* This is a conversation with Father Jovencio L. Ma CSSR (better known among the confreres as “Ben Ma”). At the very start of the conversation, he said: “I have always considered that my role as Coordinator is only an instrument of God’s work in plentiful redemption”. Clearly, he sees that the process of restructuring for mission is the work of the Holy Spirit and is producing many apostolic fruits in the Conference of Asia-Oceania. That would also explain the growth in numbers and the openness for collaboration and solidarity. Since 2010, Father Ben Ma is the Coordinator of the Redemptorist Conference of Asia and Oceania (referred to as ASIOC). A member of the Province of Cebu, Jovencio Ma (69 years old) made his first profession as a Redemptorist in 1974 and was ordained a priest in 1978. These past few days (May 30 to June 4) he was in Rome for a meeting of the Coordinators of the Conferences with the General Council, as we prepare for the Second Phase of the 25th General Chapter.
* It was a real pleasure to converse with Ben Ma. Presently, the Conference of Asia-Oceania includes the Provinces of Vietnam, Bangalore, Cebu, Indonesia, Liguori, Thailand, Oceania. Also: the Vice provinces of Manila, Ipoh-Singapore, Majella Mumbai, Japan. Plus: the Region of Colombo, which is part of the Province of Oceania, the Region of Korea, and the Redemptorist mission in China.
Ben, 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?
* When the restructuring for mission began, the “ASIOC Region” became the Conference of Asia and Oceania. The Region was divided into three sub-conferences: East Asia with three Units; South Asia with four Units and South-East Asia-Oceania with eight Units. It was already active in collaborative efforts both in Mission (for example in Dalat, Malaysia; in China; Samoa; Laos, and other places) and in the area of Formation (we have a common Theologate in Davao, Philippines, and a common Novitiate in Lipa, also in the Philippines). It made my task easier. I was also appointed Delegate to the Region of Colombo (Sri Lanka) with delegated authority from the Superior General and I was assigned specific tasks in the accompaniment of their leadership team.
* When we became the Conference of Asia and Oceania, we retained the three sub-conferences with their respective chairpersons as members of the Conference Council. We also adopted the common Formation in existence as a program of the Conference. At the end of the last quadriennium, four Units merged to form two new Units: Australia and New Zealand became the Province of Oceania. Also, Kagoshima and Tokyo formed the Vice Province of Japan under the General Government. Majella Mumbai became a Vice Province of the Province of Bangalore, India.
* The common Formation in Davao and Lipa continued. The Theologate in Bangalore became a common Theologate for the three Units of India. Colombo became a Region of the Province of Oceania and sent their novices and students to Davao. The Formation community in Kew, Australia, increased in number making it a multicultural one with the addition of Indonesian students to the Vietnamese students already there. Occasionally other students from other Units doing advance studies became part of that community.
* The Province of Oceania is also enriched by the presence of confreres from the Liguori Province (from India) and the Province of Lviv (Ukraine) making some of their communities not only multicultural but also multi-ritual. Oceania also officially took over the mission in Samoa with Indonesian confreres working with a Samoan confrere. At the same time, Indonesia sent confreres to Japan, Manila and Cebu. The Province of Cebu had sent a confrere to Korea to work with the migrants there, especially Filipinos, allowing the opening of a new community in Gwang-ju, outside Seoul. The Provinces of
Vietnam, Indonesia and Liguori sent confreres to other Units outside the Conference of Asia-Oceania. The members of the Conference are on the move, are very missionary.
* The vocations in Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangalore, Liguori, Mumbai, and Thailand continue to increase in number. Some Units like Colombo, Cebu and Manila continue to maintain the number of those in Formation while the remaining Units in the Conference either have a few or have no vocation at all. These are indicators of the important growth in the Conference and we can only thank God for these blessings. Most of the new initiatives in the Conference are bilateral and required a symbolic participation of the Coordinator. The majority of the interprovincial missions were already in place as we became a Conference. The common Formation is where I feel more involved as I attended most meetings of the Formation Board. I missed some due to my other meetings as Coordinator. One common project of the Conference did not materialize but there are several factors that affected this. I felt that it was not worth pursuing until some issues are resolved.
Please tell us about the difficulties you and about your working relationship with the Major Superior and the confreres in the Conference. Any particular anecdote?
* My experience is positive. By and large, there is a positive appreciation and acceptance by the Provincials especially in the last quadrennial. Many of them were my companions, when I myself had been a Provincial Superior in the Cebu Province. Thus the trust level was high as we do have several common experiences in meetings and in bilateral projects in Mission and in Formation. Only one Province openly questioned my role as a member of the canonical visitation but accepted well my role as Coordinator.
* When the relationships established are deeper, the working relationships become easy despite the many issues that we encounter as part of life. When trust is lacking, then it is harder to make projects move ahead. The change of leadership in some of the Units also affected the working relationships that had been well established in the past quadrennial. New beginnings are both a blessing and a challenge, or could be a block. It needs patience and more understanding for those who are new to be oriented to what is already there. It is also a challenge to listen to the new way of thinking and doing of some of the new leaders in the Conference.
* I think that it was good that my first experience with canonical visitation was a thorough one, both in length of time (almost three months) and in content (i.e. issues encountered). I had as my companion an experienced general consultor and a good mentor. This prepared me for the next three visitations when the general consultor who was to be my companion was not available due to his illness. I had to do the visitation on my own in these three Units.
