RESTRUCTURING FOR MISSION IS THE KEY
(An interview with Father John Kingsbury CSSR, Coordinator of the North American Conference)
(Rome, june 9, 2016) – When we asked Father Kingsbury: “Do you have a special message for the confreres?” He immediately replied: “I would say to every Redemptorist: Get to know the confreres in other Units especially within your Conference. Even just to make your annual retreat at a house in another Unit would be a great event. You will hear great new stories about confreres and ministries. You will see the charism lived in different ways and see our life through the eyes of others”.
He offered us a great insight into the spirit of cooperation, solidarity and integration, needed to continue growing in the process of restructuring the Congregation is going through. Father John Kingsbury is, since August 2011, the Coordinator of the North American Conference. He is a 61 year old missionary, a member of the Baltimore Province. He was professed on August 2, 1975 and ordained a priest on May 24, 1980. He was in Rome these days (May 30 to June 4) for the meeting of the General Council and the Coordinators of the Conferences, as we prepare for the Second Phase of the 25th General Chapter. It was a real pleasure to spend a few minutes of conversation with John.
- John, tell us about your experience as Coordinator. What have you been able to accomplish, promote, encourage and accompany in the life and mission of your Conference?
I absolutely enjoy this ministry as Coordinator. Fortunately, my own ministry experience up to this point in time has been quite diverse and this has been helpful. I had been assigned to parish ministry, retreat ministry, formation ministry, and have also given parish missions. I have been involved with the Provincial government for 18 years. With this diverse experience to draw from, I am able to quickly grasp some of the issues I hear about when confreres or major superiors share about their own situation or try to explain a concern they are grappling with. I enjoy being part of the process of discernment that individual confreres and Provinces are going through as they Restructure for Mission.
Before being named as Coordinator of the Conference in North America, I was the facilitator of the meetings of OPCs who were part of the North American Region as well as the facilitator of the pre Chapter meetings of the 24th General Chapter. Through this work, I got to know the Major Superiors and they got to know me. I felt a respect for my ability to help the group move a question forward and they were grateful that I tried my best to remain neutral in all discussions. I was there specifically to help the process move smoothly so that they could deal with the content. So seeing that they already respected me in this role, the transition to do this as Coordinator was then rather easy. I feel extremely supported by the Major Superiors and their Councils in this work.
My interactions with the majority of the confreres is far less than it is with the Major Superiors. I am able to be with confreres for Chapters or Assemblies or Workshops but these are limited experiences. I enjoy being able to stay with a community for a while and find they are filled with questions about what I do and where we are going as a Conference. I have discovered that the idea of a Conference is still quite a mystery for many confreres.
- What has been your most difficult life experience during this time? Any special anecdotes?
There can be no doubt that the most difficult life experience that I have had to deal with during this time was being diagnosed and then treated for cancer. I got the news that my Doctor wanted to see me after a routine physical exam while visiting and giving a Parish Mission in our parish in Vancouver, Canada. I was far from home and I had to wait for the whole trip home to find out what the Doctor wanted to tell me. You have a lot of questions when you hear news like this. What were my options? What stage is the cancer? How treatable is it? What type of ministry will I be able to do after the treatment? Even the question as to whether I could continue as Coordinator.
I found tremendous support from the General and his Council during this time. I also found support from confreres all over the Conference because they had come to know me over these past years. It was a long healing process and I give thanks to God to be able to say that I am now cancer free. There are still tests every 3 months to make sure and I work my schedule around these times for tests. It was a long recovery because of some surgery complications and I returned to some of my activities as a Coordinator too soon.
