I was attending a meeting of Superiors General recently, when one of the participants asked me how many White Fathers are there. Remembering the statistics published by our Administrative Secretariat at the beginning of the year, I replied that we were about 1,200 confreres. Looking at me, he blurted out “and you know all your guys? Before I replied, I felt that there was something important underling in his
question. A General Council or any leadership team for that matter is expected to go out and meet confreres on the ground in order to get a feel of how they live their vocation as Missionaries of Africa. Leadership demands, in one way or another, that one keeps in contact with those confreres he is supposed to guide. It also made me think of the many occasions in my life as a Missionary of Africa when I heard confreres complain that they never see their Provincial!
Regular visits to confreres are a priority for the General Council. In Rome, we can consult various lists and the personnel book but this only gives us a ‘virtual’ acquaintance with the confreres and the places where they live. We hope to go beyond this and get to know them a bit more and create closer ties with them. As you would expect, and this is no secret, we are often obliged to be on the road despite modern means of communications
According to what a confrere recently wrote on his Facebook page: “when everything is running normally, the Generalate is the place of absence of the Superior General.” Commenting on that, another confrere added: “Yes, may they continue (the Superior General and his Council) to be there at the grassroots” When everything is running normally, the General Council is resident in Rome every September-October, January-February, and May-June. The other months of the year are spent visiting the Provinces and for holidays.
For the last two years, being out in the field has brought us to all our Provinces and Sections even if we still have to visit some communities. Everywhere we go, we can get a sense of our unity as Missionaries of Africa. We do not go to give orders but to listen and encourage. It is an opportunity to become acquainted with what the confreres experience in a very concrete way. The information we gather helps our reflection in Council on the decisions we must take regarding the situations we encounter. It is also the occasion to share news of the Society, to explain certain choices that we make and to reply to questions posed by the confreres.
For the most part, these visits are uplifting and encouraging. They are also good, hopefully, for most of the confreres that we meet. Even if we do not always bring them something novel, the visits are real moments of communion with the Society. In the last two years since I have been in Rome, I have managed to visit 452 confreres out of the 1,210 on our books,
Outside of the four months that the members of the Council spend visiting the confreres, the rest of the time they are at the Generalate in ordinary session. It is during these sessions, particularly, that we discern what choices we should take. Then, we jointly make the decisions.
We deliberate on different situations that the Provinces and confreres submit to us for consideration and we try to give them some guidelines on the matter. In this sense, we could say that our ordinary councils are the real places where we exercise our authority. We try to live this in the spirit indicated by our Laws and Constitutions. Thus, we are becoming more aware that our ministry as a General Council consists, above all, in fostering the missionary dynamism among our confreres and building up the unity of the Society (see CL 149).
At the General Council, our main concern is to make sure that, as a Society, we remain as close as possible to our identity and to our charism as understood by the last Chapter: “we are an intercultural missionary Society with a family spirit. Sent out to the African world and wherever our charism is needed.” (CA 2016, p.17)
On a general basis, the General Council only intervenes and enters into discussion with a Province or an individual confrere when, in its judgement, it perceives that certain commitments and some types of behaviour are moving away from the spirit and the essential features of the Society in particular its apostolic character and community life (see CL 150). Otherwise, the running and the monitoring of the apostolic and community activities are assured by the Provincials and their councils. They are the closest collaborators of the General Council, so it is perfectly normal that they often seek our help in cases and situations that are particularly difficult.
To promote communion within the Society and to offer an overall vision of the mission, the General Council organizes an annual meeting with the Provincials. This meeting allows us to work together on appointments. It is also an opportunity for sharing together on the numerous subjects that touch on the life of the Society.