It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.... If you keep these ... you will be doing what is right" (Acts 15:27).
Following the Draft Statement for this General Chapter titled: Living Prophetic Dialogue: Spirituality, Community Leadership, Finances, and Formation, I would like to address the issues of Spirituality and Community in this first recollection, knowing that the other three topics will be touched by the confreres during the next two recollections. Since this reflection intents - so to speak - to touch on the spiritual tone that should form the background music of the Chapter, I will not deal with any specific topic mentioned in the Draft Statement.
Let me start with a story. In the year 2000, just before the last general chapter, one of the General Councilors asked me at the table: AAs a theologian, what appropriate Scriptural text would you propose as a kind of guideline for all our chapter deliberations and also for the theme of the chapter itself? I suggested the well-know phrase from the story of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37, “ Son of Man, can these dry bones ever live again? “ Well, it was taken in good humor but turned down as too pessimistic. “We are a growing, sprawling congregation that one would not compare with a heap of dry bones”, so the argument was phrased. Although I knew that it would not be accepted, I had made my proposal in earnest and not to be a joke. My confrere obviously overlooked, that this story is in no way a doomsday prophecy but the exact opposite. God tries to convince his prophet that there is hope for the hopeless. It is not God, it is the prophet who has all the doubts concerning the future. God has to tell him: “You man of little faith, don’t you know what the Spirit can do when he descends on his creation? And now I tell you, I will send my Spirit over these dry bones and you will see with your own eyes that they will live. Now go, and tell this to the house of Israel.” God is talking about the end-time when he will send his Messiah and through him his recreating spirit, who will remain with us for ever. Then there will be an enduring Pentecost.
I would like to take this biblical story to introduce my conference. I am concerned with two aspects which touch the dynamics at work during an assembly as you are facing one now. The success of the Chapter depends on two things: first, how much you really consider the presence and constant guidance of the Holy Spirit at any juncture of the chapter and secondly how much effort and serious work you are willing to undertake in order to find solutions and make recommendations which are an answer to situations in which we live and work. I uphold here the principle that was already used at the first Council in Jerusalem where the assembly phrased its recommendations with the words: The Holy Spirit and we have decided.
Jesus our Model for mission
The Draft Statement begins correctly with Jesus as our Model and his mission as that of being the Kingdom of God but it wants to look at both through the lens of prophetic dialogue. After all it is his mission we are commissioned to carry on to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The draft text says:
"The Divine Word became incarnate in a particular historical situation" and, although our concrete situation today is radically different, the "example of Jesus determines the way in which we participate in his mission. We seek dialogue with all and present the good news of God's love to them" (8).
Jesus’ main concern was the Kingdom of God, a phrase widely used today. His person and his mission have to be seen and understood in the context of this symbol. Therefore, it is necessary to define our mission in the context of Jesus= mission as the Draft Statement puts it:
The ultimate purpose of our mission today is the same as it has been since the time of our Founder, "to proclaim the Kingdom of God's love" (cf. Prologue) as the common destiny of all humanity and the horizon toward which we travel. It is from the internal loving dialogue of the triune God that this mission emerges, a dialogue of love and forgiveness with all humanity. We do not invent our own mission - it is Missio Dei - we are called by the Father, sent by the Word and led by the Spirit (GC1988 Spirituality) (D.St.14).
We should, however, not forget that religious life cannot and does not have a mission different from the mission of the Church - a mission which is no other than the mission of God. We are of, for, in and from the Church, because the Church is of, for, in and from God in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit. We do not want or need any other mission than God's mission. We have situated ourselves in a particular context as religious, and the world and Church have succeeded, as they always do, in putting us into a context within contexts - a fact that we should not forget whatever we may want to say about our particular mission in relation to today’s world.
Having made clear, that the center of Jesus’ concern was the Kingdom of God, aiming at the transformation of the whole of creation, there remains a second basic question: What is the ultimate obligation we have before the God of Jesus? Or: What did Jesus expect from those who would listen to his message? The answer is contained in the two words which we find 20 times in the Gospel: Follow me!
There is no doubt that the essential vocation of every Christian is to follow the Lord as he presents himself in the Gospel (LG 44). This holds for religious life as well. The three essential aspects of religious life are the following:
- a call to follow the Lord in his radical lifestyle
- to live this call in a community with a particular charism
- and to live this in our time and situation alert to the signs of the times according to the prophetic dimension of religious life in the Church.
