THE GENERAL’S NEWS XVIII
March - April, 2002
TERROR AND THEODICY: SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
In preparation for this letter, I re-read some earlier issues of the General’s News including the last one which was written just before the tragic events of September 11, 2001. What a changed world we live in today as a result of that horrible day of terror. As human beings and believers, we are more or less prepared for the ordinary events of life, even when those events include suffering, personal tragedy and death. Our faith teaches us to see such events as somehow touched and redeemed by the Cross of Christ. Because of that Cross, we are convinced that the last word for us is never suffering and death but resurrection life and glory.
But are we ever really prepared us for the magnitude and scope of that day’s tragedy? I wonder how many of us Oblates, like so many others following that day, were asking ourselves questions like these: “Where was God that September morning?” “How could a good and all-powerful God permit such unspeakable evil?” “How can we who are believers utter a word of comfort to those who mourn the death of a loved one under such ghastly circumstances? How can we address the challenges which such events present to our faith in a provident God who knows, loves and treasures each human person, even by name?”
I have no adequate response to the theodicy question, one of the most intractable of all theological issues. It is the question which has been posed in the face of every evil, every war, every natural disaster, and every instance of senseless suffering that has occurred since the dawn of faith in an all-loving and all-powerful God. Most of us Oblates no doubt studied this question during theology. We read the opinions of saints, doctors of the Church and noted theologians. I remember one such explanation. It went something like this. When you look at the back of a tapestry you see knotted and gnarled threads which are intertwined in a chaotic and unsightly manner. The picture is not at all pleasing. The front of the tapestry, on the contrary, reveals, say, a lovely pastoral setting of meadows and wooded hills which is masterfully and beautifully executed. When face to face with evil, we are looking at the back side of the tapestry. But we know that there is another and very different side. As young theologians we were also reminded that long ago the Church firmly rejected any dualism which would suggest that good and evil are somehow equal and rest on the same ontological plane. Because of the victory of the Resurrection over sin, suffering and death, evil is not good’s equal. On the contrary, it has been soundly defeated, destroyed at its very roots. True, at times throughout history it may appear that evil is the equal of good and even its superior. But such appearance is illusory. At the end of history, it will be clear to all that good alone is triumphant. Until then, only faith can lay hold to this truth.
No response to the theodicy question is totally satisfying, especially in the face of a particular instance of evil. How much comfort does any explanation bring to grieving parents whose young child has been tragically struck and killed by the car of a drunken driver? How does the tapestry analogy console a husband whose young wife has died from breast cancer, leaving him alone to raise their young children? Besides, if a fully satisfying response to the theodicy question had been developed before now, why would there be the need for such books as Rabbi Harold Kushner’s contemporary and still popular treatment of the issue, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”?
Months pass, wounds heal, and life goes on. In many ways, life even returns to normal, even though “normal” will probably never again be what it was prior to September 11, 2001. But make no mistake about it. Deep down, people are still asking the theodicy question and will continue to look to their faith and to those who preach in its name for answers which will bring them some degree of comfort.
Not surprisingly, our own Patron grappled with the theodicy question. He had to. He wrote a major work on the love of God. The theodicy question bears directly upon the assertion of a loving God, challenging it. Francis deals briefly with the theodicy issue in Book 4, chapter 8 of his Treatise. The views expressed there are limited in a number of ways by his early 17th century perspective. Still, they are still largely sound, even today.
He readily admits that some mysteries are inscrutable, exceeding our ability to grasp them fully. This is especially true of horrifying acts of evil which are brought about by the exercise of human freedom which has gone horribly awry, and of the often destructive power of nature itself. For Francis, it is only in glory when we will understand what it all means and how it all fits. In the meantime of history, when confronted with evil too deep to grasp, we believers must bravely “go forward in peace on the way of most holy love, ” trusting in the One whose only beloved Son was not spared the suffering of an ignominious and painful death. Faith assures us that God brought Jesus through death to resurrection life and allowed abundant, redemptive blessings to pour out of his pierced Heart upon a fallen and broken world, healing it. As believers we must trust in that paradigm even in the midst of a grief which is at times too deep to name.
