Chapter Report - installment 5: CALLS 6 - 8

The State of the Congregation
Report from the
Superior General to the 2010 General Chapter (Public version)
Installment 5: II. CALLS 6 - 8

6. As the quality of initial and ongoing formation have improved we are now called to cross borders even more.

My overall impression is that the Congregation offers good quality formation to its members. Our initial formation professes excellent values; it intends to foster:

  • Following Jesus Christ according to the Oblate charism
  • Missionary love for the poor of today's world
  • Availability to the Church's needs
  • Community centeredness
  • Person centeredness, etc.
  • Generally, we walk along these lines. The fact that we have worked out our local formation directories on this basis constitutes an important step for cooperation even beyond the borders of each Unit. One of our weaknesses is the lack of trained formators, which is aggravated by an excessively high number of formation houses.
Our ongoing formation today is often organized according to age groups like first five years of ministry, the middle aged, those over seventy, etc. It is more and more accepted that it "takes place in the context of an apostolic community" "in a process of mutual evangelization" (C. 48) and not just through seminars and studies. As to the extraordinary activities, sabbaticals tend to be more focused and planned, aimed at deepening our lives according to our Oblate charism.

Higher studies are addressed in a variety of ways according to the culture of a province; while in one Unit it may be a rare exception that someone undertakes post-graduate studies, in another place, almost all Oblates expect to get a study break after some years of ministry. It can be observed that the responsibility of a Province for an institute of higher learning or for certain ministries like counseling or management, helps to focus these studies. Studies should always be planned with the missionary needs of the larger Oblate community in mind.

On the congregational level, there has been a tendency to offer more ongoing formation opportunities through the General Administration. The sessions for new major superiors, the De Mazenod Experience and the formation sessions for formators have continued; offers for treasurers' training (Rome and regional) and for JPIC training have increased, and planning sessions animated at the Unit level by General Council members have been introduced. Much of our annual distribution from the Solidarity fund goes into financing ongoing formation, particularly higher studies.

In the whole area of formation, there are also several concerns which must be honestly acknowledged and confronted:

In some cases, there is a disproportion between the formation efforts and the result

The average length of the formation process has kept increasing. The whole process has become lengthy: the combination of one or two years of pre-novitiate, novitiate, five or six years of studies, regency and pastoral initiation easily results in an eight to eleven year long initial formation period. This is without counting other programs like juniorates (in Asia especially), youth communities and associate programs. Should we ask ourselves how does this compare with similar academic careers in each country?

Looking back at the last 15 years, we observe the fact that an average of 53% of those who made their first profession also make perpetual vows. There are differences between the Regions but one must take into account that in some places philosophy is studied before first profession, and in some places after. However, the graphic below does show some variations over the past three five-year periods in the percentage of formandi that make their perpetual vows each year.

At the same time, there is the phenomenon that a number of young Brothers, priests or even deacons, even after such a long period of formation, run into serious difficulties and may leave the Congregation. One out of ten of those who made their perpetual vows in the last 15 years have left us.

Both concerns, about the length of formation and problems with perseverance, we share with other groups in the Church. Even at the highest levels, questions are asked: Does our formation ultimately create dependent individuals because we have sheltered them for so long? Does our formation create unreasonable expectations regarding the challenges of real life? Is the size of the groups of formandi right and, in the design of our formation system, how can we create groups that are neither too small nor too large? Someone brainstormed that we should spread out formation over a longer period, doing some years of missionary work in between. At the Interchapter it was also suggested that we look into our criteria of acceptance of candidates and it was felt that we need better discernment.

These questions will accompany us for a while. One conclusion we can already make is, that we need a sufficient number of qualified formators, ready to take on formation ministry for an extended period of their lives.

For a long time we have been complaining about the chronic lack of trained formators, a problem which is aggravated by our difficulty to reduce the number of small formation houses

For the last 24 years at least, the lack of trained formators has been highlighted again and again. It is often a consequence of the considerable number of formation houses we maintain even if we have only a few students. We count at present 30 scholasticates (or post-novitiates), 16 of which have more than a dozen resident formandi. To the credit of some parts of the Congregation it must be said that the difficulty of small formation houses has been successfully addressed in certain Regions and Sub-Regions and also in the context of restructuring of small Units into larger provinces. Meetings between formators, the working out of common formation criteria and directories and following the General Norms for Oblate Formation normally pave the way for such moves. I suggest that the Chapter keep in mind the need of qualified formation teams when we will be discussing the structures of our congregation.

A recent report by our formation portfolio holder, Fr. Paolo Archiati, has the following to say; I summarize:

Formation might not yet be seen by all Oblates as a priority ministry on which depends the quality not only of our missionaries, but also of our mission. We are " specialists for the difficult missions ", but formation may well be, today, the most difficult mission!
We have formation houses with too few formators, novitiates with the sole novice master as formator. My proposal here would be that in our novitiates there be, in addition to the master of novices at least one other formator (R 57a) and that there be a team of at least three Oblate in our post-novitiates.
We should not have a novitiate open with less than three novices, nor a post-novitiate with less than seven to eight candidates.
I can only agree with these observations. Theoretically, several solutions can be thought of whenever the numbers of formandi are small: inter-provincial formation houses, regional formation houses, inter-congregational houses within a given country (the latter have not yet been tried) or distributing our students congregation-wide. 

