The necessity of constant renewal (PE nr. 1088 – 2018/02)

Seniors’ Sessions

I was asked to write an article for the Petit Echo. I have already published six articles about IBLA (Institut des belles lettres arabes) in Tunis: in 1972, on its library, in 1977, commemorating the 40 years of the journal, in 1987, celebrating 50 years of the journal, in 2008 an overview of the work of the Institute, and again in 2008 on its 70th anniversary without forgetting an article on my journey to the Sahel in 1991.

I got the chance to participate at the Session for Seniors in 2013 four years ago. When I applied, I saw it as a bit of a diversion. I had already done the Session/Retreat in Jerusalem in 1993. Knowing that it was a spiritual refocusing, I prepared myself by entering psychoanalysis, the latter to serve as a psychological preparation. My aim was to prepare myself to die well. Then came the opportunity to do the transition session in Rome in 2005. This also included an Eight Day Retreat. Knowing the animators, I knew that the Seniors’ session would be serious but relaxed.

Besides there were two other factors which favoured my nonchalant approach. The first concerned the past. I have not witnessed any massacres of people during my missionary existence in Tunisia and I have never been brutally expelled from the country where I lived. The second factor regards the future. I am still active in Tunisia at 81 years of age. There is no question for the moment that I will be asked to return to France. For some participants these two difficulties constitute a major handicap to be overcome. This was not my case.

Jean giving a conference at the International Cultural Centre of Hammamet

Then, I am always ready to visit Rome. I know it well having studied at IPEA (now PISAI) from 1964 to 1965; indeed I defended my tesina at the said Institute. Then, on three occasions, I taught courses there for a semester in 1976, 1977 and 1981 on modern Arab literature and translation. The Bishop of Tunis even sent me to Rome for a symposium on prisons. Therefore, the session was an opportunity to rediscover this city that I love so much and where I can stroll around with pleasure. It also happens that I know some Professors of Arabic in Italian Universities with whom I have collaborated and whom I enjoy visiting.

Jean in front of the little chapel of Cardinal Lavigerie at la Marsa

I look at Ongoing Formation as something permanent in the strict sense of the term in that it is something continuous and not just some sessions every ten years. I have profited very much from these sessions but I have always had the curiosity to keep myself informed about the latest discoveries in exegesis (for example, I followed an updating course of six months on the structural analysis of Sacred Scripture at Lyon in 1979-80 and again in Ottawa from 1999-2000) and the same thing for Theology.

This constant renewal is part and parcel of my missionary responsibility. In fact, Tunisians are 100% Muslim. Some of them have begun to read the Qur’an according to the criteria of western human sciences. Hence their confusion, because they feel helpless in the face of the questioning that ensues after 14 centuries of literal reading of the text. If I did not follow the same path, if I simply recite a lesson learned during my formative years, if I did not clear out the clutter of my own questions regarding the organization and attitude of the Church, then what purpose do I serve in this country? Would it not be better for me, in this case, to pack my bag and go home if I still have a home?

On his 80th birthday, Jean plays the clarinet in his office

I insist on the necessity of continual upgrading regarding the theology of religions. Generally, Muslim live in the perspective of permitted/prohibited. How to pass on to the perspective of good/evil? Having very few spiritual guides, they are happy to find someone who is comfortable in their religious tradition, someone who can explain the Muslim mystics in order to show them a way out of the purely legal standpoint and to discover an ethical perspective. In the three monotheistic religions, eminent thinkers have shown the way: for the Jews, Hans Jonas (1903-1993) and his book “The Imperative of Responsibility” published in German in 1979 and in English in 1984; for Christians it could be Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) with two posthumous works, “Ethics” (1955) and “Letters and Papers from Prison” (1973), finally Noureddine (Abdennour) Bidar (born in 1971) represents the Muslim side with his books “Self islam” (2006) and “L’islam sans soumission” (2008). Here are three men of faith who are good guides to help us escape from the prison of religions. Could this be the subject of a transition session?

Jean Fontaine, M.Afr.
IBLA, Tunisia

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