1. The need for a Vision
I still remember well a deep concern of our former General, Father John Musinsky. He would never get tired to talk about an inspiring vision we needed as SVD, a vision that would move all of us with enthusiasm and zeal. “Why is it,“ you could hear him constantly wondering , “that so few of our men are really caught up in the joy and enthusiasm of the Kingdom message of Jesus?” He often physically suffered from what he saw. He had come to realize in his 12 years as General, that the survival of the Congregation depended not on how many members we had or would have, but on the members in the Congregation who would be on fire with the Congregation’s vision or its charism. He would frequently quote from the writings of Sandra Schneiders on Religious Life Today:
It is not the loss of institutions that religious must fear; it is the loss of the fire/heat of the charism itself.... Where passion is lacking, life is dead. When religious life is routine, the life is dead. When religious life is bent on being socially safe and legally proper, the life is dead. When religious life is more an ember than a fire, the life is dead. When religious communities marginalize their own weary prophets, the life is dead. Then, religious may pray and may fast and they may withdraw from the fray, but they will not sound a single note in a cacophonous world in search of harmony.
Jesus had this vision. It drove this man, it burned in him, it gave him an identity and it defined his mission and that what he wanted to communicate to others. He expressed this vision as we saw in the Gospel of Luke with the words:
I came to throw fire on this earth and how much I desire to see it burning (Lk12:49).
St. Paul will later put this phrase into a different frame but we can still catch the power behind: The Kingdom of God does not consist in spoken words but in power (1 Cor 4:20). He meant with the “power”, the power of the risen Lord, the Holy Spirit. He himself was so burning with the vision that he saw himself almost as being under a spell. It was Jesus’ vision about God and God’s dream for creation (Kingdom of God) revealed in Christ Jesus which Paul analyses so powerfully and enthusiastically in Eph 3. It became the driving force in his life.
Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Proverbs)
Behind the achievement of great people lives a clear vision. Jesus had a vision, our founder had a vision and hopefully we have a vision. It is something they were filled with, that drove them and that gave their whole life a clear focus and purpose. By vision I mean something one can live for, suffer for, work for and ultimately die for; something one cannot keep to oneself; something one is so caught up with that one has to communicate it, let it out, spread it. A vision can be described in this way:
In the middle ages a horse man riding out of castle came across three men each one pushing a
wheelbarrow heavily loaded with bricks. He asked the first one: “What are you doing?” His answer was
gruff and done with anger he said: “ Can’t you see, I am pushing a heavily loaded wheelbarrow.” Then
he asked the second man: “What are you doing?” He told him in a little friendlier manner: “ I am
making a living by wheeling bricks to a construction side.” And finally he asked the third man:
“What are you doing?” And this one answered him with a glow all over his face: “I am helping to
build a cathedral by carrying bricks.” This is what we might call vision.
People who have a vision are people whose life is guided by consciously chosen principles. They live out of a life principle. By this we mean a generalized, accepted intention of purpose that is applied to specific choices and circumstances. The life principle runs through the fabric of our choices like the dominant theme in a piece of music: it keeps recurring and it is heard in different settings. We might call it our “Leitmotif”. Some examples: the life principle of a person can be: safety, duty, recognition, money, fame, need, success, fun, relationship, approval of others, power etc. Important is that life principles become habits and habits rule our life; they define and dictate our actions and reactions. There is a fundamental choice, a life principle which will one day possess us in the marrow of our bones and by the blood of our veins. Everyone has a life-principle, a dominant one. It may be difficult to lure it out of the dark but it is there.
2. Community: priority of religious life.
To envision and to describe an ideal community is not so difficult but the fact is, in reality, there are no ideal communities. In working - be it in retreats or workshops - with a variety of religious communities in all kind of cultures and nations, I often wondered not so much about their difficulties and tensions but about the mere fact that they were still functioning at all. Even a casual reading of the Acts of the Apostles reveals the tensions and conflicts caused by a diversity of cultures, ethnic groups, beliefs and human failure. But they were able to overcome their conflicts, because they experienced the Spirit of Jesus present among them. How we understand ourselves as community is described in the Draft Statement in this way:
We are a community of brothers from different nations and cultures and we strive to be a living symbol of the unity and diversity of the Church and the Kingdom of God (c. Prologue). Our communion is ultimately rooted in the mystery of the Triune God who is a community of love; we live and work together in a spirit of solidarity, respect and love. Our fraternal life is a privileged place for us to discern and learn to accept God’s will and to walk together with one mind and heart. We bind ourselves to Jesus and to one another through the evangelical counsels, and together we give witness to the coming of God’s Kingdom. In this sense community life is already mission (D.St. 63).
