Restructuring demands serious renewal and a new missionary spirit (Father Jacek Zdrzalek)


(2011 Photo, Meeting at General Curia) 

Restructuring demands serious renewal and a new missionary spirit

Jacek_Zdrzalek(Rome, June 7, 2016) – This is an interview with Father Jacek Zdrzalek (52 years old), the Coordinator of the Redemptorist Conference of Europe. He is a member of the Warsaw Province. He made his first vows in 1985, 31 years ago. He was ordained a priest 26 years ago in 1990.  He says: “Now I have behind me the first important jubilees in my life and the second half of my life started some time ago – but thank God I still don’t know whether I am  closer to the end or just starting the second part!”

 Please share with us your experience. What have you been able to accomplish, promote, encourage and accompany in the life and mission of your Conference?

It all started during the Assembly of the Conference of Redemptorists of Europe (CRE) in Cortona (Italy) in March 2011, where the participants proposed three of us as candidates. Then the General Council nominated the Coordinators in April 2011. However, the Coordinators are really in office since June 2011.

 The activities of the Conference were on so many levels that it is really very difficult just to name all of them. Every Conference wrote a special report for the General Chapter, in which we tried to describe the last six years. It took many pages. Now, I will choose those aspects which are most significant for me. For me, initial Formation is one of the most important issues. During these years, we started many new experiences in Formation. A totally new experience was the common preparation for Perpetual Vows for all the Units from the CRE. There were three of these programs – in Tuchów, Poland (2013, 2014 and 2015). This year (2016) it took place in Kostolna, Slovakia. Next year (2017) it will be in Lviv, Ukraine. This offered our students the possibility of getting to know themselves and the others better, as well as it helped in learning to live and work together.

It is no secret that there are different mentalities, understandings of religious life, styles of Formation, and a different ecclesiology within our continent. The experience helped us realize that we are different, but it also gave us the awareness that the most important aspect is: to discover common aspects from where we can start to build something new in spite of our diversities. We also received very positive feedback after the first “Alphonsian Pilgrimage” for those in initial Formation from the Conference of Europe, which took place in Italy in 2014.

Regarding the question of Evangelization, I will name at least two new initiatives. The school of Evangelization (known as “REDCAMP”), organized by the Commission of New Missionary Initiatives in Kraków, Poland (2014) and in Venice, Italy (2015). The main idea is: to gather people from various countries, confreres and others who are already involved in new ways of Evangelization. They discussed and constructed a new model of Evangelization. Then, they actually made something happen in the field of Evangelization, a meeting, some prayer time or something else. It was a great time for sharing among ourselves as well as with others.

Another interesting initiative is the Redemptorist ministry (based in Astorga, Spain) with pilgrims along the “Camino de Santiago”. The Province of Madrid invites Lay and religious Redemptorists to minister and reach out to pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela. On the one hand, this offers the possibility for Evangelization but it also offers the possibility to establish a Redemptorist community that can live and work together for a period of time. It is an opportunity to learn and work as a team.

I could mention many other initiatives. For example: the First International Meeting of our Partners in Mission, in Madrid (Spain). This was an opportunity to share our experience of Collaborative Ministry in the CRE. It was organized by a working commission called “Partnership in Mission”. Another positive initiative was the International Symposium for Redemptorist Editorial Houses, in Hawkstone, England. My personal experience is that all these efforts are just the beginning of a vision. The fruits of all these meetings will be seen in the future. This is just the first step.


In general, how is your working relationship with the Major Superiors and the confreres in Europe? Any special anecdotes?

 This is a difficult question to answer. I think it is impossible to give a brief response, especially when we must talk about ourselves. In my opinion, the appreciation and the recognition by the Major Superiors and confreres was connected to the acceptance or not of the process of restructuring in the Congregation. It is not a secret that some Redemptorists in Europe do not have a favorable opinion of this process. However, I must honestly say that in general (except for very rare situations and the reactions of some concrete individual confreres) I have personally experienced immense kindness, also from those who have different opinions regarding this process. All the Assemblies, the meetings, General Visitations, common projects of the CRE, gave me a great opportunity to meet hundreds of Redemptorists. When I had the possibility to personally meet the confreres, the prejudices very often disappeared.

