The Catholic Church in India is blessed with many vocations to priesthood and religious life even in this century when this form of life is almost getting extinct in the West. Many young women and men continue to respond to the call of Jesus, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Mt 4: 19). But this call comes with its own demands and challenges as Jesus already told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me...” (Mt 16: 24). Heeding to the call of Jesus consecrated men and women ‘leave their nets,’ ‘boat and their father’ and ‘carry their cross daily’ and follow Him.
However, consecrated life is not only about carrying one’s daily cross. It has its own rewards as we find in the Gospel. When Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age-house, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions- and in the age to come eternal life...” (Mk 10: 28-30). Even in this promise of ‘hundredfold’ there is a hint about struggles and agonies one has to go through when one responds to the call of Jesus.
It is true that consecrated people do not have to worry about their basic needs. It is well provided for. In fact most of them enjoy a better standard of life compared to their kith and kin back at home. They have no responsibility of taking care of a family. They do not have to worry about their future. Looking at them one could get the impression that religious women and men have no worries in life. Then what is the ‘cross’ they are asked to carry daily? Having lived religious life for many years, I would like to enumerate some of the struggles, religious undergo.
Leaving parents and home
Consecrated people leave their parents and siblings, in order to heed to the call of Jesus. This ‘leaving of home’ and dear ones does not take place the day one joins religious life or for priesthood. It is a gradual process. As long as one’s parents are alive, religious feel that they have a home. But once they are no more, the religious has to struggle to accept that s/he has no home except her/his congregation or the diocese s/he belongs. I remember when I lost both my parents, for the first time I felt that I have no home. It pained me to think that the house where I was born and brought up and considered as my home thus far is no more my home but it is my brother’s home. I do not have any more claims. I had to struggle to accept that reality. I experienced great peace once I accepted that reality.
Leaving home and their dear ones does not mean that one becomes indifferent to what is happening to them. One of the struggles religious and priests undergo is their inability to take care of their dear ones especially in their sickness and old age. If their siblings take good care of the parents, then the consecrated person is relieved of that worry. But today there is an increasing number of religious who undergo pain and mental agony because their dear one is not taken care of. Some even have to bear the pain of having to admit their mother or father in a home for the aged. For the consecrated person it becomes difficult to surrender the parents and their situation completely and live in peace away from them.
Struggles in Community
Religious life is lived in a community, which is made up of members coming from different cultures, speaking different languages, having different temperaments, personalities, convictions and who belong to different age groups. It is not easy to accept each other with each one’s limitations and shortcomings. It is not easy to really maintain a love relationship of sisterhood or brotherhood. It is not easy to forgive one another daily. To live in community, having one mind and heart is a difficult task. One has to really die to oneself, to one’s ego in order to adjust to various personalities in the community. Living in community is not only for the sake of mission but community living itself is mission. Religious are called to bear witness to the Christian ideal of community and it involves daily struggle of adjusting. Individual religious person can also struggle greatly when the ideals of religious life or the charism of the institute are not lived by the community at large.
Struggles in Ministry
Another area of struggle is about ministry. Many religious do not get job satisfaction in their ministry. Take for example the case of Sr. Tara. She is a trained nurse by profession. But she never got a chance to work in a hospital even after ten years of her study. So far she was placed in communities situated in rural areas where she was asked to do social work or pastoral work. Sometimes one does not get a chance to work in the field that one is trained for. This happens because the leaders try to place members according to the needs of the mission rather than the expertise of the person. But in the process, the individual has to struggle to adjust to the work that one is not so competent.
A number of religious women work in institutions run by the diocese. It means working in collaboration with priests. Often that becomes a struggle for religious women. If the priest is a good person, one who respects people, especially women, then the collaboration will be easier. But often it is not the case. We come across priests who do not respect women or have the awareness that religious women too are like himself who have left everything to follow Jesus. Religious women struggle to keep such collaboration work by doing violence to themselves as persons with respect. To maintain relationship, they often have to remain silent in the face of injustice or abuse.
Struggle as a woman
As women, religious struggle in many ways. Living in a patriarchal male dominated society poses many problems for religious women. In the church religious women are often taken for granted. They are needed to do certain type of jobs like decoration, cleaning, teaching catechism, etc. But in most of the decision making bodies of the parish or the diocese, their opinions are seldom sought.
Moreover, young religious women suffer from sex harassment from various quarters. They have to be alert while they travel, or going for spiritual direction, or for confession, or on any other errands. Another struggle is around the area of sexuality. Girls joining religious life come with internalized patriarchal values and conditionings. I have come across young religious both men and women struggling to cope with child sex abuse. As children they were sexually abused at home or outside. During formative years, they do not feel safe to share their experiences and get adequate help. Some of them carry this burden for years and struggle in their relationships with others.
I have come across some lay people who tend to think that religious and priests have no worries or problems since they do not have the responsibility of taking care of a family. But my lived experience as a religious woman for many years shows that this thinking is not correct. Consecrated persons do have their share of struggles and anxieties. But it is of a different nature. Often they appear to be happy outside while engaged in their ministries. But some of them carry a lot of pain and anxiety within. They are unable to share this with anybody since they do not want to expose their vulnerability especially with those whom they minister or their colleagues in ministry. Since sex is still considered a taboo in our patriarchal society, those religious who have experienced sex abuse either as a child or later as an adult continue to suffer without getting adequate help to heal themselves.
(Shalini Mulackal is a Presentation Sister, teaching systematic theology at Vidyajyoti College of Theology. She is a member of the Indian Theological Association (ITA) and has served as its first woman President. She is also a member of the Indian Women Theologians Forum (IWTF), Ecclesia of Women of Asia (EWA) and Indian Christian Women’s Movement (ICWM). She has published a number of articles with special emphasis on women empowerment in Church and Society. She regularly presents papers at national and international seminars mostly from a feminist perspective.)(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)