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"Consecrated Life is Prophesy" Pope Francis to Superior Generals of Religious Orders

The Union of Superiors General (USG) held its 82nd General Assembly in the Salesianum in Rome from 27 to 29 November. The accounts of three experiences provided the basis for the reflections and meetings of the various linguistic groups.

Fr. Janson Herve, of the Little Brothers of Jesus, spoke of the “lights which help me to live this service of my brothers and sisters and how Pope Francis strengthens my hope”. Br. Mauro Johri, Capuchin, spoke “how Pope Francis is inspiring and challenging me in the service of animation of my Order”. Finally, Fr. Hainz Kuluke, of the Society of the Divine Word, dwelt on the “internal leadership of a Religious Missionary Congregation in an international and inter-cultural context in the light of the example of Pope Francis”.

The meeting with the Pontiff closed the Assembly. It was not a brief period, as was requested by the USG but, at the request of the same Holy Father, it lasted the entire morning. There were no prepared discourses, but a fraternal and cordial conversation consisting of questions and replies which examined many aspects of religious life and of the problems which currently assail it. The Pope, in his replies, frequently enriched the discourse with personal stories taken from his pastoral experience.

The first group of questions related to the identity and mission of consecrated life. What type of consecrated life do we expect to-day? That of being a special witness: “You must be truly witnesses in a different way of doing and of behaving. They are the embodied values of the Kingdom”. Being  radical is requested of all Christian, the Pontiff stated, but the religious are called to follow the Lord in a special way: “They are men and woman who can awaken the world and illuminate the future. Consecrated life is prophecy. God asks us to leave the nest which holds us and be sent to the frontiers of the world, avoiding the temptation to 'domesticate' them.” The Holy Father continued saying that prophesy is to strengthen that which is “institutional” - i.e. the charism - in the consecrated life and not to confuse this with the individual apostolic work. The first remains, the second passes. The charism remains because it is strong. At times, charism is confused with work. Charism is creative; it always searches for new ways. Charismatic witness, the Pope continued, must be realistic and also include the fact of presenting ourselves as witnesses who are sinners: “We all make mistakes. We must recognise our weakness. To acknowledge our being sinners, does everyone good.”

“You, Pope Francis” - asked one of those present - “have persistently invited us to go to the frontiers/margins. But in what way?” The Pope replied that the view of the world is different from the periphery rather than from the centre, and this obliges us to continually re-think our religious life. And here he recalled a letter of Fr. Arrupe to social centres of the Society of Jesus in which he states that, in order to make a preferential choice for the poor, you need to live with the poor. “You need to look at everything from the point of view of the periphery. You need to go to the periphery to really understand the experience of the people. Otherwise, there is the danger of a rigid fundamentalist position and based on a centralised vision. This is not healthy. An example: Someone who works with the young does not speak excessively structured things because these things just wash off the youth. To-day, God asks us to leave the nest which keeps us. Even those in enclosure are invited with their prayer so that the Gospel may grow in the world. I am convinced that the most important hermeneutic key and the completion of the evangelical mandate is: ‘Go! Go!.”                                                                              [NOTE: hermeneutics is “the art of interpretation”]

They then passed onto the theme of vocations and formation. The Pope underlined how the geography of religious life has changed and there are young Churches which give new fruit, with abundant vocations. Certainly, all cultures have the capacity to arouse vocations. Obviously, however, there is need to ward off dramatic phenomena such as the so-called “novice trade” by which someone goes in search of novices in some countries who do not have a house of that Congregation, in order to be sent to works and houses of other countries where vocations are lacking. You need to understand that the right intention, however, which may not be perfect at the beginning but which must be purified during the years up till final profession. However, you must always be vigilant and “keep your eyes open. Perhaps the novice is looking for a refuge, a consolation?”. This naturally obliges us to re-think the enculturation of the charism which is unique but interacts with the individual culture. The Church must ask pardon and look at the unsuccessful apostolates with much shame because of the errors in this area as, for example, in the case of Matteo Ricci in China, who was misunderstood. The inter-cultural dialogue must push for the introduction into the government of the religious Institutes, people of various cultures who express diverse ways of living the charism. It is not about folkloristic enculturation, but it is a question of mentality, of a way of thinking. You cannot form religious without taking into account their culture, their vision of the world. Discernment and intercultural dialogue are necessary. You cannot lose your personal and cultural identity.

The Pope then persisted on the topic of formation which, in his view, is based on four fundamental pillars: spiritual, intellectual, communitarian and apostolic formation. It is essential to avoid every form of hypocrisy and clericalism, thanks to a frank and open dialogue on every aspect of life: “Formation is a craft, not a policing activity”,  stated Pope Francis: “the objective is to form religious who have a tender heart and not one of acid, like vinegar”. To educate is to dedicate to a person more or less time depending on their capacity, their culture. Otherwise we form ”little monsters”, said the Pontiff. One mustn’t forget that “the young person has another language, other categories. I am not speaking of geographical cultures, but a cultural change which responds to a time change”. There is a need to form the young people so that they are witnesses of the resurrection, of the values of the Gospel, in order to form and guide the people. The objective of the formation is to be formed for the people of God. You must think about “the faithful people of God”. Therefore, if a seminary accepts an ex-religious who was sent away from a religious institute for serious reasons, it is not thinking of the people of God, and this is a serious problem. For example, then, the courage which Benedict XVI had in facing the cases of abuse, will serve as an example of having the same courage in the obligation for formation, said the Pope, who concluded: “We are not forming administrators, managers, but fathers, brothers, sisters, companions on the way”.