The above-mentioned report continues:
Novitiates. We have, today, 22. They are too numerous. I propose two novitiates in each region. Post-novitiates: We have 30. They are too numerous. My suggestion here would be as follows: one post-novitiate for Canada-US, two for Europe, two for Latin America, four each for Asia and Africa. Here again, I would leave it to the regional conferences to study the implementation and details. This proposal would reduce the number of our post-novitiates to 13.
If the recommendation or observation of Fr. Archiati is followed the Congregation would be better equipped to effectively staff the nine novitiates and the thirteen post-novitiates- both with well trained formators representing the international character of the congregation.

There are several ways of arriving at a decision on this: through agreements among provinces, through some Rule changes that would give the Regions certain powers, or through strong decisions by the Superior General in Council. Under the current Constitution and Rules, the Superior General in Council does have the power to confirm the appointment of formators and to approve post novitiate and novitiates. Although this could be used more actively to reach a more rational number of formation houses it may be wiser if the Chapter would give guidance on this.

Specifically missionary and inter-cultural formation is offered but not yet available everywhere

A specifically missionary formation is not always available to our students since, for our studies, we often avail ourselves of diocesan facilities where we get training for parish work but not necessarily for a mission to the poorest and most abandoned, and ad gentes. Some efforts have been made to enrich our curriculum through special courses on missiology, JPIC, media, etc. Oblates have also supported study centers of the religious conferences, or started new endeavors like the missiology institute in Kinshasa, the Asian Institute for Theology in Sri Lanka or the formation for ministry in San Antonio.

For practical missionary formation, I am convinced each one of our students should spend one year abroad and in a different culture, with the opportunity to learn an additional international language. We realize more and more that this is a very practical need, for instance at the time of seeking translators for our General Chapter. Studying or doing mission abroad in a different culture is a powerful means of maturing - on the human, spiritual, and missionary levels.
Inter-provincial formation houses go a long way to assure a more missionary formation. For now, one third of our scholasticates can be considered as international, taking as criterion, if more than 10% of their formandi come from abroad. According to this criterion about 36% of our scholastics and Brothers experience an international formation during their studies, and 64% not. The following graphic shows the picture for our larger post-novitiate formation houses.

In this context, it deserves to be mentioned that our International Roman Scholasticate throughout its 129 years of history of has served the Congregation well. Also in recent years is has been almost full to capacity, that is, 23 students. It continues needing support from the Congregation in terms of formators and students. It is also worth noting that in the Philippines, a regional international scholasticate is set to open its doors next year - an outcome of the last General Chapter.

Higher studies must become more closely connected to the needs of the mission

Higher studies have a great potential to benefit the way we understand our mission and in practice, incarnate and inculturate the Gospel. At the same time they require a lot of resources in talented personnel and finances. How could we become more pro-active and cost-effective in this field? For an Oblate, the desire to study should be matched with the needs of a specific mission, be it teaching, specialized ministries or administration. We have a tradition of higher studies supporting formation but what about our supporting other "paths of evangelization"? Specific human sciences may help us to better interpret how we should respond to our context.

7. As much reorganization has been achieved, we are called to take further decisions on governance.

This assembly will have to decide in which way we want to continue on the road of adapting our organization to the needs of the mission. When we will discuss possible changes, our main attention should go to our values. Competing values like interculturality versus inculturation, centralization versus subsidiarity, effective leadership versus family comfort need to be looked at and weighed up against each other.

Also the figures deserve due attention. What prompted the 2004 Chapter to mandate a study on governance is the fact that our Congregation today is 45% smaller than 1966 when it was at its peak.

The growth of Oblate provinces, delegations and missions is naturally unequal. A few of our delegations, for instance, have been growing fast: Zambia, India, Pakistan, Senegal, and Ukraine have all increased in the past nine years by about 80% and more. However, we cannot expect this to happen everywhere. When we analyze the growth of a province or delegation and reflect on the complex reasons behind the increasing or decreasing numbers, we realize that richness in vocations is mostly a gift and only to a smaller extent, the result of our efforts. As we face unequal growth it is only natural that our structures must adapt to new developments. Ten of our larger Units have lost 20% and more of their membership over the same period of nine years. The Congregation has answered the changes through a good number of restructuring processes. They were undertaken for the sake of the mission and of Oblate life.

What have we learned in the exercise of restructuring? On the one hand, the creation of larger provinces has generally led to a more thorough missionary planning, clearer formation procedures and a more professional administration. It is easier to find people for new endeavors or for specific tasks in a group of 120 than in a group of 20. One insight of the experience is that we should update the organization of our Congregation in a way that provinces remain large enough. On the other hand, we have learned that the local level must not be neglected; the creation and animation of areas, sectors or districts must complement the larger size of the province. We still need to learn more about the appropriate structures inside a larger Unit.

