Oscar Romero and the Martyrs

Reading: John 12:20-26

By now, most of us are quite familiar with the story of Oscar Romero, and the dramatic moment of his death…assassinated while celebrating Mass.  Yet even my favorite reference sources, at best, tend to go minimalist when mentioning the other martyrs we ponder today, lumping them together as “Two Maryknoll nuns, an Ursuline nun, and a female lay missionary” and “Six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.”  So often, in the pursuit of justice for all, or in lifting up the victims of violence, a rallying cry these days is “Say their names.”  Let’s say all the names today, and hear a little bit about them.

Sister Ita Ford had been doing mission work in Chile prior to her relocation to El Salvador.  Despite the extreme poverty she encountered in her ministry, she was known to her friends as having an elfin grin, a buoyant sense of humor, and even in habit, she never outgrew her love of singing and dancing.

Sister Maura Clarke had taken her skills as a teacher to Central America, first in Nicaragua, and later to El Salvador.  Teaching was her life’s passion, and she also had worked tirelessly and faithfully in relief efforts during the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake

Sister Dorothy Kazel was a teacher, within the Usuline order, mostly in Cleveland (Ohio), and had served in mission work among the Papago tribe in Arizona.  She was also a skilled catechist, especially with deaf students, and continued that work in El Salvador in 1974.

Jean Donovan joined Sr. Dorothy in El Salvador  in 1977 as a lay missionary, and she often provided food and transportation to the poorest residents of the area.  She especially loved the children she served, and the folks in the La Libertad mission project dubbed her “St. Jean the Playful.”  She and Sr. Dorothy were part of the contingent who sat vigil prior to Romero’s funeral in 1980.

These four women did not receive the relatively quick death Oscar Romero did. They were brutally beaten, raped, and knifed by soldiers, and flung into a ditch, approximately eight months after Romero’s death.

It would be nine years later when the six Jesuit priests, and their household were murdered and Polaroid photos of their bullet-riddled bodies displayed outside the chapel on the campus of Central American University.  Yet we see our own humanity in their mortal frames, as well.

Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria was rector of the university and a gifted academician, having studied theology under Karl Rahner.  Students found him a demanding, yet fair teacher.  He was one of the individuals targeted for elimination as an “intellectual ringleader” of the leftists, and endured many death threats.

Fr. Ignacio Martin-Baro was a professor of psychology at Central American University, and had literally re-written the guidelines for the role of a psychologist through the lens of Central American culture.  He also served several rural parishes and was affectionately nicknamed “Padre Nacho” by the rural locals he served.

Fr. Amando Lopez Quintana, like some of the nuns we mentioned, arrived in El Salvador after initial service in Nicaragua.  Although officially, he was also on faculty at th university, his passion was gardening, and it wasn’t unusual to see him working alongside the groundskeepers, checking on mango trees and vegetable gardens.

Fr. Juan Ramon Moreno Pardo had been on faculty at UCA since 1971, and had built one of the most comprehensive theological libraries in the region.  He also worked on a literacy campaign for the village of Santa Lucia, with emphasis on serving internally displaced refugees.

Fr. Joaquin Lopez y Lopez was the only slain Jesuit actually born in El Salvador.  Although he was an administrator, not a teacher, he founded the Faith and Joy Foundation in El Salvador, whose focus was empowering the villagers through education and literacy. The foundation was heavily involved in re-settling internally displaced families.

Fr. Segundo Montes Mozo was the chair of the Sociology department at UCA and was also a staunch advocate of the power of education in lifting up the poor and marginalized.  His nickname on campus was “Zeus” on account of his long, flowing beard and statuesque features.

Elba Ramos had been a seasonal coffee harvest worker prior to becoming a housekeeper.  She and her family originally lived just outside the gates of the university (her husband was a groundskeeper at UCA), but later was allowed after numerous bombings and uprisings on their street, to move inside the campus walls.  Even then, their new home was bombed.

Celina Ramos, Elba’s daughter, was a high school student at the José Damian Villacorta Institute in Santa Tecla, where she had just completed her first year of business studies.  Both Elba and Celina were killed simply because of the policy of the Salvadoran Army to leave no witnesses when they killed their targets.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”   Oscar Romero’s martyrdom was not the only grain of wheat that fell in the brutal times of unrest in El Salvador, nor were their grains of wheat less significant than his.  May we remember to say their names also, when we reflect and pray on the life of Oscar Romero.

Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as Interim Priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Hannibal, MO. 

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