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!