The most important of these three is the one which defines Jesus as the fundamental norm and the supreme law for all communities.
Since the fundamental norm of the religious life is a following of Christ as proposed by the gospel, such is to be regarded by all communities as their supreme law (Perfectae Caritatis 2).
In other words, the Council is stating here that the pattern to be followed and the standard by which everything must be measured is the Jesus who walked this earth. We are called to follow the one who lived our life and who suffered our death. His actions, his behavior and his attitudes are the pattern to be followed by everyone who calls himself/herself a disciple of Jesus.
Discipleship is seen as having an identity instilling power not only for us religious but for every Christian and the Church as a whole. As a German Bishops’ Conference years ago - facing the crisis of faith in Europe - put it. “The way of the crisis in which we find ourselves today can only be a way back into following the Lord once again as he walked over this earth.”
What was it in Jesus that captivated people to leave everything and to be “on the way” and follow him? What drove this Jesus? What was emanating from him that put people almost under a spell? What burnt in him that he could not retain but had to throw out, to communicate in order to draw all people to him? In the Gospel of Luke we find that phrase which we could take as a door to the core of Jesus’ message and to the life principle that guided this person.
I came to throw fire on this earth and how much I desire to see it burning (Lk 12:49).
What was this fire, Jesus wanted to see burning in everyone who would follow him? How much are we alive with this fire? A protestant theologian who had visited their missions in Africa and Asia told me, that he had come to the conclusion during his visit, that the only ones who are today seriously concerned with witnessing and proclaiming the message of Jesus with enthusiasm and convictions, are the sectarian churches. It was Karl Rahner who already 50 year ago told us that the future Christian has to be a mystic, a person with a deep experience of the God of Jesus Christ burning with the fire he came to throw into the world. Since we are losing our great and prestigious institutions today, our witness is and will be the sharing of our God-experiences, the only witness young people consider authentic today.
There is story told about famous Rabbi which might provoke the same question addressed to you and me testing our zeal and commitment to the Lord and his mission.
In a village in Russia in the last century, the rich people protected their property by hiring people who would watch over it during the night. One evening Rabbi Naftalis was walking at the edge of one of these properties and he ran into one of the watchmen who was making his rounds. The Rabbi asked him, "For whom are you walking, young man?" The watchman told him the name of the owner but he added, "And you, Rabbi, for whom are you walking?" The word hit the Rabbi like a flying arrow. After a long silence with some effort he replied, "At the moment I am not walking for anyone." Then the Rabbi asked, "Are you willing to become my servant?" Of course, with pleasure, the watchman replied, "but what will I have to do?" The Rabbi answered, "You will have to remind me for whom I am supposed to walk." (Chassidic Tradition)
Question: For whom do you walk? In whose service are you living?
The Holy Spirit, the fire Jesus came to cast on this earth
What was this fire if not the Holy Spirit? Jesus came and his whole mission - as Saint John tells us - consisted in releasing the power of God, the Holy Spirit into his creation. When the risen Lord appears to his disciples on Easter Morning he bestows on them his greatest gift: the Holy Spirit. Thus Jesus liberates the terrified, locked in disciples and transforms their terror into missionary purpose. As in the creation story where the “ruah Eloim” is breathed into Adam to transform him into a living creature, so the risen Christ breathes on his disciples and fills them with the new life which he has gained for them through his death and resurrection.
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:21-22).
But to carry out this mission the disciples must be filled with the same power of the Holy Spirit that burnt in Jesus. Jesus commissioned his disciple, but he knew that they could only carry out that mission if the same Spirit, that was burning in him, would be burning also in them. In the words of Jürgen Moltman:
The gift and presence of the Holy Spirit it the greatest, most wonderful thing which can happen to us, to the human community, to all living beings and this earth of ours. For in the Holy Spirit we have the presence, not of one or other of the many good and evil spirits, but of God himself, the creative, vivifying, redeeming and sanctifying God. In the presence of the Holy Spirit we have the beginning and the end of history, of sin and guilt, suffering and death. In the presence of the Holy Spirit we have the beginning of that process whereby creation is being perfected until it becomes the Kingdom of God.
