A laywoman in the Church

by Jao Resari

Columban lay missionary, Jhoanna Resari, (Jao) lives and works in Taiwan. She writes about how we need to encourage people to recognise and respond to their baptismal call and to to facilitate and guide them on their journeys to truly find their voice in the life and mission in the Church.

When I joined the Columban Lay Missionaries I was 24-years-old. My first mission assignment was to Taiwan and my ministry in the field of HIV and AIDS. I journeyed for six years with people living with and affected by this illness in shelters run by a non-profit organisation. Afterwards, I worked in the HIV/AIDS education and outreach ministry in the Hsinchu Diocese near Taipei.

My experience in mission has truly been a blessing, because, until I met the Columbans, I had not fully understood my baptismal call to live out God’s mission. Although I was raised a Catholic, which has imbued my way of life with Christian values and traditions, I grew up treating the Church as a place where I can go to get my spiritual needs met, a place where I can expect people of authority, mostly priests, to provide certain services.

At a young age, I also learned not to ask questions about the bible or religious practices or traditions. I grew up feeling it was my place to simply receive what was offered by the Church, to fulfil my obligations and not question. These are just some of the things ingrained within me that I unconsciously accepted in living out my Catholic faith.

In saying this, I also recognise that many of my faith experiences were necessary for my spiritual growth as a child and on into my youth. However, as I grew into adulthood, the comfort of the familiar and the convenient role of a passive recipient Catholic stagnated my spiritual growth and limited my participation in the life of the Church.

I believe the Holy Spirit was guiding me on my journey while I was growing up, and I am grateful God led me to discover the Columban missionaries. Cross-cultural mission has allowed me to grow in my faith, and own my identity as a member of the Christian community, as well as understand that the Church is much more than a place for the laity to receive spiritual services or replenishment.

The encouragement young members received from fellow missionaries helped build our confidence to contribute to discussions, take initiatives and accept responsibilities…

With Pope Francis’ decision to move towards a synodal renewal of the Church, the message is clear that “the whole People of God is an agent of the proclamation of the Gospel… every baptised person is called to be a protagonist of mission since we are all missionary disciples” (Synodality in the life and mission of the Church, 53).

We need to create conditions that enable people to recognise and respond to their baptismal call and allow them to own their role as “protagonists” – the principal and active participants in mission. It is important to facilitate and guide people on their journey until individuals are able to truly find their voice in the life and mission in the Church.

If we see ourselves as facilitators, we can bring people together, learn from one another and be enriched by our encounters of different cultures and experiences. This can bring about new possibilities for mission. We need to be creatively and faithfully responsive to the changes brought forth by our journey together, especially when these changes lead us closer to people on the peripheries amidst these challenging and uncertain times.

When I arrived in Taiwan, I recognised how structures within the Columbans invite members – lay and ordained – to live out the values that reinforce and inform their lives, that is, a full participation that fosters partnership, shared responsibility and accountability among ourselves.

I had to make a choice to let go of my past conditioning that influenced my dynamics in dealing with the ordained and my view of my role as a laywoman in our community. It was not easy, but I gradually understood that my opinion and contribution would be received and respected by others.

The encouragement young members received from fellow missionaries helped build our confidence to contribute to discussions, take initiatives and accept responsibilities. Of course, with our diverse cultures, personalities and personal histories, it is to be expected we would experience resistance, tension and conflict. Even though we would rather avoid these, they are part of our reality, and overcoming them is necessary for our growth individually and as a community.

With God’s grace, the environments or conditions I have experienced can bring about an awakening in an individual, leading to a deeper understanding of their calling and a sense of ownership of shared responsibilities in the community. Synodality is also a call to address clericalism and exclusion in the Church. From what I have witnessed and learned in my ministry about confronting stigma and discrimination, behavioural and attitudinal change is just as critical as finding a cure that would end HIV and the realities brought about by this illness.

The same sort of thing is true for the Church. It is vital that we honestly examine negative or false narratives, religious and cultural misconceptions or taboos, and any other structural or ideological components of the Church that perpetuate clericalism or justify acts of exclusion. Only when we are aware of these types of attitude and behaviour, and take steps to counteract them, can we ensure that we are not blocked from responding to and relating with people around us. Then, we can be catalysts of change for inclusion and diversity, bring healing in the Church, and truly move forward in the spirit of communion with one another and with God.

May our encounters with people at the margins teach us the meaning of witnessing to the truth that every person possesses an innate value and dignity and deepen our understanding of what St. Paul meant when he described the Christian community as “one body with many members, so it is with Christ. We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.”

May the Holy Spirit guide us in remaining faithful to welcoming others to share in God’s mission as disciples of Christ.