Fr. Charlie Currie SJ: The Ignatian Family Loses a Giant for Social Justice
BY ISN STAFF | January 6, 2019
The Ignatian Family has lost a giant for social justice.
Fr. Charlie Currie, S.J., a founding board member of the Ignatian Solidarity Network and co-catalyst of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, passed away January 4, 2019, at the age of 88.
November 16, 1989, is a day that would alter Fr. Currie’s path for the rest of his Jesuit ministry. Currie had just returned from a trip to Vietnam, when he received a call from Fr. Leo O’Donovan, S.J., then-president of Georgetown University. O’Donovan shared the news that six Jesuits —Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., Fr. Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., Fr. Segundo Montes, S.J., Fr. Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., Fr. Joaquín López y López, S.J., Fr. Amando López, S.J.— and their housekeeper Elba Ramos, and her 15-year-old daughter Celina Ramos, were murdered at the Jesuit’s University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador. O’Donovan asked Fr. Currie to coordinate Georgetown University’s response to the murders, including serving as a liaison to the U.S. Congressional investigation that would evolve over the next few years.
A few days later, Fr. Currie met with Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., the liberation theologian who avoided being a ninth victim at the UCA because he had been traveling in Thailand at the time of the murders. Sobrino came to Georgetown days after the murders and provided integral context for Currie to understand the significant work of the UCA Jesuits, in particular, Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., the university president, to be fully committed to the economically poor and marginalized of El Salvador through teaching, research, and public discourse.
“Why were they killed?” asked Currie in 2014, as he reflected on their murders. His response: “Because they were living a faith that does justice; they were telling the truth in a society built on lies, and they were trying to be the voice of the voiceless and power for the powerless. Thus, they threatened the powerful, especially the military, in the midst of a bloody civil war.”
Currie worked hand-in-hand with the late-Congressman Joe Moakley and his aide, now-Congressman Jim McGovern who took great risks to uncover the truth of Salvadoran and U.S. government complicity in the UCA martyrs and the utilization of Salvadoran troops who had received training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). Fr. Currie described his work on the investigation “both eye-opening and painful,” as he came to realize the ways in which the U.S. government had distorted and even lied to Congress and U.S. citizens about the situation in El Salvador and the strategies that were being utilized by U.S. intelligence agencies, diplomats, and the military.In 1997, Currie, then president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) received a call from Bob Holstein. Holstein, a former Jesuit turned successful labor lawyer, was deeply moved by the murders of the Jesuits and lay companions in 1989 and sought to mobilize the network of Jesuit institutions to call attention to the role of U.S. funding and military training that led to their killings. Holstein had become involved with the School of the Americas Watch (SOAWatch) movement that would gather for a yearly vigil at the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia around the anniversary of the UCA martyrs deaths. Bob asked Fr. Currie to mobilize delegates from each of the twenty-eight AJCU schools to participate in the vigil and attend what would become known as the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. He discovered Bob was difficult to refuse and began working with a network of campus ministry directors and Jesuits to encourage groups to travel to Georgia—while also encouraging tentative university presidents to ensure their schools’ participation.
In the early years, the Teach-In would take place in a tent on the edge of the Chattahoochee River near Fort Benning. Currie was right there in the midst of it all with the attendees, often serving as an opening speaker to provide historical context from his experiences with the Congressional investigation and praising Jesuit school delegations for their presence. As the Teach-In and the SOAWatch vigil grew, the Teach-In moved to the Columbus Convention Center where it would welcome over 1,000 Jesuit college, high school, and parish delegations with the crowd growing to nearly 4,000 for the closing liturgy.
As the number of Jesuit school delegates at the Teach-In grew, Fr. Currie was also an integral player in a larger vision to develop an organization that could sustain the sense of connection among Jesuit institutions throughout the U.S., to collaborate in work for justice year round. In 2004, he became one of the founding board members of the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN). The first few years of ISN’s development required Fr. Currie’s continued advocacy to university presidents and others to ensure the value of ISN was understood throughout the Jesuit network and larger Church.
Over the years, ISN has sustained Bob Holstein and Fr. Currie’s vision that evolved from the Teach-In through yearly in-person programs, a vibrant website, and ongoing national advocacy efforts. In addition, the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, which moved to Washington, D.C. in 2010, has become the largest annual Catholic social justice gathering in the U.S. Over 2,000 individuals attend each year, eighty percent of them being young leaders ages 16-24 from the Jesuit and broader Catholic network. Unlike the days of holding vigil at the gates of a military base in Georgia, over 1,500 attendees now participate in a legislative advocacy day on Capitol Hill to address contemporary human rights topics.
Fr. Currie remained deeply committed to the work of ISN even after he left his formal role with the board of directors in 2011. “Charlie was always there for ISN,” said Christopher Kerr, ISN executive director. “It was not unusual to receive a late-evening email from him with an idea of a potential board member or new connection for the ‘Ignatian network.’ I always knew I had a friend and confidant in Charlie whom I could call for support, ideas, or sound advice. His formal role may have ended in the early years of ISN, but his commitment to the Ignatian family never ceased.”
In 2009, ISN honored Fr. Currie with the Robert M. Holstein Faith Doing Justice Award, named after Teach-In co-collaborator Bob Holstein, who died suddenly in 2003. “I have never met a man more committed to social justice, and all causes that are good, than my dear friend Charlie Currie,” said Congressman Jim McGovern. “His work with the Ignatian Solidarity Network inspires new generations to serve all humanity.”
Fr. Currie will also be remembered his significant support of the Casa de la Solidaridad (CASA), a community-based learning study abroad program implemented by Santa Clara University in partnership with the UCA. On behalf of AJCU, he announced that the program would begin during the UCA martyrs 10th-anniversary commemoration events in El Salvador in 1999 and made reference to it in speeches around the globe in the years to come.
The CASA program, which formally ended in 2018, invited U.S. college students to live and study in El Salvador while being immersed in the social realities of the economically poor. The semester-long experience integrated rigorous study at the UCA with simple living in community and spiritual reflection in the Ignatian tradition. Hundreds of students were impacted by the ideas of visionaries, including Fr. Currie, who sought a truly transformational educational experience for students at Jesuit colleges and universities.
Fr. Currie’s ministry throughout his years as a Jesuit included service as the executive director of Jesuit Commons (now known as Jesuit Worldwide Learning), an initiative that grew from JesuitNET to provide online education to students in refugee camps, president of AJCU from 1997 to 2011, president of both Wheeling Jesuit University (1972-1982) and Xavier University (1982-1985); rector of the Jesuit community at Saint Joseph’s University (1991-1997); and as a faculty member at Georgetown University and Saint Joseph’s University.
A wake will be held at the Wolfington Jesuit Community at Georgetown University on Friday, January 11 from 3 – 5 PM and 7 – 9 PM, followed by a Vigil Service at 7:30 PM. A funeral will be held on Saturday, January 12 at 10:30 AM at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., preceded by a viewing at 9:30 AM.
Those who were impacted by Fr. Currie or the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice are invited to share their reflections in the comment section below.
[Jesuit Conference of Canda and the United States, National Jesuit News, University of Central America of El Salvador, Company Magazine, University of San Francisco]
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord and let your perpetual light shine upon Fr. Charlie.