Challenges to Religious in the 21st Century Asia – Commentary

By: Hector Welgampola 

Nun during a break at the XVIth Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious (AMOR) in Tagaytay City, Philippines. – NJ Viehland Photos

As home of the world’s main religions, Asia has been the font and source of mysticism. The ancient continent’s celestial heights, expansive deserts and sprawling wilderness whetted early Asians’ yearning for the sublime. This search inspired varied forms of ascetic life in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Judaic, Essene, Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian traditions.

As reminded by the current Lenten season, the habitat-related search for the divine is nothing new to our own faith tradition. Moses’ Sinai trek, the Baptist’s desert sojourn, and Jesus’ withdrawal both to the wilderness and to Tabor are links in that chain of mystic spirituality.

The Catholic Catechism’s claim that “Religious life was born in the East during the first centuries of Christianity,” affirms the continuity of that search by early mystics such as Saints Anthony and Melania of Egypt. The Desert Fathers’ and Mothers’ lifestyle of contemplative and self-purifying spirituality paved the way for a Christian monastic tradition. Religious communities grew when holy solitaires fraternized for more effective search and service in and through wider society.

Contemplatives’ ascetic role in the Christian community, however, was in no way diminished by the birth of proactive Religious Orders in Europe or even gradual dominance of ordained ministries. Rather, the contrary seemed to be true at least in Asia where, despite canonical definition of some Religious as lay groups, laypeople always had higher esteem for unordained Religious than for diocesan clergy. Such reverence for consecrated persons is rooted in Asian cultures, where people value holiness of life over the liturgical ministry of sacramental service.

MC, NJ Viehland

Missionaries of Charity at Prayers of Lament for Yolanda victims, Manila, NJ Viehland Photo

Such esteem was the secret behind the success of revered missioners such as Matteo Ricci, Roberto de Nobili, John de Britto, Costanzo Beschi, Mother Teresa and Joseph Vaz. Except for Vaz, the others were Europeans. Nonetheless, they assimilated the essentials of Asian spirituality and won people’s hearts by holiness of life and witness. The world still looks back with nostalgia to their ascetic life, which radiated the spirit of Asian sages, swamis and gurus. Had local Religious too grown in such spirituality, they could have furthered the Asian awakening pioneered by revivalists like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen.

At the turn of the century, the Asian Synod acknowledged that, “In the numerous religious traditions of Asia, men and women dedicated to the contemplative and ascetic life enjoy great respect and their witness has an especially persuasive power.” But amid a whirlpool of canonical and ritual implications impacting Religious life in the post-modern West, precious little was done to let the synod-affirmed power of witness flourish in the service of Asia. And it is still not too late for Asian Religious to explore the stalled vision of above-named pioneers in a renewed search for new modalities of holiness and holy activism to meet today’s needs.

La Salette Sr., NJ Viehland Photos

Catholic nuns and clergy led the ecumenical prayer to end corruption in the Philippines, NJ Viehland Photos

Take for example, the current pastoral setup in many Asian countries where vagaries of the public square and diocesan prescripts inhibit even well-meaning pastors from any prophetic role. In such a scenario, community-supported Religious will be at greater liberty to engage in prophetic roles of furthering the good-news ministry by denouncing and challenging market-enslaved consumerist cultures.

Opus Dei, NJ Viehland Photos

Fair Trade coffee farmers in Laguna, NJ Viehland Photos

The revival of grassroots groups such as the Federation of Free Farmers in the Philippines or the Catholic Farmers’ Association in South Korea or networking people-welfare groups in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia or Sri Lanka on an ecumenical level can be timely challenges for today’s Religious. The lead taken by some individual Religious to volunteer as English teachers in China has much potential as a base for youth apostolate. The fast growing milieu of social media should challenge today’s Religious to discern creative outreach through the blogosphere and the virtual world that coral an eclectic phono sapiens generation.

Nuns tweet at Catholic Social Media Summit v2, Dagupan, 2014 - NJ Viehland Photos

Nuns tweet at Catholic Social Media Summit v2, Dagupan, 2014 – NJ Viehland Photos

Religious should find providential role models in the earlier named pioneer missioners who on their own initiative ventured out of the beaten track even at the risk of being considered freaks by their own institutes. Fired by deep faith, they dared to discern contextual charisms for service, not for self-glory. Today’s Church woefully needs more of such men and women with pastoral wisdom and prophetic courage to venture beyond confines of juridical carapace.

Additionally, would AMOR and its local arms look beyond the juridical ebb and tide, and encourage Religious to venture out in Gospel witness even in traditional mission fields? For example, missioners from Islamic countries like Indonesia and Pakistan may better suit the needs of Central Asian cultures than missioners from elsewhere. Such missions may also help renew the apostolic energies of those Religious crucified by administrative overkill. On a lighter note, such re-missioning may even help resolve the ennui-syndrome driving Green-Card-seeking “missioner” outflows beyond the Atlantic.

