A Pilgrim's Journey
Richard Super

A journal on the expereince of traveling to El Salvador on the 10th Anniversary of the deaths of the UCA Martyrs

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November 12, 1999

It’s 11:00 P.M.  I’m still in my office but at least, I now have enough done of all that I had to do before I could leave for the six days in El Salvador.  Now I’m getting excited, as I always do on the eve of another experience, maybe another adventure in Latin America.  The place, its people, culture, history, its pride, its poignancy, its pathos has always fascinated me.  I’ve never tired of studying it or teaching it or experiencing it.  So the excitement is nothing new, really.  I felt it on my way to Chile, to Peru and Bolivia, to Mexico, to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Still, there is something different this time.

My preparation has been largely the same.  I’m reading Death Foretold, Martha Doggett’s published report on the events of 1989 and the ensuing investigation.  I’ve also been trying to catch up on what’s been going on in El Salvador recently, so I might better understand what I see and the people I meet.  I always did that.  But there’s something different this time.

I think that I began to realize that difference at noon today when I stood with those going with me tomorrow as well as those headed to Fort Benning next weekend.  I began to realize more fully that this was not going to be simply another academic junket, another intellectual exploration.  This was going to be a journey of the heart.  This time I won’t just be walking historical ground.  This time I will find myself on holy ground, the place where six men and two women died for their faith, their witness, or their innocent association.  Now I’m wondering how I will respond to that critical moment.  Now, I’m wondering if I would ever have the faith and the courage to do the same.  Now my excitement is tinged with a growing measure of admiration and gratitude for those who sacrificed so much for me and for all of us. 

Now I’m ready to go. 

November 14, 1999
Guarjila, El Salvador.  

There seemed something odd, something out of place at Mass in the large, square, cement-block church this afternoon.  It wasn’t that it started more than 45 minutes late; that was almost to be expected in this Latin American society.  And it wasn’t that the church was packed, every inch of the rowed benches taken, virtually all of them by women and girls, the men and boys lingering over conversation outside, or peering through the open windows, or at best hanging around the back wall with a studied look of disinterest.  No, public piety is still deemed unmanly here.  Maybe it was the noise, not that uncommon at a town gathering, especially in a concrete-floored, tin-roofed building, except that it was so loud and so constant and so swirling that attention to the Mass was strained, if not impossible.   It was at that point that I realized the source of the bedlam.  It came from children, dozens of them, mostly very young, all seemingly mobile and vocal at the same time.  Then I smiled.  In this community of former war refugees, many of whom had spent the 1979-1992 war years in struggle, in flight, and in exile, there could be no better evidence of restored peace than a horde of little children.  

I remember turning and looking at the bell that hung from a leafless tree limb in the corner of the dusty town square.  Its function was to call the people of Guarjila to attention, often in the past to warn them of impending danger.  Today, it stood unattended, almost forlorn.  Today, amid the colorful chaos of a community celebrating its faith, it was surrounded by the joyful noise of peace.   

November 16, 1999
Former Jesuit Residence, the University of Central America, San Salvador.  

I could feel it the moment I started up the stairway.  Built into a hillside, the Centro Monseñor Oscar Romero featured an entrance up to the garden where the Jesuits had been slain ten years ago this night.  I had already seen the grisly photographs taken of the corpses, difficult to consider but so revealing of the event’s true brutality.  And I had gone through the museum where personal belongings and the clothing of the victims are arrayed.  Those viewings, however, were done at what was for me an emotional distance.  Now I was heading up to the site of the slayings, where they actually happened in 1989.  For me, the historian, there has always been something magical, something mystical about the actual site of an historical event, as if one could experience a bit of what had occurred there by walking its ground.  As I walked into the late morning’s sunlight, my heart rose in my throat.

The warm tranquility of the place stood in stark contrast to the violence that it recalled.  Set off by a low, rope-chain and accompanying plants was a square plot of yard, dotted with rose bushes, some of them obviously older, though a few had been planted more recently, most of them blooming in red, next to two that were white.  I had heard that the husband of Elba Ramos, and thus the father of Celina, had put in the roses—six red for the Jesuits, two white for his family—shortly after the murders.  There were more than the original eight now, but the poignancy and the serenity of the remembrance remained as strong.  I sat on stone planter and pondered the setting in its past and its present.

