BY GUEST BLOGGER | July 31, 2015
written by: Jeff Peak | Assistant Director, John P. Schlegel, SJ, Creighton Center for Service and Justice | Creighton University
A year ago, Fr. Tom Manahan, SJ, started his St. Ignatius Day Mass with a traditional call and response that he learned while serving at a North Omaha parish: “God is good… all the time. All the time… God is good.” Sitting in a pew, having those words wash over me, I remember being filled with a sense of anger. I was over 2,500 miles away from Omaha with a group from the Ignatian Solidarity Network. We were celebrating Mass a small chapel outside of San Salvador, El Salvador, and I was finding it difficult to see God’s goodness at that moment.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Jesuits and their two companions that were killed in 1989 at the University of Central America in San Salvador, the Ignatian Solidarity Network put together a delegation of 45 individuals representing Jesuit high schools, colleges, parishes, and other apostolates from across the United States. Having been particularly inspired by the story of the UCA martyrs as an undergraduate student, and now teaching the story of the martyrs in my work at Creighton, I felt particularly blessed to be a participant on, what for me was, a pilgrimage. Spending time on the UCA campus – praying in the garden where the Jesuits were killed, celebrating Mass in the chapel where they were buried – I knew that I was walking on holy ground.
It’s impossible to go to El Salvador and not come away inspired by the legacy of Monseñor Oscar Romero. His memory is very much alive in the murals and artistic representations depicted on buildings around the country, but more profoundly he’s alive in the way that people still speak about him. When preparing for the ISN trip to El Salvador, I viewed the visits to the Romero sites as a nice value added but they weren’t really on the forefront of my mind. I already had my social justice heroes, and for me, they were the focus. This indifference toward Romero is what made my final day in El Salvador so impactful. We were celebrating the feast day of the founder of the Jesuits, but I was shaken out of my Jesuit-centric worldview to see on the role that a humble bishop played in the context of El Salvador and the world.
Monseñor Romero’s small house on the campus of the Hospital Divina Providencia in San Salvador has been turned into a museum and I was particularly moved while walking through it. Seeing all the pictures of Romero in his ministry, and the joy on his face as he accompanied the Salvadoran people, was an inspiration to me. Here was a man who received countless death threats every day but had such faith in God that he kept on ministering to the people and speaking out against the injustices that he saw. One way he did this was a weekly radio address. At the museum, our group heard a clip from his final radio address that was made the day before he was killed.
“I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”
Romero’s final Mass was at a chapel just up the street from his house, and before our group walked over there for our St. Ignatius Day Mass, our guide played another audio clip, this one from the Mass when Romero was killed. Even though I knew it was coming, I still jumped when I heard the gunshot that killed Romero, and was filled with immense sadness when I heard the screaming of everyone at that Mass.
After over a week of learning about the violence and injustice perpetuated against the Salvadoran people during their Civil War, and how the United States was involved under the guise of fighting Communism, I finally reached my breaking point. It’s why when Fr. Tom started our Mass with “God is good… all the time…” I had a hard time reconciling this theology with lived reality. Where was God’s goodness?
I got my answer during Mass. The chapel at La Divina Providencia is not very large, with an open line of sight from the altar where Romero was killed, through the front doors of the church, to the street where the fatal shot was fired. Standing on the altar it would have been hard for Romero to miss a car pulling up, and someone aiming a rifle from it. In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I can’t help but think that’s what Monseñor Romero did. He knew of no other way to be a witness of God’s love than to sacrifice his life just as Jesus did.
It’s that love that I remember this feast of St. Ignatius. Certainly God’s love made manifest in the form of Jesus is an integral part of Ignatius’ story. And after my trip to El Salvador a year ago, I now have a better understanding of that love because of the witness of Blessed Oscar Romero.