Community for the Mission
by: Rev. Fernando Quintano, CM
(This article was first published in Anales, Volume 120, #5: September-October 2012, p. 457-481 and has been translated and published here with the permission of the editors)
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Community for the mission
- 3 Some challenges to community for the mission
- 4 What is our understanding of community and authority-obedience in community?
- 5 Community is, above all, a reality of faith
- 6 Some elements of a community for the mission
- 7 Some indispensable conviction in order to create community
- 8 Conclusions by way of synthesis
- 9 Footnotes
The general theme that the Interprovincial Formation Commission has proposed for the three gatherings (Zaragosa, Salamanca and Avila) is “Community for the Mission. This theme will be reflected on from three different perspectives: community life, a sign to the world; community life, a sign to the church; community life, a sign to the mission. The Commission has entrusted the presentation of each one of these aspects to three different individuals with the intention that from their various experiences they will reflect on and speak about some other aspects which will highlight the significance of the common life for the process of evangelization.
Experience tells us that when the treatment of a general theme is analyzed from three distinct perspectives there is the risk of repetition, especially if the individuals did not discuss and outline beforehand the framework of each presentation. I therefore ask for your forgiveness if I should fall into this danger, which is very easy to do since I am the last presenter.
The manner of presenting the theme that has been assigned to me (community life, a sign for the mission) allows for various focus points. The most obvious perpsective would be to present the second chapter of our Constitutions, entitled, Community Life … which, in the Congregation of the Mission and following the intention and the intuition of Saint Vincent, is for the mission. But in my opinion there is another perspective that cannot be forgotten, namely, the teaching of Saint Vincent with regard to community for the mission must be open to the enrichment and the later developments of the Church’s teaching. Here I refer specifically to the presentation of this theme in the document published in 1994 by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the document entitled, Fraternal Life in Community and the 1996 Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata. Naturally these documents are read by us from a Vincentian perspective, that is, we accept those aspects that enrich our response to the charism.
With much effort and after a long struggle Vincent was able to obtain consent so that the members of the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity would not be “religious”. Thus these men and women were more available to carry out the apostolic objective that God had entrusted to them, namely, evangelization and service on behalf of those who are poor. Today both groups are recognized as “Societies of Apostolic Life”. This is another reality that should be kept in mind when speaking about the identity of the Congregation. Our Constitutions were approved by the Church on June 29, 1984. This approval assured us that the present text of the Constitutions is faithful to God’s plan with regard to the Congregation, a plan that took into account the signs of the time and that Vincent carried out as a result of the Spirit’s inspiration. These were also the two orientations that the Second Vatican Council put forth for the renewal of our Constitutions. If we are faithful to these two dimensions they will lead us to “the perfection of charity” which is the primary objective of Christian life as a whole and more specifically for the Congregation that as a community for the mission follows Christ evangelizing the poor.
In the Church the Congregation is recognized as a “Society of Apostolic Life”. The characteristics that distinguish such societies are the following: their members do not take religious vows, they have their proper apostolic purpose and they live in community and strive for “the perfection of charity” through the observance of their constitutions (Canon 731.1 and 731.2). From the perspective of their apostolic purpose and their life together, what demands are placed upon the Missionaries?
These interprovincial formation gatherings, apart from the theme that is proposed for each year, attempt to motivate us to live more fully and more authentically the vocation that identifies us as members of a Society of Apostolic Life. As we live out our vocation may we feel encouraged and impelled to draw nearer to the gospel/Vincentian ideal that at one time we felt called to follow and that we freely and knowingly affirmed with our “yes”. These gatherings should help us confront what we are at the present time and then analyze this reality in light of what we should be. May the gap between these two realities not discourage us but may this be experienced as a new call to on-going conversion.
At this time we live our vocation, community for the mission, in a specific social, cultural and religious context. This triple reality influences both the mission and our community life. To reflect upon these themes once again as part of our on-going formation … (how many times during recent years have these themes of mission and community life been proposed to us!) … to engage in such a reflection is justified because the social, cultural and religious context changes and those changes affect us and also indicate where we should place our emphasis and what we need to do in order to preserve our identity. If we do not maintain this perspective on-going formation loses its purpose. Here we are not speaking about obtaining more knowledge but rather we want to help one another become what we are called to be: communities engaged in the process of evangelizing the poor. This brief reflection with regard to on-going formation introduces us to the proposed theme. I want to tell you, however, that I will not be presenting this theme in a systematic manner nor do I consider this to be a complete and full presentation of the theme. Here I will simply introduce some points that are related to the theme, points that, in my opinion, ought to be emphasized today.
Community for the mission
Saint Vincent wanted the Missionaries to live in community. He was convinced that this way of living would enable the Missionaries to better fulfill the apostolic purpose of the Congregation: the evangelization of the poor. The intention and the intuition of our Founder was that the Missionaries should live in community in order to dedicate themselves more completely to the process of evangelizing the poor. This is clearly and categorically affirmed in chapter one of our Constitutions: Apostolic Activity and chapter two: Community Life. The Congregation of the Mission from the time of its Founder, and under his inspiration, sees itself called by God to carry out the work of evangelizing the poor. In its own way, it can, with the whole Church, state of itself that evangelizing is to be considered its own grace and vocation, and expresses its deepest identity (Constitutions, #10). Saint Vincent brought confreres together with Church approval so that, living in a new form of community life, they might undertake the evangelization of the poor. The Vincentian community is, therefore, organized to prepare its apostolic activity and to encourage and help it continually. And so, members, individually and collectively, should strive to fulfill their common mission through a wholehearted spirit of renewal in fraternal union (Constitutions, #19). Saint Vincent, as well as our Constitutions, clearly affirm that the community life of the Congregation is for the mission.
