“Courage for the present and even more for the future”
I come to you with this letter, written without pretence, except the one of wanting to share what I personally feel and what I have heard from you in our gatherings and meetings. I also write moved by feelings of gratitude to the Lord for what our Comboni Family is and does.
I write to question ourselves with trusting optimism, but without underestimating the problems that beset our missionary and religious life.
As always we start this journey together towards the Intercapitular Assembly with feelings of optimism and gratitude, asking God that our next September meeting may be a time of grace for the Institute and for the missions.
With Comboni’s optimism
I begin by recalling some of Comboni’s feelings that transpire from his writings. These are feelings that we too have to appreciate, imitate and live by.
They are feelings of gratitude for his missionaries and of appreciation for their work.
Comboni is proud of his coworkers and happy with their undertakings: “I feel great consolation in seeing all the missionaries and the sisters always happy and contented and ready to suffer evermore and to die. They speak of hunger, thirst, sickness and death as beautiful things. I am convinced that as far as self denial and spirit of sacrifice go, no mission has missionaries that are as strong as mine” (W 6751).
Comboni also trusts in God. He looks at the future with optimism, convinced that the task at hand is the will of God. Since the very beginning of his mission in 1866 he writes: “Absolute confidence in God. What I know for sure is that the Plan is the will of God. God wants it in order to prepare other works of his glory: and what I also know for sure is that among the obstacles that I will meet there is the fact that these are difficult days (…) And again what I know for sure is that God has given me an unlimited confidence in him, and that I will not abandon my task because of any obstacle and that certainly within not too many years, there will arise a new era of salvation for Central Africa” (W 1359).
Comboni’s feelings of optimism must accompany our evaluations and planning during the Intercapitular Assembly.
With that first love in your heart
Our Institute has written pages of grace, sacrifice and self giving in the book of the history of mission. The past of the Institute gives glory to God and to Comboni. God is happy with the Institute, but also has something to say to us. Symbolically, we can use words from the book of Revelation to describe ourselves, to tell us that God has blessed the work of the Institute and, at the same time, that he has something to reproach us about: “I know your deeds, says the Lord, your hard work and your perseverance. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2,2-5).
The Lord is telling us that it is good to return to that original strength, to that first love which sustained the Institute in the most difficult times: The love and the total oblation to God and to His mission.
Let us then begin our reflection exactly with the Lord’s invitation: to look with serenity at our difficulties and weaknesses and, by faith, to come up with answers filled with good will and fidelity to the Comboni charism.
DIFFICULTIES AND DANGERS
There will always be dangers and it’s easy for weeds to grow in our fields. “Be on your guard,” the Lord tells us. With realism and without losing our optimism, let us explore together some types of weeds that threaten to take roots in the field of our missionary family. Or, using more modern terms, let us examine some of the viruses always ready to attack our missionary work.
1. Insufficient spirituality
It is easy to fall into the trap of atheism, namely to work without God and with a spirituality that is not sufficiently deep (see CA ’03, 22). It is easy to build on sand, running the risk of having everything wiped away by the wind (see Mt 7,24-27). Comboni tells us also that it easy to be “people in a hurry to act, without brain and without spirit” (W 4260).
In this connection, let us remember here a significant episode in the Gospel of Mark: “The apostles returned and met with Jesus, and told him all they had done and taught. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat. So he said to them: Let’s us go off by ourselves to some place where we will be alone and can rest for a while” (Mk 6,31).
Perhaps this frenetic activity has taken even us to the point where we cannot stop, reflect, and find fresh air both spiritually and theologically for a mission that will be more Gospel-like and effective. Prayer is to be the first activity of the missionary. To pray means to place God at the center of our life and of our apostolate.
To pray and to meditate on God’s word means that we allow our hearts to be evangelized, so that we too become evangelizers.
2. Isolation from the life of the Institute
Individualisms and personal projects (see CA ’03, 74.3) weaken the life of the Institute and betray the values of our religious consecration. On the day of our vows we consecrated ourselves to God in a community, with a community. However, it is awfully easy to forget the promises made to God and to others.
Individualisms are also against Daniel Comboni’s wish to have us live together in a brotherly missionary cenacle. “To shine together, spread warmth together, reveal together, evangelize together” was Comboni’s dream. In Comboni’s mind, togetherness does not mean just a group of people, but a family of brothers and sisters who share the same love, namely the missio Dei (see CA ’03, 74.4).
