Reflections on the Common Life of the Vincentian Missionary
by: Miguel Perez Flores, CM
(On April 3, 2011, this artilce was posted by Javier Chento to the web site somos: http://somos.vicencianos.org/blog/2011/04/reflexiones-sobre-la-vida-en-comun-del-misionero-vicenciano/
Point of Reference
The statement of the theme is significant because it places in relief three aspects that concern us: the common, fraternal life of the Vincentian Missionary.
We are not concerned about reflecting on the components of community life in general but rather we are concerned about reflecting on those components that are proper to Vincentian community life. I continually refer to these elements because they are the ones that focus us on that which is proper and specific to our community and they are the ones that give proper significance to the common elements. Post-conciliar teaching and Canon Law continually call attention to the need to interpret and live according to the proper nature and proper spirit of each Institute, that is, to live according to that which is common.
Types of community that are excluded
Another important fact is implied in stating the theme of our reflection: the union between fraternity and physical presence. It is clear that regardless of the physical proximity of individuals there is no community unless there mutual fraternal love. There is also no Vincentian fraternal community if this is not developed within Vincentian community structures. We exclude two types of community: a community classified as dispersed whose members come together through obedience and a community classified as an apostolic team in which the members are united by the goals that they have proposed to achieve in the area of the apostolate, for example, a pastor and his assistant pastors. It seems to me that today in the congregation the problem is not so much one of being dispersed but rather one of making our local communities, communities of apostolic ministry or communities of the secular clergy.
Basic elements of community life in the Societies of Apostolic life
When Canon Law describes in a general way the community life of the Institutes of Consecrated Life, it emphasizes the fraternal life which unites all the members into a special family in Christ … the fraternal union of the members, rooted and based in charity, is to be an example of universal reconciliation in Christ (Canon 602). When Canon Law, however, describes the community life of the Societies of Apostolic Life, it states explicitly: Members must live in a lawfully constituted house or community and observe a common life, in accordance with their own law. This same law also governs their absence from the house or community (Canon 740).
Article 21.1 of our Constitutions is therefore important because it establishes: Community life has a special character of the Congregation and its usual way of living from its very beginning. This was clearly the will of Saint Vincent. Therefore, members should live in a house or in a legitimately constituted community according to our own law. It it easy to establish a basis for this article of our Constitutions by referring to other Vincentian texts. One only has to read the Foundation Contract of the Congregation of the Mission (April 17, 1625), the Act of Association of the First Missionaries (September 4, 1626), the Common Rules, and the circular letters of the Superior Generals. Article 21 simply states that which has been the ordinary manner of living in the Congregation from the time of its establishment until the present time.
Relationship between fraternal communion and the apostolate
Theoretically no one denies that the relationship between community life and fraternal communion is essential for the local Vincentian community. We all want to live together as brothers. Nevertheless we are all aware that daily conflicts and tensions arise. Let us look at the relationship between fraternal communion and the apostolate.
1. The response of the Constitutions
We find our response in the Constitutions: Vincentian fraternal life in common, or more simply, Vincentian community life, is for the mission. The purpose of Vincentian community life is the mission: it prepares it for the mission; it encourages the mission; and helps us accomplish the mission. Constituted in fraternal communion, that is, present, united and organized, the Missionaries will make every effort to fulfill the common mission (cf. Article 19). It is evident, and it has always been believed, that the Vincentian community life is oriented toward apostolic activity but the two are not identified with one another.
The second paragraph of article 21 affirms this reality: this fraternal life together, continually fostered by the mission, form a community which promotes both personal and community development, and render the work of evangelization more effective. It seems clear that there is a distinction between fraternal communion, mission, and evangelization. These distinctions are very important since they establish the autonomy of each element and highlight the relationship between them.
2. The apostolate, a frequent pretext to avoid community life … a present, universal difficulty
The reality is quite distinct from what is established in the Constitutions. Frequently apostolic commitments are assumed in order to alleviate difficulties that arise from living together. At times the apostolate is used to justify many absences from the community and the different with regard to behavior and the lifestyle among the Missionaries. The apostolate is cited as the cause for superficial relationships among members of the same community. In other words, an element like the apostolate, that is so important to the Vincentian mission, that theoretically ought to nourish and strengthen the mission and that ought to raise questions so that the mission becomes more evangelical, has often become the cause that debilitates the apostolate and the cause for the existence of parallel lives among the Missionaries --- and what is worse --- becomes the cause for the lack of witness, unity and charity. We are aware of how the tension between the apostolate and community life has served as a pretext to abandon the Congregation.
