Reproduced with permission
Dean Brackley, S.J.
Centro Monseñor Romero
"José Simeón Cañas"
San Salvador, 2005
[Reproduced with corrections and updates
to Bibliography, courtesy of Father Dean Brackley.
Available for $2.00 at the Centro Monseñor Romero,
in the visitors center, Bulevár de los Próceres, San Salvador.
Mail: Centro Monseñor Romero, Apdo. 01-168, San Salvador.
Local telephone: 2210 6675. Tours daily by university students.]
Visitors to the UCA and other English-speaking friends frequently ask about the university's martyrs and the events surrounding their deaths. They also ask for information about the UCA itself and its philosophy of education. To supply the need for a chronicle of events surrounding the killings of November 1989 and to explain the philosophy of the UCA and what others can learn from it, we are happy to present the two essays that follow here.
As time passes, it is important to make available resources that can help us reflect on the dramatic recent history of El Salvador and Central America and its life-giving lessons. Therefore, we also include a select bibliography (and other resources) of works in English about Central America, about El Salvador, about U.S. government involvement here, the prophetic church, solidarity, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the four U.S. churchwomen killed in 1980 – and the UCA and its martyrs, about which there is much more to say than what is written here.
We at the Centro Monseñor Romero offer this resource in gratitude to so many who have drunk from the well which is El Salvador, with the hope that it may nourish the solidarity that continues to grow between the English-speaking peoples of the North and these crucified peoples of the South.Back to Table of Contents
After midnight on November 16, 1989, a commando of Salvadoran soldiers entered the campus of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador and murdered six Jesuits, a domestic employee and her young daughter.
Every year since then, thousands of campesinos, workers and students, mothers and fathers and young people fill up the UCA campus to commemorate their deaths. They light up the night of November 15-16 with candles and song. After an outdoor Eucharist, they stay for tamales and coffee to sing and dance and catch up with old friends until dawn.
Those who gather understand the importance of remembering. Others in El Salvador insist on burying memories of the war, with its horrors and its heroes, hoping to blot out the past in order to shape the future in their interest. But those who suffered most need to remember. Remembering means taking the dead seriously. Remembering heals the wounds that still lie open because recognition and reconciliation have not taken place as they should. That is why we insist that the November festivities commemorate all the martyrs of El Salvador, not just those who died at the university.
Because they witnessed to the truth and paid the price, the martyrs of the UCA generate hope and a sense of direction in times of discouragement and disorientation. They continue to inspire and challenge us. A regular stream of foreign visitors reminds us that the martyrs inspire people beyond El Salvador as well. Their story is worth re-telling.
In 1989, after nine years of civil war, the Salvadoran armed forces and their U.S. sponsors had become convinced that the FMLN guerrillas had lost steam and could eventually be defeated. So, despite war-fatigue on all sides, they were stalling the peace talks, even though the government had committed itself to good-faith negotiations as part of the regional Esquipulas Accords of a few years before.
The peace talks were probably the ultimate target when far-right terrorists carried out a series of attacks against civilian opposition groups in October. In reaction, the FMLN launched a broad offensive, hoping to force a settlement of the conflict.
When the offensive began on Saturday evening, November 11, its force and scope shocked the army and its gringo advisers. Soon the guerrillas held a third of the capital. A U.S. adviser later recalled his fears that helicopters would have to scoop U.S. personnel off roofs in El Salvador the way they had evacuated them from Vietnam.
Sunday November 12. The day after the offensive began the military locked all radio stations into its own broadcasts. These included orchestrated call-ins denouncing and threatening critics of the government, including the archbishop, his auxiliary and the Jesuits, especially Ignacio Ellacuría, the outspoken rector (president) of the UCA. One caller said "Ellacuría is a guerrilla. Off with his head!" Others accused the Jesuits of being communists and hiding weapons at their university. Callers urged that all Jesuits be thrown out of the country.
Even before the war Ellacuría and the UCA Jesuits had been vocal advocates of social change in El Salvador. As a result, the university and the Jesuit residence had been bombed some 16 times. The Jesuit pastor of rural Aguilares, Rutilio Grande, had been killed in 1977 for his defense of his poor parishioners; and, shortly after, the White Warrior Union had threatened to kill all the Jesuits if they did not leave the country in thirty days. They stayed. The death-date passed without incident, but the hatred and persecution remained.
The Salvadoran military had long claimed the UCA was a hotbed of guerrilla activity and perceived Ellacuría and the other Jesuits as intellectual godfathers of the FMLN. The U.S. State Department shared this skewed perspective.i No one had ever found evidence of arms or guerrilla training in the UCA, however. The university administration had avoided any organic links to the guerrillas. Ever since the war began in 1981, Ellacuría had been calling for a negotiated solution – a position that earned him wrath from both sides. But although they criticized the guerrillas, Ellacuría and fellow Jesuits Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró and Jon Sobrino recognized that the government forces were fighting to preserve an unjust status quo, using terror, torture and the murder of civilians as an integral part of counter-insurgency strategy to deny the just demands of the poor majority. The Jesuits repeatedly denounced abuses by government security forces and allied death squads. In the prevailing climate of fear, only the archbishop, Arturo Rivera Damas, and his auxiliary could speak out with the moral authority that Ellacuría and his colleagues commanded.
Ellacuría turned 59 one week before his death. Born in the Basque country of Spain, he had arrived in El Salvador in 1948 for the second year of his Jesuit novitiate. All the other Spanish-born Jesuits killed at the UCA followed the same pattern. Montes, 56, had arrived in 1950. Juan Ramón Moreno, also 56, arrived the following year. Amando López, 53, arrived in 1953; Martín-Baró, 44, in 1960. The only native Salvadoran Jesuit killed, Joaquín López y López, 71, son of a prominent family, was also the only one who did not work at the UCA – which he had helped to found in 1965 – but rather in the Jesuit-sponsored Fe y Alegría education project for the poor which he had also helped to start in 1969.
A gifted philosopher and political analyst, Ellacuría had been rector of the university since 1979 and had been forced into exile shortly afterward. Montes was head of the sociology department and the UCA's human rights institute. Martín-Baró was academic vice-president, founder and director of the university's public polling project, head of the psychology department – and a prolific writer! He is recognized as a pioneer thinker in social psychology. The affable Amando López and the shy, versatile librarian Juan Ramón Moreno both taught theology. All except Ellacuría engaged in weekend pastoral work.
