When Fr. Gregory G. Gay was elected Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission by the General Assembly in 2004, I [P. Celestino Fernandez, C. M.] was there as a reporter and did a short interview with him. When, on the eve of the end of his service and the election of another Superior General by the General Assembly being held in Chicago (Illinois), I have also been there five days as a lecturer, and I’ve done an interview with him. In between both interviews, twelve years have passed, the twelve years the Constitutions mark as limit, and Fr. Gregory G. Gay has been at the forefront of the Congregation and the Vincentian Family, giving the best of himself, guiding, encouraging, directing, promoting, accompanying, shepherding …
On Tuesday, July 5, the General Assembly of the Congregation will elect a new Superior General. This interview, kindly given for our website and Vincentian Bulletin, is a way to thank, heartfully, Fr. Gregory G. Gay for all his labors, efforts and work on behalf of the Congregation and, ultimately, on behalf of the poor, “our lords and masters.”
—I will not deny that I’m tired, but I feel good. As I said in my lecture-report to the Assembly, it has been twelve years of grace where I had the opportunity to see the charism in top form in different parts of the world, in different cultures. Certainly, I feel good, for the experience I had, getting much, although giving little.
—Getting back to those twelve years of Superior General, what would be the most positive memory you have?
—It’s hard to pick a single positive memory, because I have many. But where I’ve enjoyed it most has been on visits to different provinces, to different countries, different missions. Especially when I have been with the confreres, the Daughters of Charity, the Vincentian Family in the most distant and abandoned places, to encourage them and feel it is worthwhile to be with them.
—And the most negative?
—Well, let’s say it with humor: sitting behind my desk. Seriously, what I also mentioned in my lecture-report: resistance to move from a parochialism to a wider vision of the Congregation, and the lack of communication and broad knowledge on what is happening in the Congregation at international level. Undoubtedly, this discourages a bit, because we are working hard to make the charisma grow in the world and, sometimes, one realizes that some confreres do not know much beyond their own apostolate, even they don’t know their own Province.
—There are three things I’ve always seen in you: your apostolic visits until the end of the world, boosting the Vincentian laity and your efforts on missions and projects for the promotion and evangelization of the poor. Do you agree with this profile?
—Fr. Maloney said in 2004: “It is not the role of the Superior General to travel, as he has General Assistants to do that. We must find other ways to encourage the congregation.” But I know myself: I am a missionary, I like to walk up and down, and I became convinced that my best way to encourage missionaries was traveling, visiting, being with them in their places of mission. Also, when I asked the Visitors, in 2004, what they wanted from me, they replied: “We want a visit of the Superior General.” Regarding the second question, boosting the Vincentian laity, I have to say that I have spent a lot of energy continuing what Fr. Maloney had begun, trying to increase awareness and collaboration among the various groups of the Vincentian Family, connecting with others groups that also feel the Vincentian charism. While I recognize that there are still confreres who do not grasp what our presence among the Vincentian Family means. And the third question you pose me, projects for the evangelization of the poor, I will say that this is a strong passion in my life. Even I have to say that by talking about it in the conference-report to the Assembly, I was very touched because this passion for the poor is very strong in me. When I finish my service as Superior General, I want to continue among the poor. They evangelize us, they give us life, encourage us.
—When, in these twelve years, I have been asked by the image of P. G. Gregory Gay, Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, I have always answered: is a missionary pastor. Do you agree with this definition?
—Yes. Because you know how the figure of the Superior General of the Congregation has traditionally been considered: much protocol and a bit away from people. Well, that’s not me. I am close and I have worked hard to get off the pedestal to the figure of the Superior General and be among the confreres as a confrere, but aware that one is Superior General who wants to help and walk, with the collaboration of all confreres. I do not know how the next General Superior will be, but I think he should be a brother among brothers. Many people tell me, “You are like Pope Francis: very close.” But I’ve always been like that, I’m not imitating the Pope, nor the Pope imitates me. My greatest satisfaction is having the ability to approach others. Let me clarify something that interests me a lot: we are not, primarily, brothers of the poor, we are much more: we are “servants” of the poor. St. Vincent said that the poor are “our lords and masters.” And when we serve the poor with love, respect and delivery, they invite us to be their brothers, to be their friends.
—Does the Congregation of the Mission have good spiritual, apostolic, community health?
—I think, in general, yes. The members of the Congregation of the Mission are workers, live simply and I do not know many who want to retire, they work until the end. Indeed, in many parts of the world we are aging, some feel tired… But I feel that there is enthusiasm and good community spirit, although there may also be provincialism and individualism. It is very important for the community mission or, better, the community in mission, because in this way the unite more strongly community and mission. I can tell you that, where I’ve seen more life is where there is a spirit of communion among the brothers, where they help each other, where the young care for the elderly… It is true that we are aging in many parts of the world, but we are growing in other parts. For example, when I visited six or seven communities in the western part of the Province of Poland, I found that I was the oldest of all. That is: there is energy and enthusiasm, not only among young people but also among those who are not so young.
—At the end of your service as Superior General, tell me two dreams for the Congregation of the Mission.
—My first dream is to continue growing in a common mission with lay people, beyond mere collaboration, combining evangelization and charity. Another dream is the missionary internationality of the Congregation, to go where needed, to go to all the peripheries, even existential, where there is a urgent need for faith, God, Jesus Christ.
—What would you say to the new Superior General?
—When I accepted this service in 2004, Fr. Maloney, my predecessor, said, “Now you are responsible.” There was no transition. When I arrived in Rome after visiting family and fixing some things where I was Visitor, I found a folder on my desk with some instructions, which I shared with the Council. Now, we have also left a folder on the desk for the new Superior General with general and specific recommendations. Moreover, I think that the Superior General is not what he wants to do, rather what the Congregation wants him to do, inspired by the Spirit. Things should not be centered around the Superior General, everything depending on him, he has a team behind. Thank God, I had a good group of assistants who have supported me and have done their job well. That is, it is important to work together. Finally, I would tell him to walk among the brothers, there is no need to climb the pedestal.
—I’m going to have a sabbatical time, for about four months, in San Antonio, Texas, participating in a program run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It is a comprehensive program: theological, spiritual, psychological and physical. I hope to fully fit my whole being. I have many offers, because we know from our Constitutions the Superior General can pick Province and Community. I will listen, in this sabbatical, to those offers. I have also left, on my desk, a letter for the new Superior General offering myself to the diverse needs, because I want to go among the poor anywhere. One thing that worries me now is that, since 1985, have not lived in my country, and my family has felt and feels this too much. But I have three bids: one is the mission in Alaska with 36,000 Latin Americans who are now accompanied with three missionaries, and a fourth is needed. It is an itinerant mission across the Alaska country. Another offer is the mission among the Indians of the United States, most abandoned people. We have Daughters of Charity and some confreres working on an Indian reservation in the western United States. It is a challenging periphery. The third offer is closer to my home: in the city of Baltimore, two poor parishes in African American majority. I’ve never worked in this ministry. Well, I just ask my confreres to pray for me so I can discern what God asks me.
Thank you, Father Gregory. And may God bless you.
Author: Celestino Fernández, C.M.
Translator: Javier F. Chento