WITNESSES OF THE REDEEMER:
In Solidarity for Mission in a Wounded World
Rome, March 15, 2021
Dear Confreres, Brothers and Sisters in Christ our Redeemer,
On Monday, March 15, 2021, we close our Jubilee Year celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the death of St. Clement Maria Hofbauer, Redemptorist Missionary and our ‘second founder’. Unfortunately, this Jubilee Year coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, which cancelled almost all the celebrations planned to mark this important anniversary. However, the spirit of St. Clement has accompanied us all year as he has inspired us and encouraged us even in the midst of this ‘lockdown’.
After a long search for his “vocation”, in 1785, Clement Hofbauer and Thaddeus Hübl were professed and ordained as Redemptorist Missionaries in Italy. Within a few months, they were sent north of the Alps to establish the Congregation and preach the Gospel. In Pagani, St. Alphonsus received this news with great joy. As Tannoia writes, Alphonsus then spoke in a prophetic spirit: “God will not fail to spread his glory, through these men, into those lands which have been partly abandoned since the suppression of the Jesuits. The missions there are different from ours… they can do a great deal of good, but they need greater light.” For the next 35 years, Clement devoted his life to these two goals: to preach the Gospel and to establish the Redemptorist Congregation “in those abandoned lands”. It wasn’t easy.
Forbidden to preach popular missions in parishes, Clement found new ways to evangelize through social ministry and care for the poor. Like St. Alphonsus, he promoted the written word through books and newspapers. He organized small groups to study the Gospel, and prepared lay people to be missionaries and bring the gospel to others. Concerned for meaningful celebration of the Liturgy, he encouraged art and music which communicate the beauty of the Gospel and the love of God. Because closeness to people is so important, Clement spent hours in the confessional and offered spiritual direction to thousands. His personal motto became famous: “To preach the gospel ever anew – in every age and to every generation, in words that people can understand, we must preach the gospel ever anew”.
St. Clement arrived north of the alps in an historic moment of epochal change. It was the time of the French Revolution followed by the Napoleonic wars which reshaped the map of Europe and new political populism. It was the period of the enlightenment and the romantic moment reshaping the philosophical and theological discourse of northern Europe. Perhaps most significantly, it was also a time of ‘nativism’, anti-clericalism and strong reaction against the power and influence of the Church.
Despite the obstacles he faced, St. Clement never lost his sense of humour, nor his sense of hope. He refused to become discouraged or bitter. Maybe that’s why he’s an excellent model for us during this pandemic time. He says to us today: “Never give up! Find a new way! Don’t lose hope!” Encouraged by his creativity and optimism, during this year of the pandemic, Redemptorists have become missionaries again through digital media, on the internet, and through small community formation. Rather than remain locked safely in our houses, many confreres have engaged in new social ministries to reach the poor and the abandoned. “To preach the gospel ever anew…”
St. Clement tried to establish the Congregation by founding communities of Redemptorists in Poland and Austria, in Romania and Germany, in Switzerland and Hungary. But every community he started was closed by hostile governments, and sometimes by unfriendly Bishops or other clerics. Yet he never gave up. The young Redemptorists he prepared were dispersed and forbidden to live in community. Students were sent home. St. Clement continued to gather small groups to pray together, to discuss and share, and to serve the poor – and he formed apostles in secret. From these small groups, many future Redemptorists emerged, as well as dedicated and committed lay missionaries and ‘oblates’. A month after his death in 1820, the Emperor granted permission to establish a community in Vienna. And these dispersed Redemptorists came together again and began a new chapter in the history of the Congregation.
Within a few years, hundreds of Redemptorists began to go forth from Vienna to preach the Gospel anew and establish the Congregation in Germany, Belgium, France, and Portugal. Within 12 years, they crossed the ocean to the Americas to preach the Gospel anew in new lands, and they established the Congregation in the United States and Canada, and soon in Latin America, and then in Africa, in Asia … Now we are in more than 80 countries around the world.
This is the legacy we have inherited from our founding Fathers, from Alphonsus and Clement. It is a legacy that we wish to protect and build on. Constitution 15 reminds us that “Since [Redemptorists] are always obliged to seek new apostolic initiatives under the guidance of legitimate authority, they cannot allow themselves to settle down in surroundings and structures in which their work would no longer be missionary. On the contrary, they will diligently pioneer new ways of preaching the Gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).” To preach the Gospel ever anew!
In the post-Vatican II era we have taken these words to heart as we adapt our charism to a rapidly changing and complex world, much in the spirit of St. Clement in north Europe. The 24th General Chapter in 2009 set in motion a process that challenges us to “restructure” ourselves for the sake of the mission. The response to this call throughout the Congregation has been heartening and gives us great hope for the future.
With the establishment of the five Conferences we have seen a much deeper discernment of the mission of the Congregation today. During this current sexennium, each Conference has worked hard in dialogue with every Unit and local community to identity our Missionary and Apostolic Priorities. These efforts to articulate the Conference Apostolic Plan are beginning to bear fruit. We are growing in our sense of missionary solidarity, an awareness that we are all in this together. We have seen the emergence of new creative and bold missionary initiatives (Cons. 13) as we respond to the needs of our wounded world.
It is true, of course, that the pandemic has touched the lives of us all. It has impacted and slowed some of our efforts. But let us not be discouraged! There is hope! We will emerge from this pandemic with renewed energy to continue our work of restructuring for mission. We will continue to build on the legacy we have inherited from Alphonsus and Clement.
At the moment, we do not know what the “new normal” will consist of. But we have started on this journey of restructuring and renewal, a journey in which we have an opportunity to be like Clement, to take risks, to be creative, and to preach the Gospel ever anew in our age and to our generation. And inspired by the vocation and example of Clement, I know that we will go forward in faith!
Due to the pandemic this year, we could not honour St. Clement with the large and joyful celebrations which were so carefully planned. But I believe that we continue to honour St. Clement in a much more meaningful way by making our own his missionary spirit and living it today as priests, brothers, sisters, and lay partners in mission.
On behalf of the Congregation, I would like to express my gratitude to all who contributed to this special Jubilee Year with publications, including One Body, biographies, articles, videos and letters. Thank you also to the many projects to make the spirit of St. Clement known to our formandi, to our Redemptorist Family, and to the people we serve. Above all, thanks to St. Clement Maria Hofbauer for his example and his spirit which inspire us today to continue to preach the Gospel anew and witness to the Redeemer in our wounded world. I encourage each local community to celebrate his feast this year in this spirit of gratitude and hope.
Two final thoughts from St. Clement himself:
- “Preach the Gospel ever anew… in every age and to every generation… in words that all can understand…” Preach the Gospel ever anew. Clement tells us “Take risks. Be creative. And be faithful apostles”.
- Never give up hope, never lose heart, no matter what obstacles are in our path: “Have courage. God is in charge, and he directs everything for our good and for his glory.”
Let’s follow in Clement’s footsteps as we celebrate his life, and know that he continues to accompany us today, perhaps more than ever, in this pandemic and through these challenging times.
May God bless the Congregation and the entire Redemptorist Family as we preach the Gospel in our wounded world today. May the Holy Spirit make us authentic and prophetic witnesses of the Redeemer. May St. Alphonsus and St. Clement accompany and inspire us in Mission.
Your brother in the Redeemer,
Michael Brehl, C.Ss.R.,