Sr Jwan Kada IBVM, 18 May 2023
Sr Jwan Kada’s experiences of faith and ministry have been centred around tables, and for her, they are always eucharistic. It all started as she grew up in Iraq, fully immersed in the Chaldean Catholic Church. Before she was a teenager, Jwan would perform ‘Mass’ for her family, friends and neighbours of all religions. She set up a table in her house and nailed a toy box to the wall for a tabernacle. Almost every day, her mother would bake bread for her to recreate the Last Supper and nourish those around her. And if this was not evidence of dedication, she says, “In my spare time, I would go to church.” Jwan’s parish encouraged her in ministry, and she would serve on the altar and direct everyone in their liturgical roles, even the priest. She knew the whole Mass and people loved to see her involvement.
At the age of 12, Jwan came to Melbourne as a refugee, and she began to settle around new tables, with a different language and cultures. After 4 years, and for 14 years after that, Jwan found her feet as a church youth leader, running groups and retreats. She taught others older than herself even before she had training, and the youth group grew and grew.
Following an Arts degree, Jwan furthered her ministry formation with a Masters in Arts/Theology. This makes her face brighten even today; “I really fell in love with it. Theology gives me energy and I love philosophy as well. There are really beautiful sacred teachings in the church.” In her 20s, Jwan was educated and idealistic, and another calling was bubbling up within her.
One of her favourite narratives in the bible has always been the Samaritan woman at the well. Jwan could see herself in that woman, and “felt a calling to go deeper.” She understood religious life to be an “entire submerging of who I am into who God is… It is how I can give myself totally to God and God can give totally to me.” Jwan first explored one type of religious life, but “that table was not where I belonged.”
Then through her training and work as a secondary teacher, Jwan discovered the Loreto Sisters. One of them, her spiritual director, told Jwan that her story reminded her of Mary Ward. At this stage, all Jwan knew was that Mother Teresa had first been a Loreto. But it was Mother Teresa’s autobiography that had “invited” her to consider a calling to religious life in the first place. As she learned more, Mary Ward became an inspiration. “As a Middle Eastern woman, education is such a big deal for us. Many there don’t have access to education or freedom. So I was touched by Mary Ward’s vision that women can come to do much, and be a force for change in the world.”
Finally, when Jwan entered the house of some Loreto Sisters, she immediately felt at home. Sitting around the table, they spoke social justice, and they had an explicit way of demonstrating what the Church was about. The more Jwan developed relationships over prayer and meals, “the more I felt called to live that way of life.” She was being fed and nourished, and then called to action.
While Jwan gained skills to accompany young people through the ‘table’ of her teaching, she also started to experience the ‘table’ of prison ministry. This was a “cushion table”, where she found herself surrounded by young incarcerated people. Jwan became “completely immersed” in this marginal space, playing games and doing reflections. Here she discovered a new way of living Church, no longer in church buildings. It was an exciting calling, a movement in her faith journey, in which “I’ve really got to know who God is in my life.” In fact, in spending time with people in prison, Jwan “came to realise that in many ways they minister to me more than I minister to them. In reality I am the one on the margins.”
In 2020, Jwan became a novice, and was professed as a Loreto Sister in 2022. Along the way, she has been taken to even more places and ministries. In Sydney, she entered the back door of a hostel, and sat down at the table of the Cana Communities. They became her first friends in the city, and she has loved accompanying those leaving prison and experiencing homelessness, mental illness and addiction. ‘Cana’ of course, recalls the table of the wedding feast at which Jesus produced the wine. For Jwan it is an example of living Catholic Social Teaching on the dignity of the human person – that everyone is created in the image of God.
For Jwan, this precept has been revealed in “the best liturgy I have ever experienced in my whole entire life.” It was in a prison at Christmas time, after years of getting to know the participants. They were “super tough, with the attitude that ‘I’m a criminal’.” Yet they came rushing to the costumes, ready to perform the narrative for the Christmas liturgy. Jwan was moved by someone wearing angel wings, and another dressed as Mary. As the latter held the baby Jesus, a doll with a broken arm, he caressed it with such love and tenderness. For those who had little experience of love in their lives, Jwan saw what it meant to be a sacramental community, to celebrate liturgy on the margins. And that is a vision of a sacred table that she will take wherever she goes.