The task of balancing this double element is or ought to be one of the most serious and urgent commitments of the Missionaries. Not long ago Cardinal Hamer, the Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrate Life and Societies of Apostolic Life said that as community life is lived out on a daily basis two realities come into play: the meaning of consecrated life and the effectiveness of the apostolate. In our communities the confreres work, are charitable and understanding, resigned and patient, but frequently do not live in way that gives them joy and pleasure. It is not enough to live in a satisfactory way the fraternal life in common and to practice the “corrective” aspects of charity.
3. The General Assembly of 1986 was concerned about the internal cohesion of community life
The analysis that the 1986 General Assembly made with regard to community life at the present time revealed the following negative elements: individualism, the lack of organization, the superficiality of personal relationships, confreres living together but not knowing one another, lack of time to listen, and going outside the community to dialogue and find support that the community does not provide or that the members of the community refuse to sustain.
In light of said analysis the Lines of Action that arose from said Assembly and that are proposed to obtain an internal cohesion in our community life are the following: Mutual communication is the indispensible means for creating authentic communities. For this reason it is recommended that the confreres: sincerely and diligently seek ways and means to listen to each other and to share their successes and failures; plan and evaluate their prayer life, the progress of their apostolate, and their time for relaxation, all in a spirit of fraternity; fulfill what is their human, evangelical obligation to be concerned for each other, whether they live together or live alone (Lines of Action 1986-1992, #19).
4. The obstacles to community life (as point out by the Visitors)
The evaluation of the Lines of Action made by the Provinces in preparation for the meeting of the Visitors in Rio de Janeiro (1989) moves in the same direction and sets forth the primary obstacles that the Visitors have found as they attempt to animate local communities: dispersed members and ministries, polarization of ideas, personal problems, individualism, independence, rejection of community orientation, excessive work, lack of a local community plan (Vincentiana, 1989, p. 392-393). In reality, once again we are made aware of the difficulties in balancing community life and the apostolate. Among some other important causes we find: personal problems, individualism, rejection of the criteria provided by the Congregation and failure to live according to the local community plan.
5. An unsettling result
To put it another way, the interior weakening of our communities can be caused by many other realities than those that are mentioned by General Assembly and the Visitors. In summary, we can say that unsatisfactory community life is to a large degree caused by a form of community life that has been created and continues to be created in some provinces of the Congregation, a form of community that in my opinion is contrary to our Constitutions. This is quite unsettling. Because of a lack of vocation, because we do not want to or are unable to abandon certain works, because of a lack of personnel and the loss of traditional ministries, today our communities are predominately ministerial/work communities and not communities in which one is able to put into practice the values that are proper to our local Vincentian communities. We might ask: how is it that the apostolate habitually prevents the Missionaries from spending an hour together in prayer or prevents the confreres from participating in community meetings? This is just one question among many others that can be asked. It is a question based on the present experience of community life in many houses of the Congregation. It seems that in practice we have one of the forms of community life that was excluded: community solely for the purpose of ministry.
If this form of community prevails, that is, if community for the mission is understood as a community that exists exclusively for missionary work and becomes distinct and separate from living together as brothers and, in fact, does not tend to this dimension of our life together, then two distinct alternatives becomes possible: either we ask the question about a common fraternal life in another way, for example, as diocesan priests, pastors, and association pastors or we correct the situation of many of our houses where community is views as a reality that exists exclusively for our apostolic work.
The first alternative is unacceptable. The Lines of Action are in accord with the tradition of the Congregation and also in accord with what has been established in our Constitutions and thus rejects the first alternative. We cannot abandon the mission as a pretext to safeguard community life and according to Saint Vincent, it would be dangerous, even fatal, to sacrifice community life for the mission. This idea is supported in the eighth chapter of the Common Rules. During the meeting in Rio de Janeiro the Visitors came to the same conclusion but they reversed the words: Community life should be seen as a value in itself and in light of the evangelization of the poor (Vincentiana, 1980, p. 517).
