Wednesday 1 June 2022
We are on the eve of the opening of our General Chapter, an important event for the life of the Institute. It is a time of evaluation, discernment and decision for the years to come. After the preparation and sharing phase in which we have all been involved, in one way or another, now our eyes are on the confreres we have chosen as our representatives.
We accompany them with our trust and our prayers, so that this assembly may be a true “cenacle of apostles”, where mutual listening and openness to the voice of the Spirit can create the ideal conditions to open the doors to the newness of God.
We look, we pray and … we formulate our wishes and wishes! The world and ecclesial context is particularly challenging, with its threatening clouds and flashes of light. This is no time for a good-natured “everything will be fine!” and not even for a catastrophic pessimism, but an opportunity to renew trust in the Lord who sails with us in the same boat.
The frame in which our Chapter time takes place seems to me particularly significant: it opens on June 1, the anniversary of the foundation of the Institute, continues with Pentecost and moves towards the feast of the Heart of Jesus. These three anniversaries suggest three wishes for our Chapter. The first on the mission of the Institute today; the second on our fraternity in the light of the Cenacle of Pentecost; the third on our Comboni spirituality of the Heart of Christ. Three icons will illustrate my reflection.
1. EVANGELIZATION: Raising the Duc in altum, renewing the audacity to TAKE AWAY
Duc in altum! (Lk 5: 4) was the motto and the icon proposed by the Church for the third millennium: ” Duc in altum! This word resounds for us today, and invites us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with passion, to open ourselves to the future with confidence “(GP II, Novo millennio ineunte, n.1). The Letter concluded with this repeated invitation to the Duc in altum : “Let us go forward with hope! A new millennium opens up before the Church as a vast ocean in which to venture” (n. 58). Of course, there was nothing to predict the tsunami of terrorism, which a few months later would upset the structures of international coexistence, much less that of abuses, which still seriously shakes the credibility of the Church.
Our Chapters of 1997 and 2003, at the turn of the millennium and between Comboni’s beatification and canonization, also breathed this “sense of enthusiasm” (cf. Letter of the GC introducing the CA 1997) , which led to “looking at the future with optimism ” (CA 2003, n. 1). The decline of the Institute that would begin soon after helped to cool down a bit ‘that optimism and enthusiasm.
Today, at the world and ecclesial level, we are experiencing moments that could further shake our confidence, with a consequent fallback. The Duc in altum, with the stormy high seas, may appear to us as a utopia, and may incite the “prudence” of limiting ourselves to fishing in shallow and calmer waters (ie of our status quo).
Pope Francis has stressed, on several occasions, that “today we are not living in an era of change, but a change of era”. The cloudiness of the contours of this epochal change and the uncertainties that derive from it for the future may lead us into the temptation to limit ourselves to ” washing ” (Luke 5,2) or to ” repairing ” (Mark 1,19) the nets (of the Rule of Life , Ministeriality, Economy and Training), waiting for better times to dare more.
In addition to the “third world war in pieces” (which now risks becoming global!), With serious repercussions on the South of the world, especially in Africa, I would like to underline the gravity of the pandemic, not so much for the health emergency, but especially for (the unexpected ?!) acceleration of the secularization process of the Western world (the phenomenon of “empty churches”). Some analysts speak of a ten-year acceleration. Many pastors of the Church still hope (almost certainly deluding themselves!) That once the pandemic emergency has passed, normalities will be returned to before. If the phenomenon mainly concerns the Western world, it is not certain that sooner or later it will not have serious repercussions also in the South of the world. This means that a profound change of mentality, of setting up ecclesial life and the method of evangelization. I believe that the synodal process underway, which wants to introduce the principle of synodality into the Church (“What concerns everyone by everyone must be discussed and deliberated”) , and an attempt to respond to the urgent need to seek a truly “new” evangelization, not only in the old churches of Christian tradition but globally, in this unprecedented change epochal we are witnessing. How many of us have become aware of the extent of this ecclesial change in progress (which I would dare to say Copernican)? To what extent have we taken it seriously and are we willing to get involved in this process?
I think that, to rethink our evangelization, we need a decisive blow of the wing to tune in with the new wind that the Spirit wants to impress on his Church and revive it with audacity in the Duc in altum.
Concretely for us Comboni Missionaries, in my opinion, this Duc in altum addressed to our Institute requires us to face some urgencies. I point out four:
– Do not stop looking for new ways of missionary commitment , in evangelization and animation, with creativity and with humble but stubborn audacity, accepting even failure. This involves simpler and more provisional structures (the Comboni Sisters could be an example in this!). Reading the book of the Acts of the Apostles that the liturgy offers us for the Easter season is particularly illuminating: the Spirit closes doors for us but opens others to us, which we are called to discern. We could run the risk of sacrificing new forces for the survival of old structures that have outlived their time, more concerned with reopening the doors that close, rather than looking for the new doors that open!
– Be attentive to the danger of the ” parochialization ” of our presence, which would compromise fidelity to our specific missionary charism. It can become a tempting temptation in these times of uncertainty about our role in a changing Church. But where is our charismatic prophecy, if in the end we operate like any diocesan parish? A Comboni parish would justify itself only in terms of a very specific missionary objective and with a specific Comboni approach. To do what everyone is doing would be betraying our charism and the expectations of the Church!
– To fight against clericalism , which is still very present in certain areas of the Institute, both in the mentality and in the approach to missionary work. The Pope never tires of repeating that clericalism is a stumbling block on the path of the Church and the matrix of so many vices that obscure our testimony!
