KASAMA Vol. 12 No. 2 / April-May-June 1998 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

A Filipino Benedictine Sister speaks of 'Total Liberation'

Photo: Sr Mary John Mananzan, OSB (centre left) and Deborah Wall (centre right) "Christian Challenge in Today's World" Forum sponsored by WATAC at St Scholastica College, Glebe, Sydney 11/5/98

Sr Mary John Mananzan was a guest speaker at the University of Western Sydney and at St Scholastica College in Glebe recently. Correspondent Deborah Wall caught up with her on May 11.

Filipino Benedictine sister, Sr Mary John Mananzan's feminism and spirituality are like a breath of fresh air. Whether involved in organising political strategies or action or globe-trotting, inspiring African and Asian women to do their own theologising and discover their own spirituality, Sr Mary John, an energetic educator, writer and speaker seldom finds herself 'at home' these days.

At the peak of President Marcos' martial law regime in the seventies, Mary John got involved in political rallies, either urging her fellow citizens not to pay the oil price increases or supporting 600 workers on strike against unfair management practices of La Tondeña, a wine factory. She thought then that her engagement in such rallies was a form of 'contemplation' (when she was just 'present to the presence'). She now believes that there is something more to contemplation than she had originally thought.

"A contemplative attitude gives us a perspective. No one is indispensable. No cause should swallow us up," she argued. A Zen practitioner, Mary John now regards that 'home' is wherever she might be, whether in a plane or overseas, whenever she is in her meditative space.

'Contemplative activism' sprang to my mind, but Mary John herself described her stance in two words, "carefree commitment" - a far cry from the burdensome Christian imagery of 'carrying your cross daily'. "Surely God wants us to be happy," she pointed out. The 'Easter' kind of spirituality is her preference or, as she put it, "the feast rather than the fast".

It's a kind of spirituality that is liberating and 'integral' and this is not normally embodied in the institutional, hierarchical type of church familiar to many. Her idea of 'church' transcends institutional boundaries. For she believes that the typical perception of 'church' is a theological distortion. For her and others like her, 'church' essentially is 'the people of God'.

When a plainclothes policeman asked her why a nun like her is involved in political rallies, she said that he would not have understood if she had told him about her practice of 'total and complete salvation'. But when he asked if she saw souls running about, she thought that he might have vaguely understood her perspective.

She explained what she meant by integral spirituality: "Anyone who enters the religious life through, for example, teaching, nursing, or social work commits herself primarily to the preaching of the Gospel … in her life." And if the Gospel preaches against injustice, then she must have the readiness to promote justice by defending human rights and engaging in effective action.

She said that there is a struggle currently going on towards the 'dehierarchisation' of the institutional church. The 'obey your husband' dictum that the Catholic Church holds, the ban on divorce, and on birth control other than 'natural family planning methods', the over-emphasis on 'sins of the flesh' and the refusal to take the ordination of women seriously, she said, are not in line with 'integral liberation'. "One cannot talk of total human transformation if half of society is oppressed," she stressed.

Mary John's involvement in political militancy gradually evolved into a passion for the struggle of women against gender oppression, including oppression committed within the institutional church. She is now the chairperson of GABRIELA, a federation of women in the Philippines, which organises itself according to sectors, regions and areas of interest.

Her own social awakening emerged partly from her study of Philippine history and her realisation that women in the Philippines, prior to Spanish colonisation, had a high status in their society and indigenous women had a relatively equal status with men. The Spaniards colonised their minds and 'domesticated' rather than 'educated' them. "We must never forget the dangerous subversive memory of our equality," she said.

She pointed out that prior to Spanish rule indigenous women received equal inheritance, were given training on a par with men, enjoyed the same rights as in the right to divorce, had the same succession rights as men for political leadership, were involved in man-aging not just the domestic economy but also the agricultural domain, and played a key role in the religious sphere as priestess or babaylan. In addition, women enjoyed the same freedom of movement as men. And, it was fertility, not virginity, that was valued in that society.

When the colonial administration instilled the idea that virginity was 'a pearl to be lost', they eventually succeeded in domesticating and controlling the women. Ironically, Spanish priests themselves were known to have fathered children of indigenous women. To find out later that it was during the Spanish era when prostitution began in the Philippines no longer comes as a surprise.

"While the Philippine constitution today enshrines the equality of men and women before the law, this does not happen in practice," Mary John claimed. Women, especially the poor, still suffer not only from inequality and discrimination but also from a double standard of morality. Worse is the increasing trend of violence against women and the trafficking of women. To hear of rape, incest and prostitution, even of children, in the Philippines today is no longer perceived as incredible.

She cited the all too familiar cases of women victims ranging from domestic workers raped by employers overseas, to 'mail order brides' battered by their spouses, to pedophile and incest victims. She pointed out that such cases are not a woman's issue nor a man's issue, rather, it is a human issue that needs to be confronted.

So how do these issues relate to 'integral salvation'? In the past, the idea of salvation meant nothing but the salvation of the soul - from death, sin and hell - and thus the task of 'saving souls' was linked to preaching the word of God and dispensing the sacraments. She said that the current understanding of salvation is "the liberation of the whole human being not only from 'death, sin and hell' but from everything that dehumanizes - exploitation, oppression, poverty."

And so Mary John's task of evangelisation takes the form of what is normally seen as political activism. She sees 'integral evangelisation' as preaching the Gospel in the context of the total environment - economic, political and social - and all other factors that affect the human destiny.

To this end, she believes in using the key socialising agents that perpetuate the oppression of women - the mass media, education and religion - as 'the main avenues of change' through, for example, engaging in a critique of mass media or establishing alternative media.

In her view, there is no integral salvation if there is no social transformation and that social transformation is incomplete if the gender issue is not addressed. What needs to be done, she said is: "organisation, mobilisation, education and feminist scholarship."

"We need to transform the mainstream because it is largely malestream," she declared.

Equality, she said, could only be achieved if there is no more violence against women. She related the case of a victim of incest, a former St Scholastica College student who at 35 years of age finally came out, accepted that she needed healing and eventually became an effective counsellor for incest victims. There is nothing better than 'a wounded healer', it seems, where the 'most negative' (experience) gets transformed into the 'most positive.'

She drew a different picture of what being a Christian today means: "To be a Christian today in a land where injustice and oppression abide is a challenge. To be a woman religious in such a situation is doubly so. It calls for radical re-thinking of the meaning of being a Christian and of the imperative of religious commitment … it demands a consequent revision of one's way of life."

Indeed Filipino Benedictine sister, Mary John Mananzan's feminism and spirituality are a breath of fresh air.

Women And The Australian Church (WATAC) commenced in 1984 as a national co-operative venture initiated by the Women and Men Religious of Australia. Its primary task is consciousness raising of women on Christian feminist issues. The WATAC website is at

Sr Mary John Mananzan is a prolific writer and educator. She is currently President of St Scholastica College in Manila; Director of the Institute of Women's Studies; Executive Secretary Treasurer of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and the Chairperson of GABRIELA, a feminist organisation in the Philippines. Among her many books are The Woman Question in the Philippines and she is the editor of and a contributor in Woman and Religion, a collection of essays, testimonies and rituals/liturgical services from a women's perspective.

Deborah Ruiz Wall
is a member of SPAN and a regular contributor to Kasama.