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Fall 2009 Stories

A person smiling in front of a brick wall.

A person smiling in front of a brick wall.

The Summons of the UCA’s Martyrs to U.S. Catholic Universities

In Jon Sobrino’s essay, “The Latin American Martyrs: Summons and Grace for The Church,” We hear a powerful Cri de Coeur to a church leadership that has grown indifferent to today’s suffering humanity. He writes, “(The Contemporary Martyrs) are able to shake The Church as only love and blood can, and they demonstrate the road that must be followed to return to the church of the poor....”

“If they do not have the capacity to summon the church, then it is doubtful that anything, or anyone, can.”2 The question under consideration here, on the anniversary of the death of the University of Central America (UCA) martyrs, is how can their powerful witness, their love and blood, summon U.S. Catholic universities to be more responsive to the just demands of the poor and marginalized today? While our tendency might be to dismiss this challenge by thinking, “That was 20 years ago”; or “That was a civil war”; or “That was El Salvador and this is the U.S.”; or “We are not the UCA,” we risk the opportunity to examine more carefully what our universities are doing and how they might become more deeply committed and more effectively engaged in the struggle for justice. While the U.S. is not El Salvador and our universities are not the UCA, our Catholic mission and identity require that we respond to the death and continued suffering from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, the 33 million refugees and displaced people worldwide, the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, the 26,000 children under the age of five who die daily of preventable causes, the genocide in Darfur, and other forms of massive suffering today.

What makes the UCA’s leadership so extraordinary is that they allowed the reality of the suffering that surrounded them to place a moral claim on the conscience and the very soul of the university, so much so that both they and the university were transformed into becoming effective instruments for justice and

Our Catholic mission and identity require that we respond to the death and continued suffering from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, the 33 million refugees and displaced people worldwide, the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, the 26,000 children under the age of five who die daily of preventable causes, the genocide in Darfur, and other forms of massive suffering today.

peace in El Salvador. Sobrino attributes this to compassion. He writes that the UCA’s martyrs were first and foremost men of compassion who shaped a university that was capable of compassion and introducing compassion into an anti-compassionate society. He writes that in the Christian tradition the defining characteristic of a “human being” is compassion; if you are not compassionate, you are not human.4 The same is true for universities. Because we have the witness of the UCA’s martyrs, it can never be said that this level of commitment is impossible for universities. They have set the standard against which our own universities’ efforts for justice and peace must be measured.

In this short essay, I would like to offer a brief overview of how the UCA’s leadership understood the university’s mission and how it institutionally opted for the poor. And in light of this, I would like to raise the question of whether the focused effort in U.S. Catholic universities rises to the challenge posed by the massive suffering in the world today.

It is important to begin with some of the fundamental convictions that the UCA’s leadership held for a Catholic university. They understood that the university is a force within society. It exists in a particular historical reality and is it shaped by that reality, but it also shapes the reality. The Catholic university, however, is not only a social force, it is a moral force in society. Because the Catholic university takes its inspiration from the Gospel and the Jewish and Catholic Christian traditions, its ultimate responsibility is to further the reign of God in the historical reality of which it is a part. Its end purpose is to institutionally further justice, compassion, and peace, not in principle, in theory or in the abstract, but in the concrete reality in which it exists. It is to serve as the conscience of society. The UCA’s leadership also understood that the Catholic university must institutionally adopt a preferential option for the poor. In very concrete terms, this meant that the poor have a moral claim on the university. Their reality must enter the institutional mind and heart of the university and call it to account for itself. Sobrino tells us that Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., the UCA’s president, would say, “We think and write and do research at a desk. That’s why we need university buildings and libraries... But we don’t think from the desk...we try to think from the crosses of the world.”5 He would say that the Catholic university must do its reflection from a different social location, from the “feet of the crucified people.”6 And it must ask, “What have we done to put them on the cross, to keep them there, and what must we do to bring them down.”7 For the UCA’s leadership, this came down to institutionally assuming responsibility for solving the problem of the war and its structural roots in injustice in El Salvador. Practically speaking, the social reality of El Salvador became the “learning field” of the university and the classroom.8 Each academic discipline, from its own perspective, was charged with the responsibility to know the country and the forces at work in it, to analyze them in depth, and to propose attainable goals and solutions. In addition, the UCA’s leadership determined that the university must be in relationship with the poor and “the poor with spirit,” or the organized poor.9 This was essential to better understand their social reality, and to enlighten, encourage, and defend them in their effort to secure justice. It was also essential for determining how the university’s resources, influence, and power might be enlisted effectively in the struggle to bring an end to violence, suffering, death, poverty, and injustice.