7. Go back?
Am I saying that we should return to conventualism (monasticism) so much criticized by our confreres? No, I do not believe that is what I am saying. Our community, which is inserted into the life of the church and society, is nevertheless affected by new and distinct ideas and behavior. It is easy to see how our way of life has suffered from conventualism (monasticism): the community became closed in upon itself and took on characteristics proper to religious. This is the accusation that some of our historians have made about Father Entienne, yet they do not deny the missionary expansion of the Congregation during that same era. At other times, and I believe this is our situation, our Congregations suffers the affects of secularization. One of the negative effects of secularization placing great value on work…a passion for work…contact with the world…communion with the world…a passion for efficiency at the cost of the truth, a passion for technique. Another negative effect, as we well know, is a devaluation of spiritual and religious values.
Today if we speak about a crisis in our communities, it is not because there is a lack of work or because the Missionaries themselves are not working nor is it because the confreres do not work among the poor and for the poor. If we speak about a crisis in our local communities, it is because the spiritual dynamics are not functioning well. It has been said that in some provinces fifty percent of the confreres do not make an annual retreat because (among other reasons) they have no time; their work prevents they from taking time for a spiritual retreat.
I am not proposing that we go backward. As the present Church reflects on the consecrated life, the following warning is made: after almost thirty post-conciliar years we have moved from a situation of enthusiasm to a situation of uneasiness because what was expected from the beautiful Council documents has not been achieved. What makes the situation more difficult is that this unease runs the risk of becoming conformity which will lead to the death of any institution. I fear that is what is happening, and can happen, in the area of interpersonal relationships in some of the local communities.
8. What should be done?
The question, then, that has to be asked is how do we overcome the malaise and achieve, in a satisfactory manner, that which is proposed by the texts: a balance and harmony between the fraternal life in common and the apostolate? Each era has had to struggle with this question and so in our present situation and with the grace that has been given to us we ask: what do we have to do? Our obligated response is: we must continue to reflect on who we are and reflect on those institutions that serve as a bond to our identity and that make it sociologically visible and convincing. It is hoped that such reflection will lead us to make decisions … some decisions will be situations and others perhaps more definitive. What is important is to search and in searching, resolve the problems that afflict us, correcting the defects and creating new paths.
The essential values of the Vincentian missionary community
It is important that we reflect on the theological identity of the Vincentian missionary community, on the evangelical values that Vincent wanted to have practiced in the community.
On three different occasions Vincent cited the prophecy of Saint Vincent Ferrer: Saint Vincent Ferrer was encouraged by the thought that priests were to come who, by their fervent zeal, would set the whole earth afire (CCD:XI:6-7, 62, 104). The fact that Vincent mentioned this prophecy three times has led some writers to ask if Saint Vincent thought that the priests referred to in the prophecy would be his Missionaries. During the International Colloquy on Saint Vincent which took place in 1981 in Paris, Jean Seguy asked the question once again in his presentation, Saint Vincent, the Congregation of the Mission and the final times.
It is possible that Saint Vincent, who knew the doctrine and the prophecy of his patron, referred to and cited this text in order to encourage the Missionaries to great zeal and more conscientious dedication to the formation of priests. The humility and realism of Saint Vincent would have prevented him from believing that the Missionaries would fulfill the prophecy of this Dominican saint. It is almost certain that the prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. The words that Vincent spoke before 1648 indicate his thinking with regard to the Missionaries and the prophecy: If we are unworthy of having God grant us the grace of being those priests, let us beg him to grant us at least the favor of making us their images and precursors; but, whatever the case, let us hold for certain that we will not be true Christians until we are ready to lose everything and even to give our lives for the love and glory of Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:62-62).
The community of the Twelve, a model community
It is certain that Saint Vincent, like many other Founders of communities dedicated to the apostolate, took the community of the Twelve (the way in which Jesus lived with his disciples) as a model for his community. The community of the Twelve presents some precise evangelical characteristics: a] it is a community that is Christ-centered; the individuals live with Jesus and in Jesus … everything is shared with Jesus and there is full communion with Jesus; b] it is a community in which Christ is the model. All the members attempt to configure themselves to Jesus, to imitate him, to follow him, to think like him and to have the same sentiments that Jesus had; c] it is a community totally dedicated to the mission of Jesus, in fact, the mission became the determining factor in the community of Twelve.