At some point, I got up and walked down a back pathway to the alley and the pedestrian gate though which the soldiers had entered the campus grounds ten years ago.  Retracing my steps, I strode up the hill, past the rose garden and down a short flight of stairs to where the bedrooms had been, all the way to the end one where the two women had huddled in terror awaiting their fate.  Turning back along the corridor and up the stairs, which had once been stained with bloody boot prints, I returned to the garden, stood for a moment in thought, and then sat down once again on my stone perch.  Then it dawned on me—in the steps taken, I had just made of myself a soldier on that horrible night.  Pursuing that contemplation, I imagined them: fairly young, frightened by the escalated fighting that had begun in San Salvador a few days earlier, carrying out orders to remove the threat posed by these “communist sympathizers,” if not supporters.  I  suspect that most of those soldiers left the scene that night, shaken, but probably convinced of their righteousness.  They may have even attended Mass and received communion the following Sunday, considering themselves good, Catholic men.  The images left me with unsettling questions: if both the Jesuits and the soldiers, both the slayers and the slain, believed themselves good Catholic men, who do I say that I am?  And how am I living out my faith? 

November 18, 1999
Convento San Jacinto, San Salvador.  

We leave in a few hours.  Tomorrow at this time, I’ll be scurrying around, trying to catch up on all the work that has piled up since I left.    But what will I take with me from this place and this experience?  What will stand out from all that I have seen, heard, smelled, and touched over the last six days?  My first impression is a chilling one.  It seems that for six straight days we have visited, pondered and prayed at one spot after another where someone has been murdered or is buried.  There was the long, desolate road out of Aguilares where the Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande, an old peasant and a teenager riding with him, were gunned down in 1977, the spot marked by a trio of crosses and a few paper flowers.  With great anticipation, we had entered the bright and airy hospital chapel where Oscar Romero had fallen from a single bullet of an assassin’s rifle in March, 1980.   We had stood before the Chalatenango graves of Maryknoll sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford, viciously assaulted and killed a few months later along with two lay volunteers whom they had just picked up at the airport.  We had prayed at the rose garden on UCA’s campus, site of the slayings of six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper and her daughter one terrible night in 1989.  We had even eaten pupusas in the humble rectory of San Antonio Abad, a parish in the poor, crime-ridden barrio of Despertad, where years earlier, a tank had crashed though the front gate, later leaving behind the bodies of the pastor, Fr. Alonso Navarro and three of his young parishioners. Would this be the El Salvador that I would bring home with me, an image of a country and a people—more than 70,000 of them killed from 1979-1992--wounded and forever scarred by the horrific violence of their recent past?

While one cannot and should not deny nor forget the ravages endured by the people of El Salvador for thirteen years, only a short time later, like the floor of a forest even soon after being swept by a raging fire, there were also signs of new and persevering life.  There was the touching simplicity of Archbishop Romero’s bedroom, maintained exactly as he left it on the morning of his death, serving as symbol and model of a life lived, even from grand heights, with “a preferential option for the poor.”  There were the dancing eyes of Luis, one of the many young children in Guarjila, who playfully bugged me for a coin.  There was the the unexpected dedication of former student of mine whom I literally bumped into amid the post-Vigil Mass crowd and who was spending two years of her life working in the once war-torn village of Arcatao, along the Honduran border.  Finally, there was the person of Jon Cortina, S.J.  Friend and acquaintance to Rutilio Grande, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria and the others at UCA, this soft-spoken, chain-smoking Salvadoran professor of engineering continues to work tirelessly to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, a task for which so many around him gave up their lives.  Whether it’s in teaching his university classes, hearing confessions under a banana tree in the countryside, campaigning to establish the whereabouts of some 500 children abducted by the military during the war, or spending countless hours in generous friendship with a  group of awkward Americans, Cortina will represent for me more than any other my experience of El Salvador—bowed perhaps by the burdens of the past but nevertheless living out each day in the hope and the trust of God’s love, just as he and all of us were promised.   

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