GENERAL'S NEWS XV
THE CONGREGATION CELEBRATES 125 YEARS
This, the great jubilee year of the Church, is also the 125th year of our Foundation. The planning for the celebration of our anniversary included a gathering of young Oblates in Annecy followed by a festive celebration in Troyes, the place of our foundation. Both events were to immediately proceed the XVII General Chapter so that as many capitulants as possible could participate. All of these plans, now realized, remain very pleasant memories for all who participated in them. In this edition of the General's News, I would like to share highlights of the gathering of young Oblates in Annecy, the 125th celebration in Troyes, and the XVII General Chapter.
YOUNG OBLATES: THE FACE OF OUR FUTURE
As mentioned above, the presence of its young confrères was to be a major part of the Congregation's celebration of its 125th anniversary. As we came together to give thanks for the Congregation's past, they were to represent its future, a living testimony to our ongoing dedication to live and spread the gentle and inviting spirit of de Sales.
With that hope in mind, young confrères came to Annecy from every corner of the Oblate world: from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Over the course of several weeks, they prayed, played, worked and laughed together, forming life-long friendships which will no doubt lead the Congregation into new and, perhaps surprising, directions in the years ahead.
Everybody agrees. The presence of the young Oblates added something very special to the proceedings of the General Chapter, giving the Congregations international character a tangible form and providing a human face to our hopes and plans for the future.
For many who participated in the triple celebration (Annecy, Troyes, Fockenfeld), the experience was truly a transforming one, making us stronger in our commitment to the Congregations identity and mission and even more ready to assist the Church in its ongoing mission of evangelization.
I am sure that every participant has one moment in particular which stands out in his memory of those days together. One of my special memories centers around our visit to the rugged fortress of Allinges which figured so prominently in the Chablais ministry of our Patron. I can still see us there, Oblates from all over the world, bantering playfully with one another as we enjoyed a delightful picnic supper surrounded by the sweeping vista of the Chablais region below us. After supper, we crowded together into the little chapel where St. Francis de Sales had so often prayed, fatigued and discouraged, late into the evening. At the end of Mass, in a simple but powerful anointing service, each of us rededicated ourselves to that great-hearted saint whose spirit had gone from that place down through the centuries to reach each of us. Later, as we headed down that hill, we did so newly determined to carry that same spirit to all the parts of the world from which we had assembled. That experienced had strengthened us in the realization that, despite our many differences in culture and language, we were all brothers, sharing the same charism and equally dedicated to the one mission.
JULY 28, 2000: A DAY OF CELEBRATION
For those of us who took part in the festivities in Troyes on July 28, 2000, the powerful memories of that very special day will long remain with us. It would be difficult indeed to forget the solemn but joyful gathering of the Oblates of both Congregations, on that mid-summer morning, in the Visitation Monastery. It was there, we were reminded, where the Founder had served as chaplain for more than four decades and where the Congregation's inspiration had lived, died and was now buried.
Fittingly, the Liturgy was presided over by the provincial of the Mother Province, Father Michel Tournade. I preached a homily whose theme was the Good Mothers legacy to us as suggested by the intimate connection between the Mystery of the Visitation (the Oblateís apostolic life) and the Mystery of the Annunciation (the Oblates life of prayerful union with God). After Mass, we visited the upper parlor where an appearance of the Lord had finally persuaded a reluctant Founder. We prayed in the room where the Good Mother died only months before the formal recognition of our Foundation. In reverence and silence we filed past the altar beneath which she now lies buried. We were then shown the gardens of the Monastery and the famous canal, forever arrested in mid-course, which figured so prominently in the history of that holy woman.
In the afternoon we visited the little country village of Plancy, the place of the Founders birth and death, returning to Troyes for Evening Prayer with the Oblate Sisters. After Evening Prayer which centered around the Blessed Sacrament, a formal photograph of all the participants was taken in the garden, followed a festive meal together.
At the end of the meal, humorous skits of song and dance were presented by the sisters of the formation community, emphasizing the diversity of place and character of their foundations throughout the world. These skits also underscored the fact that in many of those apostolates Oblates of both Congregations have long ministered side by side, thus realizing the familial cooperation which was so greatly desired by our common Founder.