– To sensitize and prepare the confreres on the themes of JPIC , which have an ever more preponderant weight in missionary service and witness. I think we are very unprepared in this area!
2. CENACLE COMMUNITY: Rethinking FRATERNITY
Icon – the Cenacle of Pentecost: “Entering the city, they went up to the room on the upper floor, where they used to meet … All these were persevering and in agreement in prayer, together with some women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the brothers of him ” (cf. Acts 1: 13-14).
The expression “cenacle of apostles” seems dear to Comboni. We find it six times in the Writings, if I’m not mistaken (2027, 2622, 2648, 4088, 4119, 4763). In two of them he refers to our Institute as a “new cenacle of African Apostles” (2622) and “as a small Cenacle of Apostles for Africa” (2648).
We have been using this expression for some time as a kind of icon for our community life. Undoubtedly it has been and still is a strong inspirational reminder for the Comboni community. However, it seems to me that we should redeem this expression from a use that is too narrow and narrow, and even a little intimist, in which it is sometimes confined. It should be brought back to its original reality, that of the Cenacle of Pentecost. There we find a very large community, an apostolic community where in addition to the apostles there are women, including the Mother of Jesus, and her family and friends. Luke even speaks of one hundred and twenty people (Acts 1:15). It is not a room or a living room for a few close friends but an extended community.
Where would I like to go? It seems to me that the time has come to make our communities more open and inclusive, opening them to the totality of the richness and variety of the Comboni charism, shared with the Comboni Missionaries, the Seculars, the CLM and friends. For about fifty years, the Comboni Sisters have rightly undertaken their own path of autonomy, like so many other female institutes often too dependent on the male branch which prevented them from expressing their originality and richness. Now, having reached that goal, wouldn’t it be appropriate to rethink our apostolic collaboration? Of course friendship, communion and collaboration have never failed, but I believe that Comboni would be happy if this charismatic communion were to develop. Often contacts are limited to the level of Councils,
The relationship with the Seculars seems even weaker to me. How many of us are in the least aware of their life and their missionary choices? As for the CLM, I believe that we all joyfully witnessed their birth. But as time passes, a certain perplexity grows in me about the path taken. Maybe mine is ignorance or exaggeration, but it seems to me that our general orientation is that everyone goes on his own behalf. All brothers and sisters, on good terms of friendship and collaboration, but each at his home! Personally I believe that a greater sharing of the charism at the level of the Comboni Family should be pursued. Something has been tried in Limone. I would go further: you could not take a step forward to move from a simple (and sporadic) COL-LABORATION to some new modality of CON-VIVENCE?
Our Chapter of 1991 had invited the provinces to seek ” new ways of community life” (AC 32.2). The result was disappointing, despite the commitment of the GC at the time, due to resistance. Would it be pure utopia to hypothesize today about experiences of community coexistence and shared work at the level of the Comboni Family?
3. SPIRITUALITY: Cultivating INTERIORITY
Icon – The room of the prophet Elisha : “Let’s prepare a small room upstairs, in masonry, let’s put a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp, so that, coming to us, he can withdraw there” (cf. 2 Kings 4.8-10).
I’m really going too long, so I try to limit myself now to a few ideas and an underlining.
I find this biblical icon (I invite you to read the text!) Particularly eloquent. For that wing stroke to which the Spirit invites us we need the community’s Cenacle (in the city, “upstairs”). But each of us also needs the “small room upstairs” of the Prophet, “in masonry”, that is solid and stable, where to cultivate the interiority, to which the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus reminds us. There the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus must predominate. sobriety and essentiality: a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp. The bed reminds us of the need for a healthy balance between doing and resting; the table and the chair, reflection and study; the lamp, meditation on the Word, “lamp for our steps” (Psalm 119,105).
I would like to dwell a little on reflection and study which refer us to ongoing formation. The Institute is making a great and commendable effort to organize courses but it seems to me that we have not been able to create personal habits of ongoing formation. Furthermore, with regard to study, I would dare to say that, although we have arrived at a rotation in the service of authority in the young provinces, the same cannot be said of the cultural preparation of our young confreres. The current challenges of society and of the mission require a greater specialization in our service, also with the attainment of academic qualifications, particularly in the subjects that concern our charismatic specificity. The more or less short courses of immediate preparation for a specific service seem to me insufficient, even if useful and necessary. It is alarming that time is taking away the figures who have been a point of reference, provocation and stimulus for missionary reflection and awareness, both at the level of the Institute and of our presence in the Church and in society, without new ones emerging. It seems to me that we are culturally impoverishing.
Despite the continuous emergencies that the Institute and the provinces are facing, it should be identified, already in the final phase of basic formation, the confreres who, due to their particular abilities and gifts, supported by a good vocational solidity, could be directed towards specialization studies. It is not a question of creating an “elite”, much less encouraging careerism, but of promoting a precious service that requires self-denial and sacrifice. This cannot be undertaken at forty. I therefore believe that the current formative process oriented towards the period of “missionary service” should be personalized in view of certain services towards the mission of the Institute.
I apologize for the length of my reflection and conclude with a prayer proposal for this time of the Chapter: to add a sixth mystery to the personal recitation of the rosary, meditating on the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church in the Upper Room. May the presence of Mary obtain for us the grace of the descent of the Spirit in our “capitular cenacle”!
Fr. Manuel João Pereira Correia
Castel d’Azzano, 31 May 2022
Feast of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary