cry out of shout out aloud or break the crushed reed, but neither did they waver nor were they crushed. They did not leave the country in 1977, when right-wing death squads put them under a penalty of death. Nor did they leave earlier this month when Government- controlled radio stations broadcast warnings against their safety. Nor will they leave now, when the Attorney General of the Government blames the unrest in the country on church leaders. While these six Jesuits have been struck down, others will rise up to take their place. We pledge ourselves to the covenant with the people that cost them their lives. For us to forget them, or to decide that the costs of justice are too high for us to pay, would be to betray not only their memory but our faith that this is God’s world and that He is the Lord of justice.

For the Jesuits assembled here, our solidarity with last Thursday’s martyrs has a more personal foundation as well. Many of us knew some or all of them. Several of them have studied here in the United States. For my part, I remember listening to Ignacio Ellacuría, during the 33rd General Congregation of the Jesuits in Rome in the fall of 1983, when he spoke with passion of the agony of his people and of the need for a response to the institutionalized violence of massive poverty and repression that crushed the vast majority of the people of El Salvador.

“What is it to be a companion of Jesus today? It is to engage, under the standard of the cross, in the struggle for faith and justice."

Father Ellacuría’s words echoed the common commitment of Jesuits today to serve faith and promote justice and to see in this twofold mandate the grand intention that would inform all Jesuit works, no matter how varied. “What is it to be a companion of Jesus today? It is to engage, under the standard of the cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes. … Thus, the way to faith and the way to justice are inseparable ways. It is up this undivided road, this steep road, that the pilgrim church must travel and toil (“Jesuits Today,” Declaration on Jesuit Identity of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, 1975).

“Service of faith and promotion of justice” is a contemporary expression of our Jesuit mission. The reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning echoes an old statement of this mission that defined the “sum and scope” of the Jesuit Constitutions. From the very origins of the Society nearly 450 years ago, these Constitutions have declared that the character of our life (vitae nostrae ratio) is that Jesuits are to be men “crucified to the world and to whom the world is crucified” (Gal. 6:14).

How prophetic of the way these Jesuits of El Salvador lived and died are the words of St. Paul (2 Cor. 6:4-10) evoked in this statement of the “sum and scope” of Jesuit life: “We prove we are God’s servants … by the word of truth and by the power of God; by being armed with the weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left, prepared for honor or disgrace, for blame or praise; taken for impostors while we are genuine; obscure yet famous; said to be dying and here we are alive; rumored to be executed before we are sentenced; thought most miserable and yet we are always rejoicing; taken for paupers though we make others rich, for people having nothing though we have everything.”

"We can see that they were men who were crucified to the world and to whom the world was crucified, and who died promoting justice and serving faith."

This hymn of St. Paul to the paradoxes of the Gospel has from the origins of the Society of Jesus defined our aspirations. Certainly today as we think of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador we can see that they were men who lived the sum and scope of our Constitutions, crucified to the world and to whom the world was crucified, and who died promoting justice and serving faith.

For the Jesuits of the United States, most especially those working at the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in this country, there is an added sense of solidarity with the martyrs of last Thursday, based on the common identity of Catholic universities throughout the world. In eliminating the rector and vice-rector and some of the most influential members of the faculty of the University of Central America, the assassins cut out the heart of one of the most respected intellectual institutions in the country. As you know from newspaper accounts, these men were not merely murdered, but in a gesture of deliberate contempt, their brains were spilled out on the ground by their murderers. This chilling symbol was to demonstrate the power of bullets over brains. It represents the contempt of men of violence for the power of the truth.

There are those who have said, and who will say in the days and weeks ahead, that the Jesuits of El Salvador were not disinterested academics, that they had deliberately chosen to insert themselves into the political conflict of their nation. If they had remained within the insulated safety of the library or the classroom, their critics will charge, if they had not “meddled in politics,” their lives would not have been threatened.

