Reporter’s notebook: Confronting a global and personal challenge during a pandemic

CHALATENANGO, El Salvador (CNS) — Early mornings and evenings in this small city surrounded by mountains sometimes seem deliriously beautiful. Some mornings, you can see a lush mountain appear and disappear in seconds as the wind moves the fog behind Chalatenango’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Some evenings equally highlight the lush jungle green landscape as the setting of the sun lights up the sky, emphasizing the silhouettes of the surrounding mountains that make them seem like sentinels reaching for the sky.

In this idyllic setting, the backdrop of at least 50 massacres that took the lives of an untold number of Catholics during the country’s civil conflict in the 1980s, U.S. Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford are buried. They were brutally assassinated and raped along with Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and laywoman Jean Donovan Dec. 2, 1980.

I had no idea their bodies were buried here until I stopped by to quickly visit Bishop Oswaldo Escobar Aguilar in January. He took me to the simple tomb of the American sisters in the local cemetery near the seat of the Diocese of Chalatenango in northern El Salvador. The tomb also is the final resting place of Maryknoll Sister Carla Piette, who drowned here during a flash flood, months before Sisters Ford and Clarke were killed.

Back in January, innocent of the wrath COVID-19 was about to unleash, the bishop told me about the diocese’s plans to remember the sisters in December, on the 40th anniversary of their 1980 killing. That year, the country’s top prelate, human rights icon St. Oscar Romero, was martyred in March. Franciscan Father Cosme Spessotto, an Italian missionary currently awaiting beatification, also was martyred in June of the same year, as were more than 650 peasants from Chalatenango, ambushed during a massacre in the Sumpul River that May.

I made plans to return, never imagining the international events ahead, including the monthslong closing of the St. Oscar Romero airport here and the shutting down of the country’s churches. I watched as the pandemic overshadowed so many symbolic 40th anniversary commemorations for the church in my native El Salvador, events connected to the global church.  

On a personal level, 2020 also marked 40 years since my family left the country and our hometown in Chalatenango, not far from where the Maryknoll sisters are buried. It was a time the bishop aptly described as the year the “valley of sand and water” — the meaning of the word Chalatenango in the indigenous Nahuatl language — became “a valley of blood.”

Up until last year, when I met the bishop during a visit he made to Washington, I had lost nearly all connection to this particular part of the world where I was born. It was a situation Bishop Escobar knew well since his family also left the area at around the same time, also when he was a child, after his sister was “disappeared” and his brother assassinated. He returned to live there 36 years later when he was installed as the third bishop of the diocese.

We stayed in touch. He invited me to visit. That’s how I ended up at the graves of the Maryknoll missionary sisters on that January day, wondering whether we had ever crossed paths.  

After writing so many stories leading up to the anniversary of the women’s killing, the memory of what happened to them, to those of us who left, me, the bishop, the importance of recognizing these momentous and biblically symbolic “40th” anniversaries weighed on me.

Earlier in the year, during an unforgettable rainy evening when Pope Francis delivered his “Urbi et Orbi” message in St. Peter’s Square, he spoke of the pandemic in metaphorical terms and how this “storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”

The storm showed us how we have used those daily schedules to “save” us, but also how they could not put “us in touch with our roots” and instead deprived us “of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.”

Listening and watching him in that dark square, I longed nothing more than to be in El Salvador more than anywhere else.

I was far too young to make the choice to stay or leave 40 years ago, but this time, the choice to come “home,” even in the middle of a pandemic, was mine.

In the past few days, I’ve watched priests, the laity, women and men religious, including the bishop, a Discalced Carmelite, go out and feed the homeless near Chalatenango’s cathedral. I’ve watched as he’s been called away to administer the sacraments to the dying and the sick and load the car with donations to drop off as he visits the most remote parts of this forgotten and battered diocese, and how people, in turn, load his car with what they have to give to others.

“We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial,” the pope said that rainy night. “It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people — often forgotten people — who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show but who, without any doubt, are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves. In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: ‘That they may all be one.’”  

I know exactly why Ita, Carla, and Maureen stayed in Chalatenango. And probably why Jean and Dorothy stayed in another part of El Salvador.

Even in this poor agricultural area, where crops have recently been affected by tropical storms, solidarity with the poor by the poor, still reigns.

It’s difficult to board a plane, worried about the personal risk of leaving “home,” but it’s even more difficult to stay in the more comfortable “home” and watch or forget the plight of those like the Catholic women from the U.S. who knew the risk of helping the most downtrodden but did it anyway.

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