February 9, 2014 ⎪ Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
You are the salt of the earth, …
You are the light of the world...
Brothers, you will find your fraternal love and friendship within the community one of the
chief joys with which the LORD blesses you, and a most powerful means of evangelization.
Dear Brothers, Associates and Collaborators:
Oh, how true the above words are! It has taken me so long to understand them! The experiences of the past six weeks with fellow Xaverians as well as religious of other congregations gave me a lens through which to view the reality of community and to understand it more clearly. If I may, I want to reflect with you on two recent events: the January visit with our Brothers in Kenya and the National Religious Vocation Conference held in Houston. Each event gave me a deeper appreciation of the life we share as Xaverians. Each has been an inspiration.
The Joy of Living the Gospel
Pope Francis has definitely captured my imagination. And my heart! And I suspect it’s the same for the world. Reflecting his Italian ancestry, Francis exudes la gioia di vivere in all he says and does. Joy is the current of energy running through my recent experiences. A simple emotion until you try to describe it. Joy is delight resulting from something or someone. We have all experienced the joy of being with a friend we haven’t seen in awhile, the joy or satisfaction of seeing our students learn and grow, the joy we experience in our relationships with each other. Joy is mostly about meaningful relationships. Pope Francis’ focus is riveted on the joy we experience in our relationship with Christ and with each other.
Finding Joy Where It Happens
I left JFK at 7:00 pm on December 31st for London aboard British Air. The British still know how to provide air service with grace. I had great joy in talking to one of the stewardesses. Her name is Caroline. She is from Paris. So our conversation was in French–another great joy for me. She was intrigued by our mission work in Bolivia, Kenya, Congo, Haiti and South Sudan. Before landing in London, she made a point to tell me that she did not understand why we do this work, but that she admired us for doing. Why do we do this work? What joy do we experience from what we do? Those questions accompanied me from London to Nairobi where I met John and Raphael at 11:00 pm on January 1st. I discovered a non-joy is very long flights!
Our Brothers in Kenya
The next eight days were like a retreat. Vivid images remain with me of the first few days. One image that keeps replaying in my mind is that of the Brothers gathering in the courtyard to welcome one another to Xaverian Centre. There were laughs, warm and fraternal greetings as some arrived from Narus and others from Bungoma. Another image takes me back to the chapel for community prayers and Eucharist. The reverence for God, the communal lifting of mind and heart in prayer and the enthusiasm with which the psalms were chanted in Swahili, English or French were an inspiration. Images of the meals stay with me: joy-filled chatter and laughs as we shared very simple food. These experiences of community were a great joy.
John and I spent a whole day with the members of the Regional Council who were able to be there: Brothers Raphael, Daniel, Moses and Bill. Care for the Brothers of the region, responsibility for our resources, the effort to engage of each Brother in the life of the region and the great honesty in dealing with issues characterized the council’s work. What is so impressive is how the council works with and for each Brother in the region.
I was touched most by the assembly dealing with the Chapter Directives. It was very prayerful, very reflective. We opened our day with this excerpt.
Above all, Brothers, enter into an ever deeper sharing of faith
and prayer with your brothers, reflect with them on how you find
in your lived experiences.
That is exactly what we did. The sharing was deep and trusting. The meeting progressed as it has in the USA and Belgium: sharing the spirit of the Chapter; viewing and sharing reactions to the video Chris Irr made; reflecting on the Directive and discussing the needs of the region in terms of governance. We started at 9:00 am and ended shortly after 5:00 pm. One unexpected joy for John and me (being the elders) was witnessing the Brothers’ reaction to seeing themselves in the video. Lots of fraternal ribbing and lots of laughs. Everyone was a star! It reminded me of some classes I taught at Saint Xavier. John and I shared the facilitation of the reflections.
The day was truly filled with formative moments. Many Brothers expressed the following desire. “We (Kenyans and Congolese) are responsible for Xaverian life and mission in Africa.” One Brother went on to say (paraphrase), “We don’t have to wait for money from the USA to do what we need to do. We have the talents. We know the needs. We have the desire. We don’t need a whole school building. We can start with a room.” These Brothers were saying what Pope Francis says somewhere in Evangelii Gaudium. He exhorts us “bring what you have to others, don’t wait. You are equally prepared to evangelize. What are we waiting for?” That message is for each of us–Congolese, Flemish, Kenyan or American regardless of age. “Others” are waiting. Do we believe that?
The Brothers shared their need and desire for community as mission and their need to share in the manner we were doing in the assembly. They talked about starting a mission community in Bungoma and of furthering the ministry with street kids. I felt great joy listening to what the youngest Brothers in our congregation are saying. I sensed their joy in listening to each other. Certainly Ryken’s spirit is with them. Let us keep them in our prayers.
Men Religious Going Forward in Hope
After I returned from Nairobi, Chris Irr and I travelled to Houston for a conference at the Passionist Retreat Center entitled Men Religious Going Forward in Hope. The communal prayers, Eucharists, the sharing in small groups were very helpful. Everything pointed to the relationship with Christ for the sake of the Church that all religious share. There were about one hundred religious within a full range of ages. It was a very multicultural group.
Sean Sammon, FMS asked us, “If (Ryken) were alive today, where would we find him? To what groups would he be reaching out? Sean then emphasized the need for religious to keep renewing our life of prayer, community and mission. He ended by challenging us to the future.” Rather than believing that religious life is dying, we need instead to realize that we are nearing the conclusion of the first state of revitalization, that of dying to the past. The work of building a new and dynamic religious life for the 21st Century is only now getting underway.”
I truly loved Sean’s enthusiasm and positive attitude. I walked away joyful that our recent Chapter calls each of us to renew ourselves as Brothers. I also walked away more convinced than ever that we best do this by “entering into an ever deepening sharing of faith and prayer with each other and to talk with each other about how we find Christ in our lived experiences.” As Francis notes, such sharing is a source of joy.
As for the future, I feel called to answer Sean’s questions. To what things of the past do I (we) have to die? Do I (we) have the creativity, boldness and will to be working for a new and dynamic expression of religious life in the future? What challenges me most is my need to be humble enough to realize that the answers to these questions of the future do not lie with me or with us, but rather with the Holy Spirit. However, I feel each of us is called to a life of intentional fidelity to Christ’s gospel, His way of living for God and others and to the charism of our Congregation.
Pope Francis says it another way in his exhortation. “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.” (EG, 10) Francis is not talking about leaving the shores to go to other lands. He is talking about leaving our comfort zones and routines no matter where we live. He is calling us to be excited about bringing the joy of gospel to those who need it. The Brother living in the next room, the quiet student who gets lost in the crowd, the mother of three in line at the soup kitchen. We need to ask ourselves how is the love of Christ impelling us (2 Corinthians 5:14) as it did Ryken? A lot to think about. A lot to share in faith with each other.
I want to end this letter by reiterating my commitment and that of the General Council and Staff to our renewal as religious Brothers. It is my deepest prayer that we experience the joy of the living Gospel and that we grow in our love of Christ, each other and our world. I look forward to being with you in the next few months.