Formation for Mission
By Sister Jo Anne Kelly
"Today, a young woman who is interested in joining MMM is in contact with us for a long time before she actually comes to live in community. This period will last for at least a year," says Sister Jo Anne Kelly, who was one of the Vocation Directresses for MMM in Nigeria, and was involved in the work of Formation for Mission for more than 30 years. Most of the many MMMs from Nigeria who are now seasoned missionaries themselves, came under the influence of Sister Jo Anne at one stage or another along the way.
"In the first steps of preparation, the young woman is getting to know us and we to know her. This happens by letters and visits to our community. Usually she will invite us to her home and to wherever she is working or studying. When a young woman chooses to take up the life of a Medical Missionary of Mary, it is a choice to belong to MMM as her priority family. While that does not distance her from her natural family at an emotional level, we often have to help the parents to understand the choice their daughter is making. They also have to be helped to see that our life involves a lot of insecurity, possibly going into danger, ready to go to war-torn areas and places that are unsettled.
"Another area that is specially important with families in Africa is to help parents to understand that as missionaries, we are buried where we die. We are really going counter-culture when we insist on this, and some families find that very hard to accept because it is so much against their tradition.
MMM is not an easy life!
"If the young woman decides she still wants to join us, she will come to take part with others in a retreat where there is specific input about the MMM way of life. For that retreat, a few senior MMM Sisters, and some young people already in the formation programme, will also come to help. When the candidate and the vocation directress think she is ready, an interview is arranged with a specially appointed panel. Some people may look on that as quite an ordeal. The MMM way of life is not an easy one, and we try to help the candidate to understand this from the very beginning. She is also asked to bring a report of a recent medical examination and a psychological assessment. These are requirements for joining most religious communities today. Many come this far and for one reason or another do not continue.
"Of course, there is a very big difference between the world and lifestyle of young women today and that of my early years in this work. When I started, there was more discipline in families, a more secure family lifestyle, and there were fewer problems around values in society. Today it seems to be harder for young people to know what they really want to give their lives to. So, discernment of vocation is very important. We try to help them to discern whether they are really seeking to give their lives to God, or whether they are looking for some kind of security, or perhaps opportunities for education, etc. I think anyone who chooses religious life today is a very courageous woman, because she has to be different from her peers as regards lifestyle, ambition and motivation.
"What we are looking out for in the young women who come to us is a commitment to Christ, some idea of Christ’s mission and an attraction to the mission of MMM – Healing mission. We look for some sense of passion for this, at least at some level. She needs to show some understanding, too, of sacrifice, that this way of life involves giving up many things.
"We are looking for someone who is basically happy, and free enough in herself to make this choice. Of course, she has to grow into this freedom too. That is what our initial formation programme is all about.
What Makes MMM attractive?
"You might wonder what draws young women to make this sacrifice today. What is it about MMM that makes our life attractive to them?
"Vocation has always been a mystery. Young people are generous and they want to give their lives to God and to others. They have a desire to help those who are less privileged. Many are not happy with the world as it is: how the poor are so poor and there is so much suffering. They want to make a difference. They see that MMM gives them scope to get involved in this in a meaningful way.
"In Nigeria, when young women come into our community, they come from a traditional background both in terms of Church and of their culture. During the first year of the formation programme, when we begin to do something about human development, one’s own personal growth, working with the scriptures in a different way to what they had been used to, and learning to relate with God in a different way, this can turn their whole thinking around – even upside down. They seem to get a new way of looking at the world, at God and themselves.
"In that first year, there is usually a tremendous enthusiasm, a joy in discovering all this. I cannot describe it. It is as if each person is opening up to something she could never have imagined in herself. To speak of wider horizons isn’t enough to describe it. She is actually opening up in a new way to God, to herself, to other people and their needs. This happens to everyone in different ways and at different levels and there can be a lot of struggle and pain to get there. It involves a lot of reflecting and looking at life, at what is going on in oneself, in one’s day, in Scripture, in what Christ is saying and doing in one’s life.
"Once they join the community, the young women take responsibility for the running of the house, the accounts, shopping, cooking, housekeeping, maintenance and farm. They also have a prolonged period of working in the apostolate, either in one of our hospitals or clinics or some other aspect of the work MMMs do. That keeps them in touch with the poor and those in any kind of need. It also gives them an opportunity to reflect on their experience there and what it is doing to themselves.
"There is group work, too. This includes basic input on subjects like prayer, spiritual reading, scripture, basic catechesis and Christian education towards a deepening of their faith and relationship with God. There is an introduction to religious life, the history of MMM, and an understanding of our charism and the specific missionary challenge we embrace.
"The group work also includes peer evaluation. In the course of the formation programme the young people learn to face each other and hear what they are saying to one another. They do self-assessment too. These women are going to be leaders in whatever work they do later on. In initial formation one discovers the natural leaders, but one also needs to encourage the others. Everyone has some leadership ability. For me, to be involved in this work has been wonderful. More than anything else it has challenged me to try to live what I teach. It has been the biggest gift to me for my own growth."