THE GENERAL’S NEWS XVI
In the past, several issues of the General’s News have dealt with themes in Salesian spirituality. I have been gratified by your favorable comments regarding these writings. Some of you have even offered suggestions for future topics. One topic frequently mentioned is “Salesian Spiritual Direction.” With this letter I am happy to begin the development of that theme and will continue with it in a subsequent edition.
It is not difficult to locate the origins for this important topic in the life and ministry of our Patron. It lies, I believe, principally in the major influence which the Society of Jesus played in his education and spiritual formation. Under their influence, the young Francis came to appreciate the important role which the Society had played in the revival of spiritual guidance and their celebrated emphasis on the discernment of spirits. In their hands, this ministry had become a significant tool in the Church’s response to the Reformation.
Given this long exposure to Jesuit training, it was only natural that once Francis was ordained a priest, a major arena for his apostolic zeal would be the spiritual guidance of men and women from every walk of life. As spiritual director, he respected the primary role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the life of each person and deeply esteemed the unique dignity and inalienable freedom of every individual. These were, in fact, major characteristics of his approach to spiritual guidance, leading him to make use of the power of persuasion, never force, in winning hearts to God. That he was successful as a spiritual guide is clear. One need only think of St. Jane de Chantal. But there were many others, men and women from every walk of life and social status, who came to him for spiritual guidance and who benefitted from that guidance in untold ways.
“THE MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL WORDS OF ADVICE”
In the very first pages of his Introduction to the Devout Life (Part I, ch 4), Francis offers Philothea “the most important of all words of advice.” He tells her to pray fervently for that “one in ten thousand,” a spiritual guide after God’s own heart. Once she has found that guide, she is told to consider him as an angel sent by God himself. Her heart is to be an open book to her director and she is to be faithful to his suggestions. As for that “one in ten thousand,” he must, insists Francis, be “full or charity, knowledge and prudence.” He cautions that “if any one of these qualities is lacking, there is danger.”
To every Christian the double commandment of love is paramount. Thus the need for charity in a spiritual director is clear. As for the need for the director to be knowledgeable, Francis is echoing St. Theresa of Avila’s famous insistence on this quality in a spiritual director. She was all too familiar with the embarrassment and harm which an ignorant and often superstitious clergy had caused the Church in the years leading up to the Reformation. She wanted none of that in those who would direct her or others in the ways of God.
But why does de Sales rank prudence on a par with charity and intelligence? I like to call prudence, “spiritual common sense.” It enables the spiritual director to apply the general principles of Christian truth, along with its practice, to the particular circumstances and spiritual needs of this person, here and now. When fortunate enough to be accompanied by a guide who is gifted with common sense, one is sure-footed, even in the often rarefied atmosphere of the spiritual life. When, however, that common sense is lacking, one is often unable to hear and heed God’s will with balance and certainty.
Keep in mind that when Francis gives this advice in the first pages of the Introduction, he is still dealing with the disastrous scars left upon the spiritual psyche of St. Jane de Chantal whose first director had been notoriously imprudent. That is why he is determined to entrust the exciting but often unchartered spiritual journey only into hands of those who are prudent, balanced and imbued with good judgement and common sense.
“ONE IN TEN THOUSAND”
In 1609, when the Introduction was published, there were very few seminaries to train priests. This often resulted in an inadequately prepared clergy, among whom ignorance and superstition were common. This situation was obviously detrimental to the people they served. Bishops often did what they could to remedy this situation. To help prepare his priests to hear confessions, for example, Francis wrote his celebrated, “Advice to Confessors.” He also met frequently with the clergy of his diocese to treat in depth a theological topic or to explore with them some aspect of pastoral practice. Given the lamentable state of clerical preparation and formation of his time, the advice which Francis gives to Philothea to choose, as spiritual direction, “one in ten thousand” is understandable. Alas, it is also unfortunate.