Restructuring may also be needed at the level of the General Administration. My experience over the last three administrations suggests to me that we need less legislation and government but more accompaniment and administrative follow-up of decisions. The idea of introducing secretariats for formation and mission deserves to be given serious attention. A less frequent occurrence of the Chapter could allow for a better implementation.

I realize that structural changes can be unsettling. They require a new reflection on our values and our purpose; they may lead us to live and work together with Oblates we have not known well before. On the other hand, such changes can effectively renew us, as it happens in families which "broaden their tents" every time a new marriage makes new faces appear.

8. As financial solidarity has increased, we are called to work on even more competent stewardship and the increase of local income.

"We follow a Master who became poor for our sake" (C. 19) and with him we "proclaim the coming of a new world freed from selfishness and open to sharing" (C. 20). Theologically, the poverty which Jesus lived expressed God's love for us until the end. In practical terms, during his public life, this poverty was shaped by his mission as an itinerant: within this hardship, it meant that he frequented people who hosted him and were his benefactors; he even appointed an administrator of the common purse. As we follow the "crucified Savior" (C. 4), our voluntary poverty will speak of God's logic of the cross and allow us to "proclaim Christ and His Kingdom to the most abandoned" (C. 5). At the same time, we do need certain means for this mission. The principle we have established is that "the temporal goods of our Institute are, above all, at the service of the mission" (C. 150).

The time of Jesus was different from the time our congregation was founded, and in our relationship with the temporal goods needed for the mission, there have been further changes in recent decades. For instance, we apostolic religious rely less on income through agriculture than before, pay more employees, run more social projects financed by external donors and increasingly rely on income from investments. How does all this influence the way we live our vows? While we may take more seriously the parable of the talents and seek to become good stewards, do we still have the interior freedom to share everything and to give away what gets between us and the Lord? Which type of conversion is needed in this field? Is there a call to conversion for us in the values mentioned in our Constitutions and Rules, especially CC. 19-22? I just pick a few of these values: closer communion with Jesus and the poor; learning from the poor; patience, hope, solidarity; simple lifestyle; evangelical detachment; common law of labor; voluntary poverty …

The report on finances will show that over the last 12 years, the trend has been towards greater solidarity among ourselves as our Congregation moves into and grows in poorer countries. While the sharing of finances for specific projects has continued, the emphasis has been on different initiatives sharing programs; and the Missionary Resource Campaign (MRC).

We must be especially thankful to certain provinces which went beyond the contribution which would normally be expected from them. Let me mention some: the US Province which has made the MRC campaign a success; Spain for its policy to give 10% of all real estate sales to the Congregation; the Anglo-Irish and Belgium-Netherlands provinces for giving extra contributions. Most recently, Brazil has decided a new policy of annual supplemental gifts to the Central Government in service of the Congregation.

It is natural that a congregation which works for the poor and among the poor must rely, to a certain extent, on financial reserves and investments. But this can be only one of the pillars of the financial structure. During our solidarity campaigns it was always emphasized that finances from outside sources must be combined with income gained through work and local fundraising. The importance of professional stewardship was also stressed. As a result, in the Congregation we are now more and more speaking about self-sufficiency of the Provinces as a goal to be achieved, and even as a criterion for being a province; however, we have not yet reached the point of converting into reality what we are striving for. It will be local level animation that will make the difference. Some Units have given serious attention to income generating ministries and local fundraising and can report a certain success.

The changes in the Congregation have today reached a point where a financial paradigm shift is necessary. The paradigm of the North helping the South works less and less. In a family, parents are expected to care for their children but there comes a moment when children have to care for their parents. There are more details about this in the treasurer's report.

Let me conclude this point mentioning that one structure directly affected by the change is the General Administration itself. On the one hand, in the context of the Missionary Resource Campaign, the net worth of the General Administration in service of the Congregation has been allowed to diminish. It was our own decision to allow a certain diminishment. On the other hand, the net worth has further declined during the 2008 financial crisis and because the General Administration had to respond to several financial crises within Units. As a result, the next Superior General and Council will have fewer financial means to address emergencies.

The situation is problematic on the systemic level. A clear sign of this has been our attempt to sell the present General House in order to replace it with something we can better afford. If we engaged in this much discussed endeavor, it has been in reaction to a challenge: how to ask less funds from a Congregation that is not blessed with abundance of material goods. Following up on the mandate of the last Chapter (WH p. 61-62), we were not far from a viable solution when we decided to suspend the project because of the closeness of the Chapter.

After the overview of the present state of the congregation and the most important trends that can be observed this report must also contain a part that offers an account of the General Administration's activities during the period 2004 to 2010. In order not to interrupt the flow of the reflection initiated above, I have moved this part to the Annex, not published in this blog.

[to be continued]