Dying for Their People

I want to reflect on the deaths of six Jesuits and the two women who worked in their residence in El Salvador today.  On my way down on the bus during my “long experiment” – a period of four months in the novitiate spent in a situation of poverty in the Third World – I had the feeling that thmartyrs3ese men probably deserved it, mixing up in politics that way.  And then on the second day I was there, as I sat in the rose garden now covering what was the courtyard where they were killed, and heard the stories of torture of fathers and sons from mothers and wives, I became aware of the depth of what they had done.  As Paul wrote to Philemon, expressing his profound solidarity with Onesimus: “I am sending him, that is my own heart, back to you,” so their solidarity with the people of El Salvador had become so perfect that when the people died, so did they, and when they died, it was on behalf of the people.

Jesus once said: “The Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘look, here it is,’ or, ‘there it is.’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.  But, first he must suffer greatly and be rejected by this generation.”

This “he” was preeminently Christ, but it is also us.  We too must suffer before the kingdom comes.  And “this generation” is also our generation, and we will experience this suffering as Christ did.  Oscar Romero, just seconds before the shot rang out in the Church, splashing the Precious Blood of Christ all over his body, said:

“God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection. That is the hope that inspires Christians. We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.”

What will this effort entail that Romero speaks of?

“SAN SALVADOR, NOV. 16, 1989– Six prominent Jesuit priests, including the rector and vice rector of El Salvador’s most prestigious university, were killed early today along with two other persons at the house where they slept in the capital.

The priests were the most prominent victims of Salvadoran violence since 1980, when eight leftist politicians were gunned down by the military, three American nuns and a lay worker were shot dead and archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated as he said mass.

Today’s execution-style slayings, which may have been preceded by torture, took place as the government armed forces unleashed heavy air and artillery attacks on strongholds established by leftist guerrillas in the massive offensive they launched last Saturday.

At the scene of the killing of the churchmen, a Jesuit priest said witnesses had reported seeing more than 20 armed men in uniforms enter the house between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., apparently through a back door blown off by an explosive device. There was no fighting in the area, which was in the hands of the army and police under the state of emergency and night-hours curfew imposed by the government.

Several of the victims had been shot in the head. Four of the bodies had been left face down in the front yard of the blood-spattered house. Several had chunks of flesh gouged out, and the brains of two of the victims shot in the head lay several feet from the bodies.”

Fr. Kolvenbach, SJ, retired Superior General of the Society of Jesus, picks up from here:

“I remember receiving a message in the afternoon about the murders of the Jesuits in El Salvador. I will never forget that afternoon. I was very deeply shocked. I prayed, but I also had to act immediately. I went to the Holy See because we knew the names of other people who were on the list to be killed by the military, and it was absolutely necessary to bring diplomatic forces to bear to avoid further killings.

The night the six Jesuits were killed, the guerrillas were practically taking over the city; the army felt it had to take extreme, radical measures. One of the measures was to shell their own people, and another was to erase, as they put it, the leadership of the guerrillas. The Jesuits did not belong to the guerrillas, but for years and years they worked as an intellectual group to promote justice in El Salvador and to help the poor to come out of their misery. That was sufficient for the military to consider them as very dangerous.

I have to say that I was not surprised at the murders. But I really believe that if we look back on this story, we will see that the source, the motivation, the strength of everything that happened was not politics, nor was it ideology; it was really the living gospel. Here were people who took the gospel of our Lord as reality and, like the Lord, spoke up to defend the poor. It was not at all out of political or ideological reasons that they acted; they had become aware that you cannot call yourself Christian without sharing Christ’s preference for the poor.

I visited them a few months before they were murdered, and we shared a lot with one another. I told them what I had been asked repeatedly by the parents of students at the Jesuit schools in Latin America: Father, why are the Jesuits of today not like the Jesuits of the past? So many of them today are Communist or leftist. So I brought up this matter to the Jesuits at the UCA during a meeting. When I said this, they all smiled. Fr. Ellacuría said, ‘Do you believe that we would give our lives for Marx and his theories?’ We are companions of Jesus; that’s the mystery of our life.”