There is quite a considerable number of authors who say that the priority of religious life today is giving witness to community life. Our life in community must be a distinct sign that Christian faith is able to create communities in which peace, justice, love and true brother/sisterhood are a lived reality and not only empty words. Particularly, the witness that we are all brothers and sisters is all the more necessary in a world of cultural, religious, and ethnic conflicts. I have lived most of life in culturally and nationally mixed communities and I have come to realize the powerful witness such community can offer. It is not easy and it takes a constant effort and a spiritual discipline to see the power of the Spirit at work in such communities but it can be experienced.
As communities within the Church, religious are the visible and tangible anticipation of the final community which God has planned for the whole of creation. The reconciling power of the Holy Spirit creates a community, creates already here on earth a unity and harmony among men and women which finds its fullness at the end of time. In spite of our brokenness and the impossibility of ever creating a perfect community, the lived example must be given now to show that God's Kingdom has already begun here on earth and in our time.
To make the Kingdom of God present on earth, at least in its initial stages, is the task of the whole Church. But religious communities in particular should offer themselves as concrete test cases to show that the Kingdom has indeed already appeared in this world.
John Cassian comments that the first religious Christians went to live apart "to practice those things which they had learnt the apostles had recommended for the whole body of the Church" (Collationes XVIII, ch. 5). Accordingly they formed communities to show that these ideals were not only preached about but lived. Religious life came into existence as a protest movement against a Church that had conformed herself too much to the whole of society. Religious life was seen as following the model of the prophets in the Old Testament.
These communities were formed according to the pattern of the early Church as described by Luke in Acts where everything was held in common by people of simple heart who called themselves brothers and sisters. The first Christian communities lived in a society that did not share their values. Thus they automatically became what Lohfink calls a "contrast-society," witnessing to a different scale of values and way of being human. In the moment the Church became a State-religion the religious communities developed and carried on the task to become the “contrast society” in the Church and for the Church.
In short, religious orders had to fulfill a therapeutic task for the Church. It seems there is a connection between the Church's task to be a "counter society" and the existence of monasteries and religious orders in the history of the Church. Religious communities turned up whenever the Church forgot or betrayed her most important mission, to follow the Lord and offer herself to society as a "counter society".
It is not wrong to say that when the Church began to get sick, God ordained monks, nuns and cloisters as its therapy. When the Church forgot that it was to be a contrast society, a contrast society was created in its midst (G. Lohfink, Religious Orders).
In times like today where people hunger for a sign of God's Kingdom, the question arises: Who can give witness to genuine community if not religious communities? Who can provide a more visible and tangible sign of reconciling love in the Church if not religious communities, who have made it their business to follow the Lord more freely and to imitate him more exactly? Again, the function of religious communities is seen as being a "counter society" or a "contrast society" for our time. Sandra Schneiders put it this way when talking about the future of religious communities:
What religious can bring to the worldwide struggle against domination is a deep hunger and thirst for justice based on their own spiritual experience of liberation in Jesus Christ. Religious are people who know that justice and holiness are finally identical, and that justice is not merely the way humans can and should relate to each other as brothers and sisters which is given to us by the God who created and re-deemed us all. It might be suggested that religious should be on the cutting edge in the development of new forms of community life and organization structured by and for justice. Here, if anywhere, it makes sense for the members to trust one another and thus to be able to abandon all forms of domination, coercion, intolerance and forced conformity...Religious should offer a prophetic witness that it is possible for a group to live together in love and justice celebrating their own freedom and equality in the very act of celebrating God's absolute and respectful reign in their lives. (Sandra M.Schneider, New Wineskin)
The Draft Statement on Community presents a series of concrete proposal for reflection on our Community life done with the proposed lense of living prophetic dialogue. There is no need to add or stress particular aspects in these proposals.
What I intend to do is to look at religious community life in terms of being a “Group Charism.” This is not new but it challenges the individual member of the group in a unique way. How far does he identify himself with the group and how far does he feel personally responsible for the Group Charism?
3. Religious life and specific group charisms
If every call and charism is for the benefit of the whole community (Rom 12; 1Cor 12), then religious life itself has to be seen as a charism, i.e., a gift of the Holy Spirit to the individual person to be exercised for the well‑being of the Church and the redemption of the world. One can speak of a "group charism". Religious life should be regarded as such. This means that the whole group is called to exercise a charism for the benefit of the entire Church and its mission.
The Holy Spirit calls one person to take up a particular function in the Church for the benefit of the whole and, in turn, to gather a group of men or women around him or her to undertake this task in common. In such a case, the charism is seen as a collective gift.
One could also explain it this way: the Spirit, who inspires the founder or foundress to form a new group in the Church, gives to other persons a kind of sensitivity so that they feel drawn to join this group. The whole group then becomes responsible for the group charism.
The spirituality of a particular congregation normally illuminates one aspect of the Gospel so that a better understanding of that aspect may be had. The group is then seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit which enables all in the group to live the initial insight of the founder or foundress. These insights are insights into the life of Christ and his mission. Each institute therefore is a perpetual renewal of the work of Christ in the Church and the world. We see that our charism has been dealt with in almost every section of the Draft Statement for this chapter. What might be new this time is the invitation to see our charisma through the lens of prophetic dialogue as the text says (3).
