Wednesday 5 December 2018
“To live the Chapter as a gift of prayer. To live prayer as the very heart of the Chapter, not merely as a very essential preparation, nor merely as a very essential accompaniment but prayer as the place where our Chapters are born, from where they are generated, where the decisions and orientations of the Chapter are conceived. Prayer as the place where the Chapter finds it courage, hope, strength imagination, creativity. Prayer as the place to which the Chapter will lead our missionary family. Prayer as the destination.” With these words Fr. David Glenday, Comboni, began his reflections at the beginning of the XI General Chapter of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate (PIME). The XI Chapter (4-29 November) ended on the afternoon of the 29th with the Eucharistic celebration of thanksgiving presided by Card. Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples.

In the photo below: The new General Council elected by the XI Chapter: Sr. Antonella Tovaglieri, Superior General, and the four general councillors: Sr. Bridgit Suvakeen, Indian, currently a missionary in Papua New Guinea; Sr. Marilena Boracchi, Italian, former teacher of novices in the Province of Italy and previously a missionary in Guinea Bissau; Sr. Marisa Pereira, Brazilian, currently a missionary in Bangladesh; and Sr. Biji Philip Koonamparayil, Indian, of the Vijayawada Province.

The new General Council of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate elected by the XI Chapter.

(Nemi, 06/09/2018)

First talk

I want to begin by reading a text from the Gospels that you might stay with during the day. The prologue from the gospel of St John (1).  “In the beginning was the Word... The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory… Full of grace and truth… It is God who has made him known”. Indeed, you too are at the prologue of your General Chapter!

At the heart of what I would like to share with you today is an encouragement and it is this encouragement: to live the Chapter as a gift of prayer. To live prayer as the very heart of the Chapter, not merely as a very essential preparation, nor merely as a very essential accompaniment but prayer as the place where our Chapters are born, from where they are generated, where the decisions and orientations of the Chapter are conceived. Prayer as the place where the Chapter finds it courage, hope, strength imagination, creativity. Prayer as the place to which the Chapter will lead our missionary family. Prayer as the destination. Will our missionary family be a more prayerful family as a consequence of our Chapter? Will we as family be more contagious of prayer, more capable of setting people alight?  A question that you might like to take regarding prayer could be: How might this Chapter be a grace of prayer for me? I have been called to the Chapter. In what way does this mean I have been called to prayer? Perhaps, too, in prayer you might review your journey since you knew you were coming to the Chapter: What difference has the Chapter made, enriched, challenged your prayer life? As a little possible help in considering the gift of prayer that is given to us during a Chapter, I’d like to briefly and very simply ask and answer with you three questions: the how, the what and the where of the gift of prayer in the Chapter.

The how: How might I pray when I pray the Chapter? As a start, I recommend Phil 2:13 where Paul says very simply, God is at work in you!  Our prayer, in the first place, is God at work in us.  The invitation, the initiative, the call, the attraction, the persistence is His.  At this time, in your life, and in the Chapter how are you recognising God at work in you?  God the gardener, God the builder, God the potter, God the architect.  I think this conviction, this faith that God is at work in me may generate some beautiful things in our prayer:  Firstly,  peace, serenity.  In the first place, prayer is His (God’s) work.  Prayer is what God is doing.  Also in the Chapter, God is at work!  So, to begin the Chapter with this conviction, truth, experience that says “trust, be at peace…. since  the Lord is involved.  The Lord loves your missionary family, appreciates your family, is keeping your family alive.  Trust His action.  God is at work in you ‘giving the will and the action’.  A second fruit of God being at work in us is that of attentiveness.  Attentiveness is a condition, a way of being.  To be attentive, to pay attention.  We should ask ourselves: Lord, what are you doing? Attentiveness often needs some silence, external and internal.  A third attitude, which may be generated by the work of God in us, is Mission.  Mission is born of prayer. ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing!’ God is at work in us.   When we are attentive to Him, we will find that we are involved in work too.  The God we meet in prayer is a working God.  It will be natural if our prayer disposes us, convinces us to work with and to see mission as a fabulous privilege.  God, the Creator of the universe asks me to be his co-worker!!  We can never be too surprised by this.  So the how to pray the Chapter involves a deep peace, attentiveness and an availability for mission.

