The Legacy of Martyrs

by Eric Clayton

Last year, our team at the Jesuit Conference was invited by the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN) to produce a video introducing folks to the legacy of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador. These six Jesuit priests and two of their companions were brutally murdered by government forces in El Salvador on the campus of the University of Central America (UCA) in 1989, casualties of the Salvadoran Civil War. 

Now, our faith is full of martyrs, people who were killed for what they believe and for how they acted on those beliefs. There’s something unique to be learned about witnessing to our faith from each story, each life. What might we take from these martyrs of El Salvador? What do they say to us today?

During the course of the project, we encountered Francisco Mena Ugarte. He’s the executive director of CRISPAZ: Christians for Peace in El Salvador, an ecumenical faith-based organization dedicated to building bridges of solidarity between El Salvador and the rest of the world. He grew up knowing some of those Jesuits who would be martyred. 

“These were people who could have chosen not to get involved,” Francisco told us. “They could have stayed locked in the university. They were professors who could have chosen to just stay safe, but they cared. They went out and really put that knowledge, the resources that the UCA had, on behalf of the most vulnerable.” 

Ultimately, that’s why the Jesuits were martyred: They stood with the poor, the marginalized, the suffering and the oppressed. They stood in the way of forces seeking to maintain that unjust status quo and continue the exploitation.

These martyrs took Christ’s call to downward mobility – the path of poverty, humility and rejection – seriously. And they died for it. 

I think this point is an important one: These Jesuits could have chosen not to get involved. They could have stayed locked away in their institution, safe and sound amidst a status quo that didn’t directly hurt them.

And I wonder: What institutions in our lives do we hide behind? What are those legalistic rules or fancy job titles or overwrought excuses that keep us from following the path of these martyrs – the path of Christ – to stand with those most in need?

“The university didn’t just exist to train the children of the wealthy,” said Fr. Kevin Burke, SJ, vice president for university mission at Regis University. “The university existed as a social force to help El Salvador become a more just place.”

Do our institutions – and they come in many forms, many sizes and they’re not solely universities – exist to help our societies become a more just place? Or, are we inadvertently holding up systems of injustice? 

In a few days, countless members of the Ignatian family will gather in Washington, DC, at the annual Ignatian Family Teach-in for Justice – an initiative of the Ignatian Solidarity Network – to take up this question of injustice. They will stand in the shadow of these martyrs, new shoots growing from those deep roots, and carry on a legacy that could not be silenced. 

How can you, too, carry on this legacy? How can you choose to get involved, to risk, to go where it might not be entirely safe but where we know Christ already stands?

In God’s Peace


Eric Clayton is the Deputy Director of Communications for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He and his wife Alli are parishioners here at St. Ignatius and have two children

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