Monday November 13. Two days into the offensive Ellacuría returned to El Salvador from a three-week trip to Spain. President Alfredo Cristiani had asked him to participate on a commission to investigate the October 30 bombing of a Salvadoran labor confederation office that had left nine dead. Amando López and Francisco "Paco" Estrada picked up Ellacuría at the airport. As they arrived at the UCA gate a little before 6:00 p.m., soldiers stopped their car. During the offensive the area was swarming with troops, since the military High Command, senior officers' family residences, the Military Academy and other major installations were all clustered within a mile of the university. Recognizing Ellacuría, the soldiers let the car enter the campus and make its way to the newly-constructed Jesuit residence.
Even before the war Ellacuría and the UCA Jesuits had been vocal advocates of social change in El Salvador.
Forty-five minutes later a commando unit of the U.S.-trained counter-insurgency Atlacatl Battalion entered the university grounds. Col. René Emilio Ponce, chief of the High Command, had himself summoned the unit that afternoon from its headquarters in Sítio del Niño, a half hour to the west, where its members had been undergoing training by U.S. green berets. The soldiers broke into the Theological Reflection Center on the ground floor of a two-storey construction built into a low embankment. The entrance of the Jesuit residence, which occupies the second floor, opens out onto a grassy yard behind the building. When the soldiers demanded to inspect the residence, the Jesuits let them in, complaining about the disruption and challenging the legality of the search. Segundo Montes apparently failed to recognize the commando unit leader, Lieut. José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, who had been a student of the local Jesuit high school when Montes was its principal. The soldiers disturbed nothing in the residence itself but did break into university classrooms afterward. Although the Jesuits invited them to return the following day to inspect the university in the daylight, they did not return. Their purpose was almost surely reconnaissaince: This same commando returned to kill the Jesuits two nights later.
Martha Doggett writes of the search:
Salvadoran military officers have repeatedly said that neither weapons nor guerrillas were found during the search. Despite this fact, President Alfredo Cristiani told reporters on July 12, 1990 that the soldiers did discover some arms. Further, a November 13, 1989 cable by U.S. military intelligence agents to the Defense Intelligence Agency . . . cited "initial reports that the following equipment was captured by the Salvadoran Armed Forces . . . in the Jesuit priests' dormitory at the Catholic University."
Though entirely untrue, this report inexplicably surfaced in Senate offices in the days preceding the October 19, 1990 vote on a U.S. foreign assistance bill, which included a 50% reduction in military aid to El Salvador.ii
Wednesday November 15. Around 10:00 a.m. an army officer told one of the Jesuits living near the UCA there would be a lot of "movement" later that day. In the mid-afternoon, about 125 members of the Atlacatl searched the Jesuit-run Centro Loyola retreat house, a mile up the hill from the UCA to the south. The Loyola staff served them coffee and pastry. One soldier remarked, "This also belongs to the UCA, right? Here they are planning the [guerrilla] offensive." A little after 5:00, a captain gathered the officers and, consulting what looked like a map, pointed to the campus below. An officer remarked to someone present, "Yes, we're going to look for Ellacuría and all these Jesuits. . . . This has got to end!" A soldier told retreat house employees that "tonight there is going to be a big uproar around here. Stay inside and keep your heads down!" Another said they were "going to look for Ellacuría, and if we find him we're going to be given a prize." Around 7:00 p.m. the unit moved down the hill toward the UCA.iii
Just about then twenty-four top-ranking military officers, including the Defense Minister and the High Command, were gathering at High Command headquarters a mile to the north of the campus. Four days into the offensive the military found itself unable to dislodge the guerrillas. Fearing the loss of the capital – and maybe the war – the top brass met to discuss drastic measures. At the meeting they decided, first, that the air force would rocket and bomb the poor neighborhoods where the rebels were entrenched and, second, that civilian opposition leaders who supported the guerrillas would be hunted down and eliminated. Any officer who did not agree was invited to raise his hand. No one did. According to separate reports, at the end of the meeting the officers joined hands in prayer to ask God's blessing. The meeting ended at 10:30 p.m. Since plans were already in motion against Ellacuría and the Jesuits – and others, as well – this meeting was called, in part, to get everyone on board.
The officers then summoned President Cristiani, formally their commander-in-chief, to military headquarters where he arrived some time between 11:00 and 12:30 to sign an order authorizing the harsh measures. (Later, in the face of U.S. pressure to charge more officers with the UCA killings, Cristiani would wryly recall the presence of U.S. advisers at military headquarters that night.) The president remained at the military complex until 2:00 a.m., when the military commando unit was already at the UCA. To this day it is not clear if Cristiani knew the details of what he had just approved.
Bombs and rockets soon began to fall on guerrilla-held neighborhoods. "Residents in Soyapango and other neighborhoods remember November 15-16 as the night of the worst aerial bombardment."iv
Reliable sources also cite a Wednesday afternoon meeting of top officers at the Military Academy at which members of the High Command ordered the elimination of Ellacuría, at least. But even before these meetings, plans had been drawn up to kill him and other opposition leaders, as well. Some believe the UCA killings were part of a so-called Djakarta Plan to eliminate over 100 civilians. In that case, ultra-right officers executed the plan using the guerrilla offensive as cover and pretext. In any event, around the same time as the UCA killings, army units also raided Lutheran Church headquarters and were seen near the homes of civilian opposition leaders. These leaders, previously alerted by the guerrillas of the offensive, had gone into hiding. Archbishop Rivera Damas later told an audience in Europe: Auxiliary "Bishop Rosa Chavez and I could have died too on that night. Our names were on the list of Plan Djakarta, whose aim was the physical elimination of all of those of us who denounce human rights violations and the system of injustice here in El Salvador."v
Unlike other targeted leaders, the Jesuits decided to stay where they lived. The Monday search had uncovered nothing, and, they reasoned, the campus was a stone's throw from military headquarters and was surrounded by soldiers. It would be irrational for the military to attack them. Everyone would know who had done it.
The Jesuits were right. What was about to happen was absurd. It was a stupid action that would severely weaken the armed forces. But – as frequently happens in war – the irrational was about to occur.
Following the meeting at military headquarters, a group of officers stayed behind to assign tasks to the hit squads. There, according to the U.N. Truth Commission Report, Col. Ponce ordered the director of the military academy, Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, to eliminate Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses.vi Benavides then returned to the military academy (two blocks away) and briefed his staff on the decisions taken.
At this time the Atlacatl commando unit that had searched the UCA two nights before was split in several patrols around the perimeter of the university. Around 10:15 p.m. its leader, Lieut. Espinoza, was summoned to the Military Academy where he arrived with half his troop, about 36 men. Shortly after 11:00, Benavides met with him and, according to an eye-witness, told Espinoza and his assistent, Lieut. Guevara Cerritos, "This is a situation where it's them or us; we are going to begin with the ringleaders. Within our sector we have the university and Ellacuría is there." Benavides ordered Espinoza to see to the elimination of Ellacuría. When Espinoza noted the gravity of this action, Benavides promised him his support and assigned academy instructor Lieut. Yusshy Mendoza to lead the mission. Espinoza gave Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, known as Pilijay (the "Hangman"), an AK-47 for the operation.
