On Nov. 16, 1989, military thugs murdered six Jesuits at the University of Central America in El Salvador, along with their cook Elba and her daughter Celina. They all lived during terrible Civil War, when 75,000 Salvadorans were killed. But one martyr, Segundo Montes, SJ dismissed death threats and warnings to leave and return to his native Spain: “God’s grace does not leave, so neither can we.”
For those of us who live in our own tumultuous times (I won’t repeat the familiar litany), the Jesuit model offers a heroic witness that we belong where we are planted now. It’s no accident that we live in 2020, and as Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ said, “As the violence increases, we must think harder.” He also pointed out the starting point for our thinking: “all theology is conditioned by its historical present.”
Although the Jesuits were academics, this story is not primarily about thinking. They could have made their university an ivory tower; instead they made it a public forum for the voiceless. They drew attention to atrocities perpetrated by the military on vulnerable campesinos. They were close to Elba, their cook who tried to make them birthday cakes, even in an unreliable oven.
The day she died, Elba had given her best dress to a woman displaced by the bombing. Ironically, she thought her daughter would be safer if they stayed on campus the night of the slaughter. The custom of Spanish-speaking peoples is always to bless a child departing—for school, market or playground. When the bodies were found, Elba had flung her leg across her 16-year old Celina. An effort to protect? A final blessing?
We’ll never know, but we DO know that her husband, the gardener at UCA, planted six red rose bushes for the Jesuits, and two yellow ones for his wife and daughter. How true to our tradition: the risen Jesus met Mary Magdalene in a garden. On ground wet with martyrs’ blood, new life flowers.
As our own beloved country endures tumult, we ask God for peace, justice and grace during the transition and in the years ahead.