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El Salvador: Inspired to Act for Justice by the Jesuit Martyrs and Their Companions


published on November 16, 2022, by ISN (Ignatian Solidarity Network)


In 1997, under a tent by the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, Georgia, members of the Jesuit and broader Catholic network gathered for the first Ignatian Family Teach-In For Justice (IFTJ). 

Throughout the 1990s, an annual gathering had emerged at the gates of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, drawing attention to the U.S. role in the Salvadoran civil war. 

The Jesuit Martyrs

Members of the Jesuit network from across the U.S. were compelled to join in these gatherings in response to the assassinations of six Jesuit priests—Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., Segundo Montes Mozo, S.J., Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., Joaquín López y López, S.J., Amando López, S.J.—their housekeeper Elba Ramos, and her 15-year-old daughter Celina Ramos, murdered at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador, during the civil war that ravaged the country from 1979 to 1992.

Nineteen of the 26 soldiers who committed the murders were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas as part of American aid to the Salvadoran government and military. 

Through their work with the poor and marginalized in El Salvador during the Salvadoran civil war, the Catholic Church and its leaders, including the Jesuits and now-Saint Óscar Romero, sought to address the long history of inequality and injustice in the country. 

The Salvadoran government worried that the actions of Church leaders would threaten their power and stability, and the military actively targeted the Catholic Church throughout the 1980s. 

As president of the Jesuit-run University of Central America, Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., and his colleagues were outspoken about the rights of the poor and about the military’s violence against Salvadorans. This sort of public criticism only intensified the government’s response. When the government launched an offensive attack in the center of San Salvador in 1989, Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce handed down orders to search the university campus and, as a result, to execute the six Jesuits. 

IFTJ at 25

Twenty five years later, IFTJ still gathers thousands of members of the Ignatian family each year, convened by the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN)—the lay-led non-profit organization that emerged from IFTJ, founded in 2004. The annual gathering moved in 2010 from Georgia to Washington, D.C., to allow attendees to engage in legislative advocacy as a path toward justice. 

2022 marked the 25th anniversary of the first Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. The gathering, which attracts 2000+ attendees each year, moved in 2010 from Georgia to Washington, D.C., to allow attendees to engage in legislative advocacy as a path toward justice. 

The IFTJ Salvadoran Cross

To mark the anniversary and the rich legacy of IFTJ, rooted in the legacy of the Jesuit martyrs, ISN commissioned the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice Salvadoran cross, to be displayed during the annual IFTJ closing liturgy. The cross was handmade during the fall of 2022 by Salvadoran artisans working with the La Semilla de Dios artist cooperative, who practice a folk art style originating in their village of La Palma. Founded amidst the Salvadoran civil war, the group continues to spread peace through art.

The cross features representation of the six Jesuits and their companions and the roses planted shortly after their deaths, still growing today in the place where their bodies were left after their murders, along with a dove of peace, and the ISN logo, representing the tent that housed early IFTJ gatherings. 

Present-day symbols are also incorporated, including candles, which are a key element of a vigil held for the martyrs each year in El Salvador, and the U.S. Capitol, symbolizing the ongoing work for justice at each year’s IFTJ Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill.

Before returning with the cross to the U.S., Ignatian Solidarity Network staff brought it to the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, where the six Jesuits and two lay women were murdered in 1989. There, in the rose garden where the martyrs’ mutilated bodies were left, the cross was blessed by Fr. Andrieu Oliva, S.J., president of the university. He prayed for the martyrs’ story to touch the hearts of all who came in contact with this cross.

The artisans involved with this project included: José Melendez (design & layout); Jaime Martínez (carpentry); Doris Orellana (painting); Delmy Orellana (painting); Omar Fabián (painting).

ISN also received special assistance from our partners at Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ), including Andy Barrientos, who helped with designing the cross, and Francisco Mena Ugarte and Eduardo Perdomo who assisted with planning and logistics.