Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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A Litany of Thanks

It’s my final day in New York City. At least for now. I hope to come back someday soon.

The past three months have been a dream come true. Even more than a dream come true, really, because I had no idea what these three months could hold. I’ve titled this post A Litany of Thanks because the overwhelming emotion that I feel right now is gratitude. I thank the IBVM for recognizing my personal and professional interests and for letting me explore them at the UN in such a meaningful way. I thank Cecilia, our IBVM representative at the UN, for hosting me and for giving me freedom to engage in the UN system and to contribute to the work of our NGO and other NGO committees. I thank Libby for bringing a bit of Australia to New York City and for sharing her wisdom and humour and making us all laugh at the right moment.

I thank God for guiding me along the way and for being with me here in New York and at the UN in a way that I had not yet experienced in my life. For the first time, I have felt a total unity between what I would consider my professional life and my private life – I have truly experienced God in all things. In all places and people and in all moments. I haven’t experienced this kind of unity before. Previously, I had felt a huge divide between my work life and my private life, especially my involvement in my parish. A big gap between the secular and spiritual. But now everything is spiritual, everything belongs to God and is of God. Divine life is everywhere!

I thank the UN (inasmuch as I can thank an institution) for the spaces and opportunities to join with other people to dialogue and debate, to learn and to grow, to listen and to be moved. It is a great privilege to be here and to be exposed to so many of the world’s struggles and achievements and, most of all, to witness incredible resiliency and determination to make the world a better place for all. At times, I have been caught up in a swell of optimism and idealism, and other times I have been brought low by realism or even pessimism. But it’s all part and parcel of the onward movement of humanity. In a moment of frustration, I once joked to Cecilia and Libby that we are at the intersection of dysfunction here at the UN. We experience the dysfunction of the various NGO committees, the dysfunction of Member States, and the dysfunction of the UN system itself. Not to mention our own personal dysfunction and NGO dysfunction. We’re in the middle of a vortex. So no wonder things are tediously slow and disorganized at times! But even in the midst of all kinds of dysfunction, I know that I love this work and I believe in it with all of my being.

And last, but definitely not least, I thank New York City for giving me a home and a playground to explore for the past three months. The first week I was here, I was bit shocked by the noise and wondered if I would ever find a quiet space. But then all of a sudden, I didn’t hear the noise and it didn’t bother me again (except for the occasional late night siren or slamming door in the hall that disturbed my sleep!). The noise became the hum of life. The energy of the city gave me energy and really brought me to life. I’ve gone out to do and see so much.

I’ve volunteered on weekends at the 91st Street Community Garden and with Franciscans Deliver, a food pantry outreach at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Midtown. I’ve traversed the length and width of this island many times, discovering its neighbourhoods, parks, museums, and churches. I’ve been to concerts and plays, a comedy club, a late show taping, and taken a tour of the NBC studios at Rockefeller Centre. I’ve hunted down landmarks that have special meaning for me, places that Madeleine L’Engle, Helene Hanff, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day brought life to. I’ve encountered the most unusual people walking down the street (an old man in pink lingerie riding a scooter, as one example) and of course, I have also witnessed the most shocking poverty and neglect in the homeless people I’ve encountered on every street. With visiting friends, I’ve laughed until my stomach has ached and I’ve cried desperate tears. I’ve celebrated Canada Day and the Fourth of July with equal gusto. I’ve gotten to taste an amazing slice of life in this city and I devoured it with great delight.

For the past three months and all they have contained, I say: thank you.


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In between

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The city surrounds me

I’m home now, back in Toronto with the IBVM (Loretto) community in Canada. I’ve been home for 3 weeks now and yet in some ways I still don’t feel like I’m fully home. I’m in a limbo space at the moment, also known as a liminal space – that threshold between the old and the new.

It’s odd that after spending a year in a country that felt so foreign to me for so long, my old, familiar surroundings have taken on that foreign feeling.

Mind you, my life is no longer quite the same as when I left Canada in 2015. I am no longer working at my job in the federal government. I have started part-time theology studies and I am living in a new community of sisters at Loretto College. And I am no longer the same person I was when I began the novitiate. I have been stretched and I have grown in ways that I will become more aware of as I settle back into being home.

In the liminal space there is both comfort and discomfort, both mourning and joyful celebration.

It has been so good to come home, to be back in the familiar. My body, for one, is grateful for it. I could feel my body physically relax as I stepped out of the airport upon my arrival in Toronto and I felt the cool winter air. Home. My body finally feels comfortable again. The dramatic change in temperature from the Philippines winter to the Canadian winter didn’t feel very dramatic to me. It was a relief. I can feel my body operating at a higher capacity than it was able to in the Philippines and I am enjoying that.