Thursday, November 16. Around midnight two Ford pick-ups began to shuttle the soldiers from the academy to a half-finished building two hundred yards to the west of the UCA where they re-grouped with their comrades. About 70 soldiers would enter the UCA – the university was surrounded by about 300 others –, and these now received their instructions: They were to kill priests who were leaders of the terrorists. It is not clear whether Mendoza or Espinoza actually led the mission or just who told Pilijay that he was to kill Ellacuría with the AK-47 captured from the guerrillas.
The Jesuits were right.
What was about
to happen was
was about to occur.
A little after 1:00 a.m. the unit made its way on foot to the pedestrian entrance of the campus and forced the gate. For some reason they paused at least half an hour in the parking lot 40 meters from the Jesuit residence, damaging some cars and setting off a grenade. A plane roared low overhead, perhaps in a show of support. (Congressman Joseph Moakley, whom U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley later appointed to investigate the killings, would name Salvadoran Air Force Commander, Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo, as the chief instigator of the murder mission.vii Others, citing Bustillo's past feuds with lead officers of the High Command, doubt he played a key role.)
Proceeding from the parking lot, part of the unit encircled the Theological Reflection Center. Some soldiers scaled the embankment to the left of the building and banged on the door of the residence on that side with a tree branch. Others scaled the chain-link fence alongside the gate at the right side of the building. Still others entered the Center below and began damaging equipment. One Jesuit, probably Ellacuría, shouted at the first group to stop hammering the door. The Jesuits would let them in as they had before. They opened the front door of the residence. Ignacio Martín-Baró accompanied some soldiers and opened the gate into the yard of the Jesuit residence, loudly berating the troops.
Twenty yards away Lucía Cerna, a UCA maintenance worker, looked out the window. She and her husband were sleeping at the former Jesuit residence on account of the offensive and the curfew. The next day Lucía would testify that she heard Padre Nacho yelling and saw men who looked like government soldiers. This was the beginning of an adventure that would change her life.
Nacho Martín-Baró let the other soldiers into the yard; perhaps they were fifteen in all. At some point they discovered, in a parlor near the gate, Julia Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter Celina. The mother cooked for the Jesuit theology students; her daughter studied at a nearby high school. They had asked to sleep in the parlor because of so much shooting near the caretaker's house where they lived at the other end of the yard abutting the street. Caretaker Obdulio Lozano, husband and father to the two women, remained in their cottage all that night. He would not discover what had happened until dawn.
By now the soldiers had led five Jesuits into the yard and ordered them to lie face down. After some moments, the shooting began. Antonio Ávalos executed Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López with his M-16. Pilijay turned the AK-47 on Ellacuría, Martín-Baró and Segundo Montes. Tomás Zarpate shot the two women.
Suddenly, Joaquín López y López appeared in the residence doorway, his hands raised in a plea to be spared. As he re-entered the residence, he was shot but not killed. Cpl. Ángel Pérez finished him off as he lay on the floor of a bedroom. The 71-year-old Jesuit had cancer and had been given perhaps six months to live.
The soldiers entered the dining room, one of them opening a beer. Before leaving the yard, they found the women still groaning in each others' arms. One of the soldiers finished them off in brutal fashion.
Cpl. Cota Hernández dragged Juan Ramón Moreno's body back to the residence and into the room of theologian Jon Sobrino. (Sobrino was on a lecture tour in Thailand when the offensive began.) Then, apparently finding himself alone in the yard, he left the other bodies in the garden and joined his comrades.
On the campus side of the Jesuit compound, in front of the Theology Center attached to the residence, soldiers fired an anti-tank rocket and two M-79 grenades at the building and strafed it with heavy machine-gun fire. The following morning over 200 cartridges would be found in the street. Then, firing Bengal flares to signal the time to withdraw, the soldiers returned the way they had come, arriving at the Military Academy between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. One made off with the light-brown satchel containing the $5,000 award that Ellacuría had just received in Spain.
The point of simulating a battle (along with the AK-47 and, probably, dragging the bodies back into the residence) was to portray the Jesuits as FMLN militants killed in combat against the guerrillas themselves. As they prepared to leave, the soldiers scribbled FMLN slogans and propaganda in the residence and on the UCA gate, suggesting the Jesuits were killed as traitors to the leftist cause. Because Ellacuría had publically expressed hope of working with recently elected President Cristiani toward a negotiated peace, the military could hope to portray the Jesuits in this way. Some have suggested they targeted Ellacuría to prevent peace and keep U.S. military aid flowing – and lining officers' pockets. Ironically, the UCA killings, more than anything else, helped terminate that aid and accelerate the peace process.
When the curfew lifted at 6:00 a.m., Obdulio Lozano emerged from his cottage to find the bodies of the Jesuits and his wife and daughter. He immediately walked to the Jesuit provincial residence a half-block outside the service gate. The provincial, José María Tojeira, was halfway through shaving when Obdulio told him the news: "They killed the padres and my wife and daughter."
Shortly thereafter, at the daily briefing of the National Intelligence Directorate near the Military Academy, Capt. Carlos F. Herrera Carranza burst in to announce that he had heard on military radio that Ellacuría had been killed while "resisting arrest". According to some reports, the officers present greeted this news with enthusiasm. Later that morning, Herrera accompanied a CIA officer to view the site of the killings. The NID was a CIA creation, and the two agencies collaborated very closely during the war, sharing office space. (Herrera sent an NID officer to accompany the Atlacatl Battalion during the Monday-night search of the Jesuit residence, a fact that has never been explained.viii Herrera was later killed in combat while serving under the coronel who commanded the Atlacatl Battalion at the time of the UCA killings.)
As the news of the killings spread, scores of people, including the two bishops of the capital, congregated at the murder site.
Later, between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon, a military sound truck passed the headquarters of the Catholic Archdiocese announcing, "Ellacuría and Martín-Baró have fallen. We will continue killing the Communists." Minutes later the truck made a second pass, the same voice calling out, "Surrender! We are of the First Brigade" (of the Salvadoran army).
That same day the Jesuit provincial and the archbishop announced that the evidence suggested the armed forces committed the murders.
November 18. Two days after the killings, Salvadoran Attorney General Mauricio Eduardo Colorado writes to the pope expressing his "fear for the lives of some of the bishops who . . . have persisted in keeping alive this questionable ideology of the ‘church of the poor'." Alluding to bishops Rivera and Rosa Chávez, he suggests that the two be transferred out of El Salvador for their own safety.ix
November 19. The Salvadoran Minister of Defense accuses the FMLN of the murders.