At the time of concretizing the way of living together in community for the mission, Vincent did not have to begin from square one. He took advantage of and incorporated into his plan elements from other traditions that existed in the Church of the seventeenth century. The elements that were incorporated were those that he judged to be compatible and in harmony with the mission of evangelizing the poor (the origin of these elements was not important). Is this not what is behind the statement that was directed to the Missionaries: The life of a Missioner should be the life of a Carthusian at home and an Apostle in the rural areas (CCD:XII:384). Similar to what occurred with regard to the Daughters of Charity, Vincent introduced into the Church a radical manner of following Christ, a manner in which the Missionaries would not be considered as members of a religious order but would be available and mobile for the mission, namely, to serve and evangelize the poor.
I said before that we have to be open to the Church’s teachings. The first characteristic of our Vincentian identity is to follow Christ evangelizing the poor. What is this characteristic urging us to do today? About twenty-five years ago John Paul II began to point out that the pastoral priority of the Church during the third millennium was to be “the new evangelization”. The profound and accelerated changes of our era are leading us to a generalized secularism and materialism. Thus there is a need for a new, inculturated evangelization. This requires “new methods” and “new expressions” as we engage in the process of evangelization. Even more important, however, the new evangelization demands a “new ardor” on the part of those who evangelize … in Vincentian terminology we are speaking about zeal: If love of God is a fire, zeal is its flame (CCD:XII:250).
I have the impression that with regard to the three demands of the new evangelization that were spoken about by John Paul II, we have been more concerned about the search for new methods and expressions than about intensifying the fire in our hearts that ought to animate the new evangelizer. This new ardor will come about as the result of “a passion” for Christ and for the poor. Let us listen to the words of Vincent: Let’s look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity He had; what a fire of love! … O Messieurs, if we had only a little of that love, would we stand around with our arms folded? Oh no! Charity can’t remain idle (CCD:XII:216). In the same conference he tells the Missionaries: The Son of God came to set the world on fire in order to inflame it with His love. What do we have to desire but that it may burn and consume everything. My dear confreres, let’s reflect on that, please. It’s true then, that I’m sent not only to love God but to make Him loved … Now, if we’re really called to take the love of God far and near, if we must set nations on fire with it, if our vocation is to go throughout the world to spread this divine fire, if that’s the case, I say, if that’s the case, brothers, how I myself must burn with this divine fire (CCD:XII:215).
Once again we must ask ourselves where we will find this zeal and new ardor that we, as Missionaries of the Congregation, need in order to continue to be those evangelizers that the poor look for. This zeal is found in the love of Christ and for the love of Christ … only in this way can we, like Saint Paul, be urged on by the love of Christ and only in this way can we truly say that to live is Christ.
In this regard Father Maloney has written: The missionary today must be holy. Unless he is a man of God, he will not be genuinely effective nor is he likely to persevere. It is not the loss of numbers that the Congregation must fear … What we must really fear is the loss of fire in our hearts. What burns in the heart of the true missionary is a deep yearning, a longing to follow Christ as the Evangelizer of the poor .
In his letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, John Paul II places before us some pastoral lines of action for the Third Millennium and gives priority to the fact that the evangelizer ought “to contemplate the face of Christ. He then adds: we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person (#29). In this same light our Constitutions have taken up Saint Vincent’s words: Jesus Christ is the rule of the Mission (Constitutions, #5). These words do not refer as such to Jesus’ teaching bur rather to his person. Therefore, Christ is the center, the model, the cement and the one who gives meaning to the life of the missionary. Jesus told his disciples, “follow me” and the Apostles found themselves confronted with a person rather than with a book.
I have alluded to the cultural, social and religious context in which we find ourselves and this context does affect us. Some currents of thought and certain ideologies (secularism, hedonism, materialism …) are threatening to tear down that which was built upon rock. Only a radical option to follow Christ evangelizing the poor, an option on behalf of the poor and an option for community life will enable the Missionaries to follow and to be faithful to the vocation that our Founder considered to be a continuation of the mission of Christ who was a missionary of the Father.
Another characteristic of our identity as a community of Missionaries who evangelize the poor is what our Founder called “the spirit of the Congregation of the Mission”, “the faculties of the soul of the whole Congregation and that everything each one of us does may always be inspired by them”, “the five stones of David”. These are the virtues that the Congregation needs in order to continue the mission of Christ evangelizing the poor. In order to continue the mission of Christ we need to clothe ourselves in the spirit of Christ and we also need to use the same weapons that he utilized. There are the five virtues of simplicity, humility, gentleness, mortification and zeal (CCD:XII:250-251). Why these virtues? Our Constitutions deduce these virtues from the manner in which the members of the Congregation understand Christ (the Vincentian Christ). Why these virtues? Because these virtues will best help the Missionaries fulfill the apostolic purpose of the Congregation. Therefore, besides being ascetical virtues that lead to personal perfection, these virtues are above all else apostolic virtues that guide the mission. Simplicity creates the right intention that leads us to seek the will of God in everything and not our own will; it enables us to preach the gospel with words that are intelligible to the poor. Humility enables us to draw closer to the poor and opens us to the reality of being evangelized by poor and at the same time enables us to enter into solidarity with those who are humble. Mortification enables us to courageously bear with the obstacles and difficulties that we encounter in the mission. Gentleness makes us cordial, amiable and patient with others. Zeal deepens our passion for extending the Kingdom of God, especially among the poor, the first beneficiaries of this Kingdom. If these five virtues are to guide us to personal perfection as Missionaries, it is also true that Vincent considered these virtues necessary for community life and saw them as necessary for those who would be missionaries of the poor. The founder considered these virtues to be the soul of the Congregation.