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Snow! A beautiful sight when I arrived home.

Aside from the physical comfort, there has also been much joy in coming home. I was so happy to reconnect with my beautiful sisters at Loretto Abbey, to hear their stories of the past year, and to share my own with them. I was surprised (shocked, to be honest) to hear that the community followed my blog posts so faithfully and that the sisters were so interested in and attentive to what was happening in our novitiate community (for example, it has been noted that I have not yet written about the vow of obedience! Stay tuned for that…). It was actually very humbling to discover how faithfully the community had been praying for me and the novitiate community.

I have moved from the Abbey now to Loretto College and am getting my bearings here. I have gone from one extreme to another in the course of a year – from the simple living conditions of our novitiate house in Manila to the very generous and comfortable environment of the College, where I am living in a larger institutional setting.

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Being welcomed by my new community

I am in school now, too. Navigating two theology courses – scripture and Christology – trying to wrap my mind around new terminology and concepts and opening my mind and heart to new ways of understanding and thinking about God.

In this liminal space, I have not yet fully made the transition from my experience(s) in the Philippines to this familiar yet new environment I am living in and the new mission of studies and ministry I am undertaking.

I find that I miss things about the Philippines more than I thought I would. Of course, I miss my companions a lot (which I had anticipated, and thank goodness for instant messaging and skype to keep us connected!) but I also miss the relaxed culture of the Philippines. I was really struck, especially upon moving to downtown Toronto, by the pace of life at home. People walk quickly, are so focused on getting to their destinations, and are often talking on or looking at their phones. It seems weird to me even though I was very much a part of that lifestyle not so long ago. But now it feels too quick and impersonal.

Another jarring experience has been, or I should say, continues to be, the sight of homeless men sitting on street corners. It makes me feel deeply uneasy. I notice them immediately and I also notice how people pass them by without even glancing at them. After my experience of witnessing poverty in the Philippines, I am really bothered by the sight of poverty in Canada. Poverty is widespread in the Philippines. It’s a very poor country and there is a shocking level of corruption that prevents social issues from being adequately addressed. But Canada is rich. Way richer than I had realized before. And we don’t have the same problems with government corruption. So what the heck is going on in our country that we allow people to live in such poverty and dire conditions?

In this liminal space, on the threshold of the old and the new, I am asking myself many questions. If I have truly experienced the inner transformation that I have claimed to have had last year, how am I going to live differently now that I am home? What am I going to do about injustice? Am I going to listen and respond when my best friend tells me to act?

 


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The Vow of Poverty (I) – It’s Not About Deprivation

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Image courtesy of Forbes.com

The vow of poverty is complex. I’ve been trying to think about how best to frame this blog post and I think I will have to split it up into two parts. I’d like to first share what I have been learning about the vow of poverty from our in-house formation sessions and then in the second post share about my personal experiences of letting go of material goods and resources and how I have come to think about the vow for myself.

In our in-house formation, Sr. Christine Burke, ibvm, has been leading us through an understanding of the evangelical vows (vows taken in religious life). She has really helped me (and my fellow novices) to think more deeply about the vows and she has guided us through some meaningful discussions. I think our most complicated discussion has been about poverty.

We first talked about poverty on a global scale – absolute poverty, extreme poverty, extreme deprivation. We can give it many labels. This kind of poverty is identified by a significant lack, usually of the basic needs of life – access to adequate housing, food, education, health care, employment, etc. Extreme poverty is dehumanizing. It takes away the dignity of a person and renders them invisible and voiceless and nearly always powerless. I see this kind of poverty on an almost daily basis in the Philippines and it is crushing. It is crushing to live and experience and it is also crushing to witness. This kind of poverty can seem hopeless and entrenched. This kind of poverty is a result of unjust and broken economic and social systems at the local and international levels.

The Church tells us that extreme poverty is a sin. Extreme deprivation is something that we must fight against – we want people to be lifted out of these conditions, to experience life fully and equitably. Choosing to live according to the vow of poverty therefore is not about choosing a life of extreme deprivation but it is about choosing to live with less in order to give more to others. Some religious congregations live a very austere life (think of Mother Teresa’s congregation, the Missionaries of Charity) but not all are called to live like that.

