I knew Sr. Dianna through her advocacy work and through regular gatherings for Mass at the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., where she lived for 25 years. I came to know her more closely during her fast for justice in the mid-1990s when I wrote an article with Julie Polter for Sojourners out of that experience.
In 2007, poet Joseph Ross and I organized a poetry reading and poetry anthology to accompany an exhibit of paintings by Colombian artist Botero in D.C. We were so grateful to Sr. Dianna for writing the forward to Cut Loose the Body: Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings. She wrote:
“To our feelings of betrayal, fear and isolation, must we also carry the insistent sense of hopelessness our torturers would force up on us? No, we need not. Oh no, we will not. We who have survived this crime against humanity have, indeed, learned to speak for ourselves and to be understood …”
As I reflect on Sr. Dianna’s life and death I keep thinking: Dianna is what resurrection looks like in public. She came out of the belly of death in Guatemala with her scars intact, and she dealt with her wounds every single day. Somehow, she turned her experiences of death into the power of resurrection that saved the lives of thousands of people. And through that slow process of resurrection she came to know a God called Mercy.
Forgive me and us Dianna for all the ways we hurt you and didn’t understand. We in turn “forgive” you for making us uncomfortable when you were bold enough to claim your healing in public. You are our saint of nonviolent witness. Presente!–Rose Marie Berger
New Orleans native and NPR’s senior news analyst Cokie Roberts gave the keynote address at the recent gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in New Orleans. LCWR represents 95% of U.S. Catholic religious women and is under investigation by the Vatican. (See my earlier posts LCWR Calls For Transparency and Vatican Investigation.)
Roberts gives an excellent overview of the historical role of Catholic women in America – especially in New Orleans. When she veers toward the current Vatican investigation, she frames it in a way that brings out some of the essential tensions: The true nature of the American experiment is still not understood by Rome. Here’s an excerpt:
This country remains a puzzlement to our ancestors in Europe and their modern day descendants. After all we are very young—it’s not even 300 years since the Ursulines arrived here and that was almost 50 years before independence. I understand why the Europeans continue to see this as some sort of upstart nation. They often see only the chaos without witnessing the creation. And they don’t appreciate the fact that we have traditions that are different from those of the old world, traditions that have to do with service both inside and outside of religious life. So–at the same time that the Ursulines were here creating schools and hospitals and orphanages, and Elizabeth Seton was doing that on the East Coast–women of every religion and color were creating similar institutions–whether it was Isabella Graham the Scotswoman who worked with Elizabeth Seton to create the Widows Society and many other social service agencies, or Rebecca Gratz–a Jewish woman in Philadelphia who worked with other women in the community to create orphanages and other societies for the poor and then established a parallel set up for Jewish children who were being taught Christian doctrine in those other institutions. Or Catherine Ferguson, a former slave, who started the Sunday School movement in America. Or first lady Dolley Madison who worked with the local women of Washington to set up an orphanage after the British invasion of 1814. These women of course couldn’t vote and married women could not own property. They were the property of their husbands. But with great difficulty and determination they lobbied the legislatures, solicited funds from the public, petitioned the Congress, organized rallies, performed highly political acts in order to create the safety net for the poor in a time of exciting unbridled capitalism. And that tradition of service continues.