“Being a Jesuit can be dangerous.” So said Michael O’Sullivan SJ on the thirtieth anniversary of the El Salvador martyrs on November 16th in his paper to the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in California. The best known of the six Jesuits martyred that night is Ignacio Ellacuría who was the Rector of the Jesuit University of Central America. Fellow Jesuit, Rutilio Grande, whom Pope Francis acknowledges influenced him greatly, was assassinated in El Salvador twelve years earlier. His cause for beatification is now nearly complete. Michael has written a chapter on both Ellacuría and Grande in books published by Messenger Publications and edited by Paddy Carberry, SJ. In the first-ever paper of an Irish Jesuit accepted for presentation at the prestigious AAR in its 110-year history he concentrated on Ellacuría, whom he welcomed to Milltown Park in 1981.
He reminded the packed room in San Diego that just over 50 years ago the Latin American Catholic bishops stated, “By its own vocation, Latin America will undertake its liberation at the cost of whatever sacrifice”. The assassinations of Ellacuría and companions prove how prophetic those words were.
Michael’s paper highlighted that the Salvador martyrs died as martyrs because they lived a Christian and contextualized spirituality of liberation. He highlighted how Ellacuria in his leadership of the university dedicated himself to seeing that the normal functions of a university such as research, teaching, public lectures, publications and what he called ‘social projection’ served what he called “the liberation of the Salvadorean people”. He took this approach because, for him, “A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence, excellence needed in order to solve complex problems … It does mean that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to promote and legitimate their rights”.
He was clear that, in the context of the violence and oppression of El Salvador, “a university that fights for truth, justice, and freedom cannot fail to be persecuted.” But, for him, the approach he was taking would enable the university to address what in 1986 he called “the original violence of structural injustice in the country, which violently maintains through economic, social, political and cultural structures, the majority of the population in a situation of permanent violation of their human rights”. To those who claimed that such an approach would compromise the academic rigour and independence expected of a university, Ellacuría responded unambiguously: “The university should strive to be free and objective, but objectivity and freedom may demand taking sides”. He was quite clear that the University of Central America took the side of the poor “because they are unjustly oppressed”.
Ellacuría arrived at this clear and sure conviction, Michael said, not only because of his contact with the oppressed poor and his study of their situation but also, and even more profoundly, because he contemplated the poor of El Salvador on their cross while engaged in contemplation of the crucified Christ. Ellacuría, Michael continued, was led to see the Salvadoran reality with the eyes and the feelings evoked by Christ on Golgotha. This opened his capacity to love on to unexpected depths and unexpected dimensions of meaning and sensibility. It meant that his mysticism was “a mysticism of open eyes”.
Despite the horror and tragedy of that November dawn in 1989, when soldiers armed and trained by the US broke into the Jesuit residence on the grounds of the university and killed Ellacuría, his Jesuit companions, and the mother and daughter who had taken refuge with the community after the army had damaged their home, the Salvador martyrs, Michael concluded, remain defiant; far from being silenced they call us now in our lives and times to deepen in ourselves. and serve, the liberating love of a historically mediated salvation in diverse contexts such as the trafficking of refugees and the destruction of the planet.
The attendance at the AAR this year included several past presidents of the global Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, as well as the current President-Elect and members of the Board of Directors. Michael has served on the Board of Directors of the Society and currently serves on its International Relations Committee and the editorial board of its journal, Spiritus.
He was greatly encouraged by the feedback to his paper from those in attendance many of whom found it “moving, inspiring and an encouraging witness to the deep truth of the Christian faith. “