Religious Life for Women in East and Central Africa: A Sustainable Future (download the Report)
This project was funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters’ Initiative and carried out by a two research partners in the UK: the Centre for Catholic Studies of Durham University and the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge.
It explored the sustainability of the apostolic form of religious life for women in five countries of East and Central Africa.
Revitalization of Religious Life in Eastern and Central Africa: Interview with Sr. Mariana Bbalo, a Religious Sisters of the Holy Spirit from Zambia.
Welcome Sr. Mariana.
- From your experience of taking part in this research and listening to the sisters, what do you think the research is telling us about the essence of religious life in Africa?
Christianity in Eastern and Central Africa is fairly new compared to other parts of the continent. It follows then that religious life is equally new in this region. However, the local church has seriously embraced the faith by having its own clergy and religious.
- The sisters understand that religious life is a vocation, a call from God. They emphasise the centrality of God as the principle and foundation of their lives, prayer and following of Christ. By their presence, the sisters are a reminder of the presence of God to the people.
- The sisters are aware that they have been called for mission/ their call is not their personal mission but God’s mission entrusted to them for His people. By their faithfulness to the vowed life, the sisters are the conscience of the faithful people of God.
- Religious life is a serious commitment lived in community. Community life which is based on the model of the first Christian Communities in the Acts of the Apostles gives witness to the Christian Community that it is possible to live together in love.
- The sisters are aware that they are the custodians of the patrimony of their congregations and have a responsibility to pass it on to the new members of the institute.(By Patrimony we mean the vision, spirit and nature of the Founder)
- From your reading of the research report what struck you most about the 5 countries in Africa?
While some congregations and individual members understand the charism of their congregations, some are still struggling to understand and own it. There is a desire to revisit the origins or source to capture the central, newness and unifying focus.
While sisters are valued in society, trusted and believed to be good, people also think that sisters are rich, do not need help but should help the poor.
This mentality sometimes distorts the role of sisters as agents of evangelization to being social workers.
Financial security is a concern for all congregations. In addition to that, new vocations are also viewed as an integral part of the congregation in order to ensure the future and continuity of the congregation, personnel and Christ’s mission.
- Community Life
Community life is central to the life of the sisters. It is in community where sisters gain holiness because they learn to live together and are challenged to love, forgive, be reconciled and grow.
Community life is the first apostolate which gives witness, refreshment and energises the sisters for mission.
- Role of the sisters in the church.
Sisters participate in the life of the local church in a number of ways through evangelization, through their apostolic activity as care givers and often simply by being present and offering hope and solace to those in need. On the other hand it is also recognised that their contribution or their intrinsic value is not always acknowledged. Not all clergy understand or appreciate the sisters’ involvement and role in the church. Many sisters lamented that sometimes their services in the parish are not supported either financially or provision of conducive working conditions.
- What message has religious life in Africa got for the global family of religious sisters?
- My experience of religious life is that it a fulfilling vocation if it is lived for God and his mission. By reaching out to those whom we are sent, we ourselves are enriched.
- As religious women and mothers, we are blessed and privileged to be in touch with God’s people from different walks of life. We have a lot to offer to the world. People are longing for meaning in life. We can help people find a purpose in life by listening to them.
- In spite of our decline in numbers and some congregations coming to completion, religious life whatever form it will take, will always be relevant in the church. Religious sisters with their commitment to prayer will always contribute to the holiness of the church.
- If you should give a message to the leaders of African Congregations, what would you say?
- It is important to give sound formation to formators no matter how expensive and how long it might take so that they get to know themselves, acknowledge their strengths and areas of growth. This will help them to objectively accompany others on their psycho-spiritual journey.
- If formation at all levels of religious life has to be effective, it has to aim at transforming each person’s heart in order for each sister to be like Mary the model disciple of Christ.
- The young generation joining religious life bring new gifts as well as challenges to communities. They come with different values and motivations. Therefore modes of formation have to be revisited to offer appropriate formation for a sustainable commitment for those who choose to embrace religious life.
- Vocation animators to be open minded and give freedom to aspirants to make free choices of the congregation they want to join. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to direct a person to join a congregation in which her gifts resonate with the gift of the founding spirit.
Click here to watch the interview with Dr Catherine Sexton
Senior Research Fellow at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology. Director of the Religious Life Africa programme. Catherine has a PhD in theologies of ministry among older RC sisters in the UK and worked on the earlier project researching vitality among apostolic sisters in the UK and Ireland, also funded by the Conrad N.Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Initiative.