At the conclusion of the mornings liturgy, the Visitation community was presented with a beautifully framed portrait of St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane de Chantal, Mother Chappuis and Father Brisson, an original work by American artist, Father Tom Ribits, OSFS. (Later all the participants at the General Chapter received copies of that fine work.) That evening the Oblate Sisters were presented with an original work of Blessed Frances de Sales Aviat by an artist friend of the Overbach community. Both works will be looked upon countless times in the years and decades ahead. And each time that happens the day on which they were presented will be remembered with warmth and joy, and the friendship which they symbolize renewed and deepened.
I do not have the skills to capture in words the simple but profound joy that all of us experienced that special day. But I am convinced that it will be a fond memory in the hearts of those who shared in it for many, many years to come.
THE XVII GENERAL CHAPTER
Before I give some personal reflections on the XVII General Chapter, I wish to note that, no matter what route a particular proposal took during the deliberations of the Chapter, and no matter how large or small its affirmative vote, each positive action now forms, on an equal footing, a part of that Chapters legacy to the Congregation.
The decisions and actions of the General Chapter cover a wide range of subjects, including the following: missions, formation, community, restructuring, the cause of Father Brisson, lay associations, a popular form of our name, a possible revision of the General Statutes, Founders Day, appointments by the Superior General, and several minor changes to the Constitutions.
In quoting below from the Chapters decisions and actions, I occasionally take liberty with the language --but not with the substance--in order to give a smoother presentation. The official wording for all the Chapter decisions is of course found in the Chapter Minutes.
A SPIRIT OF "FRATERNAL UNION"
I would like to begin my reflections on the XVII General Chapter by commenting on its spirit. I do so in part as a response to a request by the Chapters Efficacy Committee that I write a letter to the Congregation reporting on "the fine Salesian spirit of fraternal union exhibited at this General Chapter."
Maybe it was the presence of our guests, with their youthful enthusiasm and joyful optimism; it may have been the context of our 125th anniversary; perhaps it was the grace flowing from the day of recollection --whatever the reason, a spirit of pleasant fraternal union characterized the proceedings of the entire Chapter. Even when deeply held opinions were strongly expressed or difficult issues seriously weighed, that spirit prevailed almost without exception.
During the day of recollection, we reflected on the several characters who figure in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). In my homily at the end of that day, I suggested that, viewed in light of the business before us, the parable offered us some very useful advice on what ought to be the spiritual disposition of each capitulant. The fraternal tenor of the proceedings which followed suggests that the homily fell on fertile ground. I quote the concluding paragraphs of that homily:
"Could we really do any better in the days ahead than to measure every decision we take against the Good Mother and Father Brissons foundational dream for the Congregation in its identity and mission? Could we accomplish any better the task for which we have assembled here than by asking ourselves whether each decision we take is in fact one more step along the road which will, with time, lead us home to where it all began, to the vision and heart of the Founder?
Perhaps this or that decision which this, the 17th General Chapter, is about to take will be little remembered in the years ahead. But I assure you, if everything we do here has but one single goal -- to bring the Congregation closer to the ideal for which it was founded-- then the spirit with which we will have conducted these proceedings will stand forever as the model for how to conduct the serious business of a General Chapter."
THE MISSIONARY CHARACTER OF THE CONGREGATION
Given the number and scope of the proposals on the subject, a major focus for deliberations by the Chapter was the issue of our Missions. I would like to begin my reflections on the XVII General Chapter with its actions on this vital subject.
One of the Chapterís most far-reaching directives is the authorization of the Superior General and his Council "to explore the possibility and feasibility of new foundations, especially in the Developing World...and to take the necessary steps to begin those foundations." With this action, the Congregation has decisively opted to be pro-active in the pursuit of its future, doing so by casting the net of its charism far and wide.