But such criticism misunderstands the nature of any university, and most certainly the nature of a Catholic university. No university can be insulated from the agonies of the society in which it lives. No university that identifies itself as Catholic can be indifferent to the call of the church to promote the dignity of the human person.

"No university that identifies itself as Catholic can be indifferent to the call of the church to promote the dignity of the human person."

Pope John Paul II, himself a man from the university world, has often challenged Catholic universities to confront the crucial issues of peace and justice in our world today. On his last visit to this country in September 1987, the Pope called on Catholic universities to recognize the need for the reform of attitudes and unjust structures in society. He spoke of the whole dynamic of peace and justice in the world, as it affects East and West, North and South: “The parable of the rich man and the poor man is directed to the conscience of humanity, and today in particular, to the conscience of America. But conscience often passes through the halls of academe, through nights of study and hours of prayer.” Again last April in his address to the Third International Congress of Catholic Universities, Pope John Paul insisted that a Catholic university must measure all technological discovery and all social development in the light of the dignity of the human person.

It was this distinctive mission of a Catholic university that inspired the Jesuits of El Salvador to seek, not only through teaching and writing, but also through personal interventions, a resolution of the terrible conflict that has divided their land. Those of us who carry on this mission of faith and justice in the relatively comfortable circumstances of North America can only be humbled by the total commitment to the ministry of truth that stamped the lives of the Jesuit scholar teachers of El Salvador and in the end cost them their lives.

This liturgy is not the time for political analysis or political advocacy. At the same time, we would not be faithful to the truth of this moment if we did not recognize that another more troubling source of our solidarity with the people of El Salvador is the history of the last 10 years, in which the Government of the United States has worked closely with the Government of El Salvador. The policy of the United States toward El Salvador, in theory at least, has had respectable objectives: to control extremist forces on left and right, to encourage an environment in which the people of El Salvador can choose through democratic process the government they wish. But our Government has also insisted that massive military assistance to the Government of El Salvador is necessary to achieve these goals.

"Can we hand weapons to butchers and remain unstained by the blood of their innocent victims?"

Before his assassination in 1980, Archbishop Romero had written to President Jimmy Carter asking him to curtail American military aid to the Government because, in Archbishop Romero’s opinion, such aid only escalated the level of violence in that country and prevented the achievement of a negotiated political settlement. Now, nearly 10 years later, can anyone doubt the accuracy of Archbishops Romero’s warning? Does anyone believe that the national security of the United States can possibly be endangered by the results of the civil war now raging in El Salvador? At a time when our Government leaders and our corporate executives hasten to socialize with the leaders of the Communist giants elsewhere in the world, why must we assemble our military might to deal with revolutionary movements in tiny Central American nations? Are our national interests really at stake? Or are we obsessed with the myth of the national security state, a myth that is discredited each day by events elsewhere in the world? After 10 years of evasions and equivocations, a tissue of ambiguities, the assassinations of Nov. 16 pose, with brutal clarity, the question that continues to haunt the policy of the United States toward El Salvador: Can we hand weapons to butchers and remain unstained by the blood of their innocent victims?

The final word of this liturgy cannot be one of anger or denunciation. It must be one of hope. For this too, in the end, is the ground of our solidarity with the people of El Salvador. If Jesuits are men crucified to the world and to whom the world is crucified, it is only because we believe that out of the crucifixion of our Saviour, El Salvador, came life and comes life. With the people of El Salvador we believe in the words of Jesus cited in today’s Gospel: “Unless a wheat grains falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest: (Jn. 12:24).

When Christians celebrate the Eucharist, they take the bread, break it and remember Him who took His life, broke it and gave it that others might live. With deep hope in the Resurrection of the Lord, we pray that the final word in the drama of El Salvador be one of life and hope rather than death and despair. We pray that the irony of that tiny tortured country’s name, El Salvador, will be redeemed by the resurrection of its people.

America, December 16, 1989

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