What we need most today is a firm belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and in the life of the SVD as a whole. Patriarch Athenagoras expressed the importance of the Holy Spirit once in a Pentecost sermon in this way:
Without the Holy Spirit: God is far away, Christ stays in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is simply an organization, authority is a matter of domination, mission a matter of propaganda, the liturgy no more than an evocation, Christian living a slave morality. And I may add: without the Holy Spirit this assembly is a waste of time and money, an exercise in frustration.
With the Holy Spirit: the cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth pangs of the Kingdom, the risen Christ is there, the Gospel is the power of life, the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity, authority is a liberating service, mission is a Pentecost, the liturgy is both memorial and anticipation, human action is deified.
With the Holy Spirit this Chapter can become like fire and stir into flame - as St Paul would say - the hearts of every SVD. After all, only those, who themselves are on fire, can set aflame others.
Our Founder knew very well the importance of the Holy Spirit in our mission and this idea is enshrined in almost all of our Constitutions. Most clearly in Const. 105:
Since missionary activity is by its very nature the work and revelation of the Holy Spirit, we place ourselves and our Society entirely under his guidance and direction. His light enables us to understand the gospel, to interpret the signs of the times and thus discern the will of God. His strength empowers us to become faithful co-workers and missionaries of the Divine Word.
Or as it is stated in the Draft Statement with regard to Jesus, whose mission it was to release the Spirit and to fill the disciples with his Spirit for mission:
Jesus, the Word of the Father, opens the hearts of the two disciples to a richer understanding of who he is and gives them courage and hope. By the guidance of his Spirit we too are led through his ministry, death and resurrection to a deeper knowledge of God as a Triune community of total-giving, total-receiving, and total-loving, ever present in our world and our lives. The presence of the Spirit sustains each of us in the lifelong process of becoming the full person the Father desires, as we grow as human beings in our relationships to God, to ourselves, to other people and creation (c. 523). This life in the Spirit is what we mean by spirituality (D. St. 39).
The Spirit is the face of God turned towards us. When God turns his face towards his creatures they come alive. God’s radiant countenance is the source of the Spirit’s outpouring, the source of God’s life, love and blessing. When we pray: “Let your face shine on us and be gracious to us”... we ask for the vivifying presence of the Holy Spirit. God’s face shining with joy is the radiant source of the Holy Spirit. His light streams through us and our faces become mirrors reflecting and disseminating this light. The experience of the Spirit is the “light shining in our hearts” (2 Cor 4:6) (Jürgen Moltmann).
All the preparations and all our considerations that have gone into planning this chapter will produce small results, if we don’t have the master’s spirit, the essential ingredient for the life of a disciple.
A young man was apprenticed to a master artist who produced the most beautiful stained glass windows ever seen. The apprentice could not approach the master's genius, so he borrowed his master's tools, thinking that was the answer. After several weeks, the young man said to his teacher, "I'm not doing any better with your tools than I did with mine." The teacher replied, "So, it's not the tools of the master you need; it's the spirit of the master you need."
What is needed most, is, therefore, first of all an unwavering trust and belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit who can enliven and will enliven our imagination and our enthusiasm for Christ and the mission he entrusted to us.
The use of our intelligence and gift for finding solutions
Secondly, following the basic principle of the early Church in its decision-making processes we have to use all our intelligence, our imaginative gifts and skills to find solutions and set directions for the problems and difficulties we are facing today. When we have not done our job, the Spirit cannot help us to honestly face and name the thorny problems and find solutions. Nothing is gained, if we go home seemingly in peace, yet a whole range of difficulties and unsolved matters have not been touched, because nobody wanted to deal with them. If we face them with openness and in mutual love and respect for differences in opinion, we are assured that the Spirit will be with us to find solutions or at least ways of living with the pain and the uncertainty.
Today we talk a lot about a paradigm shift over against a linear change. Linear would mean that we are looking at what is and extend it forward into the future. That can be done and has been done. Linear change is change based on continuation of what has been, with some slight or major variations (like rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic instead of changing the route of the ship). That is often what we mean when talking about trends, and how a particular trend may continue into the future.
A paradigm shift, on the other hand, is that movement, which begins when earlier systems of beliefs no longer work and a new movement has started to replace the old bringing with it new theories and a new understanding of the underlying realities. Others have called it “breakpoint” which describes a time of change when old solutions no longer work because the rules have shifted 180 degrees from what we have always known and applied.
