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A Walk With the Martyrs: Special Section

A Walk With the Martyrs: Special Section

More than 25 years ago, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered on the grounds of the University of Central America (UCA), a Jesuit university in the capital of El Salvador. The Jesuits had written, talked, researched and taught about the necessary connections between Catholic faith and social justice — not simply in theory but in the lived experience of the Salvadoran people. 

But what can sister Jesuit institutions of higher education learn from this tragedy? That was the question reflected upon during a week this past fall as The University of Scranton commemorated the 25th anniversary of the martyrs through mass, panels, films and lectures. 

Michael E. Allison, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and coordinator of Education for Justice, helped to organize the week of events. 

“When I reflect upon the labor of the martyrs, I continue to be amazed at their tireless work on behalf of the Salvadoran people,” he said. “They were exemplary teachers, scholars and servants of God. They are truly a model for 21st century Jesuit education.” 

The week of remembrance was meant to bring the community together to learn more about the martyrs and to reflect on the lessons learned during pilgrimages and service trips by faculty, students, alumni and staff. 

While some in the Scranton community are deeply engaged in the history of El Salvador and the story of the martyrs, others are just discovering the story. The week’s events were meant to educate and inspire. 

Taking Up the Cause 

The tragic history of the civil war and the murders were described during the first lecture of the week, titled “Liberation Theology and the UCA Martyrs” by Will Cohen, Ph.D., associate professor of theology/religious studies. The talk served as an overview of the history of the war and of the “extraordinary injustices” suffered by the Salvadoran people. “What the priests at the UCA did was to shine a light on these injustices in the existing system,” he said. “In a very deliberate way, they took up the cause of the Salvadoran poor.” 

The six priests followed in the footsteps of The Most Reverend Óscar A. Romero, the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador who spoke out against social injustice. He was assassinated 35 years ago, on March 24, 1980, at the beginning of the civil war. The Vatican recently declared him a martyr for the Catholic faith. 

Dr. Cohen quoted John Sobrino, S.J., a surviving faculty member at the UCA on his six colleagues: “[t]hey believed — and experience confirmed it — that more can be seen from below than above, that reality can be known better from the standpoint of the suffering and powerlessness of the poor than from that of the powerful.” 

Dr. Cohen and other lecturers and panelists spoke of an urgent need — for us all — to understand the struggle of the poor; to let the suffering in and guide us in our work. 

“The word martyr in its literal sense means witness —and it is to God’s love for humanity in the person of Jesus Christ that their lives and deaths bore witness and continue to bear witness today,” said Dr. Cohen. “May that same love animate us as we go forward strengthened by their example.” 

Building Bridges 

In 1999, a decade after the murders, Rev. Brendan Lally, S.J. ’70, former campus minister and rector of The University of Scranton, now chaplain at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, was inspired to lead the Scranton community to El Salvador “to build bridges of solidarity and understanding with the materially poor and those who suffered from war and oppression.” 

He called the program (the University’s first) “Bridges to El Salvador” and he invited faculty and staff to join him on a journey there. 

“The purpose was not simply to visit, but it was to be a ‘walk with the martyrs,’” said Fr. Lally in a recent interview. “It was to be a journey of faith in the land of martyrs.” (Read more from Rev. Lally here.)

He hoped that participants would not only return to campus “on fire for the faith that does justice,” but to act as a “bridge” to their students and fellow workers, “opening up a deeper understanding of the world and the role that a Jesuit university can have to influence, and not just reflect, the culture.” 

During the week of remembrance this past fall, 15 years after the program began, a panel of several faculty members proved they could be that bridge. These former El Salvador pilgrims shared how the experience changed them. Almost every panelist mentioned the blood stains still visible on the martyrs’ robes, displayed in the former Jesuits’ residence, as a moving juxtaposition to the serene setting of the rose garden in which they were killed. 

Panelist Debra Pellegrino, Ed.D., dean of the Panuska College of Professional Studies, said that her experience in El Salvador gave her a deeper understanding of the injustices that had occurred. Her pilgrimage encouraged her to more deeply examine her faith. She asked herself: “That blood, what does it mean to me? How can I say that I have the faith to promote justice?” Ultimately, though, reflection helped her to understand her role and reaffirm her faith: “Roses have thorns, yes, but the buds are there. There is hope. We must go beyond our walls with the poor. We must not only try to help them, but to learn from them.” 

The “Bridges to El Salvador” program grew over the years and is now run by the University’s Jesuit Center, committed to helping all who work at the University “understand and integrate their faith and their work in the context of our living tradition.” The yearly pilgrimage is now just one of the many ways that Scranton has devoted to remembering the 1989 murders. In 2001, the University dedicated Martyrs Grove as a quiet place for prayer and reflection that presents a reminder of the importance of the service of the martyrs of the UCA. Scranton has also supported international service trips for students to El Salvador. 

A Shared Mission 

University President Kevin P. Quinn, S.J., is proud that the memory of the martyrs lives on at Scranton. He has traveled to El Salvador annually for the past nine years, “motivated by the selfless quest for service and sacrifice,” as he wrote in the November 2014 issue of Connections, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU). 

In the article, part of a series to remember the UCA martyrs, he wrote of learning from, not just about, those “excluded from participation in economic, social and political life.” 

He has been humbled by the Jesuits’ example and “inspired to make their story live on in the lives of others — especially those attending and serving at our Jesuit schools.” 

“Twenty-five years ago, eight people gave their lives for this important work,” wrote Fr. Quinn. “They thought it was worth the cost. They thought it was their mission, and their actions should inspire us every day.”

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