Jesuit priest Jon Cortina, who long worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and oppressed in El Salvador, died today in Guatemala. His lifelong work was summarized in this biographical sketch on the Seattle University web site:
Since he was assigned to El Salvador in 1955 as a Jesuit novice from Bilbao, Spain, Fr. Cortina has been a servant of the Salvadoran people. He attained a Doctorate in Engineering from the Polytechnic University in Madrid, Spain in 1973 and has since taught at the Jesuit Catholic University of Central America (UCA) in the capitol city of San Salvador.
In March of 1977, Fr. Cortina was instated as priest of the Aguilares Parish by the holy martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero after Rutilio GrandeÃthe first Jesuit martyr of El SalvadorÃ was killed by the military. Before Fr. Grande was murdered for standing with the poor, Fr. Cortina worked closely with him; he also spent a great deal of time with the four U.S. women martyred on December 2 of that same year and with Archbishop Romero. Although many people around him were being killed for their faith and for responding to the Church's option for the poor, Cortina continued to teach at the UCA and ministered to the many rural areas throughout Northern El Salvador that were being devastated by the war.
On the night of November 16, 1989, the unthinkable happened. Twenty six members of the Salvadoran military -- nineteen of whom were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas -- raided the Jesuit residence at the UCA, pulled Fr. Cortina's six Jesuit brothers and two women co-workers from their beds, and brutally murdered them in front of the rectory. At the time of this massacre, the Jesuits were considered dangerous to the repressive Salvadoran government because they defended the rights of the poor and relentlessly worked to liberate those whom the military systematically killed and oppressed. Through the emulation of the historical Christ with their presence with the poor and with the words in their theology, the Jesuits denounced the military's atrocities and promoted the Kingdom of God built on the eradication of the pain of Yahweh's Suffering Servant. For proclaiming, "blessed are the poor," the Jesuits were crucified along with the thousands whom they stood in solidarity with.
Fr. Cortina survived the massacre of the Jesuits only because he was with the people in the rural areas of the province of Chalatenango on that night. As he drove back to San Salvador the next morning, he heard the news of the Jesuits on the radio, and with them, his own name listed among the dead. He abruptly stopped his truck, got out, and felt his chest to make sure that what he heard was not true. After pausing and realizing that his family was gone, Cortina recommitted himself to the poor to carry on the memory of his slain brothers.
As part of his work, Fr. Cortina co-founded the Association in Search of the Disappeared Children after the peace accords came to El Salvador in 1992. Asociacion Pro Búsqueda de Niños y Niñas Desaparecidos formed when the surviving relatives of children who were kidnapped by the Salvadoran military during the civil war approached Fr. Cortina requesting his help.
Since 1994, over 580 families have put in pleas for search and in the last six years, over 190 children have been found by the organization and re-united with their families. While the organization does not persuade the children, in any way, to move back with their families after living apart from them for so long, Pro-Búsqueda is built on the foundation that every human being has the right to identity and thus continues their struggle.
Although he has been a military target for many years for his work with Pro-Búsqueda, the poor, and for his promotion of justice, Fr. Cortina resiliently continues to search for truth for all those who have died for the Kingdom in El Salvador. He is a direct link to many of the prophets of our day and brings with him the voice of the Salvadoran people.
The BBC carried this story about Fr. Cortina's work involving children missing from the Salvadoran civil war.