These few words have had the unfortunate consequence of discouraging many an otherwise capable spiritual guide from undertaking this important ministry. Over the years, a number of Oblates have told me as much. This is truly unfortunate, especially for us Oblates who, given our charism, ought to be leaders in this ministry. Seminarians are far better educated and more thoroughly trained today than at the time these words were first penned. In addition to that, we Oblates generally have a very good foundation in spirituality, not only from its formal study but also from our personal experience with spiritual direction, frequent homilies, community chapters, spiritual reading, and so on. If, therefore, someone asks you to be their spiritual director, you ought to presume that you are capable of undertaking this ministry unless there are clear indications to the contrary. To attain further objectivity in the matter of your readiness for this ministry, I advise you to ask your spiritual director who probably knows you very well. 
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL DIRECTION ANYWAY?
For many years I taught a course called Salesian Spiritual Direction. Blank stares frequently greeted one of the first questions I asked: “What is spiritual direction?” Most of my students had experienced spiritual direction, some for many years. Some of them were even spiritual guides themselves. Still, a satisfactory definition often eluded them. This was not surprising, for there are probably as many definitions as there are names for the art which I am calling “spiritual direction.” Some prefer to call it spiritual “guidance” or “accompaniment” or companionship, or any number of other names. Some object strongly to any notion of human “direction” when speaking of the dynamics of grace. And what does “spiritual” mean in “spiritual direction”? Isn’t the whole person involved, body, soul, personality, temperament, circumstances of life, and so forth?
In her testimony during the beatification process for her friend and guide, St. Jane de Chantal gave some very helpful hints regarding Francis de Sales’s understanding of spiritual direction. On August 27, 1627, for instance, she testified that she “noticed that [in spiritual direction] he preferred to leave souls quite free so that the Spirit could lead them while he followed on behind...I know that this is how he directed me and I have heard the same from others.”  In a December, 1623, letter to Dom Jean de Saint-François she wrote that Francis used to remark that “the right way to serve God was to follow his lead and walk close behind him.”  In the earliest days of their spiritual friendship, Francis and Jane had undertaken a very serious discernment process in order to determine if it was God’s will for her to leave her spiritual guide and place herself under the direction of Francis. After they had discerned that it was indeed God’s will for them to do so, he wrote her that in so weighty a matter he “didn’t want to follow either your desire or my inclination, but only God and his providence.” 
From these quotations and from many similar ones which could be cited, it is clear that for St. Francis de Sales the principal guide in spiritual direction is the Lord himself. Thus, the primary task of spiritual direction is two-fold: to help the one who is being directed to hear God’s voice and then to help that person to heed the divine will which is manifested in that voice, doing so not only in life’s key moments such as vocational discernment and major challenges, but also --even especially-- in the unfolding events and circumstances of each present moment. Let us look briefly at each of these aspects.
One hears God’s word in a variety of ways. These include scripture, Church teaching, preaching, and inspiration (see Book 8 of the Treatise); they also include the manifestation of God’s good pleasure, that is, whatever God permits to befall us throughout life. His good pleasure is revealed to us in the unfolding events and circumstances of each succeeding present moment (see Book 9 of the Treatise).
For Francis, it is especially important that we learn how to hear the divine word as it speaks to us in the intimacy of daily prayer. This means, then, that a principal part of spiritual direction in the Salesian tradition is to teach one how to pray (see Books 6 & 7 of the Treatise). In prayer, we experience the friendship of God and become eager to hear and heed his word to us. We do not expect that word to differ from general revelation as manifested in scripture and church teaching. In prayer, however, we learn to hear God speak that revelation directly to us personally, “heart to heart,” that is, in the intimacy of friendship and loving union. And it will speak to us there under the particular circumstances of our life at that precise moment. Prayer, then, personalizes and actualizes the divine will for us as our life unfolds. Our guide will help us not only to hear that voice which is often spoken to us in the midst of a cacophony of opposing voices, but will also help us to accomplish or accept what God asks of us, often despite our laziness, indifference, or reluctance to do so.
