September 2016

“Dancing with the playful consciousness of God”

Benedictine Sister Mary John Mananzan is a fascinating mix, says Natalie Lindner L’Huillier. She is simultaneously Catholic nun, leader, teacher, feminist, activist, theologian and social commentator – all of these, all the time!

BY Natalie Lindner L’Huillier

Walking down Brunswick Street in inner city Melbourne with self-described “feminist-activist nun” Sister Mary John Mananzan is a unique lesson in the power of culture to shape, to transform, and also to conceal.

Fitzroy is a hotspot of eclectic culture: artists, hipsters and uni students rub shoulders with the inner city affluent and residents of the largest public housing tower in Melbourne. There is one of everyone here, yet even obvious suburban diversity fails to inoculate against the assumptions we often make of each other.

What might Fitzroy make of this 78-year-old Filipina nun, decked out in habit and veil, holding on to my arm, as much for companionship as for balance?

Mary John is a fascinating mix. She manages to hold seeming contradictions within her very self with a rare ease. No one context – religious, political, academic, ecumenical or interreligious – adequately captures the sphere of her work and influence. Neither would any of the associated labels suffice; she is simultaneously Catholic nun, leader, teacher, feminist, activist, theologian and social commentator – all of these, all the time!

Mary John Mananzan is a Missionary Benedictine Sister of Tutzing from Manila, the Philippines. Her order originated in Germany, though now the majority of Tutzing Benedictines are located in Asia and Africa. Her CV includes an impressive list of achievements. She studied missiology at Munster University, Germany, and then a PhD in philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University – just two years after its doors were opened to women as students. In 1994, Mary John was awarded the Dorothy Cadbury Fellowship in Birmingham, and a year later, the Henry Luce Fellowship at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

And the list of impressive achievements continues. Mary John has authored a long list of articles and several books, the latest of which was recently launched in Manila. She was a member of the International Board of Directors of Concillium, a Catholic theological journal established by the likes of Yves Congar, Hans Küng, Johann Baptist Metz, Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, which continues to be published in six languages.

Among those whom Mary John counts as collaborators over the years are feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Reuther, Dorethee Soelle, Chung Hyun Kyung, Joan Chittister and Mary Grey. As Mary John chats socially with others, I hear her mention that she still has the letters Karl Rahner sent to her. Jaws around her hit the floor, but Mary John keeps talking like it’s no big deal.

Despite this impressive pedigree, it’s not the academy, but the people of the Philippines who Mary John counts as her greatest educators. “The one that opened my whole being was the people’s movement,” she says. “When you have been liberated in one sphere, the whole world opens.”

And open it did. Mary John returned to the Philippines from Europe in the mid-1970s, a period of deep social and political unrest. In 1975, under martial law, workers at a distillery in La Tondeña began to strike. It was an action that was dangerous and illegal. Mary John was among a number of religious women and men who, afraid for the safety of the workers, went to support them as the military were called to disband the strike. It was an experience she terms her “baptism of fire”.

At the time, the strike was considered relatively small, and with the workers in prison, Mary John “did not consider it a success”. History however, tells a different tale. La Tondeña has been identified a turning point for the people’s movement that would remove Marcos and dismantle martial law. For Mary John too, La Tondeña remains a defining moment, shaping her in a foundational way. It’s something she has written about at length.

“In the Philippines, we were first political activists before we became feminists,” says Mary John. “We were talking about comprehensive social transformation of the Philippines. And then we realised, how can you have a comprehensive transformation of society when one half of the people are oppressed by the other half?”

From activist to feminist, Mary John’s capacity to analyse and organise against oppressive elements of her culture, religion and society continued to develop. No doubt this is also why she has been elected to a variety of civil and religious positions of leadership in the Philippines. She is a former co-chair of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, including during the period in which the Association provided sanctuary for Jun Lozada – an anti-corruption whistle-blower.