When treating these virtues Father Maloney synthesizes the teachings of Saint Vincent as he underlines the theology and the spirituality of that era. Since neither the Church nor the poor nor the culture nor the theology or the spirituality of the present era is like that of seventeen century France, Father Maloney states: It is of vital importance for each era to reinterpret these virtues in a manner that makes them relevant for that specific era in history. Father Maloney then lists some signs and attitudes that make these five virtues relevant in the midst of the present reality.
Some challenges to community for the mission
When speaking about our community life for the mission I believe that, in general, we can say that the majority of the confreres are satisfied with the ministry they are engaged in. The same could not be said about their satisfaction with community life. This statement reflects the sentiments of the almost five hundred Missionaries who have participated in the three month on-going formation program in Paris. I have dialogued with various younger confreres on this theme. The superiors of the various communities do not always agree with the analysis that is made by the younger confreres. We all know that in the present culture there are values and contra-values … and we must discern one from the other. We must be sincere and honest with ourselves and with others as we list the causes that can provoke this dissatisfaction with community life.
We are not being sincere and honest when we appeal to respect for the freedom of an individual, while in reality we are defending an attitude of individualism and independence. We are not being sincere and honest when we speak about apostolic zeal in order to engage in certain apostolic commitments when in reality we are unwilling to be co-responsible for the common mission that has been entrusted to the community … when in reality we are rejecting or in fact are unable to minister as a member of a team. We are not being honest and sincere when we demand that others live the gospel ideal in their common life while at the same time we are unwilling to collaborate in the daily building up of the community life that we demand of others. We are not being honest and sincere when we demand understanding, respect, and acceptance of differences when at the same time we want to impose our own opinions. We are not being honest and sincere when we appeal to the value of friendship in order to justify our affective dependence and immaturity. We are not being honest and sincere when we speak about democracy which demands participation and co-responsibility when in reality we are rejecting authority and the right of those in authority to hold us accountable for our behavior and decisions. We are not being honest and sincere when we demand that those in positions of authority trust and give responsibility to others while we live and act in an irresponsible manner and are not concerned about the common mission.
To state all of this in a more simple and direct manner, the causes of this dissatisfaction with community life could be attributed to the following: individualism, an inability to deal with diversity (diversity of attitudes, values, way of thinking, etc), mistrust and a lack of dialogue, discouragement and apathy, resistance to reconciliation and forgiveness, unreal ideals, lack of coherency between what one expects from the community and what one is willing to contribute to the community, immaturity, giving priority to personal plans over community plans, lack of integration and inculturation of authority/obedience, etc.
The Apostolic Exhortation lists some challenges that we will have to confront at different stages of our vocational development: enthusiasm and generous self-giving during the early years; risk of routine and discouragement in light of the lack of results in the following stage of our development; the danger of individualism and close-mindedness as one reaches middle age; pessimism as one becomes more aware of one’s physical limitations and as one confronts illness and/or an inability to engage in ministry in the same way as before. The programs of on-going formation should attempt to respond to these challenges that will have to be confronted by the confreres at different stages in their life. The building up of community life is an arduous and constant task. Our Constitutions speak about the need to overcome the difficulties involved in community life (#24.3). I have the impression that in regard to the dimension of our community life we have still not been able to integrate and balance some values that are highly esteemed by our culture (freedom, respect for the person, equality …) with the demands that our common life entails (common mission, obedience, renunciation, community plan…).
The Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata, refers to some challenges that today’s culture presents to the process of evangelization. Among these different challenges I will focus on two of them that I believe are related to our mission as evangelizers of the poor which is to be done as a community: the eclipse of God and individualism
The eclipse of God
Secularism with its expressions of unbelief, agnosticism, religious indifference, etc, is the first challenge for our Congregation that has as its apostolic purpose the evangelization of the poor. As a sign of our fidelity to the purpose of the Congregation our response to this challenge can be none other than a renewal of our apostolic zeal and our missionary boldness. This implies a renewal of our pastoral methods and programs. Are we willing to reach out to those who are alienated and those who have distanced themselves from the Church or are we satisfied with preaching to those already converted? Not only must we renew our pastoral methods but we must also renew ourselves as evangelizers. According to the words of Paul VI, Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #41); the world is calling for evangelizers to speak to it of a God whom the evangelists themselves should know and be familiar with as if they could see the invisible (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #76). John Paul II, with similar words, stated: the men and women of our own day — often perhaps unconsciously — ask believers not only to "speak" of Christ, but in a certain sense to "show" him to them (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #16).
