Something more than a dream


of Fr. Teresino Serra mccj, Superior General

It is a beautiful thing to arrive at the General Chapter 2009 with the satisfaction of being able to say: we have been faithful to the Gospel of Christ and the Gospel of Comboni. Each and every General Chapter always questions us about our fidelity to the charism and our identity as an Institute.

Rome, 28.06.2009

He died while absent from his own diocese and almost forgotten. That was in 1973, just a few months before I was ordained priest. One of those bishops with the heart of a good shepherd took him into his diocese and formed a bond of friendship with him which lasted all his life. Misunderstood by the clergy but loved by the people, he lived out his priestly life authentically and in austerity, in poverty and evangelical wisdom. At first he seemed like someone unapproachable but in the end everyone went to him for confession and advice. He loved the seminarians and in his own direct way would tell them: “Remember, the seminary is like a railway station waiting room and just as uncomfortable. Real life is to be found outside these walls. Out there we find people who have to suffer and toil in silence. Christ never sent his disciples to the seminary. Their seminary was just being with Him and among the people, especially the poor... If they ever tell you: ‘out there all is bad and what is good is to be found only inside here’ or, worse still, ‘the others outside are all bad and we inside are all good’, remember that that is not how things are. In fact, the opposite is more likely.
It was obvious that Rev. Jesuino would not last long in the seminary, or in the diocese. Many years later people said he was a man of God but misunderstood, one of those prophets who are praised in death but rejected while alive. A page from his diary leaves no doubt about this: “If the Gospel is poverty taken to the renunciation of everything, sacrifice to the giving of oneself completely, service to the washing one’s brothers’ feet, equality which allows not even the smallest degree of superiority, faith in the afterlife which leads to complete detachment from earthly things, then we Christians, and especially we members of the clergy, have betrayed the Gospel”.

Faithfulness to Mission

It is a beautiful thing to arrive at the General Chapter 2009 with the satisfaction of being able to say: we have been faithful to the Gospel of Christ and the Gospel of Comboni. Each and every General Chapter always questions us about our fidelity to the charism and our identity as an Institute.
Let us open the Gospel according to Matthew. John the Baptist sent some of his disciple to Jesus to ask him a simple question: “Who are you? What do you say of yourself?” And Jesus answered: “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Mt 11:1-5). Here we see the ID card of Jesus Christ: the God-man concerned and busy with those who occupy the lowest place, the forgotten, those who seek faith, hope and real love.
And what is our identity card? How do people see our Institute? How do we appear to those who believe in us and in our mission?
The Chapter Documents and the Rule of Life define our identity: “We are sent to the poorest and most abandoned peoples and human groups: the phenomenon of minorities not yet reached by the Church and neglected by society; groups not yet sufficiently evangelised who live on the outer edge of poverty, through historical causes and the negative effects of globalisation and the market economy. Comboni had identified these peoples with the Nigrizia of his time” (CA ’03, 36).
And again: “In his evangelizing activity the missionary is committed to ‘liberating the human person from sin, violence, injustice, selfishness’ and need and from oppressive structures. This liberation finds its fulfilment and consolidation in the attainment of full communion with God the Father and among all men and women” (RL, 61).
It is all well described in the documents. What about the reality of the Institute? Our Institute wrote pages of grace, sacrifice and self-giving in the book of the history of the mission. The Institute’s past is the pride of God and of Comboni. Therefore, the general Chapter must revisit the Institute, review our missionary work and see whether our forms of presence are in harmony with our spirituality and our charism. Furthermore, it is the task of the General Chapter to relocate the charism by going back to its roots and, with Comboni realism, follow once again the path marked out by Comboni himself. Relocating the charism also means reformulating the where and the how of our evangelizing activity.

In the footsteps of Comboni

Refunding is a word that is in vogue in meetings of Superiors General. To re-found: perhaps the term implies a risk and is therefore not suitable. Perhaps it could be replaced by a more acceptable word. Many Institutes, throughout their history, have passed through moments of re-foundation. The re-founders had become aware that their communities or Institutes had lost the ability to respond to the real needs of society and the Church, apart from the legitimate aspirations of their members. Today, too, we breathe the air of re-foundation, of the need for the radical following of the Gospel and the need to re-locate the charism according to the present social, cultural, economic and ecclesial moment.
To re-found: the word is quite acceptable if it means wanting to bring the Institute back to its foundation which is nothing other than Our Lord Jesus Christ: “For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1Cor 3:11). Besides, this process can be fruitful if it means bringing the life of the Institute to the Founder.
The purpose of re-founding is to do what Comboni would do today in faithfulness to the Holy Spirit: to make the missionary charism inherited from him forever new and to transmit it to new generations. It means a critical discovery of what is specific to us, distinguishing the non-negotiable aspects of our Comboni life from those which are not.
We are called to re-found, to be renewed despite the uncertainties regarding the future. Dwindling numbers, concern for new vocations, growing old and painful defections may result in the lack of a clear future, the need to see what we are really capable of and seek a new equilibrium. Under these conditions we must proceed with confidence and hope. Hope must be placed in God who believes in the Institute, and also in ourselves who believe in the mission of Comboni for which we are willing to be converted and to accept change. We entertain the hope that this General Chapter may be transformed in a Comboni Pentecost: may the Spirit shake us up and launch us out according to his plans and wishes.