November 21. A military helicopter hovers over the administration building at the UCA and fires a round of bullets through the window of Ellacuría's office.
On November 22-23 Lucía Cerna, the worker who saw soldiers in the UCA at the time of the killings, testifies to that effect in the Spanish and French Embassies in El Salvador. On November 23 she, her husband and daughter board a plane for Miami where they hope to receive asylum. They are to be welcomed by Jesuits in Miami. A U.S. Embassy officer and an F.B.I. official insist on accompanying the family on their flight; and, once in Miami, they turn the family over to the F.B.I. The F.B.I. holds the family incommunicado for a week and interrogates Mrs. Cerna with the help of a Salvadoran colonel. After four days she breaks down and changes her story. With that, her interrogators administer a lie detector test which she fails. This report is then leaked to the press. On December 9 President Cristiani tells reporters that Mrs. Cerna has lied about seeing soldiers in the UCA.
Nevertheless, it soon became impossible to deny military participation. On January 7 Cristiani announced that military personnel were responsible for the killings.
Rodolfo Parker, a lawyer who aided the military Honor Commission that accused the soldiers, later disclosed that Lieut. Espinoza informed him in January 1990 (two months after the murders) that orders had come from top officials. Parker says he had this news relayed to Cristiani.
From that point on, however, any evidence pointing beyond the nine accused, mostly low-level soldiers, was smothered. The U.S.-created Special Investigation Unit assigned to the case helped orchestrate the coverup. Sources and suspects were never questioned; evidence was destroyed; promising leads were ignored; people were threatened. Throughout the judicial process military officers perjured themselves and stonewalled. Some officers linked to the case died under suspicious circumstances.
Protecting its military clients, Washington practiced damage control. For weeks after the killings, ambassador William Walker mused in public about FMLN involvement, while privately acknowledging military responsibility (recall Capt. Herrera's CIA friend). It soon became widely known that a U.S. military advisor (Maj. Eric Buckland) had been informed of Benavides's role in the killings just one month after they occurred. When Buckland came forward with this information in early January, it helped force the military's hand. Back in the U.S., on January 12 Buckland told the F.B.I. that he had had prior knowledge of the killings. One week later he retracted that testimony. U.S. officials and Cristiani then hid their knowledge of Buckland's F.B.I. testimony from the public and the court.
Among the bitter ironies is the saga of the High Command chief, Col. Ponce. The U.S. Embassy promoted Ponce as candidate for Defense Minister in 1991, as someone who could win over the Salvadoran officer corps to a negotiated settlement. After Ponce became Defense Minister, it fell to the Moakley congressional task force to inform the ambassador, if he didn't know already, that Ponce had played a major role in the UCA killings. As Defense Minister, Ponce simultaneously pushed the peace negotiations and coordinated the coverup of the murders. After the Peace Accords, he was one of 100-plus top officers cited to be purged for gross violations of human rights. He hung on and retired in July 1993 as a general, with full honors and a full pension.
When the trial of nine soldiers concluded in September 1991 (one, having fled, was tried in absentia), the Atlacatl commandos who had confessed to the killings were acquitted. Benavides and Mendoza of the Military Academy were convicted, the former for all the murders and Mendoza for the murder of Celina Ramos which he surely did not commit. It was the first time that Salvadoran officers had been convicted of human rights violations.
Eighteen months later, on March 15, 1993, the U.N. Truth Commission released its report implicating top-level officers in this and many other war crimes. With unaccustomed speed, five days later the Salvadoran National Assembly passed a blanket amnesty covering war-time conduct. On April 1, Benavides and Mendoza walked out of prison.
The legal process that culminated in the farse-trial of 1991 revealed more about El Salvador's corrupt and antiquated judicial system than anything else. Still, the process helped the truth to emerge outside the courtroom. However it came out, the truth is what really matters after all. The UCA case uncovered the essential truth, or much of it, about state terror in El Salvador and U.S. complicity.
The Jesuits have always insisted that truth and justice are necessary pre-conditions for post-war reconciliation, in this case as in others. Truth-justice-forgiveness is the formula coined by Ellacuría's successor, Paco Estrada, S.J. "Justice" here means, minimally, public condemnation by the Salvadoran judicial system of war crimes. Although some feel a symbolic punishment is also necessary to fortify social morality and a state of law, the Jesuits have not insisted on that. In December 1992 the Jesuit Provincial petitioned the National Assembly to grant a legal indult to the two men convicted in the UCA case.
and my wife
Those who ordered the killings remain free, however, and some have been accused of post-war criminal activity. Important facts also remain unclear. Were politicians or other prominent civilians involved in the murders? What did President Cristiani know, and when? What did Maj. Buckland and the U.S. government know, and when? The Jesuits and their dogged collaborators have therefore continued to pursue the legal case, not only for itself, but as a kind of class-action suit on behalf of tens of thousands of civilian victims of the armed forces and death squads, for most of whom legal justice is unthinkable. Since the 1991 trial, the Jesuits and the UCA have continued to accuse the Salvadoran government in court of criminal negligence. When the Supreme Court recently failed to take action, the road opened up to pursue justice in the international arena. The prosecution in the U.S. of Salvadoran military officials implicated in the killings of the four U.S. churchwomen and the murder of Archbishop Romero in recent years suggests that further legal action and disclosure are possible. This could also happen in El Salvador, especially if the 1993 amnesty were declared unconstitutional, as impartial observers advocate.
The murders at the UCA detonated a political earthquake, both in El Salvador and abroad. Inside the country, this became the crime that refused to go away. A few years after the killings, a high-ranking Salvadoran officer confided to Francisco Estrada that the killings of the Jesuits had done more damage to the Salvadoran armed forces than eleven years of guerrilla warfare. By badly undermining the prestige of the armed forces, the "Jesuit case" helped consolidate the peace process once the accords were signed two years after the murders.
Beyond El Salvador shock waves reverberated far and wide, but especially in the United States. Central America watchers will always remember where they were when they heard the news. I was in an office at Fordham University when I received a phone call shortly after 9:00 a.m. on November 16. Soon after, on my way to a meeting, I blurted out to a fellow professor that the Jesuits of the UCA had just been murdered. His reply stunned me: "I can't believe the guerrillas would do such a horrible thing!"
My colleague assumed that the guerrillas were responsible! By November 1989, people had stopped following events in El Salvador. The State Department had succeeded in selling its version of reality: The U.S. was helping to consolidate democracy. Our military aid had succeeded in professionalizing the Salvadoran armed forces. The UCA murders woke us from our bipartisan slumber. Outrage spread across the U.S., especially in the religious community. Congress was deluged by protests. It quickly became apparent that military aid to El Salvador was doomed. It was just a matter of time.