Mary John contributed to the creation of GABRIELA, a leading feminist women’s alliance and was its chair for 18 years, a position she resigned only so she could take up the role of Prioress for her order from 2004 until 2012. She also served two terms as President of St Scholastica’s College, Manila, which provides education for almost 6,500 women and girls from elementary through to tertiary level studies. As College President, Mary John also founded the Institute for Women’s Studies, which has operated as a centre for gender studies for 30 years and attracts students from across Asia and Africa.

On the cusp of her ninth decade of life, Mary John still works with energy unabated. She has just finished building and opening a hospital in Pambujan, Northern Samar. It’s a project she is obviously proud of and describes as “miraculous”. Aware of the desperate need for health services in one of the most impoverished regions in the Philippines, Mary John says the project was only made possible through significant financial support from unexpected donors.

Mary John continues to travel abroad. At last count she has given guest lectures and addresses in over 50 countries. When we catch up in Melbourne she is here to address the Australian Catholic Theologian’s Association on issues of gender justice – a task she describes with characteristic wit as “more daunting than addressing all the Benedictine Superiors in Rome!”

The self-deprecating humour sprinkled throughout Mary John’s address serves her well, as does her ‘you-don’t-know-the-half-of-it’ laugh. It is clear that Mary John is a woman skilled in the kind of cultural reflection necessary to walk between worlds “announc[ing] the good news, but also …denounc[ing] the bad news”.

Announcing and denouncing are interwoven elements of what Mary John calls “integral evangelisation”. That is, evangelisation that takes seriously the full human context in which the Gospel is proclaimed – those political, economic and cultural realities which influence what the ‘Good News’ might mean for those who are most vulnerable.

This particular conference address focuses on the work of the Women’s Commission of EATWOT (Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians), an influential movement of Christian theologians who have worked for four decades to develop theology from the perspective of the poor and oppressed.

“We actually named our theology the theology of struggle, instead of theology of liberation because we were giving focus on the process rather than just the outcome,” says Mary John, describing the ‘double push-back’ necessary as the Women of EATWOT developed a contextual theology from an Asian feminist perspective.

It’s heavy and vitally necessary work, as much today as it was in the beginnings of EAWOT in the 1980s. Mary John has described her own spirituality as “dancing with the playful consciousness of God”. There is certainly playfulness in Mary John that seems to honour the gravity of her task and protect against the corrosive elements that must surely accompany such work.

Mary John has been a semi-regular visitor to Australia since the 1980s, but when asked for her reflections from the perspective of an Asian neighbour, she declines and opts instead to express her concern for the dignity of the Indigenous people in the communities of Western Australia. Announcing and denouncing, Mary John’s default pattern of social analysis, is indeed a permanent mode of reflection.

“That’s what I consider prophecy: you announce the good news and hopefully you walk your talk. If you walk your talk it’s quite hard, because of what you are preaching, no? But it’s a little bit dangerous for one’s physical health when one denounces the bad news, because you can actually step on people’s toes, and it could do you harm,” she says.

It’s a tall order and fantastic ideal. How has she managed to sustain a lifetime of working that way?

“For me, if there is a need, I do it,” she says without the slightest hesitation. “And I’ve been doing it since 1975,” pointing back again to the night of the La Tondeña strike – truly a paradigm-changing moment for Mary John and those with her.

“We saw the military come into the strike,” she says, recounting the events. “We linked arms to the workers, [but] the police came and told the workers ‘get out or you will get hurt’. But the workers did not go out, so [the police] went in and beat all the workers – but spared the sisters.”

It was a moment of stark confrontation. “How would you feel if you are standing and your two neighbours are beaten up – cold blooded? That was our experience!” says Mary John.

The religious women and men involved realised they were in possession of privilege that could be used to address the underlying issues – and hopefully avoid the need for a strike. While martial law continued, striking was illegal, and was likely to be accompanied by violence. Together they began a “defense of the workers”, and before long, Mary John was a regular at protest demonstrations and immersed in the people’s movement.

“Our logic [was], Jesus had an option for the poor – and we are supposed to be the followers of Jesus, then we should also have an option for the poor,” she explains.

“[We asked ourselves] who are the poor today? What are they doing? What are their struggles? Are we with them? Are we in solidarity with them? So it was so clear to us that that is what we have to do in order to be followers of Christ.”