HOW NECESSARY IS SPIRITUAL DIRECTION?
The immediate answer to the question of the necessity of spiritual direction is an easy one. It is not necessary for salvation. Otherwise, the Lord would have required it of all his followers. Even St. Francis de Sales does not insist on its universal necessity. In the Introduction, he certainly advises Philothea in the strongest manner to find a spiritual guide and to engage in spiritual direction, but he did not insist on its practice with the sisters of the Visitation. Why the difference? He felt that lives of prayer, sacrament and community living, along with the guidance provided by their Rule, would provide religious with sufficient direction for their lives. However, he felt that the Philotheas of this world are often largely on their own in their desire for the devout life. Frequently they live in environments which are hostile or indifferent to religion and to the quest for spiritual perfection. He strongly advises them, therefore, to pursue spiritual direction and to join groups of like-minded people for support and friendship. It has been suggested that, given the lack of formal structure in much of religious life today, many religious probably find themselves in situations which are analogous to that of Philothea and ought therefore to heed Francis’s advice to her regarding spiritual direction. In general, though, the standard response to the question of the necessity of spiritual direction is still the best one: “It is sometimes necessary, but always helpful.”
THE FIRST COMMANDMENT
Francis de Sales wrote a spiritual masterpiece, the Treatise on the Love of God, to teach Christians how, in practice, to fulfill the first commandment, to love God completely. In that work he teaches that union is the essence of love. This is why, in a lengthy treatment, he explains how we can be united to God in both prayer and life (Books 5-9).
In prayer and sacrament, the union is personal and immediate. As such, it is already an experience of loving God. But there is also a union of wills by which God is loved, and that union of wills must be translated into “life and action.” What Francis means here is what we all pray for every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Good Mother was fond of personalizing that petition in this way: “May your will be done in the earth of my own heart as it is in heaven.” In the Salesian tradition, this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is concretely realized by our doing or accepting -- with generosity of heart and holy indifference-- whatever is God’s will for us in each succeeding present moment of life. As soon as that will is known, therefore, we set about doing it (Book 8) or embracing it (Book 9). Acting in this manner, we love God and fulfill the first commandment. 
But the rub is this: how do we know what is really God’s will? After all, the long history of spiritual guidance suggests that the angel of darkness frequently appears under the guise of an angel of light. Furthermore, that “angel of darkness” need not be the Evil One at all. It can simply be wishful thinking on our part, or personal preference or even self-deception, or a thousand other things. Who isn’t, after all, blind in his or her own concerns? This blindness is precisely why the tradition of spiritual direction teaches that “anyone who has himself for a director has a fool for a guide!”
Objectivity is always necessary. A spiritual director can help to provide that. But discernment is frequently necessary as well. Here, too, a director can assist us greatly, helping us to become as certain as possible that it is God’s word which we are hearing in prayer or his will which is being manifested to us in this particular life situation or set of circumstances. Often, therefore, spiritual direction will involved a process of discernment, which is why Francis treats of that topic in several places, the most accessible of which is the Book 8, chapters 11-14 of the Treatise. 
In a subsequent issue of the General’s News, we will look at his treatment of discernment, as well as other aspects of Salesian spiritual direction.
UPDATE ON THE CAUSE OF FATHER BRISSON, FOUNDER
I am frequently asked about the status of the cause of the Good Mother and Father Brisson. I am happy to address that issue in this letter.
The first thing to mention is this. Several years ago the leaders of both Oblate Congregations agreed that, once the cause of Mother Aviat was brought to a successful conclusion, we would proceed with the cause of our common Founder, Father Brisson. After the cause of Father Brisson has been brought to its hoped-for conclusion, we Oblates will give the cause of the Good Mother the attention it so richly deserves.
Father Emilio Testa is the Postulator of Father Brisson’s cause. A few months ago I asked him to describe, in broad strokes, the history of the cause from its beginning to its status at this time. I am grateful for his fine report and am happy to share it with you now.