Perhaps the best comfort that we can give to those who suffer are not words at all, however skillfully crafted, but the helping hands of those who care for them and the loving arms of those who share their grief. With such love, faith in a good and caring God is able to be clung to, even if only in the high point of our spirit, and hope in the ultimate triumph of good over evil is able to be sustained even in the midst of trials, suffering, sorrow and death, no matter their scale, no matter their magnitude.
What neither logic nor sophisticated theology can answer, love can, the suffering love which is revealed on the Cross of Christ.
ST. LÉONIE AVIAT, MOTHER FRANCES DE SALES AVIAT
In my last General’s News, we were still anticipating the canonization of our newest Salesian saint. Now it is a reality. I was delighted to see so many Oblate confrères present for the canonization, the papal audience on the following day, and the celebrations in Rome, Perugia and Troyes the following week. Your presence was, I assure you, a source of great joy to our Oblate Sisters.
Each of us has countless happy memories of that special week. I was overjoyed to meet the young lady, Bernadette McKenzie Kutufaris, whose miraculous cure was the final step in the long process leading to the canonization. I can still see her dressed in her wedding dress, hand and hand with her groom, as she greeted all who had gathered for the papal audience, smiling radiantly. At that same audience, a band of young Swiss girls and boys, students of the Oblate Sisters, played loudly and enthusiastically, to the delight of all. And who can forget the beautiful and moving liturgical dance performed by the Oblate Sisters from Namibia and South Africa as they carried gifts down the long isle of Perugia’s Cathedral to place upon the altar? They danced to the drum beat of a young Oblate priest from South Africa who accompanied them down the isle, himself dancing joyfully. That moment captured for me the special friendship with which our two Congregations, sharing the same Founder, are forever joined. Then there were the six hundred lovely long stem roses which the Dutch confrères had sent from the Netherlands to grace the Cathedral and Mother house of Troyes. That gesture, coming from the heart, touched the hearts of all.
As our Congregation’s formal gift to the Oblate Sisters on this happy occasion, a beautiful and original portrait of the Saint was painted by Father Tom Ribits, OSFS. It will carry this inscription in French: “This portrait of ‘Mother Aviat’ is presented with friendship and esteem to the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales by their devoted brothers in the Salesian family, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, on the happy occasion of the Canonization of St. Léonie Frances de Sales Aviat, November 25, 2001.” Within the halo which surrounds her head are two sayings which capture powerfully her life and holiness: “To forget myself entirely” and “Let us work for the happiness of others.”
As was noted in the last General’s News, the Congregation’s mission procurators have been invited to this July’s meeting of major superiors. In preparation for this meeting, I have prepared a paper whose title is: “Reflections on Oblate Missions: Past, Present, Future.” At this time it is being translated into the various languages of the Congregation and following the meeting will be distributed to the members of the Congregation by the major superiors.
The General Mission Coordinator, Father Josef Költringer, joined me and the members of the General Council for our January meeting which took place this year in Eersterust, South Africa. We did some planning for the joint meeting of major superiors and mission coordinators, reviewed the schedule of his visits to the missions in the coming months, and discussed developments in the Philippines and Ukraine.
The General Council joined me in taking unanimous action on this proposal related to the Philippines: “Based on the report by Father Josef Költringer following his sabbatical in the Philippines, the Superior General and his Council direct that the Delegate Superior for Oblate Asia [Father Sebastian Leitner] and the General Mission Coordinator submit a proposal for a foundation in the Philippines from the India Mission. The proposal will be submitted to the Superior General and his Council no later than January 2004. The proposal will include at least the following elements: financial and personnel resources, rationale, concrete steps and time table. It is understood that no other province or region (other than India) will be required to fund or staff the new foundation.”
I look forward to welcoming the mission procurators to the next meeting of major superiors. The Congregation owes them and those who assist them an immense debt of gratitude for their tireless efforts on behalf of our missions. I know that they will be a great help to the General Mission Coordinator, assisting him in every way possible.
NEW GENERAL COUNCILLOR
With Father Jan Mostert’s appointment as Regional Superior of the Keimoes-Upington Region, effective January 10, 2002, Father Konrad Eßer of the German Province has been named as his replacement according to the prescriptions of Constitution 276. I thank Father Mostert for his service on the General Council and wish him every success in his new responsibilities. With his administrative skills and Salesian expertise, Father Eßer promises to be a great asset to the General Council. He will continue to serve as the liaison between the General Council and the members of the Swiss Oblate Community.
