With this month of July, we are beginning the second half of our last preparatory year celebrating our 150th Anniversary. The chosen theme invites us “to look to the future with hope.” In the different Provinces and Sections, the Coordinating committees are working feverishly to make this year a year of renewal that is as much spiritual and structural as missionary. July is also the month when we publish the latest list of appointments, which reminds us of our initial commitment, our availability and our generosity at the service of the Mission.
It is in the light of these elements that I would like to introduce this issue of the Petit Echo, based on questions that guided the reflection and sharing of our confreres 50 years ago on the occasion of the celebration of the centenary of our foundation: “How do you assess the evolution of the Society? In your opinion, is there continuity or rupture in the way we are living our missionary ideal? What are your hopes and fears for the future?” These questions invite us to reflect on how our Founder’s insights are being incarnated, inculturated and updated over the years.
The 1968 questions are still relevant today. We can make them our own. How many times have I heard confreres say: “I do not recognize the Society which I signed up for”?
Two themes from the leadership training programme, Faith and Praxis, the International Leadership Development Programme, which the General Council followed in 2017 and 2018 along with leaders from eight other congregations, have inspired my approach to this question. The aim of the programme was: “To stimulate and facilitate members of General Councils to work better in their actual environment, in a faith approach, as a team and with their congregation during the time of their mandate at the service of the integral development of the members and the Society.” The first theme dealt with the Aspiration of the Founder and the second theme was entitled From the Source to the Ocean.
The exploration of our Founder’s deepest wish (aspiration) was represented as a spring that develops into a river and flows towards the ocean. This allowed me a better understanding of the evolution of our Missionary Society. More than 150 years ago, Charles Lavigerie, then Bishop of Nancy, had a profound experience of God that transformed his life in a radical way. We can locate this experience on the occasion of his pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Martin of Tours whom he thought of as the consummate pastor, monk and missionary. One night he had a dream: in a faraway and unknown country, he had a vision of brown and black people coming to him. At around the same time, he was informed of the death of Bishop Louis Pavy, (+1866), the Bishop of Algiers, and the proposal of Marshal MacMahon, the Governor General of Algeria, that he take up the vacant episcopal seat of Algiers. Bishop Pavy, whose motto was “I will not die, I will live,” had once told Lavigerie when showing him an image of his motto “It is up to you to bear witness in all places for the need (of people) to abandon Islam for the law of the Lord.” Putting all these experiences together: the motto of Bishop Pavy, St Martin de Tours, the complete image of a missionary; brown and black people in an unknown and distant country, Lavigerie understood God’s call in a way that was to transform his life into an intense aspiration. The session helped us to experience this founding experience as a river which carries our Charism.
The image of the river indicates a direction and carries in itself the idea of growth. Like the river that flows from the spring to the ocean, taking different forms according to the geography of the place, adapting to different obstacles in its path, our Society and the Charism that it carries has passed through diverse experiences since leaving its source which is the intuition of our Founder that is, at the same time, in constant relationship with its present environment. The Society continues its journey in the perspective of the purpose that the Lord inspired in our Founder. Whoever says purpose says direction, aim, and pathway. Focusing on purpose takes us out of the world of limited meaning and into the world that gives us a sense of orientation. I use this idea of orientation to support the idea of purpose and aim. When we talk about the meaning of a word, it is determined within a linguistic game. A word has meaning when it tends towards other words to limit itself and distinguish itself from them. Orientation, however, leads to transcendence, to a horizon. Orientation means making a movement towards a goal, for a purpose. This movement is first and foremost spiritual. The world of meaning is the world of immanence that locks us into everyday life and crisis management. The risk we run as a Missionary Society is that of locking ourselves into a world of meaning that does not propel us towards a purpose, or a horizon, but makes us go around in circles focussing on our problems and concerns about personnel, finances, integrity and forgetting what we were founded for: the Mission.
Our deepest aspiration today as a Missionary Society expresses its hope in the theme of this preparatory jubilee year and is a creative interpretation of the deepest wish of our Founder. It orients us towards a purpose which is a source of energy for the Society and for each of its members. The General Council, during the leadership course, has, in one exercise, represented the evolution of our Missionary Society through two images. The first is a boat sailing down a river, often deep, sometimes shallow, flowing towards the ocean. On the boat, the passengers change often as there are those who embark and those who disembark. On the 2nd February 1869 three men put on the white habit for the first time. They were Frs. Charmetant, Deguerry and Bouland and all were French. However, soon afterwards, others came to join them. A German, in the person of Bro. Hieronymous (Karl Baumeister) had already received the white habit from the hands of the Cardinal himself on the 16th May 1870. Then it was the turn of Belgium represented by Fr. Camille Van der Straeten in 1879 followed by a Dutchman in 1880. The first from the American continent was a Canadian who joined in 1886. Then, people came from Africa and from Asia (Indians and the Philippines). Today we are contemplating the possibility of promoting the mission and missionary vocations in Vietnam. And why not, if that is what Lord is expecting of us. At the pastoral level, there are new initiatives in PEP and AMS which correspond to our charism. Certainly the Society has changed its face but it still depends on its source.
The second image that the General Council chose is that of a map of Africa full of human faces expressing different sentiments and emotions. These brown and black faces are the ones who called the Cardinal to their service. It reminds us that Africa remains our starting point from which we radiate our charism. Didn’t Lavigerie himself say that Africa is the constant object of our thoughts, our commitment and our prayers? The map is coloured in the colours of the five continents, symbolising openness and responsiveness to the signs of the times. To look to the future with hope is to remain connected to the source in creative fidelity and to believe in Him who calls, sends and gives the means to accomplish the mission.