The Petit Echo asked me to share with the confreres my experience in the accompaniment and integration of young confreres. In this article, in addition to sharing my experience in this area, I will indicate some factors which could help young confreres to be more resilient in the Mission.
When I was appointed as Assistant Provincial of PAC (Province d’Afrique Centrale) from 2009 to 2013, the two Provincials (Emmanuel Ngona and Placide Lubamba, later Bishop of Kasongo) charged me with the task of looking after the accompaniment of young confreres to the Province. As a Provincial team, we had made the support of young confreres a priority. We were aware that the first years of missionary experience after Initial Formation constituted a transition, which certainly presents opportunities to grow on the personal side and in the service of the Mission. However, there are also risks tied to maintaining a proper equilibrium between the demands of pastoral work, community and spiritual life, relaxation and relationships outside of the community. In addition, socio-political tensions, instability and insecurity which prevail in the region (unfortunately, this is still true of the area today) demand that we pay more attention to young confreres arriving in the Province.
When a young confrere is appointed to the PAC, the Provincial or Assistant Provincial visits the community to which he is appointed before he arrives. During this visit, the question of the reception and the integration of the young confrere is discussed. Experience shows that reassessing the community project when the new member arrives and the fact of holding regular community councils are very useful ways of assuring his integration in the community and in pastoral work.
Other methods that we used for supporting the young confreres were a meeting of confreres in “first term of mission,” and the annual formation session for young confreres, visits to the communities and informal contacts. In this article, I will focus on the meeting of the confreres on “first term of mission” and the annual formation session for young confreres.
The meeting of the “confreres on the first term of mission” takes place every three years. It brings together the confreres who are in their first, second and third year of mission. This meeting takes a good week and is organised around four important points.
The first major moment of the meeting is devoted to sharing and listening to the personal experiences of the participants. Each sharing session is followed by Q&A session for clarification or just so that the other confreres can give words of encouragement. Morning and Evening Prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist are privileged moments where the shared experiences are presented to God.
The second big moment is devoted to the deepening of certain themes which have emerged from the sharing and which were judged to be of interest for the whole group.
The third key moment is given over to visits: visiting some inspiring places (parishes or centres where men and women work together to be witnesses of hope among the most marginalised and vulnerable), visits to communities and a visit to the local Bishop if circumstances allow.
The fourth and last important moment is the time given to evaluating the meeting and the whole thing finishes with a relaxing outing.
If the meeting of “confreres on first term of mission” is an important component for their support and integration, it is not confined to this encounter only. Therefore, every year, we organise a formation session for the young confreres of the Province. The confreres who were in their first term of mission and those in their second term of mission take part in this session which often takes place just after the annual retreat. Depending on the theme and the availability of the facilitator, the gathering can last from three to five days. There is a double objective to these sessions. One is an opportunity for some Ongoing Formation and the second is that it allows the young men to meet again, to share their experiences in an informal way, to encourage one another or to challenge one another if that is what is needed. It is a kind of mutual support that the young confreres carry out among themselves. My presence during these sessions and through individual meetings with one or other of them is also an opportunity to accompany them on their journey.
The first term of mission is an occasion of enthusiasm and fervour for the new confreres. They have journeyed for more than ten years and now, at last, has come the moment to fully live the evangelical and missionary values which they have nourished and brought to maturity during their years of training. At the same time, the first years of mission produce their own challenges which, among others, are tied to the fact of having a new role and new responsibilities not only in the Church but in society at large. The fact that they are no longer in a formation house with a well-established rhythm of life and the fact that they find themselves in a new socio-economic and political context, to have to learn to live with new confreres, not to mention learning a new language etc. all these elements present particular challenges. So, what can we do to help a young confrere integrate successfully all these new experiences? It seems to me that building resilience can be the beginning of finding an answer to this question.
What does resilience mean? Resilience is defined as having the human capacity to confront adversity, to overcome it and to learn lessons from it and even better to allow oneself to be transformed by it. Even if we have very varied capacities for resilience, each person can develop his capacity to cope. I suggest that there are five factors which can help develop resilience among the young confreres. (I do not give them in their order of importance).
The first factor which can help develop resilience is to have a positive perception of oneself. This signifies a certain amount of self-confidence, a positive vision of oneself, a capacity to meet and accept setbacks and to overcome them and to learn from mistakes and in the end to have the ability to know how to be grateful.
The second factor is the ability to maintain significant interpersonal relationships. Healthy and sound relationships allow us to share with others what we are currently experiencing (our joys, our sorrows, our fears, and our hopes). Such relationships help grow our sense of belonging, permit us to welcome others and become sensitive to the needs of others. Psychological research shows that when sentiments and strong emotions that we experience are not shared with someone, there is a risk of developing illnesses such as depression, self-destructive behaviour or else sink into dependence on substances such as alcohol. So it is necessary to have a soul friend that one can talk to in order to share such experiences.
The third factor which promotes resilience among young confreres is spiritual life. Personal and community prayer, daily meditation, and an openness to give and receive forgiveness are all experiences that help growth in the reassurance of God’s faithfulness, even in the most troubled times.
The fourth factor which helps resilience is hope. Hope is not to be confounded with optimism. Optimism can distort reality to the extent that it makes things look better that what they are; which leads to false hopes that end in deception. On the other hand, hope is based on looking on the reality of the world with a look of love, in the light of faith. Hope allows us to dare to envisage a future with God no matter what the present trials are.
The fifth and final factor to build up resilience is the aptitude to find a sense, a consistency to one’s life. Motivation from external sources such as looking for success, achieving celebrity standing, power, social status, money are all illusory in ministry and do not secure the euphoria and the happiness being looked for. However, a ministry that is based on sincerity, being close to people, the gift of self, a spirit of humility and service is one that can touch the lives of the people to which we are sent. To paraphrase Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “we are not called to succeed, we are called to be faithful.”
Over and above these factors, which can help a young confrere develop resilience in the Mission, it would not be superfluous to mention the importance of adopting a lifestyle that is healthy which includes the taking of regular exercise, a balanced diet, and exercising restraint regarding the consumption of alcohol and sugary drinks.
As a conclusion, it seems evident to me that the Provincial team and the receiving community have an important role to play in the support and integration of a young confrere. Nevertheless, the young confrere also has the duty to assume responsibility for his life if he wants his missionary vocation to be an significant life giving experience not only for himself but equally for the people to which he is sent. In the face of adversity, the fact of adopting the posture of a victim by blaming superiors, other members of the community and third parties will certainly not help him cope with the situation. In moments of crisis, the ability to assume his share of the responsibility and having the courage to seek appropriate help to bounce back is also part of process of assuming responsibility for one’s life.
Olivier T. Soma, M.Afr.