The convergence of events was uncanny. It was on November 12, the second day of the FMLN offensive, that East and West Berliners took their hammers to the Berlin Wall. It was becoming increasingly difficult to argue that barbarity in Central America was necessary to stave off the international communist menace. The offensive itself showed that neither party could achieve a military victory in El Salvador, but that the guerrillas could sabotage the economy indefinitely. But what if a negotiated peace led to ex-guerrillas participating in Salvadoran politics? Or even coming to power? That nightmare scenario – or pretext, if you prefer – for the "security" establishment in the U.S. evaporated when the leftist Sandinista government went down to electoral defeat in neighboring Nicaragua in February of 1990. The following month Gen. Maxwell Thurman of the U.S. Southern Command announced that the Salvadoran armed forces were incapable of defeating the FMLN. That signaled Washington's public commitment to a negotiated peace in El Salvador.
The Peace Accords were signed on the last day of 1991. They were designed not to distribute wealth and income to El Salvador's impoverished majority – one side lacked the power for that and the other side lacked the will –, but to move Salvadoran society from a state of barbarity in which the powerful prey on the weak at every level of society to a state of law in which there might be chance for reform in the future.
Since then, there has been some political and judicial reform. Unfortunately, you can't eat that, and the majority remains mired in misery. Meanwhile, violent crime rages out of control. All that is a story for another day. Suffice it for now to say we need to remember the martyrs to find our way in these hard times.
The UCA Jesuits dared to speak the truth in defense of the poor when that was mortally dangerous. They did this from a university of Christian inspiration. They understood that central to their vocation to serve the truth was the task of unmasking the public lies that deal death to the poor and that cover up their despoilment. They taught about this in the classroom and they "projected" that discussion into the public arena. They fostered serious study and research and proposed positive solutions to problems – very much as Pope John Paul II proposes in his apostolic constitution Ex corde ecclesiae, on the mission of Catholic university. This document, published several months after the killings at the UCA, says that the university should study "serious contemporary problems," including "the promotion of justice for all, . . . the search for peace and political stability, [and] a more equitable distribution of world resources." The pope adds that "if need be, a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths . . . which are necessaryh to safeguard the authentic good of society."xvii
There is plenty of reason to be discouraged these days, and not just in Central America. But there are also solid grounds for hope. Visitors are struck by the hope – and goodness – which abound in El Salvador. Ongoing crisis seems to bring out not only the worst – like the legendary death squads – but also the best – like Oscar Romero. Hope and generosity, hard to keep alive even in good times, hang on here like stubborn desert flowers, no small thanks to martyrs. This November we will gather again to let their memory nourish our hope and point us forward. Not just the UCA martyrs but all the martyrs – including campesinas and workers, catechists, layworkers, priests, nuns and bishops.
Fifteen years have passed since a military death squad dragged six Jesuits and two co-workers from their beds and murdered them with savage brutality in El Salvador. The massacre at the Central American University (UCA) shocked the world, drawing attention once more to a tiny country which is a symbol of our times, notable for their cruelty, for the struggle for a better world. The UCA tragedy also reminded Christians how the church here, the church of martyrs like Archbishop Oscar Romero, has opened up paths for the future of the universal Church.
The soldiers killed the rector (president) of the UCA, the vice-rector, the head of the human-rights institute, the director of the religious-education program, and a professor of ethics. The military was trying to kill a university dedicated to the liberation of the poor majority of this country. To their dismay, the world refused to forget. The assassination accelerated the negotiation process that bore fruit in a peace agreement which U.N. negotiator Alvaro De Soto called, optimistically, a "negotiated revolution."
What kind of university could provoke the Salvadoran military to such an atrocity? What can this model of a university teach us about the role of a university, especially a Christian university, in the twenty-first century?
Here I will outline the philosophy of the UCA, especially as its martyred rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, articulated it. Next, I will suggest what that philosophy of education has to say to educators and students elsewhere. But first, a brief word about how the UCA came to be what it is.
The Jesuits launched the UCA in 1965 with the financial backing of wealthy Salvadoran families who wanted a private Catholic university to counterbalance secularism and Marxism at the National University, the only other institution of higher learning in the country at the time. The UCA opened with 357 students. The student body grew to 6,000 by 1989 and numbers about 9,000 today.
The late sixties brought mounting social tensions to Central America. Meeting at Medellín, Colombia in the wake of Vatican II, the Latin American bishops committed the church to the cause of the poor. Liberation theology was spreading through the church. Central American Jesuits, including those at the UCA, spoke out for social change. In El Salvador the Jesuits were accused of teaching Marxism and were relieved of responsibility for the diocesan seminary in 1972. In 1975 the Jesuits' Thirty-second General Congregation in Rome defined the focus of all Jesuit ministries as the service of faith and the promotion of justice. The next year a bomb exploded at the UCA. Another exploded after Ellacuría wrote a scathing editorial denouncing the government for reneging on land reform. (The UCA was bombed about fourteen times in the years that followed.) Then in March 1977 Rutilio Grande, S.J. was murdered for his work among the campesinos in Aguilares. A few months later, the White Warriors' Union threatened to kill the Jesuits one by one if they did not leave the country within thirty days. They stayed, and the deadline passed without incident.
When military reformers ejected the reigning dictator in 1979, the UCA contributed many professors to the new government. But when reforms were stillborn, repression escalated dramatically. Ellacuría became rector of the UCA the same year. His outspoken leadership soon moved him to the top of death-squad hit lists. In 1980 he was forced into exile for several months. He returned to head a team which, during the 80's, labored intensely to place the UCA at the service of the poor majorities and their liberation. Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, and their colleagues launched a human-rights institute, a documentation and research center, and a national polling institute – to mention a few projects. They wrote and regularly appeared in the media unmasking official lies and proposing solutions to the nation's problems. They criticized the left as well as the right. Ellacuría drew the wrath of both sides from the first months of 1981 by consistently advocating a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
As irrational as the massacre of November 1989 was, it occurred because of the kind of university the UCA had become. For the UCA administration public social criticism was not a spin-off of university work. It was the university's principal task at that time. Ellacuría, above all, had articulated the vision of a new kind of university; and through the force of his intellect and will he had mobilized a team that could put that vision into practice.
On September 15, 1990, ten months after the massacre, the UCA celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its founding. The Superior Council of the university used the occasion to formally re-affirm the UCA's mission. It declared: "The ultimate meaning of the UCA has been its impact on the historical reality of El Salvador. . . . From the beginning, the UCA has placed its center outside of itself, in the country. The situation of El Salvador has made this de-centering of the university unavoidable."