Today we are experiencing such a shift in every aspect of life and it has never been that dramatic since humankind emerged on this globe. A linear approach will not do anymore. What is happening at the moment is a major paradigm shift which introduces discontinuities into the present for which a linear approach cannot offer any solutions. We need to see the present reality and the possible future in a way that is different from our usual viewpoint. We cannot anymore predict the future but we have to “invent” it.
Two things are asked for: first, to recognize that we are no longer involved in linear change; second, a tremendous belief in God, trusting that we as religious have still to offer something to the people of God. We need to scout the land and have a faith deep enough and strong enough to walk into this new land, fearful perhaps, but not daunted or paralyzed by our fears.
Will we dare to do that? Or will we decide that the flesh pots of Egypt are better? Will we go on to decide that it is better to return to the tried methods of the past and simply fix them a bit? Or do we - based on the insight that the paradigm shift does not allow us to remain where we are - trust in God’s promise and believe that we as SVD have a future in the Church and the world?
The known reality provides a comfort that we not so easily give up. But the fact is that change happens with or without our consent. History is filled with stories of groups and individuals who have fought change vigorously but history is also filled with the success stories of those changes that happened despite the resistance. We have the freedom to resist; we have the freedom to change. We are either the architects or the victims of change. Not all change is good; nor is all resistance to change good. As religious we have to ask ourselves now: what is the essence of religious life and what are the paradigm shifts that are occurring, and how best we can shape religious life for the future? Why such shaping? Because religious life exists for a reason, not just for itself. It exists as part of God‘s plan for the carrying out of the mission of Christ for the salvation of all. What impedes this mission must be eliminated, and what assists this mission needs to be embraced and be done with passion. Our congregation is not a place for perfect people or a preserve for men of steel. It is not an arena for gladiators, but home to a crowd of sinners infinitely loved by God.
What we have to master in our own situation today is the trust in the power of the Holy Spirit who made dry bones come alive. This however, will not dispense us of our own efforts to discover the signs of the Spirit at work. We have to release the power of our imagination and stretch ourselves towards new ways never traveled before to carry on the mission for the Kingdom. To rely solely on old patterns will not do, the paradigm shift we are undergoing is too obvious. Since we are disciples of Jesus whose mission we want to carry on, we have one firm starting point: we will have to turn to Jesus first and then go outdoors and proclaim what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus, proclaim how we have been changed by the power of the Spirit.
Sometimes we might get the feeling, especially in the western world, that we sit in the dark of a theatre waiting for a new play to begin, and the only thing we know for certain is that the program notes have been given for a different performance, but as we believe in God, try to follow Christ and hold on to his Spirit, we stay on, because we have not given up the habit of hoping.
Questions for reflections
• How sincerely am I convinced of the presence of the Holy Spirit during this Chapter and how ardently do I pray daily that his presence helps me personally and us all to achieve what God, through the Holy Spirit, wants to bring about through this Chapter irrespective whether the common resolutions are agreeable or not to my lifestyle and my mission work?
• How resolved am I to engage sincerely and prayerfully with all the members of the chapter in the search for solutions and guidelines for the problems we are facing?
• How willing am I to accept and support even those decisions which may not take my personal interests into consideration?
• Am I willing to work towards fundamental changes in my personal life and in my mission activities in general, if the Chapter resolutions ask for such a change?
• In the Draft Document under Called to Conversion (51-57) there are listed six being called: to Brotherhood - Deeper Faith - to Solidarity - to be more Catholic - to more Trust - to the Cross. Which of these being called can I honestly say are lived concerns in my life and which are not and why?
• Which of the steps towards renewal mentioned in the Draft Statement (58-61) do I feel need definitely more attention from me personally as well as from the whole of our Society?
Story for reflection:
When Mother Teresa was asked how she could face the overwhelming odds against her work in Calcutta, where the people she cared for were just a tiny fraction of those dying in the streets, she replied, "The good Lord did not sent me into the streets of Calcutta in order to be successful in what I do but to be faithful in witnessing to his love present in the midst of human suffering in the love I show to these people."
Success is no word for God in the Bible( Martin Buber)
Question: What counts in my life: success or faithfulness?