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Marist Bulletin - Number 112

 

Expanded General Council - Region of Europe (V)
18.12.2003

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SPECIFIC CHALLENGES FOR MARIST LIFE IN EUROPE TODAY



This Marist Bulletin, containing the closing address of Brother Seán Sammon and the final communiqué of the meeting held in Madrid, concludes our series on the Expanded General Council for the European Region, also covered in Bulletins 105, 106, 107 and 108.



REMARKS DELIVERED NEAR THE CLOSING OF THE EXTENDED GENERAL COUNCIL MEETING IN EUROPE
Madrid, Spain, 23-27 November 2003
Seán D. Sammon, FMS



Brothers, I had planned to speak tomorrow morning. As work progressed over these days, however, the team organizing our meeting agreed to my request that this intervention be moved to this morning.

I have been quiet during discussions these days because, quite frankly, I find that my words are given too much weight sometimes, and consequently unfairly change the direction of a discussion. Now, I am sure that there are some here who would be quick to tell me that there is no worry about such an outcome occurring in the region of Europe. But these have been very moving days for me, and as the end of our time together draws ever more near, I cannot but be filled with a great deal of hope for our Marist life and mission in this region of our Institute. And I say that despite the formidable challenges that we all face here.

There are those in our Institute, Church and wider world who have for a number of years believed that apostolic religious life is dead in Western Europe. Or, if not dead, suffering through its final days. This way of thinking has had serious consequences, causing some of us to take certain actions and to avoid others. Judging these to be its last days, for example, many Catholics here in Europe and in other parts of our world hesitate to invite young men and women to consider religious life as a vocation. Others ask, Why join a religious congregation during the age of the laity? One need not be a religious, they point out, to take up a ministry in the Church today.

In accepting the notion that our Marist way of life is dying in Europe, some of us have also failed to address adequately three tasks necessary to ensure that our way of living the gospel remains vital in our Church: clarifying its identity, boldly implementing genuine renewal, and promoting vocations. If our lack of action continues in these areas, we can reasonably expect to witness the death of our way of life in Europe.

But I do not believe for a minute that that will be the outcome of all these years. For example, I realize that in terms of vocations and many other areas, you and others of our brothers from this region have worked very hard. As one of you here this morning said in frustration during a presentation on vocation promotion at the 1997 General Conference, “Believe me, in France we have tried everything to promote vocations—even prayer.” So, you have worked hard, over many years, even in the face of discouraging results. I am grateful as is Luis, and the members of the Council.

What makes me so optimistic about the future? Several factors actually. First of all, the challenges we face today are clear. You stated them well yesterday, and in a way that was fresher, clearer, more focused than I have heard them expressed before, including at the General Chapter.

Though it is repetitious, permit me to run through them quickly. First of all, our need to clarify our identity as Little Brothers of Mary. I have always believed that this challenge is at the heart of our work of beginning our way of life again for a new millennium. Simply put, it is our answer to this question: “On whom or what do you and I set our hearts.” It is a foundational question in life, it is a question of meaning and purpose. But in finding an adequate answer to it, we in turn answer a number of other questions.

During the last forty five years, we have been doing what most people do when they are trying to reformulate their identities as persons or groups: we have been exploring our options, looking at many different ways to be Little Brothers of Mary, and, consequently, we have been experiencing crises. All of these efforts have led to confusion and turmoil, and that is to be expected. After all, in the first 26 years that followed the 1789 Revolution in France, religious orders fell in membership by more than 70 percent. Vatican II caused an earthquake to happen. When the dust settled, we found that we were standing in a different place. We have used the time since to try to find our way.

But now we are moving into a new stage. The time is fast approaching wherein we will have to make some choices. When we will have to say, “We choose to stand here, and not there. To move in this direction, and not that direction.” In making this observation, I am not in any way limiting the possibility of diversity. What I am saying, however, is that that diversity must be in realistic tension with a sense of overall unity.

When all is said and done, however, I would suggest to you that our contemporary and long-standing concerns about our identity will only begin to be resolved when we start simply and unselfconsciously to be ourselves once again. And that means, first of all, acting like the religious persons and leaders we are meant to be; second, welcoming the young who seek to join us, few though they are at this moment in time, and learning all the while about their world with its own unique hopes and dreams, fears and concerns, faith and doubt. And, finally accepting the fact that the renewal of consecrated life in our day and age will only come about as a result of a revolution of the heart in the lives of each of us. Of that much we can be sure. The phrase profoundly human and deeply spiritual will then be seen as the most accurate description of those of us whose identity is clear. I long for that day.

