Thirty years ago, on 16 November 1989, the Salvadorean Armed Forces murdered two women and six Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana El Salvador (UCA). The killings took place in the Jesuit community house. The housekeeper and her daughter were killed to ensure no witnesses survived.
The event had a great impact on Jesuits around the world. It made barbarity personal. For me it was a significant stage on the journey from fascination with the romance and the rhetoric of the struggle for justice to recognition of the hard, unyielding daily reality that it involved.
I heard the news when attending a Jesuit Refugee Service meeting in Thailand. Jon Sobrino, a prominent Jesuit theologian from El Salvador who had been lecturing in Thailand at the time, came to the meeting to join us in mourning his dead companions. On the front page of the Bangkok Post was a photograph of one of the murdered Jesuits killed by his desk. Jon stopped to look, and said slowly that the bible and typewriter pictured were his.
Unspoken was the recognition that the bullets were also meant for him. Another Jesuit coming to the city for the weekend had stayed in his room.
Two years later I spent six months in El Salvador, reading theology and visiting local Catholic communities. I was attracted to El Salvador by the theology of Sobrino and other Latin American writers. It interpreted the Gospel and its promise through the life of the local poor who lived in an oppressive society.
The stories and images were vivid and challenging: communities driven from their villages and nation as part of counterinsurgency tactics, catechists and religious sisters tortured and killed for staying with their people, the vilification of theologians for their writing, and the defining image of Oscar Romero murdered at the altar after protesting against the persecution and oppression of his people.
In the Catholic tradition stories of martyrs have always had a central place. For all their horrors, they represent the triumph of life over death and of grace over sin. Their iconography offers the long triumphal view. This was true also of the images of El Salvador, full of colour, naïve in style and colour, and offering hope. In this sense they are romantic, and coloured my fascination with El Salvador. This was a right place to be, a right church to which to contribute.
Some Jesuits joked that in I989 the Salvadorean Armed forces had martyred the six Jesuits, and that in 1990 the six Jesuits martyred the rest of the Province.
On weekdays during my visit I read in the UCA library, still marked by bullet holes and with a memorial garden for those murdered. At weekends and festivals I visited the communities returned from exile in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. They were victims of the Salvadorean armed forces in the civil war. In the refugee camps their lives had focused on reflection on the scriptures read in the light of their experience. They gained the courage and confidence needed to return to settle as communities on deserted land.
In El Salvador reality took over from romance. In daily life nothing was easy, from catching a bus to negotiating military checkpoints, to sitting through seemingly unprofitable meetings in the communities. Fanciful thoughts that I might be helpful to a battered church and Jesuit Province soon yielded to the recognition that I was a burden, not a gift. Spanish that was adequate for reading, but barbarous in my speaking and insufficient for understanding, excluded any useful role.
Some Jesuits joked that in I989 the Salvadorean Armed forces had martyred the six Jesuits, and that in 1990 the six Jesuits martyred the rest of the Province. The struggle to ensure that the deaths did not affect the Jesuit mission to the church and national life dominated the life of the Province, making it difficult to deal with trauma, anger and the pain of loss, let alone to find space for visitors.
That was the hard reality of the killings in El Salvador, reflected also in the life of the communities that I visited. There the icons of martyrdom were seen in the dust, pain and heat of the daily struggle to live with little space for rest or optimism.
To celebrate the anniversary of the killing of Jesuit Rutilio Grande I travelled in the back of a ute with Grande's brother, sharing the heat and the dust. In one of the communities I met a mother whose seven sons, mainly catechists, had been killed. She spoke of each, wiping away a tear as she said of the youngest, 'I had such hope in him.' Another woman in the community walked several miles to hospital to seek treatment for a painful foot. After discovering a screw had become embedded in it she walked back again.
This, and the relentless hostility to people who struggled for a better life, was the stuff of daily life in El Salvador and the context in which people, the Jesuits among them, lived and died. Their mission was to hang in with their people even in — perhaps especially in — the midst of doubts that they were of any help or making a difference for the better. And to keep faith with life in the midst of death.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.