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Align Formation Programs for Religious in Africa to New World Realities: Catholic Nun

Sr. Bibiana Ngundo, a lecturer in African Culture and Religion at Kenya’s Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) during her presentation at the ongoing 18th Plenary Assembly for the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa (ACWECA) on 26 August 2021. Credit: ACWECA

There is a need to revise the old formation programs for those joining Religious Life in Africa to match the positive and negative realities of the current society, a Catholic Nun in Kenya has said.

In a presentation at the ongoing 18th Plenary Assembly for the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa (ACWECA), Sr. Bibiana Ngundo, a lecturer in African Culture and Religion at Kenya’s Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) noted that candidates joining Religious Life today are products of a changed society, underscoring the need to “revise” or phase out formation programs that do not match new world realities.

“Revising the old strategy connected with religious formation is a need of the time. The candidates who enter into the religious life are the products of the changed culture of the society of today,” Sr. Bibiana said.

She explained that candidates joining Religious Life today need to be understood and their formation programs incorporate Church teachings on modern technology, human sexuality, violence, politics, devil worship, discernment and healing, among others.

“It is time to face the truth by the edge and together find amicable ways and means of confronting the monster of our time that is demeaning Religious Life,” the member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis (LSOSF) said during her Tuesday, August 24 presentation.

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All formation programs should be periodically evaluated to ensure that the formation process is in harmony with the charism, mission and vision of the Congregation, Sr. Bibiana says in her presentation obtained by ACI Africa in which she advocates for an authentic formation process.

“Those in formation houses should be willing to journey with the young entrants. Equipping them with the right tools will therefore be justice to them and to those under formation as well,” she says, adding that transformation in Religious Life today will require a collaborative approach.

“The Swahili say ‘kidole kimoja hakivunji chawa’ (one finger cannot crush a louse). Again, it has been reiterated quite often that unity is strength. For Congregations to unite in working together in various aspects such as formation… retreats, and renewal programs among others is a source of enrichment to both individuals and congregations,” the Kenya-based LSOSF member says. 

In her presentation on the second day of the five-day ACWECA Plenary Assembly, Sr. Bibiana highlighted various challenges that women Religious in Africa face, key among them, inadequate resources and called on Catholic Sisters to start thinking about looking for other opportunities outside their communities to sustain their respective Congregations.

Sr. Bibiana Ngundo during her presentation. Credit: ACWECA

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She highlighted generational gaps, globalization, materialism as well as technology and the Internet as some of the challenges that member of Religious institutions are grappling with.

Sr. Bibiana said that in most formation houses for Religious, financial sustainability is a major challenge, and explained, “There is need for adequate funding to help with implementation of both initial and ongoing formation programs.”

She also highlighted the challenge of formation personnel, saying that in most Congregations in Africa, there is a shortage of well-trained personnel to be assigned to formation programs, giving the example of scarcity of Catholic Nuns trained in Theology, Spirituality and human development courses, which she said are necessary for human and spiritual growth.

“Other challenges experienced in formation houses emanate from the formees themselves (candidates admitted to formation programs) whereby the sounds of luxury, phonography, sexual fantasies, and many others are still fresh in the mind,” the lecturer in African Culture and Religion at CUEA said.

The challenges in formation houses, she explained, escalate to the production of “poorly formed Sisters.”

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In her August 24 presentation obtained by ACI Africa, Sr. Bibiana regrets that when Catholic Nuns are not well formed, the formation team is blamed, which she says should not be the case.

In formation houses, the stress of balancing Religious Life in the areas of prayer, community life and ministry is also evident.

Sr. Bibiana explains that communal prayer varying from community to community begins between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and is followed by long hours of ministerial services.

Other activities include community activities ranging from kitchen chores to gardening or other responsibilities unique to a Congregation.

According to the Kenyan Nun, such daily routines can result in burn-out among community members.

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“Exhaustion can further result in poor performance at work and even in personal life,” she says, and adds, “The art of balancing between prayer and work is a serious exercise which if assumed to be nonexistent while not, can adversely affect the very center of religious life, intimacy with Christ and the prophetic role he mandates.”

As for the generational gap challenge, Sr. Bibiana noted that as a Congregation grows, the age difference between members becomes quite evident.

“At times younger members of a Congregation feel misunderstood by older members and vice versa,” she said, and added, “If not realized and arrested on time this can lead to division among members and to unnecessary and unhealthy class groupings, which deter growth of the Congregation.”

The Kenyan Nun has also observed growing individualism among the Religious, noting that Sisters are being influenced by the modern world to reject communal living with others.

“The modern world is well known to be moving towards the direction of individualism. Among Africans communal living has been the mode of living but in the recent past this is no longer the case. What happens in the larger society influences Religious Life too since we do not live in total isolation,” she says.

She adds, “It is emerging today in Africa cases of Religious men and women who prefer to stay alone in an apartment, a hostel or hotel environment. Other emerging manifestations of individualism are low practice of community prayer, socialization or having shared meals.” 

Closely related to individualism in Religious Life is the emerging trend of materialism where the Consecrated and those still in formation are battling the temptation to own material wealth, Sr. Bibiana says.

And as the world becomes a global village, the Religious Sisters are getting impacted by international fashion and music, she further says.

Sr. Bibiana makes reference to the popular Jerusalema dance that attracted a lot of participation, with Sisters from various Congregations showcasing their moves in the chain dance.

She describes the adjustments that come with globalization as attitudes and behaviors that can undermine Religious Life, values and decorum.

According to the LSOSF member, globalization has also encouraged individualism and careerism that she says has led to competitiveness and a weakening of common life.

Sr. Bibiana Ngundo during her presentation. Credit: ACWECA

She says competitiveness can arise when access to professional education and training is limited by expense, so that only a few are given opportunity.

She notes that leaders of Congregations may also hesitate to send Sisters for further studies fearing loss of temporary or professed members once they have obtained degrees. When this happens, Sr. Bibiana says, the entire Congregation suffers, as capacity of the entire group is slowed by loss of talent.

Additionally, Religious Sisters are battling demands of the times, the Kenyan Nun says, and explains, “Today Congregations are confronted with a world of certificates.”

She explains that those who join Religious Life are required to obtain a certain grade in their fourth year of secondary school education.

Because many of them might not have had further training, it is the responsibility of the Congregation to get them back to school for career preparation and training, Sr. Bibiana says, adding that it is important for Sisters to enroll new entrants in courses to position them for suitable jobs in various industries.

To tackle challenges facing Religious Sisters and formation houses, Sr. Bibiana calls for collaboration among Congregations at the national conference level.

“So far we have witnessed common formation programs for Sisters in initial and ongoing formation, which is very important. Every year young women Religious from different formation houses gather in Dimesse Sisters for common formation classes,” she says in reference the Nairobi-based facility of Dimesse Sisters.

Many other Sisters willing to take formation courses at the house are, however, hindered by the lack of funds, desire to form separately, and lack of planning, Sr. Bibiana says.

She notes that at the height of COVID-19 last year, some Congregations collaborated in common online retreats and preparation for the profession of vows, and adds, “More of these collaborative programs become an asset to the unity of sisters in the region.”