In honor of the 400th episcopal ordination of St. Francis de Sales (December 8, 1602) and the 125th anniversary of his being declared a doctor of the Church (July 19, 1877) and the Doctor of the Love of God (November 16, 1877), the International Committee on Salesian Studies is preparing a publication entitled, “Leadership in the Salesian Tradition.” Based on my 1997 work, “To Lead is to Serve: Oblate Leadership,” this brochure has been adapted for a wider audience, and will be sent to the bishops of dioceses where we serve, bishops who are Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, Salesian bishops, as well as Oblates sisters and monasteries of the Visitation. The brochure will include a translation from the Latin, by Father Daniel Gambet, OSFS, of the two papal decrees which declare our Patron doctor of the Church and Doctor of the Love of God. Its presentation will be enhanced by photos taken by Father Robert McGilvray, OSFS, depicting several artistic renderings of the episcopal ordination of St. Francis de Sales. The Chair of the ICSS, Father Alexander Pocetto, OSFS, has written a foreword to this work and the whole document is being translated into the various languages of the Congregation. It will be available in several weeks. In the name of the Congregation I take this opportunity to thank all those whose energy and talents have gone into preparing this brochure in honor of our Patron. May it foster his doctrine and spirit in the hearts and lives of all who read it!
Very intimately related to the spreading of our charism has been the American version of Father Henri L’Honoré’s Journées Salésiennes, known in the United States as the Salesian Conference. Its founder, Father Joseph F. Power, died on January 23, 2002, following a tragic car accident two weeks earlier. The Congregation remembers with gratitude both of these deceased confrères. Happily, the Journées Salésiennes continue in France under a new name and format, and plans are now underway for the continuation of the Salesian Conference as well. Both projects are a lasting legacy to the vision of their founders!
PERSONNEL DIRECTORY AND NECROLOGY
As I write this edition of General’s News, Mr. Robert Carlston is preparing to have the new personnel directory and necrology sent to all the major superiors of the Congregation for distribution to each of you. This new edition will be updated every month and is available through the world wide web (www.desalesoblates.org/osfs.htm). The cyber edition of the personnel directory and necrology is a joint project of Mr. Carlston and Johann Angleitner. Mr. Carlston oversees the accuracy and currency of the data. Therefore, any changes ought to sent to him at his e-mail address as they occur (firstname.lastname@example.org) or (email@example.com). Johann Angleitner maintains the web site which contains all the data in a variety of user-friendly formats. We owe these good men a debt of gratitude for sharing so generously their time, talents and expertise with the Congregation.
MONACO: AN UPDATE
In General’s News XVII, I wrote of some encouraging directions concerning Oblate personnel for St. Charles. Unfortunately, those directions did not materialize as hoped. As I write this letter, the General Council and I are in a process of discernment regarding the next steps. Your prayers will greatly assist us in this discernment.
DISCERNING THE DIVINE WILL
In General’s News XVI and XVII, I began a reflection on spiritual direction from a Salesian perspective. I would like to continue that reflection here, with particular focus on discernment.
For Francis de Sales, to heed God’s will as declared or permitted is essential to loving God. It is the fulfillment of the petition in the Lord’s prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven or as the Good Mother was fond of saying, “in the earth of my own daily life”
To heed God’s will we must first hear it. The Judeo-Christian faith teaches that God has revealed his will in Scripture and in Jesus. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church faithfully proclaims that will through commandments, counsels and precepts. Our Salesian tradition teaches us to also recognize and embrace God’s will in the duties and responsibilities of our vocational state in life. In all of these venues, God’s will is abundantly clear. All that is needed is for us to carry it out in “life and action.” (Treatise , Book 7, chapters 7 & 8).
But what about those things which are not explicitly expressed by commandments, counsels, precepts or duties of state? Francis himself lists some of these: “choice of vocation, plans for some affair of great importance, a work requiring a long time or some very great expenditure of money, change of residence, choice of associates” and so on (Treatise, Book 8, chapter 14). How are we to know what God is asking of us in these and countless similar matters? Enter discernment.
