By Doris Yu
August 13, 2014 — In remembrance of the 1989 murders of six Jesuits and two lay women in El Salvador, 46 delegates from U.S. Jesuit institutions embarked on a pilgrimage to El Salvador from July 24 to Aug. 1.
In November 1989, at the height of the Salvadoran civil war, military forces were ordered to kill Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuría and leave no witnesses, punishment for Fr. Ellacuría’s advocacy for the poor. By the time the bloodshed had ended, Jesuit Fathers Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquín López y López and Amando López and housekeeper Elba Ramos and her young daughter Celina were all murdered.
The delegation visited sites important to the martyrs, including the places they lived, worked and were killed, and they also learned about the current realities of the country: the migration crisis, causes of its violence and high crime rate and efforts to overcome the terrible legacy of the civil war.
“The Catholic church, and the Jesuits in particular, have a long history of fighting for justice in El Salvador,” said Matt Cuff, policy associate at the U.S. Jesuit Conference and a member of the delegation. “We were able to learn firsthand about the Jesuit martyrs at the Central American University, who they were, what they stood for, and most importantly, who they cared about and ultimately died for: the people of El Salvador who continue to suffer extreme violence, poverty and exclusion from official decision-making in the country.”
Sponsored by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, the delegates included current students, staff, faculty and alumni of Jesuit schools; Jesuit parish members; Jesuit Luke Hansen, associate editor of America Magazine; Jesuit Father Bill Noe, of Sacred Heart Church in Richmond, Virginia; and Jesuit Father Tom Manahan, director of campus ministry at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee.
At the Central American University (UCA), delegates heard from Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, one of two surviving Jesuits from the UCA martyrs’ community. Fr. Sobrino told the U.S. delegation he recalls saying upon receiving news of the murders, “I have bad news for you. My entire community has just been killed. But I have good news too. I’ve lived with good men.”
The delegation’s trip also included a two-day homestay with various rural communities in El Salvador. Pilgrims split into small groups to travel to separate communities, share time with host families and meet with community councils to learn how the communities are addressing various issues.
After returning to the UCA, the delegation was briefed on the history of the university and its influential place in the history of the country by UCA President Jesuit Father Andreu Oliva. He testified to the legacy of Fr. Ellacuría. “Fr. Ellacuría did something beautiful by putting the university totally at the service of the poor, unlike many others,” Fr. Oliva said. “El Salvador deserves a university that continues that legacy.”
Pilgrims next visited the Romero Center, the museum run by Fr. Sobrino dedicated to the eight martyrs, which includes the Jesuit residence where they were killed, the rose garden where the priests were dragged outside and shot and graphic photos of the aftermath.
Rounding out the trip were presentations on current issues in El Salvador, including its high crime rate, the migration crisis, environmental issues related to mining in the country and the state of the economy.
According to Cuff, violence in El Salvador due to drug traffickers, smugglers and gangs is nearly at the same levels now as it was during the height of the civil war, with between 10 and 12 people killed each day. Additionally, 17 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
“It is no surprise that many Salvadorans, especially young people, leave their country. One of the questions our delegation grappled with was: how should our own country respond to this?” said Cuff. “We should model the Jesuit martyrs by telling the truth about violence in Central America and challenging our leaders to welcome the Central America children at our border and address the reasons why these young people flee their countries in the first place.”
“For many, if not all of us, this was the journey of a lifetime,” said Bill Hobbs, vice president of the Jesuit Secondary Education Association. “To travel together, from various parts of the United States to El Salvador, was a life changing experience. To hear the stories, to walk on holy ground, to pray together at such sacred sites, one cannot but be changed. We came on pilgrimage to renew our commitment to the work of faith and justice in the spirit of the martyrs, and we return back to our particular jobs and ministries challenged yet inspired to continue to live as companions of Jesus in the world today.”