Loreto’s Journey in the Philippines
Loreto Sister Christine Burke has been a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) for over 54 years. As a scholar in history and theology Christine has spent countless hours reflecting, writing and discerning the work of the IBVM Founder, Mary Ward, and exploring ways in which her spirit and vision can be brought to life in a contemporary context.
Christine resides in Manila where the Loreto Australia & South East Asia Province has established a House of Studies and most recently a formation house for novices. Recently, I caught up with Christine while she was in Sydney to learn more about the work of the Loreto Sisters in the Philippines.
How did you end up living in Manila?
Sr. Christine Burke: I was asked to explore the possibility of setting up a House of Studies for those wanting to deepen their spiritual and theological studies. So in March 2013, Mary Wright ibvm and I visited a raft of theology schools and formation centres in Manila to look at programs and the type of theology that was being taught. As the main catholic country in Asia, the Filipino Church has seen it as their responsibility to reach out to Myanmar, Timor-Leste, China and Vietnam and to places that don’t have the same sort of facilities due to Governments or poverty.
Upon our return, the Loreto Council decided that this would be a good opportunity to set up a House of Studies, with a particular focus on theological formation. Beginning something in Manila at this time provided an opportunity to link up with the Congregation of Jesus (CJ) Sisters, the other half of Mary Ward’s Institute also planning a study house there.
What is your role there?
I provide internal support for women studying theology and English and facilitate workshops for other Congregations.
How many Sisters do you live with?
I live with eight CJ’s; seven Koreans, one Chinese and myself.
Following the establishment of the House of Studies the Province Novitiate was set up there. Why was Manila chosen as the location?
We had women in Vietnam, Australia and Timor-Leste asking to join us and we realised we could not manage three separate Novitiate houses; we simply don’t have the personnel. Manila seemed more geared to our outreach in Asia. There are so many religious in Manila and a lot of programs for people starting on that journey.
We recently bought a house not far from our House of Studies and there are six women living there at present.
Do you feel more Filipino women will be inclined to join the Loreto Sisters due to our presence there?
Some orders go to the Philippines to recruit people. But we are not there to recruit. However, if anyone is interested we would be happy to work with them! As yet we do not have a specific ministry there, apart from some small contact with a local Basic Christian Community, so our contact with any young people searching for religious life is very limited.
What do you think religious life for the Loreto Sisters will look like in 20 years’ time?
Clearly a lot of us will be dropping off the twig by then (laughing)! But it’s quite interesting that the English province of the CJ’s, has had no one join in a long time yet now they have 10 serious inquirers at present.
Is that due to marketing?
Well not official marketing, but there was a survey done on what’s happening to religious life. Obviously, the main thing is that older women are making the choice to become a Sister in their 30’s and 40’s or even older. That got a bit of air time in England and a 30-year-old CJ novice was interviewed. Listeners re-discovered that joining religious life is a real option.
How does Mary Ward’s story translate in today’s society?
The language of Mary Ward’s time talked about the ‘defence and propagation of the faith’. I think in our language that means accompanying people on their spiritual journey. There are all sorts of ways we can do that; with trafficked people, parish outreach programs, setting up micro-finance schemes, education, or with people just searching for more meaning in life.
But our underlying focus is to be there as people are exploring a deeper part of their life, as they face some of life’s deep challenges. I think that’s the purpose of our Loreto Institute. Encouraging people to live with felicity – that fullness of life that can come when we are one with ourselves, with our neighbours and creation and most deeply with God.
How can we link Mary Ward’s story with current times to make it relevant?
I think it’s when you look at the some of the issues she faced. Mary Ward lived in an era of civil unrest and fighting and if you look at half of the world now it’s happening in many places. There were also real tensions within the church community between different groups; women had much less opportunity in society and church and she also dealt with a sense of failure at times and the death of people she loved. A lot of those are issues we have to grapple with in our own ways. Try taking just one thread from her teachings to find out how she handled these situations and delve into the question: who is this God she trusted in so passionately?