The what.  We have the whole day to find the answer to these questions.  Here is mine.  We pray in the Chapter that the Gospel may happen here.  There is a phrase in Spe Salvi (2) which states:  The Gospel is not only informative but performative…  that means the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known, it is one that makes things happen and is life changing.  The Gospel makes things happen and is life changing.  To want to pray the Chapter means we want to hear the Gospel here and now in such a way that something happens – thanks to the Gospel - and our lives are changed.  In other words, the Chapter can be a Gospel event.  We pray that the Gospel happens here and now.  I want to mention three verbs:  1.  Let the Chapter celebrate the Gospel!  Savour the lives of our sisters. We are called to live the phase of the reports with grateful hearts. Celebrate the beauty of your Charism. Contemplate the fruits of the Spirit in yourselves. Let there be much gratitude in your prayer, maybe an unexpected gratitude.  The Spirit can lead us to remember even things that we have forgotten or have wanted to forget.  A good Chapter, like all good decisions, will be born of gratitude.  Let us mention Ignatius Loyola at least once: good decisions are born of consolation, of an awareness that there is something very real to celebrate.  Celebrate and Listen.  What is the Spirit speaking to the Congregation? The first privilege that a Chapter has is to proclaim the Gospel to the Congregation. It is almost inevitable that listening during the Chapter will have its painful moments.  However, it is the pain of growth.  Even our ears and hearts may suffer some growing pain.  The Holy Spirit generally is not inclined to shout.  The Holy Spirit seems to prefer to speak quietly.  So listening is important.  Thirdly, witnessing: we are called to become, to be transformed.  Quoting Pope Francis, ‘I am a Mission’ in this world (EG 273). It is what we are that matters. Let the Gospel happens. What Gospel does the Lord wish me to be?  Here it is appropriate to sound the note of hope for the grace of God: the past history is never a prison, is never a chain, never an absolute conditioning.  It might be good to remember Jeremiah (29:11): ‘I know the plans I have for you …. Plans of goodness and prosperity.  I will give you a future and a hope’. These are words written when the people were in exile.  If we pray the Chapter, how will we pray, what will we pray and where might we find ourselves praying?  At this point, I recommend that you pray John 1.  John 1 is saying that if you want this grace, look for it here, expect it here.  What is this here?  Let me mention two ‘here’:  i) the flesh (1:14) ‘The Word became flesh’. What a blessing it is to be weak!  French Jesuit, Michel de Certeau spoke about how ‘temptations are a privilege of the chosen people’. The kind of prayer that we are talking about here is the kind of prayer that says we are weak.  Maybe weakness is the place where the Lord is waiting for us.  Do not get irritated when you discover your limits. This morning, we read the Gospel of the Samaritan woman.  St Augustine, on preaching this passage asked the question, ‘Why did Jesus wait for the woman by a well?‘ He waited for her by a well because a well is a big black hole.  When we fall into the biggest black hole, He will be there. Jesus was tired…

Another meeting place that John emphasises in the prologue is “all”.  Check how many times the word ‘all’ is cited in the prologue.  What will be the “all” of our Chapters?  Here I am talking about opening our hearts.  We are talking about a global vision. How this ‘all’ will be present in our missionary options? How to allow the missionary situations to speak to us? How to allow our Charism Ad Gentes to grow?   Flesh, all and grace.  Grace and growth.  ‘Of his fullness we have all received grace upon grace’. Maybe praying the Chapter will mean recognising key points of growth in grace, that the Chapters will want to share with the sisters.  Maybe it will mean taking to heart the growth of each sister, believing in the possibility of that growth.  The charism is grace.  If it is grace, it grows. The Chapter is to allow the Charism to grow, to develop. It is also important to believe that the Chapter will be a personal growth for me too!   

Let me conclude with the last few lines of EG 11:  “As Saint Ireneaus writes, by his coming Christ brought with him all newness.  With this newness, he is always able to renew our lives and our communities.  Even if the Christian message has known period of darkness and weakness, it will never grow old.  Jesus is always able to break through the dull categories that we use to imprison him…. When we make an effort to return to the source, new avenues arrive… 

Second talk

I hope that the morning time has allowed you somehow to be led into the prayer that the Lord had in store for you. I hope that what I share now will accompany what has been said.  This day of silence is a well from which we will need to draw. This is a precious time for our Chapter.  I want to begin by reading the Gospel I proposed for your reflection and prayer, John 4:43-54. 

This morning we said that the Chapter is a grace of prayer.  Pray the Chapter.  We tried to suggest what that might mean. How:  God is at work in you, pay attention; what:  let the Gospel happen, let the Chapter be a Gospel that happens.  This is the only real reason to spend all this time here!  In us, for us, through us.  Where:  flesh (fragility, poverty, littleness, inadequacy) and all (hearts open to all, with all that means). 

We can see in this Gospel, the grace of an encounter. We can also speak in this way of a General Chapter! In the first place, an encounter with the Lord: We know that we can find the Lord here e we also wish to encounter him on behalf of our Sisters.

