The Mission of the Local Superior in the Community

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

This presentation was given by a member of the Curia during the Encounter of the Superiors of the International Missions which took place in Rome (September 13-19, 2015)


Introduction

In this presentation I will refer to the Practical Guide for the Local Superior approved by Father Robert Maloney, CM (May 8, 2003). I am not going to present that material chapter by chapter because we are all familiar with its content. Rather I will reflect with you on that which provides a foundation for that material and I will also highlight some of the most important elements in the Guide.

By wat of introduction, I want to begin with a passage from Vita Consecrata: In the consecrated life the role of superiors, including local superiors, has always been of great importance for the spiritual life and for the mission (#43). One does not need a profound and detailed explanation in order to understand that every human group needs some form of authority, even if that form may vary greatly from one group to another. We could even say that said reality is an anthropological reality inscribed in nature and developed in every culture. Christian revelation does not overlook this reality but in fact affirms it. Vincent also confirmed this reality with a very colorful image: superiors are like the pilots who have to steer the ship [1]. In some sense it could be said that today authority is more important and also confronts greater difficulties than in former times when there were structures that sustained and ordered those in a position of authority to carry out their mission. Today things have changed. The structures have lost their credibility and have been considerably weakened. In fact, those structures are in need of good, healthy individuals who can animate such structures. In other words, previously superiors were readily accepted and respected by everyone (at least externally). Today that is not the case … and today more than ever before institutional authority needs moral authority. Such authority is not given to one through some office or position, but is attainted through dedication to the mission, through a life of integrity and through the free and selfless handing over of one’s life.

Changes that have led to a new understanding of the mission of the local superior

From a monarchical model of authority to a participative model

Throughout history authority and obedience (in civil society as well as in the Church and its communities) have been inspired by the school model (the superior is the teacher and the subjects are the students/disciples) or by the feudal model (the superior is the one who commands and the subjects are those who obey) or by the family model (the superior is the father and the subjects are his children). These three images are rooted in a concept that views such authority as power, superiority, domination and views obedience as inferiority and as the submission of those subject to authority. Authority is viewed as “authority over” and such authority commands and orders; subjects are viewed as “being under authority” and therefore are to obey and carry out the orders of those in authority. None of these models responds to the sensitivity and the values of today’s culture. The document, Authority and Obedience, states that frequently the conflicts that arise in community are not the result of a rejection of authority and/or obedience but rather are the result of the rejection of some specific manner of exercising authority.

Today communities are more aware of the biblical models of authority, models that highlight a participative dimension. The model of service highlights the fact that the leader comes froth from the midst of the community and exercises authority as a member of that community and therefore, attempts to unite the members as they seek to attain their objectives. The servant/leader does not lord it over the members but rather attempts to promote their gifts, to encourage their spiritual growth and to channel their energies around the apostolic purposes of the group. The administrative model affirms the fact that the leader does not “possess” authority nor is he “the owner” of the community’s goods. Rather the leader is given dominion and responsibility over said material goods and is accountable to God and the community with regard to the proper use of those goods. The pastoral model focuses on the closeness of the leader to the group. Said leader knows and loves the members of the group … he calls them by name and is concerned about them (even those who have gone astray). He is willing to lay down his life for his friends.

From universally established structures for every community to specific structures for each community

For centuries the basic structures of community life in the Congregation were established by law. For example, some sixty years ago a confrere (whether from Madrid, Paris, Buenos Aires, the Congo or any other place) visiting another house of the Congregation would have found that even though the Missionaries spoke a different language, the fundamental style of community life was similar. The members of the community rose at 5:00am and gathered together for an hour of prayer and meditation. Prayer was followed by the celebration of the Eucharist in private, breakfast, and then the confreres went about their respective ministries. At noon they gathered together for a particular examination of conscience and a meal and, in the evening they would pray vespers before eating their meal together. Finally, the confreres would gather for night prayers after which began “the grand silence”.

Today, those structures and many others, which had been established for every confrere and every house, have disappeared. Now, guided by the Constitutions and Statutes and the Provincial Norms each local community is called to create structures that concretize the various values of their life: the manner in which the specific mission of the house will be accomplished, the manner in which the confreres will live together; when and how they will prayer together, the frequency with which they will come together for meetings, etc. In place of universal structures we are invited to develop our own concrete structures.

It is clear that the members of the local community must compromise and must also be creative if they hope to come to a consensus as they develop a community plan. There are no legally established structures that bind us together externally. Having come to some formal agreement implies that the members of the community will adhere to the structures they have created. Faithfulness to the agreed upon community plan is crucial.

The Constitutions and Statutes view the community plan as a basic instrument that demands formal and serious agreement. At the same time the Constitutions and Statutes list the points that should be included in said agreement and refer to the fact that the plan must be evaluated and revised on a regular basis.

We live in a society characterized by information

Few other things have more deeply influenced our community life. In almost every country televisions and computers are omnipresent. In many of our communities the television has a prominent place in our recreation rooms and everyone’s attention is focused there. Computers and the internet have become essential for almost every confrere … we seem to speak of no other form of communication.

Today the means of communication are a great help to our community life and to our ministry, but they can also become a temptation for isolation. Rapid communication and the interruptions “of the information society” are a vivid contrast to the environment of our community houses some five or six decades ago when silence, reading at meals and going to bed at an early hour were prominent elements in our community life.

Clarity in understanding the fact that community life is for the mission

“Community for the mission” expresses the reality that our Vincentian community came into existence in order to serve a specific, urgent, apostolic purpose. Furthermore, community structures must remain flexible so that we can continue to respond to the urgent needs of the people whom we serve. But these structures should not be so flexible that we begin to feel as though we have no roots.

Community is an integral part of the mission. This affirmation confirms the reality that community is not simply a means toward an end, but that community of itself is a value. Community mirrors and nourishes our nature as human persons and, in a Christian context, is the place where the Word of God emerges. Every community, at a said time and in a said place, becomes a concrete manner of being church. It is one of the many living cells that makes up the larger Christian community. Therefore, these smaller communities ought to make every effort to strengthen its bonds with the larger community, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming self-absorbed and closed in upon itself.

In other words, like every true proposition, “community is for the mission” is part of a broader set of truths and it is only within this broader context that those words can be truly understood. Yes, Vincent de Paul established the Congregation for the mission, but when those words are viewed from an extreme position, individuals fall into the trap that uses a specific model of ministry in order to understand community. For example, the community is like a hotel where people can rest and continue to work. In it clear that there is no balance in such an understanding of those words.

Two elements that present us with questions

[1] Despite the changes that the local communities have experienced and despite the new manner in which the superior exercises his authority (more inculturated than in previous years), nevertheless many confreres are not satisfied with the manner in which their community life is being lived.

Many Missionaries feel that something is missing in their community life. In recent decades the majority of the Provinces have taken significant steps in order to renew their apostolic life. However, the question could be asked: have the same Provinces found an appropriate manner that enables the members to live their common life? Does the local community support the faith of the confreres? Does the local community offer solidarity to the activity and the projects of the confreres? Does the local community provide encouragement and understanding especially to the younger confreres who are seeking these elements then they join an apostolic society such as ours?

[2] Article 129 of our Constitutions states: The Congregation forms itself particularly in the individual local communities. There, in the midst of the local community, is where the Congregation lives and grows. There is the place where we are either happy or unhappy, where we pray or do not pray, where we feel supported or unsupported, where we enjoy the company of the other confreres or flee from their presence. There, in the local community, is where we plan together and act in solidarity with one another as we serve the poor … or there, in the local community, is where we simply reside together as if we were living in a hotel. The words of this article of our Constitutions raise the following question: can the local community become a stimulating and positive environment that supports the life and the growth of the confreres?

Article 129 also states: the superior, as the center of unity and animator of the life of the local community, should promote the ministries of the house and show that he and the community are concerned for the personal development and activity of each confrere. Those words highlight the importance of the role of the local superior. He is the center of unity, the primary animator of the local community. The superior, however, is not alone in this task. The other confreres in the house share in the same responsibility. Nevertheless, if the superior carries out his responsibilities in an effective manner, then there is a greater possibility that the local community will be a very lively community. If the local superior is not effective in exercising his role, then the local community will have greater difficulty in finding the encouragement and the strength that is needed in order to live in a healthy manner.

Seven key moments in the life of the local community that the superior must be attentive to

In this section I will present chapters IV of the Practical Guide for the Local Superior. In reality there are only six moments and I will highlight those that I feel are most important in this chapter which is very practical.

Apostolic ministry

The Congregation of the Mission is a society of Apostolic Life. This means that the service of the local superior is not limited just to community living. The apostolic ministry forms part of the community because in an apostolic society there should be no juxtaposition between community and apostolate, since we are a community for the mission. In this sense we read in the Guide that the superior should encourage, within the local community, a deepened awareness of the communal dimension of our mission. More specifically, the Superior should insure that the members of the community are sharing on a regular basis their experiences in the mission: their joys and sorrows, their hopes and fears, their discoveries, their questions, the challenges they face.

In other words, the environment of the community ought to support and enhance its expression of apostolic solidarity. When the confreres return to the house tired and perhaps with a desire to speak, do we listen to what they have experienced during that day? Do the confreres share the challenges that they must confront in their ministry? Can your local community call itself a true apostolic community or is it just a hotel? A common interest and concern for the ministries in which the confreres are involved is a powerful unifying element.

At times it may be necessary for the local superior, with the community, to question the mission of the house or of a particular confrere within it and begin to reflect with the Visitor about whether this mission is really in conformity with the end of the Congregation of the Mission and the orientation of the Provincial Plan.

Prayer

The Guide highlights the importance of prayer in the community and states: just as prayer lies at the heart of the Christian experience, so too does it lie at the heart of community life, whether it be the celebration of the Eucharist (Constitutions 45.1), or the Liturgy of the Hours in the morning and evening (Constitutions 45.3), or mental prayer in common (Constitutions 47.1) or faith sharing (Constitutions 46).

The local superior, with the other members of the local community, should schedule the times and the manner in which the confreres will pray together. Article 98 of the Guide calls the superior to be creative in regard to the style and rhythm of its prayer, deciding not only on an order of day for its daily prayer life but also, for example, scheduling a periodic community concelebrtation of the Eucharist, or a monthly day of recollection together, or two or three days every few months for a more prolonged time of prayer and faith sharing. It is important that the members of the local community, with their various schedules and commitments, find time to pray together. The Guide concludes by saying that a community cannot live without drinking from this source.

At times, in small communities, the confreres say that it is almost impossible to prayer together because of their number and because of the demands of the ministry. We do not share that opinion. I am very aware of the fact that prayer in a small community cannot and will not be the same as prayer in a larger community. Nevertheless, even in small communities the members must find time to pray together since prayer in common builds up community.

Meals

Article 100 of the Guide invites the superior, with the members of the community, to fix times when all commit themselves to being together for meals (this is especially important if the Missionaries are involved in many different activities).

The Guide then mentions the benefits that can be derived from the common sharing of meals: In community life, meals are a privileged moment for listening, conversation, sharing information, and for real communication. Meals eaten too quickly, and with almost no conversation, lose their human dimension and become merely a time for consuming food. On the contrary, meals should provide a space in the course of the day where we share genuinely with one another as brothers.

Attentive listening is most important with regard to the human conversation that should characterize the sharing of meals. We ought to be interested in one another, interested about one another’s past and one another’s history, interested about one another’s qualities and about the things that one is passionate about. There is probably nothing worse than for a confrere to have had an interesting experience that he wants to share with others and then, when at the table, to discover that no one is interested in listening to him.

Meetings

Father Maloney has stated that the various monthly meetings that we are expected to attend are a modern way to understand the virtue of mortification.

The Guide begins by highlighting the importance of meetings for community life. Meetings are an important time for communication. They ought to be a time in which everyone feels involved, in which everyone feels a common responsibility for the values that are shared and for the decisions that are to be made. For that reason it may sometimes be necessary for the superior to restrain the verbal zeal of one confrere or to encourage another more reserved confrere to speak. A community where the confreres’ liberty to speak or their capacity to listen are at a low ebb is not really a fully living body.

Our decisions will be enriched if we search for the truth with one another and openly express our varied points of view. The confreres of a house have the right to play an active role in the decision-making process and should also be active in carrying out what is decided. Within this context, the ultimate decision pertains to the local superior, especially when reflection within the community does not issue in a clear consensus.

Two meetings of special importance

  • Meetings to evaluate and revise our life together: it is in the midst of the community that we seek on-going community conversion. The times for evaluation offer the confreres an opportunity to reflect on their mission and their lifestyle. It is important that this reflection be done in a sincere and calm manner. Such meetings can also be a time to offer suggestions that might be useful for the growth of the local community. Frequently the key element is balance and the ability to integrate different values: mission, prayer, the common life.
  • Meetings to develop a local community plan (this is actually point III.5): It should be stated that not every local community takes the time or the effort to develop this important instrument for the life of the community. Still, in some cases (though now fewer in number) the community plan has become the order of day.

The development of the community plan is an important time for creativity because such planning should take into account the flexibility that is offered by the Constitutions and Statutes. Such creativity will enrich and concretize both the community and apostolic plan in such a way that these plans will ultimately animate and encourage the confreres to go beyond the demands and the limits of our vocation and our pastoral ministry.

In the Appendix of the Guide one will find various models of a local community plan.

Moments of relaxation

We are exhorted to value those times of diversion and relaxation. It is very important to relax in community. Humor creates harmony and prevents individuals from taking themselves too seriously. Yes, it is important that the community work together, but it is equally important for the community to relax together, to laugh and to have fun together. In this way we come to know other aspects about out confreres.

Thomas Aquinas referred to Aristotle and affirmed an interesting aspect with regard to relaxation: too much seriousness is a sign of a lack of virtue because such seriousness does not value fun and games and rest … all of which are most necessary in order to live a healthy life. Remember the letter in which Vincent told Louise de Marillac that she should relax and enjoy herself when she was in the company of Madame Goussault.

The superior should encourage the community to be creative in finding ways of relaxing together, since this is one of the ways in which we create community. Of course, not everyone relaxes in the same way. But relaxing together, speaking during or after a meal, conversing in the evening, arranging an outing --- all of these can be factors in maintaining balance and creating unity in our life together.

If the superior himself is distant or depressed, the community will not readily be a place of joy and warm fraternal relationships. If the superior is close to the confreres and attentive to each, respects them profoundly, knows how to listen, dialogues openly, and spends relaxed moments with them, he will be able to create an atmosphere of confidence and joy.


Questions:

In what ways would you agree or disagree with the fact that community is built up through being attentive to these six (seven) key moments which are outlined in the Guide?

What are the difficulties that a superior encounters in attempting to animate the confreres in these key moments of community life?


Footnotes

[1] VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-14), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11, 12 and 14); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-14); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2014; volume X, p. 212; future references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [CCD] followed by the volume number, followed by the page number, e.g., CCD:X:212.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM