Chapter Report - installment 1: INTRODUCTION

Please note that the latest installments are added at the end of the blog. This is done to keep the chapters of the report in their original sequence.

The State of the Congregation
Report from the Superior General to the 2010 General Chapter (Public version)
Installment 1: Introduction

Saint Eugene says about the Oblates: "Their founder is Jesus Christ, the very Son of God; their first fathers are the Apostles." (1818 Rule) As we begin our 35th General Chapter, at a time of great changes, let us gather around Jesus Christ, who in a true sense is our real founder.

May Christ's presence, his word and his Spirit lead us in our discernment. In John 5:30 Jesus declares: "I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me." Let us also judge as we hear, listening together with an open ear to the voice of the Spirit, seeking the will of God. We need a profound conversion, opening up to options other than we might prefer but which are in accordance with the will of the one who sent us. This report on the state of the Congregation is meant to be a stepping stone towards a future vision of our missionary work which is to be worked out by this 35th Chapter and its aftermath. The report does not pretend to offer ready answers but rather seeks to illustrate some of the questions we all may have. In the following, after an introductory reflection on the proposed Chapter theme of conversion, I shall firstly identify the milestones of our recent history, secondly describe some observable trends which may constitute signs of hope but also calls to conversion for our Congregation, and in conclusion, present a few imperatives for the future. An account of the efforts of the General Administration to respond to the expectations of the last Chapter can be found in the annex. This report is the result of a team effort by the Central Government. It is complete only with the report of the Treasurer General, which was also reviewed by the same body and which I endorse.

A mission that requires conversion - Introduction



At the beginning of a Chapter it might be good to recall why we are doing all this missionary work. An elegant lady was accompanying Mother Teresa as she was taking care of the sick. At the sight of a leper being washed, she turned her face in disgust: "I would not do this for a million dollars!" she said. "Nor would I," answered Mother Teresa. We Oblates, like Mother Teresa, do not evangelize the poor for money. We do it because God has given us a mission to fulfill. When we were founded, our first community responded to an urgent local need in France in 1816 but then it soon spread out to the whole world. The world's missionary needs remain as urgent today as at our beginnings, maybe even more so. The first line of the missionary encyclical of John Paul II comes to mind: "The mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, … is still only beginning" (Red. Mis. 1).

Our mission has a special focus, as is the case with other religious institutes. Our focus, "evangelizare pauperibus", is expressed in Constitution five: "We are a missionary Congregation. Our principal service in the Church is to proclaim Christ and his Kingdom to the most abandoned." This reality has never changed.

What is changing, and dramatically so, are the times which means the people with their cultures, to whom our mission is directed; also the composition of our Congregation changes with them. It will soon be 150 years since the death of our Founder. Since 1861 the Congregation for a long time has had its center in the Western World. Today we have become multi-centered - it suffices to have a look at the map of the scattered nuclei of a strong and vibrant Oblate presence. 
A General Chapter has to face the challenge to grasp the missionary needs world-wide and to make the congregation fit for its essential purpose, to fulfill its mission to the poor today. Needs and possibilities vary according to the mission field - secularized countries, environments which understand themselves as Christian, cultures with strong traditional religions, situations of Christian minorities embedded in the midst of the great world religions, the post-communist world, etc. Everywhere the Kingdom of God can be discovered, identified, and fostered through the presence of Christ in His Church.



