This November marks the 20th anniversary of the massacre at the Jesuit university in El Salvador, presenting an opportunityto reflect on its significance.
The massacre began in the early hours of Nov. 16, 1989, when a U.S.-trained commando unit entered the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) and murdered six Jesuits and two women who were sleeping in a parlor attached to the Jesuit residence. The Jesuits included the university rector Ignacio Ellacuría, 59, an internationally known philosopher; Segundo Montes, 56, head of the sociology department and the UCA's human rights institute; Ignacio Martín-Baró, 44, the pioneering social psychologist who headed the psychology department and the polling institute; theology professors Juan Ramón Moreno, 56, and Armando López, 53; and Joaquín López y López, 71, founding head of the Fe y Alegría network of schools for the poor. Julia Elba Ramos, who cooked for the Jesuit seminarians, and her daughter, Celina, 16, were killed as well to ensure there would be no witnesses to the massacre. Ironically, the women had sought refuge at the Jesuit residence, frightened by the noise of gunfire near their cottage on the edge of the campus.
Like many others, the UCA martyrs were killed for how they expressed their faith in love. In a country where only a tiny minority finishes high school and fewer still can pay tuition, they realized that they could not limit their mission to teaching a privileged elite and carrying on research on just any topic. In this climate, they sought to shape their university to serve the wider society. They scaled tuition sharply according to students' family income. More importantly, they sought countless ways to enter and influence public debate. Through the university's human rights institute, its polling institute, its research and documentation center, and its frequent publications, and through appearances in the media, public conferences, and paid statements in the newspapers, the UCA sought to unmask the lies that justified the status quo, characterized by extreme economic inequalities, political exclusion, and systemic violations of fundamental human rights. At the same time, the university worked to make constructive proposals for peace and a more humane social order. As scholars at a university of Christian inspiration, the Jesuits and their colleagues felt especially obligated to serve the truth in this way. Naturally, this threatened the powerful, who opposed change, and the military, who were responsible for so many atrocities.
The Jesuits, like educators elsewhere, wrestled with ambiguities. Why do students come to our university? How much of what goes on here is the pure search for knowledge, and how much the search for economic security? What do we study, and what don't we study? Who gets in, and who gets excluded? What price prestige?
With realism, the Jesuits and their colleagues set high standards for the UCA, which we can translate freely here for a wider audience. First, the chief subject of study has to be reality itself; above all the core issues of life and death, justice, grace vs. sin. Second, the university must practically engage the suffering world it seeks to understand, serve, and help transform. Third, the university should take a principled stand on the crucial moral issues of the day—not just abortion, we might say today, but also war, lying in public, and torture. To search for knowledge without this kind of commitment would not only unduly limit the university's mission, it would also signify a lack of rigor in searching for the truth. It would imply a failure to appreciate how bad things are, not only in places like Central America, but also in places like the U.S. It would mean failing to recognize and overcome the shared prejudices and blind spots of the middle-class society to which most of us university people belong.
The UCA martyrs knew they were risking their lives. But that was the price of being human in their circumstances. That was the price of following Christ. It was the price of carrying out their university mission. Twenty years later we give thanks for them. While we cannot simply copy what they did in a different time and place, their creative generosity can inspire us to live up to the challenge of our own times, to educate minds and hearts to change the world.