Two days before Mother Teresa’s canonisation, Sister Isabel Sola Matas was running an errand in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. She sat at the wheel of her old white SUV as traffic crawled towards a busy junction in the Bel Air region of the city. Suddenly, a group of men approached the car, shot the Catalan nun twice in the chest and made off with her purse.
Sister Isabel died instantly. But the 51-year-old left behind an indelible record of goodness. After entering the Congregation of Religious of Jesus and Mary, she had served in Equatorial Guinea. She moved to Haiti in 2008, working as a nurse, feeding the hungry, helping to build houses and founding a workshop making prosthetic limbs for amputees after the 2010 earthquake. “In killing her they didn’t kill just one person,” a local priest said, “they killed the hopes of many people.”
The nun’s murder is not an isolated event. According to the Vatican news agency Fides, between 2000 and 2015, 396 pastoral workers were killed worldwide, mostly during attempted robberies. Last year alone, 22 workers died violently: 13 priests, four Sisters and five lay people. This year that figure could be higher: four of Mother Teresa’s Sisters were killed in a single attack in Yemen in March and 2016 seems an unusually blood-stained year.
While most of us regard the Middle East as the world’s most dangerous place for Christians, the Fides figures suggest it isn’t. For seven consecutive years, more missionaries have been killed in the Americas than in any other continent. In 2015, eight were murdered there, compared with seven in Asia, five in Africa and two in Europe.
Most missionaries are well aware of the deadly risks they face. But, as Sister Isabel might have said, that is the price of answering a divine call to share the lives of the poor and downtrodden. “Haiti is now the only place where I can be and heal my heart,” she wrote in 2011. “Haiti is my home, my family, my work, my suffering and joy, and my place of encounter with God.”
Why would God allow someone so transparently good to die so horribly? There is no glib answer. But as Christians, we believe that there is a meaning to our sufferings and sacrifices, no matter how dimly we perceive it in this life (as Cardinal Pell argues powerfully on our Books pages this week).
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