Its center outside of itself. As Ellacuría used to say, "La UCA tiene su centro fuera de sí": The UCA has its center outside itself. As legitimate and necessary as they might be, neither the search for truth in general nor the training of professionals constitutes the chief goal of the university. Rather, its reason for being is the liberation of the poor majority of El Salvador and, through them, of the nation as a whole.
How can this be the chief mission of a university? The university community responds that the extraordinary poverty and injustice of El Salvador constitute a dramatic negation of truth and reason. Ethically, the university must commit itself to changing this dehumanizing situation. The UCA does this "universitáriamente," that is, precisely in the manner of a university. As its Superior Council put it,
The UCA has not sought confrontation with the reigning social system in the manner of an opposition party, or of a political or military organization, whose activity is determined with the objective of taking power. The UCA has confronted that reality with the proper style of a university. It has clearly distinguished itself from those who mistakenly want to do political work without doing academic work, and also from those who want to do academic work without doing political work.
The UCA does not seek power. It does not identify itself with a political party or any particular social, political, or economic solution to the nation's problems. It dedicates itself as a university to the service of social transformation. It labors, universitáriamente, for the common good.
A Christian university. The UCA responds to a national reality characterized by irrationality and falsehood. As a university of Christian inspiration, it considers this situation a massive and unavoidable situation of sin. In the face of this sin, the university makes a option for the oppressed majorities, that is, for the reign of God. "The option for the poor does not mean directing oneself toward one part of the whole in order to ignore the rest," writes Jon Sobrino, "but rather directing oneself toward the whole from the standpoint of one part."x
A 1990 editorial in the university publication Estudios Centroamericanos (ECA) clarifies what makes the university Christian: "The UCA has always maintained that the Christian character of a university cannot be measured by the doctrines it explains, nor by the sacraments it administers, nor by the pious practices it realizes."xi Why? Because, as valuable as these might be, they are not properly speaking university work. The Christian character of the UCA is to work as a university for the realization of God's reign of justice and peace and to make real all the values which that entails. (Actually, teaching Christian doctrine is very much a part of university work in the strict sense at the UCA.)
Serving the poor -- and the truth. The university community serves the poor majority chiefly by studying the national reality, publicly denouncing abuse, and proposing solutions to poverty. The UCA tries to promote to a more just and free national life by helping to shape public opinion and the national consciousness. It is not enough simply to speak the truth in El Salvador (or elsewhere); it is necessary to unmask the distortions justify and mask an unjust social order. Reason is combative in the face of militant ignorance and stubborn manipulation.
La realidad nacional. Given this mission, the principal object of study at the UCA is, as Ellacuría insisted, "la realidad nacional." "No one should know more about the national reality than the UCA," Ellacuría used to say. Ideally, students and teachers do not study the literature of a particular discipline simply for its own sake. They study the world with the help of "the literature" in order to understand, and change, the world.xii
The UCA pursues its mission by means of three functions: teaching, research, and proyección social ("social projection"). The last includes the various ways in which the UCA "projects" knowledge beyond the campus into the wider society.
Teaching. Higher learningxiii is a critical need in El Salvador. The country lacks skilled professionals. The civil war of the '80s further crippled a weak education system. Today only half of all Salvadorans have completed six years of formal schooling. Only about two percent enters the university, with only a fraction of these graduating. In this climate the UCA's commitment to educational excellence has a disproportionate impact on the national reality. Nonetheless, while UCA administrators recognize the need to train professionals, they are clear-eyed about how ambivalent that goal can be. The value of professional training depends on the moral character of the professionals and the institutional context in which they exercise their professions. The goal of training professionals is therefore subordinated to the primary goal of social transformation – the common good of society as a whole.
Although UCA teachers and administrators want to train professionals who will favor change – or at least not oppose it –, expectations remain modest in this regard. Middle-class students predominate at the university. Although tuition is scaled according to income, the poor generally lack the financial means and the educational background to attend.
In the years of social conflict, it was well known that few UCA students identified with the administration's public positions. (This helps to explain why enrollment failed to drop after the 1989 killings.) A minority of students were closed, or hostile, to those positions. The majority, like their peers elsewhere, lacked a clear sense of the world around them, to say nothing of a commitment to change. The UCA faculty was and is another matter. Many suffered persecution or were exiled. Some were killed.xiv However, in part because of the press of more urgent needs, the faculty expended comparatively little effort to conscientize the student body during the war. Since then, progress has been made. Today's students demonstrate greater awareness and commitment, and university personnel dedicate more time to their needs.xv
Research. UCA professors and administrators try to direct research toward the analysis and solution of real national problems. Students' theses should have something to do with such problems. Research closely intertwines with proyección social.
Proyección Social. Proyección social is an original contribution to the history of the university. It includes all the ways in which the UCA directs its word beyond the campus into the society. At the UCA, proyección social is considered to be the most important of the university's three functions. Proyección social should characterize teaching and research as well, so that the three functions converge in a coherent educational service to the nation. The Jesuits at the UCA were killed for the university's proyección social.
The most characteristic forms of proyección social are those by which the UCA participates in public debate, for example, by taking part in conferences, appearances in the media, through the UCA's own radio station and its weekly television program. The radio and television programs and the public polling institute also allow the voiceless to have their voices heard.
In the mid-eighties, Ellacuría founded the Cátedra Universitaria "Realidad Nacional," a university forum where the hottest contemporary issues were publicly debated at a time when such open discussion was impossible elsewhere.
Proyección social is also part of the UCA's theology programs, which include a five-year licentiate program, a three-year religious-education program and twelve local schools conducted on Saturdays for hundreds of people in their local communities. These programs have great potential for Central America where the meaning of the gospel is hotly contested and crucial to our future.
Research and publication are also important instruments of proyección social. The UCA has a research and documentation center (CIDAI) which publishes Proceso, a bi-weekly newsletter of social analysis; Segundo Montes's human-rights institute (IDHUCA); an opinion-polling institute started by Ignacio Martín-Baró (IUDOP); the Archbishop Romero Center, which publishes the scholarly theology journal Revista Latinoamericana de Teología and the more popular Carta a las Iglesias. In addition to ECA, the UCA publishes a high-quality academic journal, Realidad. The ever-productive university press was a frequent target of bombs during the 70s and 80s.
All undergraduate students are also required to do six hundred hours (ideally!) of community service. Professors and students engage in engineering and agricultural projects, economic development, psychological assistance, legal assistance, pastoral work, and tutoring in poor communities.
