This month, the people of El Salvador will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter. The Jesuit martyrs together with St. Oscar Romero, the four U.S. church women, and thousands of lay Salvadorans gave their lives to work for the kingdom of God and denounce the reality of oppression and injustice for the poor and marginalized.
This was the harsh reality of El Salvador during their brutal civil war in the 1980s. More than 70,000 people lost their lives and many members of the church were persecuted for following Jesus and proclaiming the good news to the poor.
The Jesuits lived at the University of Central America (UCA) and were involved in the mission of the university to work toward transforming society through education. Their ministries included formation, human rights, working in marginalized communities, and denouncing the oppression and violence of military.
Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuria, one of the six Jesuits, used his position as president of the UCA to provide a prophetic voice for the poor and marginalized and to work against the injustice and violence that plagued the country. He made sure that the UCA was on the side of the victims who were being crucified by injustice and violence. The Jesuits had an influential role in calling out those in power and presenting the reality of the poor, marginalized and suffering people of El Salvador to the world.
In the middle of the night on Nov. 16, 1989, soldiers entered the Jesuit university. They proceeded to the Jesuit residence and executed the six Jesuits. They were ordered to not leave any witnesses, so they also slaughtered the housekeeper and her daughter, Elba and Celina Ramos.
Some of the Jesuits were shot directly in the head, as if the military was sending a message to not use your brains to analyze reality and work for justice and peace. The military had killed the Jesuits because of their belief in Jesus and their preaching of the kingdom against all injustice and violence. However, the mission and legacy of the Jesuits continues to live on in the Salvadoran people in their struggle for justice and peace.
As a Maryknoll lay missioner working and living with the people in El Salvador, I have been able to see firsthand that the mission of the martyrs has continued to inspire the young people to transform society. I have spent the last 12 years working with youth in a small town, Las Delicias, outside of San Salvador.
Today the young people here do not face the civil war of the 80s, but they still face a lack of opportunities and are caught in the middle of a war between the gangs and the military. Young Salvadorans see violence daily and some feel that there is little hope for the future. Others, however, continue the legacy of the Jesuits and work toward creating a more just and compassionate world.
I see the mission of the Jesuits in our young men who spend their weekends teaching values and peace by being soccer coaches and mentors to kids in need. I also see the Jesuits in our high school and college scholarship students who volunteer in community projects such as planning trees in the community.
Many of the high school students from the community go to the same public high school that the housekeeper’s daughter, Celina Ramos, went to at the time of her murder. I can see her innocence and hope for a better future in our kids that suffer so much, but still never give up. These amazing young people continue to work for the kingdom by spreading their love in the midst of such a violent reality. They live out the message of the martyrs by loving their neighbors.
I also have had the privilege to work directly with the UCA on different educational projects. Our Father Dean Brackley SJ Tutoring Program sends high school students from Las Delicias and Jayaque, the community where Jesuit martyr Ignacio Martin Baró worked, to the UCA to receive tutoring to help them reach their potential and prepare them academically to compete for scholarships to attend the university. These students range from seventh grade to the last year of high school and receive formation on the lives of the martyrs.
The tutors are all UCA college students who give their time to help tutor kids from marginalized communities. There is also the Martyrs’ Scholarship Program, administered through the Romero Center at the UCA, that provides full scholarships to the university to students from poor communities. These programs continue the same work of the martyrs to help educate a new generation of young Salvadorans that will transform their reality of violence into a world of equality, unity, justice and peace.
All of the young people in these programs are the legacy of the martyrs and are studying so hard to be able to create a better life for their families and communities. I truly see the spirit of the Salvadoran martyrs in the youth and it has been such an honor to accompany them on their journeys.
On Saturday, Nov. 16, hundreds of young people from all over the country will come to the UCA to celebrate the lives and work of the martyrs. There will be opportunities to make carpets with images of the martyrs out of colored salt, participate in an annual soccer tournament—our youth from Las Delicias are the defending champions—remember the Jesuits in a silent precision, and have a midnight vigil with music and dancing.
These activities help keep the memory of the martyrs alive in the next generation and allow their legacy to continue to inspire us to work for the kingdom of God and create a more just and compassionate world.
Photos by Meinrad Scherer-Emunds