The preparation for the XXVI General Chapter:
the call, the instruction, the sending, the challenges, the dreams, and the hopes
We have begun the preparation for the XXVI General Chapter. We have received the responses of the (V) Provinces to our first “provocations.” I purposely use the word provocation because of its intense meaning: from the Latin: pro = forward, outward; vocare = to call. In the ancient world, this word meant a call to fight, to challenge. In this sense, the new time that is beginning is a call to all confreres to step forward, provoke and be provoked, be challenged, go out and fight, and be awaken from the depths of our Redemptorist being with the consequences that this entails for our consecration. Our vocation, our call to action, is a provocation from the Lord who has called us, has moved us forward, has presented us, and challenged us to the mission. So the question: what does it mean to celebrate a General Chapter in the context of so many changes and after the pandemic experience is also provocative to our vocation and mission?
With this in mind, I will try to make a paschal and baptismal reading of the Chapter experience that we have begun to live and that will have its development in the three phases. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Easter experience is marked by the realities of the desert, liberation, death, and resurrection. If Easter means new life, baptism is the liberation from the old man and the passage to the new man. For us, this includes trying to proclaim the Gospel in an ever-new way (St. Clement), with renewed hope, renewed hearts, and renewed structures (XXIV General Chapter). Therefore, to celebrate the General Chapter in the present context is to make a paschal reading of history with its exodus, flight, death, liberation, and resurrection. It is to place ourselves in the experience of the exodus, of the cross, of the empty tomb, to walk the road to Emmaus and from the house of Emmaus to listen to his teachings and to return to Galilee (cf. Mk 16,6-7). In other words, it is a call to leave behind the shadows, the walls, the fears, and the security of Jerusalem and to return to the mission. For this, it is important to keep to the foundational core of Jesus’ baptism: the call, the instruction, and the sending.
1. Sending and mission emerge from baptism
At the baptism of Jesus, the figure of the Spirit appears to confirm him: “This is my beloved son” (Mk 1:11). Is the Spirit not there today to remind all the confreres in the Congregation that they are beloved sons? Does he not ask us, on this basis, to recall our memories of redemption and to share them with the poorest and most abandoned? If this is true, then we are not abandoned even in these dark times in which we live.Jesus’ mission begins with his baptism. In Mark, the birth of the Son of God takes place at his baptism. Mark does not present a genealogy of Jesus, but he is introduced by John the Baptist and baptized. He comes forth in the power of the Spirit, who will test him in the wilderness. In the desert, Jesus is confronted with his personal lights and shadows, with the lights and shadows of history and of his mission, and there he must discern (cf. Mk 1:9-13).In Matthew, the baptism is preceded by the historicity of Jesus: a man born in time, subject to the law and the powers of his time. It is in this context that his mission begins. He is not one outside of history. His mission is embodied in his time’s historicity, and it is here that his ministry in Galilee begins (cf. Mt 4:12-15:50).
Luke presents him as a man who is confronted with the drama of history woven by humanity, with its sacred contexts and human relationships. In Luke, we see the double genealogy of Jesus. After his baptism, his humanity, his temptations, and his mission program are reaffirmed (cf. Lk 1:5-2:1-17;3:21-38;41-13).In John, the Incarnate Word was baptized and became incarnate in human history as the Lamb of God to fulfill the Father’s mission (cf. Jn 1:29-34).
Thus, all the evangelists relate the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his mission, the call to his disciples, the instruction and the sending out into the world for the mission. From his baptism comes the mission.
2. The Chapter as a place of paschal memory
Looking at the context of human history today, we can say that we are at the crossroads of Emmaus, in the situation of that community after the death of Jesus, marked by a spirit of disappointment and frustration. We have made many plans, and everything has been deconstructed in one way or another. Perhaps we find ourselves at this point, as sad disciples, because of the pandemic that has totally changed our lives. But, it is not true that it has improved our relationships with each other, transformed the way we relate to the world. Perhaps we are missing an incredible opportunity for personal and societal conversion.Faced with this reality, what is our attitude, what do we want, to let the Master pass us by and remain alone in the darkness of time with the nostalgic memories that comfort us to remain asleep in our own comfort zone of darkness? It is time to decide to enter the house of Emmaus with Christ, the Light of the World, to make our way and let our hearts burn, for if we let it pass, we will remain in the memories of the past without the pascal hope that makes us see new horizons. Where is the crossroads and the house of Emmaus in the Congregation/Conferences/our (V) Provinces today?
