Roma, 4 May 2007
Prot. N° 0000 100/2007
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time (1 Pt 1, 3-5).
I am happy to write this letter at the height of the season of Easter, a time when the Church contemplates the abundant life that God has bestowed on us in the paschal mystery of Jesus. These days are also a time of dramatic changes in nature: spring arrives in many parts of the North while autumn is revealed in the South. The rhythm of the liturgy as well as changes in the natural world reminds us of the passage of time.
The Congregation has moved into the second half of the present sexennium. While no dramatic event marked this transition, the passage of the milestone of the mid-sexennium did not pass unnoticed. The Congregation concluded the first half of the six-year period between General Chapters by taking a look at itself. The six regional meetings during 2006 examined the state of the Congregation in the light of the program charted by the XXIII General Chapter in 2003. These gatherings, which included the major superiors of the Congregation, members of the General Government, lay missionaries and others, were memorable experiences of brotherhood as well as occasions for a humble and honest discernment of the signs of times and places.
I trust that the superiors have already informed the members of their respective units regarding the work of the regional meeting. In this letter, I would like to offer some thoughts on four issues that appeared on the program of each of the six meetings: restructuring, consecrated life, Africaand the XXIV General Chapter. These same themes have appeared regularly on the agenda of the General Council, so I am able to inform you about some recent developments.
Restructuring of the Congregation
As you recall, the XXIII General Chapter dedicated a great deal of time to discussing the value of restructuring in the Congregation. The Chapter declared that the mid-sexennial meeting of 2006 should be time for “a comprehensive presentation on congregational restructuring… including the question of representation at the 2009 General Chapter” (Orientations, 11.3). The same decision assigned to the Commission on Restructuring the primary responsibility for this presentation.
To this end, the Commission prepared a report entitled: Restructuring: A Work in Progress as well as a proposal regarding representation at the General Chapter; unfortunately the latter proposal was not received in time for it to be considered at the first meeting, that of the North American Region, which took place in January 2006. The report on restructuring, however, was discussed thoroughly at all six meetings. The reflection was greatly enhanced by the presence of at least one member of the Commission at each regional meeting.
The Commission rightly stressed that A Work in Progress is not the communication of a sort of finished “product” but rather the outline of a rationale for restructuring as well as some concrete proposals. The purpose of document was to stimulate discussion and further reflection and, in my judgment, this goal has been realized, at least among the major superiors and the General Government. Whether the confreres of any given unit have also participated in this important discussion remains an important and troubling question.
During the first months of 2007, the members of the Commission analyzed the feedback that was received in the regional meetings with a view to preparing a second document; the Commission will meet with the General Council in June of this year to share their analysis and submit new proposals, including some that touch on the possible restructuring of the General Government.
The General Council, too, has reflected on what we heard during the regional meetings of last year. On the one hand, we believe that there is interest in the question of restructuring and widespread agreement with the work of the Commission. There is grateful appreciation for the five principles that have been suggested to guide the process of restructuring (Work in Progress, pp. 5-6). We sense that (vice-) provinces are willing to cede some degree of autonomy in order to respond better to the challenges of the Church and world. The new configurations that have been proposed by the Commission, such as federation, conference and network, hold a promise of releasing new energy among Redemptorists for the sake of the mission that has been entrusted to us. Individual units are moving beyond an exclusively provincial vision to consider regional and sub-regional priorities. There also seems to be a desire that this growing solidarity among Redemptorists be reflected in the configuration and process of the General Chapter, especially through greater empowerment of the regional meetings.
On the other hand, our reflection reveals some worrisome trends as well. The contact with the provinces and vice-provinces, especially during the general visitations, suggest to us that the debate about restructuring has been largely restricted to leaders who have participated in regional meetings; in many places considerable numbers of confreres remain passive and uninformed. Restructuring is seen more in negative terms, such as a process designed solely for retrenchment or diminishment, rather than as an opportunity for new life. Some valuable foundations have been closed or new efforts not undertaken because of the reluctance of a Province to ask for help from other units. International communities stir interest among confreres but we still do not have a workable policy for their preparation and strategic placement. Finally, if it is true that restructuring must be in service of our mission, then a lack of clarity about our reason for being in the Church or a mistaken notion about the people to whom we are sent will inevitably damage or defeat our efforts to find new structures.
In spite of the present obstacles, my personal assessment is that the leadership of the Congregation sees restructuring as a real opportunity and is committed to carrying forward the debate. The meeting between the Commission for Restructuring and the General Council in early June will be an important occasion to agree on a strategy for the second half of this sexennium. I ask that the major superiors continue to ensure that the confreres are kept informed of developments and invited to offer their own contributions to the ongoing discernment.
A second theme that presented itself in both the regional meetings and the extraordinary sessions of the General Council is the question of the consecrated life of Redemptorists. Put another way, how do we understand an essential element of our “apostolic life” as described in Constitution 1: “a life specially dedicated to God”? I raised this question to the last General Chapter and the capitulars responded by recognizing “the need to clarify the meaning of our vows and the necessary witness of our live” (Orientations, 9). The same decision asked that the Congregation reflect on the “consequences of religious profession, as the definitive act of the whole missionary life by which all (Brothers, professed students, deacons and presbyters) are truly missionaries” (ibid., 9.2).
