Maids see light in Church

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POVERTY, chastity, obedience: the last of the three vows, at least, might prove of some use to an ex- novice looking for work in Italy as a Filipino maid.

According to Philippines' bishops that is exactly what has been happening as a result of the Roman Catholic Church's drive for religious recruitment in the Third World. Faced with falling vocations in the materialistic West, many orders, particularly of nuns, have rushed to fish in the teeming spiritual waters of the Philippines. But, the bishops allege, far from being moved by the spirit, many of these new novices regard convent life as the fast track to a well-paid, if illegal, job in Italy as a maid.

The bishops pull few punches in a letter, addressed to a synod of their brethren, which opened in Rome at the weekend. The missive is sending shivers of disapproval through the august corridors of the Vatican, for the Pope himself is known to look towards the Third World as a valuable repository of pure Catholic faith, untainted by the cynicism and worldliness of the West.

The bishops denounce what they call the 'trade in novices'. Over the past few years, the letter says, 87 women's orders and 32 men's orders, almost all of them Italian, have set up houses in Manila. So desperate are these orders for new, local recruits - 'a distasteful truth' say the bishops - that vocations are not checked to see if they are genuine. Most of the orders ignore a Church ruling that new houses are supposed to wait five years before accepting novices, they complain.

Then comes the bombshell. 'It is not a case of refusing to share one's calling, but of preventing a vocational programme from becoming a recruitment drive for . . . domestic staff.' In other words, religious orders are bringing young Filipinos back to Italy, where many decide that the religious life is not for them. They then disappear into Italy's vast 'black', or unofficial, workforce.