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The Legacy of Liberation Theology: Meaning in the Stories of Salvadoran Jesuits


Michael E. Lee, Ph.D., challenges students to hone and define their faith in his senior values course.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

As he watched a pickup basketball game at the San Vicente base community in San Salvador, Michael E. Lee, Ph.D., noticed the tattoo on a young player’s arm: VIVA ROMERO. Such is the iconic presence of murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero that Salvadorans not yet born when he was gunned down in 1980 pay homage to his legacy. Likewise, the young students in Lee’s Theology of Liberation class at Fordham do not have any living memory of Romero and his contemporaries, but by studying them the students are forced to question how their own faith can be enacted.

Although Archbishop Romero is the most famous of the Salvadoran martyrs, Lee also hopes to uncover the role of others—in particular Rutilio Grande, S.J., and Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.—and their stance with the poor of Central America’s poorest corner. Father Grande’s murder provoked a dramatic and life-changing reaction from Archbishop Romero; Father Ellacuría, five other Jesuits and two employees at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA), were executed by the Salvadoran military in 1989.

“They were men of privilege and education who dedicated their gifts to the service of others,” said Lee. “That really strikes my students.”

In addition to writing books about Father Ellacuría and Archbishop Romero, Lee plans to publish a one-volume translation of Father Ellacuría’s most important works, which until now have not been available in English. The hardnosed Basque’s writings provided some of the philosophical underpinnings of the liberation theology movement.

Lee, whose parents are Puerto Rican, grew up in a bilingual household in Miami, and paid summer visits to his grandparents in Humacao; one of his earliest memories is saying the rosary with his grandmother. “We were sent to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish and learn manners,” said Lee. Although he and his four siblings sometimes chafed at the enforced lessons, he now is glad for the ability. He and his wife Natalia (FCRH ’98) plan to raise their toddler William to know both languages.

“Many of my classmates were Cuban, so I grew up in this bilingual world,” said Lee. “Only when I moved to different parts of the country when I realized it wasn’t that way for everyone. “

After studying theology at the University of Notre Dame, Lee came face-to-face with poverty during four years at the Andre House, a Catholic Worker House in Phoenix, Arizona. The Worker House survived solely on donations while serving 1,000 meals a night to the homeless.

He said his experience with the poor, coupled with a study of liberation theology, has brought a real deepening of his Catholic faith. “Ellacuría was asking the right question: Not just ‘Why did Jesus die?’ but ‘Why was Jesus killed?’ His life upset the powers that be.” he said. “Catholicism is not a list of things to do. I am most Catholic when I am living like Jesus did.”

Lee also studied with Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., considered one of the founders of liberation theology, whom he called “one of the most humble and saintly men I’ve met.” He said that Gutiérrez, who served a poor parish in Lima, Peru, defined his theology simply: “when I look upon my parish, how do I tell the poor that God loves them? That’s the seed of liberation theology,” said Lee.

Lee said that many of his students are faced with the same decisions confronting the Jesuits who went to El Salvador. “They easily could have led comfortable academic lives,” said Lee. “They [instead]poured themselves into putting their gifts in the service of this tiny country. In that they found liberation too.”

Some students come to Lee’s class from the Institute of Latin American and Latino Studies, and others from studying theology or from having served in Fordham’s Global Outreach Program, but a good many are seniors who choose the course to fulfill the Senior Values requirement, Lee said. The course, which has changed slightly in his three years of teaching it, now focuses mainly on El Salvador and forces young, mostly privileged people to ask themselves: “When you graduate, what values are you taking with you?”

“To take a course with Dr. Lee was refreshing,” said Grace Carlson, FCRH ‘08. “He challenges the students to wrestle with the texts we read, and I do not come away from his class with any easy answers. For instance, when we talk about subjects like ‘preferential option for the poor’ he asks us to investigate what exactly this means. Secondly, he carries himself with a sense of humor and is warm towards his students, which helps them feel at ease and makes it easier to be honest and open during discussions. My classes with Dr. Lee are among the most rewarding I’ve taken at Fordham.”

The course has prompted some students to seek volunteer opportunities abroad and in the local community. Lee said that Romero was known as “The Voice of the Voiceless.” “I hope that here in the Bronx, where there are plenty of voiceless, Fordham can adopt this role, and that I can help that process in my own small way.”

In Lee’s case, the study of liberation theology and its practitioners is a quest. He said he takes solace in the words of St. Anselm, who defined his theology as “faith seeking understanding … probingthe hard questions has always enriched my faith.” Here he cited theologian Bernard Lonergan, S.J.: the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.


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