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Marist Calendar - September

The Mission Ad Gentes Project


Seán D. Sammon, Superior General

2nd January 2006
Feast of the Foundation of the Institute

Dear Brother,

SeánThe Christmas/New Year season 2005 is quickly coming to a close. The feasts of Saint Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and Saint John the Evangelist have come and gone, today we mark the 189th year since Marcellin founded our Institute, and in but a few days the feast of the Epiphany will be celebrated. Each of these annual commemorations reminds us that we are at that annual crossroad where an old and a new year stand shoulder to shoulder. The year just past is taking its place in history; at the same time a new one is just coming alive. What hope that new beginning brings to so many of us each year.

I write today with news of another new beginning, but this time for our Institute. I write also to offer a personal invitation to each of you. Please read this letter carefully and with this question in mind: Is the Lord asking you to accept the invitation found in these pages, an invitation to put forward your name for our new mission ad gentes program?

During our recent General Conference, Luis Sobrado and I presented the outline of this project. More specifically, we provided those present with an overall description of a new mission ad gentes initiative as well as some details about its origin and structure and a timeline for its implementation. Later discussion during the Conference gave rise to a number of helpful suggestions for sharpening and improving the proposal. Many brothers also told us of their strong support for what we had in mind.

During the weeks since our presentation, some reports about this proposal have appeared in the Update and Bulletin as well as on the Institute's web page at www.champagnat.org. Unfortunately, limitations of space and the nature of each of these medias allowed us to offer but a few highlights about the project. Consequently, I am writing today to each member of the Institute with further details about the project and to ask you and each of them to give serious and prayerful consideration to becoming a part of it.

To begin with, the details of several initiatives aimed at building the future of our Marist life and mission worldwide were presented to the members of our Seventh General Conference. For example, comprehensive plans to renovate and better equip the Hermitage in France as a universal center of Marist spirituality, heritage and mission were outlined. So also preliminary planning for a follow-up to the recent Marist year of vocation promotion was discussed, plans for an international conference in 2007 on Marist mission were presented and a call was issued for those provinces and districts that have not as yet entered into a process of restructuring to do so.

Second, the mission ad gentes project that we presented is in keeping with a long history of Institute undertakings in this area. And similar to those of the past, we need but look to our Marist Constitutions and Statutes to understand the origin of this most recent proposal. Article 90 of that text reminds us that, Like the Church, our Institute is missionary, and therefore we should have a missionary attitude like Father Champagnat who affirmed, “We are ready to work in every diocese in the world.”

As an Institute we are missionary by nature. Recall that Marcellin himself longed to serve in Oceania and that only obedience to the directives of Father Colin and ill-health caused him to remain at home in France rather than travel to and work in the Pacific. From the founder’s time onward, the ongoing practice of sending brothers on mission has existed within our Institute.

So also, in 1903, approximately 900 of our brothers left France in response to the newly enacted laws of secularization. They set out with a spirit of courage, faith, and daring for there was little else available to help them prepare for the challenges they were about to face. The audacity of these men during a time of crisis that called for innovation permits our Institute to claim today an evangelizing presence in 76 countries around the world.

Finally, over the course of many years the General Administration has taken steps to actively promote overseas mission. Witness the international formation houses of Saint Francis Xavier and Bairo that for years took on the task of preparing brothers for mission ad gentes.

So also, for more than 20 years now brothers willing to volunteer for mission on the level of the General Administration have been invited to contact the Superior General to let him know about their willingness to serve. A list of names has been created and those on it have been called upon most often during times of turmoil, such as after the genocide in Rwanda in the early 1990s.

More recently, we find in the Choose Life document from our 20th General Chapter this suggestion: that the time has come for a new chapter in our missionary history to be written. We believe that the project we have proposed is one response to that challenge and a serious attempt to help build the future of Marist life and mission for this new century.

Our Institute, then, has a long history of undertakings on behalf of mission ad gentes. What you may still ask is the origin of this recent proposal and how does it fit in with the calls of the Church today, the signs of our times, and the directives of our Marist Constitutions and Statutes and recent General Chapters? More importantly, what about its impact on the provinces and districts from which these new missionaries will come? How many are we looking for, how quickly do we plan to identify them and what preparation for this undertaking do we have in mind? I will attempt to answer these and other questions briefly in this letter.

The project’s origin

At the heart of the new mission ad gentes project is this dream: to mission over the next four years 150 or more brothers to new apostolic works throughout the countries of Asia and also to send a smaller number to those restructured provinces that have not yet achieved the necessary levels of vitality and viability that are needed if a future is to be theirs.

This proposal is also in keeping with the current calls of the Church and the signs of our times. For example, the late Pope John Paul II writing in his post-Synod document Vita Consecrata John Paul II was optimistic about religious life and its future. He offered this challenging insight: You do not have only a glorious story to remember and recount, but a great story to build! Look to the future…” By undertaking this new initiative, we are doing just that.

Confusion about mission

During the years following Vatican II, considerable confusion developed about the nature of what until that time had been called foreign mission work. Prior to the Council a model of the Church existed that might best be described as militant and triumphant. As Catholics you and I were taught that there was no salvation outside of the Church; the work of the missionary was clear: to evangelize and convert.

Vatican II took a broader view toward those who hold other beliefs. The Church, now describing itself as the People of God, moved beyond the approach of “no salvation outside the Church.” This new understanding about the nature of the Church was bound to give rise to questions about the purpose of mission—even among missionaries themselves.

The crisis, however, was not just theological; decolonization and the rise of new nation states in missionary lands led to calls for a moratorium on mission. In 1981, however, during the SEDOS meeting a shift in focus occurred: from questioning the purpose of mission at all to the challenge of how mission was to be carried out in our contemporary Church and world.