Now, rediscovering our spirituality as Marcellin’s spirituality made flesh today, and doing so along with those lay men and women who also share his dream and charism, is the second challenge that faces us today. A word here about lay partnership. At our 20th General Chapter, I thought that one of the lay persons who participated offered the best definition of Marist partnership that I had heard in many a year. He said simply, “We want to be more a part of Marcellin’s spirituality and mission; and we want you to be more a part of our lives.”
We are religious persons. It is our chief identity. A passion for Jesus and his gospel must be at the heart of it. If we believe all these points, and live them, then the answers to so many other questions will fall more easily into place: Mary in our lives; the message of Matthew 25 and the calls of our Church and Institute to be a Church of the poor, to mention but to

Third, mission. For me it is clear that our mission is the direct proclamation of the Word of God to the young, particularly the poor among them. Why do I say that the mission of the Little Brothers of Mary is clear to me? Because for most of my life I have not done it! My Province has asked me to take on works of the Church, necessary works, but not the mission of the Marist Brothers. I did not work with the young but, rather, with adults. To stretch the mission of the Institute so that it eventually covers every work of every brother, will leave us with no clear sense of direction at all.

At the same time, however, we must be clear about just what is a Marist mission. For example, I have often thought that it would be a blessing and an affirmation of our mission if parents thought twice before sending their son or daughter to one of our schools for fear that being part of that school community might cause him or her to take the gospel seriously. Finally, in the area of mission we need to develop the simple capacity to listen, so as to try to understand why my brother may hold passionately a position that is very different than the one to which I cling with equal passion.

Community life is still another challenging area. We need, without a doubt, new models of community. We are neither a family in the traditional sense, nor a therapeutic community. But we are a community of adults who have come together to make a radical living out of the gospel the center of our lives. But formation prepares us almost not at all for life in community, many times failing to give us the skills to living together.

There are others challenges that time does not permit me to discuss. Suffice it to say that today we are involved in a paradigmatic shift in religious life, the likes of which have not been seen for almost two centuries. In the past personal conversion, reading the signs of the times, and a return to the essentials of the founder’s charism were the tools that groups used to renew themselves. For the challenges we face today, they can be as much a help to us as they have been to other in the past.

Anyone who doubts that we have the resources necessary to face the challenges that you surfaced and explained so well yesterday, need only look around this room at the group assembled. Why not take a moment to do so right now. In recent days when I have done the same, I have been humbled and reassured by the evident talent, the deep spirituality, generosity, greatness of heart, and love of our Institute and its mission that is so evident among you. Marcellin would have been stunned by the resources found among those of us in this room today.

Brothers, we need new images for the new reality that faces us, and as was said well on this floor yesterday, we need a new vocabulary to describe all that is unfolding.

We stand at a crossroads today, but then again, our brothers in Europe have stood there before. In but one example, in recent months I have thought and prayed often about our brothers who left France a century ago as a result of the Combes Law. Over a five year period, 960 had set out for other countries., with more than 100 going to China alone. And they went without the benefit of time to learn the language, and lacking a full appreciation of the cultures to which they were sent. But they went with courage, daring, and with faith in God and reliance on Mary. And by so doing, they transformed the face of our Institute.

Today, you stand in the doorway of a new millennium, and the possibility of a new Marist Europe. You are the pioneers of new provinces and of this new region of Europe. Just as we mark this year the centenary of those brothers of ours who left France 100 years ago, a century from now someone else will write the history of this period about to unfold in Marist Europe. As you begin to live that history, act in ways that will give those who will write about it reason to say that you began with courage. Take decisions that will cause them to report that boldness and daring were characteristic of you. Yes, begin Marist life again in this part of our world with courage, daring, and hope.

I cannot imagine a better time to live, or a better time to be one of Marcellin’s brothers. And I have no doubt that he is here among us, as is the Lord, and Mary, our sister in faith. May they give us the greatness of heart to do what we must so that the dream of that simple country priest and Marist father continues to bring the Word of God to poor children in need of hearing some good news.

Thank you.


A FINAL COMMUNIQUE


Herewith the text of the final communiqué as approved by the assembly:


TO THE MARIST PROVINCES IN EUROPE
27 November 2003
The General Council
The visitation teams for the Provinces
The Provincial Councils of Europe

Dear brothers and lay Marists,
Fraternal greetings to each and every one of you, brothers and lay Marists of Europe, enriched by our communities present in Algeria, Lebanon, and Syria. We are writing to you with hearts filled with affection and hope. With the Lord who said “Behold I make all things new” (Rev 21, 5), we want to share with you the powerful call to vitality and creative fidelity that we have been experiencing. It is possible TO BE Marist in Europe today! This is a gift from the Lord, and a challenge for us to live!

As you know, the Marist Provincial Councils of Europe met in Madrid from November 24th to the 27th. This gathering followed retreats that were held during the summer of 2003, visits from the General Council, and a good number of Provincial Chapters that took place to launch these new Provinces. Taking part in this meeting in Madrid were the General Council, the Brothers who had visited the provinces, and the Provincial Councils, about sixty Brothers in all. With Brother Séan Sammon, Superior General, we held an “Expanded General Council.”

