Chapter Report - installment 3: II. CALLS 1 - 3

The State of the Congregation
Report from the
Superior General to the 2010 General Chapter (Public version)
Installment 3: II. CALLS 1 - 3

II. Specific developments and calls to conversion

After this brief look at our recent history, I will now point out the developments and the trends I observe and the calls I hear as I reflect on the last 12, and even 18 years. Yes, I have spent 18 years at the administrative center of the Congregation! Such observations cannot always claim objectivity but may serve as a point of departure for our Chapter discussions.
I see in the eight points I have identified eight calls for conversion. In Mk 1:15, conversion means to change, responding to a favorable moment, a "kairós". While the call for conversion according to the Greek expression "metanoéite" translates into "change your minds", not just any change is requested but a change towards a life in better accordance with the Gospel: "Believe in the Good News!" the gospel of Mark continues. Therefore we must be ready to react to the developments we observe around us while remaining faithful to our original purpose.With this in mind I invite you to go through the following eight aspects of Oblate life where new developments and trends can be observed and related calls can be heard: the Oblate charism, the Congregation's membership, its mission, inter-culturality, community, formation, structures and finances.

At the end of my report, I will come back to the calls perceived, formulating four imperatives.

1. As we increasingly recognize the gift of our Oblate charism, we are called to strengthen our vocation ministry.

Fifteen years after the canonization of St. Eugene, the core of his spirituality and missionary choices are better known to us than before:

  • his zeal as an evangelizer to "enkindle the flame of faith" and to spread it out, and
  • the important place he gave to community;
  • his centeredness in Christ through the study of Scripture and the Eucharist;
  • his active love for the Church;
  • his heroic love of the poor.
We are proud of our Saint and, especially since his canonization, many churches and chapels have been named after him. Also the names of other important Oblate missionaries have been honored in similar ways. It is no exaggeration to say that there is enthusiasm about our charism which has grown over the last decade.
Many ongoing activities show the healthy esteem of what we are as Oblates and the spread of our charism:
  • Our De Mazenod Center in Aix has been active since 1991 and congregation-wide animation and research has been pursued with energy, as mentioned above.
  • This awareness of our charism has led to a better appreciation of the vocation of the Brothers who are connected by a congregation-wide committee since 1998.
  • The enthusiasm of lay people for the Oblate charism has increased. Associates are now present in more places than ever before and we recognize more and more that the charism encompasses laity.
  • There is the phenomenon of new Oblate youth movements in about ten provinces.
  • We keep in touch with many institutes that are related with Saint Eugene while even new ones are founded. In 2004, 15 superiors general of such institutes met in Aix.
While the awareness of our charism has clearly grown, the repercussion on vocations for Oblate religious life and priesthood has been uneven. All in all, the number of our formandi has slowly been growing - from an average of 612 for the last five years of the past century to an average of 711 for the five years before this Chapter. However, according to the surrounding culture, the number of vocations varies greatly. Here are some graphics to illustrate the reality of vocations to vowed Oblate life.

As can be observed, we have difficulties of recruiting in secularized environments, and that happens even in places where an active mission with youth is pursued. Here I perceive a call to us Oblates. Certainly the expression of faith life in families, the size of families and the public image of the Church play an important role when it comes to religious vocations but I still believe we can do better. Certain Oblates have a charism to call young people to Oblate life either as Brothers or priests - do we entrust them with vocation ministry, encourage them and give them the team support they need?

An even more important question to pose is: do we believe enough in our vocation and its importance, to truly invite others and to do so in spite of the prevailing culture? As we are proud of Saint Eugene, are we also proud of our life in vows and / or of our priesthood?
As we promote the vocation of lay associates we should ask them as well to decidedly encourage vocations to vowed life. Being concerned about vocations is an expression of our concern for mission: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Lk 10:2).
Finally, we must not forget that just being proud to be an Oblate does not suffice - our pride should be in our conversion to Christ. Religious congregations today realize more and more that the basic constitutions and rules are the gospels. Christ alone deserves the center place and our charism only helps us to focus as we explore more deeply the infinite riches of Christ.

