“The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves.” (Mark 6:30-32)
For many years now, our Society has placed great emphasis on the whole question of Ongoing Formation. Very deftly over those years our confreres, Marcel Neels, Guy Theunis, Herman Bastijns and Bernard Ugeux have done an amazing job in putting in place the various sessions and renewal programmes that have benefitted so many of our confreres, from young to old. Yet surely, they would be the first to point out that programmes, resources and practices do not constitute Ongoing Formation. They are the necessary instruments in the service of the wider purpose and direction of all formation. This has to do with our identity and that, from the very beginning of the formation process, has to be the constant thread woven through all our experiences with a view of personal integration (Who am I? What is my mission? What is the source of my mission? What energises me? Where am I called to grow?). Hopefully over the years I draw together my identity as a missionary and the service to the very mission of Jesus Christ.
Surely, renewal for us today involves reclaiming our charism and living with the same enthusiasm, creativity and inventiveness with which we began our missionary life and which characterised the life of so many of the confreres that have gone before us. All our efforts at renewal then must focus on our missionary calling, which sends us out to the African world and wherever our charism is needed for a prophetic mission of encounter and witness to the love of God.
Ongoing formation is important for each and every one of us for we are continuously in a process of maturation, a process that goes on up to the very end of one’s life. It is all about seeking to grow, allowing ourselves to be transformed. Ongoing Formation is about cherishing, nourishing and cultivating the call that we heard long ago to become a missionary and we know that for growth to happen we must allow ourselves to be pruned and to develop our full potential. Thus, we can say, that for us missionaries, Ongoing Formation is a consolidating action by which we clarify our initial response to the call we heard so long ago, a call that hopefully becomes strengthened and matured in an continual process throughout the years. Thus, the full meaning of spiritual transformation is our ability to attain personal integration and wholeness.
The Society can provide a number of different courses and sessions, but we must never forget we are also free agents – the primary responsibility for my continued formation lies with myself, in my free cooperation and in my willingness to learn and be open and docile. We are formed each day and at every moment of each day by our community life and our ministry and by the way we nourish our spiritual and human growth. But the Society in its wisdom gives us an opportunity to seek renewal at specific moments of our life.
We must be careful however not to see certain sessions as a quick fix for serious problems. Maybe some of us in leadership expect such ‘Ongoing Formation sessions’ to solve all the present and future problems of specific confreres. Ongoing Formation sessions may be a great help in helping us stay in tune with the spirit that is guiding our lives but, in themselves, they cannot ensure perseverance and fidelity or to provide a fire wall to protect us from all that might erode our vocation. Above all, our Ongoing Formation is an awareness of the constant need for conversion and transformation; it is our openness to the promptings of the Spirit. Maybe we will never change the world or the society in which we live but in the final analysis, as followers of Jesus, our task will always be to transform ourselves and hopefully, in the process, invite others to do the same.
Francis Barnes, M.Afr.