In this setting, we desired to open our hearts to the newness that the Lord is presenting to us as a gift, and to make every effort to fully recognize our strengths and the challenges that Marist life is facing in this Europe of the 21st century.
We have discovered many strengths and riches that are present in our five European Provinces. The first, without a doubt: all of us – brothers and laity – who are working side by side and sharing life and mission; also many plans and activities, many positive, practical attitudes, much pastoral animation in solidarity, and many communal endeavours that today are raising the visibility of our Marist identity and bringing hope and inspiration to everyone around us.

Calls from the world and from our 20th General Chapter, our responses to them, and our searching for answers and readiness to act, are clear signs of the Spirit’s presence, filling us with gratitude to the Lord and our Good Mother. And even though weaknesses, weariness, misunderstandings, aging, and apprehension may exist, we know that in being open to the Spirit, we will experience, as Paul did, that “when we are weak, then we are strong” (Cf. 2 Cor 12, 10).

This has also encouraged us to take on challenges and look for ways to continue making the charism of Marcellin Champagnat fully alive in the here-and-now, embodying it our pluralistic European realities. Yes, challenges and calls are also gifts from the Lord in our restructuring process, and provide us with occasions to grow and reenergize our lives – giving us opportunities to serve as “new wineskins” for Him (Mt 9, 17).

The main challenge that we see before us is to RECREATE OUR MARIST IDENTITY TODAY. We find ourselves in a favourable time for responding to this invitation from the Lord, and in this regard we have a tradition of faithfulness and making brave choices.

And so we welcome this challenge of searching for a renewed identity, knowing that we must travel this road together, brothers and laity, with our characteristic Marist identities that complement one another. And base our journey on:

- Our spirituality, bringing to light once again that passion for Jesus as the central figure in our lives, as he was in Mary’s. To accomplish this, we will need processes of ongoing conversion, asking the Spirit “to break the chains that shackle us,” so that “little by little, Christ will become the Lord of our lives” (C 166).
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- Our mission, which must be adapted and re-created to respond to the needs of today’s children and young people in Europe. Whether in schools or new forms of ministry, we need to pay close attention to the evangelizing power in everything we do, and show special care for the least favoured.
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- And a life of Marist fraternity that will be a sign and witness of hope and a grace that ignites vocations.
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These are specific challenges for Marist life in Europe today, aimed at accomplishing all that the 20th General Chapter has asked of us. And all of us, working together, will be able to redesign, rethink, rediscover, and re-create Marist life, and in the process come to recognize the Lord Jesus with a sense of wonder, just as the two disciples from Emmaus did, for we know that “whoever is in Christ is a new creation” (2 Cor 5, 17).

Right now our European Provinces are experiencing a time of adaptation and discovery. We are searching for the requisite ways to turn the restructuring that has already taken place into a timely opportunity for engendering new vitality and viability in our European Marist life and mission. All of this is demanding a great deal of our energy and attention at this very moment. That is why, although we have experienced a powerful summons to act boldly, we would like to propose a prudent first step at the continental level, and share this with you:

This assembly approves the formation of a task force made up of five brothers, one brother from each of the new Provinces in Europe.
The objective of this work group will be to facilitate a deeper study and better understanding of the identity of the brother and the lay Marist:
In view of this objective, the group will have as an assignment:
1. To prepare the way and organize a European forum, before the next General Conference, on the identity of the brother and the lay Marist in Europe, coordinating its efforts with the “Laity Commission” of the General Council.
2. To develop a plan of reflection, animation, and accompaniment for processes and activities considered helpful in finding new ways to express our identity, and making already existing ones more dynamic.
This will be submitted for approval by the CEP prior to September 2004.
Before 31 January 2004, each Provincial will forward the name of the brother designated to be a member of this task force to Brother Superior General. After conferring with the five Provincials, the Superior General will then appoint the brother who will serve as the group‘s coordinator.

As you see, dear brothers and lay Marists, we are firm in our commitment to “choose life”. Sometimes this may be unsettling for us and we may have our doubts, and – like Nicodemus – we will say to the Lord, “How can a person once grown old be born again?” Can we Marists throughout Europe be born again? The boldness of Champagnat coupled with Mary’s openness to God’s plans encourage us to respond with a resounding yes and embark on this adventure of being “born of the Spirit”, “born from above” (Cf. Jn 3, 4-7).

We, the Marist Provinces of “Compostela”, “West Central Europe”, “Iberica”, “The Hermitage” and “The Mediterranean”, have this gift and this challenge in our hands. And all of us, brothers and lay Marists, must face up to them together, re-creating our Marist identity through inter-provincial collaboration and communion.

Together let us put all our confidence in Mary and Saint Marcellin, trusting that they will take us by the hand and accompany us on our journey.

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