Expressions such as freedom, pluralism, self-fulfillment, respect for the person, etc … these are all values in themselves but when they are not understood correctly they degenerate into a culture of individualism which has also affects our community life. This culture is frequently expressed by giving priority to personal projects over the common mission, an inability to work as a member of a team, conflicts between authority and obedience, lack of mobility, etc. The challenge that this individualistic culture presents to our common life for the mission is that we are asked to take on a more theological and evangelical understanding of community. Like the disciples, Jesus is calling us “to be with him so that he might send us forth on a mission.” To be a community for the mission means that we experience ourselves as being brought together in order to participate in a common mission, brought together for dialogue and discernment as well as to foster an openness, a flexibility in our structures so that we are more available for the mission. To be a community for the mission means that we are a community that looks outward. We do not live together in order to rejoice with one another but rather to prepare its apostolic activity and to encourage and help it continually (Constitutions, #19). The community sends us forth on a mission and the mission both requires and creates new possibilities for community. In our community life we have to know how to balance mission and community, coming together and moving out toward others. Without the outward movement (sending forth) to fulfill a mission, the community would become a ghetto. Without the inward movement in which the members of the community come together, the community easily falls into an activism that consumes the other dimensions of our vocation and creates a certain “coldness” because the community is no longer a point of reference. Therefore we have to be careful about this inward movement (prayer, sharing, formation, rest, etc…). Mission and community, outward and inward movements are realities that must be cultivated and maintained together, otherwise both will disappear.
The Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata, affirms the fact that community life is an integral part of the mission. Some Missionaries are unable to achieve this harmony. We are all familiar with such examples: those who justify their lack of participation in community life by stating that community life is for the mission. This statement is true but it must be understood and seen as one reality that must be balanced with others, for example, the quality of our dedication to the mission depends on the quality of our community life. Mission and community for the Missionaries are two inseparable realities. There is no “before” and “after”. We are not speaking about forming first good communities in order to engage in the mission in an effective manner. Again there is no before and after. Our Constitutions state: This fraternal life together, continually fostered by the mission, forms a community which promotes both personal and community development, and renders the work of evangelization more effective (#21.2). There is no need to separate or oppose the mission to community life. Those who see and meet us should be able to say: See how they love one another … and with the same breath they should also be able to say: see how they love us and evangelize us.
Realizing that Jesus and the evangelists were products of their era and therefore their manner of understanding and expressing their ideas with regard to authority and community was surprisingly unique in relation to the models that existed during that era. Different from the thinking of his contemporaries Jesus spoke of authority as a form of service: You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28). For Jesus authority is a service to the truth and to the community and obedience is a search for and an acceptance of the will of God. The image that Jesus used to express his vision of community and authority was this: all of you are brothers and sisters. In a gospel community all the members view themselves as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the only Father, disciples of the same Master, Jesus Christ. They have no privileges that distinguish them and they are at the service of one another, willing to give and receive, co-responsible and faithful to the gospel plan that unites them; they share their joys and sorrows, their plans and their hopes (cf. Matthew 23:8-12). Our Constitutions state: We should become co-responsible, helped by the necessary services of authority and together with the superior, in seeking the will of God in our life and works, thus engaging in active obedience. Moreover, we should foster mutual dialogue, and in this way overcome an excessively individualistic style of living (#25.2). A gospel understanding of authority and obedience, of superiors and subjects, will help us overcome many of the conflicts that we encounter in community life and that frequently have negative consequences on our mission of evangelization. This gospel understanding will enable us to become signs of hope to a society that finds it difficult to balance and integrate these two realities of authority and obedience.
Vincent frequently spoke and wrote to the Missionaries about authority and obedience … he did this from the understanding and the practice of that era. When his words are read today his ideas with regard to the superior sound hierarchical and reflect a theory of macro-management. His ideas with regard to the obedience of subjects appear to imply submissiveness, blind obedience to the commands of the superior. In Vincent’s many writings we can find phrases that confirm such ideas as well as phrases that would seem to move in the opposite direction. Some authors who have studied this theme note that his statements with regard to obedience and authority are not in harmony with his practice of these same realities. We find in Vincent two different levels: as a founder he was zealous in establishing authority as a guarantee of fidelity and order and uniformity in fulfilling the mission. At the same time, as a human being and a saint, his teaching and his practices reflect love, respect for the person, trust, dialogue, understanding … there is no doubt that our own sensitivity enables us to identify with Vincent on the second level. As we move beyond certain literal expressions we are able to find in our Founder’s teachings on authority and obedience some profound motivations: authority is an indispensable dynamic for life, the mission, the good order of the community … obedience should involve us in a common search for the will of God for this will preserve our union in community and will also create new possibilities for the mission that God has entrusted to the Company, a mission to serve the poor.