What happens is that every Founder, guided by the Spirit, chooses those elements of the community of the Twelve that are most helpful in configuring the community that is to be established … configuring said community to the gospel. Saint Vincent did the same. He reflected on the community of the Twelve and chose those characteristics that best configured the community of the Missionaries to the gospel.
What are the evangelical characteristics of the Vincentian community, a community that continues the evangelizing mission of Christ? Article 1 of the eighth chapter of the Common Rules provides us with some hints: 1] it is a community of people who have been called, 2] it is a community animated by mutual love, 3] it is a community of reconciliation, 4] it is a community where individuals help one another, 5] it is a community of community works, 6] it is a community of humble people.
In the explanation that Saint Vincent gave about these characteristics, we discover some other very interesting facets. Vincent saw the mutual love of the missionaries as a reflection of the Trinitarian love. When speaking about the union among the houses of the Congregation Saint Vincent proposed the following ideal: Let it be said that in the Church of God there is a Company that professes to be closely united and never to say a bad word about the absent; that it might be said of the Mission that it is a Company that finds nothing to criticize in its confreres! Honestly, I would have a higher regard for that than all the missions, sermons, ministries with the ordinands and every other blessing God has given the Company, since the image of the Most Holy Trinity would be imprinted deeply upon us (CCD:XI:111). These affirmations of Saint Vincent are very significant and should be kept in mind when we want to create a Vincentian community or revise our present way of living together. There is no doubt that Saint Vincent wanted all the Missionaries to be evangelical men. Here we cite Vincent’s words that were written in the Prologue of the Common Rules: My idea was that men who are called to continue Christ’s mission, which is mainly preaching the good news to the poor, should see things from his point of view and want what he wanted. They should have the same spirit that he had, and follow in his footsteps (Prologue), and we also refer to article 3 of the first chapter of the same rule: If the Congregation, with the help of God’s grace, is to achieve what it sees as its purpose, a genuine effort to put on the spirit of Christ will be needed (Common Rules, 1:3).
Other models of community
There are other models of community, for example, the community of the first Christians: a community of faith, fraternal community, prayer and sharing of good; and the community inspired by the Church: as church and in the church the Congregation discovers the principle of its action and life in the mystery of the Trinity.
All the different models offer important evangelical values, such as, the Church proclaiming god’s love for humanity and revealing this love by its own personal and community life, the value of sharing goods as done by the first Christians.
All of these theological perspectives are good, acceptable, and inspiring. In my opinion, however, the questions is as we reflect on these different perspective can we come to an understanding of what is inferred in all of this and then can we live together as such.
As we examine the Common Rules, we can see that Saint Vincent was inspired by the apostolic community when he explained the end of the Congregation (chapter 1) and when he proposed the apostolic community as a model for poverty for the Missionaries (chapter 3), for dealing with one another (chapter 8) and dealing with those who are not members of the Congregation (chapter 9), for its pious practices (chapter 16), and for its conduct in ministry (chapter 11). Vincent’s way of proceeding reveals that he was not satisfied with being a contemplative and did not remain on the level of theoretical reflection when considering the community of the Twelve. Rather he entered into the area of commitment and thus legislated and created institutions in order to reproduce, if even in a limited way, that which the community of Jesus with his disciples inspired and suggested.
Our difficulty is not in admitting the existence of the theology of the apostolic community or in the contemplation of this community, but rather in creating the means to imitate it and in having the courage to live according to this model. I have the impression that contemplation of these incredible realities creates a certain disorientation and therefore there comes into play the temptation of dispersion and an emphasis on work, of discussing the same themes over and over again, and disillusionment.
Significance of the expression “community for the mission”
Another point for our reflection is the meaning of the often repeated expression: community for the Vincentian mission. What do we mean when we say: Vincentian community or Vincentian mission?
The Vincentian community on whatever level we want to consider it (general, provincial, local) is the institutions that supports the mission, the institution that is utilized so that the mission can be carried out in the church and in the world. The Vincentian community does not exist unless it is for the mission and so also the Vincentian mission does not exist apart from the Vincentian community. Mission and community were born at the same time. If the mission gave birth to the community, the community sustains the mission and does this in many different ways: encouraging apostolic activity, preparing for and aiding apostolic activity, preparing for and aiding apostolic activity and thus activating all its proper spiritual and institutional dynamics. Therefore article 129.1 of our Constitutions is especially significant when speaking about the local community.
