Consecrated religious should be engaged in activism

by Dorothy Fernandes


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We are very near to the close of the year dedicated to consecrated life, and there is no doubt Pope Francis has played a very profound role by inviting us consecrated people to engage in some introspection. It has been a journey of many difficult and unanswered questions, a time for renewal and rededication. Fifty years since Vatican II, so much has happened and changed. Yet, if we, Indian religious, must be true to ourselves as consecrated religious women in India, who are close to 120,000 or more, we will have to ask the questions, “Where are we, and what are we so busy about?”

Pope Francis says that we religious are to “Wake Up the World.” Reflecting on this mandate of the pope, I have been grappling with what this would mean in the context of our life here in India and especially for those of us who have left the confines of institutional ministry and have been engaged with people. While being deeply engaged in the issues of the people it is also very important to redefine for ourselves why we do what we do and from where these inspirations spring.

Activism requires that we have models that become the spring board from where we draw our inspiration. And in that sense the life and mission of Jesus becomes the basis for our intervention. When he walked this earth, Jesus went out in search of those who were thrown on the periphery of society. We are called to relive the Incarnation story; to become Eucharist for those who are thirsting and yearning for life. This life requires that people are respected and their rights safeguarded; that poverty and its consequences are not reasons for people to be taken for granted. The Catholic social teachings are very clear about why we have to work for justice: Every person has a right to the basic material necessities that are required to live a decent life.

Religious women and men who walk this path must be focused on this as a way of evangelization. When we work for the restoration of human dignity, we are being the Good News. It is a response to Jesus’ mandate of being the leaven in the dough. It is also being true to our charism and the purpose of our religious congregations. As activists, the reason we move out from the confines of our safe campus and meet people where they are needs to be integrated in both the dimension of being members of the church and of our religious congregations. It is why we become the compassionate face of God.

At times the challenges are great. Many have been misunderstood and have had to go the hard way but this is the litmus test. In the face of misunderstanding, we need to rededicate ourselves to remaining true to the social teachings of the church and the directions of our congregation. Moving out of this relationship with the church and our religious congregations can be dangerous, and we can lose the very purpose of being engaged with people. The moments of communion with the God we believe in, invite us to be in communion with the other. Religious activism is different from other types of activism because it finds it roots in the life and mission of Jesus. This type of work requires that we network with civil society groups and yet keep our distinctiveness — being the grain of mustard, the lamp that lights other lamps.

I can give my own example of when I decided to leave the comforts of a reputed high school in Delhi and dared to listen to that inner voice that was inviting me to be with people who are on the margins. It was a real struggle to convince our leadership in the congregation. To my benefit I had good mentors who challenged me and helped me to clarify my call. While dialogue is spoken about, it is in most cases not adhered to — and then the vow of obedience is the trump card. I had to go through the mill to realize that the crisis was not in vocation but in ministry and that I was being invited to listen to that inner voice. It was the moments I spent in silence in communion with the God I believe in and the guidance of mentors who understood me, all of whom were not members of my congregation, that enabled me to come this far. I believe that with this continual accompaniment I will grow in strength.

For me the documents of our congregation, the directions of our chapters became the basis to stick to what I believed God was inspiring me to do. The story does not end here. Until this day I am labeled as a rebel and looked down on suspiciously by some leadership and some religious because I dare to live life differently. This I do, not because I desire to be different, but because I struggle to hold the tension of the prophet and mystic within me. I desire to be true to the inner voice.

What then is my perspective? I am filled with compassion for the leaders within the church and congregation because in doing what I am, I am trying to be honest to the call within the call; which perhaps is not accepted. I love both my congregation and the church and that is the reason why I am engaged with people with whom Jesus was engaged. For me, this is the new evangelization, this is building a humane society, this is the “wake pp” call of Pope Francis.

All those women and men who have left the comfort zones and are walking a different path are, in humility, walking Jesus’ path. The numbers need to increase; the harvest is great indeed and the laborers are few.

[Dorothy Fernandes a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from India. She presently serves as Vice Provincial of the Indian province while continuing to be deeply engaged with the urban poor of Patna, Bihar.]