Community is, above all, a reality of faith
Chapter eight of the Common Rules is entitled, Getting along with each other. This section deals with norms that guarantee amiable and respectful community life. Therefore in this context it makes sense to place the following aspiration before the group: we should get along as good friends, always living in community. Such an aspiration is wonderful and necessary but it is insufficient for a community of Missionaries. We are not a community that gathers together around a cup of coffee, rather we are a community of faith. Therefore, Vincent himself proposed other more gospel like and theological motives in order to bind together the community for the mission. I remember meeting a Sister after not having seen her for several years. I asked her about the community house in which she was living. She told me where she was living and described the community at the school where she was the Sister-servant. She told me there were five Sisters but only one was active … she was trying to tell me that only one of the Sisters was teaching. Two of the Sisters were over eighty years of age and the other two were in their seventies and my friend was the youngest, sixty-four. She continued to tell me about the different mentalities of the Sisters (at times their character created difficulties in living together). As we continued our conversation I did question her about her statement in which she spoke of one Sister being “active” and she was able to see that there were other dimensions that had to be taken into consideration when describing the community. Sociology and psychology are important but in the individuals who form a community there is more than a sociological dimension (number of Sisters, ages, tasks) and/or psychological dimension (character, attitudes, mentality. Certainly in our community life we must be mindful of the findings and research of sociology and psychology because in all the members of the community that are distinct sociological and social dimensions. But we must also remember that above all else the community must be viewed with the eyes of faith. We, who are members of a community, are united in the same faith … we are children of God and share the same vocation, the same mission and the same spirit. In our attempt to understand and live in community we must always be mindful of this spiritual and charismatic dimension. Yes, we must live in community as good friends … this is all good and fine. But the Vincentian evangelical community has to aspire to be more. Here, from a faith perspective, we will point out three aspects that are related to the community and that Vincent himself proposed for the community life of the Congregation.
God has called us and gathered us together
Vocation is a “calling together”. We have been called by God to follow Christ with other men and women who have been called and gathered together by God. We, who form this community, did not become members of the community by our own choosing. We were called and united together by God. Thus saints and sinners, outspoken individuals and those who are shy, people of different ages, mentalities and background … all have been called. We are not going to give God lessons about who should be called. God calls those whom he wishes to call. Among the Twelve there were some who were ambitious (John and James), one was impulsive and cowardly (Peter), a tax collector who exploited others (Matthew), a conservative and fanatical traditionalist (Simon), a traitor (Judas). These individuals were called to form a community with Jesus … called to be sent forth on a mission. Living together they moved forward but often did so with great difficulty … they learned from the Master how to serve and forgive; they learned that they should not seek out places of honor and that they had to lift up those who had fallen … and they also learned that the cross would accompany them because no disciple is superior to the teacher (Luke 6:40).
The community of Jesus with his Apostles
The community of Jesus was constituted by the Twelve whom he called to be with him and to be with him for the mission. Vincent told the Missionaries: I ask the Company to praise God and to thank Him for having placed it in the state of His Son, of the Apostles, and of the first Christians, who practiced poverty so well and who had nothing of their own, but omnia errant illis communia (they had everything in common [CCD:XII:313]). Our Constitutions sum up Vincent’s thought with the following words: we follow Christ who called apostles and disciples and shared a fraternal life with them to evangelize the poor (#20.2).
The community in the Acts of the Apostles
Vincent wanted the community life of the Congregation to resemble the community described in the Acts of the Apostles. As we analyze this text we discover that there were three levels of communication: Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and they had all things in common (communication on a material level), they were one in mind and heart (communication on an affective level); they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers (communication on a spiritual level). Vincent saw this as a model for the community life of the Congregation: fraternal union, sharing of goods with those in need, shared prayer, attention to the teaching of the apostles … What a happiness for the Mission to be able to imitate the first Christians and, like them, to live in common and in poverty (CCD:XI:212).
Our founder knew that our community life would break apart without a solid spiritual foundation, without a spiritual and theological motivation, without a defined “mystique”. Profound reasons were needed in order to justify a common life and evangelization alone was not a sufficient reason. Imitating others it was possible to live alone and still engage in a process of evangelization. How many times have we felt that in light of certain differences in mentality and approaches, as well as some interpersonal conflicts, etc., it would be better to engage in the process of evangelization alone! Or perhaps in light of these same situations we have felt that it would be best to form a team of likeminded individuals able to complement one another in different apostolic tasks and roles. But the Vincentian community is more than a team that engages in the same work, is more than a cooperative where tasks and goods are shared.
The Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata, affirms: in community life, then, it should in some way be evident that, more than an instrument for carrying out a specific mission, fraternal communion is a God-enlightened space (#42). To be a God-enlightened space means that fraternal life in community must be an expression and a sign of God’s plan which, in Christ, tore down every barrier of separation and which, despite the differences of race, culture, mentality, age, etc., formed all people into one great family. In light of this theological perspective community life means that the distinctive commandment of the followers of Jesus becomes incarnated and is made present in history … the community is an icon of the Trinitarian Mystery because distinct individuals live and become united together by the bond of the Spirit of Love.
Some elements of a community for the mission
The Constitutions offer various means that can create dynamism among all those who are part of said community. Here we will reflect on two of those means.
The community plan
Our Constitutions were approved on June 29, 1984. The second chapter (community life) concludes with a reference to the community plan: Each community should work at developing a community plan, according to the Constitutions, Statutes, and the Provincial Norms. We should use this plan as a means of directing our life and work, of fulfilling the recommendations we receive, and of examining periodically our life and activities (Constitutions, #27).
I believe it was about ten years before the approval of the Constitutions that different congregations began to reflect on and live their life in accord with a community plan. Perhaps in some congregations there was not much motivation in this matter while others saw this plan as some type of universal panacea. As the years passed many communities formulated their community plan in accord with models that were found in books and periodicals which dealt with this theme. The task of drawing up a draft of said plan was often entrusted to the superior or some other member of the community and was then approved by the larger community after some “fine tuning”. The result was that these plans often resembled a hodgepodge that seemed to include everything … but they were not realistic. In other communities these plans were formulated because the Provincial demanded such plans but the members were not convinced about this need. I believe that later these community plans were better (greater participation on the part of the local community, more realistic, briefer) but in general I believe these plans did not become instruments that created a dynamism in the life and the mission of the community. These plans are still drawn up and perhaps they are also revised and evaluated on an annual basis but I believe they have not yet become what they were intended to be. The local community and the Missionaries have to move from an attitude of “we have to draw up a community plan” to an attitude of “we need a community plan”.
We are communities for the mission. Thus, the community plan will necessarily be apostolic and missionary and it must harmonize the mission with community life. At the time when said plan is formulated the starting point has to be the apostolic mission that has been entrusted to this specific local community. The community plan should respond to the questions that the community asks: What is the mission that has been entrusted to us? Who are the beneficiaries of the mission? By means of which ministries and apostolic tasks are we going to accomplish the mission? How will we harmonize the apostolic mission with the other elements that constitute our identity (spiritual life, community life, formation, rest, etc.)? The manner in which the community responds to these questions should enable them to drawn up a realistic, concrete missionary plan. Since the local communities that form a Province have been entrusted with distinct ministries and apostolic activities, the social, cultural and religious context is not the same. Indeed the missionaries that form the local communities have distinct ages, mentalities, and characteristics, etc. and therefore the community plan will differ from one local community to another. There will certainly be some common elements that reveal our charismatic identity but the beneficiaries of the mission and the confreres who accomplish said mission in a specific situation will necessarily mean that the plan of the different local communities will be distinct. Father Maloney has published four models of community plans, each one adapted to different realities that are found in distinct communities of the Congregation.
Communication and community dialogue
The present culture presents us with some rather clear contrasts in the area of communication and dialogue. First, there is a deep desire for communication and dialogue but with this desire there is also an ever growing sense of loneliness. The new technologies enable us to be more informed but there seems to be less communication among people. A similar situation can be found in some communities.
Sociology has shown that there is a profound relationship between an individual’s development and dialogue. Interpersonal communication is a constitutive element and a demand that arises from our very nature. We are beings in relationship with one another. We realize ourselves as persons to the degree that we enter into communication with one another. The human person is constituted, develops and is perfected through interpersonal relationships and communication with others. Even though one of the characteristics of the present culture is individualism … and loneliness is one of its consequences, nevertheless no one and no thing can silence that which is constitutive of the person. Men and women alone cannot realize themselves as persons and people cannot live as though they do not need others and others do not need them. It is this conviction that is making us aware of and nourishing the need for dialogue in order to resolve conflicts among nations and among religions, in order to resolve conflicts in families, schools and communities. To live with firmly held positions and uncompromising opinions is to close oneself to encounters with other people, encounters that could possibly present us with solutions for present conflicts and problems.
All of this is applicable to fraternal life in community. There can be no community without dialogue and communication among the members who form said community. The document, Fraternal Life in Community dedicates several pages to this theme (#29-34). In order to renew community life a more extensive and intensive communication is necessary. In order to experience ourselves as brothers and sisters we need to know one another and in order to know one another we need to communicate with one another. Communication creates closer bonds, nourishes a spirit of family and a sense of belonging to the group. It also creates participation and co-responsibility for the common mission. A lack of communication or a communication that is limited to superficial themes leads to individualism, insensitivity toward others, anonymity, isolation and loneliness. Since everyone has a need for other people, what is not found in community will be sought outside the community.
Communication in a community of consecrated individuals should take place on three levels: material goods, affect, and spiritual goods. To live in communion means that we are willing to offer our gifts to the larger community, thus creating a situation of give-take. In some communities the lack of communication and dialogue with regard to spiritual goods is lamented. Yet this form of communication is basic in a community of consecrated life whose members are not gathered together as a result of sociological, ideological, labor or professional affinities nor do they come together because of a common language and/or race … rather they come together because they have experienced a call to participate in a common plan of evangelization and because they are motivated by faith and a desire to grow in holiness through a process of mutual support.
In communities of the consecrated life the sharing of material goods and friendship is oriented toward sharing the gifts of the Spirit and spiritual goods. If sharing does not occur on this level then with the passing of time sharing on the other two levels becomes impossible. The spiritual goods that are shared are the following: the Eucharist, prayer, the Word of God, the mission, the life of faith (cf. Constitutions #25.2 and 25.3). When these spiritual goods are lived and shared in an authentic manner, then, a community that is one in heart and soul because a reality. When it is felt that there is no need to share these gifts of the Spirit community life becomes routine and lacks depth; it becomes splintered and loses its motive for existing. If the origin and the binding power of our vocation is found in faith then why in so many communities do people find it easier to share material goods and friendship then to share their life of faith? Is not this lack of sharing on the level of faith one of the causes behind a lack of qualitative community life?
Along with the general demand for a more qualitative community life there needs to be a corresponding effort to better the communication and dialogue among the members who make up said community. The first way to do this is to be convinced of its necessity and to feel that one can become involved in this task. This is not always easy because there are confreres who continue to live with an individualistic and vertical concept of the spiritual life and/or who think that profound communication is a theory that has been introduced into community life as a result of modern currents in the area of therapy and group dynamics. To show that this is not true it is enough to recall the practice of the first Missionaries. In a very natural, simple and yet profound manner the confreres shared their thoughts and ideas during Vincent’s conferences and during the repetition of prayer. This sharing motivated the Missionaries to a deeper sense of gratitude for the graces they received and at the same time made them recognize their own shortcomings … as a result they were able to seek forgiveness.
Today communication and community dialogue on a profound level are demanded of us and these realities are not foreign to the Congregation. Here we are dealing with a conviction: to live in community means that we are willing to grow and become holy through a process of mutual help. Fraternal community is built on charity. Pope Paul VI said that dialogue is the new name for charity (cf., Ecclesiam Suan, #64). The document on Fraternal Life in Community adds: without dialogue and attentive listening, community members run the risk of living juxtaposed or parallel lives, a far cry from the ideal of fraternity (#32). The Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata, states: Consecrated persons, who become “of one heart and soul” through the love poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit, experience an interior call to share everything in common: material goods and spiritual experiences, talents and inspiration, apostolic ideals and charitable service (#42).
It is not enough to be convinced about the need to share. Other elements are required in order to facilitate and create the possibility for dialogue. Some of these elements refer to the persons who are members of the community and other elements refer to the forms and methods that can help communication and dialogue. Among those elements that refer to the individuals we mention here: charity: Saint Paul’s words with regard to charity are applicable to community dialogue: If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal … love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous or pompous; it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:1, 4-6). Trusting other persons: Only when we perceive that we are accepted and that others trust our word, only then are we willing to share in a sincere manner and open ourselves to others. Humility to recognize that no one person possesses the whole truth. Therefore we attempt to explain our position (not impose it) and in this way all are able to draw closer to the truth. Understanding that enables us to enter into the unique situation of each person and thus avoid making harsh and often rash judgments. Simplicity as we explain fully and briefly our opinion.
The forms and methods depend on the type of exchange or communication. These will be distinct and will depend on whether we are engaged in sharing information or planning or evaluating. This will also vary since in some situations we will be engaged in reconciliation and forgiveness and at other times we will be sharing our prayer and/or our experience of God or evaluating the manner in which we are living the apostolic or community dimension of our life together. All of these different forms are open to creativity. The assistance of some person who has expertise in the area of group dynamics can contribute to the community making further progress in the art of community communication. The frequency and duration of said dialogue will depend on the type of community and the apostolic commitments that have been entrusted to the confreres. Therefore these elements should be taken into consideration by the Missionaries as they formulate their community plan. These decisions should be made from the conviction that dialogue and communication are essential in order to build and energize community life. To suppress dialogue under the pretext that “there is no time for this” would indicate that more importance is given to work and the apostolate than to the confreres and the task of community building. Our Constitutions state: we should foster mutual dialogue, and in this way overcome an excessively individualistic style of living (#24.2).
Some indispensable conviction in order to create community
When individuals attempt to obtain something that they judge to be important they must begin with some sound convictions that will drive them toward the desired objective … otherwise they will give up when confronted with some difficulty. What convictions, then, will help us to continually recreate community?
Inseparability of love of God and love of neighbor
When a scholar of the law asked Jesus about the most important commandment, he responded: You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Matthew 22:27-40). The gospel of Saint John has placed before us words that we could call Jesus’ final testament or Jesus’ expressed will for his disciples: I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).
The disciples accepted those words of the Master and made them the center of Jesus’ teachings. This is the message you have heard from the beginning: we should love one another (1 John 3:11). Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God, for God is love … If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:7-8, 20-21). Saint Paul’s hymn to charity contains the following words: If I do not have love, I am nothing … and concludes with the phrase: So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:2, 13). Saint Paul also writes to the Galatians about new life in Christ and tells them: The whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). The power of this fundamental conviction regarding the inseparability of love of God and love of neighbor is founded on the Word of God. For us the neighbor is first of all our brothers and/or sisters in community.
The community is, above all, a reality of faith
Vocation is a calling together, that is, God calls us to live the gift of God’s goodness with those persons who have been gathered together to carry out the same mission. Community, then, is a reality that is understood and lived from the perspective of faith. The love of God the Father, who has called us and brought us together, is made present in the community. Unity in the same charism (spirit and purpose) and evangelical fraternity as revealed in love and the openness of the “I” to “you” gives rise to “we” which is the encounter of different persons intimately united in love. Thus we are an image of the Trinity, a mystery that Saint Vincent has handed down to us when he spoke about community. Vincent also invites us to reflect on the example of community that is made known to us by Jesus as he interacts with his Apostles as well as the example of community that is presented to us in the Acts of the Apostles.
It is true that a vision of community from a faith perspective alone will not resolve all the difficulties that we will have to confront at the time that we attempt to build community. But it will help if we confront these problems with a evangelical attitude, that is, with charity and understanding, with patience and strength, with calmness and an attitude of asking for and extending forgiveness, as well as a willingness to accept the cross.
Community and mission, two inseparable realities
Vincentian community is for the mission. These are two inseparable dimensions: the one (community) is oriented toward and supported by the second (mission) which clarifies, configures and creates ever greater potential for the first. To emphasize apostolic activity (under the pretext of zeal) to the detriment of the other dimensions of our vocation would be a form of misguided zeal and lead to a form of activism that ultimately causes the other dimensions that are necessary for the mission to dry up and fade away. The mission receives its dynamism from the vitality of the community life and vice-versa. The intention of Saint Vincent with regard to community for the mission is stated in Vita Consecrata: Consecrated persons are “in mission” by virtue of their very consecration, to which they bear witness in accordance with the ideal of their institute …religious life, moreover, continues the mission of Christ with another feature specifically its own: fraternal life in community for the sake of the mission (#72).