2. As demographic changes occur in the Church and among the Oblates, we are called to respond with prudent foresight.

The demographic change taking place in our Congregation is related to a similar movement in a world where 45% of the population under thirty is concentrated in the South, and we find a Church whose population center is moving towards the south and east. While these changes were identified years ago they are now truly hitting home.
How should we react to this trend?
The first important thing to do is to recognize the facts as the saying goes: "reality is always friendly" or: respect the "truth principle", as it would be expressed in French - even if the reality does not look so friendly and the truth might be painful. In one part of the world our demographic change means decline; the Oblates of the North American Region make a clear statement: "we, the Oblates, are in a period of decline (at least in North America)". In other parts of the world the Congregation is growing; new local communities have recently been founded in provinces and delegations like Congo, Natal, Brazil, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, etc.
The second thing is that we must always keep in mind the global picture and do so in a spirit of solidarity. St. Paul's image of the body comes to mind: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free" (1 Co 11:13). We have to learn to take care of each other, considering that growth and decline are not entirely dependent on our own merits or lack thereof, and that the Spirit breathes where he wills.
As a whole, on the level of sheer numbers, the Congregation is faring quite well; we were 4,138 Oblates at the beginning of this year. But it is true that our numbers over the last 15 years have been decreasing at an average of 1.2% per year. This is due to the fact that we were very strong in countries which are now strongly secularized: Canada, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany, USA etc. In these countries we find now a total population of more than 1000 Oblates older than seventy. On the other hand, there are also many young Units with important numbers like Poland, Colombo, Congo, Lesotho, Cameroon, Haiti, Philippines, Jaffna, India, Natal, Zambia, Mexico and Brazil - to a total of 1,600 Oblates with an average age under 45.
Our third reaction must be that we keep our balance of mind, avoiding becoming desperate or too euphoric. In times of demographic change we need to take care for our elders, and that is being done in an admirable way. We must meet the challenge of providing the young with a solid formation. We must also foresee that young Oblates will become old and make provisions accordingly. And, as mentioned above, we should never give up inviting those who feel called to our way of life, even if, in a given situation, numbers may become small.
What are the foreseeable consequences of the demographic change, and how can we respond with prudent foresight? What are we called to do?

As one of the consequences, younger generations and leaders from the younger Units will be more and more asked to take responsibility; therefore they must be trained so that they are prepared.
Another consequence of the demographic shift is a radical financial change. But let us keep a cool head in that field as well; through hard work, good administration, solidarity and the providence of God we will survive and have a possibility to thrive, but not under the motto: save yourself individually if you can. The financial part of this report speaks about this in more detail.

A third consequence is the need to live more and more in inter-cultural communities, something we still have to learn but which may prove very helpful for our direct missionary work itself.
One thing is sure, this trend challenges us in many ways. We must do a lot of reflection and exercise patience. For a time we will live in an unbalanced situation until the growing Units will have achieved enough strength. Zambia cannot yet do what our mother province France did in the past but hopefully that time will come. We live in an era which requires of us an ongoing conversion. We must be ready to change anything that is needed but be constantly aware of the fact that we are together one body in Christ.
To conclude, let me bring to your attention four graphs to illustrate the demographic shift. In graph 1) we can observe the dramatic changes in the Regions over the past 12 years; in graph 3), just below it, we might find it encouraging to know that since 2003 there are more Oblates in the growing sectors of the Congregation than in the declining sectors. We can clearly identify the strong younger Units on the bottom of graph 2). Future projections over a longer period are not easy to make but it is straightforward to see which Regions will be numerically strongest in 15 years or so (graph 4). About that time, around 2025, it may happen that our total numbers will be growing again (graph 3, upper line).

3. As our missionary practice needs further adjustment we are called to continue along the lines of the Immense Hope process

The flagship of our missionary animation has been the Immense Hope project which started in 1999. It has been by this means that the Units of the Congregation made efforts to address changes in mission over more than 10 years! The IH project analyzes the relations between charism, mission, personnel and temporal goods. Can it be said that IH set a new trend and created a culture of constant critical review of our missionary practices? That had been envisaged at the 1998 Chapter when we said:

To evangelize requires a constant reevaluation of our missionary practices. Hence our plea is this: at every level - personal, community, and congregation - let us take the time needed to evaluate and discern as to whether our evangelization is in step with the reality of today's world and with God's specific call to us through our charism. (EPM 19)

The IH process induces us not only to look at the needs of the world, it also calls us to give new expression to our attachment to the Church. The IH project was born of the missionary vision of the 1998 Chapter: "It is the Church who evangelizes, and sends us forth on mission" (EPM 12). As Saint Eugene passionately loved Christ the Savior, so he loved the Church; we all know how the Preface to our Rules starts off: "The Church, that glorious inheritance purchased by Christ the Saviour at the cost of his own blood …". St. Eugene loved the Church despite its failings. We are called to do no less.