As an IBVM Sister, I will take a vow of poverty in relation to mission and community. In taking the vow of poverty, I will give up personal ownership of goods and control of finances. Within the community our resources are shared so that everyone has access to what they need, regardless of whether they are making an income. By living simply, we are also able to use our resources for mission, that is, to help those in need in society. Our Constitutions (Vol. II) express the beauty of the vow:

4.13            God is the true wealth of the human heart.
The vow of poverty that we profess
is an identification with Christ,
poor in his self-emptying love
and his total gift of self to all.
Like Mary, who stands out among
the poor and humble of spirit,
we proclaim the greatness of God
and our dependence on God’s provident care.

4.14            By the vow of poverty we choose a life
where material goods are held in common
and generously shared in the spirit of the Gospel.
We renounce the independent acquisition,
use and disposal of anything of significant value.
By this vow we commit ourselves
to sharing our Institute resources across provinces.

4.18            Our vow of poverty calls us
to right relationship with all around us,
to practical solidarity with those who are poor,
to a responsible care and use of earth’s resources.
In the interdependent community of creation,
we humbly join the prophetic voices of our world
who work to preserve its beauty and dignity.

The vow of poverty asks me to become interdependent – to let go of independence (financial) and risk becoming interdependent. Interdependence requires maturity and a willingness to learn how to give to others what they need but also to receive from others what I need.

And how is the process of becoming interdependent going so far? For that answer, you’ll need to wait for Part II!


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In search of a prophet

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The Prophet Elijah by Sieger Koder

“To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to world.

Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”

“The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”

“The prophet does not judge the people by timeless norms, but from the point of view of God. Prophecy proclaims what happened to God as well as what will happen to the people. In judging human affairs, it unfolds a divine situation.”

Therefore, the prophetic speeches are not factual pronouncements. What we hear is not objective criticism or the cold proclamation of doom. The style of legal, objective utterance is alien to the prophet. He dwells upon God’s inner motives, not only upon His historical decisions. He discloses a divine pathos, not just divine judgment. The pages of the prophetic writings are filled with echoes of divine love and disappointment, mercy and indignation. The God of Israel is never impersonal.”

     – Excerpts from The Prophets, Abraham J. Heschel, 1962.

 

I’ve got prophets on the mind. Thinking about prophets, the act of prophecy, and what it means in the world today. I’m taking a course at a local theology school on the prophets, taught by Sr. Helen Graham, a Maryknoll Sister, who delights and challenges me in every lecture.

I have limited knowledge of scripture (i.e. almost none). A few bible study programs at my former parish and that’s about it. I approached this course with a bit of trepidation, wondering if I would even ‘get’ what was being taught. So far, each class has only served to whet my appetite to learn more. After each class I make my way to the library and I stroll through the stacks of books and make lists of which I will borrow and which I will look for upon my return to Canada. I am restricted to borrowing one book at a time, which is a huge disappointment when all I want to do is peruse page after page.

But…back to the prophets. I am drawn to them right now because I am drawn to world events, and to events in the Philippines, that disturb me. I am angered by acts of violence and by the indifference to these acts that I encounter. I guess I am also angered by my own feelings of helplessness in the face of indifference. I am searching for the prophet who will bring society to its senses.

The prophet sees the world around him or her and is so moved by injustice as to feel God’s own response within, compelling them to speak out. In the Old Testament the prophets railed against Israel for being faithless and for falling away from God. Redemption was possible but there was a cost – to turn away from sinfulness and greed.

Where are the prophets today? Can we hear them? Our world is in chaos. Atrocities occur every day and become commonplace. We become used to reading about bombings and terrorist attacks. We see images of poverty and war and environmental degradation. We become mired in our own infighting. Sometimes we respond to global injustice by posting messages of love and solidarity on social media. Sometimes we reprimand our governments and urge them to do things differently. Are we all prophets when we act in this manner? Or does a prophet do something more?

I don’t have a complete answer to this yet. I’m still learning. Sometimes I like to think of myself as a prophet, pointing out injustice. But maybe I’m just a complainer. I’ve been complaining about life since I learned to speak. It’s a craft I have honed over many years. But surely prophecy is more than complaining.

A great part of that more is contained in the prophet’s union with God, in the expression of God’s response to a situation. I look at myself and I know that I am not there (yet?). One of the biggest gifts I have received this year is the freedom to see myself clearly (or at least with growing clarity). And what do I see when I look at myself? I see a hypocrite. I see someone with mixed motives. I see someone who is trying to be more concerned about others around her than she is about herself but she’s not quite there yet. I can see that I am more of a false prophet than a true prophet. My complaining is more about my own desire than about God’s.

