By Gemma Cruz Araneta
Last Saturday, I spent a few hours with a very controversial public figure whom I respect and admire but could not quite figure out, until I heard her speak before an audience. We have had informal, friendly conversations in the past but that was the first time I heard her speak with a microphone before an array of citizens. As I listened, it suddenly occurred to me that if we were living in 17th century Philippines, when Church and State were one and indivisible, life would have been dangerously different for Sister Mary John. Undoubtedly, the “Sword and Cross” would have colluded to demean, denigrate, and punish such a vocal, fearless Benedictine nun who refuses to be cloistered within the four walls of a convent, constricted by a life of self-denial and penitence. Sister Mary John brings to mind two of her 17th century sisters — Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo of the Capitanía-General de Filipinas and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz of Nueva España (Mexico).
Sister Mary John’s latest opus, Nun-Talk, is the third in the trilogy of Nun books; the first one was NunSense (2012) which is a spiritual journey of a feminist activist Benedictine nun while the second, NunStop (2015) subtitled A Pilgrim’s Tale is a compilation of the speeches she delivered in Asian and European countries. She wrote another book in 2016, Shadows of Light, Philippine Church History under Spain, a People’s Perspective. Sister Mary John is a history major and has a doctorate (summa cum laude) in Linguistic Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She also has a degree in Missiology (magna cum laude) from the Wilhelmsuiversitat in Munster, Germany.
I had a religious nun in the family, Mother Mary Joseph, Esperanza Argüelles Cruz, a younger sister of my late father who passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 98. After the Battle for Manila, during which all the men in the Cruz household were taken by the Japanese and never seen again, she entered the Carmelite Monastery in Laoag where she was twice its abbess. Fortunately, I have kept most of the letters I had received from her through the years. When she passed away, I asked one of the nuns if Mother Mary Joseph had left copies of her speeches she delivered at the Carmelite convents she had established in other provinces, homilies during significant events, anything written, but Sister Luz said my aunt left nothing. I read somewhere that contemplative nuns usually wrote journals about their spiritual life, which they would discuss with their confessors; perhaps these were all buried with her.
As for Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, many of her poems, comedies, theological dissertations were ordered burnt by the Archbishop of Mexico who hated her intellectual and literary prowess because she was a woman. Had she been a man, her erudition and culture, her belief in science over blind faith would not have provoked such diabolic anger and envy. Fortunately for the future generations, the Viceroy of Mexico and his wife who were friends and admirers of Sor Juana kept some of her works, which they published in Spain. I doubt if the current Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, will ever put Sister Mary John through the inquisitorial wringer.
Many are shocked by Sister Mary John’s commitments, here are a few of them: For 18 years, she was the national chairperson of Gabriela while she served as president of St. Scholastica’s College and prioress of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of the Manila Priory. For 4 years, she was a member of the Administrative Council of the Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum. At present, she is the executive director of the Institute of Women’s Studies of St. Scholastic, which she herself founded.
In Nun-Talk she relates her “baptism of fire” in political involvement. After 6 years of studying in Rome for that doctorate in Linguistic Philosophy, she came home to a Philippines that was under martial law. One evening, close to midnight, there was a telephone brigade asking nuns to join the picket lines of workers of La Tondeña who were on strike. Such actions were forbidden by the dictatorial government. “I went with the Sisters to the strike area where I witnessed military brutality for the first time,” she wrote. “The workers with whom we linked arms were beaten up, pushed into military buses and brought to the detention camps. Right there and then, we formed the ‘Friends of the Workers’ and committed ourselves to the workers’ cause.” During another rally, this time against oil price hikes, she was on top of a 10-wheel truck exhorting people not to pay the increase because it was detrimental to the poor. Sister Mary John said that a policeman asked her, “Why don’t you talk about mortal sin and hell and purgatory…. you are a sister, shouldn’t you be concerned with the soul?” To which she replied, “Why, do you see any souls walking about? As a Christian I ought to talk about what is good for the body and soul of the human being and not only for the soul.” At that moment, Sister Mary John realized that “…we had a greater reason to be Christian and a greater reason to be Religious because we were really involved with the struggle of the people. That was a far cry from the kind of training I had, which was to be in the chapel praying, and not to be concerned very much about what happens to the body, because if people suffered more and more, then they would have a greater place in heaven. That was the kind of theology that we transcended…” Get your copy of this enlightening book!