Sisters from 21 countries of Southeast Asia and beyond, dressed in a variety of traditional European religious garb, Myanmar longyi (skirts) and Western dress attended the Feb. 27-March 3 Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious XVII in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar. The meeting, held in St. Mary's Cathedral in the center of the city, was tucked among pagodas, wandering Buddhist monks and nuns begging for their breakfast, and hundreds of food kiosks all awash in sunshine and humidity.
What an exciting gathering it was! For me, it felt like a rebirthing of AMOR as Myanmar itself is being rebirthed. The energy of hope, youth and dreams for a new future were palpable after 40-plus years of oppressive military rule.
The energy of youth and dreams of new futures were very strong among the AMOR participants, as well. At this meeting, the sisters, priests and brothers participating learned more about and made commitments to care for our common home, Earth, in alignment with the meeting theme: "A Call for Global Ecological Conversion."
This was my sixth AMOR gathering, and as far as I know, no one at this meeting had attended as many prior meetings as I had.
My first AMOR was in 2000 in Japan as I was beginning my work with the Hilton Fund for Sisters. The theme was "Asia-Oceania Women in Search of True Reconciliation Bringing Forth New Life." Commemorating the 55th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima was very sad and moving for me. There were new cultural experiences, as well, and I will never forget participating in the Japanese ritual of common bathing in the school dormitory where we stayed.
My second AMOR was in 2003 in Taiwan, where Chinese culture enraptured me along with the prayer forms of temple and ancestor worship. The theme at that AMOR was "Reweaving the Network of Life: A Dream for Communion of Heaven, Earth and Human Beings."
Three years later, we met in South Korea: "Mary and Women Religious of Asia/Oceania- Contemplative Prophets." The highlight for me was the visit to the border with North Korea, where we learned about the pain of separated families unable to be reunited.
Thai sisters hosted "Women Religious of Asia/Oceania, Called to Move Beyond" in 2009, when we learned about the rich Buddhist culture of the country and engaged with the suffering of families living and working in garbage dumps. We also learned of the king and queen's projects to help those made poor move into self-reliance.
In 2013, my first year as part of Global Sisters Report, provided an opportunity to visit the Philippines: "The Mystic-Prophetic Dimension of Religious Life." At this meeting, we also visited some of the sisters' works around Tagaytay and heard from a female Buddhist monk who had to be ordained in Sri Lanka because it was not possible yet in the Philippines.
Each meeting I attended gave me opportunity to learn about the shifts in Southeast Asian and Pacific countries' politics, and church and women religious' responses to changes in societies, all important contexts in which sisters of Asia-Pacific carry on their ministries and seek to build a more just world.
I witnessed many changes over the past 17 years. In 2000, missionaries from Europe and the United States seemed to be the majority of participants, but as years went by, membership has changed to a majority of young sister leaders, natives of Asia-Pacific countries.
AMOR evolved. At the 2013 meeting in the Philippines, Benedictine Sr. Mary John Mananzan, chair of that year's AMOR gathering, shared a brief history of AMOR, describing its birthing as a consequence of two movements in the 1970s. Women religious of Hong Kong felt that women's voices for justice and peace were not being heard by the church or societies, and that there was need for sisters to reflect together on how to respond to the needs of those made poor in their Asian-Pacific context. They organized the first meeting in Hong Kong in 1972 to reflect on "The Role of Women Religious in Evangelization, Development and Apostolate with the Youth."
At the 2013 meeting, Sr. Helen Graham followed Sister Mary John with a longer and more in-depth description of the evolution of AMOR as a prophetic organization in the Asian-Pacific region. She, along with Sr. Rose Bernadette Gallagher, Maryknoll Sister of St. Dominic, were the early foundresses of AMOR.
From that first meeting in 1972 in Hong Kong, sisters from Asia and the Pacific met in different countries on a voluntary basis every two or three years. The participants included not only representatives from country conferences, but other sisters who were interested in dialoging about agreed-upon themes identified at previous meetings. Today, most of the participants are major superiors who come as official delegates and others who attend as observer-participants.
As Sister Helen mentioned in a historical review of AMOR, the organization began as and continues to be a voluntary organization of women. However, this time, because Myanmar's conference for religious is for both women and men, the organizing committee decided to open it to men religious. This gave the sisters needed support in developing a meeting that the Myanmar committee members felt they knew little about, and gave the men religious insight into the issues important to them as well as the women religious.
Even though this was a very successful collaboration, at the end of AMOR XVII, the delegates decided to keep it primarily a women's group because there are issues that pertain to women religious only. Each organizing committee can decide if men religious will be invited. (I am including below the brief history of AMOR that Sister Mary John provided in 2013.)
It was especially exciting to feel and experience the passion for Gospel religious life and apostolic activities among these women of AMOR. Their commitment to those made poor inspired me greatly.
I am amazed by the fact that the majority of Asian-Pacific women are part of small minorities of Catholics in primarily Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu cultures. They are living out interreligious dialogue with some words, but mostly in actions. In both Thailand and Myanmar, where I visited particular ministries, I heard story after story of sisters working side by side with Buddhist nuns, monks and laypeople, serving the needs of children and their families.
The sisters' spirituality and ministries are greatly influenced by the dominant religious and cultural aspects of their countries. For me, this was especially apparent in Myanmar. In 1966, foreign missionaries were sent out of Myanmar, leaving behind very young religious; numerous schools were confiscated by the government. No doubt the foreign foundresses, forced to leave Myanmar, wondered what would happen to these newest members and the continuation of their charisms and missions.
I was amazed to hear the stories of how the young women not only survived, but thrived under difficult situations with little support. They integrated the Christian and other religious and cultural elements of their contexts into a faithful wholeness. Without formal schools that were part of their heritage, they took on social services and other kinds of education to express their inherited charisms and missions.
With the change in government, there is new hope today to return to those missions as a few dioceses are being allowed to reopen schools where sisters will be invited to teach. Their dream is not to proselytize, but to offer moral and relevant cultural values to students who will be primarily from Buddhist families. Throughout the 21 countries represented at the meeting, most people that the sisters serve are not Catholic. They provide a presence of Christ's inclusion and love.
To experience the strength of these women gives me great hope for the future of religious life in the global south. This AMOR organization is so valuable to the future of the overall church. It provides opportunities for sharing of ministry best practices, new ideas about how to address issues common to this region of the world, and helps create a solidarity for strengthening greatly needed leadership in the global south church. However, not having some kind of permanent secretariat is a disadvantage, as there is no common place where archives can be held to keep valuable information and documentation regarding themes, movements, action and collaborations of religious life and ministry.
Because it is the global south that will be leading the Catholic church into the future, it is my hope, too, that sister representatives from global south organizations similar to AMOR will find ways to meet in cross-continent gatherings. Global south countries face many of the same issues and could learn from one another, even though contexts are different. The International Union of Superiors General provides some opportunities for cross-fertilization, but these smaller regional meetings provide a more dense experience of intercultural relating. I will keep AMOR in my prayers that more and more women religious in that region will come to know its presence and value.
"AMOR Through the Years," from the report of AMOR XVI in the Philippines
- Nov. 19-26, 1972, Hong Kong: "The Role of Women Religious in Evangelization, Development and Apostolate with the Youth"
- April 1-10, 1974, Philippines: "Formation for a New Mission in the Church"
- Aug. 17-27, 1975, Japan: "Women Religious and Evangelization in Asia"
- Nov. 20-30, 1977, India: "Search of Women Religious for Relevant Witness to God's Action in the History of Asian People and in new Forms of Services and Ministries"
- Oct. 20-30, 1980, Sri Lanka: "Faith and Peoples' Struggle for Full Human Development"
- April 7-17, 1983, Taiwan: "A Theological Reflection on the Quality of Women in Asia"
- Oct. 7-17, 1985, South Korea: "Mission of Women in the Church in Asia: Role and Position"
- Nov. 1-11, 1988, Thailand: "Formation for Discipleship in Asia and Oceania"
- Oct. 1-10, 1991, Indonesia: "Prophetic Discipleship"
- May 8-19, 1994, Philippines: "Self-empowerment of Women in Poverty — A Prophetic Response in Our Time"
- June 4-14, 1997, India: "Eco-feminism: Its Hopes, Roots and Shoots"
- Aug. 1-12, 2000, Japan: "Asia-Oceania in Search of True Reconciliation Bringing Forth New Life"
- Oct. 20-30, 2003, Taiwan: "Reweaving the Network of Life: A Dream for Communion of Heaven, Earth and Human Beings"
- April 24-May 4, 2006, South Korea: "Mary and Women Religious of Asia/Oceania-Contemplative Prophets"
- Oct. 13-21, 2009, Thailand: "Women Religious of Asia/Oceania Called to Move Beyond"
- Nov. 10-17, 2013, Philippines: "The Mystic-Prophetic Dimension of Religious Life"
- Feb. 27-March 3, 2017: Myanmar: "Call for Ecological Conversion"
[Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]