On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests and the housekeeper and her daughter were dragged from their rooms at the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador. They were pulled from their rooms to the ground of the courtyard, where they were brutally murdered by members of El Salvador’s army. Shortly after their death, the husband and father of the housekeeper and daughter planted roses that still blossom and show their beauty to all those who walk by in reverence of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
These roses serve many purposes. First most, they serve in memory of the eight individuals who lost their lives on that early morning in November. Secondly, the roses demonstrate what God talks about in the Gospel of John, that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). These roses remind us that despite the negative aspects of our lives – war, poverty, hatred, and neglect, to name a few – God’s light overshadows the darkness of our world. Despite all that is terrible and negative, God provides us with beauty – beauty that has the power to affect lives in midst of the terror and deep sadness that affected the poor and oppressed of El Salvador, as well as throughout our world.
Following the death of his fellow companions, Fr. Dean Brackley, SJ felt the deep desire within him to follow God’s call to El Salvador – to serve those who had lost some of their most outspoken advocates and friends, and to bring justice and love to a place in deep need for both. Fr. Brackley recalled years later, “I remember it affected me more than I would have ever thought.”
I could speak at length about the impact of Fr. Dean Brackley, SJ on the lives he touched in El Salvador, as well as the lives he impacted throughout the world. He was a theologian, a writer, an advocate for the poor and oppressed of El Salvador, and last but not least, a Jesuit (which I will return to shortly). He worked with the poor of El Salvador in the toughest of times, following the despicable murder of his Jesuit Brothers and the oppression and civil war experienced throughout El Salvador; he committed himself to bringing social justice to all in El Salvador and recognized the need for solidarity.
I had the privilege a couple of summers ago to meet Fr. Brackley with my fellow class mates, and teachers while on a tour of the Romero Center at the UCA. It was my second trip with International Samaritan to El Ocotillo, Honduras, volunteering with International Samaritan at the garbage dump community on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. At the end of our 10-day service-learning trip, International Samaritan organized a retreat to San Salvador, El Salvador to witness the work of the Jesuits in serving the poor and oppressed.
Upon our arrival to the Romero Center, Fr. Brackley was waiting to greet us since the University was closed due to a holiday. Seeing our reservation for the day and noticing our Jesuit connection with International Samaritan and our high school, University of Detroit Jesuit High School, he decided to take the time out of his day to show to us part of recent history, the struggle for social justice and also to invite us into part of his own life.
I recall watching a documentary that highlighted Fr. Brackley’s decision to work in El Salvador and remember reading various articles about him and written by him. How impressed I was by his love for the poor and his commitment to serving “those without a voice.” After spending a couple of hours with him, I could feel the passion of his desire to serve God and all of mankind – it was contagious!
Now, back to his Jesuit identity. Shortly after his death, a friend asked me about Fr. Dean Brackley. “Who was this priest? What did he do?” I told my friend, “If I had to give you one word to describe this man – and all his deepest desires, his thoughts, words, and deeds, his passion to serve the poor and oppressed – all I would have to say is that he was, and always will be, a Jesuit.
At the UCA reads a plaque in the chapel (I have translated it into English from Spanish):
What does it mean to be a Jesuit today? It is to engage, under the standard of the cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle which it includes.
Fr. Brackley, SJ embodied all the characteristics and attributes of a Jesuit. He worked towards the “service of faith and the promotion of justice” (35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus). His actions and words serve as prime examples of his ability to set the world on fire – starting fires within the hearts and minds of those he taught at the UCA, those he served in the poor communities in El Salvador, and those throughout the world that have been affected by his commitment to social justice and solidarity – which has encouraged others to start fires elsewhere.
Fr. Brackley, I thank you for your presence in the lives of the poor and oppressed, for the decision you made years ago to serve “those who have no voice” in a country filled with injustice and violence, for your commitment to building the Kingdom of God here in on earth, and for the impact and influence you have left on me – in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my actions. Thank you for the difference you have made on this world – for the roses that blossom as a result of your ministries.
(Matt Ippel is studying
Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC)