The National Catholic Review

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 wereas I understood from the media, popular culture and even popular Catholic culturemostly 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.

James Martin, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

Comments

Magy Stelling | 4/20/2012 - 12:45pm
So true Fr. Jim,and thank you for encouraging support of these great women who lead our Church in the intergity of social justice and compassionate care of the vulnerable.  I just wonder how many homilies will be spoken this Sunday to support these holy women.  What a shame it would be if no one mentioned it.
Nancy Walton-House | 4/20/2012 - 11:50am

Thank you for this truthful, respectful and affirming article.  We need more prophets and prophetic voices, female and male, in the RCC.  I am appalled by the decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the USCCB to "renew" the Leadership Council of Religious Women.  It is patently obvious that the Church hierarchy cannot tolerate prophetic leadership from women.  What a shame.  I will learn from anyone, vowed religious or layperson, who is actively living the mission Jesus the Christ gave us - Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  The hierarchy continues to lose contact and credibility with the real world in which we all live.  I am greatly saddened and alarmed by that.



Beth Cioffoletti | 4/20/2012 - 7:42am
"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."

Perhaps the problem is that the church does not recognize that the women ARE LEADING and does not know how to follow their lead.
Cynthia Bertelsen | 1/22/2007 - 1:35pm
A blessing on James Martin, S.J., for his Of Many Things (1/8). I always read that column and the editorial first. I have tears in my eyes. If enough men in the church like Father Martin would speak out for women, then the church could receive the wonderful gifts that women have to offer. It is especially fitting, on this day after Epiphany, to read this and be reminded once again that the church needs all our gifts in order to thrive and be enriched.

Ellen Smith, R.S.M. | 1/22/2007 - 1:34pm
A word of thanks to you for the wonderful Of Many Things column by James Martin, S.J., about women as disciples (1/8). It both humbles and energizes me to read your words. I live and pray with the belief that the church will experience a conversion and recognize how much is missed without the direct leadership of women, both lay and religious.

Cynthia Bertelsen | 1/22/2007 - 1:35pm
A blessing on James Martin, S.J., for his Of Many Things (1/8). I always read that column and the editorial first. I have tears in my eyes. If enough men in the church like Father Martin would speak out for women, then the church could receive the wonderful gifts that women have to offer. It is especially fitting, on this day after Epiphany, to read this and be reminded once again that the church needs all our gifts in order to thrive and be enriched.

Ellen Smith, R.S.M. | 1/22/2007 - 1:34pm
A word of thanks to you for the wonderful Of Many Things column by James Martin, S.J., about women as disciples (1/8). It both humbles and energizes me to read your words. I live and pray with the belief that the church will experience a conversion and recognize how much is missed without the direct leadership of women, both lay and religious.

Recently in Of Many Things