The community is constituted by persons, work and institutions but not by vague and imprecise, common and generic persons, work and institutions but by persons work and institutions animated by their proper spirit, able and capable of achieving the objectives that the persons desire and the objectives for which the works and institutions were created. In this sense it is interesting to recall what is stated in canon 602, even though it refers to the relationship between the local community and the vocation of its members: The fraternal life proper to each institute unites all the members into, as it were, a special family in Christ. It is to be so defined that for all it proves of mutual assistance to fulfill their vocation.
In reality the community on every level, especially the local community, brings together, integrates, sums up and condenses all the other constitutive elements of the missionary vocation. Thus the local community is the central place for following Christ, the evangelizer of the poor. All the other dimensions of Vincentian life and vocation acquire their unity and become meaningful as a result of this. The weakening of the local community is one of the factors that has led to other levels of community government, (for example, the province), to become more predominant. We have forgotten that in our Congregation the local houses are more important than the province. Yes, the circumstances have changed and because of this change in circumstances, the norms, the form of government and the influence of the institutions have also changed and so too our appreciation of the local community has changed. Accepting these changes, however, we should never underestimate the value that the local community hold for the progress of its members and the effectiveness of its mission (Article 22).
The word “mission” is very broad and has many different meanings (the Trinitarian missions, the mission of Christ, the mission of the Church, the mission of the Twelve, popular missions, missions ad gentes). Thus great confusion can result if we are not precise. So we want to know the meaning of “mission” in Saint Vincent’s thought and in the theology subsequent to the establishment of the Congregation.
a] The first thing that must be said is that Vincentian mission, though frequently synonymous with apostolic activity, should not be reduced to this meaning, regardless of the area that is being referred to: popular missions, formation of the clergy, etc. In part, we can retain what Paul VI has said with regard to the meaning of the word “evangelization”: Some of these elements [evangelization] are so important that there will be a tendency simply to identify them with evangelization. Thus is has been possible to define evangelization in terms of proclaiming Christ to those who do not know him, of preaching, of catechesis, of conferring Baptism and the other sacraments. Any partial and fragmentary definition which attempt to render the reality of evangelization in all its richness, complexity and dynamism does so only at the risk of impoverishing it and even of distorting it (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #17). The mission is not simply the proclamation of the gospel to the poor, preaching the truths necessary for salvation, administering the sacraments, extending charity to those in need.
b] Father Dodin has written a beautiful work in which he explains how the spirit of Christ is the spirit of the mission. In this work Father Dodin reveals the Christological foundation of Vincentian missionary spirituality, which means that the mission, besides its references to apostolic tasks, is primarily a spirituality. Article 5 of our Constitutions affirms that the spirit of the mission is the participation in the spirit of Christ. The conclusion is that Christ is the rule of the mission. To say mission is to affirm the existence of a special spirit in the church, able to sanctify, able to give a proper dynamism to the tasks of the Vincentian missionary.
c] The mission can be understood as a charism. A very important document, Mutuae Relationes (May 14, 1978), states: This distinctive character also involves a particular style of sanctification and of apostolate, which creates its particular tradition, with the result that one can readily perceive its objective elements and then adds something very important: it is necessary in this hour of cultural evolution and ecclesial renewal to preserve the identity of each institute so securely, that the danger of an ill-defined situation be avoided, lest religious, failing to give due consideration to the particular mode of action proper to their character, become part of the life of the Church in a vague and ambiguous way (Mutuae Relationes, #11).
d] Mutuae Relationes tells us that when we speak about the particular tradition, with the result that one can readily perceive its objective elements we are saying that every charism brings with it something else, that is, a tradition, works, institutions, and structures which enable it to become present in the world and able to act in the world. To speak about Vincentian mission is to say that there exists a Vincentian tradition, works, institutions and structures with their proper content that reanimates the mission and makes it stronger and more effective in its execution.
The conclusion of these reflections is to call our attention to the need to make an effort to better understand the meaning of the expression “community for the mission”; to recognize its complexity and to avoid reducing its meaning in a way that the Vincentian mission is viewed as the missionary task or apostolic activity. We must also avoid using the word “community” in a way that reduces it to a mere means and nothing but a mere means to carry out some apostolic activity. Therefore, when both aspects are related, we have to examine in what ways they are related and then we must make every effort to harmonize the values and the demands of community and mission.