Unfortunately, this new development failed to clear up the confusion. The fact that John Paul II felt compelled to write the encyclical Redemptoris Missio ten years after that landmark SEDOS gathering suggests that concerns about mission continue to lurk below the surface of many discussions.

The Pope’s letter, the first encyclical on mission since the close of Vatican II, is an eloquent presentation of the theological foundations of the topic, as well as an appeal for renewed missionary fervor within the Church. John Paul expounds the horizons of mission today and talks about the means to achieve it. The encyclical, which closes with a reflection on missionary spirituality, carries with it a tone of urgency about refocusing Church’s efforts in this area. We find within the text this preoccupation on the part of the Pope: Missionary motivation has been flagging; missionary activity diminishing.

Surely the latter has been true for our Institute as well during the years following the Council. The chart below, for example, demonstrates that while the overall number of brothers officially assigned to overseas mission has increased over the last 15 years, their median age has also risen steadily, increasing overall by 12 years.

Number of brothers assigned to overseas mission (1989-2004):

Date Number Age

Our proposal

The General Council believes as do so many of our brothers and Marist lay partners that our way of life has an important, indeed essential place in our Church today. There have been losses in recent years in parts of the Institute: the loss of good men, of identity and purpose, and in some instances of prestige and reputation. We have so to speak passed through a time of transition and purification. Most of what has transpired over the last forty or so years has been helpful, assisting us to look at the past, take stock of the present, and eventually move on toward the future. Now is the time to do just that: create the future of Marist life and mission for today and tomorrow.

Several reasons motivate us to make Asia the target of this new missionary initiative. First of all, our Marist Constitutions and Statutes tell us that our Institute has a particular concern for countries which have not been evangelized and for the young Churches. (Const. 90). Second, the late Pope also issued this challenge during the years before his death: “Just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent of Asia.” Arise, let us be on our way; Asia, that’s our challenge for the third millennium!” (Ecclesia in Asia, no. 1)

Third, Asia is home to approximately two-thirds of the world’s population and yet we have fewer than 200 of our 4200 brothers serving there. The United Nations also identifies south Asia as the world’s poorest region when it comes to young people. And there are plenty of them there: almost half the population of south Asia today is below age 24 years. Of that number, almost half again live on less than two US dollars a day.
Finally, Marist Asia is in the process of restructuring and our brothers in that region are currently considering at least two models of reorganization that will lead to increased viability and vitality. While the scope of this proposal extends far beyond the borders of present day Marist life in Asia, we want to work in cooperation with the exiting administrative units of the area as we plan and implement the program. A number of brothers there have been of significant help already.

We plan, therefore, to set up in 2006 a six month program of discernment and preparation for the first group of approximately 30 brothers who will be going to Asia. This course will be located in Davao in the Philippines, will be staffed by a team of three brothers, and will be repeated twice annually.

We have over the last few years received invitations from bishops in Asia asking us to send brothers for a variety of works. To ensure good communication with the hierarchy of the region, I have asked Brothers Michael Flanigan and Rene Reyes to serve as delegates of the Superior General as we work with the local Churches to secure ministries that are in keeping with our founding purpose and charism as well as being responsive to the signs of the times. In addition, I have asked Brother Luis Sobrado, our Vicar General, to take overall responsibility for coordinating and implementing this new mission ad gentes initiative. I am grateful to all of these brothers for their generous response to my requests.

What do I ask of you?

In undertaking this new initiative we all realize that the nature of mission ad gentes has changed in recent years. A shift has occurred: from the proclamation of the Word of God only to a spirit of dialogue and proclamation. In light of that fact, you might ask yourself what I am asking of you.

First of all, your prayers for this project and for those who will be involved in it. Please pray for God’s blessings on it and on each of them. Unless a passion for Jesus and his Good News is at the heart of this undertaking, it will do little to further the Kingdom.

Second, I ask you to reflect prayerfully about what the Lord is asking of you at this time in your religious life. Is the Lord calling you to give six to nine years in overseas mission in Asia? This period of service would be in addition to the six month discernment in the Philippines and any necessary language study and other preparation prior to beginning work. This question looms large here: Can we today precipitate our own 1903 with results that will be as striking a century from now as have been the efforts of our brothers who went before us a century ago?

Yes, the absence of brothers from their province of origin for six to nine years will be a sacrifice for all involved but it will also be a blessing. On returning, these missionaries will take with them another experience of Marist life and mission. They will enrich the communities and works of which they will be members just as they too are enriched by those who have labored at home during their absence.

Regarding language, we would expect all involved to learn English as well as the language of the country to which they will be assigned. English is the medium that the vast majority of our brothers in Asia use to communicate with the Institute and among administrative units. Sufficient time will be provided so that all those involved can learn well the languages they will be expected to master.

A word of consolation to those who might hold the belief that all Asian languages are formidable. Several of our brothers in Asia have reassured me that some Asian languages, such as those used in Borneo or Malaysia can be learned well enough for day to day communication in a period of approximately six months in a total immersion program. Understandably, as with any language additional time and study will be necessary to perfect the language in question.

If you believe that you are called to be part of this project, I would ask you to contact Brother Luis Sobrado directly by letter, fax: [international code] 1 425 952-1382, or e-mail (vicgen@fms.it).

In conclusion, let me say that I believe this call for a new mission ad gentes project in Asia is of the Spirit. I pray that a century from now when historians look back and write the history of this period in our Institute, they will be able to say that we undertook the challenge with courage, daring, and hope and that in the Asia that has come to be for that moment in time will give ample evidence of our presence and efforts.

May God continue to bless and keep each of you and to make you his own, and may Mary and Marcellin be our constant companions today and during the days ahead.

Blessings and affection,

Brother Sean D. Sammon, FMS
Superior General

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