The status of being a religious in the Philippines still seems to offer a level of protection for Mary John’s activism. But it is Mary John’s understanding of the Rule of Benedict and the spiritual practices of her community that provide a more adequate answer to the question of what has sustained her work over decades.

“I get the inspiration to be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed because I have this community,” says Mary John. “A mystic is a prophet in contemplation. And a prophet is a mystic in action. And for me that is my explanation of our Ora et Labora.”

The interweaving of mystic and prophetic, as they find expression in Mary John’s life and work, can sometimes appear as conflicting or mutually incompatible. But she doesn’t seem to feel the need to resolve or move too quickly through perceived tensions.

“I find that there is a lot of artificial contradictions,” says Mary John, before going on to explain. “When I became the chairperson of GABRIELA – GABRIELA is leftist militant! – people said, ‘You are a nun! How can you be the chair of a leftist militant women’s organisation?’”

This network of 50,000 women and about 250 women’s organisations chose Mary John as their chair, and it continues to call on her as a senior advisor. There is clearly substantial evidence that having a nun as the chair of a women’s organisation in the Philippines is both appropriate and fruitful.

Mary John’s response to those who might say otherwise is: “If something you find compatible becomes incompatible, you’re making artificial contradictions. That I am a nun and that I am the head of a militant women’s organisation? Well I am! So what’s the problem?”

It’s a kind of acceptance that is far from passive. It is quintessential Mary John; a savvy flip of rhetoric, landing the weight of apparent incongruence back with questioner. She is concerned with the work of social transformation – this is her task. Others, should they wish to, can occupy themselves with the ‘so what?’ But I suspect she might rather they get in and work beside her instead.

As Mary John describes it, it was the urgency of social need in the 1970s and 1980s that moved her beyond her own artificial contradictions. Could she really work alongside the Communists and Marxists? Were not such things forbidden?

Mary John explains: “I cannot say [to them] ‘I am helping the poor – get out of this place!’ Why should I? They are there in the first place. If I want to work with the poor then I will work with those that are working with the poor. So that already broke my whole bias against Marxists and Communists. I saw them as the most idealistic people, the people who are actually dying for the country right now. They are the ones being persecuted, who are being killed, who are being tortured.”

In the process of developing a theology which truly reflects her context, Mary John has come to affirm: “anything that contributes to the full humanity of women is from God and is salvific. Anything that dehumanises women is not salvific and not from God”.

Though the theological world, particularly in countries like Australia, is firmly engaged in the debates about how we might learn from other religious practices without tipping into ‘synchronicity’, Mary John is unperturbed.

“Let us celebrate diversity, not just tolerate diversity. It’s what enriches life!” she says.

“[W]hen people ask me, ‘You are a nun, you are in a habit. But [you] go to the yoga sessions and [you] go to the Zen?’ I say… ‘I am walking down the road, and I pick up a diamond; do I stop and ask if it is a Catholic diamond? And if it is not a Catholic diamond, I would throw it away? I’m sorry for myself if I do that, no?’

“I believe God put all these jewels in all these different religions. Because I am God’s child I am an inheritor of all these things. But you can choose to live in a box, a Catholic Box, and you close the door and you turn the key, and you throw the key away. You can choose to live like that happily. But me, I want to soar into the sky!”

As our conversation ends and Mary John and I head back up Brunswick Street, I’m confronted again with the contrast of Mary John – the radical habited nun – and the diversity of Fitzroy. I wish the barista in our café whose own fashion ‘uniform’ signals a certain ‘non-conformist manifesto’ could see Mary John’s fierce determination and vision for radical social transformation. And then I catch myself: forget the baristas! Resist the artificial contradictions and dance “with the playful consciousness of God”.

Yep, radical feminism looks different across cultures and religious affiliations. Especially in Fitzroy.

Natalie Lindner L’Huillier

Natalie Lindner L’Huillier is a Brisbane-based theologian whose areas of special interest are ecumenism, dialogue and the intersection of ecclesiology and ethics. She is a PhD candidate at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, and teaches sessionally at Australian Catholic University.

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