What can educators elsewhere learn from the UCA experience? Naturally, we must avoid simplistic cross-contextual applications. Yet, although extraordinary circumstances helped shape the UCA, every university community can learn something from its story and its educational philosophy. We can profit from considering the importance of studying the real world, the problem of distortion (the conflictual nature of the search for truth), and the way contact with the poor and practical commitment foster learning.
Just before finishing graduate studies, I walked around the snowy campus one last time. As I passed the library, it struck me that in that great university teachers and students expended enormous effort to understand the "literature" of different fields but comparatively little in understanding the world around them. The principal object of study at the UCA is the national reality. University communities must places for serious study of social reality. The point is not just to know the literature but to know the world – and, of course, to change it.
No one should graduate from a university without knowing how wealth and income are distributed in the country, how many African-Americans live in poverty, or why so many homeless people roam the streets. In this era of globalization, and especially in the United States with its unequaled global reach, it is vital to understand la realidad mundial – global reality.
"The literature" should help us understand life in the real world. When the focus is life, our real social life, "the literature" can serve its liberating purpose. Otherwise, mastering "the literature" can distract us from reality.
We ignore the massive reality of distortion to our peril. Liberal culture portrays the search for truth as a relatively simple task of pushing back the frontiers of ignorance. As liberal culture is naive about evil in general, it fails to grasp the power, the depth, and the pervasiveness of untruth. Distortion is not the same as ignorance. Like sin, it is a complex, analogous reality. We experience "original distortion," the cognitive counterpart of what theologians call original sin. The "sin of the world" (John 1,29) produces darkness: We are surrounded and assaulted, frequently drugged, by lies and distortion about the world we live in. We put our world together in ways that both reveal the truth and distort it. We experience habitual and "actual" distortion (to follow the traditional theology of sin). We experience personal and institutional distortion.
Although not always conscious and malicious, distortion is hardly capricious. It serves particular interests and institutions. It systematically masks social reality, especially in the interests of the powerful. The search for truth is a conflictual struggle to overcome conscious lies and less-than-conscious distortions.
For this reason, the revelation of the truth frequently looks "unbalanced" from the standpoint of the dominant ideology. Cold prose spoken from the side of the poor can sound like hot rhetoric. Instead of "the disadvantaged," we talk about the "oppressed," the "impoverished" and "excluded." Although the rhetoric of the prophets of Israel sounded unbalanced to the powerful, it was no less rational or appropriate for that.
Life and the struggle for truth and goodness is a war against evil and lies. Like the prophets, the martyrs of the UCA understood this. A university which fails to grasp this will drift along, laboratories and all, in the tide of that original distortion of the dominant culture and in the service of the established disorder. It is not enough to speak the truth. It is necessary to unmask the lies.
The experience of the UCA invites us to reflect on the role of practical commitment for understanding. Ignatius of Loyola understood that we have to weigh pros and cons of various alternatives, but that commitment itself helps to shake out the data.xvi The commitment should then receive subsequent confirmation or disconfirmation.7 Christians hold that the commitment called faith aids reason in the search for truth. Saint Augustine gave us the classical formulation:Credo ut intelligam ("I believe that I may understand"). Faith spurs the researcher to a greater openness to the truth. Even in non-religious matters, it is frequently more reasonable to leap in the direction where the evidence seems to point than to cling, irrationally, only to what is immediately demonstrable. Since commitment moves the knowing process forward, students should be encouraged to take a stand – on the war against terror, or abortion, and so forth. They should take positions as humble searchers, open to new data that could challenge what they now hold.
Practical commitment, too, is vital to understanding. This subject – the relationship between theory and practice – deserves more attention than it usually receives. These days people rightly question the all-sufficiency of technical rationality. Understanding is more than observing and measuring. More than ancient Greeks and their modern disciples suppose, knowing engages the heart – and the hands and feet. From a biblical standpoint, to know means to experience and so to know intimately, even to love. This is not the whole of understanding. Scientific observation and quantification in the Western tradition adds something new, even essential. But that is not the only form of knowledge either, or even the prime analogue. We dropped something on the road from Jerusalem to Athens. We need to locate the Greek logos in a more holistic framework which acknowledges the cognitive importance of commitment and affect.
For the UCA martyrs, opting for the poor is essential for unmasking lies and uncovering the truth. Amo ut intelligam ("I love that I may understand"). Compassion should inform and focus study and research. Compassion moves us to ask why so many children die of malnutrition when we produce enough food for all and why global markets function so inequitably.
While all our viewpoints are limited, compassion (opting for the poor) leads to a change of perspective, a higher viewpoint. It is strictly necessary to the search for truth, especially in the face of original, actual, habitual and institutional distortion. The needed broader framework for education supposes that we don't see straight unless we open up to others and their needs. Within this framework formal study in the Western tradition makes sense. The question is not whether knowledge is valuable in itself – it is – or whether we should study obscure insects or obscure authors – both are legitimate. Losing ourselves in a good poem, a play or a novel is essential to humanistic education, vital to understanding life. The question is whether the moral drama of life – good vs. evil, injustice vs. justice – serves to focus study and research at the university.
The question is also whether a Christian university can afford not to take a public stand on pressing moral issues of life and death. The university which fails to resist the march of untruth and injustice (universitáriamente) shares responsibility for their advance.
Several months after the killings at the UCA, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic constitution Ex corde ecclesiae. He said this about the Catholic university:
Included among its research activities, therefore, will be a study of serious contemporary problems in areas such as the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all, the quality of personal and family life, the protection of the natural environment, the search for peace and political stability, a more equitable distribution of world resources and a new economic and political order that will better serve the human community at the national and international level. University research will have to be directed toward in-depth study Included among its research activities, therefore, will be a study of serious contemporary problems in areas such as the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all, the of the roots and causes of the grave problems of our time, devoting special attention to their ethical and religious dimensions.
The pope went on to recognize that "if need be, a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society."xvii This is what the UCA martyrs lived and died for.
In most places, university students come from the middle class and reflect the distortions (and insights) of the dominant culture. While it is well and good to speak of compassion in-forming and focusing university study, in the real world (where students are interested in a job after college, among other things), justice-and-peace studies evoke more yawns than term papers from the majority of students. Eyes glaze over when we try to share the suffering and the hope of the poor.
Articles and courses about the poor rarely do the trick. They are necessary but not sufficient. It is not enough to offer answers. As every good educator knows, the answers are worthless unless the learner has the questions. The questions that count come from experience, especially from that experience of the other who shakes my world to its foundations. We need to help students, and the non-poor generally, to experience the life of the poor – and reflect on that experience. That can achieve what lectures and slides shows cannot.