Clearly (see CA ’03, 35.3) the cenacle is not a group that necessarily stays physically together all the time, but rather an apostolic family that loves the mission with the same heart and the same enthusiasm.
3. Resistance to renewal
To renew ourselves is a grace for mission (see CA ’03, 51). Ongoing formation is a sign of love for our mission. A missionary who is tired, not renewed and keeping updated is acting unjustly towards our mission and the people of God.
The Shabbat was a day of intimacy. It was not just a day when nothing was being done, but rather a day when one had time for his dear ones and for intimate communion with God in prayer. A well prepared and well executed sabbatical time has room for spiritual growth, for intimacy with God, for our brothers and for our mission. It is also a privileged space to heal the wounds inflicted by work in the course of time.
4. Messianic complex
Omnipresence and omnipotence are God’s characteristics, not ours. We must weigh our strengths, review our commitments. Also the time of monumental projects has ended. Maybe we should say that, by giving too much time to the work, we run the risk of not giving enough time to people.
The great projects, necessary as they were in the past, must give way to activities that are more flexible, more needed and more acceptable, in the midst of new forms of poverty and new emergencies. This requires to search for new models and areas of diaconia, guided by the priority of cooperating with the local Church and by the true needs of the people, with new answers to the crisis arising in various areas.
5. Cultural complex
“We find ourselves in a new ‘geography of vocations’, and we feel that we are receiving the gift of cross-culturalism” (CA ’03, 17). Our RL 162.1 reminds us that persons are the greatest wealth of the Institute. Exactly because we are convinced of this and we want to act accordingly, we would be negligent if we did not denounce failings prevailing in this area. To simplify things, we will summarize them together under the title of “cultural complex.” Undoubtedly, in our communities mistakes have been made and some still linger on. However, there are confreres who all too often become obsessed by supposedly hidden motives and overcome by self-pity. The past becomes an occasion of conflict and recrimination and even at times a weapon to be used against others. This gives rise to isolation and antagonism. In such a climate, reference to one’s culture is used, not so much as an occasion to build together and to enrich one another, but as a way to claim rights, areas of responsibility or assignments, and to justify dubious attitudes. We must worry about this (see CA ’03, 74.7), because it does not help to integrate our charism with a culture or to have a culture assimilate our charism. It does not, indeed, create identity and sense of belonging. This is a state of affairs that needs to be examined with care in order to favor and value attention to the person, its own cultural identity, the beauty and enrichment of the creativity of new confreres (see CA ’03, 18). At the same time, it is important to highlight the “weeds” sown by those who, in various ways, may want to use culture not to challenge themselves, but rather to do what they please. A “sacrosanct” culture is a sign of other ills that must be diagnosed and cured. “Cultural affectation” limits one’s vocational answer-commitment to God and mission.
6. Tendency toward the easy mission
If there is something which is specifically Comboni it is mission on the front line, among the poor. It’s sad to see the tendency to run away from difficult and needy missions, especially in Africa, and look for an easier mission (see CA ’03, 36-37).
To return to a mission that is difficult and requires sacrifice is to exercise the Comboni charism.
Mission also means fidelity to place and time. All too easily people leave their place of work for long and unjustified periods of time. We also see little availability to go where we are being sent or where there is a real need. A false dialogue always leads to one’s choosing of the place of work and is used to make oneself unavailable for going to where it is thought there is a real need. To choose one’s “mission” is not always a right. It could also be a sign of a search for personal comfort in the name of a selfish interpretation of attention to the person.
7. Weakness in obedience
It has been pointed out that in the Chapter Acts 2003 the word obedience is not mentioned. In spite of that the entire document speaks of evangelic obedience: obedience to God, to mission, to the community, to one’s vocation, to the poor, to superiors and to obedience as such.
Today, those who exercise the ministry of authority face a heavy and uncomfortable burden. For this reason those who serve in authority need everyone’s creativity, cooperation and responsibility.
In other words, all of us need to grow in the spirit of obedience, communion and the sense of belonging to a province or delegation, the Institute and the mission. We are all called to live out our obedience in a practical and mature way, avoiding individualistic attitudes, personal projects and self-sufficiency, at times for the only purpose of “punishing the superior.”