General Statute #28 has long been an anomaly in that, while it calls for the appointment of a General Mission Procurator, that position has remained vacant for decades. The Chapter chose to address that anomaly by voting to revise the wording of the statute so that it now reads: "the Superior General will appoint a General Mission Coordinator to serve as a liaison between the Provinces and the Mission territories." The rationale for this proposal clearly suggests that a change of title --from "General Mission Procurator" to "General Mission Coordinator"-- is meant to indicate a change of function as well. The General Mission Procurator will work to gain an overview of the missions and will articulate their needs to the members of the various provinces, facilitating the meeting of those needs from the resources of the provinces. In accomplishing this goal, communication and cooperation, rather than "funneling or controlling money," are to be the principal tools.
The Chapter directs the Superior General, with the consent of his Council, to appoint an Oblate "who is responsible for the existing community and for new foundations in Asian mission territories" and to provide him with "the necessary authority for his work."
While leaving the specifics to the General Administration, this directive is suggesting that henceforth Asia is to be treated in a manner somewhat parallel to a Mission Region, with the Oblate envisioned here functioning as its Regional Superior.
The Chapter approved a new General Statute which formally establishes the Chablais Fund and gives general directions regarding its management, growth, and on-going support. In a related decision, the Chapter directed the Superior General to include, on the agenda of a future meeting of major superiors, "the nature and objectives of the Chablais Fund," and to invite the Congregations mission procurators to that meeting. I am personally convinced that these decisions relative to the Chablais Fund are acts of Salesian foresight and responsible stewardship.
While on the subject of the Chablais Fund, I wish to thank those Oblates who have spontaneously contributed to this Fund since its inception or have inspired others to do so. In particular, I wish to thank the Austria-South German Province for its recent, and substantial, contribution. It is gratifying to see that, insofar as humanly possible, we Oblates are doing our part to ensure the continuation of the Congregations missionary efforts well into the new century and beyond.
The Chapter directed that "Oblates assigned to mission territories be prepared in advance of their assignment by formal training and preparation." The directive then proceeds to give two examples, which are not meant to be exhaustive, of such preparation: missiology and language studies.
Several significant actions regarding Oblate formation were taken by the Chapter. An exploration of the "feasibility and desirability" of a common period of time during formation for the Congregation is called for, as well as assurances that the various formation programs --despite their valid differences-- also share "common guidelines" and other elements suitable for Oblate religious formation. General Statute # 5 will now state that "whenever possible joint formation houses seem preferable." In a recognition of the growing importance for ready communication among Oblates everywhere, the Chapter affirmed that "an apprenticeship" of the official languages of the Institute, as well as other languages spoken by a significant number of Oblates, "will be an integrating and indispensable part" of the Congregations formation programs.
A first reading of the Chapters action regarding community life may strike some as an understated one. It may be understated but it is decidedly not insignificant. Indeed, if its recommendation is faithfully and consistently implemented over the years ahead, the result will be a major shift in direction regarding Oblate community life. The Chapter "recommends to the Major Superiors to foster, as much as possible, the appointment of Oblates to apostolates which allow for a real community life, that is, a community sharing common life and prayer."
Among other things, this strong recommendation takes an important stance regarding the perennial question concerning the appropriate relationship between the expectations of community life and the demands of the apostolate. It clearly expresses a preference for those apostolates which permit "real community life, that is, a community sharing common life and prayer." Such a preference will obviously have practical consequences. For example, when discerning which current apostolates are to continue or which new apostolates are to be undertaken, a major criterion will henceforth be which apostolates under consideration provide Oblates with the real possibility of sharing "common life and prayer" with other Oblates.
Several years ago the major superiors were asked to indicate their preference regarding the frequency of their joint meetings. The vast majority indicated a preference of a continuation of the annual meeting, suggesting that this arrangement provided them with a more frequent opportunity to develop trust and friendship among themselves. That, in turn, would help them to form the necessary basis upon which to exchange ideas on challenging issues of common interest, while also paving the way for greater cooperation in the years ahead.
That desired "greater cooperation" manifested itself during the Chapter. The provincials and delegates of the European provinces spontaneously agreed to meet at the end of the Chapter in order to plan for future meetings and events together. The result of that meeting was the creation of a "European Council" whose purpose is to arrange for and coordinate those future meetings and events.
These directions were given confirmation and added impetus by the Chapter itself in its decision to encourage the Major Superiors and their Councils to begin a process whose goal is the "possible regrouping of Provinces and Regions which are close to one another either historically, culturally, or geographically."
