We began our reflection and sharing on community life in the last issue of the Petit Echo (n°1079). It is an aspect of our charism that is non-negotiable. Right from the beginning, our Founder wanted to make it an essential characteristic of our life. To-day, we are proud to say that it is part of our identity. Bishop Joseph Birraux, the Superior General (1936-1947) after Fr. Paul Voillard (1922-1936), already described it as part of the spiritual patrimony of our Society. The witness of our community life has certainly attracted many young people to us.
Yes, community life is non-negotiable; however, every Chapter has shown a concern to put it in its proper context and to adapt it to the circumstances of the day. Therefore, each Chapter has insisted on a particular aspect of living together. The Chapter of 2016 put the emphasis on four elements notably, family spirit, interculturality, the rule of three and the community project.
This issue of the Petit Echo deals with the famous rule of three also known as the golden rule of the Society as it was very dear to our Founder. Lavigerie was very practical. He regarded the rule of three as the most effective way of facing the difficulties of a missionary vocation. In his letter to Missionaries dated the 18th September 1874, he said this regarding the rule of three, “In the dangers which confront you everywhere but more especially in the midst of a pagan population, you will find a solid bulwark in the salutary prescription which prevents you under any circumstances or for any pretext whatsoever from being less than three in any mission station. This rule is set out in the following vigorous terms to which I draw your attention and must be observed to the letter: They must refuse the most attractive and urgent opportunities rather than infringe this rule; indeed the existence of the Society should be abandoned rather than this fundamental principle.” (Instructions, p. 43.) Six years later, in 1880, in a letter, dated 10th October and addressed to Fr. Livinhac, he maintained the same strictness. “Remember that the essential rule of your Society is that you remain three together at all times, whether you are travelling or in your mission posts. We are not prepared to make exceptions to this rule and in particular, I cannot admit that a missionary should be left on his own, far from his confreres, for any length of time. You are too young, amid too many dangers for you to set aside a rule which so strictly enjoins prudence and concern for your own reputation.” Today’s dangers are not the same as in 1874, but they are present nonetheless. The proof is that many confreres find themselves in difficulties nowadays.
The XXVIIIth General Chapter puts the emphasis strongly on this rule. It criss-crosses the whole of the Capitular Acts. It is mentioned, firstly, in the Discovery phase of the chapter on Community Life (p22) where the Capitulants declared, “What draws us to community life is the family spirit which enables us to feel we are brothers. This is even truer when the rule of three is respected.” It comes back again in the text in the Decision phase on Mission where the Capitular Acts in the first decision on Parishes (CA 3.4a p.31) exhort the Provinces, “that communities in parishes should consist of at least three confreres and that they should have a community apostolic project.” Finally, in the desire to support young confreres, the Chapter (CA 5.1c p 43) insisted, “The communities designated to receive young confreres must be viable and consist of at least three confreres (including the young confrere).”
The Chapter strongly invites us to return to the rule of three, which has suffered a certain decline since the Chapter of 1967. This was an era of the search for personal liberty and renewal. We were just emerging from the period of aggiornamento of the Vatican II and the spirit of ’68, which were having an impact on our Society as in many other congregations. We should remember, nevertheless, that the rule of three is not some magical solution. It appears in the text of the 2016 Chapter as part of three intrinsically interlinked elements: the rule of three, the family spirit, and the community project. We should remind ourselves of the strong words of the 1974 Chapter which declared after years of upheaval, “In whatever way it may be made up…a genuine White Father community will be recognised by the reality and depth of human relationships lived within it…, as a living witness to the Gospel and as an action-oriented group of apostles” (1974 Capitular Acts n° 94). It adds, “Rules and frameworks are in themselves sterile things. Community life is born of the shared desire of men to live truly together” (1974 CA n° 87). So on the one hand there is the rule, which the Cardinal called the skeleton of the community. It is indispensable but it does not give life as such. The heart, that is fraternal charity, needs to be in there as well. The last Chapter identified this as our family spirit.
The rule of three is not just a rule; it is also a way and an invitation to become more fraternal. The rule of three speaks to us of a physical presence. This physical presence needs fraternal charity to give it form and life. However, this physical presence also needs the rule of three with a family spirit and a common project, so that community life can respond to the demands of the Gospel. The 2016 Capitular Acts tell us, “Our communities are apostolic, they are formed and unified around a community project” (2016 CA p23). The project is the expression of the contribution of each one to the building up of the community and, at the same time, the means by which the unity of this community comes true. Bishop Birraux, in his time already, warned us against simply imposing the rule. One could live in threes, merely side by side. This is what he wrote, “I know that in many of our houses, the majority certainly, the community is as perfect as human weakness allows. However, we have other stations that are too much like a hostelry whose inhabitants come together four or five times a day for specific needs and in between times everyone does more or less what he likes. He does not accept to be disturbed in any way and does not care to get involved in the work of his neighbour even if it was only to give a little helping hand. Compartmentalisation is perfect, the partition is airtight, a tacit agreement rules the personal fief of each one and woe to anyone who violates it. One lives one’s life beside other confreres who are only concerned with living theirs.” (Letter of the 1st March 1937)
In the dynamic of Appreciative Discernment, we dreamed and now we are taking the means to bring this dream to fruition. We want to make our communities, where this is not yet the case, families that are open, welcoming, joyful, radiant, supportive, attentive to the most fragile and composed of not less than three confreres.