Student reflects on a pilgrimage to El Salvador and a somber anniversary

by John Killeen ‘16

“What does it mean to be a Jesuit today? To commit oneself under the banner of the cross in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and the struggle for justice, which that very faith demands…. We will not work in the promotion of justice without paying the price.”

This quote comes from the Constitution of the Society of Jesus. Ignatius students encounter Jesuits in the classroom every day, but Jesuits are not just teachers. For centuries Jesuits have been involved in crucial struggles for justice around the world. In November I traveled with a parish group to El Salvador, where 25 years ago a group of Jesuits at the University of Central America paid the ultimate price.

El Salvador has long been a place where a small group of elites controls the vast majority of the wealth while the rest if the population suffers in poverty. While the elites have been backed by the military, calls for social justice have been brutally crushed. The small number of wealthy families viewed all attempts by the peasants to unionize, climb out of poverty, or protest against violent repression as “Marxism” and pushed the military to commit atrocities against whole villages of common Salvadorans.

By 1980, tensions between the population and the military reached a breaking point after the military assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was saying mass. Days later the military opened fire on the massive crowd attending Archbishop Romero’s funeral. A brutal civil war erupted between anti-government guerrillas known as the FMLN and the U.S. backed military dictatorship government.

During the war the military and the Jesuits at UCA had a tense relationship. The Jesuits had spoken out for social change in El Salvador and had called for an end to the war. The military had accused the Jesuits of helping the FMLN by supplying them with guns, and hiding guns at the University. On several occasions, the military had ordered the Jesuits to leave the country, but they refused.

By 1989 the war had been going on for 9 years and both sides were tired of the conflict. In the early part of November 1989, the FMLN began a large offensive in San Salvador, the capital, and gained control of part of the city.

On November 13, 1989 a small military squad came to the University and knocked on the door of the Jesuit residence. The Jesuits welcomed them in and allowed them to search everything. The military didn’t find anything and the Jesuits invited the military to come back the next day to search during the daylight.

The same military squad returned in the early morning hours of November 16. The leader of the military squad knocked on the door and led the Jesuits outside with other soldiers. They were then laid face down in the yard. The soldiers also found two women, a housekeeper and her daughter, who had slept at the Jesuit residence that night in order to get away from the danger of where they lived. The soldiers brutally killed all the Jesuits and the two women. The soldiers attempted to make it look like the Jesuits were killed by FMLN guerrillas, but investigators quickly determined this was the act of the military. The massacre created outrage around the world, and is one of the primary reasons that the U.S. Congress was finally persuaded to stop funding the Salvadoran military. Once the funding stopped, the war came to an end.

Every year people gather at the University to commemorate the men and women who lost their lives. The people that gather at the University each year are gathering to show how much they care about what happened and that they appreciate what the UCA Jesuits had done not only for the University, but for the people of El Salvador.

These Jesuits stayed even after they were threatened. They spoke out for social justice and peace even when they knew the military would target them. They did it because they knew the people needed them.

I attended the 25th anniversary of the UCA massacre. Standing at the very spot it happened, I felt deep in my soul that I had witnessed something so much greater than myself. I experienced something that not very many people get to experience, and I realized that there is way more to life than just what is happening in my little bubble in Cleveland. This experience opened my eyes and allowed me break away from my day-to-day life. I feel incredibly blessed to have been a part of it.

I also received an unexpected bonus. I got to walk the candlelight procession at UCA with Father Kesicki, the former President of Ignatius who is now the President of the Jesuit Conference. I was able to just talk to Father Kesicki about what happened at UCA, and about my experience at Ignatius. Speaking with Father Kesicki made the experience that much more meaningful for me.

I learned a lot from this experience, but what stuck with me the most is that no matter what happens, being a man for others sometimes takes a great deal of courage. We should all admire these men who had the courage of their convictions and were willing to pay the price for justice.