Many colleges and universities now offer students the chance to engage in service among poor people. My own earlier experience at Fordham University convinces me that, if done with sensitivity, this has great potential, especially when action is coupled with courses (or at least regular reflection sessions) that permit students to reflect on their experience. Far from distracting them from studies, this should stimulate the questions that send them to the library and inspire better term papers. When students come to appreciate how complex and difficult social problems are, they should find at the university the resources needed to penetrate to the causes and to help find solutions.
My Fordham students benefited from a simple exercise: writing a one-page reflection sheet telling, on the one hand, what they found nourishing or life-giving in the community service that week and, and the other, what they found disturbing or confusing. What was it that especially moved them? I was looking for what Ignatius of Loyola calls "consolation" and "desolation" and analogous experiences. Then they were to explain briefly why they were so affected.
These exercises and class discussions revealed that many students pass through three early stages in their encounter with the poor. After getting over their initial fear, they are thrilled and surprised to find themselves useful (some say "for the first time"!) and delighted to find that people who may have appeared threatening in the past accepted them and turned out to be "regular folks," basically decent people who were nonetheless suffering injustice. Second, the bloom goes off that rose when the students encounter frustration, discovering, for example, that down-and-out people can harbor plenty of anger below the surface or that they can be con artists. The romance fades. Third, students eventually begin to ask about the nature and causes of problems they are facing – about homelessness, drug addition, or the bureaucratic nightmares of foster-care children. They begin to tug on the string of their local situation and run up against the tangled complexity, the structural nature, and the enormity of the evil and injustice around them. This cab overwhelm them, and tempt them to bitterness or cynicism, or even to give up and drop out. If that happens, this one-shot experience turns into a simple adornment for the student's résumé rather than the occasion for enlightenment and the start of a longer journey. But that need not happen if the students allow others' suffering to break their hearts.
When suburban college students work in the South Bronx (or when a delegation of gringos visits El Salvador), if they patiently work through their fears and frustrations, they will learn important lessons from people who struggle for life and against death every day. This has been the daily reality for most of humanity throughout our history. The middle-class cultures of the North are newcomers to world history. For all its benefits, modern middle-class culture pulls us from this struggle for life – to the point that we experience a kind of low-grade, permanent disorientation about what's really important in life.
Appalling violence – sometimes the slow violence of backbreaking work and poor nutrition- threatens the poor with death before their time. If we listen attentively to their stories, we can begin to see our reflection in their eyes, hear our story in theirs, recognize our hidden struggle for life in their open struggle against death. In this way we let these strangers break our hearts. Solidarity is born.
Of course, all this can seem threatening. It reveals to us that those whom we felt inferior, perhaps subconsciously, are just like us. This often leads us to experience the grace of sweet shame and disorientation that St. Ignatius of Loyola urges the sinner to pray for in the First Week of his Spiritual Exercises. We may begin to feel as though we are losing our grip on the world (or vice versa), that world composed of important people and unimportant ordinary people. The poor can blow this world apart. "What? My government? In my name?" Things fall apart, as Yeats says. It's all more than worth it, for what is really happening is a kind of falling in love. If we allow the suffering of the poor to sweep us off our feet and out of control, we begin to feel surprisingly at one with ourselves and may find ourselves asking, Why are these people smiling? Where does their hope come from?
The rich countries enjoy abundant material goods. There we also find solid Christians with faith and love. What the wealthy societies lack is hope. In our heart of hearts we know that things are much worse in the world than we usually admit. The poor bring that crashing home to us. Then something unexpected can happen: the realization that something is going on in the world that is much more wonderful than we had suspected. Sin abounds, but grace abounds even more. We experience this among the struggling survivors – sinners, yes, threatened with death, but hoping against hope and sometimes rising to heroic generosity.
In the crisis years, Ignacio Ellacuría remarked that the eyes of the world sometimes seemed turned toward Central America. He believed that was because in these poor countries the secret drama of all our lives – the dying and the rising – was being played out in such a stark way. God is working a revolution of love in the midst of suffering and death. But we only experience the rising when we allow the dying to break our hearts. Once we do, we can find God and the rising even in the dying – not just in El Salvador, but in Newark and Appalachia, too.
Educators need to help students overcome original distortion. Middle-class students need the poor to break (open) their hearts and turn their world upside down. At the same time the poor need educated allies who can help them address structural injustice. What do the following individuals have in common: Mother Theresa and Simone Weil, Mohandas Gandhi and Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela? They were all university-educated, middle-class (or upper-class) individuals who took up the cause of the poor and made a difference in history. Part of our role as educators is to help students discover vocations similar to these generous heroes and to prevent them from sliding from graduation into the great inertial tide of getting and spending and upward mobility. Our job is not to help them join the rich and powerful, but to help them join the poor – as competent agents of change. If the college or university community can midwife fruitful engagement with the poor, it can start students on a journey with the majority of humanity, a journey for which some parents may never forgive us, but for which our graduates will never forget us.
Make no mistake. Focusing study on the realidad, taking a stand, walking with the poor, is a matter of greater academic excellence, not less. Few universities of Christian inspiration can compete with the billion-dollar endowments of public and private academies. What should they do in this situation? The experience of the UCA suggests that we should critically question the terms of competition, the criteria for educational excellence. That Christian universities cannot compete with Harvard's salaries and Stanford's science laboratories provides an opportunity to clarify – and to broaden and deepen- the criteria for academic and educational excellence by including, as a necessary component of academic rigor, the need for overcoming our middle-class biases and commitment to the poor in teaching, research, and proyección social. This epistemological advance will appear to many as academic heresy. As Jesus said, "Rejoice on that day!" A university committed in this way must be prepared to give up the kind of drive for prestige which leaves us beholden to benefactors with other priorities. We must be prepared to suffer the academic equivalence of contempt and persecution.
This is the challenge left us by the six Jesuits of the UCA who mixed their blood with that of Celina and Julia Elba – and thousands of poor, nameless Salvadorans. They died for truth, for the poor, for the glory of God, and so they inspire us to live better.
Behind the Pastoral Center of the UCA, Elba's husband, Obdulio, planted roses where these six educators gave their lives. Obdulio tended these roses until his own death in 1994. They remain a symbol not only of life but also of what a university, especially a Christian university, can and should be: a place where life is cultivated and blossoms, where the life of the poor is defended, a place where love searches for the truth, unmasks lies, and speaks a credible word about Jesus and his reign.
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(RECENT HISTORY, U.S. INVOLVEMENT,
CHURCH OF THE POOR, ARCHBISHOP ROMERO,
THE UCA MARTYRS, THE FOUR U.S. CHURCHWOMEN)
Each year the Latin American/North American Church Concerns program of the Kellogg Institute at Notre Dame sponsors a talk in memory of Archbishop Romero. The following are all available free on request from Robert Pelton, C.S.C. at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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