To celebrate a Chapter after such a dramatic experience of pandemic today means to return to the fundamental question of our belief. Suppose by baptism, we have made a profession of faith in the Church’s truths, and we commit ourselves to put them into practice. In that case, it is also the moment in our history to rekindle our profession of faith as Redemptorists to renew our apostolic life, to promote adaptations of the Congregation’s institutions, the norms of life, and the need of the Church for the men and women of today (cf. Const. 107). It is a matter of understanding that the Congregation is a living body nourished by the paschal faith, which, at the same time, is the reason for its existence and its proclamation (kerygma). And as a living body, it needs to let specific cells die to renew itself. In the light of all that we are living, what do we need to renew? Is it not time to take our personal and consecrated stories and renew our vocation, the call to action of our being through the provocation of the Lord of History?In the baptismal perspective of the birth of the new man (Jn 3:1-12), the Chapter is called, from the perspective of discernment, to “make all things new” (Rev 20:5). To make all things new does not mean to abandon all the way we have gone before, but to perceive the newness of the Spirit who moves history and makes us creative. Jesus, in a thesis, did not need to be baptized because he was the Son of the Father. He did not abandon this reality, but baptism gave him a mission; he continued it in another way, without making him abandon the Law and the Prophets, but perfecting them, giving them new meaning. His baptism reaffirms him as the beloved Son, who sets out to renew things. Being the Son of God, before setting out on his journey, he underwent the self-criticism of the desert to take up the Father’s plan once and for all. The desert experiences are also made in the Chapters: in the midst of the paschal newness of making all things new, the temptations of possession, power, and pleasure appear. How can we overcome them so as not to deviate from the Father’s mission? For this reason, the self-criticism of the desert is very important, constituting an element of discernment and of becoming aware of the mission.
After the temptations in the desert, Jesus goes to Galilee’s synagogue and sets out his plan (cf. Lk 4:14-21). He reaffirms the Law and the Prophets’ continuity by quoting Isaiah and invokes the Spirit who anoints him and sends him to announce the good news to the most abandoned of his time. The Spirit present at baptism anoints, sends, broadens the paths opened by John the Baptist, accompanies him on the cross, and resurrects him. In this sense, each General Chapter is an experience of the synagogue of Galilee in the elaboration of a program for the six-year period. How can we ensure that the Chapter’s decisions not only touch the hearts of the confreres but that they resonate with the abundant redemption in the lives of our partners?Jesus, after announcing his programmatic content, calls disciples from different backgrounds, experiences and instructs them. It is essential that a Chapter, with its mosaic of cultural, human, faith, and apostolic experiences, be “disciple-making” by placing itself at the feet of the Master to be instructed, to learn from him the dangers of mission, and to be sent out into the world. A Chapter that does not listen to the voice of the Spirit and the instruction of the Master is only a formal canonical act that produces a series of decisions for the Congregation and is not an instance of discernment of God’s will in the light of Easter faith and can have little impact on our apostolic life. We may run the risk of becoming a Babel by trying to speak only one language, that of uniformity, and not the experience of Pentecost in which, through listening and discernment, the Spirit of the Lord sends us into the world to announce that redemption is abundant. What do we want for the next General Chapter: the experience of Babel or that of Pentecost? From where do our instances of discernment come? And how can and should we exercise our co-responsibility? (Cf. Const. 35, 73,1º§, 98, 112).