A question has been how we should carry forward this reflection? A good suggestion came from the General Secretariat for Brothers. Noting that the recent experience of a special year dedicated to St. Gerard Majella produced good results in many areas of the Congregation, the Secretariat proposed to the General Council a similar year of special reflection on the consecrated life. The General Council discussed this strategy in several extraordinary sessions and judged it to be a useful way towards fulfilling the desire of the XXIII General Chapter for a profound reflection on our life as “especially dedicated to God”.
At its most recent extraordinary meeting, 28 March – 4 April 2007, the General Council decided to invite all Redemptorists to devote a year of special reflection on our way of living the consecrated life. This year will begin on 9 November 2007, the 275th anniversary of our birth at Scala, and continue through 9 November 2008. Incidentally, during the span of this year, the Congregation will commence thinking about yet another important anniversary. Already several provinces in Europe and the General Government are in communication with the Province of Viennaregarding the celebration of the centenary of the canonization of St. Clement Mary Hofbauer, which will occur on 20 May 2009.
At its extraordinary session in June, the General Council will develop in greater detail the plan for the special year of reflection on the consecrated life. Our suggestions and potential resources, including a communicanda, will be communicated to the Congregation after that meeting. For the moment, I ask all the units of the Congregation to begin to think about this year and, particularly, to plan how the 275th anniversary of the founding of the Congregation might be marked among you. You could begin to consider how possible events, such as retreats, assemblies, monthly days of recollection, special vocational promotion, etc., might be incorporated into the plan for the year in your unit. The General Council hopes that the Congregation might see this project as a time of special grace and “a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk. 4, 19).
The future of our Congregation in Africa continues to be a priority for the present General Council. We dedicated the first six months of 2004 to visiting all of the units in that continent and, since we recognize the important work of our confreres as well as the serious challenges now faced by African Redemptorists, that Region remains a regular theme for discussion at our extraordinary sessions.
In March 2006 the General Council decided to enlarge the participation at the mid-sexennial meeting for the Region of Africa that was to be held inIbadan, Nigeria, 26 November – 5 December 2006. Our idea was to expand the discussion of the most important challenges that the Congregation is presently facing in Africa. As a result, during the first four days of the regional meeting, the African superiors met together with members from the General Council and the issues that were debated included topics that appeared on the agenda of the other five regional meetings in 2006. The superiors of the mother provinces participated in the final four days of the regional meeting and the agenda included the questions of restructuring, initial and continuing formation as well as financial support for our mission in this Region.
I believe that the meeting opened new possibilities that will strengthen our missionary service. The participants considered the advantages of new models that had been proposed by the Commission for Restructuring, especially those of a conference and a network. It was decided to set in place an interim body called the Commission for Africa, to be composed of five members: the general consultor from Africa, two sub-regional coordinators and two other members to be named by the General Council. At its extraordinary meeting of December 2006, the General Council decided to add Father João Pedro Fernandes, the superior of the Vice-Province of Angola and Father Georges Darlix, vicar general emeritus and member of the Province of Lyon-Paris, to the three ex officio members: Fathers Athanase Nsiamina, José Collado (Burkina-Niger) and Seán Wales (South Africa). The commission met last month and its initial recommendations will be considered by the General Council in June.
The regional meeting also made progress toward greater cooperation in the critical area of initial and permanent formation. Agreement was reached on a number of clear criteria to guide the formation of Redemptorists in Africa; there was also accord on joint novitiates as well as programs to assist young confreres during preparation for final vows and their eventual transition to full-time ministry. Further discussion is needed regarding the theological formation of students in the Anglophone units; to this end, a recommendation to the General Government will be given by 1 January 2008.
Finally, the extended regional meeting examined the question of greater economic solidarity in support of our mission in Africa. The meeting approved the establishment of a supplementary fund to help units with the cost of first formation. The supplementary fund would be constituted by contributions from units in the African network and administered by a committee to be named by the Commission for Africa. The General Council chose not to approve the immediate implementation of the proposed supplementary fund. Instead, the Council asked for further study of the economic reality of our mission in Africa, requesting that the Econome General, the General Secretariat for Finances and the Commission for Africa offer their opinions on the scope of the fund and ways to construct it before the Council approves its implementation.
XXIV General Chapter
The General Council has begun to prepare the next General Chapter of the Congregation, scheduled to take place in 2009. After consulting the regional meetings about preferences as to place and time of the year, the Council decided to reserve the same site as in 2003, the Salesianum, located on the outskirts of Roma. Because of a prior booking, the Salesianum could not give us the same dates as 2003, hence we are planning that the Chapter will begin in mid-October of 2009. At the moment, we anticipate that the Chapter will last for a month.
The General Council will return to this issue in June and take whatever decisions are necessary to begin the preparation of the Chapter. You can be sure that the Congregation will be kept informed.
In conclusion, I wish that I could communicate credibly the great hope that I have for us. I believe that our continuing reflection on the charism of the Congregation will prove to us that it remains a precious gift of God to the Church and world, urging us to live the charism in an even more prophetic manner. The discussion on restructuring is leading us from a predominantly provincial vision of reality while helping us to discover in confreres across the world many reasons for optimism. How can we not be encouraged by the passion of our African confreres as well as the openness of confreres on other continents to new structures of solidarity? Each day my contact with confreres from so many provinces convinces me that the Spirit is still given generously to Redemptorists, so that our “young men see visions and our old men dream dreams”. (cf. Acts, 2, 17).
Yes, even in our days, God pours out a portion of his spirit and we shall prophecy!
Fraternally in the Most Holy Redeemer,
Joseph W. Tobin C.Ss.R.