Maybe we can enter into conversation with the Royal Official (John 4:43ff) and ask him: Dear Royal Official, what did it mean for you to meet Jesus?  What happened in your life?    Maybe the first thing that he might share with us is ‘when I met Jesus, I met a man on the move’.  I suggest you reread the gospel and notice how many verbs of movement there are there.  Judea, Samaria, Galilee, A man on the move. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is a missionary. An authentic encounter with Jesus is an encounter with a missionary.   In our prayer, we can ask ourselves:  in my life what has it meant to meet Jesus, the man on the move, the man on the journey?  It is very obvious that Jesus the man on the move is carrying a highly infectious virus, that once we begin to interact with this man on the move we find that we are also on the move as we could see in the account of the Samaritan woman, the Samaritans themselves, the disciples themselves, though a little late.  All of us here have been thus ‘infected’, otherwise we would not be here. How much the MSI are able to infect others of faith? It is about generating missionary witness.  We are a varied group, and we are the icon of what it happens to meet the man Jesus, the man on the move.  We could pray this with a sense of gratitude, but also saying perhaps a little fearfully, ‘Jesus, how do you want us to move?’  That you want us to move is not to be discussed.  That’s for sure!  It is seldom that we will find a passage where Jesus tells people to just stay where they are.  There is a beautiful version in this text, verse 50b:  ‘the man believed in the word Jesus had said to him and went on his journey’.  Wouldn’t it be great if our Chapters were able to say: ‘This is the Word that we have heard, we have believed in and this is the journey upon which the Word has set us’.  It would be also wonderful if each of us could say this.  This is the Word that I have trusted and this is the journey upon which it has set me. 

If we continue in conversation with the Official, and we say, ‘So, you set out on this journey.  Why? “The gospel tells us that it was because he let the flesh be a word to him.  In the flesh of Jesus he heard a word that allowed him to trust.  It seems to me that this will be a very important part of the Chapter journey.  In the flesh, in reality, in events, in history, in the poor, in the peoples we work with to perceive a word, which sets us on a journey.  What is the word that Jesus is speaking to me?  This is awfully important because it is the source of energy.    Let Life give me life, let me live in such a way that it gives me life.  We are not living on the moon, nor in heaven, but you know what I mean.  That is what the Official did.  Another beautiful thing about his experience, which scholars point out to us is this:  When John refers to this man, on each occasion it is with a more human title.  You can check this later.  The first time he is called a Royal Official.  He has a role.  The second time he is referred to as the man (the human being).  The third time, he is referred to as the fatherBasilcus, anthropos, pater.  His journey makes him more human and it is interesting looking at some of the preparatory material of various Chapters that there is a hunger for this among religious.  We are religious in order to become human.  It is not the other way around.  In Ratzinger’s book, ‘Introduction to Christianity’, there comes a point when he says, “well now we’ve explained all this about Christianity, if somebody was to ask what was the point of being a Christian?  He would say it is to become human.

So maybe our Chapters can listen for this thirst, for this desire for humanity, that our way of living may lead us with all our limitations to be more human.  This is a very brief way of speaking about something that could be spoken about in more depth.  I am inviting you to see the man’s journey, even before he got the news.  It is a very human story. 

Two more things to mention.  The fact that faith is contagious.  The man reaches home and the whole household believes.

Finally, in John ‘faith’ is mentioned 98/99 times but never using a substantive.  You always hear it in verb form, i.e. believe.  Believe in movement), believe that (trust), believe with a full stop.  Unconditional belief.  Let me conclude with a little of my personal story (and then with a paragraph from EG.

The story is about my dad.  You heard I was born in India, thanks be to God.  My mum and dad met on a ship.  Dad was Scottish (Presbyterian) and mum was Irish (110% Catholic).  Dad was very understanding.  They married in Bombay Cathedral.  When dad retired from the sea (merchant navy) he used to go to mass every Sunday with mum.  So we were hoping that one day he might become a catholic.  Then the day of my ordination to the diaconate, I gave my parents a bible but I thought it would be an ornament in the house.  On the contrary, every time I went home I found the bible next to my Father’s armchair. This was five years before his decision to be received in the Catholic Church.  The word sends us on a journey.  Having come to the conclusion that dad would never enter the Church and that that was okay, one month before I left for Uganda (my first mission) I concelebrated in the mass during which my dad aged 71 received conditional baptism, confession, first communion and confirmation.  Think of your own stories, of how you have been and are the Royal Official.  Of all the Royal Officials, whom you know,

I would like to finish now with the famous EG 49, which is all about journey:

“Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church, which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church, which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friend- ship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37)”.

Let us ask that this Chapter may be the place in which the Word sets us on a journey. This man, this Chapter believed in the Word and set on a journey.