And that is the precondition for martyrdom.  The most basic precondition is that you are a companion of Jesus and for this reason are experiencing the consequences.  What is it to be martyred?  It is the most radical form of solidarity.  It is saying, through the very fabric and act of one’s existence that one wants to be the other, to share in the life of the other, so much, that you will even replace his death with yours, give him back his life, by letting yours be taken, precisely because there is no reason that your life is more important than his.  But, as Father Bill O’Malley says in one of my favorite quotes,

“Martyrdom cannot be improvised.  Either a whole lifetime prepares one for it, or it will never occur.  There are warnings for those who dare to love so vulnerably for a lifetime.”

So what is solidarity, a word we throw around so freely?  Maybe Leon Bloy puts it best:

“Every man who begets a free act projects his personality into the infinite. If he gives a poor man a penny grudgingly, that penny pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes into suns, crosses the firmament, and compromises the universe.  If he begets an impure act, he perhaps darkens thousands of hearts he does not know.”

But, I think, if he performs a pure act, especially an act so pure as the giving of one’s life, how can we measure the infinite value of such an act of solidarity?  How can we measure the infinite benefit it has, bringing a torrent of the precious blood of Jesus splashing down abundantly upon our darkened world.

4 Responses to Dying for Their People

  1. Virgilijus Kaulius says:

    While great in and of itself, my own soul thirsts
    for more spiritual content as to the mystical
    significanse of such a Kyros event:
    mere sociological plus psychological reflections
    are insufficient…to plumb the depths of what
    Providence is doing through such events, in the
    application of the Triumph of Failure through
    the Force of Ones!!!

    This is not mere murder, this is not mere
    injustice. It is more than all these human
    verbal instrumentalities combined. It is mystery
    calling for spiritual dissection. To the goal
    of raising our mystical soul awareness levels
    for what creation continues to groan under the
    hand of the Creator….because this event is
    not a typical imitation of Christ event. It is
    significantly more than that, at a higher plane
    and at a higher level of confusion.

  2. Rachel Phillips says:

    Nathan, what a beautiful post. Lately I feel a void in my life…like I could be doing more to be laying down my life each day. I need to discipline myself more in little things. Life in Prosser, WA seems to easy lately. Thank you for this challenging post and very touching post.I so much desire to be holier…Lord please give me more grace and strength!

  3. In recently defending the unique sanctity of the
    Jesuit Surin, of the 17th Century (which produced
    the most Saints for the Church), maybe there is
    merit for the application of some of his own
    spiritual suffering to our contemporary souls
    in El Salvador: Fools for Christ! Since they
    performed as such in the eyes of those who
    made them Saints, through Martyrdom?!

    “Folly for Christ,” is one of Ignatius’ Charisms!

    This Tradition (Perfect Fool, Perfect Idiot,
    in the Praetorium with Christ!)stands as a protest
    against every attempt to conform the Gospel to
    secular ideology, the pseudo wisdom of this world!

    Surin joins that blessed company of men and women
    who have suffered martyrdom, not just at the hands
    of earthly rulers, but through the activity of
    the powers of evil in the depths of the soul!
    And I posit that our brothers in El Salvador
    suffered not just in that last moment of physical
    martyrdom, but during the time before, in the
    depths of their respective souls! Since martyrdom
    is normatively not just a moment, but a process
    with a climaxing event….as is the experience
    of some and not the many, as in our Age, the age of
    Auschwitz and the Gulag and the Killing Fields
    and Siberia and….El Salvador.

    ‘The practise of St. Francis and the very great
    instinct of St. Ignatius to be reckoned a fool
    and even to do the actions that will lead to
    our acquiring such a title -this is the result
    of that Secret Wisdom of Jesus Christ which
    the saints regard as a precious stage in the
    Spiritual Life, although they say one must
    not express such instincts lightly or without
    the ultimate goal of the Glory of God.’
    (Surin: “Catechisme Spirituel” written 1654-55)

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