In regard to Brothers in consecrated life, the Pope said that their vocation “is not a second class one but is a different vocation”. It is necessary to study this aspect in depth, highlighting its value. “In fact, I don’t believe that this vocation is finished”, said Pope Francis, but “we must understand what God is asking of us”. A document on religious brothers exists which for a long time is being revised by the Congregation for religious. It will be necessary to re-examine it. Replying to a query on the question of religious brothers as superiors in clerical orders, the Pope replied that this deals with a canonical question and may eventually be placed at that level.

Another group of questions were in regard to community. The Pope said that that has an enormous attraction. It pre-supposed the acceptance of differences and conflicts. There are diverse forms of community depending the diverse institutes. Community life may be very difficult, but it is important, it is a witness. The lack of this hinders the journey.  “A person who is not able to live community life, is not suitable for religious life”, said the Pope. Sometimes there is a tendency towards individualism which is often a flight from community. Community life lived badly, doesn’t help one to grow. But with one’s brothers in difficulty, how does you reconcile mercy, understanding and firmness? “There are also members in difficulty in the best families”, said the Pope. “Community conflicts must exist: you must not dream of a community or human group without difficulties and without conflicts”, but the community must tolerate conflicts. Conflicts exist and must exist and you overcome them, not eliminating them or ignoring them and covering them up, but confronting them. “At times, we are very cruel. The common temptation is to criticise for personal satisfaction or to gain one’s own advantage”, said the Pope. Sometimes, an accompaniment is necessary, above all when it concerns a brother who is physically or mentally ill. In every case, “we must never act as managers in the face of conflict with a brother, but our charity must achieve an expression of tenderness towards him”. In the face of the conflict, we must not behave like the priest or the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan who pass by …; we cannot avoid conflicts nor must we be in conflicts foolishly; instead, we must enter the conflict and be wise, looking for means to resolve it. We must make the conflict our own with patience and wisdom. I know that it makes us suffer but we need to adjust ourselves to resolve it and go forward, never pretending to ignore it. Certainly, if nothing changes, other solutions will be needed, such as changing community or leaving the congregation, but everything must be done with tenderness. At this point, the Pope recalled a personal experience with a young man of 22 who was depressed and an alcoholic but who recovered because of the look of tenderness of his mother. Now he is an affirmed person. We must pray, asking for the grace of tenderness. “There is a sentence in the Office of St. Joseph which I liked very much, where it says about how St. Joseph treated his family: with ‘eucharistic tenderness’. Thus we need to treat our brothers: with eucharistic tenderness”, concluded the Pope.

Other questions were then posed on the mutual relationship between religious and the particular Churches in which they were included. The Pope stated that, through personal experience, he knew possible problems: “We Bishops must understand that the consecrated people are not material helpers, but they are charisms which enrich the dioceses”. He continued: “The Dioceses have need of your charisms”. The diocesan inclusion of the religious communities is therefore important, as it is important that the Bishop recognises and respects their charisms. The conflicts, in general, arise through lack of dialogue. And in this regard, the Pope makes reference to some of his experiences, both negative and positive, when he was a bishop in his diocese. He also noted that the theme was dealt with many times and at many stages, and the Prefect of the Congregation for Consecrated Life is preparing a document which intends to be participative.

The last questions were in regard to the frontiers of the mission of the consecrated religious. But what are these boundaries? “They are looked for, on the basis of the charisms of each institute”, replied the Pope. I don’t wish to deny or minimize any boundary, but all must be discerned according to the charism of every religious group, recalled the General Prefect of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Arrupe, and the choice made by him in his time was in favour of refugees. “The realities of exclusion remain the most significant priorities, he said, but these also require discernment. The first criteria is that of sending the best people, the most gifted, into these situations. They are situations of greater risk which require courage and much prayer. And it is necessary that the superior accompanies the people involved in this work.

Alongside this challenge of the emarginated, he cited the cultural and educative challenge in the schools and in the universities. In this sector, consecrated life can offer an enormous service. He recalled: “When the Fathers of ‘La Civilta’ Cattolica’ came to see me, I spoke to them about the frontiers of thought, of individual and weak thought. To them, I thus recommended that these boundaries; as, on the other hand, I remember the Major Rector of the Salesians, whose frontier is the Patagonia, i.e. the dream of Don Bosco”. For the Pope, the pillars of education are: transmit conscience, transmit ways of doing things, interrogation ourselves on how to announce Jesus Christ to a generation which changes”. He then insisted: “The educative task to-day is key, key, key!” He then cited some of his personal experiences in Buenos Aires on the preparation required to welcome in educative contexts, children and the young who had problems, especially in their family. How to announce Christ to these young people? You must be attentive, he added, to not administer to them “a vaccine against faith”.

Before departing the 120 Superior Generals present, the Pope announced that 2015 will be a year dedicated to consecrated life and, leaving the Aula he stated: “I thank you, I thank you for this act of faith which you have made in this meeting. Thank you, for what you have done, for your spirit of faith and research of service. Thank you for your witness, for the martyrs you have given to the Church and also for the humiliations through which you must pass through: it is the way of the Cross”.



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