On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, who lived at the University of Central America, their house keeper and her 15-year-old daughter were brutally murdered. What came to be known as the Jesuit Massacre occurred almost 10 years after the assassination of the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. The international outrage, sparked by the later deaths at the hands of an elite force of the Salvadorean military, helped pressure the government of this country to finally negotiate an end to a bloody, decade-long civil war.
A fellow Jesuit, Jon Sobrino, noted that the martyred Jesuits had been labelled as “subversives by the Salvadoran Government for speaking out against the oppressive socioeconomic structure of Salvadoran society. Their assassinations were ordered for their unwavering defence of the poor.” Nineteen of the military officers cited for this atrocity received their training at the US Army School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. The immediate response of the US government in the aftermath of the killings and rising popular unrest was to accelerate the shipment of military supplies to the government.
After the Jesuits were murdered, the international community rallied and sent people to fill in the gaps left by their deaths. State terrorism could not silence the call for justice. Michael Czerny, a Montreal-raised Jesuit priest and founder of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto, stepped into a harrowing assignment. Czerny who had earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago in social thought and theology, filled in as vice-rector of the University of Central America for one of the slain, Ignacio Martin-Baro.
Father Czerny spoke last Friday to a meeting of representatives of the Catholic social justice network in Montreal, which I sat in on, about a new challenge he has taken on as well as his most recent work. After his dangerous posting in El Salvador, he took on a world-wide role as the Jesuit’s lead person on social justice. In 2002 the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa commanded the highest priority. Czerny moved to Nairobi, Kenya to direct the Jesuit’s response.
As he recalled, at that time almost all AIDS initiatives in Africa were large-scale, top-down, expensive foreign solutions. In the 30 African countries where Jesuits worked, a bottom-up, ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach spoke more closely to their concept of the of the real needs they saw. A broad continuum of projects, from AIDS awareness theatre groups to basic pastoral care projects for AIDS victims, found support through the African Jesuits AIDS Network (AJAN).
Fr. Czerny stated that there is a need for AJAN’s continued commitment to, literally, a century more of work on this concern in Africa. One reason for this is the denial of the AIDS reality. This remains a very real everyday situation from the family level to national governments and presents a major obstacle to change. More worrisome for him, though, is a lack of leadership on the part of the episcopacy in Africa. With no passionate advocate at the highest levels, the whole question might just be allowed to slip off official agendas all together.
However Michael Czerny’s own focus took an abrupt turn a couple of months ago. He was asked to become the adviser to Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who took on the role of President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This office of the Vatican in Rome is mandated to, “promote justice and peace in the world, in light of the Gospel and the social teaching of the Church.” He recognizes that the pontifical commission he now is part of has a very long way to go to make justice and peace issues a true priority for the 1.13 billion Catholics in the world.
Czerny didn’t deny the daunting and complex reality of the global challenges of peace and justice facing humanity today. He realizes, though, that the same approach he used with the AJAN will be of value in his new position. Listen to what people are doing at the local level. Supporting and sharing those experiences globally may just see a thousand flowers bloom.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.