Francis speaks of the process of discernment in several places. He does so in a formal manner in the Treatise (Book 8, chapters 10-14), and more conversationally in his famous October 14, 1604 letter to St. Jane de Chantal on the topic. Less well known is his undated and, as we now have it, incomplete “Memo on Christian Perfection.” (Oeuvres, XXVI, 185-187) Finally, there is his 1604 treatment of discernment in Oeuvres, XXIII, 299-302, which is entitled, “How to discern the operations of the Spirit of God and those of the Evil Spirit.”
Francis begins his treatment of discernment with a caveat against scrupulosity and moves on to a discussion of the three marks of a good inspiration. It then concludes with a discussion of the several steps in the actual process of discernment.
SCRUPULOSITY, BE GONE!
Given the attention he pays to it here, Francis must have had to deal frequently with scrupulous people. Having a compassionate heart, the last thing he wanted to do was to add to their spiritual anguish. For that reason he begins he treatment of discernment with a strong warning against the “troublesome temptation” to want to know God’s will in every minor detail of daily life such as whether to dine with this friend or not, to wear gray or black, to fast on Friday or Saturday, to visit the sick or to attend vespers, and so forth. To want to know God’s will in these and like matters is “a great waste of time” which can easily unsettle us and lead to scrupulosity and superstition. For life’s countless choices and daily decisions, he advises us to “do freely what seems good to us” and to “proceed in good faith without making subtle distinctions in such affairs.” (Treatise, Book 8, chapter 14) After all, ours is a large-hearted God who wants and expects us to enjoy a spiritually healthy “liberty of spirit” in which good balance, proportion, and common sense are our guides, not an unfreeing and paralyzing scrupulosity.
That point made, Francis moves on to a consideration of the three marks of a good inspiration.
THREE MARKS OF INSPIRATION
Book Eight of the Treatise treats of our loving union with God’s will for us in our embrace of the commandments, counsels and inspirations. It is Scripture which makes known to us God’s commandments and counsels, while inspirations come to us in many ways but through two principal sources, the holy Spirit and the evil spirit. Obviously, knowing which spirit is behind our inspiration is critical. Hence the need for discernment. In chapter 10 of Book 8, Francis explains the various ways in which holy inspirations come to us, the principal of which is preaching. And if we do not resist his grace, God will give each of us “the inspirations we need to live, work, and preserve ourselves in the spiritual life.”
In chapters 11-13 of Book 8, Francis treats of the three marks of good inspirations which form the spiritual context for the concrete steps of discernment. We can express the first mark of a good inspiration by one of de Sales’s famous maxims: “Bloom where you are planted.” Unless there are persuasive indications to the contrary, our state of life, along with its duties and responsibilities, is where God has planted us and therefore where we are expected to remain and flourish. With that in mind, any “inspiration urging us to give up some true good [which] we already possess in order to pursue a future better good” is to be held suspect. (Treatise, Book 8, chapter 11)
This advice is very helpful. The mother of three young children who wants to create --impossibly--a contemplative atmosphere for her prayer life is not being realistic. Worse, she is not blooming where she is planted. Rather than help her to attempt the impossible, the Salesian spiritual guide will teach her the value of her duties and responsibilities as a mother and a spouse, assuring her that they are God’s principal will for her. Then the guide will teach her how to pray under these circumstances, teaching her, for instance, the direction of intention and ejaculatory prayers.
The second mark of inspiration (chapter 12) is this. Generally speaking, we are to do ordinary things extraordinarily well while testing any “inspiration” to undertake something extraordinary. The man of moderate means and many debts who feels that he is being called to undertake an expensive pilgrimage to a far off place at considerable expense in both time and money is probably not the recipient of a true inspiration. To do extraordinarily well the ordinary things associated with one’s state in life is a variant on the maxim to “bloom where you are planted.”
Yet, as the history of saints reminds us, some people are called by God to do something truly extraordinary. Among others Francis gives the example of St. Simeon Stylites who, by living for many years on the top of a pole, obviously “led a life that no one in this world would even have thought of or undertaken without heavenly prompting and assistance.”
How are we to recognize when such inspirations are actually from God? For Francis, one of the best signs of all true inspirations, especially of extraordinary ones, is the “peace and tranquility of heart in those who receive them.” Those of you familiar with the Ignatian method of discernment recognize that Francis is speaking here of the indicators of the presence of the good or evil spirit. Although Scripture describes the Holy Spirit as rushing in upon the disciples gathered in the upper room with the crashing sound of a violent wind (Acts 2:2), Francis assures us that it was a “violence which is gentle, mild and peaceful.” Similarly, every inspiration from the Holy Spirit will also come with a “gentle violence.” Those under the inspiration of the evil spirit, on the contrary, are easily recognizable. “They are unsettled, headstrong, haughty, and ready to undertake or meddle in affairs....They subvert everything, criticize everyone, rebuke everyone, and find fault with everything.” He goes on, but his point is clear: “By their fruits you will know them.” Indicators such as these will enable one to test which spirit is the source of any inspiration, especially the extraordinary.
It is important to note that in these marks of inspiration, Francis presumes and sometimes makes it explicit that the one inspired will consult with a spiritual guide and possibly others as well. Thus, for de Sales discernment is always undertaken within an ecclesial or communal context, never alone. The need for the communal dimension in discernment is underscored by this well-known maxim: “The one who has himself for a director has a fool for a guide!”
The third mark of inspiration (chapter 13) is obedience. If the one inspired is willing to submit to the wisdom and guidance of others, there is a strong indication that the Holy Spirit is the source of that inspiration. Such docility indicates the presence humility which is “inseparably joined to peace and joy of heart.” Take the example of St. Simeon Stylites. When he was told by his superiors to come down from his perch, he immediately began to comply. Seeing his willingness to obey, he was told to remain where he was. His extraordinary inspiration, tested by obedience, was found to be true.
If you have ever practiced the ministry of spiritual guidance, you know the kinds of people Francis has in mind here. They genuinely want to do only what God wants. Aware that we are all blind in our own concerns, they express simply and clearly to others what they feel they are being inspired to do and wait in patience and peace for the outcome of discernment. They are not tied to this or that response, but only to what God desires for them as manifested by the response they receive. Once the divine will is known to them, they embrace it with joy, enthusiasm and perseverance.
In Chapter 11 Francis sums up the three marks of inspiration. The best and surest indicators of a “lawful inspiration are perseverence in contrast to inconstancy and levity, peace and gentleness of heart in contrast to disquiet and solicitude, and humble obedience in contrast to obstinacy and extravagance.”
A SHORT METHOD FOR KNOWING THE WILL OF GOD
Francis now turns his attention to the concrete steps of discernment. (Treatise, Book 8, chapter 14) He begins with the need for humility, by which he means that God’s will lies beyond “the force of scrutiny and subtle discussion.” No amount of inquiry, however sophisticated, will ever be able plummet it unless God freely discloses it. Humility recognizes that truth and prays for the light of the Holy Spirit. Within the context of prayer and humility we apply our best efforts to ascertain the divine will, consulting with our director “and perhaps with two or three other spiritual persons.” At some point, after having measured “our attention according to the importance of what we undertake,” we reach a decision. That is, after a reasonable period of discernment which is proportionate to the importance of the matter under discernment, we opt for this particular course of action or that one, depending on where our discernment has led us. And once the decision is taken, we are to carry it out faithfully, never doubting it.
What is significant is this: we who discern decide. There will be no flash of lightning, no voice from on high. Our hand will not be forced nor our will compelled. We will simply reach a decision “in the name of God” and follow through on it. Further, once our decision is made or our resolution taken, we embrace it and act on it as it truly is, as God’s will for us. Nor ought we to “call our choice in doubt, but devoutly, peacefully and firmly keep and sustain it.” We may very well encounter all sorts of difficulties and challenges in carrying out our decision. This might tempt us to conclude that we have incorrectly discerned what was God’s will for us in this matter. Such thinking is to be regarded as a temptation. In the words of the Good Mother on another matter, we are to couper court the temptation: “Cut it short!” “We must remain firm...Once our resolution has been holily made, we must never doubt the holiness of its execution.” To wobble and weaken in our resolve because of difficulties and challenging encountered in its execution is the “mark of a great self-love, or of childishness, weakness, and folly of mind.”
What Francis writes here about embracing God’s will is consistent with what he has written throughout the Treatise. Once God’s will is known to us either directly through commandments, counsels or inspirations or indirectly through the events which befall us or the circumstances which surround us; or once it has been disclosed to us by discernment, we are to carry it out “in action and life,” doing so with confidence, enthusiasm and perseverance.
DISCERNMENT AND ST. JANE DE CHANTAL
Twelve years before publishing his formal treatment of discernment in the Treatise, St. Francis and St. Jane had jointly undertaken a discernment process. The goal of their discernment was the answer to this question: Could Jane leave her current spiritual director, to whom she had promised obedience, in order to place herself under the spiritual guidance of Francis? In a letter written to her shortly after the conclusion of their discernment, Francis reassures that the conclusion they had reached at the end of their discernment was indeed God’s will for them. Fortunately for us he lists the actual steps that they took in the process. It is interesting to compare those steps to what he describes twelve years later in the Treatise. (Oeuvres, XII, 352-370: Letter CCXXXIV, Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction, 130-131)
Jane felt strongly inclined, even impelled, to leave the one director for the other. Yet, she also felt an abiding joy and contentment. They did not rush their decision but took the time proportionate to the importance of the matter. Aware that they could be blind in their own concerns, they consulted others, including Jane’s confessor, a “good, learned and prudent man.” They took more time, several months in fact, to let Jane’s first enthusiasm run its course. During that time, they prayed continually for divine guidance. In the end, neither Francis nor Jane made the final decision. Rather, they consulted a third person whose objectivity was certain, someone “who had no reason to consider anything but God’s will.” Francis admits that before beginning the discernment process he had been hesitant to accept Jane for spiritual guidance because “in a decision of such moment I didn’t want to follow either your desire or my inclination, but only God and His providence.” But at the conclusion of their discernment process, he was convinced of the rightness of their decision. Francis concludes that “all these are infallible signs that we acted according to God’s will.” For that reason, he advises her, “stop right there and don’t go on arguing with the enemy about it; tell him boldly that it was God who wanted it and who has done it.”
The steps of Salesian discernment can be summed up as these. Discern in prayerful humility. Test spirits. Consult with others. Take time proportionate to the importance of the decision. Decide, and then confidently carry out the implications of your decision in action and life.
From June 20-27, I will participate in the Assembly of the Second Federation of the Visitation Sisters in the United States. In October I will participate in the Assembly of the First Federation of the Visitation Sisters in the United States. A joint meeting of the Congregation’s major superiors and mission procurators will take place from July 28 through August 2, 2002 in Fockenfeld, with the General Council meeting immediately afterwards. I will take part in the blessing of the chapel at Salespuram in Kerala on Founders’ Day and will go from India to the Netherlands for the celebration of that Province’s 75th anniversary, October 15-17. Arrangements have yet to be been made, but sometimes during the months of September-December, I will make a visitation of the French Province.
Even though it may very well be long after Easter before you read this letter in translation, as I write it Lent has just begun. Another liturgical season is upon us in which we recall and re-live the paschal mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus. When I was a child I couldn’t imagine why all the fuss was made of Lent and Easter. After all, Christmas held all the magic and wonder one could possibly want! Surely that must be the central feast of our faith. I admit that even now, as a adult beginning his sixth decade, something of that child still remains very much a part of me. Yet, I now know and firmly believe that the paschal mystery is the key which unlocks the true meaning of every Christian feast, of every Christian mystery. St. Paul is absolutely correct when he asserts that our faith would be in vain if Jesus had not risen from the dead (1 Cor 15: 14). Without the divine confirmation of his person and message which is disclosed through the Resurrection, the cross and death of Jesus, however powerful on so many others levels, would fail to rise to the level of the Saving Event. It is for this reason that our Patron understands Calvary as the true school of love. (Treatise, Book 12, chapter 13) Prompted by love alone, Jesus died for us. And through our baptism into his paschal mystery, we learn to live for him alone and for his people, prompted solely by a similar love.
With these sentiments in mind our Patron pens a verse with which to conclude his masterpiece on the love of God: “Live, Jesus, live! Your death upon the tree shows all your boundless love for me!”
Yours very fraternally in our saintly Patron and holy Founders,
Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS