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The Fierce Tenderness of Sister Dianna Ortiz Featured During Kraft Lecture

by Tom McNamara Feb 25, 2021

Experiences can cause anger in all of us, but the key is to channel that anger to strongly fight injustices in the world, large and small. So was the theme of The Joan and R. Wayne Kraft Memorial Lecture over Zoom.

Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of PAX Christi USA, presented the lecture to members of the DeSales community, friends of DeSales, and members of the Kraft family.

Zokovitch placed the theme, “A Fierce Tenderness: Discipleship as Empathy,” in the context of the story of one person—a close friend of his who had only five days ago passed away from cancer at the age of 62.

Sister Dianna Ortiz was a Catholic nun in the Ursuline order who was serving as a missionary in Guatemala teaching children. In 1989, she was kidnapped at gunpoint. She was taken to a prison where she was tortured, gang raped, and forced to stab a fellow prisoner with a machete. She believed that one of the people acting in concert with her captors was an American.

After her escape and return to the United States, Ortiz underwent extensive therapy to combat the amnesia and nightmares she was experiencing. It was then that Ortiz wanted to learn more about the reasons she was targeted.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests and protests, including a hunger strike near the White House during the Clinton Administration, documents were finally released that showed that acts of genocide were committed by Guatemalan forces; forces that were protected by the U.S. government.

Zokovitch met Ortiz in 2010 and they became friends, and he eventually asked her to help lead the United States chapter of PAX Christi. He learned that while Ortiz could not forget what had happened to her, she used the experience to help others. She co-founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, a group created by torture survivors to help torture survivors with everything from mental health counseling to employment assistance.

Zokovitch said Ortiz was the embodiment of fierce tenderness that she demonstrated whether fighting the U.S. government or standing up for someone being ignored in a meeting. She had a tenderness filled with the strength to reach out to people suffering.

Zokovitch also quoted St. Francis de Sales and noted how much it tied to Ortiz: “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

Ortiz was an example for us to have the strength to show love over hate and faith over despair.

Fr. James Greenfield, OSFS ’84, president of DeSales, began the evening with a prayer: “A Coronavirus Prayer for a Weary Winter” by Kerry Weber. Fr. Kevin Nadolski, OSFS, vice president for mission, introduced Zokovitch, who is the executive director of Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace and justice movement. Previously, Zokovitch worked in Brussels with Pax Christi International as the senior communications officer promoting the work of human rights and the promise of nonviolence in addressing conflict.

The Kraft Lecture series honors the memories of Joan A. & Deacon R. Wayne Kraft. As an adjunct professor in philosophy at DeSales University, Wayne Kraft lectured on and wrote four books about the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of humanities degree in 1984 and received the DeSales Medal in 1988 for his work as a Catholic layman.

Joan Kraft was a leader of song; one of the first women lectors; a Eucharistic Minister; a pioneer in church and civic affairs in the Bethlehem area; and served on the pastoral team of her parish. Joan Kraft became the first Catholic woman to serve as a volunteer associate chaplain at St. Luke’s Hospital, having obtained a degree in pastoral care. The University awarded Joan an honorary doctorate degree and also the DeSales Medal.

Members of the Kraft family were in attendance, including the Krafts’ daughter Ellen who offered closing remarks.