From doing mission to being mission: Experience of a religious sister in North Africa
By a Missionary Sister of the Immaculate, PIME
I am a member of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate (MSI). I joined them because I was attracted to the missionary dimension of the PIME charism, which I feel is relevant for all times and places.
Since July 1982, my missionary journey has taken me from my hometown in Maharastra, India, to Andhra Pradesh, then to different states in India, and finally to where I am now as a missionary sister in North Africa.
But my understanding of being a missionary has also undergone a journey, a paradigm shift from doing to being; from religious to civil dress; from large organised ministries to individual or small groups; from huge parishes to one with only a religious community. These changes have made me reflect on the true meaning and relevance of my vocation and mission.
North Africa: my mission
The sisters have been present in North Africa since 2009. Over time our presence has grown, and we now have four communities.
In August 2014, we opened a Multiactivity Centre in our Diocese. Now, there are four of us who collaborate in various activities with local animators – tailoring, embroidery, knitting, cooking, aerobics and yoga, predominantly for women.
One sister is engaged in embroidery classes in which even a few young girls with learning difficulties take part. We offer extracurricular activities for children during the holidays. Another sister takes care of a few autistic children.
Along with a volunteer, I started to visit a prison where there are more than 2,000 people on 21 September 2020, the death anniversary of Mother Igilda, one of our foundresses. We visit sixteen people from other African countries who have no possibility of being in contact with their distant families.
In February 2021, two prisoners who had had no contact with their families for two years were transferred from other prisons.
With the phone numbers they gave me, I contacted family members. “Are they alive?” was their first reaction. Tears rolled down my face. This experience made me realise how important and necessary it is to be an intermediator between the prisoners and their families.
I can’t describe the joy on the prisoners’ faces when we visit them, when they receive news about their families, occasional letters from or photos of their dear ones.
One particular experience I had on one of our visits is worth mentioning. The sixteen prisoners were gathered in the parlour. After the exchange of news about the outside world, they shared their difficulties – lack of human respect, problems with the food, etc. As usual, after listening to them, we prayerfully read the Gospel, and shared some reflections. What touched me most was their spontaneous prayers of trust and confidence in the Lord, and hymns of thanksgiving. Recently, two of them asked to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Each visit teaches me to be grateful to the Lord for the freedom I enjoy and often take for granted. In the final judgement recounted in Matthew 25, Jesus says, ‘I was in prison and you visited me’ (vs. 36). I believe prison ministry is dear to the heart of Jesus who identifies Himself with the needy and most marginalised.
[ Photo Embed: Library in the Centre for university students (© Archivio MdI, in Creative Commons)]
In our Multiactivity Centre, we have a small room to welcome the elderly and sick for minor health services, especially women who prefer to come to us. A nurse by profession, this has helped me to develop friendly relationships with the people in the neighbourhood and it facilitates entry into the families.
I have had the opportunity to assist many people through sickness or old age. Some have gone to their heavenly home above, but our relationship with their families continues.
During the sacred month of Ramadan, some of them invite us for l’ftour’ (breaking of the fast at sunset), generally done with members of the family.
I will never forget the first day of Ramadan in 2018 with a widow, who lives only with her daughter. Moved with emotion, she told me, “Sister, what an experience to break my fast with an Indian Catholic sister.”
Some are happy to invite us to participate in celebrations like marriage, the birth of a baby, anniversaries, etc. We also take the initiative to visit them in painful moments of sickness, or the loss of a dear one.
Ours is a challenging mission where celibacy is hardly understood. Thus, the words of Pope Francis during his meeting with clergy and religious men and women in Rabat, Morocco, are relevant and encouraging.
The Pope emphasised the following: “For Jesus did not choose us and send us forth to become more numerous! He called us to a mission. He put us in the midst of society like a handful of yeast: the yeast of the Beatitudes and the fraternal love by which, as Christians, we can all join in making present His Kingdom.”
Life is mission
Today, our vocation is to contribute to the building of fraternal communities, wherever we are and in whatever we do.
From the time I arrived here, I see the need for and the importance of mission as dialogue of life, and of intercultural, interreligious, intergenerational and international living together in peace and harmony.
As Pope Francis cited in the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, we cannot forget that “life does not have a mission, but is mission” (no. 27).
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