by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

“The light shines in the darkness and
the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

This week we recalled a vivid memory of the mortal struggle between “Light” and “Darkness” and it continues to be a profound, if bittersweet Advent story. On a December night in 1980 a unit of the El Salvadoran – U.S. supported – military abducted four American women missionaries, raped them, then killed and buried them in shallow graves. Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner, Jean Donovan had been working with poor “campesino” communities there. Such activities were judged by the Salvadoran military establishment as a threat to their stranglehold on the country. As a result, they decided in their cowardly fear that these women must be done away with – the same decision they had made to murder Archbishop Oscar Romero only eight months before.

The sisters’ story is an Advent story. Like the Archbishop, the U.S. missioners were shining a gentle but powerful light into the darkness of a cruel military establishment that was terrorizing the poorest segments of the Salvadoran population. The regime feared that these oppressed peoples, supported by witnesses like Ita, Maura, Dorothy and Jean, might rise up and destroy their power structure. This, despite the fact that the work being done by these wonderful women was simply accompanying the poor people and thereby offering “the little ones” a sliver of hope in a hopeless time. It was a small light shining in a dark time and place – an Advent presence.

This story highlights the second part of the Advent event: the vocation to “hasten the day of the Lord”, Christ’s Second Coming, proclaimed in the Apostle Peter’s Second Letter (2 Peter 3:12). During these four weeks we remember and celebrate Christ’s First Coming, the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Savior; we also “wait in joyful Hope” for Christ to come again and we have a decisive role in making that happen. Sincere people contribute to the coming of that promised day by the actions that do not allow the Darkness to overcome.

That Darkness is real. Wherever human beings are treated as less than beloved children of God, when they are neglected, forgotten, left to inhuman conditions of life – there is the Darkness. People of the Light stand over against it and refuse to let it prevail.

The tragic crimes committed against our four sisters appeared at first to be a triumph of Darkness over Light. However, in and through their martyrdom, an amazing conversion took place in the United States. The unimaginable horror of four religious women being brutalized and murdered brought home to people in our country the equally unimaginable horror of the United States’ enabling policies toward the military regime in El Salvador at that time. We became consciencitized about this and many other similar situations in the world, where U.S. policies allow the Darkness to hold sway. From that time on those who came to understand the depravity both of the Salvadoran military and the equally depraved U.S. policies there formed numerous and effective solidarity groups to demand a change in these sinful actions of this country. Our eyes were opened – we became sources of the Light for the Salvadoran people and perhaps equally important Light for our own U.S. government.

The overriding lesson from this Advent story of Light resisting Darkness teaches once again that this lovely and very popular liturgical season brings with it a price tag. It is wonderful to feel enormous happiness in the first fulfillment of God’s promise – that a Child is born to us, a Savior has been given to us. But the second dimension of that story of Salvation History – the second fulfillment of God’s promise – demands much of us. There seems no need here to spell out those demands, except to say that we are necessarily part of the mortal conflict between good and evil, Light and Darkness in our time and place on earth.

We give great thanks that Pax Christi stands as a significant Light in the Darkness of our times.


Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

3 thoughts on “The story of the 4 U.S. churchwomen is an Advent story on how light drives out darkness

  1. When WE THE PEOPLE (citizens of this “Empire in Denial”) begin to wake up and smell the roses (writing figuratively of course), our awakening can be quite intense and painful. Mine has been. But the fruits of that awakening are worth the trouble. Far beyond any calculation I can perform. Godspeed Pax Christi!

  2. Although terrible acts took place in El Salvador, their memory should awaken in each of us an awareness of the strength of a unity with God, His creation, and all of its creatures. Maintain that strength when confronted with challenges on the international, national, local, personal and intrapersonal levels. Help to allow ourselves and others be that unity and assist in the transformation of the spirit of the world we live in. Peace.
    Terence Lover

Leave a Reply