Father Brisson’s cause was first introduced according to the prescriptions of the 1917 Code of Canon Law which stipulated that the first step in any cause, the informative process, is to be conducted in the diocese in which the Servant of God had died which, for Father Brisson, was the diocese of Troyes.
The summarium of the informative process was then to be presented to the Congregation of Rites which, at that time, included the functions of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints. If, upon examining the summarium, the Congregation of Rites had any observations (Animadversiones), these were to be responded to by those who had undertaken the informative process. And if their responses were found to be satisfactory, the cause was then formally introduced in Rome.
The informative process for Father Brisson’s cause took place in Troyes from 1938-1949. On January 29, 1963, Msgr. Stella, the canon lawyer for the cause at the time, presented the findings of the informative process to Rome, with the hope of formally introducing the cause there.
Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. Six months earlier, on August 4, 1962, Msgr. Morlot, the promoter of Justice for the diocese of Troyes, had sent a dossier of 888 pages to Rome which had been authenticated by the diocese’s Episcopal Chancellor on October 10, 1962. In that dossier, Msgr. Morlot gathered, classified, and presented in chronological order, a whole series of documents purporting to challenge the heroic virtues of Father Brisson. The documentation ended with the attachment of a Summa vitiorum of considerable gravity.
An additional process then became necessary in order to defend Father Brisson against these unjust charges. That process took place in Troyes from July 8, 1963 until January 13, 1964. Msgr. Salvatore Vitale, the new canon lawyer for the cause, presented the Summarium Defensioni additum to the Roman Congregation and on August 28, 1970, Father P. Stano, OFM, General Procurator of the Faith, communicated the Animadversiones. Ten years later, on March 19, 1980, Msgr. Vitale presented the formal response to the Animadersiones.
At this point, the process came to a virtual standstill for a number of years. Father Domenico Balducelli, OSFS, the Postulator of the Cause at that time, died on May 16, 1969. Father David Agostini, OSFS, who succeeded him as Postulator, died on February 8, 1983. Father Marcel Martin, named Postulator on February 28, 1983, died in 1990.
Meanwhile, on January 25, 1983, Pope John-Paul II promulgated the Apostolic Constitution, Divinus perfectionis Magister which provided for a new formulation for the cause of saints and the restructuring of the competent Dicastery. In Section III only the principal steps of the process of the cause of saints were outlined, while a more detailed description of the procedure to be followed was given in the Internal Regulation of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints which was promulgated later that same year.
Article 34 of the Internal Regulation of the Congregation sets forth the following:
Cases in which a Positio super introductio causae was prepared but was not discussed will be examined by a Consultor, for the sake of finding lacunae and suggesting the appropriate inquiries to be made.
One will not proceed to the introdutio causae, but after all the supplementary requests have been made, one will proceed to the Positio super virtutibus, under the direction of a Relator.
In short, there was a new procedure to be followed, one that differed from that which had been followed, under the 1917 Code, in the cause of Father Brisson. On April 20, 1990, Father Emilio Testa, OSFS, was named Postulator for the cause of both Mother Aviat and Father Brisson. From 1991-1998, Father Beaudoin, OMI, oversaw the work of gathering and studying the written sources according to the critical-scientific method which is now required by the Apostolic Constitution, Divinus perfectionis Magister, as an integral and essential part of the Positio super introductio causae. We are all familiar with the masterful result of Father Beaudoin’s extraordinary efforts. His massive and very impressive work is now complete. It simply awaits formal action by the Cause of Saints.
But that wait may be a long one! There are perhaps as many as 500 other documents which, in the usual course of events, are to be considered and acted upon before that of Father Brisson! As Postulator, Father Testa will continue to do all that is humanly possible to speed up the process. But it is likely to be years before the decision of the Holy See is known on this matter.
As I end this presentation on state of the cause of the Founder, I take this opportunity to publicly thank Father Testa for all that he has done --and continues to do--as Postulator of both causes. We celebrate his remarkable and relatively speedy success with the cause of Mother Aviat and promise him our prayerful support as he to continues to work diligently on that of Father Brisson.
