Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.
Born: November 9, 1930, in Portugalete, Spain
From a young age Ellacuría was gifted as a natural leader who spoke with conviction about his ideas, which seemed radical at the time.
He began his novitiate to become a Jesuit on September 14,1947, at the age of 17. During his years at the seminary in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, he was known as the “Sun King” for his compelling and demanding presence among his peers.
After his time at the seminary, Ellacuría studied classical language, humanities, and philosophy in Quito, Ecuador, from 1949 to 1955. As a student of humanities, he studied under Father Aurelio Espinoza Pólit. Ellacuría returned to El Salvador in 1955 for three years to teach philosophy in the seminary of San José de la Montaña before venturing to Europe.
Under the well-known Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., Ellacuría studied theology in Innsbruck, Austria, from 1958 to 1962. Ellacuría could have received a doctorate in theology had he written a dissertation. While in Austria, Ellacuría was a member of the soccer team and was ordained a priest on July 26, 1961.
After his studies in Austria, Ellacuría received his doctoral studies in philosophy at the Universidad Complutense in Spain in 1967. He was the star pupil of the Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri, who inspired Ellacuría’s final dissertation at the age of 37. He also received an honorary degree from Loyola in 1986, just three years before he was murdered.
Ellacuría returned to El Salvador in 1967 to begin the next chapter of his life at the University of Central America (UCA) as a professor of theology and philosophy. He founded the Centro de Reflexión Teológica in 1974 and was the director and editor of UCA’s monthly cultural extension review magazine, Estudios Centroamericanos.
Ellacuría was granted Salvadoran citizenship in 1975. In the early 1980s, internal division among Salvadoran Jesuits erupted over the publication of El Salvador: Año Político 1971-1972, a controversial study of El Salvador’s government, which could harm the relationship between the university and the ruling party.
The division split the UCA community into two houses: UCAI and UCAII. Ellacuría led the walkout and formed the nucleus of UCAII along with Luis de Sebastián, Jon Sobrino, Jon Cortina, Jesús Arroyo, Segundo Montes Mozo, Rodolfo Cardenal, and Ignacio Martín-Baró. Joaquín López y López and Amando López Quintana joined the group shortly after. Ellacuría’s most notable role at UCA began in 1979, when he was named rector of the university, a position he held until his murder in 1989. Students, friends, and faculty knew him as “Ellacu.”
Since the beginning of El Salvador’s civil war, Ellacuría was one of the loudest advocates for peace negotiations. He acted as an informal mediator between the guerrilla fighting forces Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and the Salvadoran government, which made him an enemy of the far right. The year before his death, Ellacuría met with President Alfredo Cristiani to discuss the hostile environment Salvadorans were facing every day.
Ellacuría and his fellow Jesuits were targeted by the army as “intellectual ringleaders” to be eliminated—along with any witnesses. Despite threats to his life, the threat of expulsion by immigration authorities in 1971, and a death threat that kept him from re-entering El Salvador in 1980, Ellacuría continued to work for peace and the rights of innocent Salvadorans until his death.