“We would like to pay tribute to the martyrs from El Salvador by remembering them,” Father Ciaran O’Nuanain.

“I have the smell of the farmer, not so much the smell of the sheep the pope calls for, but that of the farmer.”

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, used these words to categorically explain the significance of the research project the Office of Lay Martyrs of the Central American country is working on. The objective is to pay tribute to the witnesses who were murdered during the bloody Salvadoran Civil War. At the same time, it is an appropriate 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 on the occasion of his beatification on 23 May 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 times they lived in were far from easy. The civil war in El Salvador as well as the preceding and subsequent armed conflicts between the government’s army and paramilitary groups on the one hand and insurgent troops and guerrilla forces on the other made the period from 1980 to 1992 one of the bloodiest in Central America. During these years, social injustice was the order of the day. Oppression was rampant in the country; labour unions were banned. “It was dangerous to support the farmers,” Father Tomás Ciaran O’Nuanain recalled in an interview with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

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. I just did not want to be tortured before I died,” Father Tomás said. He is coordinating the above-mentioned research project entitled “Witnesses of the Gospel”. So far, five books have already been published as part of the project. 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 by holding interviews and searching through 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 in the meantime 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 the research team coordinated by Father Tomás O’Nuanain and for his service to the church, “You as well should bear witness because you have been with me from the very beginning.” He also said that he had been the first to scrutinize the stories of the lay martyrs.

The international Catholic pastoral charity 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 euros to date. Marco Mencaglia, Aid to the Church in Need 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.”

Shepherd with the smell of a farmer

Father Tomás has been living in El Salvador for 40 years. With a twinkle in his eyes, he explained that the people in the country “are like a disease: when they have caught you, they never let you go. They are so good and cheerful that it is impossible to leave them.” He talked about how, for a period of ten years, he visited more than 13 villages each month that were situated in dangerous and almost inaccessible areas in order to provide pastoral care. “I have the smell of the farmer, not so much the smell of the sheep the pope calls for, but that of the farmer.”

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.