Chapter Report - installment 4: CALLS 4 - 5

The State of the Congregation
Report from the Superior General to the 2010 General Chapter (Public version)
Installment 3: II. CALLS 4 - 5

4. As the practices of border crossing and inter-culturality are increasingly needed in today's mission, we are called to take bolder steps.

The last Chapter highlighted the concept of "internationality" when it stated:

" … if [the recommendations that follow this letter] were to be seen as colored by a common motif it would be that of internationality. … There is a growing desire to utilize more the strength of being a world-body in 67 countries. We recognize that if we share our resources more fully with each other this will work to the benefit of the poor and may be the well being of the whole Congregation. Our future strength lies not just in increasing our numbers, but especially in increasing our solidarity. Every part of the Congregation is rich in some way." (WH, 2004 Chapter letter)

Three years later, the idea of internationality had a general acceptance at the 2007 Interchapter. However, there was a conceptual evolution: first through the metaphor of border crossing which was already present at the last Chapter, and then through a recent reflection which suggested that it would be more appropriate to speak not just of internationality but of "inter-culturality".
It would be superficial to see in these developments just a fashion that has recently come up. Our last Chapter connected this reality with the core of our faith when it reminded us of Abraham and Sarah, of the "unpredictability of God's plan" and the self-emptying of Jesus. It is from these depths that the call to ongoing conversion in this area surfaces, to "set aside our own cherished strategies, languages, politics, and personal agendas, and like pilgrims, leave behind all unnecessary baggage that can slow us down." (Witnessing to Hope, p. 12)

While the ideas of border-crossing and inter-culturality are being accepted among us, the concrete movement of border-crossing is showing new characteristics and has been gaining some momentum.

As to new characteristics, the traditional scheme of moving from north to south has been complemented by moves from south to south and south to north. New sending provinces have appeared on the scene.

As to momentum, we can observe an increase in recent years but I am giving here only the overall figures. Out of 522 first obediences given between 1999 to 2010, 63 were issued to a Unit different from the Unit of origin, which corresponds to 12%. This seems to be quite modest, but in the same period there were 130 changes of obedience for a new mission abroad, which doubles the figure of first obediences to another Unit. It has become frequent practice that immediately after first formation the Oblates stay in their home environment for a number of years, and if they are sent out it is at this later stage. This practice seems to have produced good results. The following pie chart shows graphically that among all the obediences I have given about a quarter (24%) were to foreign mission.

Often border crossing is limited to some specific situations: within a Region, some provinces send out people and others do not, one Province receives more people than another, etc. It can be observed that the practical moves depend on clear and insistent invitations from the receiving provinces and a frank generosity on the part of the sending Units to give away some of their best Oblates. These are things that cannot be forced by a higher authority unless we proceed by blind obedience.

What is behind this congregation-wide emphasis of border-crossing, of interculturality? Different forces are at play. As to the pull factor, there are the dramatic needs of personnel in some of our missions which are crying for help. There are missionary needs Oblates feel as urgent: abandoned rural or urban areas, places where Islam or Christian fundamentalists are advancing fast, opportunities like those in China, migration, the need for interreligious dialogue, the silent withdrawal in secularized areas, etc. As to the push factor, there is the genuine wish of younger or not so young Oblates to become missionaries in another cultural environment. It must also be considered that some of our Units have so many vocations that there is an overflow. In the case of moves from south to north, the opportunity of finding support for our Oblate life and mission also plays a role. Some are explicitly sent by their mother provinces to earn some income for the Oblates back home, especially to maintain the formation houses. Occasionally, we also find unmonitored private agendas that motivate Oblates to go abroad: the desire to help their family, or the attraction of specific ministries and life styles.

All in all, it should not be overlooked that there is the sincere desire in a good number of missionaries from the south to address missionary challenges like secularity and the invasion of Islam in the so-called Christian territory in the north. Such missionaries sometimes feel that their good intention is badly interpreted by Oblates or lay people in the north, who meet their good will with suspicion and prejudices. They would like to have more freedom to invent new ways of mission, as in the past the missionaries from the north have done in the south. The Oblates in the North must receive them with good will; they should not be induced to feel like beggars asking for a favor.

How should invitations to Oblates from the South to come to the North be handled. What type of mission invitations should be issued? How many people would be needed? Which communities are ready to welcome them? The reflection on these questions must continue. Certainly, in the North the local churches have to ask themselves: How many of the clergy, in a given country, should be local, how much could be from abroad? The aim cannot be to fill gaps or to find easy solutions for the lack of local vocations; on the contrary, in the secularized world we must work even harder for local vocations which are necessary for the inculturation of the gospel. A rule of thumb might be that the church and her ministers should be inter-cultural in the same measure as the society is intercultural. In addition, there is also a place for special, prophetic signs.

We must speak about all this, and overcome the existing obstacles in this important area. Encouragement and generosity are needed.

Let me mention three practical questions in this area.

(a) Some of our brother Oblates move to other countries through informal ways, for instance, staying on after higher studies. Could we prevent this from happening? If we do all what is possible so that each Oblate who goes abroad lives in a community of the receiving Unit, it might help. Often the issue simply goes to choosing well who studies and in which way, so as to support the mission of the Province. Yes, indeed, the corporate mission of the Unit should be the primary reason for advanced studies.

(b) We sometimes observe a trend to create an environment based on one's culture of origin to the point that it is not open to others. This happens in two ways, through missionaries that go abroad who are not receptive of the local culture; and through local vocations which are all from the same culture. In a missionary congregation like ours, a conscious effort is needed to overcome tendencies to create mono-cultural environments.

(c) As border-crossing increases, the phenomenon of interprovincial agreements in the assignment of personnel can be observed. It establishes a link similar to twinning for an effective exchange of gifts. We should, however, insist that the center of the congregation is always consulted and informed so that the necessary coordination can be assured and necessary permissions are granted. In 2007, a policy about these moves was published in the Congregation. Based on my experience, I even recommend that explicit approval by the Superior General be asked for.

How far will the trend to internationality - interculturality go? Where is the Spirit calling us? The tradition of our Congregation is different from purely missionary institutes where everybody by principle has to leave his own country. I believe we should not change our own tradition in this regard; nobody must be forced to leave his Unit if he is not motivated to do so. But on the other hand, not everything should be left to the initiative and missionary zeal of individual Oblates; there is a need of corporate choices for mission abroad. The Immense Hope process can help to spell these out, and provinces who have stated in writing that they are ready to send people abroad, or to receive Oblates from other parts of the world, have had positive results.

To make more of this happen, we must make more effort to develop the culture of border crossing through initial formation. Important steps have been done in this sense in certain Regions through the consolidation of formation houses and regional formation efforts. We will come back to this when we will discuss formation.

5. Community and religious life are being valued more highly but we are still called to provide a more serious animation.

In the area of community life, there has been a clear development over the last 18 years, in the sense that living in a community is now recognized as an essential part of the Oblate charism and not just as an incidental addition. This comes with a clearer recognition of ourselves as religious. Also, in practice, the Congregation is slowly moving towards a better community life after times when the tendency seemed to be dispersion. We had given up common life in certain places, often due to the fact that we have been the founders of the church in those places and were, for a time, playing the role of the diocesan clergy. The return is not yet complete, and therefore "conversion to community" was one of the three topics of the 2009 Chapter preparation material.

It is good for us to recognize that the need for conversion in this field has its motivation from the depths of our faith. Vita Consecrata states that community is "a form of witness to the Trinity" (VC 41). Then, communities express in a special way what the Church itself is meant to be and are at the same living cells of the Church: "we become a living cell in the Church." (C. 12) The 1992 Chapter went very far when it affirmed: "To seek to achieve quality in our community life … : that is the first task of our evangelizing activity." (WAC 7)

In which way are we called to conversion in this field?

An obvious challenge lies in the change of structures. The statistics show that we have indeed some way to go when they tell us that, according to the data available, in 2010 18% of all Oblates after first formation are living alone; this is deduced from the fact that 634 of our confreres live with no other Oblate at the same address. The percentage varies according to the Units between 0% for 15 smaller Units on the lower end of the scale in which none of the 120 Oblates lives alone and an average of 37% for the 17 Units on the upper end of the scale where 499 out of 1338 Oblates live alone. There are also differences according to Regions. In Eastern Europe the percentage of Oblates living alone is half of the percentage in other sectors of the Congregation.

The Oblate Congregation cannot be just a chance aggregate of individuals and therefore should strive to make even more progress in terms of apostolic community life and of understanding mission as flowing from community. As can be seen, there are structures that foster dispersion and these must be changed. Considering that, according to our Constitutions, at least three Oblates should constitute a community , some Units have taken bold steps to reorganize themselves into communities of and above the minimum of three. In many situations, however, we find only two members in a community, or the missionaries live alone coming together between once a week and three times a year. Districts, areas and other groupings play an important role of animation in these cases, but in the long run they cannot replace actual common life.

Besides the structures, a second challenge is that in many places, we are still seeking a valid model of local community living. We know the monastic model. It is tried and tested. But what serves best life and mission for active religious? The following questions still need a full response:

  • How to dwell together harmoniously, living as religious and working as active missionaries and finding the right balances between common life and work?
  • How to organize a common rhythm of life of prayer, recreation and planning of work, taking into account the fact that we also belong to many other groups?
  • How to handle decisions, finances and situations of crisis on the local level?

Communities, not unlike families, are strongly influenced by the surrounding culture. Do we have the strength to be countercultural if needed? On the other hand, the environment can also provide a good encouragement and enrichment for common life as has been the case with the Oblate lay associates.