 There were many funny situations. One of these stories is connected to my first General Visitation. When I arrived at one of our communities, the confrere who welcomed us at the entrance door asked me who I was. I told him my name and mentioned that I was the Coordinator. Then, he politely replied that there was not a free room for the Coordinator but only for the General Consultors who were arriving to start the General Visitation!


Please tell us something about the major difficulties you have experienced.

 The most difficult but also the most joyous experiences were connected to the new projects of the Conference. The difficult ones were specially related to our inability to finish some of those projects in which we have invested many years of very hard work. When everything was prepared and seemed in place (the new project, the new style of work, the contracts with the Bishop, etc.) we were not able to find the right people for the project. The difficult experiences are connected to that inability in carrying out some of those planned projects. Maybe this is more a feeling of frustration, some disappointment, a sense of helplessness or bitterness, than real difficulties. Other difficult moments were connected to the very poor participation of the confreres at meetings organized for all the European Units. In some of those cases, only few Units gave a really positive response and sent people to the meetings.


Tell us about the mission in Albania, which is an interprovincial project.

 The Interprovincial Community in Albania is very well accepted in the Units of the CRE. The Assembly of the CRE decided about it, after a long discussion and discernment. Every Unit offered its own contribution and now we feel that this community and the mission of Evangelization in Albania is really a common project. I have heard many times the opinion (given especially by older confreres), that their Unit was too fragile to start a new mission. But we did it as a Conference and this is a sign of hope for them. The missionary project in Albania is successful. Now, the Community is almost two years old. Three Confreres went to Albania on September 13, 2014. The mission of the new community officially started on September 22, 2014. Of course we still have to face some challenges in this new mission, but God is blessing our efforts.


Have you been able to closely accompany the so called “fragile Units” in the Conference? What do you understand by the expression “fragile Units”?

 Responding to the first part of the question, I can say that my accompaniment depended on what the Major Superiors of those so called “fragile Units” expected from me. The classical example for me was helping in the process of merging some of the Units. We had three major processes during the last six years in the CRE: the union of the Province of Lyon-Paris with the Province of Strasbourg (in France); Munich with Vienna; and Prague with Bratislava. There were totally different expectations regarding my participation and involvement. Some wanted very close collaboration and my accompaniment in almost every step of the process. Another invited me to their Provincial Chapters and Assemblies, when they took the first steps, but then they decided to move forward alone, by themselves. One only asked for my prayers.

The term “fragile Units” is much wider, it refers to many aspects. In some way, every Unit is “fragile”, but each one in different ways. Some of them are fragile because they don’t have enough personnel for the mission of evangelization; some because they do not have a stable financial situation; others because they have already lost hope and inspiration; others because they are closed, locked in their own world etc.


Vocation promotion is a huge challenge in Europe. Can you share with us some of the efforts and difficulties? How can we strengthen the positive experiences?

There are no easy solutions. It is not easy to say what we should do. It is no secret that we have problems with vocation promotion in many Units. There are external factors such as: secularization; the desire for a comfortable life in our societies; the sex scandals in the Church, etc. We can certainly extend the list. These are serious and real obstacles for young people to decide to follow Jesus in religious life. But there are different situations and different factors in every country. So, we must be able to find the proper way to do vocation promotion according to the situation in the different countries. What works in one country, doesn’t necessarily work in another. Of course prayer is necessary in every place. But the best vocation promotion is connected to the witness of religious life that each confrere and every community must give. If we are not happy and do not show any joy in our vocation, it is very difficult to convince anyone to follow in our footsteps and walk with us. I really think that if a young man can find joyful witnesses of Jesus Christ in our communities, then there are more probabilities that we will have lots of new vocations. I believe in it. So the best way for vocation promotion is our own personal conversion.


You already mentioned that Formation is a very important aspect of restructuring in Europe. Tell us more about interprovincial Ongoing Formation programs. What are the positive experiences? How do you see the future of these possibilities?

Yes. I have already talked a lot about the initial Formation programs before. But we have more difficulties with interprovincial programs for Ongoing Formation. This is not working so well. There were many possibilities with the summer courses for those in the Transition to Ministry program. There were also common meetings for the Formators in Europe: Krakow, Poland (2013); Dublin, Ireland (2015); the meeting for the Brothers from the CRE in Vienna, Austria (2013). However, we did have some disappointments, for example, with the courses for those in the Transition to Ministry program. In reality, very few confreres took part in them. The different languages are part of the problem in Europe. We use more than 15 languages and therefore the ongoing formation programs are done mainly in each particular Unit (when they offer these opportunities of Formation) or among the Units which share the same or similar languages. Some Units do not have an ongoing formation program.


What do you personally expect from the 25th General Chapter?

I hope that General Chapter will give us a clearer understanding and vision of the restructuring process which will really produce deep and honest renewal; more courageous decisions and better collaboration among the Units and Conferences. We must also have a frank and true discussion on our charism: what does it really mean for the Church and society today.

Father Michael Brehl with father Jacek Zdrzalek (right) and father Luigi Ramazzotti

How was the Meeting of the First Phase of the General Chapter in your Conference?

In general, it was a very good experience. The confreres were interested, they wanted to talk about the present situation of the Congregation, about the process of restructuring and so on. We could even disagree, argue and “fight”, but this is also a good sign. The issue is so important for all of us and we get involved. Most of the participants felt that this is a crucial moment, not only for us as Redemptorists but also for religious life in general and, in a special way, in Europe. But, of course, we differ in many aspects. So we also have different visions regarding the future of the Redemptorists and we have various challenges in Europe. We are very different. We don’t think and we don’t feel the same way.


How do you see the future of the Congregation in the next 10 years? What would you recommend to the next Coordinator?

It is not easy to be a prophet. First of all I want to say that I am an optimist and I know that God wants us and he has a lot of work for us. Our charism is needed in the Church, but that doesn’t mean that in 10 years we will be the same as now. There will be many, many changes. The way we see, it seems that our Congregation will continue to grow in Asia, Africa, even a little bit in Latin America, but year by year there will be less Redemptorists in Europe and North America. Of course, God could change everything in one moment. But it takes some time to form a Redemptorist missionary. So, even if in the next few years God blesses us with many new vocations in Europe and North America, still it will take time. Starting now they will finish their Formation process around 2025 or later. The decreasing number of Redemptorists in some continents is rather sure. I trust that if the restructuring process touches our hearts then we will have a better future. The key is to understand that we have to change, we have to change from the concept of  “restructuring” to that of “conversion” and “renewal”.

I think we have to continue what we have started during these last years (Interprovincial Community, Formation meetings, the REDCAMP program, The mission in ASTORGA, etc.), but we must also continue to discern about new places and new initiatives for us; about new ways of evangelization and collaboration; and about a new life style for us.


General Chapters usually choose a “theme for the sexennial”. Ordinarily the theme is expressed in an inspirational and spiritually motivating phrase. What should be the “theme for  the sexennium 2016-2022”?

The theme for the next six years maybe should be something like this: “Restructuring demands true renewal of spirit”.  We should look towards the future with hope but also in a new way, with a new mentality. Right now, too many things bind us to the old style of religious life or we are attached to places where we are now living. All these ties prevent us from going forward.

My gratitude for this conversation, Jacek – for your kindness, your sense of congregational responsibility, your generosity and dedicated service as Coordinator of the Conference. Thank you for sharing your experience, inspirational insights, and missionary spirit.


June 7, 2016, Prepared by Enrique López