Monday, November 16, 2009

The heroism and humanity of "very ordinary saints."

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the murder of the Martyrs of the University of Central America, a group that includes six Jesuits - Ignacio Ellacuría, Amando López, Joaquín López y López, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes and Juan Ramón Moreno - and two Catholic laywomen, Julia Elba Ramos and Celina Mariset Ramos. If you've never read these names before and know nothing of their story, a good place to start to learn about the Martyrs of the UCA is this article written about them by Jesuit Father Charles Beirne on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of their assassination.

There is little that I can say or write about the Martyrs of the UCA that has not been expressed more eloquently by others. Nonetheless, I can say that their example of heroic Christian witness in the face of oppression and violence reminds us that martyrdom remains a reality in the contemporary world. The eight people who were killed twenty years ago today by Salvadoran soldiers died because their commitment to the Gospel forced them to take a collective stand against a regime that was hostile to the Church and to the poor. For Ellacuría and the other Jesuits, this stand was made manifest in preaching, teaching and scholarship. For Julia Elba Ramos, who served the Jesuit community at the UCA as a cook and housekeeper, and for her sixteen year-old daughter Celina, this stand was expressed in simple deeds of service and accompaniment. In death, these eight were united with Christ and with the many thousands of innocent civilians who lost their lives in the senseless violence of El Salvador's brutal civil war.

Some of the best commentary that I've read regarding the events that occurred two decades ago on this date comes in this piece by Hugh O'Shaughnessy in the Guardian. A veteran foreign correspondent with forty years' experience in Latin America, O'Shaughnessy notes that the murders at the UCA coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and wonders whether the world has made much progress since:
The 20th anniversary last week of the fall of the Berlin Wall - attended by well-known political leaders, Lech Walęsa and a long line of toppling dominoes - is being swiftly followed today by the 20th anniversary of the massacre of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter by a Salvadorean army death squad.

This awkward juxtaposition will - or at least should - give pause to those who were rejoicing about the end of the Cold War and proclaiming hubristically that it had brought on an era of peace and light and liberty under the kindly aegis of the "free world," i.e. the Western powers.

Neither peace nor liberty was to be found in El Salvador and in many other parts of Latin America which [were] inaccurately termed part of the "free world" in 1989. Progress has been made recently and a new generation of leaders has arisen with Correa of Ecuador and Lugo of Paraguay standing out as avowed Christians in a constellation of determined reformers which goes from Lula in Brazil, Chile's Michelle Bachelet and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. But there is still a long way to go before decent and just societies of the sort we were promised in Berlin two decades ago are established elsewhere.
Though I have my own doubts and reservations regarding some of the "determined reformers" that O'Shaughnessy mentions, I think that it's impossible to deny that Latin America has made great progress in the last twenty years. Though challenges to the consolidation of democracy still remain, fair and free elections are now held regularly in most Latin American countries. Respect for human rights is also growing, as more and more effective efforts have been made to shed light on past abuses, bring justice to the victims, and reliably protect basic civil liberties. Even so, as one article that I've read on today's anniversary reveals, Salvadorans still struggle to realize the dreams that the Martyrs of the UCA gave their lives for.

As O'Shaughnessy rightly reminds us, the gains that have been made in much of Latin America have not been made in many other parts of the world. People who live in countries that are menaced by war or oppressed by unjust governments still wait for the era of freedom and peace which seemed to some Westerners to be in easy reach at the end of the Cold War. On this day on which we remember the Martyrs of the UCA, may we also be mindful of the challenges that still lie before us.

On a very different note, another aspect of O'Shaughnessy's piece that I appreciated is the author's recognition of the very real foibles of the individuals that many of us now regard as martyrs:
. . . one could do worse than ponder on the legacy of the eight men and women butchered that terrible night on the campus of the Central American University in San Salvador. It's heartening, for instance, to hear from one of their companions that some of them were - how can I put it? - less than perfect human beings.

I myself knew one of the martyrs slightly, the immensely intelligent Ignacio Ellacuría, and was already aware of his reputation for not suffering fools gladly. Thus when it fell to me years ago to chair a long session at a conference in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, which was running late, I was mortified - but not really surprised - when he protested aggressively that I hadn't given him the right of reply which he considered was his due.

Now in The Tablet, the Catholic weekly, Michael Campbell-Johnston, the English Jesuit who used to work for justice in a country run for the benefit of the rich, tells of two of the other martyrs whom he calls "very ordinary saints." Father Amando López, he says, used to fall asleep in an easy chair watching appalling Hong Kong martial-arts films while Father Juan Ramón Moreno was known as an exceptionally boring teacher.
I'm sure that some think that the revelation of such details dishonors the memory of Jesuits who gave their lives in the service of the Gospel. For my part, I find that such information can only make holy people all the more admirable. If eminently "ordinary" individuals with their own share of flaws and shortcomings can do great things for God, we certainly can as well.

As I see it, the line of thought considered above can be comforting as well as challenging: it may comfort us to think that the saints and martyrs we admire were people much like us, but this knowledge should also lead us to consider whether we use our natural and inevitable shortcomings to excuse our failures in discipleship. On the anniversary of the killing of the Martyrs of the University of Central America, I pray that their example may give us greater courage to follow Christ more faithfully. AMDG.


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