So the true prophet, I think, is someone who has a certain freedom of motive (i.e. not acting based on his or her own interests), and therefore is open to union with God and seeing through God’s eyes. However, the passion aroused in the prophet comes from within the prophet and is a personal response at the same time as being a response from God.

It’s tricky to articulate this clearly and I’m probably not doing a good job. Perhaps I’ll get further along in my course and come away with a different perspective on the prophet – who knows. But what I do know right now is that the world needs prophets. In every age, and in this very moment, we need people who can see the world through the eyes of God and speak the truth to us.


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Light in the city

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For nearly a year now I have been captivated by the words Pope Francis spoke when he visited New York City last September. I have gone back to them time and again, and held them in my heart, especially this year in Manila. During the Mass he celebrated at Madison Square Garden he said:

“In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light [referring to the words of the prophet Isaiah]. A light for the nations, as the elderly Simeon joyfully expressed it. A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives.”

“God’s faithful people can see, discern and contemplate his living presence in the midst of life, in the midst of the city. Together with the prophet Isaiah, we can say: The people who walk, breathe and live in the midst of smog, have seen a great light, have experienced a breath of fresh air.”

As I walk the streets of Manila, I often struggle to see the light of God in the midst of the city. I walk to the supermarket and I choke on the fumes of the traffic, sometimes so much that I have to hold my handkerchief against my nose and mouth. A month ago, I walked home from the LRT station and was splattered with urine by a man living on the street. I’ve been spat on by careless passersby several times. I’ve come home during a heavy rain and discovered that my feet and legs stink of excrement from wading through puddles. My heart aches when I pass by a polluted river or stream, so full of garbage and waste that it cannot support life. Many times I have caught myself judging this city. Why is it so foul? Why is there so much filth everywhere? It’s disgusting! In Canada…

“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.”

I walk to church and I pass men and women sitting on the side of the road or next to a pile of rubbish. I see children, skin blackened with dirt and grime, begging for change. I see hordes of young men standing on the street corner unable to find work or engaged in work without meaning or outlet for their gifts. I see young people with passion and potential shining in their eyes who are unable to express their creativity and talent. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, the more that I see these people, day in and day out, the less I really see them. Like Pope Francis says, they become part of the urban landscape. They blend in with the broken walls I pass and the crumbling pavement I step through each day.

Where is the light of God in all of this? Where is the hope?

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city. Because God is in the city.”

When I feel overwhelmed by what I find outside my door (which is often), I call upon God in prayer. Usually I talk to Jesus and I tell him that I feel repulsed and angered by what I see outside, by the injustice done to his people. I tell him that I want to help. I want to do more than pass by. I want to engage with his people. I tell him that I feel fed up that this year of novitiate is focused more on prayer than on ministry. I ask, why am I here, in a place that is screaming for assistance on every street corner, and I cannot go out and spend my energy there? I tell him that what I do is not enough. Let me do more.

In my prayer, Jesus basically agrees with me. It’s not enough. I could never do enough to fix all of the problems I see. But I can do what I am called to do. I can engage deeply where I am called to be engaged. I can consciously bring Jesus with me wherever I go, walk the streets of Manila with him, and ask him to show me the light in the city, where hope is to be found. Because there is hope. There is always hope. In my very limited humanity, I can’t always see where hope lies. The details overwhelm me and make me feel powerless and angry. But regardless of my limitations, there is hope.

On Wednesday mornings I volunteer as a caregiver at an organization that looks after street children and youth. I work with babies and toddlers, playing with them, reading to them, cuddling them, giving them as much love as I can for the 2.5 hours that I have with them each week. It’s not enough. The neglect they have experienced in their young lives is evident and they need much more than I can give. But I am present to them for those 2.5 hours and the love I give them is all I have to give. It takes the same amount of time to travel to and from the organization – a train, a taxi, and a jeepney ride each way – and most days it’s a real slog. But reaching the children’s home and seeing their beautiful faces makes it absolutely worth it. It is in the faces of these children that I see the hope of Jesus. In this tiny way that I contribute to the enormous problems of the world, in the concrete way that I am with them, playing with them, and loving them, and in the way that they are loving me too, God is present in the city.

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Island hopping

For three days last week we were the IBVM beach babes.

After a 2.5 hour bus ride and a 1.5 hour ferry ride, we arrived at Talipanan beach on the island of Mindoro for our first (mini) vacation! We spent a glorious three days enjoying the sun and surf.

