These are the keywords of the mission of anyone who is chosen to be superior: a service of inspiration, discernment, unity, encouragement and fraternal correction
When St. Paul announced his arrival to the community of Corinth, he had a surprise question: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). Directly or indirectly a number of superiors are asking similar questions: “Up to which point does charity remain charity? How far should the spirit of gentleness reach? Does the stick serve a purpose? Or perhaps it’s better to surrender, to give up everything. And every man to himself!”
Certainly, at times superiors find themselves in the situation of Jesus when thus challenged his generation: “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” (Mt 11:16-17)
This is to say that we often hear superiors say: “I have tried all I could, but everything goes on as before.” And yet, every superior, every confrere must continue to believe in what the Rule of Life teaches us: “Authority is a service of leadership in the community; of inspiration, helping all members of the community to live their vocation; of discernment, assisting everyone to make the right choices in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God; of unity and coordination; of encouragement and fraternal correction as a support in overcoming moments of weakness, fatigue and discouragement through friendly guidance” (RL 102.2).
These are the keywords of the mission of anyone who is chosen to be superior: a service of inspiration, discernment, unity, encouragement and fraternal correction.
I believe that the Rule of Life answers the concrete question of St. Paul and gives us courage, when we are faced with difficult situations created by “individualism, unwarranted privileges and the evasion of personal and community obligations” (RL 38.6).
Signs that challenge us
The delegates to the General Chapter of 2003, “enlightened by the Word of the Lord and moved by their love for mission,” noted in the Institute a certain tiredness, the weakening of the spirit of belonging, dispersion, isolation and individualism. In the process of the Ratio Missionis it has been underlined also that: “Many among us are tempted to isolate themselves, to enter into a kind of hibernation, while waiting for better days, or to devise his own prescription or his own method in order to try to shuffle along and survive… The signs of individualism are not few: personal programmes and projects not attuned to the province and the Comboni spirit, the unauthorized and individual use of funds and money that people give us… We have noted that all too easily personal and community prayers are neglected; that mission must be loved and desired much more.” The list goes on and on and makes us understand that the Institute, without denying the grace and the positive aspects found in it, is going through a dark valley. In such a situation the guidance, the sacrifice, the firmness of superiors and their attentive and fraternal support are necessary and providential virtues.
There are aspects of today’s society that have infected even religious life and have caused a crisis of leadership. These are dangerous elements, unsettling paradoxes that derail those who are entrusted with the service of authority and hurt those confreres who have a genuine spiritual commitment.
The first paradox consists in being religiously cross-eyed, namely to look in two opposing direction: to want to be a Comboni missionary without acting as one. To expect all the rights without a thought for the duties. To want everything without doing anything.
All this weakens a community and a province. On this point St. Paul gives some stern advice: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary of doing what is right. Take note of those who do not obey (…), have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers” (2 Thes 3:13-15).
The second paradox consists in doing good by doing evil: to isolate oneself in one’s own pet projects, committees, poor, social projects and even prayer, giving rise to uneasiness among the members of the community and of the province. These untouchables, who do good badly and evil well, are constantly on the increase.
St. Paul doesn’t mince his words. When writing to the Corinthians he advises them not to get mixed up with those who call themselves brothers but are not brothers. He clearly states: “Throw away the old leaven to become a new dough” (1 Cor 5:7). There can also be situations where action must be taken, as St. Paul states: “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor 5:13).
The third paradox consists in imposing one’s own selfishness and immaturity on others in the name of dialogue. These are the confreres who are always disapproving, never satisfied, constantly in conflict with one and all. No matter what the superior decides, they are always ready to poison the environment. With these people it is impossible to speak, to identify and pursue common objectives, to walk together in a constructive, friendly and dialoguing spirit. It seems almost useless to command respect and a waste of time to serve them.
Paul, too, had problems with the likes of these when he wrote: “We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Tess 3:11-12).
To believe in goodness
In spite of everything, Paul believes in the strength of love and urges us to win evil with good. Above all, he teaches: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (Rm 13:8). It is the teaching of Jesus Christ: he truly rules who serves with love. This is why the Lord wanted to be called “servant and slave of all” (Mk 10:43-45). He called himself the “good shepherd” (John 10:14) who is “meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29) and who reacted strongly against the pride of the twelve who wanted to be the “first in the Kingdom” (Mk 10:43) and “the greatest” (Lk 22:24). To those who are called to the service of authority Jesus says: “You call me Teacher and Lord and rightly so, for indeed I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:13-14).
To defend the truth
At the same time, however, Jesus did not abdicate at all the fact that he was the “Lord” and that he had the authority as the one true leader in defence of truth.
We recall here two episodes. The first concerns him personally: to Peter who did not want to accept the way of the cross and was trying to convince him not to go to Jerusalem, the Lord answered with indignation, almost insulting him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mt 16:23). It comes natural to ask whether a superior, when faced with a confrere who opposes the truth and the projects of the community, will have the courage to imitate the stand and the clarity of the Lord.
To be demanding for mission
The second incident deals with the choice of the apostolic life. Faced with an individual who showed a desire to follow him, but who lacked deep and convincing motivations, he cut short his musings with these words: “Foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man does not have where to lay his head” (Lk 9:58).
Jesus demands and sets conditions for the mission. Jesus wants his disciples to be free, totally free in order to love only the mission. While they were walking, a man said to him: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus told him: “Follow me.” And he said: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus replied: “Let the dead bury their dead; but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And then he added: “Do not greet anyone along the way” (Lk 10:4). Mission comes first. This is what Jesus teaches us.
Mission is an urgent matter and we can’t afford to waste any time. No one can presume to steal time from the mission. The disciple can’t allow himself the luxury of wasting time on things, or people, or programmes that have nothing to do with the mission.
Consequently the superior must clearly and forcefully assert that in the Institute there is no room for those who do not love the mission. And, naturally, we mean the Comboni mission, not any mission.
This is what Comboni was asking of his candidates in the Rules of 1871: “Anyone who aspires to the difficult and demanding African apostolate must therefore have a real readiness, founded on faith and love, to commit himself to the conversion of the most abandoned souls in the world” (Rules of 1871, Chapter 7). And again: “No cleric or layman will be admitted to the Institute if he is not ready to consecrate himself totally and until death to work for the regeneration of Africa and if he does not intend firmly and resolutely to die to his own will and to profess perfect obedience to the lawful superiors” (Rules of 1871, Chapter 2).
For Comboni everything is crystal clear: Mission is the vital strength of the Institute and those who do not love the mission have no business belonging to the Comboni family. (Part one)
Fr. Teresino Serra, mccj