This attempt to discuss some challenges to Religious would be incomplete if it fails to voice their muted challenge to Mother Church. After all, as sons and daughters of today’s Church, Religious too are part of fallible humanity. Like all laity, clergy and bishops, they too are part of a sinful world striving for perfection. Having dared to pursue that search through service to society, they challenge the Christian community with a plea for prayer and understanding. A timely Lenten mission!

Hector Welgampola

Hector Welgampola, welgampo@gmail.com Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.

 

Interview : Sr. Maria Añanita Borbon, RGS, Part 2

NJ Viehland Photos

Counseling room at Ruhama Womens Center renovated for free by UP Diliman Interior Design department graduates for a “healing atmosphere” / NJ Viehland Photos

Q & A Sr. Borbon continued from Part 1

Part 2 – Program set up, sustainability,

    “We believe that if God wants our program, he will be the one to help us” – Sr. Maria Añanita Borbon, RGS

How have referring groups helped with resources ?

Parenting Foundation is an NGO that referred to us a girl. She had her own psychotherapist. We asked them please continue it because we have no capacity for psychotherapy. That’s why I’m networking with CICM hoping they can give it to us for free because residents cannot do without psychotherapy. A lot of issues come out. Every now and then the group gives food, money. We assume the expenses for the girl’s living. There are also lay friends and our people from own network who come and give voluntary services, like value formation, health care, help from mothers.  

What’s your strategy for funding support?

My ambition is to get donations given by major benefactors. If I can just get one more regular substantial benefactor and then get psychotherapy for 15 people, that would be very sustainable. Our own Good Shepherd lay affiliates give food or host a Christmas party. Those help too. Eventually I would need to exert more effort to ensure sustainability of our program.

Do you rescue women and children from nightclubs, cybersex dens or abusive homes?

We do not go ourselves because we do not have personnel for this so we work with agencies that do this and provide the shelter and services for the victims they rescue. We also do not go into bars and nightclubs because of lack of personnel and because we do not have room for any more clients. If we did, we would probably go out and do this. 

Who comprise Ruhama’s staff ?

We have a live-in social worker, live-in house parent/cook and I’m acting as program coordinator. I have a consultant social worker also, and volunteers on a daily basis.

The only male volunteers I accepted are seminarians of Congregation of Jesus and Mary because it was founded by Jean Eudes -the same founder as ours, so they know our charism, they know our apostolate for the sexually abused.

It’s hard to accept just any volunteer especially the males. We have to watch against physical contact. I screen strictly who can be there as volunteers if they are male. I talk to their formators to make it clear that the girls are sexually abused and are sometimes longing for sex. I ask them if a girl embraces you, what would you do?

Contributed by Ed Gerlock

Woman keeps eyes on the street for possible customers outside her motel room in Manila – Contributed by Ed Gerlock contact: edgerlock@yahoo.com.ph

How do you select your clients?

We have an intake procedure. When the girls and young women come, they are asked to fill out forms and our social worker interviews them. If she is referred and not a walk-in client, we ask the referring institution or person to give us a case study report. 

Where do the walk-in clients come from?

Priests, government agencies, and other people know us. One of our girls came to our center after a priest saw her wandering around outside their school. He was concerned that she could be trafficked so he called us. We couldn’t expect the priest to give us a case study so our own social worker interviewed her and researched her background, where she came from. We have many of such “at-risk” cases. We have 3 sisters in the group. Two of them were abused by the father. If we take the two sisters, the one left behind could be abused too.

Are relatives of clients allowed to visit?

Yes, but we make sure first that the contact with family members promotes the residents’ healing. If they will not help in the healing we don’t allow it. For example if the father is the perpetrator of abuse, of course we don’t allow him to visit. If the mother does not believe the girl’s report that the father is the perpetrator, we also do not allow the mother to visit.

We don’t immediately allow communication with family among clients who are referred to us. We research and validate information first and try to know as much as we can about their history, especially of their case. Our social worker goes to find out and puts in her recommendation.

What about spiritual formation programs?

We also have spiritual formation programs or catechism. Non-Catholics are not obliged to join, but in our experience, other Christian clients want to join. We welcome them into the classes and sessions. They’re not allowed to receive Communion, but if they say they want to be baptized, we assist in their preparation.

Do you accept donations from other faith groups?

Yes. We don’t accept from those who are giving funds from mining, gambling, of course we don’t want to accept from PDAF (pork barrel funds) because we have to be consistent in our stand. We have to be very clear about upholding our values and not sacrifice them just to carry out the program. We believe that if God wants our program, he will be the one to help us and we have proven that. We came up with that guideline on unacceptable funds only about three years ago. 

What more needs to be done in terms of managing the Province’s ministries?

We just finished our planning for the next six years and one of our thrusts is to consolidate the Province’s efforts in terms of trafficking, migration, and related ministries so that our response will be a corporate response based on stronger networking. 

We could also streamline all these existing projects and programs, maybe prioritize them in terms of our resources, especially human resources. We are strengthening our lay partners as we have fewer active nuns today.

Part 3 Religious Life