SUPPORT FOR THE CAUSE OF FATHER BRISSON
The Oblate Sisters have long carried the lions share in the efforts on behalf of the Founders cause. The Chapter voted to increase our support in those efforts, leaving it to the Superior General and his Council to determine how best to offer, in terms of personnel and finances, the "reasonable and suitable means" of this support.
Father Brisson was a remarkable human being and a zealous, compassionate priest whose ministry on behalf of societys marginalized paved an important direction in Catholic social action. His life and deeds deserve to be more widely known and appreciated. The advancement of his cause, the focus of this Chapter decision, will help to bring that about.
OBLATE LAY ASSOCIATIONS
During the next six years the Congregation will "actively invite the laity into closer association with itself in both its identity and its mission." The Chapter, though wisely leaving to each Province and Region the particular forms which the "associations of the faithful" will take, has nevertheless clearly opted for a pro-active stance in favor of Oblate lay associations, a posture which is reminiscent of the celebrated pastoral thrust of its Patron.
The Chapter expressed a desire that the bond between the laity and the Congregation will deepen over the years ahead, progressing from the canonical status of "Association of the Faithful" --which is the particular action of this Chapter-- to that of "Private Juridic Person," and finally to that of "Public Juridic Person."
"DE SALES OBLATES"
In order to immediately and clearly identify who we Oblates are in distinction to other "Oblates," the Chapter has authorized a shortened, popular, usage of our name: "De Sales Oblates." While the specific proposal voted on by the Chapter dealt only with the use of "De Sales Oblates" in the English language, its linguistic equivalent can be used in other languages as well.
A POSSIBLE REVISION OF THE GENERAL STATUTES IS AUTHORIZED
The Chapter authorized the study of the General Statutes with the view of preparing a proposal to the next General Chapter relative to their possible revision. The study would be undertaken by a committee of three Oblates with the Procurator General serving as its Chair. According to the rationale for this proposal, such a revision would be made ìin light of our lived experience and the current needs of the Congregation.î
With this Chapter, the observance of Founderss Day has moved from its ìad experimentumî status to that of a General Statute. There is much merit in this move. In our observance of Foundersí Day, we pause each year to acknowledge that, as we advance resolutely towards our future, we do so on the shoulders of all the gallant, gifted and generous confrères who have gone before us.
APPOINTMENTS BY THE SUPERIOR GENERAL
There has long been an anomaly in the governing structure of the Congregation. While the Superior General, with his Councils consent, is directly responsible for several Oblate endeavors which have been entrusted to him, our proper law has not, until now, explicitly articulated his authority to assign personnel to those endeavors. A new paragraph, added to General Statute # 16, does that now. After observing several carefully constructed conditions which focus around the issues of "genuine need" and "appropriate consultation," "the Superior General, with the consent of his Council, will appoint personnel to specific Oblate endeavors which have been entrusted to the General Administration of the Congregation."
There was not much drama during the course of the Chapter. One exception was certainly the animated discussion which this proposal engendered. A few delegates expressed their concern that this proposal would effect a major change in the governing structure of the Congregation. In light of the specific action which is provided for by this proposal, however, such concern does not seem to be warranted. Indeed, in practice, the action provided for amounts to no more than this: once the Superior General has taken all the usual steps of consultation and discernment, it is he, rather than the Oblates Provincial, who appoints the Oblate to the specific assignment.
Still, the new paragraph is not unimportant. For it acknowledges the somewhat untenable situation in which the General Administration finds itself, having the responsibility for certain apostolic endeavors without being provided with the adequate means of fulfilling that responsibility. This paragraph --albeit gingerly and largely symbolically--heads in a direction which makes such an untenable situation less so.
The Chapter approved several minor changes to Constitutions ## 277 and 67. These actions were taken in order to more accurately reflect current practice.
ELECTIONS, APPOINTMENTS, REAPPOINTMENTS
The General Chapter concluded its business with the election of the Superior General and three of the four General Councillors. After my re-election as Superior General, Fathers Mark S. Mealey, Aldino J. Kiesel and Sebastian Leitner were elected as General Councillors. Since the Chapter ended, Father Jan Mostert has been appointed the fourth councillor, and Father Mealey has been reappointed to the positions of Assistant Superior General and Procurator General.
