Had a Salvadoran gunman's aim been sharper, this would have been an obituary column. But the bullets missed, and Father Jon De Cortina, a 55-year-old Jesuit priest who has served the poor in El Salvador for 34 years, lives.
On Aug. 21, the Spanish-born priest and a fellow Jesuit were driving into a village in the northern department of Chalatenango. Shots were fired. As De Cortina recalls the scene of terror, he stayed calm as the bullets passed. He sped ahead only to take more gunfire. Leaping from the car, the two priests took cover. When the spray of bullets eased, they dashed for the car and broke for it. Before getting away, a bullet hit the roof four inches from De Cortina's head.
It was in the same car on Nov. 16, 1989, that the priest heard his name broadcast on the radio as one of the six Jesuits murdered that day in San Salvador. De Cortina was on sabbatical from the Catholic University community, but in the chaos before the bodies were identified assumptions were made that he was one of the slain.
Rather than stay in El Salvador and further risk joining the 40,000 civilians killed since 1980, the priest returned last month to Spain, via Washington. He came as another servant of Central America's poor to beg Congress to stop sending war money to El Salvador. After $4 billion in 10 years, U.S. aid has paid for death, not justice.
When I passed part of a recent morning with De Cortina, along with his Washington host, Eileen Purcell of the SHARE Foundation, I thought of the Jesuit priests I studied under in college. Most were unassuming but deeply committed idealists whose diversified talents were used for the unfinished business of creating a society of justice and peace.
In El Salvador, De Cortina once taught engineering at Central American University. A peak in his engineering career came June 20 when he said Mass at the dedication of a 20-meter bridge he and some villagers built over the Sampul River. In 1980, the original bridge was blown up, following the Salvadoran Armed Forces massacre of more than 600 children and civilian adults fleeing to Honduras. In 1989, some Chalatenango communities, resettled by returned refugees, decided to put up another bridge. Father De Cortina, along with a German technician and three masons, organized a volunteer work force to lay beams, spread cement and repair roads leading to the bridge.
On dedication day, thousands of Salvadorans came on foot to celebrate Mass with their priest, the bridge builder.
De Cortina's visit to Washington came a few days before that of Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani. Congress, debating whether to approve, cut or deny the Bush administration's request for $85 million in new military aid to El Salvador, had a graphic choice of which Salvadoran to side with: the priest or the president.
De Cortina, repeating the 1979 plea of slain Archibishop Oscar Romero and persistent statements of martyred Jesuits throughout the 1980s, says no to U.S. blood money. Cristiani, who argues that "some misunderstandings," not coverups, are the reason the 10-month investigation of the Jesuit deaths is stalled, says gimmee. Rep. John Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.), whose staff is a trusted voice on Salvadoran issues, has called this stalling a "conspiracy of silence and lies."
De Cortina is in the Daniel Berrigan wing of the Jesuit order and is irrepressibly aligned with the voiceless. He believes that any part of the $85 million would sanction the Salvadoran military's past crimes and assure future ones.
"There are no justifications for the money," he says. "The army claims that the nation's security is in danger because of the possible Marxist regime that might come to power, and that would mean another Cuba. There is no logic to that. Being so small and so poor a country -- 55 percent of the population can't read, 25 percent are unemployed -- how can it get into trouble with a foreign ideology? The people want to find ways to eat and work."
El Salvador's murderous winds have temporarily blown this priest out of his country. For now, it's enough that his new bridge is standing in Chalatenango. It testifies to his, and his people's, faith in the future.