Voices to be heard

I remember Rev. Jesuino as one of the many men and women who transformed their lives into a visible and easily read Gospel. Many, like Rev. Jesuino, loved the Church and the mission but their voices were understood too late. Much the same has happened to Comboni and quite a few other men and women missionaries.
During a General Chapter it is both right and necessary to listen to everyone, especially to those prophetic voices which the Spirit will undoubtedly inspire. In religious life a certain prejudice easily takes root: renewal = rebellion, change = destruction, personal charism = peculiarity, popularity = arrogance.
“To think for one’s self is a mortal sin for Catholics – wrote Giovanni Papini, bitterly – whatever is new always frightens while tradition does not frighten but encourages quaeta non movere”. Not to stir the waters was not Jesus’ style and the Holy Spirit caused an explosion in the Cenacle, driving those fearful men out into a world whose ideas and way of life was simply the opposite to theirs. Never let us deprive the General Chapter of those charismatic, even if discomfiting, voices whether of confreres, communities or entire provinces.
And what if these voices are wrong? Better human error than the aridity of those who refuse to hear the voice of the Spirit.
These times are not easy for anyone. Neither are they times for discouragement but rather for renewing our confidence the One who believed in our history, the One who has guided the Institute for the last 150 years. It is well to hear the voice of optimism: “You have not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, John Paul II teaches us, but also a great history still to be accomplished! Look to the future, where the Spirit is sending you in order to do even greater things” (Consecrated Life, 110).
We need to risk all and trust in the Spirit of God which “produces the wake-up effect and makes us move out from the darkness of the night to begin a new day. The Spirit reminds us that to start the day well we need to remain in Him and follow him faithfully... and to put on the garments of the day, knowing where to place our feet and knowing for whom shall be the sweat and labour of the entire day” (P. J. M. Arnaiz).

Challenges to be faced

Growing masses of people are moving, fleeing from the situations of suffering and tragedy. They move desperately in search of a better life. Every missionary Institute is called to go towards these suffering masses and to be present in that painful amassing. To be present in the dehumanising urban jungles of the great cities; to be present in those urban deserts of crime, violence and immense solitude, even when surrounded by millions of people and mountains of riches. How can we find the way to enter into this reality to preach the Gospel of hope and brotherhood?
More to the point, how can we be sowers of peace in these places of human refuge so often marked by despair and blind acceptance and afflicted by an enslaving economic system?
Despite our presence in 35 countries, we have provided a modest but generous response in various places: Nairobi, Mexico City, Lima, San Paolo, San Luis, Naples, Chicago, Johannesburg, Rome and other cities and nations.
We shall be able to continue to respond to these everyday challenges if we are men of courage, able to abandon old commitments in order to be free to take up new initiatives, able to try doing something new and risk failure. Our response will never be satisfactory if we do not encourage each other. No missionary Institute should surrender to and lose itself in pessimism and defeatism. Instead, it must be a source of hope which encourages imagination and creativity.
Another question: are we able to welcome those confreres, often young who burn with the desire to face these new challenges with courage and the spirit of initiative, knowing that before long they may cast doubts on all we have been and done? Perhaps we prefer to be left in peace without taking risks, to live our charism in security... in a domesticated fashion?

The power of credibility

The mission needs to move forward with greater audacity beyond the frontiers of poverty and evangelization. Alongside the vital drive, capable of witness and self-giving to the point of martyrdom, there also lies in wait “the insidiousness of mediocrity in the spiritual life, of the progressive taking on of middleclass values and of a consumer mentality” (Starting afresh from Christ, 12). Where comfort and wellbeing begin, there also begins the decline of an Institute and the failure of the mission.
Consecrated missionary life must be a prophetic and credible sign. That is to say it must continue the search for forms of prophecy and credibility which are not only personal but also institutional. It must return to a lifestyle which is more simple and poor, sober and essential.
There is no mission without poverty, that poverty which becomes solidarity with the last and the forgotten and fights for the defence of the most basic human rights.
It is difficult to find words that ring true in describing poverty. Those men and women involved in the missionary Church who came closest to poverty are sometimes the most critical in this regard. They know that what we say about poverty and the “option for the poor” may well be just rhetoric. They know well how terrible the life of the poor is, often without hope with its daily and crushing violence, monotony and uncertainty.
Poverty is something terrible. It creates suffering, tears and despair. The poverty of the consecrated is authentic only if it serves the good of the poor, if it creates hope in the poor and if it is a meaningful presence for our brothers and sisters who breathe the air of misery, insecurity and despair. One of the fundamental requirements of poverty is certainly that of living in such simplicity as to see the world in a different light. The world, of course, appears very differently when seen from the table of Dives to how it appears from the begging-bowl of Lazarus.

