These last few weeks, I have been attending an international Jesuit education conference in Spain with Mr John Gilles, Director of Religious Formation at the College. We were exploring those four cornerstones of Jesuit formation in schools – producing students of competence, conscience, compassion and commitment. These qualities, our tradition holds, fit students to enter the world and really make a difference. Yet when we imagine how to take up such a bold mission, a heroic stance, a sacrifical self-offering, we do not always think of a grounding in intellectual competencies. But this week, Jesuits world-wide have been commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of a modern day massacre and martyrdom which puts paid to such thinking.
It occurred in the prestigious Jesuit University of Central America, in the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador. There, the Jesuit faculty, mostly Spanish-born pastors and academics, had been fearless in teaching a message of social justice, of agrarian reform, of solidarity with the marginalised, and, in theological terms, proclaiming ‘God’s preferential love of the poor’. In so doing, they made powerful enemies – including many Bishops, people of influence, and of course members of a right-wing government keen to preserve the status quo – all of whom labelled the Jesuits as Marxists and subversives. A civil war, whose roots lay in the Government’s seizure and selling of communal land earlier in the century, was accompanied by the massacre of the indigenous population. It had been raging in the country for twelve years with some 75,000 lives lost. These included local Jesuit superior Fr Rutilio Grande SJ (1977), Archbishop Óscar Romero (March 1980), and four American Catholic missionary sisters, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel who were beaten, raped and murdered (December 1980).
These academic Jesuits, Ignatio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Barro, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquín López y López and Amado López, did not operate in jungles or live covert lives. They were scholars. Their only ‘base’ was the office and classroom of a university. They were not revolutionaries in the sense that they were guerilla fighters or terrorists. But they were revolutionaries, just the same. They were fighting a war with words, with ideas. Their bullets were written on paper. Explosive charges were delivered as they spoke of justice. They were challenging and inspirational. Theirs was a work of the Spirit. Whatever they said and did, hit a nerve. Their influence was threatening. And they paid a price. The gift of God’s Spirit is sometimes a terribly costly gift.
On the evening of 17 November 1989 a government-sponsored hit squad, most likely trained in the US, made its way to the Jesuit residence of the university and, by early morning, the gunned-down bodies of the six Jesuits and their housekeeper, Elba, and her teenage daughter, Celina, were discovered.
Elba and Celina were inside the house, the mother dying on top of her daughter, in a vain attempt to try to protect her. The Jesuits showed signs of torture. Their bodies had been dragged into a front garden – most had their skulls cracked and their brains dashed out. The message of the assassins was clear: This is what we think of your intellectual apostolate and your fancy left-wing ideas. This is what will happen to those who take the Gospel too seriously. And (in reference to Elba and Celina) this is the fate of those who collaborate with you.
Did this martyrdom succeed? Did it stifle a fearless preaching of the Gospel? Did it force good people to cease crying for justice? Did fright dispel faith? No. Within a couple of days, the Jesuit Father General in Rome had more offers of Jesuits from around the world to replace those men than he could possibly deal with. In the long term, you can never suppress truth and justice.
Two military officers were convicted of those murders in 1991, but were pardoned only two years later by a conspiring National Assembly. Five years ago, the national Court of Spain, testing a relatively new international legal principle known as Universal Jurisdiction, opened an official investigation into former military officers in El Salvador accused of killing those six priests and the two women. Those named include the Defence Minister and Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. In 2011, the court ruled against 20 Salvadoran members of the military – guilty on counts of murder, terrorism and crimes against humanity. However, since then, no extradition has taken place, or penalties paid.
Half a world away, two and a half decades after the event, and a culture apart, we share the same vision as those men. Like those Jesuits in El Salvador, we at Riverview espouse and esteem the intellectual apostolate. We describe our educational style as humanistic and liberal – that is, it values all that is truly human and it is ultimately liberating. Just like those Jesuits in El Salvador, we try to form our young men in ‘a faith that does justice’, so that with all their talents, armed with their future credentials, sharing their gifts, they, too, will take the side of the poor and dispossessed. That is the Gospel imperative. And like Elba and Celina, some will work in partnership with us in our Jesuit mission, even if that might come with a cost.
As one of those martyrs, Ignatio Ellacuría SJ, once remarked,
“The struggle against injustice and the pursuit of truth cannot be separated, nor can we work for one independent of the other.”
That is what our schooling is shaping your sons for.