He had a cushy professorship at a leading university. After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago – not unusual for the intellectual stormtroopers of the Catholic Church, the Jesuits – he had extensive experience working with poor communities. And then, as an earthquake, the news came to him in 1989: Six Jesuits, their housekeeper and daughter all executed by the military at the Catholic University in San Salvador. It was assumed that since they spoke on behalf of the poor and voiceless that they were revolutionary sympathizers. The orders came from the top. They were dragged out of their beds and shot execution style, including witnesses.
That slaughter became the decisive turning point of the Salvadoran civil war. And though only two of the many men responsible were charged with crimes, they were released in the amnesty agreement of 1992. What now? Who could possibly step up to bring academic and spiritual leadership in the aftermath of such an outrage?
There are not too many Jesuits who have a Ph.D. and are fluent in Spanish and have worked among the poor. That would be Fr. Dean Brackley, S.J. When his friends heard that he was considering it, they suggested that he was serving admirably right where he was. But God was calling, said Brackley. And so he headed to San Salvador, knees shaking. The military were still stationed around the university, ostensibly for security. It brings back the saying, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?”
For many years, in addition to teaching, Brackley led visitor tours of the site of the assassinations and the museum of the martyrs. He also served a small rural parish some 50 miles from the capital city. Often, at the close of one of the tours at the site of the martyrdom, Fr. Brackley would take guests to the eight bushes that were planted in honor and memory of the slain. The six were Jesuits, of course. Two, however, were the housekeeper and her daughter. They were were killed to eliminate witnesses. And Brackley would always introduce groups to the gardener who cares for the bushes even to this day, the husband and father of the slain mother and daughter.
Fr. Brackley died from pancreatic cancer on October 16 in San Salvador. He was 65.