Research project honors the martyrs of El Salvador
By Mónica Zorita
“When someone sacrificed his life for something, then it is worth asking why he did so.” That statement by Franciscan Father Tomás Ciaran O’Nuanain, an Irish missionary in El Salvador, goes to the heart of the mission of the newly-established Office of Lay Martyrs of the Church in El Salvador. Its task will be to pay tribute to those who were murdered during the country’s bloody civil war (1980-1992) and to recognize the victims as martyrs for the faith.
The smallest country in Latin America has an extensive catalogue of martyrs. Foremost is Blessed Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was murdered in 1980 while saying Mass. At his beatification on May 23, 2015, Pope Francis said the archbishop “paid particular attention to the poor and the marginalized. He knew how to lead, defend, and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel in communion with the whole Church.”
During the conflict, when troops of the extreme right government fought leftist insurgents, all the warring parties committed war crimes. There was oppression and injustice across the board. For example, labor unions were banned, and “it was dangerous to support farmers,” Father O’Nuanain told international papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
He continued: “The clergy was completely divided. It was very sad because many politicized the Gospel. A strong minority supported Bishop Romero and his fight for farmers’ rights. But another strong minority opposed this stance. Still, others did not take a clear stance. But all of us who fought for the dignity of the poor were threatened and persecuted. I just did not want to be tortured before I died.”
The missionary is coordinating the research project, which is entitled “Witnesses of the Gospel.” So far, five books have already been published, with another nine in the works—each one documenting the story of martyrs in a different province of the country. “Looking back on and reappraising the past, we want to pay tribute to and honor the martyrs,” said the 73-year-old Franciscan.
The project has already compiled more than 800 testimonies from relatives or friends of those who were murdered. An example is the story of Noé Arsenio Portillo López, a 22-year-old catechist who was kidnapped while leaving Mass. He was tortured for three days. “His limbs were severed from his body, one after the other, before he finally was decapitated”: thus is his fate recorded.
ACN has been helping to fund the project. Marco Mencaglia, who oversees ACN grants for Church projects in El Salvador, said that the goal is “reappraise history, far away from all resentment. We would like to promote a real peace. We stand with the Church of El Salvador in showing that that the simple and silent act of bearing witness by thousands of believers is far stronger than the terrible violence they suffered.”