Fr General shares his reflections on the Community Life

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Year dedicated to Community Life 
Some reflections on the quality of our community life

Const. 21-75; EG 026-049; Lk 6,12-16

by Fr. Rogério Gomes, C.Ss.R., Superior General

Introduction

A community is a group of people who share common characteristics, interests, goals, or a sense of identity and belonging. They can be formed based on geographical location, shared interests, hobbies, cultural or ethnic background, professional affiliation, religious identity, etc., and provide a social structure that promotes connections, communication, and cooperation among its members. Through identification or shared interests, individuals interact with each other in different ways according to different needs.   This interaction takes place through personal relationships and digital platforms. In this sense, the meaning of community extends beyond people’s immediate environment, so their relationships become much more universal. Today, for example, we talk about digital or virtual communities, which have their values and ambivalences.

For us Redemptorists, the community has a special value. According to Santino Raponi, “the Redemptorist community exists for evangelization, for mission. The community carries out evangelization and fulfills itself through evangelization. Community is a requirement of the ‘mission of the Church’, that is, of the vocation proper to the Congregation”.[1] In this sense, we are not just a group gathered around a common interest or charism but something beyond our consecration to Christ the Redeemer, the center of communitarian life. Constitution 23 shows us the value of community.

Since the members are called to continue the presence of Christ and his mission of redemption in the world, they choose the person of Christ as the center of their life and strive daily to enter ever more intimately into personal union with him. Thus, the Redeemer and his Spirit of love are at the heart of the community to form and sustain it. And the closer their union with Christ, the stronger will become their union with each other.

Santino Raponi affirms: “Christ is present in the community and is extended through it. There is a symbiotic relationship between the first missionary and the missionary community, so the community’s life is based on Christ. Communion in Christ and mission with Christ are two aspects which require and nourish each other since it is the same person (Christ) who is at the center of fraternal relationships and who is proclaimed in missionary work”.[2]

1.    Why start with community life?

In light of the issues raised by the XXVth General Chapter and the decisions of the XVIth General Chapter, the General Council has decided to focus on one theme each year. It does not mean that the others will be neglected. We started with the community because it is a fragile reality in the Congregation. Many problems that reach the General Government originate in the community. It was echoed at the Union of Superiors General meeting when Carballo Nuñes, Secretary of the Dicastery for Consecrated Life, indicated that 2,000 religious leave consecrated life yearly. In the Congregation’s studies, the two leading causes are loss of faith and community life.

Relationships characterize community life. In the redemptorist community life, this relationship has three dimensions: relationship with God, relationship with others, and relationship with those we serve, the most abandoned. 

  • Relationship with God (spiritual life). A religious community that does not have a relationship with God is empty. It gradually distances itself from its charism and becomes a manager of activities, forgetting its identity (being). It is this relationship with God that gives meaning to our consecration and to the work we do. The relationship with God includes personal and community prayer. If a confrere does not have an intimacy with God, if he does not discover his personal method of prayer throughout his life, if he does not care about cultivating a personal mystique, and if he is totally absent from common life, then the community is just a place to live, a hotel. 
  • The relationship with others (community life). We did not choose who to live with when we joined the Congregation. New people crossed our paths and marked us positively or negatively. Each person left a little of themselves on our journey. Each person brings their history, personality, culture, and understanding of the world and its mystery to this encounter. In this sense, the relationship with the other is a leap of faith because the other is a gradually revealed mystery. Despite all the ambivalences that exist, living with others enriches us because it allows us to see the world not only through the lens of a person but also through the lens of an equal dialogue partner (interlocutor). For us Redemptorists, community life, with all its challenges, is a value because it is about welcoming others, sharing a journey, a life project, and a mission. To relate to others is always to learn. The relationship between confreres is significant. This relationship must be extended by welcoming lay people and other religious families into our lives.
  • Relationship with the most abandoned (mission). Our relationship goes beyond our religious community. Because of the choice we have made, the mission of the Redeemer, we cannot forget the poorest and most abandoned. We do not exist to be part of a contemplative community in a strict sense but to meet the situations of abandonment in the world. The relationship with this other, the most abandoned, is a challenge for us. The most abandoned calls us to the kenosis, to empty ourselves, to realize the distacco. This poor person challenges our way of life, language, and presence. Our communities must constantly ask themselves if they consider the community of the most abandoned, if we welcome them if we relate to them, and if we should be where we should be. Our relationship with the poorest is a category that helps our community and pastoral discernment as to whether we are faithful to our charism.

2.    Quality of community life

We need to include the quality of community life in our reflection. Quality of community life refers to the overall well-being, satisfaction, and positive experiences that individuals and groups derive from their interactions and participation within a specific community or neighborhood. It includes a wide range of factors that contribute to people’s sense of belonging, happiness, and fulfillment within their local environment. Healthy community life means happy confreres, a job well done, a positive vision for the future, and a missionary witness. As I said before, we need to invest in relationships with God (spiritual life), with each other (community life), and with those we are called to serve (our mission). This is embedded in our Constitutions. They are an excellent spiritual source for us. Encourage the confreres to live each of the five themes with intensity: community, formation, mission, leadership, and spirituality.

I insist on this concept because before we speak to the People of God about community, we must live it in the first person and community. So, I will highlight some key aspects that influence the quality of community life that I think we need to highlight:  

  • Faith in community life. I think that this is the first step. Do we really believe in community life? Do we believe that it is capable of welcoming others? Do we believe that it is the support for our mission, as the Constitutions tell us? Faith in community life refers to believing in the importance and value of interactions and relationships within a community. It implies confidence that an active and involved community can benefit its members and their environment significantly. It requires recognition of diversity, a sense of belonging, trust in the collective potential, collaboration, and cooperation of professed members as well as lay people associated with the mission, promotion of common well-being, empathy, and solidarity, commitment to participation, thinking up new mission projects, valuing open and transparent dialogue, resilience, and adaptability of professed members as well as lay people.
  • Social relationships: We are relational beings. No person is an island. Even the island is not alone because it has the sea. Building strong social ties and meaningful relationships with neighbors, friends, and community members contributes to a sense of communion and emotional support. In this sense, the presence of lay people in our community life is very important. Communities where people interact regularly and participate in activities together tend to have a higher quality of life. It is important to welcome confreres with their personal history, even though this is often difficult. Our communities must be open to confreres from other parts of the Congregation and to lay people.
  • Feeling in a secure environment: People need to feel safe in their community to participate fully and enjoy their environment. This security is established through the trust we develop with others within and outside the community. It is important that the community can create a healthy environment of emotional safety where the person can feel at home with their way of being. People who feel a safe and welcoming community environment reveal themselves and open up to others. 
  • Creating a vital space. The quality of life of a community improves when the people who live in it can create a living space that involves caring for others. That is to create spaces where each member can feel comfortable and perform their work with quality. The environment must communicate life. A religious community that cannot create a pleasant space for itself and others is cold. It does not communicate welcome; it is not attractive.
  • Community identity. A strong community identity, often built around shared values, traditions, and local history, can lead to greater pride and belonging among the confreres. What is our Redemptorist community identity? Are we proud to be Redemptorists? Can our community identity attract people to live the charism with us?
  • Environmental qualityOur communities need to have environmental quality. We need to create pleasant environments. A community room that communicates welcome and intimacy, a chapel that can help confreres in their encounter with God, insert green areas and small gardens where possible. It communicates life! I know religious communities that look like a hospital…
  • Inclusion and diversity. Inclusive communities that embrace diversity tend to be more vibrant and enriching, as they offer a variety of perspectives, cultures, and experiences. Therefore, the more a community can welcome other equal dialogue partners (interlocutors) and communicate its identity, the more relevant it is because it can include, welcome, and deal with diversity. At the same time, it communicates its life. In this sense, it assumes a testimonial character. 
  • Gathering outside the prescribed timetable. Our religious communities have their schedules and rules in a Community Life Plan. Some communities have no Community Life Plan, others follow it more or less, and others follow it very strictly. We must avoid isolation and legalism. We can follow all the rules and not have community life. In that sense, the health of community life is demonstrated when people meet beyond what is prescribed in the programs. They themselves find the motivation to be together. For example, meeting for coffee time, for a snack before lunch, after mass at the end of the week… these are simple spaces that help people to live together.
  • Effective Governance. The governance of the local community should shepherd, animate, and manage the community. It should be transparent and responsive, communicate processes, communicate what is happening in the life of the Congregation, and provide opportunities for community members to participate in decision-making processes. It helps to give a greater sense of belonging. Confreres and lay people who are part of our mission feel more involved in the life of the Congregation. 
  • Ongoing formation. We need to create a culture of formation in our religious communities. I think it is not difficult for the communities to spend two hours every three months discussing a topic on consecrated life, spirituality, missiology, bioethics, and moral theology. It can be put on the agenda if the communities prepare the PCL. However, it must be a priority for the community. For example, as a General Government, we started this experience this year. We will have two days of formation every year according to our needs.

At first glance, this may seem idealistic. However, we must take this path if we want a more intense, humanized community life capable of caring for others and evangelizing. This is no easy task, but it is possible if we have faith in community life. Only in this way can we bear more consistent witness to the Gospel. Otherwise, we will be preachers to others without living what we preach.

3.    Community life and mission

The great challenge for us today is to engage the postmodern human being in the divine things and the community life. The post-modern human being is religious but does not want to belong to a religion. He desires to establish a religion that is in line with his interests. He is seeking a divine being to fulfill his desires. Today, you can find people who claim to be Buddhist, Catholic, and Pentecostal. Many people do not want religion and church involvement.  People today believe they can live their religion without a community life. They can relate directly to God without community mediation. This is a challenge for our mission! 

There are many reasons behind that: the belief that man is in no need of God; the Church has not renewed her language and her concepts; the failure of Church members to witness the gospel with their lives, etc. We could ask the following question: Who are the sheep of the house of Israel for us today? It is easy for us to find the meek sheep. In this ever-changing world, as Redemptorists, we are called to proclaim the plentiful Redemption. Our constitutions challenge us: “The most abandoned, to whom in particular the Congregation is sent, are those for whom the Church has not yet been able to provide sufficient means of salvation, those who have never heard the Church’s message, or at least do not receive it as the ‘Good News’, and finally those who suffer harm because of division in the Church” (Const. 3).

The community is very important in fulfilling this mission of being close to the most abandoned. According to Constitution 21: To fulfill their mission in the Church, Redemptorists perform their missionary work as a community. For apostolic life in common paves the way most effectively for the life of pastoral charity. Therefore, an essential law of life for the members is this: they live in community and carry out their apostolic work through community. For this reason, the community aspect must always be kept in mind when any missionary work is being accepted. Community does not truly exist when members merely live together; it also requires genuine sharing on the human and spiritual level”.

The XXVI Chapter calls us to be Missionaries of Hope in the footsteps of the Redeemer. It reminds us of our essence. We are missionaries. We are apostolic men. We live in a common union, constitute one missionary body by our religious profession, and are collaborators, companions, and ministers of Jesus Christ in the work of Redemption. We are strong in faith, joyful in hope, fervent in charity, inflamed with zeal, humble, and always given to prayer. We are authentic disciples of St. Alphonsus; we joyfully follow Christ the Redeemer, we participate in his ministry, we proclaim with the simplicity of life and language and with constant availability to the most difficult things to bring to men and women abundant redemption (cf. Const. 2 and 20). These two Constitutions tell us who we are! Indeed, the availability for the most challenging and most difficult is a constant call to us. We must never forget this as Redemptorist missionaries. 

The word mission comes from mittere, to send, missus – to send or be sent to exercise an office, to carry out a specific task, almost always of a particular importance. To send (mandare) is to entrust, to give a hand. The one sent receives a mandate and the confidence of someone or the community. He does not go on his own. The mission is carried out in the name of Jesus, who was sent by the Father and carried out his mission in his name to the end, not in his own name (cf. Jn 3:16-18). The scene of the temptation was when Jesus was confronted with announcing himself and not the Father (cf. Mt 4:3-11). In this sense, our missionary mandate comes from Christ the Redeemer in that we are called by Him to share the mission of the Father and of the Congregation as an ecclesial reality that shares a charism received from the Spirit and places it at the service of the mission together with the People of God. In this sense, a Redemptorist missionary is not sent to a place alone to self-identify; he is sent to community and mission because he has been sent in the name of Christ. He does not have a solo career. His presence there is missionary.

As Evangelii Gaudium said, “My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an “extra” or just another moment in life. Instead, I cannot uproot it from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We must regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing” (EV, 273). 

Concerning community life and mission, we need to consider some important elements:

  • The context of our communities: We cannot have the nostalgia of the past, of the large communities governed by the old discipline. Today, communities are smaller, personal agendas are many, relationships have changed, new technologies have entered our lives, and community life has become liquid. It is no exaggeration to say that the community is liquid with virtual relationships in many religious communities. Faced with this reality, let us ask ourselves: What values can we not give up? How can we guarantee a quality community, spiritual, and formative life? Here lies the challenge of not falling into communitarianism, where the individual is suffocated by the community and the irregular autonomy that leads to absolute individualism, the grandiosity of the individual, and the emptying of the community. In this sense, the superiors must contribute by helping the confreres realize this discernment.
  • The role of local superiors. The role of the community superior is not an appendix. He is in close collaboration with the provincial government. The community superior is a pastor, animator, and administrator and has his duties.  Provincial governments are often overburdened with matters that should be dealt with and resolved in the community. Therefore, the provincial governments must appoint confreres who can help in this function, reminding them of their responsibility to the community and the Unit, hence the need to provide them with good formation and the necessary accompaniment. It is important to delegate functions. Decentralize and delegate more, but also be attentive and accompany the responsibilities.
  • Dealing with people’s crises. We believe it is important to consider that the manifestation of crisis in people often indicates the crisis of structures that do not respond to the questions of today’s world. When they do not find an answer, their members fall into crisis. It is very dangerous when the institutional crisis clings to old traditions and principles consolidated by the experience of a certain time and that responded to certain situations. Still, today, they do not realize this, and they sterilize their members because they begin to distance themselves from the primary source, which is Jesus Christ, who summed up all his actions in the love of God, of neighbor, and the Gospel as a creative way of redemption and newness. This is a call for us to see if our structures are at the service of the mission and to reflect on personal charisms, trying to integrate them into the mission.

Conclusion

I want to conclude with this paragraph from the letter I sent to the Congregation for the opening of the year of community life:

“The identity of the Redemptorist community is made up of three fundamental aspects: Christ the Redeemer as the center and reason for our consecration, the people who consecrate themselves to him to continue his mission, and the people to whom we are sent and with whom we are sent. We are a community of persons: the person of Jesus, the person of each of our confreres, and the person of the most abandoned. Hence, according to our Constitutions, the place par excellence for communion and the exercise of the missionary spirit is community life… (cf. Const. 21). The community is where we share our existence, our history of salvation, and our memories of redemption. It is the place where communion (koinonia), service (diakonia), witness (martyria), and the proclamation (kerygma) are lived. In the Congregation, there is no individual as such. The mission is carried out in the name of the Redeemer and of the community. He sends us in His name to go to the most abandoned (cf. Lk 4:16-19). Thus, each confrere in himself is a mission that expresses the beauty of mission in the mosaic of the faces of the communal work of art, which shines forth the Redeemer’s mission in this world. If this is true, then Redemptorist consecrated life makes sense and continues to be a sign when the presence of Christ is at the center of the community when personal and communal spirituality is cultivated, when the community is in constant conversion, and when each member is co-responsible for his work and, finally, when the vows are lived as an expression of love for Christ, for the confreres and the people of God. What kind of Redemptorist consecrated life do we want for ourselves and the Church? How does our community help to strengthen us in all these aspects?” (Rome, March 15, 2023, Feast of St. Clement Mary Hofbauer, n. 6).


[1] RAPONI, Santino. El carisma redentorista en la Iglesia. Comentario a las Constituciones. Vol. 1. Roma: Comisión de Espiritualidad, 1993, p. 127.

[2] RAPONI, Santino. El carisma redentorista en la Iglesia, p. 131.