A Rose Garden in San Salvador14 Nov 2014
In the former Jesuit residence of the El Salvador Jesuit University there is a rose garden with eight bushes. They flower for Elba and Celia Ramos and for six Jesuits, Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Barro, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquín López y López and Amado López. All eight were murdered there by the Salvadorean Armed Forces twenty five years ago, on the night of November 17, 1989.
Elba Ramos cooked meals at the Jesuit community. Celia was her sixteen year old daughter. The Jesuits taught at the University and its associated institutes. It was a time of civil war, and the University and Jesuits were identified by the Government with the armed resistance. The crime that led to their death was their advocacy of a negotiated settlement to a war that the Government thought it could win unconditionally.
The roots of the civil war lay in the Government’s seizure and selling of communal land earlier in the century. It was accompanied by the massacre of the Indigenous population. A few families owned most of the country’s wealth and exploited the rural population. The Catholic Church as an institution was associated with the wealthy.
The Second Vatican Council committed the Catholic Church to take seriously its mission to preach the Gospel to the poor. Many priests and lay people in Latin America began to reflect with their congregations on what the Gospel meant in their situation. They began to ask why they were exploited, and how they could act to shape a more just society. In El Salvador this local organising led to conflict and to a violent response. As part of the Government’s counter-insurgency tactics catechists and villagers were murdered by the armed forces. Theologically conservative priests like Jesuit Rutilio Grande and Archbishop Oscar Romero saw what was happening to their people, called it for what it was, and were themselves killed.
Before the killings the Jesuits were advised to hide from the death squads. But they decided it would be safe to stay at the University because it was surrounded by the army. But the decision to kill them, taken at a high level of government, was entrusted to an elite army squadron. The soldiers made their way into the house, shot all the Jesuits and then Elba and Celia Ramos. They tried clumsily to make it appear a Rebel attack. Fr Ellacuría’s brains were scattered on the grass, a gesture of contempt for his ideas and an unwitting tribute to their power.
The murders caused international outrage and focused attention on the atrocities sanctioned by the Government. Enquiry followed enquiry, and the Government of El Salvador came under increasing pressure to seek a negotiated settlement. The Salvadorean defence minister later described the decision to kill the Jesuits as the most stupid thing the Government had done.
The death of Elba and Celia Ramos and the six Jesuits was significant in the life of Jesuit Social Services. Many Jesuits at the time, including those whom worked at Jesuit Social Services, were inspired by Oscar Romero and by the way in which their Salvadorean confreres accompanied and animated poor communities there. Their life and brutal death helped shape the Jesuit Social Services vision and commitment to people who were most disadvantaged in Australia.
In retrospect for all our Jesuit works the most significant feature of the murders is that in the rose garden there are not only six rose bushes, but eight. The six Jesuits are inseparable in death from Celia and Elba Ramos, the ordinary Salvadoreans whom they served while they were being served.Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications