La Verdière, MM
Personally, I have profited greatly from SEDOS. Since 1967, upon my arrival in East Africa as a young Sister, the Bulletin informed my earliest mission experience, as it does to this day. During my term in office, I have been able to participate in two of the annual Seminars, in 1991 and 1995. In 1992, our Congregation was represented by Sister Bernice Rigney who attended from Kenya. SEDOS consistently puts out relevant, thought- provoking articles to help all missioners face the mission challenges of our times.
My topic today is how traditional missionary institutes face new challenges in mission. I will address the three major challenges for us at this point in time as we approach the new millennium. The challenges are distinct but not unrelated to one another.
The first challenge can be described broadly as historical. There have been many changes in the mission world in the past half century. What new questions do those changes raise for traditional missionary institutes?
I would describe the second challenge as demographic. In the West, there have been major changes in the way Catholics respond to the missionary nature of the Church. How have we been affected and how must we adjust?
The historical and demographic changes in the world present us with a new theological situation. Hence, the third challenge explores the theological attitude that is needed to respond to the reality at this point in history.
I will address these questions from the point of view and from the experience of the Maryknoll Sisters of St Dominic who number 730 and who are present in mission in Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America, and Oceania, altogether, in 31 countries.
Before I begin, I want to tell you something about our Congregation of the Maryknoll Sisters. I am sure our story parallels that of many institutes that are represented here today. We were founded in the United States before the First World War in 1912 and were recognised by the Holy See in 1920, principally in view of mission to China.
From the beginning, Maryknoll Sisters have been very closely associated with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. The Society was founded in 1911 and the Congregation, in 1912. Although a year apart, we claim a common foundation through Fathers James Anthony Walsh, Thomas Frederick Price, and Mary Josephine Rogers. Let me briefly unfold the story through that of our foundress, Mary Rogers, the youngest of the three and the one who lived the longest. She was the faithful bearer of the Maryknoll tradition until she died in October 1955.
As a young Catholic student at Smith College in Massachusetts, Mary Rogers, known as Mollie, was greatly influenced by the Protestant girls who were preparing to leave for seven years of evangelisation work in China. Witnessing their enthusiasm, Mollie was prompted to ask herself, "What are we Catholics doing for mission?". With this question reverberating in her mind, she recounts how she felt drawn to the parish church. On her knees before the tabernacle, she prayed to be enlightened and to be generous in her response. In 1906, following the advice of her spiritual director, Mollie wrote to Father James Anthony Walsh, then Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Boston. She asked him for background materials for the mission class she proposed to start at Smith College for the Catholic girls, concluding rhetorically: "Who knows but that the little work we do here may be the beginning of greater efforts in later life?". Mollie could never have suspected the prophetic ring with which her question would resonate in the heart of every Maryknoll Sister down through the years!
Walsh responded promptly. When they met later that year he showed her the galley proofs of the first issue of THE FIELD AFAR, the mission magazine that he and some of his colleagues were launching to stir the mission spirit and imagination of American Catholics. He also shared his dream of beginning a foreign mission seminary. From that day on, Mary Rogers became a faithful collaborator, helping to translate letters from French missionaries, writing articles for the magazine and doing whatever else would support his mission efforts. She was soon joined by other women. Walsh and Price established the seminary in New York in 1911. It was only a few months later, on 6 January 1912, that three women also came to New York to assist in the work they had come to know and love.
In the course of time, as more women came to join, they realised that they too were called to mission. They aspired to religious life and prepared themselves through a novitiate training even as they continued to do all sorts of chores. It was not so easy for them to achieve recognition from the Holy See. Twice they were refused. In Rome and in Europe, the prevailing conviction about American women was that they could never sustain the rigours of mission life. However, two refusals did not weaken their determination. In the meantime, in 1918, the first group of newly ordained Maryknoll priests left for China. They were accompanied by Fr Price who died just a year later in Hong Kong of a ruptured appendix. Then, on 14 February 1920, when there were 42 women at Maryknoll, approval came from Rome and a new mission-sending religious congregation was born. Initially known as the Foreign Mission Sisters of St Dominic, the title was later changed officially to Maryknoll Sisters of St Dominic.
Upon receiving approval, the women's response was remarkable. Within a year, 21 of them completed their novitiate and made their first vows. Mary Rogers became Mother Mary Joseph and two months later, in April 1921, she assigned four Sisters to work among Japanese immigrants on the west coast of the U.S. In November the same year, she assigned six of her Sisters to China. Two years later, seven more Sisters followed. The fledgling group of Maryknoll Sisters lost no time getting on with the task. The purpose of the institute was mission. From the first group of three women in 1912, we grew to a congregation numbering 1,400 professed members at its peak in the mid 1950's. Today we are just over half that number.
Although Walsh, Price and Rogers were the prime movers, they never forgot that behind them were many Bishops, priests, religious and lay people who shared their vision. Until the turn of the century, the United States was mission territory; we received missionaries from Europe. By 1911, after years of encouragement from European Bishops and priests, the Church in the U.S. was coming of age. With the founding of Maryknoll, we became a mission-sending Church.
As well as presenting the challenges facing traditional missionary institutes through the lens of the Maryknoll Sisters, I will also address them from my own experience in the Congregation. I was attracted to Maryknoll in the early 1950's while the foundress, Mother Mary Joseph Rogers was still living. In September 1956, a year after her death, I entered the postulancy and made my profession in 1959. Following a period of service and studies at Maryknoll, New York, I was assigned to the Africa Region as a teacher at Rosary Secondary School in Mwanza, a port city on Lake Victoria in Tanzania. After 22 years in East Africa — four in Tanzania and 18 in Kenya — I was elected president of the Maryknoll Sisters in 1990 and am now completing my six-year term. Let me now begin to address the challenges against that background.
I. A HISTORICAL CHALLENGE
The first challenge is historical. When Maryknoll was founded and when I became a Maryknoll Sister in the 1950's, there was still a timeless and unchanging quality about the Church and the world of mission. This was so in spite of the ravages of the Second World War, the rise of atheistic Communism and the approaching demise of the 19th century Colonial Empires. Looking back, the tremendous changes that were taking place in the world announced the changes that have been taking place in the Church. It was only a matter of time. The Second Vatican Council represented a watershed for historic transformations in the Church. Hindsight always has 20/20 vision.
Far into the 20th century, we still thought in 19th century terms regarding mission. Missionaries were those who set out to plant the Church; foreign missionaries became the Bishops and pastors for a whole territory. For Maryknoll, a large territory that had been served by the Paris Foreign Mission Society (Missions Etrangères de Paris) in South China, was entrusted to the newly founded Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. That territory became the first overseas mission field for the Maryknoll Sisters.
The nature of the work was very traditional in the sense that the Holy See confided to a group of missionaries a mission territory where the Church had not yet been established. As did other missionaries, Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers and Sisters went into these territories to preach the Gospel and to plant the Church among peoples that had not yet been evangelised. Foreign missionaries established and administered institutions which depended on them for survival and growth. The Church was easily seen as a foreign import, especially in cultures that had been shaped by very old religious traditions such as Taoism, Buddhism and, in Japan, Shintoism. We needed to make the Church at home in the new cultures so that the local people would embrace the Church and those institutions as their own.
Thus, the work of the missionaries was well defined. In China, the Maryknoll Sisters were expected to staff institutional works such as orphanages, schools, catechist centers, dispensaries and hospitals. With the leadership and zeal of Fr Francis X. Ford, one of the first group of Maryknollers assigned to China in 1918, the Sisters were to experience something quite different, first in Yeungkong and then in Kaying. Like the early apostles, Ford would have them travel "two by two" to the most remote parts of the parish and mingle with the women to win their hearts (MARYKNOLL IN CHINA, Wiest, Jean Paul, p. 99). As you know, in China there was a strict separation of the sexes which made the evangelisation of Chinese women very difficult. Although Ford had experienced this difficulty he did not imagine the new approach until 1922 when Mother Mary Joseph made her first visit to China. He reflected on what he had observed and, in a letter to Walsh, he wrote:
"Mother Mary Joseph saw China from the inside of the kitchens, the interior of the family quarters and smiled her way into the hearts of the womenfolk. She saw family life as we cannot see it... I always thought it was the foreign face and clothes that frightened children, but I look and dress more Chinese than the Reverend Mother did, and yet they ran to her and lost their bashfulness. Her whole trip emphasised the hold our Sisters will have on Chinese women and the utter need of such influence to gain these women's hearts" (Wiest, p. 101).
Thus, Ford initiated a method "without precedent in the mission history of the Catholic Church.... [His method] was not only highly successful in converting women, but it also revolutionised the role of religious women in the work of evangelisation" (Wiest, p. 101).
The initiative in Yeungkong was short-lived because of anti-foreign incidents in 1925. However, the plan was only postponed. In 1934, it was put into full operation in Kaying. Mother Mary Joseph approved Ford's innovative approach wholeheartedly and blessed it in a letter she wrote to him in 1935: "This particular phase of work has always been dearest to my heart. I believe it is essential missionary work, along with the training of native Sisters" (Wiest, p. 103).
The direct apostolic work of the Sisters was described as an experiment. Everyone involved harboured the hope that the Holy See might not put an end to it. In March 1939, when Cardinal Fumasoni-Biondi, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, wrote a letter to Mother Mary Joseph telling her of Rome's approval, the Sisters were jubilant. "I wish you to know", he wrote, "that I believe your greatest accomplishments lie in the conversion of non-Christian souls. I am aware of the courage and devotion which many Maryknoll Sisters have displayed in the work of conversion, particularly in the vicariate of Kaying, where they have gone from house to house among the people and they have proven valuable helpers to the fathers in reaching the non-Christians. Let us hope that this work may grow and that God may bless it with abundant fruit" (Wiest, pp. 103-4).
The opportunity for the direct apostolate had a galvanising effect on young imaginations. From then on, every Maryknoll Sister prayed to be assigned to Kaying. As a Congregation, we continued to establish and staff institutions in China and other regions of the world because we believed in their importance and their enduring influence in the work of evangelisation. However, through the years, the Kaying experiment has always held a certain fascination for us. Because the "two by two" approach was very effective, deeply satisfying and had been blessed by the Church, to this day it continues to influence our choice and style of ministries everywhere.
I inserted this experience for two reasons: it fits in so well with today's Gospel — Jesus rejoiced when he welcomed his Disciples back from their mission journey into which he had sent them in pairs, and: it is part of the experience and imagination we bring to new mission areas these days.
When the missionaries were expelled from China in the early 1950's Maryknoll Sisters were already in Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan. After the War in 1946, when some of these missions were closed to us, the Sisters went to South America, to Bolivia and Peru, and to Tanzania (East Africa), in 1948. They continued to go as catechists and pastoral workers, teachers and school administrators, nurses, doctors and social workers, both for institutional ministries and direct evangelisation.
My personal story parallels that of the Congregation. In January 1968, when I arrived at Rosary Secondary School, my first mission experience was definitely in an institutional setting. Daily, as a young teacher in a boarding school, I took my post in the classroom and in the study hall, in the dormitory and in the dining hall — evenings, Saturdays, Sundays — it was more than a full-time job. But I was young and, for the most part, the students were responsive. I spent happy years knowing I was contributing to the education ministry of the Regional community which, in 1957, had established the first full Catholic secondary school for African girls in Tanzania, at Morogoro, 120 miles inland from Dar-es-Salaam. On the secondary level, Morogoro was only the second such school for girls in the entire country (Hearts on Fire, Lernoux, Penny, p. 213). Among the many accomplished graduates from the school Ms Gertrude Mongela stands out. Until recently, she was an Assistant to the Secretary General of the United Nations and co-ordinated the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. She graduated from this school in Morogoro in the early 1960's.
The traditional missionary work succeeded very well in place after place. The local Church grew and its people made the church truly their own, taking responsibility for church institutions and apostolates.
In young African nations such as Tanzania, where independence from colonial rule had only recently been achieved, nationalisation of institutions was in the air. I was present when Rosary, which by that time had become Nganza Secondary School, was transferred to the administration of a Tanzanian headmistress. By 1969, when it had become obvious that the Government would nationalise the schools, Sr Josephine Lucker, who was headmistress, had seized the initiative and had prepared Miss Daria Pana to become headmistress. Catechesis and religious education was already shared by the Catholic Tanzanian teachers. We were all pleased with the smooth transition which pointed to a stable future.
Three months into the school term, however, we were not at all prepared for Miss Pana's sudden transfer to another school. We received a new headmistress who had no idea of the history or traditions of "our" school and who had definite ideas of her own. Only then did the implications of our no longer being in charge begin to dawn on us.
In an existing mission field, missionaries who are in places where they have long served need to adapt to the new situation of not being in charge. Now, we have to contribute collaboratively instead of holding administrative responsibility. This single factor makes an enormous difference in the way we now approach the local Church. Attitudinally, as everyone knows, that is easier said than done. But for missionaries, that is precisely the challenge of inculturation.
Today, the local Church is established in almost all the countries where Maryknoll Sisters serve. This development and growth in the Church is a sign of the fruitfulness of missionary work. It has also created a radically new situation for traditional missionary communities. We have had to acculturate. Otherwise we would have continued as a foreign Church, parallel to the local Church.
Perhaps the best way to describe the challenge is in relation to missionary efforts undertaken today. In more recent years, in South Southeast Asia, Maryknoll Sisters have responded to mission in Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and East Timor. With the exception of Cambodia, the local Church has been established in these countries and is served by local Bishops, priests, sisters and lay ministers, along with a fair number of missionaries. However, even in a country like Cambodia where the local Church is still in the hands of expatriates, the following letter (1994) from Sister Luise Ahrens, my immediate predecessor as president of the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation, illustrates how Maryknoll Missioners can be in service to the local Church.
"In Cambodia, we are a group of Maryknollers — sisters, brothers, lay missioners and priests — all working more or less in the capital, Phnom Penh". [The lay missioners whom she mentions are from the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful. For almost 20 years, lay missioners served with Maryknollers in mission through an associate programme sponsored by the Society of priests and brothers. In 1994, the lay missioners established their own Association of the Faithful and now participate in mission with the Society and the Congregation as equal partners]. "We meet together once a week to share ministry plans and information as well as liturgy and supper. Once a month, the gathering is for pastoral theological reflection.
When two of us from our Central Governing Board visited Cambodia this past February, the Sisters arranged to have us meet Bishop Ramousse. His awareness of the profound shifts in relationships in the local Church was very evident in our conversation. The way the various groups of missioners work hand in hand with him as he leads in the path of respectful accompaniment, gives him great hope for the future of the Church in Cambodia.
Nowadays, the initiative to request missionaries generally comes from the local Church. The Bishop puts forward the needs he hopes missionaries can meet. When a missionary institute takes the initiative, it approaches the local Church and enters into a similar dialogue about how the particular institute can be of service in that Diocese. In both instances, the dialogue is in the context of mutuality. We are called to be mutually in service to one another.
The qualities required of a missionary are implied in Sister Luise's letter. Missionaries must be very well formed. They have to know why they are in mission otherwise it is impossible for them to continue. Unless they remain in touch with their purpose, they easily lose sight of it. We sometimes hear missioners ask themselves what they are doing in a certain place, suggesting perhaps that they are no longer needed.
On this matter, a Chinese Ursuline provincial working in Taiwan, presents the perspective of someone from the local Church: "Some missionaries may think that they are no longer needed, that they have been replaced. On the contrary, missionaries are very much needed. They witness to the universal dimension of the Church and call the local Church to do the same. Local people have a tendency to become absorbed by their own local problems and turn in on themselves. Missionaries are very important to connect us with the universal Church". The Church is missionary by nature. For a local Church to prosper, it must have an outward thrust. As John Paul II has proclaimed in his introduction to Redemptoris Missio, "For missionary activity renews the Church, revitalises faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentives. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others! ".
II. A DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGE
The second challenge for a traditional missionary institute is demographic. When I entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1956, I was one in a group of 74. One was Chinese and another, Chinese-Portuguese, both from Hong Kong; there was a Peruvian from Lima, a Filipino from Hawaii — at the time a territory of the U.S., as Puerto Rico is now, — two Canadians and 68 Americans from the U.S. Today we have eight candidates in the novitiate. Of that number, one was born in the U.S., two are Vietnamese Americans, who fled their former country as boat people, two are Korean, three are Filipinos. In the past year, two Sisters were professed, one from Tanzania and the other from the Philippines.
The changes in our demographics bring with them two major challenges. The first has to do with numbers. There would be no question of blanketing a mission field with Maryknoll Sisters. We try not to let the significant reduction in numbers be a cause for concern among us. We recall the faith of our foundress when, in 1921, she did not wait until large numbers had been professed before launching out in mission. We, who are called to do for our time what our founders did for theirs need to do all in our power to encourage and nurture vocations and trust that God will bless our efforts. The possibilities for collaboration with lay missioners, members of other Congregations, and the local Church point to a new springtime in mission. Mission does not depend on numbers or on youth — they may help — but on people who love the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are impassioned to share it.
The second major challenge for the Maryknoll Sisters with regard to demographics is that we are a centralised community. Yet, our membership represents 21 countries, with various cultures and languages. While our numbers are growing smaller, our membership is increasingly more diverse. For us, this challenge has two aspects:-
First, the Institute has to ensure that the candidates coming to the U.S. from another country are well prepared to be missioners in a country other than their own. Candidates who approach us but want to work in their own country are advised to join a local institute. Those who join Maryknoll must be willing to accept that, at least initially, their first mission experience after profession will be in a culture other than their own, where they will need to struggle with a new language. In a culture not our own, we are as a child among the people, not even having the words that are as refined as those of a five-year-old in that country. The local people and their children become our teachers. As we learn to listen and accept to be taught by them, we are gradually transformed into missionaries. For us, this is a post - Vatican II insight. For many years, women who came to Maryknoll from another country, were often assigned back to their own country of origin after profession. Since they had the language, the culture — who could be better? We had not yet learned what being missionary was all about.
Second, the Institute has to find a viable host community, where there are enough Sisters to welcome and accompany a new member. As a result of having so few entrants, our Regions do not receive new missioners on an annual basis, sometimes not for many years. This creates a gap which exacerbates the difficulty of a new missioner's adjustment. Nowadays, the age gap is often compouned by a culture gap. In Phnom Penh, the small community of three experienced members, all Americans from the United States, was still adjusting to Cambodia when it was asked to welcome a newly professed Sister who entered the Congregation from Arequipa, Peru. In such instances, the community's adjustments are multiple, both in mission and in community. Our struggles to transcend cultural differences to form communities in which the members thrive, are as integral to mission as are our apostolates. We must not underestimate the value of our witness.
Maryknoll Sisters have welcomed women from other cultures into the community from the beginning. In recent years, the sharp decline in U.S. entrants, by contrast with women from other cultures, has called us to examine critically the way in which we are all called to form community. For many years, women from other countries simply joined and were more or less assimilated. The startling change in our demographics has helped us realise that to become a community in the Gospel sense, all of us need to change.
III. THEOLOGICAL CHALLENGE
The third challenge for a traditional missionary institute is theological. When Maryknoll was founded, the Church seemed unchanging and the tendency was to see changes in the world as deviations from an unchanging norm except for technological progress. Today, everyone recognises that change is an integral part of the modern world and the pace of change is accelerating on every side.
For a great many, the tendency is to react to the changes in an effort to restore a past that is seen through idealistic lenses. We recognise the tendency as reactionary and the term often used for such reactionary tendencies is fundamentalism. Everyone who reads the newspapers today all over the world knows about fundamentalist movements in Islam, for example, in Judaism and in Christianity.
In a traditional missionary institute, as in every quarter today, the challenge is to face changes and deal with them creatively in light of the Gospel. That means that basic values have to be truly basic and not identified with surface manifestations. A missionary institute and its members has to be rooted in God the Creator of the entire universe and the ultimate Provider for all peoples and cultures. This is what the Scriptures do by introducing the story of Israel with that of creation and of the ancestors, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob, who became Israel.
God is revealed to us in the Scriptures, in the created universe, and in the life of the Church as Mystery. That Mystery is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Our tendency is to define and set clear limits to everything around us. The changes in the world require something else. We need to be in touch with Mystery in the biblical, Pauline sense of something continuously being revealed (cf. Eph 1:7-10).
From our efforts, we expect results but they do not always happen. Missionaries in Rwanda and Burundi have to be prepared to accept a very difficult reality. What they thought was a success is being washed away almost completely. If Paul were writing Galatians 3:26-29 today, he would add "There is neither Hutu nor Tutsi". Today, mission in Rwanda and Burundi has to be very different from what it was even a year ago.
Rwanda leads all of us to appraise our efforts in mission. None of us can be complacent. We all have a great deal to learn from the tragedy of Rwanda and so many other places such as Sudan, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador... we could name many other places where tragedy is waiting to happen. One of the most helpful tools at our disposal is pastoral theological reflection, a process, which can have many different forms and with which most are familiar. Generally, we recall a situation or experience and describe it as concretely as we can. We then submit our findings to the judgement of the Gospel which, in turn, enables us to recognise what we may need to change, including ourselves, vis-à-vis the situation. Accordingly, we then choose an appropriate response. Naturally, when pastoral theological reflection is done in community, it stands to yield much richer insights. Unless we are willing to analyse problems better we are in constant danger of either becoming part of them or of repeating them.
Hope is not based on accomplishments but on Christ's promise when he commissioned the first missionaries "I will be with you ..." (Mt 28:20). Perhaps by now, everyone here knew personally a missionary who has died violently. I recall so distinctly a Comboni seminarian, Alfredo Fiorini, a very gentle man whom I had in class at the Theological Centre of Religious in Nairobi. The subject of shedding one's blood for the sake of the Gospel comes up naturally in a New Testament class. All the same, it has an air of unreality until it actually happens to someone you know. It is a few years ago now that I read in FIDES about Alfredo's death in Mozambique. A medical doctor by profession, Alfredo decided not to apply for ordination with his class. Instead, he decided first to spend some years in mission as a doctor. He was on an errand of mercy when his car was stopped and he was gunned down together with his companions. His name comes to me often in prayer and I sit quietly confronting the Mystery. May his example and that of so many other of our friends who have given their lives open our hearts to the Mystery of the God of mercy, who is always with us and who never abandons us to the poverty of our own resources.
In sum, I have presented three major challenges for a traditional missionary institute such as the Maryknoll Sisters. The first was described as historical. The many historical changes in the world challenge us as missionaries to accept that we are no longer in charge and to re-focus our energies and assume a collaborative role in partnership with the local Church. This requires a change in attitude — an opportunity to become missionary: people who share their Faith as well as give a certain service. The second was described as demographical. In this section, I considered two major challenges, one regarding our diminishing numbers and the other our cultural diversity. In both instances, we rely on the faith of those who went before us to sustain us. Through them we have been abundantly blessed. The third, the theological challenge, dealt with a needed openness to Mystery as the most creative way to face all that challenges us now and will surely continue to do so into the future.
I am very grateful for your kind attention. I welcome your comments and questions. Thank you.
Lernoux, Penny, HEARTS ON FIRE, The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993.
Wiest, Jean-Paul, MARYKNOLL IN CHINA, Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1988.