I repeat here the request which I have made many times before: that each Oblate pray daily for the beatification of Father Brisson, using for this purpose the prayer which is said by both Oblate Congregations. By any standard, Father Brisson was a remarkable human being. His zealous life of priestly ministry paved an important direction in Catholic social action. His life and deeds need to be more widely known and better appreciated, even among us. The advancement of his cause, for which we pray, will help to bring that about.
PRAYER FOR THE BEATIFICATION OF FATHER LOUIS BRISSON, OSFS
Lord, please visit and protect the family of the Oblate Sisters and of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales which is the vine your powerful hand has planted through the work of your servant, Louis Brisson. For the glory of your Name, make this family grow in your love, and grant to it, for the joy of the whole Church, the recognition of the untiring zeal of its Founder for the Gospel and of his heroic courage in the midst of trials. Amen.
VISITATIONS AND A FUNERAL
This has been a fairly busy year with canonical visitations and other visits.
In October, 2000, I made the canonical visitation of the both south African Regions, Keimoes-Upington and Keetmanshoop. Less than three weeks following my departure from Namibia, I was back again, this time to attend the funeral of Father Ludger Holling who, during the visitation, had been elected to succeed Father Willem Christiaans as Regional Superior.
Because of the untimeliness of his death, Father Ludger’s funeral was one of poignant sadness. It was also a moment of great grace. I will long remember the beautiful outpouring of love on the part of so many people whom Father Ludger had served so well and for so many years. Bishop Antonio Chiminello, his friend, colleague and confrère, presided with grace and dignity and Father Christiaans preached a moving homily with both beauty and passion.
I do not think that I will ever forget the actual burial itself. It was so different from what I am accustomed to. The entire congregation accompanied the casket to its place of internment and the usual rites were performed there. Then each person, one after the other, began to fill the grave with fresh dirt. This continued for more than half an hour under the searing heat of the summer sun. Music played quietly while people sang softly. Many wept. At the end, the grave, now a mound of fresh earth, was crowned with bright flowers and with a simple wooden cross, the sign of Christ’s victory over death and each Christian’s hope. A prolonged moment of silence concluded the burial, after which the entire assembly, sad but comforted by their hope in the resurrection, went back up the hill to the parish hall. There they shared a simple meal and remembered a life which, though short by human reckoning, had been full by God’s. Throughout his priestly life, Father Ludger had served as a missionary in Namibia, ministering to some of the poorest of God’s beloved people.
As I stood with the others during Father Ludger’s burial, I kept thinking of the many Oblates who, since our Foundation, have lived equally generous lives in so many ways and places throughout the Oblate world. All of you who are reading this letter are, I am certain, living similar lives now. To each of you I say this: although the people you serve and the confrères with whom you live may not always express it in words, they appreciate deeply your compassionate ministry and lives of quiet fidelity. They are grateful to God for you!
Following the meeting with the General Council which took place in Rome the first week of January, I made a canonical visitation of the Italian province. Our confrères there, as everywhere in the world, are doing great ministry in many different vineyards. I would like to mention here just one promising ministry. Centered in Pomezia, it is a youth movement known as "Ragazzi Nuovi,” “New Youth.” In a lively meeting with about a hundred of them, I experienced -‑in word and song‑‑their enthusiasm for this movement. Through it, they are helped to understand their faith better and to live it more fully, doing so with the friendship of other young people who believe as they do.
Many of these young people expressed a strong desire to continue their association with us Oblates and with our Salesian spirit as they move into their adult years. That desire will, I believe, prompt some of them to form the core of the Oblate Lay Associates of the Italian Province. It is my sincere hope that some of them will also follow the example of the two young men who, beginning as Ragazzi Nuovi, have now become Oblate postulants.
