Heroes and saints


The Feast of All Saints, and the feasts of all saints, needs more attention in the Church. For one reason, a focus on the outstanding personalities in our history could draw more young people into deeper thought about what the faith means. The story of a particular martyr makes the paschal mystery alive and relevant. It gives flesh to doctrinal statements.
Also, Americans at this time need a counterbalance to the extreme martial use and misuse of the term “hero.” Our long, lingering military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a near reverence for military service in public discussion. We do this at least partly out of guilt, knowing that only a tiny portion of us shares the burden of war. So we compensate by referring to everyone in the uniform as a “hero.”
There are real heroes in military service, of course, but the Church can show heroes in the work of peace; people like the Jesuit priests murdered 23 years ago this month in El Salvador to stop them from teaching justice in an unjust time and place. That story even includes a chapter on the way other Jesuits around the world stood up asking to replace their dead brothers. In a way, they were like citizens of the United States lining up at military recruiting offices to be of service in December 1941, after Pearl Harbor.
Those men asking for service in El Salvador in November 1989 would go into harm’s way without offensive weapons. Their only power was faith and words.
None of the men and women who died for the faith in El Salvador during the brutal civil war has been officially declared a saint — yet. But to know the stories of what they did, and what was done to them, is to know heroic lives.
That little Central American country, nominally Catholic, was controlled by a few rich land-owning families with a government and military at their service. The mass of people were not only poor but ignorant of any ways to improve their lot. A natural restlessness was fertile ground for secular organizers such as communists in the 1960s and ‘70s. In response, the government used military forces to suppress not only armed rebels but unwanted education and organizing work among the people, sometimes by wiping out entire villages.
This included the murder of priests, a bishop, Catholic catechists and nuns. Their offense? Teaching and preaching a message of human dignity based on the Gospel and the demands of justice.
The regime in El Salvador might have kept its oppression quiet longer, but the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was radicalized in the late ‘70s by the murder of his priests. He turned from a quiet son of the status quo to a trumpet for reform. He preached in person and over his radio station against the violence infecting his nation and for the rights of ordinary people. When he publicly urged soldiers to disobey orders that led to the killing of innocent people, it was too much. In March 1980 the archbishop was shot down as he celebrated Mass. The world took notice.
Later that year, three American religious Sisters and a lay woman working with them in religious education were raped and killed in a field outside San Salvador. Their bodies were left as a warning. Again, the world took notice, but little changed despite the quiet heroism of other Church workers, religious and lay.
Then, on Nov. 16, 1989, a military unit entered the Jesuit faculty residence at the University of Central America in the middle of the night, took the six priests along with their cook and her daughter who happened to be staying there outside, and killed them all. What had they done? Taught and preached the need for a just peace in El Salvador; a peace that included respect for the rights of all.
The Jesuits knew they were in danger, but their mission was to preach the Gospel in full. This they did; they paid the price of that time and place, and the world took notice. Their killings did, finally, draw enough sustained attention that a truce was managed between rebel groups and the government.
Stories like these ought to be better known. Young people will remember them. Our doctrine says that by his sacrificial life Jesus overcame death. These stories show what it means to live with that faith. They convey the lesson better than any catechism. And they might rescue the word “hero” from banality.
Frank Wessling

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on