ROME – On the 40th anniversary of the murder of four American missionaries in El Salvador, Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, have praised the women as martyrs and models of evangelization and of God’s preferential love for the poor and needy.

In his Dec. 2 general audience address, Pope Francis gave a shout-out to the missionaries – Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and a volunteer named Jean Donovan, who were ministering to the poor, those displaced by El Salvador’s civil war in the 1970s and 80s.

Recalling the day on which they were killed, the pope noted that “On Dec. 2, 1980 they were kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a paramilitary group.”

“With evangelic commitment and running great risks, they brought food and medicine to the displaced and they helped the poorest families,” he said, adding, “These women lived their faith with great generosity. They are an example for everyone to become faithful missionary disciples.”

To honor the missionaries and the 70,000 Salvadorans who died during the country’s civil war, Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Jesuit who serves as undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees section of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development, held a Mass Dec. 2 at the Oratorio of Caravita in Rome which was livestreamed on Zoom.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich did the first reading, which came from Chapter 25 of the Book of Isaiah.

In his homily, Czerny read an account of what happened to Ford, Clarke, Kazel and Donovan written by Canadian Jesuit Father Greg Chisholm, who at the time of their death was visiting El Salvador as part of a Canadian delegation for the funeral of five leaders of the country’s revolutionary front who had been kidnapped and murdered amid ongoing violence.

According to the account read aloud by Czerny, Chisholm, who currently serves as a missionary in the Peruvian Amazon, met Donovan and Kazel after arriving in El Salvador.

At the time, the atmosphere in El Salvador was one of “tension and nervousness” given the ongoing violence, kidnappings, and killings, and tensions over increased U.S. involvement in the war were rising.

Chisholm described Donovan and Kazel, who had been tasked with going to the airport to collect Ford and Clarke, who were returning from a visit to Managua, as “clearly nervous” about what was happening.

After leaving the airport and driving down a “deserted and unlit” highway, Chisholm said the small bus he and the rest of his delegation were traveling in was stopped by a group of heavily armed national security forces, who jumped out from “a deep trench” by the side of the road, asked to see their documents, and demanded to know if they were Americans.

Once the driver of the bus explained that they were a group of Canadian visitors, and once the militants confirmed this by checking their passports, they were allowed to go.

However, Donovan, Kazel, Ford, and Clarke – who should have only been an hour behind and would have traveled by the same road – were not as fortunate.

Instead of being allowed to go on their way, the women were instead beaten, raped, shot in the head, and buried in a shallow grave by the side of the road.

Departing from Chisholm’s account of the tragedy, Czerny said that while gruesome and politicized, the death of the missionaries “is not the last word.”

He noted how several years later, in 1984, a group of former members of the national guard were convicted of the women’s murder. At the time, one of them also confessed to a different crime involving another Maryknoll sister in El Salvador, and “asked for forgiveness.”

This is proof, Czerny said, that conversion comes not from “human justice,” but “divine wisdom,” and illustrates the “triumph of light over darkness and life over death.”

Noting that the so-called “new martyrs” of modern times outnumber the martyrs of the past, Czerny quoted a speech from Pope Francis in which he observed that “It is interesting and striking to note how hostility grows to fury in the persecution of martyrs. How does one get to rage against Christians, against Christian witness and Christian wisdom?”

Referring to the day’s reading from Isaiah, Czerny stressed that no matter the depth of persecution, Jesus is close, and the Holy Spirit provides the strength needed “to go forward.”

“Let us not be discouraged when a life faithful to the Gospel faces persecution,” he said, saying the missionaries killed 40 years ago were “martyrs at a local, humble level. With the poor, displaced, grieving.”

They bore witness to “a loving God whose preference is for the poor and suffering,” he said.

According to biographies posted on the Maryknoll Sisters’ website, both Ford and Clarke saw their service of the poor and needy as the mission entrusted to them by God, which they responded to even amid reservations about possible danger.

Born in Brooklyn in 1940, Ford joined Maryknoll in 1961, but was initially forced to leave three years later due to reasons of health. After a seven-year hiatus, she eventually returned in 1971 and, just two years later, was sent to serve in Chile shortly before the country’s military coup, staying to help those enduring hardship.

She was assigned to El Salvador shortly after the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down while saying Mass in March 1980 – just eight months before Ford herself would be killed. Romero was formally declared a martyr by Pope Francis in 2015, and he was canonized in 2018.

Clarke was also from New York and was born in Queens in 1931. She entered Maryknoll in 1950 and was initially assigned to teach at a parish in the Bronx, however, in 1959 she was assigned as a teacher and community superior in Siuna, Nicaragua.

After assisting locals in the aftermath of an earthquake in 1972, she returned to the U.S. in 1977 for three years to work on the Maryknoll Sisters World Awareness Team. She went back to Nicaragua in early 1980, but soon after transferred to El Salvador to respond to increasing emergency needs related to the country’s civil war.

After Piette’s death in August of that year, Clarke volunteered to assist Ford in serving the poor, imprisoned, and displaced in the town of Chalatenango. Together, the sisters held searches for missing persons, buried the dead, prayed with the families of prisoners, and offered assistance to those suffering poverty and violence.

In his homily, Czerny noted that other commemorative services were being held for the missionaries throughout the world, calling the women “evangelizers and martyrs.”

“Theirs, mysteriously and without doubt, is the triumph” of love over hate, he said, adding, “brutal crimes fail and fail to stop evangelization.”

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