By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
In the Sundays that lead up to the end of the liturgical year and during Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on the eschaton, the end of time and the last judgment, when all will become all in Christ. We meditate on the first coming of Jesus two thousand years ago, on his Second Coming on a day and an hour we cannot know, and his presence among us in our daily lives.
It’s in that context that I’ve been thinking lately about the events that occurred twenty-nine years ago at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador. There, in the early hours of November 16th, 1989, Salvadoran soldiers murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
The Jesuits were marked for death because in the name of the Gospel they spoke out in defense of the poor and powerless in their country. Their housekeeper and her daughter, who had taken shelter at the Jesuit residence from the fighting that was raging in the city, were killed so that there would be no living witnesses left behind. They died, like so many of the poor in this world, because the powerful are free to act without impunity towards the powerless.
Nine months after the killings, I had the privilege of traveling to El Salvador and meeting one of the surviving Jesuits, Fr. Jon Sobrino at the UCA. In the library conference room still scarred by bullet holes, he reflected on the memory his martyred friends. On the table in front of him were photographs that the Jesuit human rights office had taken to document the terrible events of that November night.
Gesturing towards these photos of the bodies of the Jesuits and their two companions, Fr. Sobrino said, “They were above all, human beings who believed in God, in this world where it is not easy to be human or to be a believer.”
As he spoke, a military helicopter, one of the gunships that seemed to be constantly in the air over the city, flew-in low over the building and I was forcefully reminded of the many soldiers and policemen I had seen and encountered during my time in El Salvador.
Most were frightened teenagers, drafted to fight in a seemingly endless and pointless war. Despite the real threat of their weapons, as we encountered them at checkpoints or passed them on the roadside, when I saw their resigned and bewildered faces it was hard not to feel great sympathy for them and their plight.
But we also encountered other soldiers, who belonged to units, such as the Atlacatl Battalion with a reputation for routine, brutal violence against civilians and refugees. Their vacant eyes and expressionless faces were inhumanly empty. They were terrifying, not only because of their deeds (as unspeakable as they were), but because of what they had become.
When I reflected later with several of my companions we were surprised to discover that our fear in their presence (for they were very frightening men had somehow been transformed into compassion for them. For myself, this was a profound moment of grace: hatred or anger, not compassion, was what I expected to feel towards them. Yet when I reflect on that experience today, it seems so obvious: how is it possible not to feel compassion for men so alienated from Christ, from their fellow men and women and from their own humanity?
At the Jesuit university, the army flew repeated sorties over the campus with a helicopter gunship. As I heard that helicopter pass over the library building once again with a deafening roar, Jesus’ words became real to me: ‘Do not fear those who can kill your body; rather, fear those who would murder your soul.’ How much better, I thought, to die like these Jesuits and their friends, and live; than to live like those soldiers in the helicopter above us and die. I would not wish their condition on my worst enemy. At that moment, I think I understood in a profound way why Jesus commands us to love our enemies: to love the enemy is to act and above all to pray for their deepest good.
A Russian Orthodox bishop once wrote that those who love are not defeated by suffering, they acquire the only power that matters: the unconditional power of forgiving those who inflicted the suffering on them. They are able to see Christ in the tormented, impoverished, alienated person of their enemy.
Thus, Jesus invites each of us to come to know God. If we allow him to know us and we choose to know him, the Lord will help us to see with the eyes of our heart and see Him in every brother and sister. This is, at the most foundational level, what it means to be a human being. This is our salvation.
I believe we must, especially in this time we find ourselves in as a nation, imitate the example of Jesus, and desire that he come into the lives of all people and transform their lives in love. We must desire the salvation, not only of those who love us, but especially the salvation of those who hate us and hurt us. Even while we must, without hesitation or equivocation denounce and resist the evil that they do, we must intercede for and be instruments of Christ’s love to our enemies.
The Orthodox writer, Anthony Bloom, in his little book ‘Living Prayer’, writing about forgiveness, quotes from this prayer discovered in the archives of one of the German concentration camps and published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung after the war.
Peace to all men of evil will! Let there be an end to all vengeance, to all demands for punishment and retribution… Crimes have surpassed all measure, they can no longer be grasped by human understanding. There are too many martyrs. … And so, weigh not their sufferings on the scales of your justice, Lord, and lay not these sufferings to the torturer’s charge to exact a terrible reckoning from them.
Pay them back in a different way! Put down in favor of the executioners, the informers, the traitors and all men of evil will, the courage, the spiritual strength of the others, their humility, their lofty dignity, their constant inner striving and invincible hope, the smile that stanched the tears, their love, their ravaged, broken hearts that remained steadfast and confident in the face of death itself, yes, even at the moments of the utmost weakness…
Let all this, O Lord, be laid before You for the forgiveness of sins, as a ransom for the triumph of righteousness, let the good and not the evil be taken into account! And may we remain in our enemies’ memory not as their victims, not as a nightmare, not as haunting specters, but as helpers in their striving to destroy the fury of their criminal passions. There is nothing more that we want of them. And when it is all over, grant us to live among men as men, and may peace come again to our poor earth – peace for men of goodwill and for all the others… (P.18 Living Prayer, Templegate Publishers, 1966)
The ‘advent’ for us, of Christ’s love and peace begins, I believe, with this kind of forgiveness. Few of us will ever face martyrdom, but each one of us has suffered in our lives minor (and major) injustice and injury. May we, inspired by the witness of all the martyrs and especially the example of the brothers and sisters martyred at the Jesuit university almost three decades ago, welcome Christ this Advent by forgiving all who have made themselves our enemies and injured us.
Come, Lord Jesus!