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Interview with members of the International Commission of Brothers Today

24/10/2013: Kenya

The International Commission Brothers Today met in Rome from 4 to 11 July. On this occasion, we spoke with some of its members. We present today a conversation with Br Albert Nzabonaliba, of the Province of East Central Africa.

1. Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What is your job?

My name is Albert Nzabonaliba, a Rwandan national, and I’m 51 years old. This is my 27th year of religious profession as a Marist Brother. At the moment I’m in charge of the Provincial Secretariat in Central-East Africa, and I teach at MIUC (Marist International University College) and other higher education institutions in Nairobi, Kenya. I also offer accompaniment, spiritual direction, and counseling to people who request it.

2. What does it mean to you to be a brother today?
I can answer with no hesitation: Being a Brother Today means to embrace the Gospel, walking along with Christ. The Gospel makes me know and love Jesus Christ. And in this regard, he challenges me on many aspects of my personal and professional life. I must say that the Gospel is like a “tool” working on me, as a cabinetmaker transforms a chunk of wood into a beautiful piece appreciated by all (and kept in a museum afterwards). According to artists, it seems that – in fact – they do not actually create when they work on the wood, but rather see an image within the chunk telling them how to make it emerge.
What is this referring to? Since I embraced the Catholic faith, I see myself as this piece of wood, and the artist is trying to bring about the image he sees in me. Is it not this what Genesis 1: 27 says: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; man and woman he created them?” For me being a Brother Today means reproducing the image of God so that I can look like Him, but also resemble the other images of God, my Brothers and Sisters. This is the project. This is God’s plan for me, but also a project that I make my own by letting Him “decode” and transform me.
This first consideration is everything for me. God, in His divine plan, called me, which became clear on September 3, 1984. Then He consecrated me on July 13, 1986, the day of my first profession. And He renews me every day so as to make me become like Him, in fact, to resemble His Son, the Father’s perfect image. This is where the mystical dimension of our life as Marist Brothers comes from, and consequently, it strengthens and grounds our service to God’s Kingdom on earth. The ministerial dimension is nothing else than a point of arrival, even if it can in turn become a starting point for some.

3. Is vocations ministry an important task for the Institute? In your opinion, how should it be carried out?
The issue of vocation and vocations ministry is THE point in several religious institutes today. However, this issue has not been less addressed by the generations preceding us. Starting with Christ himself: when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Mat 9: 36-38).
If we speak so much about vocations today, we should convince ourselves that its ministry is understandable only within this attitude of our Lord. There are so many millions of people around us, rich and poor, big and small, who are without a shepherd. In my opinion, the Congregation has made a considerable effort regarding youth ministry, and the facts are there for all to see. But I would most certainly say that we need to do more regarding vocations ministry. What difference do I see? As we know, youth ministry is actually part of our charism, and many of us have joined the congregation to carry out an apostolate among young people, the most in need. The reward will certainly be great, I am positive. But in terms of vocations ministry, we have much to do. This is the challenge. Leaving other elements aside, I think we should present Christ as a personal Savior. If the crowds gather at stadiums, beaches, supermarkets, and many leave our churches, it is a matter of needs, basic needs, both physiological and affective, social as well as spiritual. Is there actually any need more important than the need for God? An affirmative answer to this question would contradict what Saint Augustine said and experienced: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you?” And I do not think this statement is wrong at all.
I would dare to say that scholar institutions as such do not quite succeed in connecting studies and faith, and that some of them even reject the idea of ​​God. This is a historical and dichotomous question for some people who separate science from conscience. In that case, the congregation should embark on new forms of evangelization, both in schools and outside schools. Many of us will end up becoming school professional, which is not bad at all, but we should ask ourselves whether we are “professionals of God” or, in other words, witnesses to God in a world where spiritual matters are fading away, and where the law of conscience has given free rein to the law of individualism, consumerism, and pleasure. The Institute should look for the ways and means to strengthen the spiritual and mystical dimension of its members. Otherwise we may form false shepherds who preach water (and a little wine in some cases) but drink wine!

4. Almost 200 years have gone by since the Institute was founded: what are the challenges for the brothers today? Are the challenges Marcellin faced still valid?
As I mentioned in the last question, one of the major challenges for the Institute is to form the Brothers. We speak a lot about new forms of evangelization, but we think of missionary evangelization much more often than of evangelizing ourselves. That is the risk. You see the mote in the eye of other people... Today, more than in the past, we should invite the Brothers to participate in “schools of faith”. Having said this, I realize that some would be reluctant to think about going to a school of faith, and would say it is old-fashioned or something of the sort. Faith is not an irreversible acquisition, but rather a construct, if I may use a psychological term. It is a constantly renewed grace, renewable whenever I’m in a low moment of my life. Many people today rediscover the path of faith by going to the source of the Gospel and of spirituality, participating in insertion experiences where the word “justice” is the new name for peace, and where the word “solidarity” means not only sharing but rather “a place to give and receive”. Training sessions, insertion experiences in community, etc., these are the things that will awaken our sleeping faith. If they are programmed in Marist life – but at a steady pace, perhaps not too spaced out – our wonder at having found the narrow door of the Gospel will never end. All this will obviously depend on each person. But we must provide these opportunities. This is the first mission of the Institute today. This challenge is critical, and we cannot say it dates from the time of Father Champagnat, for it is much older, having to do with the history of mankind.
As a corollary to this, I would like to say more about those who see the school as the privileged place for the Marists but under certain conditions. I will mention only one that I think is important: that it may be a school for the poor, that it provides visible services to the poor. I think we can make progress in this sense and, by doing so, we can be credible evangelizers. Today’s world, like that of Father Champagnat, is a world where the cry of the poor is not heard, and if it is, the sound goes into one ear and out through the other. Our Constitutions speak about the preferential option for the poor, but in fact there are no other options, and this option is not only preferential, but also unconditional. If we made this choice, we would be of one mind with Father Champagnat, and we would be real Champagnats for today. And I have no doubt that there would be young people who would in turn become Marists of Champagnat. This is what I call vitality.

5. What particular experiences are the brothers in your region living which could be a model for the Institute?
Let me say that this is a question which I find difficult to answer. In most of our formation houses (pre-postulancy, postulancy, novitiate and scholasticate), besides the formation work, we teach like any other brother in nursery, primary and secondary school, and we would even like to provide college education. Statistics would probably be very eloquent, but it would take too long. In fact, the State and private schools are as good as us and, in some cases, even better. Should we claim our uniqueness? What difference do we make regarding our apostolate? It is both an institutional and a personal matter.
What I could consider as a focus for evangelization in my Province would be the pastoral services we offer in our schools and sometimes in parishes. Unfortunately only a minority ventures into this field and, in my humble opinion, these services now need more monitoring than in the past. There is a risk that our schools operate without a clear spiritual and pastoral plan and, if there is no follow up, you can imagine what this could mean.
A second focus for evangelization that I find quite appropriate to Marist life are the spiritual direction services (accompaniment and counseling) and the retreat sessions. Some of us are working in this area, but since it is very demanding on a personal level, very few take this job as an evangelization option. To do this, we should encourage those who could provide these religious and psychological services. I dream that one day there will be a spirituality center in my Marist Province.
A third important contribution that my Province offers is internationality. At the moment, many brothers are working willingly outside their country, whether in apostolic works or in formation houses. And there are also those who are at the service of the Institute, with well-defined contracts. I believe with all my heart that there are a good number of young Brothers who would like to experience missionary life. The intercultural situation of Africa is already a qualification for missionary life. This requires much more than encouragement.

Brother Albert Nzabonaliba FMS
Province of Central-East Africa

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