4. Personal responsibility for the group charism
Since my concern in a recollection is to remind and invite you to reflect on the spiritual atmosphere in which all your work during the Chapter should be conducted, I would like to say something about the personal responsibility of each member of the congregation for the “group charism”. I will do this in the setting of the vow of obedience - strange as it may sound.
If religious life is a group charism which the Holy Spirit wants to see exercised in the Church, then the individual religious who joins the group must assume personal responsibility for this charism. This he or she does in union with the entire congregation in a twofold way:
Firstly, with the rest of the community I am responsible for constantly asking how the charism is to be understood in the setting of our time, ever faithful to the original inspiration of the founder or foundress. This is, of course, the explicit task of the administration and in particular the task of a General Chapter.
Secondly, I am, together with the community, responsible for the way this charism is exercised in the Church of today. I cannot leave it up to a few persons in the congregation to worry about it.
If I embrace the group charism, I will have to agree that it is going to determine, to a considerable extent, my personal life and my concrete life‑style, i.e., my life as a religious is going to be concretized according to the charism of the congregation I join. In short, I put myself at the service of this charism and this charism in turn is going to determine my whole life.
This is very important for each religious to understand. If I join a missionary congregation, my religious life, i.e., the way I live the vows, will be determined by a missionary aspect and not vice-versa. This can have far‑reaching consequences for me. It implies, for example, my willingness to leave or accept tasks and obligations once the group as a whole realizes that the charism of the congregation demands a shift in my apostolate.
Evangelical obedience is not a simple response to a norm, a commandment or an order, that is, to a purely juridical and disciplinary reality, but, rather, an habitual attitude of communion with a group and its leaders in faith and in love. It should be noted that obedience, not only as communion in faith but also as communion in charity, has an essential relation with God and his salvific will. (John M. Lozano, Life as Parable)
I once asked the head of a major religious superiors' association what she regarded as one of the main problems concerning obedience in religious congregations. She answered, "Our main problem is that many of the sisters do not feel personally responsible for the congregation. They are obedient in the traditional sense, i.e., they ask permission, etc., but what is lacking is a real feeling for the group charism and for the responsibility that should flow from it."
Here we are at the core of the matter. How far are the individual members aglow with the charism of the group and live the spiritually of the congregation with conviction and even with enthusiasm. The vitality of the congregation depends on the number of those members who have made it their life principle to live according to the charism of the congregation.
This was Father Musinsky’s most burning worry. As he would have it: “We will have a great future in the measure we are able to make the charism the personal vision of each member of the SVD.” The three vital elements of a congregation’s viability are: the vision, the members and the organization. The strength of the congregation does not depend on its organization and on the number of members, but ultimately on the vision and how deep this vision is burning in the heart of the members.
If the prophetic dimension of our faith is something with which the Holy Spirit has entrusted particularly us religious, then the prophetic dialogue which this Chapter has made as the key phrase of all your deliberations, then let us not forget that being prophetic means first of all not so much to criticize but to energize, which mean to radiate energy, to put people on fire and to excite them about God and his mission. Prophets are most often conservative rather than progressive, something we often tend to forget. They are not concerned with programs and organization but first of all with the zeal and the passion for God. They are ecstatic and exuberant because they had been touched by the Spirit who had put them on fire. Prophetic dialogue presupposes that we are touched by the prophetic Spirit and put under a compulsion to dialogue about what we ourselves have seen, experienced, lived with and have been touched by, to quote from the First Letter of St. John. We proclaim what we have experienced ourselves first! This reminds me of Pope Paul VI who wrote in his Encyclical Evangelii Nunciandi:
And may the world of our time, which is searching with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have received the joy of Christ. (par 80)
In Acts 4:3 we find a text which might be applicable to all of us but particularly to you who participate in this Chapter. The text is a reaction of the Jewish leaders who had arrested Peter and James. After Peter’s speech they are deeply impressed by Peter’s boldness and courage, its says there:
When the Council saw the boldness of Peter and John, and could see that they were obviously uneducated non‑professionals, they were amazed and realized what being with Jesus had done for them.
Father Musinsky once remarked to me after a General Chapter: “Would it not be marvelous if our capitulars return home so full of fire and zeal that the confreres whom they meet would be amazed at what they see and realize what being at the General Chapter had done to them.”
So much we can say: the effect of this Chapter on the whole of the Society depends to a large degree on how convincingly and enthusiastically the capitulars will convey the message they have pondered about. They should have been put on fire with this message during this Chapter. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer phrased it:
Transformation can only flow from those who have been transformed themselves
Nur von Verwandelten kann Verwandlung ausgehen.