Reflection on the document "MISSION" of the last General Chapter
by Bob Charlton sscc, member of the US province, community of Edinburg, Texas.
The introduction of General Chapter document on Mission shows a strength which, had it been used as the orientation for the whole document, would have made it hang together better for me and offered greater possibilities. It offers us Damien, Eustachio, and the Martyrs of the 20th Century as icons for our ministry and mission. To tell you the truth, I would have felt more salted with fire if these, together with the Good Father, had been the prisms for the whole document. And I hope you will not object as I now try to integrate the individual elements and sections of the document under that rubric. It a sense, I am about to offer a rewrite but it will include all of the important elements as they appear in the approved document.
The Good Father. Together with Mother Henriette, he founded a missionary congregation whose purpose was the re-evangelization of France, the education of seminarians, establishment of free schools for the poor, the foreign missions and the Adoration. These are the outstanding ministry categories of the primitive period ending with the death of the founders. It is clear from his writings that he had three primary concerns: the good of the work, meaning being useful to the Church; the good of the communal life; and the good of the brothers. He often made references to the Cross as a paradigm for the Congregation and its individual members. It is from his preoccupation with being useful to the Church that our openness to the discerned needs of the Church flows. It is important to remember that, in the shadow of the Cross, the Good Father asserts that the moment one of the brothers becomes concerned about himself he breaks his most essential vow. It is helpful to recall that the primitive community was characterized by an extremely simple and poor fraternity in which the Good Father himself modeled a care and concern for the well-being of each member. His letters express a zeal for the work but a kind and tender solicitude for the brothers and the sisters. It is also important to remember that the communal life was so important to the Founder that the two missionaries sent to work among the native peoples of North America were reassigned when it became clear that they would be unable to live a communal life. As our Icon, the Good Father can serve as the prism for everything that is said in the document under the section entitled "Sent in Community by the Community."
The Chapter document affirms that our life and work is grounded in the communal life. With reference to the Constitutions and previous General Chapters, the Chapter vision that emerges is the centrality of the local community to each member’s personal vocation to the Congregation and the realization of the Congregation’s mission.
The heading gives us an important orientation: The Community sends brothers in mission in the community. Living in a local community is a fundamental part and the primary testimony of our mission. It is a school of humanity, thus it has a reparative dimension enabling us to live the original grace. It shapes our personal identity and flavors, salts the ministry. It is an apostolic team that requires practical objectives among which are daily prayer, daily Eucharist, daily meals, regular meetings, a community PARL and the placing of all goods in common. It is simple and each member works and contributes to the household. The superior, we are told, is at the service of this communion and the guarantor so that each brother participates in the discernment and evaluation of the apostolic work. Communal life resists the individualism, the pro-choice kind of life in which members choose themselves and choose for themselves. Communion in this life is a continual process of learning, self-denial and conversion.
Damien, Eustachio, and the Spanish Martyrs. How can they serve as prisms for the principal points of the document? The documents says some things about them which are true but perhaps not true enough and not well integrated into all the emphases the document wishes to make. Let us tease out from these persons what is really rich in what the document is trying to say.
Damien. The document holds him up as the missionary who left home, family and country and generously gave himself to the service of those abandoned on Molokai, opening possibilities for those who had lost hope and coming to identify himself with his beloved leprous patients even to the point of death. This is good. This is true. But let us not forget a few things lest Damien appear only as a well-motivated social worker. Damien went to the missions to witness to Jesus Christ and, by God's grace, to be an instrument of conversion. He was first and foremost an evangelizer for 9 years before the request to stay in Kalaupapa. We read he was a moralist of a kind, one who tried to give good example. We know that he suffered at the hands of the civil authorities but also at the hands of his brother missionaries. Most of the time, despite repeated requests, he was alone and, when he was not, he was with people who were hardly less difficult as him. His communal life, when he had it, was hardly a school of humanity. But, for those who may think that retirement is something welcome and in view, he is someone who worked to the bitter end. His last photograph is of him already dead. But four months before that, he was working on the roof of Saint Philomena's. As an evangelizer he was also an ecumenist accepting much help from Protestant England. Until he was restricted to the colony, he often visited Honolulu and the Sisters were his depot for supplies. He did bring a certain organization and civility to Kalaupapa; he also brought faith in the God who made all things bearable. He did not wish to live alone. He did not do things for his own aggrandizement. He experienced more of original sin than grace from the community for which he longed. He is an image of hope, freedom and integrity. He is also an image of abandonment, suffering and rejection. He had a personal PARL. He lived under a tree until everyone was housed. Whether a person or an aqueduct, he fixed what was broken. He prayed four hours every day. He lived and did the Adoration.
Eustachio whose bywords were Health and Peace. A missionary sent to Brazil. The only saint I know in whose photograph he smiles. His ministry was that of healing. People experienced healing both in their souls and in their bodies. Healing can, and should, be understood, as a repairing, a reparation, a restoration to original grace. We can view that part of the document addressing the priests of the congregation through the lens that is Eustachio.
The document goes to great lengths to hold in complementary tension that fact that most of us are priests and religious. Recalling that the Chapter theme is salt and flavor, the document attempts to say that being both a priest and religious of the Sacred Hearts should enrich each other. But the great temptation that we face, if we consider the Church to be our dominant culture, is for the religious priest to become more clerical than religious, clerical understood to mean a certain contaminating element that belongs neither to secular nor regular clergy. The document names some of those contaminating elements from which we should seek immunization through the health of our religious life. They are the temptation to the abuse of power and an imitation of the violence in cultures that disrespects life and does not appreciate the fragility of human relationships.
The ordained should see themselves members who can live the missionary vocation of service in an integrated, peaceful, and fruitful way, in service to the sacraments whereby each believer may have a personal encounter with the Risen Lord, and who, as an ordained minister, is at the service of the community and exercises his authority to promote community and strengthen fraternity. In a savage world, the ordained, shaped by the sacraments they celebrate and as members of the simple community through which they are vowed to God, should exercise authority in a way that signifies something different.
As I understand him, Eustachio was a man of simple needs and a straight talker. Once, when asked about his healing ministry and how it is that it happens through him, he is reported to have said that healings would not be so very rare if priests would simply pray the ritual. Simply pray the ritual. Shocking isn't it? Simply pray the ritual. He was, of course, hugely popular and much sought after. There were times when he had to travel at night from one hiding place to another. There were times when he was forced from public view by the community (or so I am told). But his message is a simple and humble one: Health and Peace. Reparation. Restoration. Call it what you will, but the recovery of original grace, life without disease and sin. He lived in community and accepted his assignments, and seems not to have been willful or self-absorbed. He was an agent of reconciliation concerning which so many Congregational documents speak.
The Martyrs in Spain. They are not called the Martyrs of the Spanish Civil war. They are called the Martyrs of the Twentieth Century in Spain. Some people suggest that is so because Spain itself is still recovering from and interpreting for themselves what happened in their country in the 1930s. To call them the Martyrs of the 20th Century in Spain is to say that there is a broader context which has been coming at us for a very long time which we, perhaps, are late to interpret. Were we to bring the full weight of the Enlightenment, Colonialism, the Great Wars, the hundreds of smaller wars and all the collateral damage, and our missionary failure into view, we may be approaching a truth. There is first the question of the loss of Faith in the West in virtue of a structure always aligning itself with power, a structure that baptizes culture and then condemns it, a loss of faith among parishioners, priests and religious dominated by the collapse and violence of the West. Our missionary enterprise failed. In the Americas and in Africa we see it. Our own missionaries formed both Allende and Pinochet. And now we are called to a new Evangelization, a clarion call taken up around the world but it seems to me to be principally targeted at Europe.
Place all of that on the Martyrs of the Twentieth Century in Spain. Young men. Young Priests. Young religious. Hundreds and hundreds of them together with tens of thousands of lay persons. An appalling, heinous, ferocious attack that is perfectly understandable. And witness to the Faith. A belief in Jesus Christ that is good enough and strong enough to witness to death. It makes all our sacrifices in the present pale by comparison. The surrender we must make to the goodness and truth of a communal vocation we resist, and accountability we are tempted to reject, an abuse of power we are tempted to protect and replicate, a hesitation to go where we are sent and to live as we are called because of our self-absorbed contamination by a dominant culture of which we are selectively part and which we may secretly affirm. How in God's name and in the shadow of this Martyrs' cross, can I ever continue to think about what is good for me? The minute I begin to think about myself, I have broken my most essential vow.
This document entitled "Mission" calls me to a new, converted life. With these icons I have named as the Good Father, Father Damien, Father Eustachio, the Martyrs in Spain, I am being called to a new life. One that is no longer self-absorbed, auto-protecting, preoccupied with my present and my future. I am being called to live the life discerned by the Congregation: obedient to the Constitutions, intelligent in the reading of the signs of the times.