“Dear Ellacu: For years, I’ve thought about what I’d be saying at the Mass of your martyrdom. I’ve had the same feeling as I had about Archbishop Romero. His martyrdom was inevitable, too, and yet I never wanted to admit to myself that it would finally come. But your death was so likely that it was simply impossible for me to get the idea out of my head.” –A Letter to Ignacio Ellacuria (1990) by Jon Sobrino, S.J.
“Friendship saves. Friendship liberates.” –Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P.
Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, aged seventy-four, is not someone you immediately notice when he walks into a room. On Monday, the slight, gray-headed man in the unseasonable blue sweater tentatively crept through our classroom door. He almost whispered his “hi,” adding offhandedly that “my name is Jon.” It took me several seconds before I got it.
Sobrino is at Boston College to teach his summer course on “The Crucified People.” He warned us that his health was bad. He might get exhausted and have to leave early some days. It’s already happened a couple times. He sits at his desk, speaking softly and simply, but very intensely, while reflecting theologically on the 20th century martyrs of Latin America. To a great extent, he had to invent that theological reflection. No one before him had done it.
He keeps asking us if we understand what he is saying. We do. Sometimes he feels he does not have the right English words. So he speaks in Spanish to his co-teacher, Barry University theologian James Nickoloff, who translates for him. The first morning, someone brought Sobrino a styrofoam cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Sobrino, a Salvadoran Jesuit whose lifestyle steers clear of many consumer conveniences, looked mystified as he tried to locate the tab on a rather elaborate lid.
Sobrino is not a native Salvadoran. Like the founding Jesuit, Ignatius, he is a Basque from Spain. He moved to Latin America several decades ago. On March 12, 1977, he stood over the body of Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande. Grande was shot dead by what might best be called “officially-permitted” assassins for taking up the cause of the oppressed poor. He was the first priestly casualty in what became a war on the church.
The same night, Sobrino was the one who opened the door for the nervous, fidgety, grim San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero. The conservative prelate had arrived to pay his respects and, as it emerged in retrospect, to be converted to a radical new way of doing church. Sobrino became a close theological consultant, and friend, of Romero for three years.
In February 1980, Sobrino took a thermos of coffee and a pack of cigarettes, sat down, and drafted the speech Romero would give when accepting his honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Louvain (Leuven), Belgium. It was the speech in which Romero uttered his famous reformulation of St. Irenaeus. Gloria Dei, vivens homo (“God is glorified when human beings are fully alive”) became Gloria Dei, vivens pauper (“God is glorified when the poor are fully alive”).
A month later, in March 1980, Sobrino was the first priest to be told of Romero’s murder. He had been the first cleric available to answer his phone. Then in December, Sobrino gazed upon more bodies. This time, they were four Americans: Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan.
In November 1989, Sobrino was visiting Thailand. Back home, his six fellow Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were gunned down by a death squad. Theoretically, it “should” have been seven Jesuits, not six. Sobrino was on the hit list.
More Jesuits arrived to keep the UCA, a center for liberation theology and praxis–and really the government’s ultimate target–alive and flourishing. Sobrino mentored the newcomers. One was the New Yorker Dean Brackley, who became distinguished in his own right. Brackley also joined the others in untimely death: not from martyrdom, but from cancer in 2011, at the age of sixty-five.
Sobrino has lived a roller-coaster of many lifetimes. He has lived them with a multitude of people who are not, in any conventional or tangible sense, here anymore. He is not given to overt emotional expressions. In a 1990 documentary we watched while Sobrino was out of the room, entitled Killing Priests is Good News (the title is a Romero quote), an edgy, tense-jawed Sobrino pointed out that he does not cry.
Actually, he cries in other ways. You see it in his work. Sobrino references and analyzes Oscar Romero heavily in the writings we’ve studied. He explained Romero to us in class as a consummate example of a “Jesuanic” martyr, someone who especially lives and dies according to the pattern of Jesus, and who is therefore especially relevant to our violent times. Nickoloff’s syllabus gave Sobrino one day for Romero. He took two.
Sobrino also also quotes theologian Ignacio Ellacuria, one of the six martyred Jesuits, a lot. He quotes Ellacuria’s reflections on Romero, uniting them, closing the loop. Two essays in one of our textbooks are personal letters to the departed Ellacuria, calling him by the intimate “Ellacu.” And the title for Sobrino’s course, “The Crucified People,” is an Ellacuria term. The “crucified people” are the masses of innocents who, because of their poverty and oppression, theologically bear the marks of Christ in their bodies.
Sobrino certainly speaks and teaches about the crucified people in their own right. They are a reality he has known and touched, to which he is compelled to give voice. But it seems abundantly clear that his lost friends, Romero and Ellacuria and the rest, are daily, particular, intimate presences. They will remain so forever. They were sacraments to him. He remains in their employ. Lifting them up, along with the downtrodden they served, is his last life task.
What is unclear is how long Sobrino has left for this last task. He is about the last of his cohort. He has already lived longer than anybody else mentioned above. He is a diabetic. He needs the sweater he wears, even in the Boston summer. Despite his frailty, he talks and talks long after he knows he should stop.
But as Nickoloff explained this morning, after Sobrino stepped away to restore himself, Latin American liberation theology is a unique theological school. It is driven as much by personal friendship as by scholarly passion. The liberation theologians of Latin America not only reflect theologically, but live it out pastorally. And not only do they live it out pastorally, but they have historically done so at an extreme, dangerous edge. And not only that, they all know each other.
Given such a context, their friendships are more intense. These friends are saved and liberated from themselves, from their fears. These friendships become an astonishing source of energy and gratitude, even and especially when the friends are taken away. And like Sobrino they press on, tough as nails, lasting outlandishly long, even unto death, even death on a cross.
This is a kind of friendship I’d already intuited. To a small extent I’ve lived it. I’ve written about it in this blog, and elsewhere. But nobody “official” like Nickoloff has ever said it in front of me before. And nobody “official” like Sobrino has ever embodied it quite so starkly in front of me before: this power that lived theology can have, this blinding light, this communion among God and God’s friends.