* I consider this unfortunate and unforeseen incident to be a breakthrough because being alone I was not perceived as someone with a great authority. I was not a threat. This circumstance made the Visits very fraternal and informal in atmosphere, with confreres becoming very open, trusting and accommodating. This also helped me in my role as Coordinator when two of the three Units mentioned above merged and I had to attend their preparatory Assemblies. I have always considered that my role as Coordinator is only an instrument of God’s work in plentiful redemption. So I was not surprised that, even though things did not work out as originally planned, still the end results were graced, and were actually very good.
One of the responsibilities of the Coordinator is to accompany “fragile Units”. What do you understand by “fragile Units” and how have you been able to accompany them?
* My first experience in this area was accompanying the Region of Colombo. I was grateful that their leadership team, mostly young confreres, were very accepting of me and trusted me much. Thus I was able to work on the responsibilities outlined as part of my role as Coordinator. In the Conference there are different shades of fragility: numbers in terms of able personnel; internal conflicts and personal issues that affect leadership, finances, and lack of apostolic direction and priorities not only in statements but in reality.
The Congregation is growing in the Conference of Asia and Oceania. Tell us about vocation promotion, interprovincial Formation programs and the challenges in the area of ongoing Formation. What is your experience and what are the possibilities?
* Some Units in the Conference, and in the Congregation in general, have good programs in vocation promotion that even involved Lay persons working as full time local vocation promoters but ably supported by confreres and a central office (for example in the Province of Cebu and the Vice province of Manila). Many Units have a confrere assigned to do and coordinate the promotion and accompaniment. Some Units need to organize their program and involve more than one confrere. Some also integrate this promotion with their actual mission preaching in parishes. In at least four Units, the secular culture has affected the vocational choices of the young and the family and it is very hard to promote vocations to religious life. Some are focused in recruiting young professionals and the age of these professionals vary from Unit to Unit.
* Initial Formation have common and interprovincial programs only on the Novitiate and Theologate levels. Because of language, number and finances, large Provinces like Indonesia and Vietnam do most of their initial Formation at home. Indonesia had already sent their fifth year theology students to Davao. Prior to this they are sent to Australia or New Zealand to study English. Some went to Minburi (Thailand), Manila or Cebu, to learn or improve their English. The three Units of India are now having a common formation program at different levels (Postulancy, Novitiate, Theologate, the pastoral year program) with two Units or the three of them together. Already mentioned is the expansion of the Kew (Australia) formation community. The Postulancy is starting there this year with Vietnamese students as “formandi”.
How do you see the Congregation in the next 10 years?
* We see it as grace that within this sexennium, none of the Units have to be restructured based on General Statutes 088. However, in the next 10 years, some Units will hopefully have breakthroughs if their apostolic priorities are in place and mission becomes a strong component of their common identity as Redemptorists. Some Units need to work harder due to a small number of vocations attracted to the Redemptorists or even nil at times. There are no one factor that would let some Units become more fragile. On the whole though, God has blessed the conference with vocations and clear apostolic direction and priorities.
What do you personally expect from the 25th General Chapter?
* The Second Phase of the General Chapter will be held in Pattaya (Thailand) from October 31 to November 25, 2016. As we prepare for the 25th General Chapter, Father Ben Ma spoke to us about the challenges the Congregation is facing. He says that the present and the future demand solidarity: “Solidarity is the call of the time. My hope is that everyone understand that more solidarity and a stronger support to the whole Congregation and not limit it to one’s own Province or Conference are the crucial attitudes”.
* “My personal experience is that the meeting of the First Phase of the 25th General Chapter was generally successful, despite the presence of a good number of participants especially the Vocals. Probably the Conference Assembly, prior to the First Phase, conditioned a number to think only of the concerns of their sub-conference or Conference. Thus, they had a harder time shifting to the bigger picture of the whole congregation. Some personalities did block part of the process but the moderators did their job well to bring order back to the assembly”.
* I think “Solidarity” should be the “theme for the sexennial 2016-2022”, as it is the call of the time. It is an inspirational theme that can motivate the confreres.
What would you recommend to the future Conference Coordinator?
* The one in the Conference of Asia Oceania should be younger and have some experience in dealing with Superiors. He needs to be open and be generous with his time. When times get rough, he must remember this work is God’s work and he is only an instrument. He should not see himself as a lone problem solver but that issues and problems are that of the Unit or of the Conference and a communitarian solution should be sought and he must be part of that solution.
Thank you very much for this conversation, Ben, 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. – Do you wish to add anything else?
* If I had to offer a message to the rest of the Congregation I would repeat that we should be grateful. As a Congregation, we are certainly blessed. We shouldn’t waste or hide our blessings. Rather, we should generously share the abundant redemption that we celebrate and announce. We are to be light of the world and salt of the earth.
* It is very good to work with wonderful confreres in the Conference, among the Coordinators, the general Consultors and especially with Father General. As I already stated, the trust level is very high and this is truly grace. The friendship established made it easy to forget the not so happy experiences and make it part of life’s experience. We are blessed that we are about to end the sexennium and my term as Coordinator, even though I am aware that only the Third Phase of the General Chapter and the Assembly of the Conference in 2017 will propose new candidates for Coordinator. Our General Chapter is being held in the same year in which we celebrate the 150th year of the entrusting of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help to the Redemptorists. We are committed to “make her known” all the more in words and in our life witness in the years to come. We follow her words, “Do whatever He tells you.”
June 7, 2016
Prepared by Enrique López