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It was so good to get out of the city for awhile, to breathe fresh air and see the sparkling ocean. It was actually a startling reminder of how polluted Manila is when I saw how beautiful and clean the ocean is in other parts of the country. The water was turquoise and crystal clear. I felt a spiritual lift just seeing it.

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We stayed in a little house owned by Amami Beach Resort. It wasn’t quite as cute as the cottages below but it had a lovely view of the sea.

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We had the beach to ourselves!

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When the rain came we sat on the front porch and watched nature at work. The force of the rain and wind was pretty spectacular.

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The calm after the storm.

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Lots of places to swim and relax. And then enjoy a cappuccino.

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Talipanan was a gorgeous place to escape to and experience the beauty of the Philippines. We’re already planning a return trip!


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Thrown into the deep end

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We began an inter-congregational novitiate program last week. Nineteen different congregations (including the Missionary Society of St. Paul, Daughters of Wisdom, Redemptorists, Carmelites, and many more) from all over Asia, and parts of Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe (Malta). Two of us are from North America: 1 Mexican and 1 Canadian. We range in age from 18 years to over 40 years. It’s a diverse group and large in size. When we are all present, we number close to 90 participants.

Our first week together was intense. None of us knew what to expect. We assumed ‘orientation’ meant orientation. But, in fact, several of us were immediately thrown into leadership roles and made to carry the program forward. At a pre-orientation meeting earlier in June, I was elected co-chair of our novices’ steering committee. It was a very random election, based on my introduction (name and country), and with no job description provided. When I arrived at the module last Tuesday, I was informed that the other co-chair (who was meant to be ’in charge’) wouldn’t be joining the group until August so until his arrival I would be the one to lead!

I don’t consider myself a particularly spontaneous person but Tuesday morning I became intimately acquainted with the art of improvisation. All of a sudden I was the emcee for a three-day module I knew nothing about. I knew nothing about our schedule, our speakers, or even our purpose over the three days other than ‘orientation’. By the grace of God, and under the guidance of one of the priests who was the head of formation, I learned the ropes. Normally I would hate being in charge of something without knowing details in advance but I learned to go with the flow and to enjoy the experience.

And, anyway, I wasn’t on my own in the deep end. Many others were there with me. Our haphazardly assembled steering committee came together to organize some of the necessary components of the module: prayers 3 times a day (morning, noon and closing), animation sessions (basically icebreaker songs or games), recaps of the day’s lesson, introductions of the speakers, and preparation of thank you cards and gifts. It was a tall order for a group of people who barely knew each other’s names but it was a great success and the collaboration ended up being a lot of fun. I love working in a team environment where others are energized and excited to contribute and I experienced such positive energy and enthusiasm in this group that it was a pleasure to work together. And I am sure it will continue to be a pleasure to work together for the next several months.

I also learned something very important during the module (aside from two disturbing lessons about attitudes toward food safety and sanitation – but now’s not the time to get into that!). I learned how important it is for women to have a voice. Having a voice is something I take for granted in Canada. I don’t worry so much about sharing my opinion. I feel comfortable voicing my ideas and opinions at home and at work, and at church when the opportunity presents itself. However, I see that in this particular environment (the novitiate program), it is harder for women to be heard. Despite the fact that in the Philippines there are many strong women involved in politics, including past female Presidents, in religious life, or perhaps in the church, women’s voices are harder to hear. Men are being trained to be priests, to become preachers, and as such, they are given many opportunities to speak. Women do not have the same opportunities, nor is there the same expectation for women to speak.

The majority of the men in our program appear to be very confident speakers. In fact, some of them seem to use the opportunity to respond to a question to give a quasi-sermon to the group. They are very friendly and helpful guys but there seems to be gender power imbalance at play (such as an unfortunate incident where a man asked a woman to wash his lunch dishes for him!) or at least a limited understanding of women’s roles and abilities. The women, it seems, need some coaxing in order to share their ideas and opinions. They struggle to volunteer their thoughts. I am not sure the reason why. It could be more than gender. It could be age. It could be feeling less confident speaking in English. Regardless of the reason, it’s so important that we hear their voices. We have women from all around the world gathered here, women with diverse backgrounds and from diverse cultures, all with unique points of view that would enrich our dialogue.

I like to think that my next couple of months (or however long it ends up being) in a visible leadership position will help to encourage the other women in the program to speak up. We’ve already had a conversation about it as an IBVM community and we are going to use every opportunity to participate and have a voice and to encourage the other women in the program to join in as well. If we all feel comfortable sharing our views, we will all come away from this time of formation with a rich experience of what it means for men and women in the church to collaborate and to learn from one another.

Please keep us in your prayers!