As a result of "Immense Hope" and of the new culture of missionary renewal, what are the recent trends in our missionary work? Which calls do we hear and how do we want to respond?

At the level of provinces we have positively recognized the fact that much of our mission passes through parishes. In Latin America, there was a Regional Oblate meeting on JPIC in parish ministry (Peru 2009) and the European Region reflected on how to make parishes truly missionary. Parishes are recognized as a de facto key issue for our Oblate mission, and creative endeavors are called for.
At the same time more provinces face the situation that bishops are less likely to request parish work of the Oblates given that the local clergy is present in sufficient numbers. This fact, combined with an increasing awareness of our founding tradition, pushes us to strengthen other kinds of ministry if they are apt paths of evangelization (R 7b). Many options are available. If we hear the call we must make our choices in the spirit of CC. 1 to 10:

  • Mission preaching (there are new initiatives in a handful of our Units)
  • Specialized mission with youth (as mentioned, more than 10 Units have made a clear option for this)
  • Interreligious Dialogue
  • Media Ministry
  • Work with indigenous people
  • Pastoral of migrants
  • Mission within a secularized society (several Units have been launching new initiatives, explicitly and also without labeling it as such)

  • JPIC work (some younger Oblates are getting interested)

At the Congregation wide level, the following trends can be noted which again result in calls directed to us:

  • Over the last 12 years, our emphasis was on strengthening the existing Units.
Some of our Units have been gaining new strength by receiving personnel from the outside, even for leadership positions. There have been positive results in places like Pakistan, Korea, Japan, China, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Paraguay, Venezuela, and others.
In the background of these trends, a new concept of mission slowly comes into being, which challenges us in new ways. While we still announce Jesus Christ and His Father's Kingdom, trying to perceive where the wind of the Spirit blows, still building a Church at the service of God's salvific plan, we are distancing ourselves from the concept of a mission that transplants the civilization of the countries we come from. Almost everywhere we go, the local Churches are already established and we become their partners, under the coordination of their bishops, contributing our missionary spirit to make them more lively. Also in the frontiers of the mission ad gentes things have changed. While we recognize with gratitude that the treasure of faith has effectively been shared with many people, we have become aware of our errors in the past and present limitations. In the area of our work with indigenous people, we now are ready "to humbly recognize the cultural, spiritual, physical and psychological damages; the 'ethnic-centralism' of the missionaries who denied the cultural diversity" and, with the Latin American Bishops Conference CELAM, to "see the indigenous as brothers and children of the same Father, God". Also in other areas we are defining mission in new ways, for instance emphasizing the "dialogue of life" in Interreligious Dialogue or through the apostolate of listening, in "listening centers", in the secularized environments.

  • Our new foundations are mostly a response to the opening-up of former communist countries after 1989
There are really only a few foundations since 1998: Romania, Belarus, Guinea-Bissau. The trend has been to move into the former (or still) communist countries (we are now present in about half a dozen of them. How can we give sufficient support to these new foundations?

  • We must consider closing a few more places
All in all, we remain over-extended and too dispersed. We will have to consider consolidating resources further by closing more missions in the future . As of today, we continue on an ad personam basis or have already withdrawn from, Tahiti, New Zealand, Qua Qua (South Africa), Puerto Rico and Surinam. More radical decisions are required to gather some of our scattered men or to free up resources for new missions. Over-extension and dispersal are not only observed at the congregational level, they often are also a reality within the provinces.

  • An explicit mission strategy for the whole Congregation?
As to our concrete mission strategy, perhaps the time has come to do a formal strategic planning for the whole Congregation (not just for the Central Government). Some parts of the Congregation are asking for this and also several of the General Council members see this as an important goal for the future. Such an Immense Hope process should start from an analysis of the missionary needs of the world as the Church and we Oblates see them, taking inspiration for instance from our mission symposia on secularity, migrants, interreligious dialogue, etc. We would then have to identify priorities for the whole Congregation and match our projections with the available resources. If we want to begin new missions or significantly strengthen some of the existing ones, we will have to reduce our presence somewhere else where it is less needed. This will require a great spirit of availability on the part of all and will require that the Superior General moves some personnel to new places. The benefit lies in that such global plans can open up new perspectives for the whole body of the Congregation!

[to be continued]