Each confrere should exercise his baptismal vocation by participating enthusiastically in the preparatory meetings in the local communities of each Conference. The more intense and profound the preparation and discussions, the better will be the fruits of the phases to come. With his richness, each confrere, his experience, and his enthusiasm constitute the living, fruitful and dynamic body that is the Congregation. To exclude oneself from this opportunity to participate is to abandon oneself to indifference and not feel part of a missionary body founded on a charism of profound theological and spiritual density that seeks to redeem the human being in his totality (Cf. Const. 6). It is to close oneself to the Spirit who provokes us to read the signs of the times and to respond to them creatively.The three phases of the Chapter are part of the Redemptorist synodal journey. The preparatory phase (first phase) is presented to us as John the Baptist, preparing the ways of the Lord. And on this journey, the Lord walks with us and asks us questions, and puts our concerns in our hearts. It is the moment of dialogue in which worries, disappointments, failed projects, lights, hopes, and the desire to go on come to the surface. It is the moment of the call to conversion of heart and mind for the mission’s sake. After waking up, opening our eyes, and arriving at the Emmaus crossroads, it is the time for discussions in the house, the canonical phase, where it is the Lord who instructs us with his Scriptures and his Spirit, shares the bread with us to nourish us and give us the strength to continue the mission. It is the time of discernment within the Emmaus House where the hearts burn, and we try to make all things new. In the third phase, with a burning heart, we are again sent out into the world to the lost sheep without a shepherd (cf. Mt 9,36), in the certainty that the Lord has called, instructed, and sent us. Thus, the Chapter as a whole is the place of Easter remembrance, where dreams and hopes are built and where we overcome the comfort and sterile silence of the tomb and run forth to announce to others the abundant redemption (cf. Mt 28:8).
3. Calling, instructing and proclaiming: being a sign of hope
The Lord of History’s call makes to us today is not to deny history itself and this historical moment (post-modernity, globalization, technological progress, conflicts, fundamentalism, pandemics, growing poverty, etc.). His provocation is that we take everything in our hands, the lights, the shadows, and work in the crisis with hope, with a burning heart, and without fear. Our baptism’s Easter experience encourages us to walk the roads to Emmaus, even with a troubled heart, with our visions clouded and without knowing the stranger who walks with us. Even without recognizing him, he is there, and he does not abandon us on the road and in the darkness of our lack of vision.The instruction that the Lord invites us is to sit together in the Great House of Emmaus, the Chapter as a whole, as a living missionary body, and, out of co-responsibility, to discern together. Our Chapters’ great problem is that the great majority do not feel called by their co-responsibility and refrain from making together the experience of learning from discipleship and discernment. And that has consequences because it does not set the heart on fire. When our Chapters go beyond canonical obligation and become a paschal experience of faith in the quest to renew hearts and structures for the mission, the decisions will be more receptive and the proclamation more eloquent. What do we want to learn from the Lord? Are we willing to listen to his voice and that of our partners or only to our own?
In this sexennium, we have touched the world’s wounds concretely through the pandemic and all the effects it has caused and will cause, especially in the lives of the poor. So the whole preparation for the Chapter takes up the theme of the 25th General Chapter: Witnesses of the Redeemer, in solidarity for mission to a wounded world. What does it mean to a wounded world to be witnesses of the Redeemer and in solidarity for mission? How does this affect our community dedicated to Christ the Redeemer and to people, our initial and ongoing formation, our governance structures, and the process of restructuring for mission in response to the signs of the times?As we leave the house of Emmaus, proclamation becomes mandatory: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). (1 Cor 9:16). So, at this moment in history, the Lord’s provocation is that we should not be afraid to dare something new. We cannot go backward in our history. We have been called, instructed, baptized, and sent to be witnesses of the Redeemer. In this sad moment of our humanity, our Chapter must be the place of dreaming and renewal of hope, to be salt, light, and leaven for this world (cf. Mt 5,13-16; Lk 13,20-21). We are called to walk the way of the paschal memory of Jesus and meet him again in the Galilee of today with a new program for the mission, being more daring and prophetic in being faithful to our charism in proclaiming the copiosa apud eum redemptio. Is this what we want to announce? Alphonsus lived in a time of great cultural transformation and made his great contribution to the Church both pastorally and theologically. Clement also did this in his own way, leading the Congregation into other contexts amid difficulties. What is the Lord calling and sending us today to witness to our baptism and our sending? What does he instruct us, where does he send us, what are the challenges we must confront, what are our dreams and hopes for a restructured Congregation? Together, as a missionary body, with strong faith, joyful hope, ardent charity, burning zeal, and constant prayer, and with our hearts bound to Christ the Redeemer, let us not lose heart in the hard work to bring Christ’s abundant redemption to all (cf. Const. 20). This is our task, the task of our time…P. Rogério Gomes, C.Ss.R.