The murder of Óscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, in March 1980 awoke something in me. It wasn't exactly a spiritual conversion I experienced, but a realisation that faith had to mean something today. This awareness was intensified by the subsequent brutal killing of six Jesuits at San Salvador's Christian university (UCA) in 1989.
For a large audience in London, Romero's witness was recalled last evening by Fr. Dean Brackley SJ, in a lecture entitled, "Crosses and Resurrections in El Salvador - The Wider North-South Divide and Our Vocation to Solidarity." It didn't make for easy listening.
Fr. Brackley, for the last two decades Professor of Theology and Ethics at UCA, replaced one of his murdered fellow-Jesuits. The author of a number of books, his pamphlet "The University and its martyrs: hope from Central America," describes the sequence of events leading up to the onslaught, and sets out the challenge of the UCA as a model for a university in the 21st Century. He described UCA's three functions - teaching, research and (most importantly - and uniquely) "social projection." This last involves each undergraduate in committing to a target of 600 hours community service: both students and professors engage, for instance, in engineering and agricultural projects, legal assistance and tutoring in poor communities. (The average number of school years completed by children in El Salvador is six.)
Fr. Brackley believes every university community can learn something from UCA's philosophy: the importance of studying the real world, and the way contact with the poor can foster learning. Students experiencing community service pass through three phases. First, having overcome their initial fear, they find themselves useful - sometimes for the first time. People they thought threatening turn out to be basically decent, but nonetheless suffering injustice. Secondly, the bloom goes off: down-and-outs can be angry. They can also be con artists. Thirdly, students begin to ask about the nature and causes of problems they are facing - homelessness, drug addiction etc. "They begin to tug on the string of their local situation and run up against the tangled complexity, the structural nature, and the enormity of the evil and injustice around them." This can tempt them to give up and drop out. Or it may lead to the students allowing "others' suffering to break their hearts."
Middle class culture, Fr. Brackley says, pulls us from the struggle for life, to the point where we become disoriented about what's really important in life. But life is not a spectator sport. If we listen to the stories of the poor, "we can begin to see our reflection in their eyes, hear our story in theirs, recognise our hidden struggle for life in their open struggle against death. In this way, we let these strangers break our hearts. Solidarity is born."
In rich countries, we find Christians with faith and love, but lacking hope. We know in our heart of hearts that things are much worse in the world than we usually admit: the poor bring that crashing home to us. Then we realise that sin abounds, but grace abounds even more. "I asked Teresa, a grandmother, whether she was eating well. She whispered in my ear, Don't you think it's more important that these little ones should eat?"
Since posting the above, I have learned that the text of Fr. Brackley's lecture is being published in two instalments on the Thinking Faith website: the first instalment is already available there.