Mysterious Fruit


A Quote from the Provincial on the martrys of El Salvdor " In death they have shared the fate of so many poor Salvadorans, assassinated because they sought liberation through peaceful means."

Michael Kirwan SJ reflects on the significance of the martyrs of El Salvador, 25 years on, and their message for us today

The assassination of six Jesuit priests and two lay helpers at the University of Central America in El Salvador on 16 November 1989 was a horrific act of violence, one of many in a particularly brutal civil war. Like every act of Christian martyrdom, however, it is also a life-giving event, mysteriously fruitful of all that is the opposite of cynical cruelty. Like the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and Fr Rutilio Grande SJ in 1977, these deaths have produced hope and vision for those who are left behind.

The individuals who are being remembered in this 25th anniversary year are a varied group: a philosopher (Ignacio Ellacuría, also the rector of the University), a sociologist (Segundo Montes), a social psychologist (Ignacio Martín Baró); theologians (Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López); an educationist (Joaquin López y López); and a mother and daughter, horrendously caught in the conflict (Julia Elba Ramos and Celina Ramos). Ironically the two women were eliminated so as to ‘leave no witnesses’: and yet the testimony of these men and women, 25 years on, is radiant.

Service of the Poor

It is nothing short of heroic to involve oneself in higher education and research in a way that can actually make a difference to the poorest. All centres of learning, including Jesuit ones, struggle to survive in the face of market-led pressures on the academy. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis warns academics that they should not regard themselves as exempt from prioritising the poor. That a group of academics, from theology, philosophy and other disciplines, should lose their lives because they dared to put their learning at the service of the poor, consoles me: sometimes we get it right. As Jon Sobrino, the prominent Jesuit theologian who was absent from the community when the killings took place, but was certainly one of the prime targets of the assassins, described it:

The University should become incarnate among the poor, it should become science for those who have no science, the clear voice of those who have no voice, the intellectual support of those whose very reality makes them true and right and reasonable, even though this sometimes takes the form of having nothing, but who cannot call upon academic reasons to justify themselves.

With the news of the deaths, there were offers from Jesuit academics all over the world, to take the place of their murdered brothers.

The deaths of the Jesuits and the two women were ‘sacramental’, as were the deaths of so many unnamed civilians and other religious: a ‘cloud of witnesses’. Some made a decisive choice to stay and be vulnerable; many others had no such choice.
Julia and Celina, like so many others, have their own testimony to give, alongside their Jesuit co-workers. Twenty-five years later, women continue to be especially vulnerable, as we have seen from the example of extreme Islamism, at the same time as they continue to be undervalued in the Church. During recent decades Jesuits have expressed, in an official decree, their solidarity with women – this was, for many both within and outside the Society, a controversial gesture.


In the light of our current conflicts with the ’war on terror’, we need to keep in mind why these people were killed. They fell victims to the purest human greed, a military political system which served to protect the wealthiest families of El Salvador, and which would not tolerate any change to their exclusive status quo. But the ideology of fear also played its part. The protection of this system by the US arose from a hideous ideological decision: to regard international communism as the supreme human evil, which had to be suppressed at all costs, especially in America’s own backyard. This was the idolatrous doctrine of ‘national Security’.

The cost was borne by thousands, killed in anti-Communist struggles across Central and South America, but also by the disfigurement of the US’s claim to moral authority. For many, the same mistakes seem to be apparent in the War on Terror, where fear and ignorance of another great international enemy can lead the West towards similar escalations of conflict. In such situations, no compromise is possible: ‘you are either for us or against us’, and those like the Jesuits who reject this crusading polarisation, who seek a just reconciliation from the middle-ground, risk their own destruction.

A theological reading of these deaths – as martyrdom – calls attention to those who died, because they ‘make the body of Christ visible’, to quote the theologian William T. Cavanaugh. He speaks of the sacramental witness of deaths such as these, giving as an example the decision of Archbishop Romero on 20 March 1977 to prohibit all Sunday Masses in the country except the funeral of Rutilio Grande SJ, together with the old man and boy who were shot with him. Such an intense, concentrated focus upon the altar, soaked as it were with contemporary blood, underlines the significance of Eucharistic sacrifice. So, too, does the proclamation of the word presente, when the names of the dead are read out during Mass. It is a word which will be shouted often and loudly in El Salvador during this 25th anniversary.

Michael Kirwan SJ 

READ MORE on Thinking Faith:


Who were the Jesuits of El Salvador?

A Reflection on the Jesuit martrys of El Salvador