In this second of three sessions on liberation theology and spirituality, we move from Peru (Gustavo Gutiérrez) and Brazil (Leonardo Boff) to the El Salvador of the 1980s. The overall theme is “salvation, suffering, and martyrdom.” Setting the context historically and geographically is important if we are to read and interpret the Scriptures from the perspective of those who lived, and others who continue to live, in this context. My aim in this program is to introduce the people who lived and died in El Salvador and help us to make connections, if not personally, then through the writings of the pivotal figures of the period: Óscar Romero and Ignacio Ellacuría. I have not travelled to El Salvador, but I did have an opportunity to consult with engineering professors at universities in Honduras (2008) and in Guatemala (2011).
Our Scripture reading, taken from Matthew 15:21-28, is the story of the Syrophoenician woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus refuses, but then changes his mind. What is the connection of this Gospel reading to liberation theology? How might this story nurture our spirituality and action? Commentators on this reading suggest that it was an outsider who prompted this change in Jesus. The text casts light on what it means to be a follower of Jesus in a multicultural society – one in which others may have different perspectives on faith, different even from the “established” Church. We see Jesus as a model of someone who evolves and is open to the influence of others, even as he comes to terms with his own identity and his mission beyond the Chosen People.
Óscar Romero is himself an example of someone whose faith evolved through the influence of others, and who would come to terms with his own role in the Church of El Salvador in the late 1970s. He was born in El Salvador, and except for the time he was studying in Rome, lived his whole life in his home country. While he had always been concerned about the poor and the oppressed, he was skeptical of some of the teachings coming from the 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Colombia. When his friend Rutilio Grande was killed in 1977, Archbishop Romero overcame his natural shyness and conservative perspective and began to speak out more boldly in support of the people of El Salvador. His solidarity with those who were oppressed led to his assassination in 1980.
Note. Blessed Óscar Romero will be canonized in October of this year. We expect that Pope Francis will announce tomorrow the specific date and location of the canonization.
During this tumultuous time in El Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuría and his Jesuit companions were making their voices heard. Although born in Spain and educated in Europe, Ignacio was missioned as a Jesuit to El Salvador, where he spent 42 years. He became the president of the University of Central America (UCA) in 1979. Fr. Ellacuría believed that “all theology is conditioned by its historical present.” He was an effective advocate of national dialogue and an outspoken critic of injustice. In 1989, he was gunned down by U.S.-trained members of the Salvadoran army at UCA, along with five other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter.
Note. According to America magazine, April 20, 2018, a recent court decision in El Salvador could mean the reopening of an official investigation into the 1989 massacre of the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at UCA during the nation’s civil war.
In Ellacuría’s words about poverty and justice:
Today in our situation the authenticity of the people of God goes by way of poverty and justice; they are the touchstone of the truth of the faith that is professed and of the genuineness of life as it is lived out:
- poverty, which involves incarnating all our efforts and incarnating ourselves in the reality of the oppressed majorities, and that will necessarily entail a voluntary impoverishment and abnegation on the part of those who wield power;
- justice, which involves giving to the people what belongs to the people and struggling to uproot injustice and exploitation, and to establish a new earth, wherein the life of the new human may be possible.
The theologian who has carried on the work of Ignacio Ellacuría most faithfully and most consistently over the years is Jesuit Jon Sobrino. Like Ignacio, Jon was born in Spain, is a major proponent of liberation theology, and dedicates his life to El Salvador. He was teaching and writing with Ignacio Ellacuría at the University of Central America in the 1980s. On the fateful day, Fr. Sobrino escaped assassination because he was traveling abroad at that time. In describing “the crucified people” – a term used by Ellacuría – Sobrino says,
We have learned that the world’s poor are practically of no consequence to anyone – not to the people who live in abundance, nor to the people who have any kind of power. The First World is not interested in the Third World. As history shows, it is interested only in ways to despoil the Third World in order to increase its own abundance.
We include in the list of martyrs in El Salvador Rutilio Grande, SJ (1977), Rafael Palacios (1979), Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford (1980) and Maura Clarke (1980), lay missionary Jean Donovan (1980), and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel (1980).
Q. How would you evaluate Archbishop Romero’s and Fr. Ellacuría’s actions in relation to the political unrest in El Salvador?
Q. How do the circumstances of their assassinations and that of others change the way in which martyrs’ deaths are understood today?
I recommend that you read the writings of these martyrs of El Salvador, as well as books about them. In particular, I would like to recommend the following:
Revolutionary Saint: The Theological Legacy of Óscar Romero by Michael E. Lee (Orbis, 2017) and
A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura by Eileen Markey (Public Affairs, 2016).