Nuns attend a Mass for the profession of vows for the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Hung Hoa Sisters in Son Tay, Vietnam, Oct. 29, 2011. CNS photo/Kham, Reuters

Religious face uncertainties, questions of acceptance ministering in Southeast Asia

By  Joe Torres, Catholic News Service
  • July 26, 2015

MANILA, Philippines - Sr. Margaret Maung doesn't wear a nun's habit, but a traditional "longyi" and a simple blouse.

Experience has taught the provincial superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions in Myanmar to embrace the country's cultural dress even while representing her faith.

"It helps a lot when we reach out to people," Maung, an ethnic Chin and a missionary for three decades, told the Asian Church news portal

Maung works with poor women, especially Muslims and Buddhists in the southern part of Myanmar. Her congregation tries to educate women about human trafficking and AIDS. For her, teaching life skills to women is part of a "new evangelization."

"We never talk about religion, and we witness to non-Christians through our good deeds," she explained.

Members of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences gathered July 20-25 in Thailand to discuss consecrated life at the service of the new evangelization.

The discussion comes at a pivotal time for men and women religious in Southeast Asia. Religious always have been at the forefront of the Church's mission in many parts of the region. Yet today, religious find themselves facing new challenges to their lives and missions.

Apart from the Philippines and Timor-Leste, Catholics in Southeast Asia exist as a minority in countries where other faiths dominate. Like the institutional Church itself, religious life in the region is still largely considered foreign or Western, says Claretian Father Samuel Canilang, director of the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia.

"It still has to prove its 'Asian-ness,' ” he said.

Jesuit Father Jose Quilongquilong, president of the Loyola School of Theology in Manila, said Pope Francis' declaration of 2015 as the Year of Consecrated Life offers an opportunity for religious to reflect on their "identity, lifestyle and mission."

"What is our identity now in this world of globalization? What is our identity as religious in Asia?" he asked.

For him, the religious identity is "prophetic" in a world of "secularism, individualism and autonomy."

"We proclaim Christ in the context of so many challenges," he said.

The first religious order to arrive in the Philippines was the Augustinians in 1565. The Franciscans followed in 1578, the Jesuits in 1581, the Dominicans in 1587 and the Augustinian-Recollects in 1606.

It is a rich history. But in order to plan for the future, Filipino religious first must acknowledge the past, said Dominican Father Rolando de la Rosa, former rector of the 400-year old University of Santo Tomas in Manila.

"How can we be proud of the past in which the Filipino religious were hardly present?" he asked.

Today, he added, the country has just over 7,300 priests. Of the roughly 2,300 religious order priests, about 1,300 are Filipinos.

The Philippines until recently could claim to be Asia's only Catholic country. But de la Rosa argued that the high number of foreign religious priests means that the country remains a mission territory.

"That is very ironic," he said. "We are being asked to go abroad and preach the Gospel, evangelize in other countries, when in fact our country itself is a mission territory."

In Indonesia, there has been an increase in the number of men and women embracing religious life as well as those entering the priesthood since 1962, when the Indonesian bishops' conference was established. Franciscan Father Adrianus Sunarko, chairman of the Conference of Religious Major Superiors of Indonesia, however, noted that most religious are in their late 40s, while the number of young people embracing the religious life is declining.

Sunarko blamed the "lack of testimony and promotion" of vocations by men and women religious for the decline in the number of young people joining congregations.

"Young people do not recognize their work," Sunarko said. "People are not impressed with what they do."

Still, the number of young people joining diocesan seminaries has increased. Indonesia has about 2,000 diocesan priests, many of whom are in their 30s. In recent years, the local Church saw the ordination of about 300 priests annually, while at least 2,500 seminarians are studying in 14 major seminaries.

But Fr. Siprianus Hormat, executive secretary of Indonesia's Commission for Seminaries, admitted that the local Church must better focus on the formation of young priests because of their "tendency toward the hedonistic lifestyle."

In Myanmar, the government's ongoing quasi-democratic reforms may be impacting young people's interest in joining religious life. Sr. Rita Phyo, executive secretary of the Catholic Religious Conference of Myanmar, said the improvement in Myanmar's political situation offers more options for the country's younger generation.

"As there is political openness and young people have opened their eyes, they leave the country for job opportunities," said Phyo, a member of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions.

Recent data shows that there are about 2,700 women religious and 321 men religious in Myanmar, with an average age of 40.

Vietnam is a different story. Fr. Joachim Nguyen Huu Van of the Institute of the Heart of Jesus said vocations are thriving, particularly in northern Vietnam.

"We have many priests. In one diocese alone there are 200 priests and about 200 seminarians every year," Huu Van said.

But despite the historical prominence of religious in Vietnam, the environment today is one that is tightly controlled. Most religious are limited to charity work in orphanages and homes for the elderly, and teaching catechism to children, Huu Van said.

"We hope that in the future, the government will open doors for the religious to open schools," he said, expressing hope that Vietnam will in the future contribute missionaries to places such as China, Laos and Cambodia.

In Thailand, where Catholics make up a small minority of the population, Church officials said consecrated people have an especially vital role to play.

"Vocations on the whole are decreasing but this can be countered only if consecrated people recommit themselves and improve the way they follow this commitment," said Bishop Silvio Siripong Charatsri of Chanthaburi.

"It is not enough for consecrated people to just instruct but to actually prove to be a witness to what they believe in."

Moving forward, education remains a key challenge that will determine the future of religious life in Southeast Asia.

Fr. Canilang of the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia said there is a scarcity of qualified and experienced "formators, spiritual guides and professors," particularly in "emergent churches" such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

"We are dealing with young people who are very different in many aspects compared with those in the past," he explained.

Today's aspirants to religious life, he said, must be prepared for missions in "contexts of ever increasing complexity."

Similarly, providing a quality education to society at large in Southeast Asia will remain a vital part of the "new evangelization."

"Education is important and it costs, but it's also a way to help the poor by providing the best education the country needs," Quilongquilong. "To really serve the poor, we need to strengthen education."

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