Revitalization of the community is the responsibility of all the confreres
The Congregation is responsible for the heritage that it has received from its Founders. All the confreres compose the Congregation. The mission and community form an essential part of the heritage that we have received. Therefore, we are all responsible for its vitality. Certainly the superior has a very specific and important role with regard to the building up of the community, but this does not dispense the other members of the community from their co-responsibility. The desire that we all have to live in authentic communities ought to correspond to the effort that we make to create such communities. The word “parasites” rather than “community builders” is, interestingly enough, often the reality that is more accentuated in those who demand a greater quality to their community life.
Conclusions by way of synthesis
The purpose of the Congregation of the Mission is to follow Christ evangelizing the poor. Saint Vincent wanted the Missionaries to live in community because said way of life would facilitate the evangelization of the poor. The Church recognizes the Congregation as a Society of Apostolic Life that has two distinctive characteristics: it has an apostolic purpose and its members live in community in order to attain its apostolic purpose. Community and mission are two inseparable and interdependent aspects: community life nourishes the mission and the mission configures the community. There is no Vincentian mission without Vincentian community and there is no Vincentian community without Vincentian mission. The document, Fraternal Life in Community states: Communion and mission are profoundly connected with each other, they interpenetrate and mutually imply each other, to the point that communion represents both the source and the fruit of mission (#58). The effectiveness of religious life depends on the quality of the fraternal life in common (#71).
Saint Vincent wanted community life to be founded not only on friendship but also on a theological and spiritual foundation (the mystery of the Trinity, the community of Jesus with his disciples, the early Christian community [cf., Constitutions, #20]). In this sense the Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata, affirms: In community life, then, it should in some way be evident that, more than an instrument for carrying out a specific mission, fraternal communion is a God-enlightened space (#42).
When the Church publishes documents that are addressed to the members of religious congregations, generally it is because some aspect of that way of life is threatened and so there is a need to protect it and move it forward. There is no doubt that community life is feeling the impact of some of the values and contra-values of the present culture (freedom, the primacy of the human person, secularism, individualism, hedonism, the conflict between authority and obedience). All of this is at the root of the present crisis in community life. The document, Fraternal Life in Community, intends to offer reasons for reflection to those who have distanced themselves from the community ideal, so that they may give serious consideration again to the need for fraternal life in common for those consecrated to the Lord in a religious institute or incorporated in a society of apostolic life (#6).
Among the elements that constitute the identity of the Congregation, mission holds a privileged place. In fact, in one way or another, everything else is oriented toward the mission. For example, the five characteristic virtues of the Congregation are missionary virtues. Vincent’s originality with regard to these virtues was not in the content he assigned these virtues (that was already outlined in accord with the theology and the spirituality of that era), but rather in the manner in which he oriented these virtues toward the mission of evangelizing the poor.
In response to the challenges of the present era, the new evangelization is asking for new methods and new expressions. Above all else, however, the new evangelization is asking for evangelizers animated by a new energy, filled with apostolic courage, passionate for Christ and for the poor. In light of the great challenges of our time we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you! (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #29). The men and women of our own day — often perhaps unconsciously — ask [us] not only to "speak" of Christ, but in a certain sense to "show" him to them (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #16)
An experience in Vincent’s life confirms us in the intention behind the theme that I have been asked to present. A Huguenot told Vincent that he could not believe that the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit because the priests had abandoned the poor peasants living in the rural areas and most of those priests were living in Paris. Later when the same individual saw the missionary zeal of Vincent and the other Missionaries, he converted and returned to the Catholic Church. In that situation the missionary community was a sign that pointed toward the mission: The fraternal life is itself prophetic in a society which, sometimes without realizing it, has a profound yearning for a brotherhood which knows no borders. Consecrated persons are being asked to bear witness everywhere with the boldness of a prophet who is unafraid of risking even his life (Vita Consecrata, #85). On June 20, 1885, during an audience that was granted the Daughters of Charity during their General Assembly, Pope John Paul II stated: If individual witness has a value then the broader community through its evangelical witness multiplies the power of its impact.
As members of the Congregation of the Mission who want to live in a manner that is consistent with our apostolic purpose (the evangelization of the poor) and with our call to live a common life, we list here some indispensable requirements: • To follow Christ evangelizing the poor in order to continue Jesus’ mission; • To live among the poor which also means that we revise our apostolic ministries; • To know the beneficiaries of our apostolic activity; • To clothe ourselves in the spirit of Jesus Christ --- the five apostolic virtues; • To evangelize the poor and to allow ourselves to be evangelized by the poor; • To have a sense of sharing in a common mission with those whom God has called and gathered together; • Discernment, dialogue and co-responsibility; • To live a simple, open and welcoming lifestyle (we are secular priests); • To be available to be sent to those places where the poor are asking for our presence; • To collaborate with the laity (putting aside any sense of superiority).
1] Robert P. Maloney, CM, He Hears the Cry of the Poor, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 1995, p. 125.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM
[[Category:Vincent de Paul}}