I am delighted with this council which represents the full geographical sweep of the Congregation, from India to Europe, to Africa, and to North and South America. I am very grateful to the members of the former council. Their wisdom and experience assisted the Congregation greatly over the past six years. I know that I can count on the prayers of the Congregation for the success of the years ahead. I count heavily on those prayers, as do the members of the Council.
At this time, I would also like to announce that during the General Chapter of the Oblate Sisters, which followed shortly after ours, Mother Françoise Isabelle Stiegler was re-elected Superior General. In your name, I offer Mother General our prayerful best wishes. I look forward to continuing our friendship and working relationship over the years ahead. And it is my firm hope that, soon, both Congregations will gather in Rome for the canonization of Mother Frances de Sales Aviat!
Finally, I am pleased to announce the re-appointment of Father Alexander T. Pocetto and Father Herbert Winklehner to three year terms on the International Commission on Salesian Studies. Father Jean Gayet serves as the third member of this Commission.
Since it has been almost a year since the last Generalís News, I would like to take this opportunity to update you on events which have taken place during this year.
The February canonical visitation of the German Province concluded with the appointment of Father Leo Vieten as the new Provincial. During the course of the canonical visitation of the Netherlands Province in May Father Kees Jongeneelen was elected to a second term as Provincial. There was also a delightful two-day celebration in honor of the Congregationís 125th . Highlights of that celebration included a pictorial history of both the Congregation and the Netherlands Province, the formal presentation of Father Dirk Kosterís superb new biography of St. Francis de Sales, and the participation in these events by friends and relatives of the Oblates, members of the Salesian Circles, religious, and former Oblates. On May 21, an equally joyous celebration took place in Monte Carlo in honor of 50 years of Oblate life and ministry in the parish of St. Charles and in the Principality of Monaco. Prince Rainier and Prince Albert joined the Archbishop and the entire parish family for this happy event, during which a new icon of Jesus, the Pantokrator, was dedicated over the main altar in honor of both the jubilee year and the Golden Anniversary of our presence. In June I gave a retreat to the members of the Italian Province in their newly renovated residence, Villa Altieri, in Albano. As I write this letter, the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province is preparing to inaugurate, around Foundersí Day, its year-long program in honor of our 125th anniversary. During that initial event, Father John Conmy, a venerable member of the Province and former Provincial, will be honored on his 90th birthday. I have learned of many other celebrations in honor of our 125th throughout the Congregation.
In October, 2000, I will make the canonical visitation of the Regions of Keetmanshoop and Keimoes, during which I will meet with the new Bishop of the Keimoes-Upington Diocese and participate in the joint retreat of the two Regions to be conducted by Father Willem Spann. From January 3-6, 2001, the General Council will meet in Rome. A canonical visitation of the Austria-South German Province is scheduled from March 19 to April 3, 2001. Also scheduled is the visitation of the Italian Province and a visit to the India Mission, but the actual dates are yet to be determined. There is the possibility of a meeting with the newly established European Council before June, 2001. From July 29 through August 3, 2001, the Major Superiors will meet in Fockenfeld, followed by a meeting of the General Council.
I am gratified to learn that many of the texts from the celebration in Troyes and from the General Chapter have already been made available to some of you by your Major Superiors. Available in the languages of the Congregation are: the homily given at the July 28 celebration in Troyes and at the Day of Recollection before the General Chapter. Also available is my Report on ìthe spiritual, disciplinary and financial situation of the Congregationî which, according to Article #256 of our Constitutions, is to be given at the opening of the General Chapter. I can send any of these through e-mail (contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org) or by regular mail. I will be happy to do that.
I wish all of you, my Oblate confrËres, many blessings in the months ahead and ask that you pray, in a special way, for vocations to our Congregation and for the major superiors who minister tirelessly on your behalf and that of the entire Congregation.
Fraternally yours in our saintly Patron and heavenly Founders,
Lewis S. Fiorelli, O.S.F.S.