Aid to the Church in Need is collaborating on a project to look back on and reappraise the history of the lay martyrs from El Salvador

“When someone sacrificed his life for something, then it is worth asking why he did so.” Franciscan Father Tomás Ciaran O’Nuanain, an Irish missionary in El Salvador, categorically explains the significance of the research project the Office of Lay Martyrs is working on. The objective is to pay tribute to the witnesses who were murdered during the bloody Salvadoran Civil War. It is also an instrument for the church to examine the recognition of the victims as martyrs.

The smallest country in Latin America has an extensive catalogue of martyrs. Foremost is the blessed Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was murdered in 1980 while celebrating Holy Mass and who was recently made the patron saint of the World Youth Day taking place in Panama in 2019. The witness he bore for justice has left its mark in history. Pope Francis pointed this out during his beatification on May 23rd, 2015. “Bishop Romero paid particular attention to the most poor and marginalised. He knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the whole Church.”

The civil war in El Salvador, as well as the preceding and subsequent conflicts, made the period from 1980 to 1992 one of the bloodiest in Central America. During these years, social injustice and oppression were rampant in the country; labour unions were banned. “It was dangerous to support the farmers,” Father Tomás Ciaran O’Nuanain recalled.

According to the Irish missionary, “the clergy was completely divided. It was very sad because many politicised the Gospel. A strong minority supported Bishop Romero and his fight for the rights of farmers. A further strong minority was against this. The others did not take a clear stance. But all of us who fought for the dignity of the most needy were threatened and persecuted.” Father Tomás said. He is coordinating the research project entitled “Witnesses of the Gospel” with five books having been published so far. Nine further publications are planned, one per “departamento” (province) of the country. “With our efforts to look back on and reappraise the past, we would like to pay tribute to and honour the martyrs,” the 73-year-old Franciscan empathically said. He recollected the Christians who fought for justice and bore witness for their faith throughout the various eras.

As part of the research project of the Office of Lay Martyrs, information about the lay martyrs is compiled through interviews and archives, their stories are examined and written down so that they do not pass into oblivion. More than 800 testimonies of the relatives or friends of those murdered have been compiled, one example being the story of Noé Arsenio Portillo López. The 22-year-old catechist was kidnapped as he left Mass together with his mother. He was tortured for three days. “The various extremities were severed from his body one after the other before he finally was decapitated,” it is written in one chapter of Witnesses of the Gospel.

In a pastoral letter, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar of San Salvador, chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, expressed his thanks for the efforts of Father Tomás O’Nuanain and the research team, and for his service to the church, “You as well should bear witness because you have been with me from the very beginning.”

Aid to the Church in Need has been one of the supporters of this project to look back on and reappraise history, granting €20,000 towards the mission. Marco Mencaglia, ACN’s project manager for El Salvador, explained this further by saying that the charity “helps to look back on and reappraise history, far away from all resentment. We would like to promote a real peace. We would like to stand with the church of El Salvador and show that the simple and silent act of bearing witness of these thousands of believers continues to be much stronger and more impressive than the terrible violence they suffered.”


Love One Another

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.


Romans 13: 8-10

Second Reading Sunday 10 September, 2017