The degree of maturity of a consecrated person can be judged by his ability to obey, to be in communion and to cooperate with his confreres and the entire community. To obey is to give oneself for the good of all. The opposite of obedience is not disobedience, but rather lack of trust, of oblation, of responsibility. It is a lack of maturity in one’s vocation and, above all, lack of being present in the cenacle of apostles.
8. Comfortable poverty
The most highlighted themes in the Chapter Acts (see CA ’03, 34-36) are a simple lifestyle and standing with the poor. By our consecration we make ours the choice made by Christ, a choice of solidarity, availability, trust in providence and being close to the least and the neglected. One must never forget that our proclamation takes place in a real world, which is torn apart by divisions and where the chasm between the rich and the poor is becoming ever wider.
It is vital, therefore, to question our poverty, our lifestyle, trying to avoid those models of mission that make us have to deal with a lot of money, a commodity from which it is difficult to be totally free. To be faithful to our vow of poverty and to our charism, we must be vigilant against a certain middleclass spirit and consumerism that today’s society is constantly forcing on us.
Ours must be a style of life that makes us willing to leave behind security and ways we are accustomed to in order to move out and accept any mission. It is a lifestyle that ties us to an ambiguous service which allows us to live among the poor with the security of the rich.
PRIORITIES - URGENCIES - ANSWERS
We now take a look at some urgent situations and priorities as seen by the General Chapter and by the General Council. The same priorities are recognized also at provincial or delegation and continental level. These priorities show a yearning for renewal and rebirth. It is clear that to renew does not mean just fixing up or patching up on old coat with a piece of new cloth. Any renewal or rebirth demands a break. “Break: this is a word that provokes anxiety in anyone who’s the guardian of ordinariness, of the status quo, as he mistakenly identifies the braking away with destroying. A break does not mean that there will not be continuity, but rather that there will be a search for a different plan to be implemented: being able to break away means to be able to be reborn” (Testimoni n. 12, 2004). In other words, we do not want to cut the tree’s roots, but rather to prune it in order to have more abundant fruit.
We present here some suggestions on situations that require high priority and which we consider important, but just for the purpose of encouraging provinces or delegations and continents to reflect on the journey they have undertaken.
9. Wisdom reading
The time has come for a Wisdom reading of the journey undertaken during these years. For this reason we need to turn to God’s word, to the Gospel and to the Rule of Life (see CA ’03, 52.1). The problems and the challenges are too big to be solved solely by a sociological, psychological and human evaluation. We need to pause, in the company of the Gospel, so that we may reflect more deeply.
All the Institutes have attempted such evaluation, renewal and updating. All of them have started new programs, re-written the rules, produced documents on every aspect. And yet we live in a time of uncertainty and uneasiness. The norms of General Chapters need to be better assimilated. We must dig more deeply: a Rule of Life or a General Chapter cannot be assimilated unless we first assimilate the Gospel. The journey is not from the Rule of Life and the General Chapter to the Gospel, but rather the other way around.
10. Spiritual renewal
We all want to place God once again at the center of religious life, so that religious life may make the Gospel visible. We all want to be regenerated, drawing from the word of God and from true theological and spiritual tradition. The true apostle searches for a spirituality that creates a thirst for holiness: true holiness is born of mission and becomes a gift to mission (see CA ’03, 54.1).
It is clear that many things, even though they had a glorious past, have come to an end and therefore we must enter a phase of regeneration in our spirituality, namely to choose Christ and the Gospel as the sole reason for our life and our apostolic “service”. God wants to bring this Institute back to himself; he wants it totally, for a mission that will be specifically like Comboni’s (see CA ’03, 54.2-4).
11. Revision of commitments
(see CA ’03, 30.1.2)
The lack of proportion between commitments and personnel is getting more worrying every day. For some time now the commitments have far surpassed our resources. The process of revision and re-qualification is irreversible and it must be a priority in all planning sessions.
The urgent task that cannot wait is the re-planning in the Institute, provinces and delegations, to re-design and re-qualify our presence in line with our charism and according to the choices and directives of the 16th General Chapter.
