On the 1st Anniversary
A letter from the Wisconsin Province Provincial

The Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus


Office of the Provincial

Feast of Christ the King, 1990

Dear Brothers in Christ,

As you know, John Mace and I spent five days in El Salvador “proclaiming the death of the Lord until He comes.”  For in commemorating, honoring, and celebrating the death of six brother Jesuits and two women murdered with them, were we not proclaiming the central mystery of our faith?  “Do this in memory of me,” was the command of Jesus to us as He prepared to lay down His life for us.  To do this remembering on the blood-soaked soil of this tiny but beautiful country was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

Since returning, I have been barraged by many questions.  All of these, however, come down to two:  How was it?  What did you achieve by going there?  I will try to answer both.


In trying to answer this question and to write this letter, I have found myself strangely and uncharacteristically wordless.  A certain numbness afflicted me after my return – like coming home from the dentist.  This surprised me, since the five-day experience was at once so terrible and wonderful, so frightening and encouraging, so heartbreaking and consoling, so sorrowful and so joyful.  I thought I would have no trouble at all putting it into words.  But the words have come only slowly, haltingly, and painfully, if at all.  I found I could talk about various incidents of this pilgrimage of solidarity, describe certain persons or details, tell a few stories; but I couldn’t tap into my own inner experience of those days.

Then on Thanksgiving Day, this frozen state melted when I read these words in the Breviary:

Thus said the Lord, my God:  “Shepherd the flock to be slaughtered.  For they who buy them slay them with impunity, while those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the Lord, I have become rich!’” (Zechariah 11:4-5)

Suddenly I understood:  The reason I cannot easily share the inspiration is because I am still filled with outrage.  I’m not used to that.  I don’t know what to do with it, as it boils inside of me.  I think, though, if I can first say it, let out a little steam, I will then be better able to share with you the genuine inspiration and far-reaching significance of this experience.

The Outrage

Let me register this in three steps.  (1) To visit a killing field that is the backyard of a Jesuit residence and a community connected with a Jesuit university is terrible enough.  (2) To discover firsthand that these murders are part of an official policy, one that has lasted for more than 15 years and has taken tens of thousands of precious human lives, makes it so much worse.  (3) To realize that these heinous massacres are done with complete impunity and with the support (including money, weapons, and military training) of our own government renders it unacceptable and outrageous.

We Jesuits in the United States and the rest of the world were stunned that an army could simply march in and execute the Jesuit president of a university and his fellow Jesuits, along with two witnesses, and get away with it.  But the people of El Salvador were not stunned.  Rather, they were surprised it took this long.  After all, it has been the national policy determined by the military simply to eliminate anyone – individuals, groups, or villages – who question, resist, speak out, or interfere with the military’s unspeakable desecration of the Salvadoran people.  As Archbishop Romero stated it so plainly, “They kill those who get in their way.”  And after the killing comes the lies, a whole pack of them.  This provides a curtain of respectability behind which the assassins can hide.  Since it is the job of a university to unmask lies and pursue the truth, university people remain the special targets of the military.

I had heard all this before, of course.  But to see it, to breathe it, to feel it, to touch it, and to be immersed in it is quite another matter, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forget it.  I certainly will not be able to shake off the horror I will always have of any form of militarization.  Yes, I am outraged by this, and I am also ashamed of whoever in our own system of government continues to support, with millions of dollars, this unspeakable group of murderers and assassins euphemistically referred to as the military.  The truth of this awful reality, dark and repetitive as it is, must be made known!

The Inspiration

I don’t have this indignation out of my system and I suspect I never will, but now I feel free to tell you about what made those five days in El Salvador days of such extraordinary inspiration, consolation, and jubilation.

What is it, after all, that attracted so many church people from so many faraway places?  Isn’t it, when all is said and done, the basic and common desire, instilled by God’s spirit deep in our hearts, to give witness to our faith and love for Jesus?  Those eight people are true martyrs in every sense of that word.  In the early Church, “martyrs” were those who refused to take part in sacrilegious worship and were put to death for that refusal.  How can we not call these people martyrs, since they refused to bow to the idols of our own time, wealth and national security, and unmasked these idols by telling the truth about the totally unjust situation in El Salvador and pointing to the true God and the true way of life revealed in Jesus Christ.  That is why they were killed.  We rejoiced in their victory, we admired their likeness and closeness to Christ, and we even envied them in their martyrdom.  Caressing the earth sanctified by their blood – “precious in the sight of God” – I felt the words of St. Cyprian:  “What could be more desirable or more joyful for me than to embrace you now, to be encircled by those pure and sinless hands that have kept the faith of the Lord and refused to offer sacrilegious worship?”

I have to confess feelings of intense pride in being a Jesuit.  Not only because of those six who have fallen victims to the sin of the world, but also because of all the Jesuits of Central America and those who replaced our slain brothers.  Fr. José María Tojeira, the provincial, has been a tower of strength and a pillar of truthfulness in this whole crisis.  Jon Sobrino, a classmate of ours at Fusz, whose unbloody martyrdom has been surviving the death of these beloved men he lived and worked with for so many years and telling the world the truth about them and why they died, slept in his room for the first time since the night exactly a year ago that his brothers died.  He told us he slept soundly and peacefully.