Who would not welcome the promise which is manifested here! In many ways, this movement is in continuity with the Founder's celebrated ministry on behalf of the young people of Troyes
UPCOMING VISITATIONS AND ACTIVITIES
I write this letter about a month before the canonical visitation of the Congregation’s second largest province, the Austria-South German Province. The visitation will take place between March 19 and April 4th. I am looking forward to it!
In late May and early June I plan to visit, with Father Mark Mealey, our confrères in India. Father Mealey is scheduled to give the profession retreat at Samarpanaram while I hope to visit the building site of our second Indian foundation which is in Kerela.
In early June there is a retreat of our European confrères in Albano. This retreat is a direct result of the efforts of the European Council which was established at the end of the General Chapter to encourage greater cooperation among Oblates of the same part of the world. This, in turn, is in keeping with the directive of the XVII General Chapter to the Congregation’s major superiors “to begin a process in order to set out for a possible regrouping of Provinces and Regions which are close to one another either historically, culturally, or geographically.” I have been gratified to hear of cooperative efforts between the two American provinces as well as between the German and Austria-South German provinces. I am sure that there are others as well.
The Congregation’s major superiors will meet in Fockenfeld again this year, arriving on Sunday July 29th. The meeting will end on Friday, August 3, with the members of the General Council remaining through Saturday, August 4, 2001. The Congregation’s Masters of Novices have been invited to this meeting. Each of them will make a presentation on the content and method of the novitiate year, the challenges they confront and what they need to be even more effective in this most important of our internal ministries. This will be the first step in fulfilling the XVII General Chapter’s several directives and policies regarding Oblate formation.
MONACO: LAST CALL!
Frequently in the past I have spoken of our need for personnel for Monaco. I speak of that need with greater urgency here. Father Cesare Penzo’s mandate as Pastor expires, by diocesan policy, in September, 2002. In September, 2001, a year before that date, I must in justice inform the Principality and Archdiocese if we will be able to continue our commitment to the parish of St. Charles beyond September, 2002. If we are not able to do so, this notice will give them a full year to find another solution. I certainly hope that we will be able to continue our very effective ministry there. In fact, currently I am in communication with a potential pastor as well as considering other options. Between now and this September, however, plans must be finalized. This, then, is the last call to the members of the Congregation. If you are willing and able to assume parochial duties in a French-speaking urban setting, please let me or your Provincial know. The ideal would be to staff the parish with several Oblates, some of them young.
As I close this letter, the season of Lent is just a few weeks away. When you receive this letter in translation, it may well be the season of Easter. Our annual celebration of the dying and rising of Jesus reminds us of this truth: for those who believe, the last word is not sin and death but resurrection, life and grace! This truth is not only the foundation of our Christian hope, it is also the bedrock upon which rests the joyful optimism of our Patron. May it be the leitmotif of each Oblate’s life as well!
Fraternally yours in our saintly Patron and holy Founders,
Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS
. see Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction (trans. By Péronne Marie Thibert, VHM; selected and introduced by Wendy M. Wright and Joseph F. Power, OSFS), in the series: The Classics of Western Spirituality (NY: Paulist, 1988).
. In this letter I am speaking to my confrères, the majority of whom are or will be priests. I am fully aware, though, that many others engage in the ministry of spiritual direction today, to the great enrichment of the Church.
. St. Francis de Sales: A Testimony of St. Chantal, edited, translated and introduced by Elisabeth Stopp (Hyattsville, MD, 1967), p. 120.
. Ibid., p. 166.
. Letter of October 14, 1604. See Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 131.
. It was our Patron’s intention to complement his Treatise on the first commandment with a similar Treatise on the second, the love of neighbor: “Discussion of love of neighbor requires a separate treatise” (Book 10. Ch. 11).
. see his early (1604) treatment of discernment in Oeuvres XXIII, 299-302: “How to Discern the Operations of the Spirit of God and those of the Evil Spirit.” An analysis of this short work can be found in the STL thesis by Jerome A. Grabis, “The Converging Roles of Spiritual Direction and the Confessor in Francis de Sales,” (Gregorian University, Rome: 1982).