Formed for the mission

“A charism – Paul VI wrote – does not sit well with mediocre people or lived just any way: either it is lived fully or it is betrayed”. Fr Jesuino Mulas also wrote in his diary: “Truly, either one gives everything to Christ or one gives nothing at all”. A charism lived faithfully and with credibility is a grace for everyone, especially the youth in formation. It has been one of our priorities to accompany our candidates in the various stages to prepare them properly for the mission.
Formation means giving form; formation is transformation so that one may be a vital presence among the people of the mission. Comboni made himself very clear: formation means helping the candidate to enter the evangelical mind of the grain of wheat: dying, disappearing, and being consumed to be life for others. Without mincing his words, Comboni ruled that no candidate would be allowed to enter the Institute who did not possess the desire and determination to consecrate himself for life to the mission. Comboni did not seek members who were nothing but dead souls in well-nourished bodies. He wanted holy people who were capable of being “all things to all men” and to live in the most arduous and difficult situations.
It is not easy to find the right system for a suitable formation to the mission. I dream that one day the right answer may be found, the right formula for formation to the mission, in the mission, with the mission.
There is also another virtue which carries weight in forming our candidates: our personal and community witness. More than ever we are called upon to witness to the mission by our evangelical enthusiasm and to render our charism attractive, young and authentic. Both young and elderly avoid all that is routine, boring, old and incapable of saying anything new.

Vocations to nourish

Every Institute, congregation and diocese is worried about vocations, aware that the lake is but small, the fish in it are few the fishermen too many. God sees all this and forges ahead with his plans and methods. God also has an answer: pray for your own vocation as well, and follow me. As far as numbers are concerned, our Institute can get along. Sometimes, because of scarcity in Europe, we do not notice and are not aware that God is changing the Institute, giving it another form. In other words, He is forming it according to His vision. Comboni dreamt of an intercultural Institute, a cenacle rich in diversity and united by the one vocation to the mission. We are now seeing the dream of Comboni coming true, thanks to the vocations coming from all the continents.
We have 1740 members which means we have 1740 Comboni vocations that can and wish to cooperate with Jesus Christ in the missio Dei.
I believe God is always teaching us something of first and evangelical importance: the vocation and the role of the laity. The laity is a vast and powerful force resource which has hardly been touched so far. When we pray for vocations, let us also ask God for the wisdom to become aware of the many lay people who wish to share in the missio Dei through the Comboni charism. And let us always pray for our own vocation. Every day God calls us. Only one answer is possible: Hineni, Here I am. Send me.

Remaining in Him

The best wine is kept till last! Spirituality is a theme close to our hearts as we all realise that there is no mission without contemplation and that there is no vocation without oration. If we do not work with God, our work will always be “merely human”. “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labour”, as the psalmist says. We also know that: “The missionary acknowledges that he can do nothing without Christ who sends him, and that the spreading of the Gospel is linked to prayer. Without it he would lack an irreplaceable inner power and soon his activity would be pervaded by a purely human outlook” (RL, 46.1).
Comboni taught us that the mission begins with Christ. It is the same Christ who takes us into the mission. “Anyone who has discovered Christ – as Benedict XVI reminds us – must lead others to him. A great joy cannot be kept to oneself. It has to be passed on. In vast areas of the world today there is a strange forgetfulness of God. It seems as if everything would be just the same even without him. May your first and supreme desire therefore be to witness to the fact that God should be listened to and loved with all your heart” (World Youth Day, 21 August 2005; To Religious, 10 December 2005).
Evangelization is our most important mission and, as missionaries, we cannot but speak of “that which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4, 20). The missionary, therefore, communicates a lived experience, not just doctrine. Inadequate spirituality wounds the Gospel of the mission.

Trusting in God

All the Institutes go through their Paschal hour, a time when vocations diminish and there is nothing to do but wait. This, however, is not a time of spiritual decadence: it is a time of poverty and poverty is a Paschal virtue.
Even if we are only a few left, we have the duty to be fertile seed, a pinch of yeast capable of slowly and patiently fermenting in the fertile fields of the world, history and the Church. Then, when we have done all we were supposed to do, we thank God and acknowledge ourselves to be his servants. Comboni teaches us that what concerns us most is that we may never “place obstacles in God’s way”.

31 May 2009, Pentecost Sunday

Fr. Teresino Serra mccj
Superior General

Towards the 2009 General Chapter