Certainly one of the most surprising revelations in my life has been my experience with women religious. Before entering religious life I cherished the same notions about sisters that much of the American public does. They were - as I understood from the media, popular culture and even popular Catholic culture - mostly meek, mild, excessively pious women (a little silly, even?), who taught in safe, big-city elementary schools. Nuns were hardly what one would call risk-takers.
Reminding me of this was a good friend named Janice, a member of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, who was among the many people who visited El Salvador a few weeks ago to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the murder of Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan and Maura Clark.
I knew, of course, the story of the four women. I knew that two were Maryknoll sisters, one an Ursuline sister and one a lay volunteer. I knew that they had worked with the poor in that country, and that they were killed in 1980 by the Salvadoran military. I knew that Alexander Haig, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, had said, in effect, that they got what they deserved. I knew that the congregations and families of the four still struggled to find justice for their martyred sisters. And I understood that they had been, in the words of St. Paul, poured out like a libation, for the people of El Salvador, for the poor of the world, for the church, for Christ.
But there were some things I didn’t know until my friend recounted the story of her visit. I didn’t know that Ita Ford had narrowly escaped death just a few months before in a raging flood. I didn’t know (how could I have forgotten if I had ever heard this?) that the women were found by local Salvadorans who, out of pity, reclothed their naked bodies and covered them with branches. I didn’t know that it is still unclear precisely what happened to the four as they drove back from the airport that day 20 years ago. And I didn’t know that there is now a small chapel in a field near the spot where it is believed the murders took place.
The story of these four martyrs of El Salvador, recounted every year on Dec. 2, never fails to remind me of the enormous sacrifices, the uncountable contributions and the still-vibrant witness of women religiousand the ridiculous contradiction between popular notions of women religious and reality. It also reminds me of sisters I have met: the Sister of Saint Joseph I knew in Uganda who calmly, even with humor, explained how she had been shot at on her way back from a refugee camp; the 60-ish Dominican sister who had set up a small village outside of Nairobi for hundreds of Sudanese refugees; the sister who directed me on a retreat in Boston, who mentioned (only after I asked) that she ran a home for unwed mothers in a shockingly dangerous part of New York City. You should visit! she said with a smile.
More often than not, it is women religious who precede the men in working with the poor, in giving voice to the powerless and in dying on the fields of martyrdom. It is the women who do, do, do, and have done so with little recognition and historically even less pay, and all in a church where women’s voices are often unheard, ignored or denied. How, I wondercringing at my early, absurd prejudiceshave they done it? Certainly only with God’s grace and a terrific amount of courage, talent and, especially, wit.
But this is not surprising. After all, Mary of Nazareth is traditionally called the first disciple; three women stood patiently at the foot of the cross; and women were the first to experience the risen Christ and proclaim the good news of the Resurrection. When one considers the long history of women in the church from its earliest days, the witness of women today, even to the point of death, is not surprising. Rather, the surprise is why a church that allows women in its name to die, does not also allow them in its name to lead.