Three white crosses in front of a building with greenery and flowers.


The Catholic tradition also informed how the university understood its mission to pursue truth. The UCA’s leadership determined that the greatest social lie is the hiding away of poverty, the cheapening of human life, and the flagrant disregard for the lives of the poor. Related to this is the denial of the fundamental relationship of human beings to one another and their responsibility for one another. The UCA’s martyrs chose to break the silence and to tell the truth that society did not want to hear. They did it through teaching, research, forums, institutes, centers, publications, conferences, the media, and public testimony, and especially in places where the truth needed to be heard and could make an impact. They knew well the power of not only the word, but the university’s word, and they leveraged it. In his commencement address at Santa Clara University in 1982, Ellacuria said, “The university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those who have no science; to provide skills for the unskilled; to be a voice for those who have no voice; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to promote and legitimate their rights.”10 The goal was to use the university’s powerful intellectual, professional, technical, and social resources to analyze, propose solutions, and actively contribute to solving the poverty and injustice in El Salvador. The UCA’s knowledge changed from being descriptive to becoming liberating.

While space does not allow a fuller exploration, let me at least raise some concerns regarding where U.S. Catholic universities tend to concentrate their efforts toward justice and peace. To put it simply, we leave it to our students. Many Catholic universities today have vibrant centers for social concern. We take pride in the increasing percentage of students who engage in community service (on some campuses it is 70% or more); volunteer for a year or more after graduation; participate in immersion experiences and study tours; do research projects, microfinance projects, video projects, water projects; and start health clinics in the Haitis of the world. We encourage their selflessness and praise their generosity. And we point to our graduates who are now public defenders, inner city pediatricians, and relief workers in Africa as living proof that these service experiences and our Catholic education are making a real difference and transforming the world. However, in light of the depth and breadth of the UCA’s commitment to and engagement in the struggle to secure peace and justice in El Salvador, it is incumbent on us to ask honestly whether the transformation of one individual, the contribution of one creative project, or even the accumulation of transformed individuals and projects over time, meets the moral challenges posed by the systemic massive suffering in our world today. Are our universities opting for changing the minds and hearts of individuals, while neglecting our institutional responsibility for challenging and changing the social order that produces so much needless suffering and death? Have our institutions opted for the safe response that demands little of our institutions in terms of resources, risk, or courage, that avoids conflict—and at the same time provides a sense of satisfaction that we have made a difference in the world? In the company of the world’s suffering people and the UCA’s martyrs who dedicated and directed their lives and their university to solving the problem of poverty and injustice, we must ask, “What is the truth that our universities must speak and where must it be spoken? What must be the great learning fields for our educational institutions? What are the solutions to systemic injustice and the goals toward which we must strive? What are the various ways we institutionally can advance them?”

In sum, Sobrino writes that a Catholic university “must above all be a converted university. Conversion means putting all its social weight through its specific instrument, rational knowledge, at the service of the oppressed majorities. This is what these men wanted to do and did: in a university and Christian way, they made an option for the poor.” In life and in death, this remains the summons of the UCA’s martyrs to U.S. Catholic colleges and universities.


  1. Jon Sobrino, “The Latin American Martyrs: Summons and Grace for the Church,” in The Option for the Poor In Christian Theology, ed. Daniel G. Groody (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2007), 94.
  2. Ibid., 93.
  3. Jon Sobrino, “The Cost of Speaking the Truth: The Martyrs of Central America, El Salvador,” The Journal for Peace and Justice Studies 3 (2): 5, 7.
  4. Jon Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 17.
  5. Sobrino, “The Cost of Speaking the Truth,” 9.
  6. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., “The Crucified People,” Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, ed. Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J. and Jon Sobrino, S.J. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 580-603.
  7. Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 203), 69.
  8. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J. “The University, Human Rights, and the Poor Majority,” in Towards a Society that Serves Its People: The Intellectual Contribution of El Salvador’s Murdered Jesuits, ed. John Hassett and Hugh Lacey (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1991), 213.
  9. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., “Utopia and Prophecy in Latin America,” in Towards a Society that Serves its People: The Intellectual Contribution of El Salvador’s Murdered Jesuits, ed. John Hassett and Hugh Lacey (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1991), 60.
  10. Jon Sobrino, Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., and Others, “The Task of a Christian University,” in Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books: 1990), 150.
  11. Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom, 85.


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