Living together is not just a method for a more suitable way of evangelising, nor a quality life in which the missionaries find consistency, but something of a deeper nature: it is to experience what Christ has proposed to his disciples
“May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:21)
1. A cenacle from the very beginning
One characteristic of the modern world is its dwindling sense of community. On the rising are the global society and the kind of persons that are inclined to individualism, competitiveness and consumerism. Stress is placed on the fact that the individual can grow and be happy (may have things and be well off) without the need of others; an attitude one could summarise as everyone on his own or, even, we prefer to live in the same home but each one in his room(1).
We Comboni Missionaries do not live at the boundary of what is going on and this situation does influence us considerably. We adopt lifestyles which mirror such a tendency and share in the same esprit du temps. As a matter of fact, among the symptoms pointed out at the end of the first phase of the Ratio Missionis, it emerges the fact that we lead a “community life lived with little fraternity. We are used to doing our own thing… and we develop a spirit of competition and the quest for our own affirmation”(2).
In this phase of discernment it will be useful to ask if our individualistic way of proceeding is adequate to what the mission requires from us, if it helps us personally and if it matches up with what today’s world needs from us. Faced by these challenges we shall dwell on one of the basic intuitions of Comboni: mission lived as a community.
When Comboni decides to found his missionary Institute, he conceives it as a small cenacle of apostles(3), where his missionaries could live in fraternal communities with a sufficient number of people(4). In carrying out his plan, he never hesitated in opposing whoever was proposing otherwise, in particular Camillo Carcereri. The latter was claiming that it was possible to multiply the number of mission stations all over the area by simply splitting the personnel, something which Comboni strongly opposed. He never accepted to have a missionary alone in a far away place(5).
Why was Comboni so unyielding on such matter? He had two main reasons: first of all the desire of missionary effectiveness, which required stability and prolonged contact with the people in order to deepen relationships; but also an attention to the concrete life of the missionaries in all its dimensions(6), a life that would end in degradation if working in situations of loneliness and isolation(7).
Living together, though, is not just a method for a more suitable way of evangelising, nor a quality life in which the missionaries find consistency, but something of a deeper nature: it is to experience what Christ has proposed to his disciples.
2. The cenacle as a sign of the Kingdom
When Jesus started his mission, the first thing he did was to choose some collaborators for the task ahead (Lk 6:12-16). He asked them to live with him to follow a lifestyle that was going against the general trend of the time. He wanted his group to be a sign of the Kingdom he was announcing, like the seed is the promise of a tree.
For Jesus the Kingdom resembles a family of brothers who have the same dignity, who live in simplicity and consider God as a loving Father. For this reason, love is at the centre of all relationships: people who care for one another, share everything and are at each others’ service. A new family, not based on blood ties, but on doing God’s will (MK 3:33-35).
It was not an easy group the one Jesus chose. A group of individuals different in character and interests (think of the impulsive Peter, the impetuous sons of the thunder, the doubting Thomas and the penny-pinching Judas). They were from different backgrounds: some were fishermen and farmers, others even had a job that was despised by society, like Mathew the tax collector (Mk 2:14). Such a diversity was a source of tensions and divisions (Mt 20:20-24), but Jesus did not refuse to live with them, rather he carried on loving them without giving up. Jesus’ way of loving was the community’s measuring rod (Jn 15:12). In this way they gradually learned that living together entails the effort of not getting tired of forgiving (Mt 18:21-22), the willingness even to give up one’s life for those we love.
Their life together thus became a way of announcing the Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming by words and deeds. One of such frequent deeds of Jesus was that of eating with sinners. They were joyful signals of a Kingdom that was growing among the marginalised. One meal in particular became very special: the supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples before dying. It was not just another meal: he intended to leave them something that they were never to forget. He did not give them mere instructions but the whole of Himself, inviting them to repeat that same sharing experience in the community (1 Cor 11:23-26).
3. A cenacle that is welcoming and needs to grow
Comboni wanted his missionaries to carry on the cenacle experience, which consists in living together, with Jesus at the centre, and in putting oneself at one another’s service. He was convinced that the reason for living together was not just a human one, but one based on faith. We know, in fact, that a community is the fruit of God’s love shared out among the members by the power of the Holy Spirit. They thus become a real family, united in the Lord’s name(8).
God calls us, indeed, to live the experience of the cenacle of apostles through the inspiration of Daniel Comboni(9). Life in common, then, is an essential and necessary aspect of our Comboni charism(10). Each Comboni Missionary collaborates in this way to create the appropriate conditions that make, out of a simple group of strangers, people living as brothers, as in the cenacle.
This is the long journey ahead of us. At the start we only manage to share ideas, physical presence and even work projects, but not yet to convey Christ’s presence to the people among whom we live. Gradually, though, we can learn to become close and attentive to, undemanding and brotherly. A Comboni community should not simply be a “factory” of hectic activity, but a family (united in the name of Christ) where it is comfortable to live, where we find warmth and light, where we become good news to the world(11). In this way fraternal life, in spite of its limitations, is an effective therapy and a question mark for a world that is confused by so many competitive, selfish, violent and dehumanising choices.
4. Questions for our reflection
* Fraternal life is meaningful for evangelisation. Explain why.
* To what extent did you grow thanks to the fact that you live with others? Give examples.
* What are the most common difficulties you encounter to live as a cenacle?
* What are the satisfactions you experienced living in fraternity?
* What are the aspects of Christ which other people made you discover?
(1) Cf. BAUMAN Zygmunt, Modus vivendi. Inferno e utopia del mondo liquido, Roma-Bari 2007, 81-106.
(2) Report on the first phase of the process of Ratio Missionis, 4.4.2.
(3) W 2648.
(4) “The male personnel of each mission station of the interior is sufficient when it consists of three priests and two lay people”, W 4165.
(5) W 4364-4366.
(6) Cf. PIERLI Francesco, Come eredi. Linee di spiritualità missionaria, Roma 1992, 116-117.
(7) Comboni, indeed, realises that a person, even if well prepared, can let himself go and weaken when he remains alone and isolated. Cf. W 3188-3189.
(8) Perfectae caritatis, 15.
(9) RL 36.
(10) Cf. CA ’75, 47-66, 96; CA ’97, 19; CA ’03, 70-96.
(11) Cf. CASILE Carmelo, Consacrati a Dio per la missione nello spirito di Daniele Comboni, Rome 2002, 343-358.