12. Community life
(see CA ’03, Chapter 4)
Community is not our creation but God’s, and can be accepted only as a gift : “Those who make it their own project destroy community instead of building it” (Bonhoeffer).
To allow brotherly life to favor individualism means to allow the growth of cancer in the body of the Institute and to condemn it to its death.
A religious who runs his life in his own way, who is always absent from the community table, from the table of sharing and the table of the Eucharist, separates himself from the fruitfulness of his vocation.
The missionary Church needs communities that are alive and that are a call to the grace of living together. Missionary life will find in community and in unity new journeys into which it is worth to venture.
(see CA ’03, 63-64)
We believe that the time has come for a thorough revision of our system of formation. We believe that it no longer meets the expectations of the new generations and it needs new pedagogical and evangelical strategies.
The system of formation is no longer capable of providing answers to the questions arising from the challenges caused by the assimilation of many cultures. Concrete signs tell us that the Institute must believe in young people and prepare them for mission with a better missionary formation.
Formation must create believers: people who believe in God and in the Gospel; who believe in people and in their culture; who believe in mission as the sole passion of their life; who believe in God’s dream, a dream that leads us to be creative, to be daring, to be challenging, and to give ourselves with no holding back.
Internationality is a journey of grace that must be kept up (see CA ’03, 52.5). It is an irreversible journey that moves us to accept with gratitude the gift of God in our confreres, the richness they are for the Institute, promoting their gradual introduction to taking up responsibilities in its various aspects. Internationality is a type of witness that today’s world badly needs.
Certainly, if it is not handled correctly, the grace of internationality can become an unbearable burden. We must say, first of all, that internationality is not a means to allow us to increase in quantity and save the Institute from extinction. Genuine internationality is not a survival ploy. An Institute grows not only by number, but also by quality. An Institute can also disappear. The important thing is that it has accomplished its task. Internationality must be similar to the Trinitarian symbol, where we find difference and equality at one and the same time. The congregavit nos in unum becomes a school of love, of brotherhood and of evangelic mission. International community life goes against the sin of the tower of Babel, namely the denial of diversity and plurality. It is a sin to close oneself into one language and one culture in order to avoid the stress of living and understanding diversity. Internationality must become a Pentecost, namely the celebration of diversities made into one by the Spirit. It is not easy to live this internationality. We must live with the knowledge that the others will always be different and need to be loved exactly as they are. It means to love one another and live in brotherhood even when we can’t understand the others.
It is a challenge, just as it is also a challenge to love and to experience the future of the Institute, namely an Institute totally new, reshaped by a new vocational geography, rejuvenated by the new generations.
15. The ministry of authority
We are all called to run the Institute. We must help each other by caring for the good of the entire Institute, rather than closing ourselves in our province or delegation and get stuck in local concerns, often minor and of a passing nature. The provincial and continental councils are “the vigilant eyes and the open hearts” on the appropriate journey that the Institute must accomplish. At this time the General Council feels the need of meeting more often with provincials and heads of delegations and is thinking of gathering them more often.
We can’t limit ourselves to coming together for the General Chapter in order to face our problems. Meeting then becomes very important because we can observe constantly, evaluate, read our reality and come up with new ideas.
At the present time, the style of government has undergone many changes of sensitivity and priority, of co-responsibility and planning: those in authority are no longer vigilantes over discipline and enforcers of submission, but rather guides to discernment (see CA ’03, 99.5). We are no longer directing people to preserve norms, laws and traditions, but rather to inspire others in taking courageous initiatives, so that we assure a productive dialogue, one which is shared and not stifled by centralization and verticalism. Together we will be better equipped to take prophetic risks and exercise wise creativity.
The fragility we are experiencing now could be the cradle of great fruitfulness. If we stick together in this difficult time of change, we will be preparing ourselves for a season of grace for our mission.
16. Ratio Missionis: journeying together
The process of the Ratio Missionis, which has already begun, is intended to be this Wisdom reading of the life of the Institute, its activities and the various spaces in which we move. We have worked a lot between Chapters and the renewal has not arrived. Indeed, there has been a certain disobedience to the General Chapters. And, in the course of time, we pay for this disobedience. To what do we owe this state of affairs? Perhaps we owe it to the fact that some processes move slowly and we need to be patient; or else we failed somewhere along the line and we need to change direction. Each General Chapter does a clinical analysis: for quite sometime we have noticed that each General Chapter comes up with the “same clinical analyses” and the same diseases. We are tempted to conclude that, either the General Chapters did not do a valid analysis and have not identified the right diseases, or else the remedies that were suggested did not work.
