Reflections on formation (PE nr. 1089 – 2018/03)

Many thanks to Freddy for the first issue of the Petit Echo on Formation in the Society. Thanks also to Dave Sullivan for his fine summary presentation of the changes that have taken place over the years in this field. At the end of his article he asks for people to share comments, memories and experience of their own formation. So here goes.

I was a product of St Boswells and the Priory, the junior seminaries of the British Province. It is true that the standard of academic education was not high, most of the staff being members of the Society who had been sent to teach without any formal training. From the point of view of missionary training these colleges scored better: the boys attending were a mixed bunch, from England, Scotland and Ireland, and also from different levels of society; there was an emphasis on prayer life; living conditions were pretty Spartan.

In first year Philosophy we were taught by two men who had studied Canon Law. They did their best, out of obedience, but it was a great relief when in second year a new teacher arrived who was trained in philosophy and had enthusiasm for his subject. Incidentally when the two canon lawyers eventually got to Africa both of them did excellent work in the field of canon law.

I asked to make the novitiate in Maison Carrée, but was told that it was better to follow this important year in one’s own native tongue, so I was sent to ’s- Heerenberg with the other British and Irish candidates. There, of course, we were outnumbered by the Dutch, and joined by six Germans; so there did not seem to be any objection to these following the novitiate programme in a language that was not their own.

Fortunately at the end of the novitiate four of us, two Dutch, one Scot and myself, were sent to Tunisia for Theology. There was no “stage” at that time. Candidates went straight through their formation, philosophy, novitiate, theology, to ordination. Dave states that “the ‘stage’ was introduced by the 1974 Chapter as an integral part of formation” (p.35). My recollection is that it was still not obligatory for all candidates. Some African candidates felt that, as they were Africans, they already had this African experience, and so they could dispense with these two years and move directly to theology and on to ordination. It was the General Council with Fr. Robert Gay (1980-1986) that extended the period of apostolic training for all candidates.

Formerly, as mentioned by Dave, for those sent to Tunisia for Theology the first years were spent in Thibar and the final year in Carthage. The year we arrived, 1957, all the classes were grouped in Carthage, while the house in Thibar, next to the large farm, was turned into an agricultural school run by the Society for young Tunisians. This year also saw the dropping of the title “Brother” when talking to one another, and the change from ‘vous’ to ‘tu’. For those of us who had only school-boy French, this meant that we had to revise our verbs to find the unfamiliar ‘tu’ forms.

It seems to me that the teaching we had in Carthage was better than that described by Dave. Our staff had been trained in their subjects. We had one lecturer in Theology whose classes were at the same time grounded in Patrology and yet pastoral, and another who was able to distil for us Schillebeeckx which he was reading in the original Flemish.

The 1957 Chapter decided that the Scholasticates should be oriented to different forms that the mission would take. I do not know how this applied to Eastview, Heverlee and ’s Heerenberg. At Carthage, situated in a majority Muslim country, the orientation was naturally towards the apostolate among Muslims. This meant the introduction of Arabic into the programme. Fr. Maurice Borrmans ( 26.12.2017) would come from La Manouba, the centre for Arabic and Islamic studies, every Monday afternoon for two hours of teaching. His task was not made easier by the fact that on Mondays there was always couscous for lunch. Some classes in Islamics were also included in the programme. It would have been more useful if the theology teachers had been able to speak about Islam during their regular courses, but this would have needed a specially trained staff.

One last feature could be mentioned. The 1957 Chapter stressed the Ignatian character of our missionary spirituality and decided that the novices, during their novitiate, would make the 30-Day Retreat. I found that those who joined us in the scholasticate, having made the full Spiritual Exercises, had acquired a greater spiritual maturity.

Formation has changed, in its location, to some extent in its content, and in its spirit, yet its purpose has not changed: to train good Missionaries of Africa.

+ Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr.

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