A third challenge has to do with leadership. Often it is suggested that local superiors need proper training; we have in mind the profile of a superior who would be able to animate, organize and lead without becoming a controller who takes away the freedom corresponding to adult living. We generally provide for trained superiors for the time of initial formation, where communities are relatively large, but for the communities of ministry, more needs to be done.

Finally, it would be helpful if as Oblates we could define more clearly what constitutes a community for us.

Since the 1960's, we have experimented with different models. In our present Rule, district communities are considered local communities. They do provide for community experience; for instance in the Canadian north, missionaries living in thinly populated areas can receive support and experience a sense of belonging only through their districts, but I ask myself whether districts were ever meant to replace life under one roof, at least, to the extent that it has become a practice. In fact, the discussion about the role of districts communities has never stopped. Is the term itself not ambiguous, often hiding the fact that Oblates are living alone?

My question is whether it would not be better to change our terminology. Should we not call living alone as what it is and reserve the expression "local community" to a group of Oblates which effectively shares a common household? We would still take full care for those living alone: they, too, must be attached to a local community, and animation structures will be needed, - structures like districts or areas, or sectors. Not only individual Oblates but also small local communities can greatly benefit from animation structures (districts, areas, etc.) with an appropriate leadership at that level, a coordinator or animator for instance. Should the Chapter take it upon itself to change our present definition of "local community"?

We should perhaps have spoken about religious life according to the vows before discussing community - but which comes first? Celibacy and community are seen by some as the only common elements constitutive of all religious life. Our communities are characterized by the vows, and our vows make us into communities. Both together are our particular way of living as followers of Christ. In any case, a report on the state of the Congregation must not only analyze our community structures but also address our faithfulness to evangelical living according to our vows. Also here, conversion is needed! I have dedicated three of my circular letters to this subject, trying to highlight the importance of vowed living.

How are we faring? I believe the quality of our vowed life can be measured indirectly by looking at some important parameters.

One is our centeredness in Christ. Here we should ask ourselves: How important is the common meditation of the Word of God to us, for instance through lectio divina? Is oraison a regular praxis? The future does not lie in our becoming just efficient organizations devoured by activism; our apostolic communities need to be deeply rooted in the Pascal mystery and this has also to show in our timetable!

Another way of evaluating the vows is checking out the frequency and quality of our fraternal relationships. True, vows can also be lived individually but they find their full expression only if Oblates live together with their brothers. It is in community that our obedience is lived through giving time to each other, planning our mission together and being available when it comes to decisions; it is there that perseverance gives stability to our common missionary endeavors; it is there that poverty translates into holding all things in common, sharing our income with each other and with the poor; it is in community that we find room for intimacy in prayer and in fraternal relationships, to make our chastity an expression of great love.

Above all, vowed life is a way of being Christians. If one would be condemned to prison for being a Christian would there be enough evidence against us? Personally, I may feel worried about a personal crisis of a community member or difficulties in our work outside, but what really would alarm me is if the wine of charity were missing on our table. How can we be apostles if there is ambition, gossip, enmity and the like? It is the responsibility of all of us and especially of the local superior, to work as quickly as possible on reconciliation in this field.

A good sign for a healthy religious life is the presence of Brothers. I must say I am worried as I find out that the proportion of Brothers in our congregation has decreased by more than one fifth in 12 years, especially in our younger Regions. Do we still feel that the charism of fraternity is necessary for our Congregation and gives a special flavor to our Oblate mission?

We cannot pretend that our vowed life will be exempt from failures. Some Oblates leave the Congregation each year; the number and proportion seems to have slightly decreased (from 1.7% to 1.6% per year). It is sad if an Oblate leaves us, although facing the truth is preferable to a double life. The public venting of scandals, together with its financial consequences, has forced some of our Units to seek clarity in relationships and professional practice but more needs to be done to overcome ambiguous situations. It is an act of charity not to tolerate a behavior not compatible with vowed life.

Finally, we must evaluate whether our vowed life is seen as prophetic. Does our lifestyle convince through its simplicity, through its respect for creation? Are our communities welcoming, especially towards the poor? Are our houses seen as places where people come to find spiritual resources? Are we prophets of justice and active peacemakers? Here it is up to people from the outside, including our lay associates, to tell us the truth.

There are people who doubt the future of religious life in the Church, particularly in its apostolic form. These doubts arise maybe because of the scandals, maybe because of the dwindling numbers in some parts of the world. Some think the future will belong to the Movements. On the other hand, apostolic religious life is growing in many parts of the world and new institutes are founded. Certainly, continuous reflection is needed. Spiritual depth and a clear profile that makes us visible and transparent will be of essence. I find it significant that the Unions of Superiors General are preparing a symposium at the beginning of 2011 to reflect specifically on apostolic religious life.

The local community is the place where our need of further conversion becomes tangible. It is Christ who must become the center of all our local communities, almost visible to the eye through our common prayer, our mutual love, our sharing of temporal goods, our hospitality and our apostolic outreach. 

[to be continued]