And then there is Jon Cortina, another good friend and classmate from Fusz.  What a joy it was to travel with him to the re-settled villages where he is so beloved, and to meet those beautiful people of his, so courageous in their struggle, so solid in their faith, so hopeful in their poverty.  Always smiles on their faces!  And what an inspiration it is to watch Jon, who gave up teaching engineering at the university in order to minister to them, encourage them, enliven them, and lead them in Eucharistic worship and praise.  John Mace and I treasure that trip and the time we shared with Jon.  We know we may never see him again, because, like all others who serve the poor in El Salvador, he is a marked man.  In Las Flores we met a little boy who was recently asked by government soldiers:  “Where is your pastor, Fr. Cortina?  We are going to kill him and drink his blood!”  There’s a bullet hole in the jeep we drove in, a couple inches from the driver’s head.  The soldiers tried to scare him away, but Jon shares the Basque folly, stubbornness, and courage of his countryman, Ignatius Loyola.

The Mass on the anniversary of the martyrdom and the procession and vigil preceding it were as deeply, quietly, and solidly joyful as can be imagined.  They were also lively and at times lighthearted, in accord with the spirit of this suffering but buoyant people.  There were songs and poems, processions and dances, quiet visits and fervent prayers.  At the Mass were the Archbishop of San Salvador, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and a dozen or so bishops from abroad and from El Salvador.  There were about the same number of provincials from the United States, Europe, Canada, and Central America, delegations from Europe, Latin America, and the United States (including Rick Abert, Don Doll, Mike McNulty, and Mary Beth McBride-Doyle), compesinos, university students – some four or five thousand people of faith, hope and love.  The Papal Nuncio and Father General’s representative were there.  Also present at the side of the altar were relatives of all six of the slain Jesuits and the husband and father of the two women, who placed on the altar glass jars containing the blood-soaked earth from their Garden of Gethsemani.

Fr. Tojeira gave the homily and spoke movingly of their lives and deaths, linking them with the martyrs of Paraguay, with Rutilio Grande, with Archbishop Romero, and all the others who have taken to the limit the Jesuit tradition of faith lived out in justice, mercy, and love.  He called us all in hope and fidelity to carry on that tradition in these difficult times and situations.  It was my great delight and a special honor to be there with John Mace as your representative.  Echoing through my mind often were the words of Peter, James, and John at Tabor:  “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”


What did we achieve by going there?  That is the other question I’ve often been asked.  I think I may have already answered it in part.  It was good for us to have been there, and it was not at all hard to pick up in the eyes, smiles, and words of the Salvadoran faithful that it was good for them that we were there.

But will it change anything?  Will it make things any better?  I was often told that it will.  You see, it is really a matter of the right to life.  Hitherto, the military can and does detain, torture, or eliminate people with total impunity.  After all, of what account is the life of a compesino?  Sometimes they are detained, beaten, or killed for sport or simply to show who’s in charge.  And no one pays any attention when they die.  This outrageous violation of human rights, these unspeakable crimes and hideous massacres, as well as the everyday and less tragic violations of human dignity (some of which even we visitors experienced) can’t be concealed anymore.  A little corner of the veil of absolute control of the web of violence, has been lifted, and what is uncovered is the world of death, the world of injustice, the world of lies designed by the army.  The so-called “investigation” of the Jesuit murders may indeed be a mockery, but that, too, further reveals how totally and hopelessly unjust the whole situation is.  Perhaps even the U.S. State Department will recognize it!  The cover-up, like all evils, backfires, and the perpetrators fall into the pit they dig.

Even if the investigation fails, even if there is no real change in the military there or in the complicity of the U.S. here, these deaths and our honoring them will not be in vain.  There are enough of us to remember what they did in their lives and to keep alive the hope, the truth, the justice, and the spirit for which and in which they worked and gave their lives.  The husband of Elba said it best, perhaps, when he explained why he planted roses where the eight fell:  “It is important that their memory never dies.”  When peace and justice finally come to El Salvador, as a sign of the coming of God’s Kingdom, God’s reign, it will be partly because of their martyrdom.  “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil.”  From Abel to Ellacuria and on, the voice of blood calls down the justice of God and builds the new and eternal Jerusalem, the city of peace and love.

When Jon Cortina took us to the church in Las Flores, he showed us a wooden cross the compesinos had made for the tenth anniversary celebration of Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom last March.  Remarkably, it is sprouting branches and leaves, even though it was placed on solid rock.  Once again, the cross of the Lord stands revealed as the tree of life, and our dead brothers and their beloved Archbishop Romero are alive in Christ and present also in the hearts and minds, the songs and prayers, the struggles and hopes of this people.

El Salvador.  So tiny but so significant!  So poor but so full of grace!  So dark but so beautiful!  So deadly but so full of courage and hope!  I will not easily forget you, and I pray that we will always remember the gift of your faith, your hope, and your love.  Miguel Pro’s dying words, they say, were “Viva Christo Rey!”  My brothers, as we move from celebrating the Kingship of Christ to the season of preparation for His coming, let us not forget any of our martyred brothers, those who have already gone before us to meet the Bridegroom; and let us ask through them for an end to war and repression in El Salvador and for a just peace everywhere leading to eternal joy.

Sincerely in Christ the King,

Bert Thelen, S.J.