A few months after treatment, I flew to a special event for the “Extra Patriam” Redemptorists of Vietnamese-origin in Houston, Texas, celebrating Our Mother of Perpetual Help. I was the main celebrant for both a long procession and a special Liturgy. My understanding of how far my recovery had come along was not the same as my reality! In the middle of the Mass I just felt absolutely exhausted and could not continue. It was extremely embarrassing because there were hundreds present for the Liturgy and it was even on TV! I had to explain that I recent had undergone treatment for cancer and thought that I was stronger than I really was. They showed great understanding and the Provincial took over from me and I sat out the rest of the Liturgy. After that experience, I took on a lighter load. It has now been a year and a half and I just made my first trip to Rome, since the surgery. I was glad to be able to make this long trip and spend some time catching up with the other Coordinators.
- Are there any “common, interprovincial” missionary projects in the Conference?
All of our experiments on this topic are happening on the Provincial level at the moment. We will discuss these issues at the Conference Assembly. However the action level is more localized. For example, we are considering a greater outreach to the First Nations People in northern Canada. We have discussed this on a Conference level but the action step is taken by the Edmonton-Toronto Province by sending a confrere to begin and explore this type of ministry.
We talk about making our Shrines more interprovincial ministries but the action exploration steps are being taken on the local level at the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre and the Shrine of St John Neumann. We have also done what we call “Area Missions” in the past when we were a North American Region and we are now exploring doing this as a Conference.
The discussions currently are around giving Parish Missions to all the parishes on the island of Grenada, in the Caribbean. So the concept of having common interprovincial Ministries is still developing in our Conference.
- One of the responsibilities of the Coordinator is to accompany, in a special way, those Units that are considered “fragile”. What do you understand by “fragile Units” and how have you been able to accompany them?
When I look at North America I wonder if the term “fragile Unit” actually applies to each Unit in our Conference in different ways. Yes, there are seminarians, but their numbers will never replace the number of confreres who have been in active ministry for many years. Also because of the economy we do not have the financial resources we once did. Understanding how best to respond to this situation is not easy and none really want to consider themselves a “fragile Unit.” We all want do what we can to maintain the active ministries we have. Recently our Provinces in Canada have come together to talk about the possibility of creating a new reality. Exactly what that reality will be is still being explored. The discernment process is not easy because we do not have a lot of experience to draw from, when it comes to “downscaling”. Our experience in the past was growth within Units always looking towards greater missionary expansion. Now we have to change how we approach our ministry possibilities.
- There are many challenges in the area of “Redemptorist Vocation promotion”, Initial and Ongoing Formation. The Congregation is facing these challenges and trying to respond to them with common interprovincial initiatives. How do you experience the situation and the possibilities?
Vocation promotion is quite a mystery for me. I find, and I am sure that this is true for each one of us, that it really was a mysterious process that brought us to the Congregation. We slowly become aware that we might be called by God and start the process to enter into this way of life. When I look back I am so amazed that I cooperated with the Lord as much as I did! Would I be a Redemptorist if I had to do it all over again? Absolutely “Yes”. But my “Yes” is based on a long time living a Religious life and our charism.
I would say “Yes” again because of this long list of experiences and insights that Our Lord has guided me through. But I did not have those insights when I was 17 and I am amazed that I said “Yes” at that time with what I knew! I cannot really explain how it all unfolded for me so I am left wondering how to help a young person as they go down the same road, pondering a vocation and being guided by God through the process. I am completely amazed how anyone enters into Religious Life and when we share vocation stories with each other we realize how diverse our paths to the Congregation were!
That being said, I believe that our best vocation promotion is rooted in having us discussing and living our Mission. So for me, the whole theme of Restructuring for Mission is the key. The more we just live our life, the more others will understand our calling and hopefully hear their own call from God to follow in His footsteps.
Formation is where the Conference is truly coming alive. Our young confreres are getting to know each other and learning about other Units. The Novices recently reminded me when I talked with them about the Conference and asked them if they did experience a difference… they said “we do not know the Congregation without a Conference structure!” How quickly things change! I find the students enjoy being with confreres from other Units. This is not to say that there are not issues that surface because of different cultural expectations. But overall, the experience is one that is extremely positive. Our students also live a witness that our faith is calling us all to be part of the People of God no matter where we are from!
June 6, 2016.
Prepared by Enrique López