Our Chapter theme is, surprisingly, not mission but conversion. It reads: "Centered on the person of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves to a profound personal and communal conversion for the sake of our Oblate Mission." Our precapitular process was guided by the motto "Conversion: A new heart - a new spirit - a new mission". It was the 2007 Interchapter meeting in South Africa that identified this theme. The participants realized that, in the congregation, there appears to be an emerging consensus about our identity as missionary Oblates. It has taken years to reclaim this identity, but now most of us agree on a model with the following key elements:
  • We are an expression of the Church's mission to the poor.
  • We live and minister in community.
  • We embrace internationality and inter-culturality.
  • We make our structures more collaborative and flexible.
  • We share financial resources between provinces.
It was felt that we had reached a basic agreement on these principles and even on ways to bring them to fruition, but that they had not yet become full reality. The one missing element was a change of heart. Intellectually and theoretically we may often be clear about concepts and ideals, models and action paths, but the heart is not fully engaged. We realized that our whole life style as missionaries had to change so that we could live together more harmoniously, be more consistent in prayer and reflection, and then cross the borders to witness to Jesus Christ to the poorest and most abandoned in more creative ways. After a more formal agreement on conversion as the provisional Chapter theme, the precapitular commission formulated a prayer, distributed questionnaires and had several articles about conversion and mission written. In the answers to the questionnaires, expressive phrases like "rootedness in Christ", "poverty and quality of Oblate life", "contemplative missionaries", "religious life … good news for us and for the others", etc were coined. In the articles produced we read things like:
  • Gandhi's words are indeed evangelical when he says: "We must become the change we want to see in the world" (Frank Santucci).
  • "Two elements of our life appear to need considerable attention. These are the renewal of the Ministry of the Word and the discovery of a corporate mode of living Evangelical Poverty" (David Power).
  • It's a question of making our Oblate communities houses of God's Word (Jean Hérick Jasmin).
  • "Conversion of life style must be a primary goal" (summary responses to Questionnaire 1).
  • "We must add the dimension of human maturity and integrity as being key to a realistic and effective conversion" (summary answer to Questionnaire 1).
  • Gianni Colombo, recently deceased, quotes our Rule: "The OMI Constitutions state that 'the Chapter is a privileged time of community reflection and conversion. Together, in union with the Church, we discern God's will in the urgent needs of our times …' (C 125)".
Saint Eugene de Mazenod himself spoke about conversion to holiness at his opening speech to the crucial 1850 Chapter:
"We must understand now more than ever the need for being a perfect religious in order to be a good missionary. We must be very convinced that the most effective means to reap great fruits in the hearts of people is the holiness of life and the faithful practice of all the duties of our state."
At the present Chapter, with Saint Eugene, we would like to connect conversion explicitly to today's missionary needs. Conversion starts in our hearts and among ourselves, and once it has started, we will clearly see that the whole world is in need of conversion. One of the examples is the environment. To this, the Canadian Bishops Conference has the following to say:
"Pope John Paul II reminded us that the crisis is not only ecological, but moral and spiritual. A moral crisis must be met with conversion, which is a change in perspective, attitudes and behavior. Essentially, this conversion is aimed at the ruptures we have created with nature, with our neighbor and with God."
We cannot fulfill our mission as if it were by remote control. We must ourselves, personally and as communities, enter the battlefield of the spiritual struggle that is going on. In the Preface to our Constitutions and Rules, St. Eugene puts it this way, and I quote the passage in full length:
"They must work unremittingly to become humble, meek, obedient, lovers of poverty and penance, mortified, free from inordinate attachment to the world or to family, men filled with zeal, ready to sacrifice goods, talents, ease, self, even their life, for the love of Jesus Christ, the service of the Church, and the sanctification of their brethren. And thus, filled with unbounded confidence in God, they are ready to enter the combat, to fight, even unto death, for the greater glory of his most holy and sublime Name. How vast the field that lies before them! How worthy and holy the undertaking!" 


This Chapter

The expectations towards our Chapter are high. After a long preparation it seems that we are now re-awakened for conversion as we face so many changes and challenges. But we also know that in four weeks we cannot expect to find answers to everything. One of the important decisions we could take is to become, in new ways, a "learning congregation" as it was expressed at the 2009 Canada-US joint session with the Central Government. Perhaps at the last Chapter, wanting to be practical, we went too much into details. We can learn from that experience, that less may be more. We should therefore aim at some very few, well-thought general guidelines which are internationally applicable and which then will help to incarnate our missionary religious life within specific cultural contexts. In biblical words, to find the "way" is the first important thing; Jesus presents himself as the way before he says that he is the truth and the life (Jn 14:6). There will be, however, some concrete and practical questions to address:
  • As mandated by the last Chapter, we will again make the effort to adapt our structures to a changing world and a changed Congregation.
  • We will elect a new Superior General and Council.
  • Some specific changes in our Constitutions and Rules may be needed to respond more adequately to our current reality or to harmonize the CCRR.
  • We will pay attention to the situation of our temporal goods.
[to be continued]