We all agree that we are still in a time of silence, of listening, of reflection. Let us continue to work (naturally!), but let us remember that what’s important now is not what we do. At this time the important thing is to know what God wants from us, from all of us as a group.
The Ratio Missionis has a purpose: it is not to produce another document, but to reflect, to evaluate and to share experiences. The aim of this journey consists in verifying our mission and the Comboni charism. To do this we need an examination from the grassroots, delving ever more deeply and asking ourselves who we are, how many we are, where we stand, what we do, and how we do what we are doing.
The Ratio Missionis has a method: it must become a process of ongoing missionary formation in all provinces and delegations. It is important to engage everybody in order to renew our missionary spirituality, to place the spirit of Comboni in our evangelization, to introduce contemplation in our activities and mission in our formation and promotion.
The Wisdom reading of reality, done through the process of the Ratio Missionis, could bring us to discover a need for a special General Chapter. Perhaps, after 35 years, the Spirit tells us that the time has come for a prophetic General Chapter, a General Chapter that will make us bite the dust and truly soil our hands in order to reach “changes that will, indeed, bring about changes.” All too often, for the love of harmony, for the love of we-have-always-done-it-this-way, the prophetic stand of a General Chapter disappears into generic proposals, pretentious slogans, far removed from the reality of mission, from the sufferings of people and from the real needs of the Institute.
Thus we continue to live outside of history with the danger of falling into the ridiculous role of “changing everything in order to change nothing.”
Mission, we have said it often, means to set off, to study new tactics, to renew methods and plans of apostolate. Above all mission is belief. But in whom or in what to believe?
To believe in God who chooses his apostles: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you that you may go and bear fruit an fruit that will remain” says the Lord (Jn 15,16).
To believe in one’s vocation. God gave us the privilege of a missionary vocation. Therefore, we must believe in the God who believes in us and who, by divine humility, has shown that he needs us in order to continue his work on earth.
To believe in mission, in the service that has been asked of us, the task entrusted to us. Mission is a service of total love and oblation: “there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends” says the Lord (John 15,13).
To believe in the Institute. The Institute is the missionary cenacle wanted by the Spirit, is “sacred strength for the mission of Christ.” The Institute is the helper of the Spirit, the protagonist of mission, and therefore has a mission that comes from God, in order to guarantee the continuity of mission.
Love for the Institute, therefore, is love for missionary activity. To believe in the Institute is to believe in the communion of the province or delegation, of God’s people and of the Church.
To believe in Comboni. It means to believe in a Comboni who was convinced that his Plan was from God. “My work will not die,” he said it in very trying times, facing his own death with the conviction that a project of God will carry on by God’s power. Comboni wrote: “The apostle sweats it out, not for himself but for eternity; he does not look for his own, but for the happiness of his neighbor, he knows that his work does not die with him, that his tomb is the cradle of new apostles; and therefore he measures his steps not always by his own desires, but always with the necessary prudence in order to ensure the success of the work of redemption” (W 2171).
To believe in Comboni does not simply mean to imitate him. There is only one Comboni and he cannot be cloned and we are not called to be ugly photocopies of a great champion of evangelization. Comboni never expected that his missionaries be made in his own image and likeness. He only wanted missionaries who loved deeply. Whenever he saw love for the mission he could redeem and canonize his companions (see W 6851). Also for him mission required total oblation, ad vitam: “My happiest day will be when I will be able to give my life for you” (W 3159).
Dear confreres, more than writing I have wanted to speak to you with the only desire to share in a spontaneous manner what we feel as a General Council.
As General Council we are always listening and we are grateful for the cooperation, the suggestions and the help we receive in coordinating, journeying and accompanying us in the life of the Institute.
May San Daniel Comboni accompany us and bless us, while we journey towards the Intercapitular Assembly. And may our meeting next September be a source of grace for the Comboni mission.
Together with the General Assistants I send to each one of you greetings of appreciation and brotherly affection.
1 January 2006
Fr. Teresino Serra, mccj