Starting a new life after departing from a Religious Order or Society of Apostolic Life is an arduous task in Africa, according to a Catholic nun who has suggested different ways to assist Religious who embark on such transitions as they seek to fit in the secular world.
In a new book, “The Future of Religious Life in Africa”, which was crafted by a team of 12 members of the Clergy, Religious and Lay academics working or who have worked in Africa, Sr. Marren Rose Awiti, a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loreto Sisters) and a Canon Lawyer explores widely the challenges that the Religious who choose to become lay people encounter, including difficulties in getting employment and settling down with life partners.
“The whole process of separation of a member from a religious institute is often complicated, difficult and stressful as it involves tough decisions which require serious discernment, clarity of intention and well-grounded causes,” Sr. Marren says.
She adds, “Besides the emotional and physical energy involved in the psychological, physical and spiritual preparation on the part of the member, still, the transition from one state of life to another may be very traumatic… The member may not be able to get employment or may be too old or sickly to be employed, or too needy.”
Hinting on the situation of Religious Sisters who depart from their Institutes at an advanced age, Sr. Marren says that these groups of individuals are usually in a situation where they are no longer able to take care of themselves.
Others do not have qualifications for jobs that are available, according to Sr. Marren who has handled numerous cases of separation from Religious Institutes around the continent.
Still, others who have lived many years of Religious Life, cut away from certain social interactions, find it difficult to forge such relationships and get marriage partners, she says.
Sr. Marren is one of the only two Kenyan Religious Sisters who holds a Doctorate in Canon law, a field that has, for many years, been left for Priests and Bishops and which remains uncharted waters for many women in Religious Life.
Sharing about her interest in Canon Law with ACI Africa, Sr. Marren says that she was moved by the discovery that not many Religious women know about ecclesiastical laws, yet it is the very laws that impact their lives in their various Orders and Societies of Apostolic Life.
“Initially, it was the idea of my Religious Congregation that I should pursue Canon Law. But when I enrolled for the classes, I discovered that it is a very interesting field much as it least appeals to Religious Sisters,” the Kenyan-born nun told ACI Africa in an interview on Wednesday, August 19.
She added, “I discovered that it is a field that many don’t know about yet it affects our lives. In Kenya, there are only two of us and in all the countries where our Congregation has a presence, there are only five of us. This makes our job very overwhelming.”
In Africa, statistics of Religious women and men who have quit Religious Life are “hard to access”, according to Sr. Marren who says that such transitions from Religious Orders and Socieities of Apostolic Life are treated as “very personal and intense”.
Many Sisters who depart from their Institutes, she says, leave at early stages of formation, mostly after their temporary vows and before they are admitted for perpetual profession.
Departing from a Religious Institute, which the nun refers to as a total disconnection with the Order or Society of Apostolic Life, happens in two ways. It may be out of an individual’s own volition or one may be asked by the leadership of the Institute to leave.
“In both circumstances, it is only proper that the departing Religious be accorded the necessary assistance to transition to their new lives,” the Canon Lawyer told ACI Africa.
In Her Chapter, “The Legislation of the Church on the Assistance to be Given to Religious who Depart from their Institute”, Sr. Marren notes that in Africa, leaving Religious Institutes attracts stigma from the society that expects Religious to be “holy.”
“In the context of religious life in Africa, where the popular notion is that it is a permanent state of life for those who embrace it, departure may be particularly difficult, as it may be seen as a betrayal of God and the Church by the Religious,” she says, adding, “More often than not, in African society, such Religious who depart from their institute would be treated with stigma, suspicion and blame.”
In an attempt to reclaim the status of being “a mother or father of a Priest or Religious Sister,” some parents try to talk their children into joining other Orders or Societies of Apostolic Life, forcing them to stick to a wrong vocation, Sr. Marren says.
Faced with this mistreatment, the ex-Religious act out in various ways, including abandoning the Church altogether, according to the Catholic nun who has been involved in the teaching ministry, administration and formation work in her Institute of the Loreto Sisters.
Sr. Marren urges society to respect the choices of Religious who leave their Institutes and to treat them with kindness, “just like any other marriage that did not work.”
She recommends the new book on the future of Religious Life in Africa to Religious Superiors of different Institutes, colleges and universities teaching Canon Law, people in Religious Life and those contemplating to join various Religious Institutes as well as the laity who she says need to change their outlook on Religious Life.
The nun, who holds a Licentiate in Canon Law from the Rome-based Urbaniana Pontifical University urges the leadership of Religious Orders and Societies of Apostolic Life to be charitable to their members who depart, noting that it is difficult for them to adjust in the secular world empty handed.
She narrates that the situation in the past was easier for Sisters who were admitted with dowry, which provided them security in cases where one chose to depart from Religious Life.
“The underlying principle in the practice of payment of the dowry of women Religious was the foreseen care and support for both the individual Religious and the Institute for the time the member belongs to an Institute and for the occasions of separation from the Institute in whatever manner and whatever motivation,” she says.
She notes that it was later decided that those who depart from a Religious Order or Society of Apostolic Life legitimately or have been dismissed from it legitimately can request nothing from the Institute for any work done in it.
Sr. Marren agrees with the new norms, saying that, among other factors, the very nature of Religious profession disqualifies a member from acquiring personal property from works done in the name of the Institute.
“By Religious profession, a person freely offers himself or herself to God and dedicates his or her life to service within the Institute of membership. In this total surrender to God and renunciation of one’s life, the Religious places himself or herself in a state of trust and uncertainty with regard to the future,” she says.
In helping Sisters who leave their Orders or Societies of Apostolic Life, the member of the Association of Women Religious Canon Lawyers suggests that considerations should be based on equity as well as charity to the one leaving.
Equity concerns, she says, include the age, the number of years in Religious Life, level of education and capacity for getting employment, the kind of environment the person is going to as well as the financial ability of the Institute.
Charity, on the other hand, would imply an attitude of kindness and compassion towards the departing member, the Kenyan-born sister says, adding, “It is also an attitude which would provoke a question such as: what would Christ have done in the situation?”
Departure of Religious from their Orders or Societies of Apostolic Life, she says, can be avoided by conducting vigilant care in admission of candidates.
The widely published nun who has presented papers on Canon Law issues affecting Religious Institutes cautions leaders of Religious Orders and Societies of Apostolic Life who admit candidates to take utmost care that only suitable persons are brought in.
“Most authors on Religious Life strongly believe that many of the underlying problems, which eventually lead to a departure from an Institute, existed before admission into Religious Life,” she says, adding that some people join Religious Life with varied motives such as getting a good education and training, or having a better life.
“Usually, such people leave the institute after they have achieved their goal, that is, to obtain quality education and professional skill,” she says.
She also proposes that leaders of Religious Orders and Societies of Apostolic Life consider training their members should they need skills once they leave.
The Loretto Sister observes that the majority of candidates to Religious Life in many Religious Orders and Societies of Apostolic Life in Africa are admitted without any professional training, or with very poor academic qualifications.
“In the event that such members are to depart from the Institute, if they have not been helped to get some training or skills during their time of service, helping them to settle back to secular life may be very demanding for the Institute,” Sr. Marren says.
She adds, “We recommend that Institutes revise their admission criteria so as to emphasize the admission of candidates with at least some skills or training