University President John J. DeGioia and the Office of Mission and Ministry will host a week of programming, beginning on Monday, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Salvadoran Martyrs, a group of Jesuits and civilians murdered by a government death squad in El Salvador.
The 1989 assassinations occurred at the University of Central America during El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted over 12 years. During the war, the Salvadoran government killed around 75,000 civilians through bombings and death squads and is implicated in many other human rights violations. The Salvadoran Martyrs — six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter — were murdered for their dissent against the Salvadoran government and work toward protecting human rights, according to Vice President of Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J.
“They were killed because they took seriously the call of the second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church, and of the Jesuits after the Council to promote a faith that does justice, to care for not only people’s spiritual needs but their material needs, to protect not only their souls but also their bodies,” O’Brien said. “They talked concretely about economics and politics, and as a result they became a part of the civil strife in their country.”
The commemoration will include a dramatic reading of the martyrs’ story, a presentation of a solidarity cross and prayer service in Red Square, an academic panel on El Salvador in the past and present and a memorial mass.
O’Brien said that the week of events will help elucidate the connections between Jesuits, universities and social justice.
“The estimate is that over 75,000 people were killed in that decade in El Salvador,” O’Brien said. “The murders of the Jesuits were just another part of that story. What we want to share is their story. This took place at a Jesuit university.”
Executive Director of the Jesuit Commons Rev. Charles Currie, S.J., said that the murder of the Salvadoran martyrs affected all Jesuit universities.
“I think the attack on the Jesuits that night was an attack on university people and the university,” Currie said. “They were trying to develop a new kind of university, deeply involved in the national reality. And I think since that time, the Jesuits had made a commitment to a faith that does justice back in 1975.”
Currie, who coordinated Georgetown’s response to the murders in 1989, worked with then University President Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., El Salvador interest groups in D.C., The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the U.S. government and State Department to help form a solution to the violence in El Salvador.
According to Currie, Georgetown and the University of Central America were linked in many ways at the time of the assassinations.
“Georgetown had had a written relationship with the university down there,” Currie said. “A couple of the Jesuits had worked with the Woodstock Center here at the university. … The president of El Salvador [Alfredo Cristiani (GSB ’68)] at the time was a graduate, a 1968 graduate, of Georgetown, the same year as Bill Clinton. And so they were some of the reasons why Georgetown was very much involved. And we tried to make that involvement as constructive as possible.”
Currie, who will be delivering a mass in dedication of the martyrs, said that he wants to stress a Jesuit university’s ability to enact social and political change worldwide.
“There are people who say that a university should be an ivory tower unsullied by the pressures from society,” Currie said. “Well, the university is always challenged to maintain a certain objectivity. But the Salvadoran martyrs would make the case that [as] responsible intellectuals, Christians cannot sit idly by while these things are happening all around them and not making a contribution as a university and as university people.”
Before Currie discusses the role of Jesuit universities in enacting worldwide change, Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., will lead an academic panel on the past and current situations in El Salvador. O’Brien said that a large part of the discussion will focus on poverty, gangs and violence in the country.
“It’s so sad to see how gangs are ravaging the country,” O’Brien said. “The flow of drugs is also contributing to significant crime and human rights violations, and the effect of free trade and mining on the country. … When we talk about fighting for justice today in El Salvador, what does that look like? That’s what the academic panel will be focused on.”
Assistant Director of Ignatian Programs and Retreats Colleen Kerrisk (COL ’10) said that the discussion will also focus on the economic disparities in the country.
“It will also address the huge disparities between people who have and people who don’t. In 2009 I went on an immersion trip and they took us to a huge mall, and literally across the street is a tent city,” Kerrisk said. “There are thousands of people living in tents, and it’s crazy that you can hear American pop music and get McDonald’s and American Apparel and Abercrombie and Fitch, and these people don’t have plumbing.”
In addition to this week of events, the university has also honored the martyrs by planting eight rose bushes outside of Dahlgren Chapel in their memory, according to Kerrisk.
O’Brien said he believes the events will encourage students to fight for social justice through academia and faith.
“We need to share the story of these men and women and what they stood for to make sure that what they lived and died for lives on,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to tell the story, and hopefully their story will inspire students from any or no faith tradition to take their faith and education and put it into practice to help those on the margins of our society. That’s what these people did, and continue to do.”