In general, candidates arriving at the Spiritual Year have a judicious awareness of the importance of personal and community prayer. They have acquired this from their formation in the first phase, from when they were aspirants and from their Christian communities.
In the application letters for admission to the novitiate, the candidates clearly express their desire to grow in their spiritual life. It is also part of their expectations, which they have the opportunity to express during the opening week of the novitiate. This helps us in our task because it is during this week that everyone gradually finds his place in the community. We notice then that a good number of students do not wait for a definitive timetable to be posted, before choosing their own time for meditation. Surely, this is a sign that the message has been passed on.
What helps us in our work are the first sessions, which are given in the novitiate. These sessions give us a glimpse of the experiences of the candidates who come from five or six different First Phase houses. For some it is a real spiritual upgrade. The sessions give a good basis for the introduction to the breviary where the candidates are reminded of the importance of personalising their introductions when they are leading the prayer and to avoid reciting the psalms at top speed. We try to teach them to make it a real time of “prayer” and not just a formality.
The session on Spiritual Life is situated in this framework. Together with the novices, we share about the importance of meditation, the way to do it, and the places that best suit us. The session underlines the importance of the visibility of prayer as Jean-Michel Laurent, the Secretary of Initial Formation emphasises, “the prayer of others supports me and encourages me” because “praying together creates a communion between people” without forgetting that “visible prayer has a value as a witness.” During these exchanges, reference is constantly made to the experiences of everybody up to now.
During the novitiate, the candidates realise that prayer life at the personal level or at the community level is one of the priorities of all the community, for candidates as well as formators. Yes, even the formators pray even though they are no longer in formation, even they take part in the lectio divina and meet the God who is always at work and who continues to reveal himself to us.
Another occasion for the novices to become more aware of the importance of personal and community prayer occurs during the short break at Christmas, which the novices spend in the different Missionary of Africa communities and in two parishes run by diocesan priests. When they share their experiences during this time of “rest,” we hear one or other novice say that he was struck by the fact that the confreres find the time to pray despite their many responsibilities. They cite the example of many confreres who are faithful to meditation. They have already seen these things before coming to the novitiate but in the context of the novitiate, they see it in a new way and as supporting their convictions and confirming what they hear and live at the novitiate.
During this immersion experience, the novice has the opportunity to become aware if he has a tendency to put prayer in second place too readily after finishing the prescribed activities or if prayer is well and truly part of his priorities.
Thanks to spiritual direction, to the reviews of life at personal level, at team level and at community level, many of our candidates become more attentive to the place of prayer in the life of a missionary and more aware of what they are experiencing themselves.
Not everything you need to know about the importance of personal and community prayer is found in textbooks; otherwise, it would remain at the level of the head. One has to be personally convinced oneself (formators as well as candidates). As a formator, I recognize that the Spiritual Year has made me rediscover this important aspect of our missionary vocation. I remember that in preparing a retreat for the ceremony of the Official Entry of the novices into the Society (taking the habit) I discovered a booklet which spoke of the spiritual life of our founder, “Entretiens sur la vie intérieure du Cardinal Lavigerie” by Jean Perraudin (+1999). The title of one chapter struck me, “La foi est sa lumière” (The faith is his light”). In this chapter, a quotation from Pope Pius XII who received the members of the General Chapter of 1957 stays with me, “Your illustrious Founder wished that your apostolic activity would be founded on an interior life that was serious and profound.” Prayer and faith go together if we are to be attentive to the will of the Lord for us and so be “apostles and nothing but apostles.”
We are trying to train our candidates to that.
If, during the novitiate, the candidate does not experience the importance and centrality of prayer in his Christian life as well as in his missionary vocation, the time of the apostolic training runs a big risk of just piling up different experiences, certainly some rich and beautiful, but without perceiving the deeper sense which he should find as someone who is ‘sent.’ This is a danger for all of us that some people express as “doing the work of the Lord while forgetting the Lord of the work.” Things will not improve in Theology, in fact the contrary is true because the academic aspect risks becoming more important.
To sum up, the aim is that the candidate does not pray because he sees someone else praying whether they are a formator or student, but that they pray out of personal conviction.