GENERAL’S NEWS XIX
As I sit down to begin this 19th edition of the General’s News, it is almost the first anniversary of the Day of Terror, September 11, 2001. Memories of that horrible day keep flooding back. As for so many others, the shock of the events at Ground Zero and elsewhere that September morning did not at first fully register with me. I remember thinking, as I sat riveted before the TV screen, that this was some digitally-enhanced computer game which was in very bad taste. Twelve months later, it has become all too real. Thousands of innocent lives were lost that day and countless futures forever altered, including our own. We are reminded, almost daily, that the war on terrorism, so illusive and so totally different from past wars, has only just begun. The troubled Middle East remains mired in centuries-old hatreds; peace seems truly unattainable there. Rumors of possible --likely?--new wars compete with daily threats of biological or chemical or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The world’s economies reel and wobble like so many drunken men in the face of scandal, fraud and gross mismanagement at the top echelons of many businesses. The lack of political and economic stability throughout much of the world is twined with a wistful longing for a lost normalcy to daily life. Even the earth’s weather patterns seem to have gone madly awry this year, with droughts in many places and deadly floods in others.
As if all of this were not enough, the Church has been shaken to its very foundations by the scandal of pedophilia and its initial and very public failure to deal with it in a transparent, balanced and compassionate manner. This scandal paints, in an often grossly distorted manner, a Church in which many of its priests and leaders seem to have lost their moral compass. During these months of shock and scandal, a policy of “zero tolerance” has yet to be balanced with the gospel’s call to repentance and metanoia and the fundamental human right to due process.
In all of this, one thing has become abundantly clear: the Church, like all of its members, is a wounded healer. As such, it stands very much in need of God’s forgiving and reconciling love, even as it tries to be the bearer of that same forgiveness and reconciliation to others, abused and abuser alike. The depth of this scandal has reawakened in many of us a keen sense of sin which, as the Holy Father once lamented, seemed to have been lost for much of the past several decades. All of us are now very acutely aware that every person lives --at least before God’s holy eyes-- in glass houses and ought therefore to follow Jesus’s advice not to cast “the first stone.” For if we were we to cast that stone, it would very likely have to be directed at ourselves. In the Salesian tradition, humility is the truth which invites us to bow our heads before the only true Source of holiness, God himself. Only God will never fail us, all of whom are his unworthy servants. Grace can build wonders on such a humility which has been so costly won!
“THE ONE I FEED”
How do we in the Salesian tradition react to life today which runs the gamut from “ground zero” to “zero tolerance”? How do we live this present moment? A story from the American Indian tradition may be a helpful guide for us here.
An Indian chief, a grandfather, wanted to teach his young grandson a very important lesson about choices in life. “I have inside me,” he told him, “two spirits. One spirit is kind and loving, filled with peace and compassion towards others. The other spirit is just the opposite, mean and selfish. It uses others for its own benefit. Intolerant, it is a spirit of war and hate. These two spirits continually struggle within me, each hoping to gain mastery over the other and, thus, over me.” The young boy asked in wonder, “Grandfather, which spirit will win the struggle in the end?” “The one,” the grandfather replied, “which I feed.”
The “spirits” struggling for mastery in us today may not be those that warred within the grandfather of our story. Given our climate of terror and scandal, our spirits are more likely to be “the spirit of dread and despair” which struggles for mastery over “the spirit of joyful optimism.” One spirit prompts us to wonder whether, in the long haul, the human family is really capable of doing what is good and noble. The other spirit, in contrast, urges us --despite human frailty and the horrible consequences of sin, both individual and social-- to trust in a provident and caring God, and to cling tightly --in our tradition of “tenui”-- to our Patron’s assurances that love is a stronger force than even death itself; it is stronger than even hardened human hearts and any sin or evil imaginable, however massive. Salesian optimism knows that the Cross, whatever shape it may take over the course of human history, will never be the final word for those who believe in the resurrection of the Crucified. No, for believers the final word will always be one of confident and joyful optimism that life and love will ultimately --and decisively!-- triumph because they have already done so in the resurrection of Jesus.
Terrorism and scandal do indeed constitute much of today’s “present moment.” But we in the Salesian tradition choose to place our trust neither in ourselves nor in any of the world’s “powers and principalities” but in God alone. We choose to trust in the gentle and loving Father who cradled his dying Son in caring hands and who raised him up from death to glory. We believe that the same Abba-Father holds each of us in his caring hands. That is the spirit of confident hope that we choose to feed. And that is the spirit which we bring as gift to the world we serve.
OBLATE MISSIONS AND THE MEETING OF MAJOR SUPERIORS
The General Chapter of 2000 mandated that a future meeting of major superiors include a discussion of the nature and objectives of the Chablais Fund as well as future directions of Oblate missions. It also recommended that all of the Congregation’s mission procurators be invited to participate in that meeting. That mandate was implemented at the July 2002 meeting of major superiors.
In what proved to be a very productive and inter-active meeting, Fathers Josef Költringer and Joseph Morrissey led the assembly through a two and a half day process which dealt thoroughly with the following areas: our identity as a missionary congregation and the Chablais Spirit which characterizes an Oblate approach to the missionary efforts of the Church; the nature and scope of Oblate missionary work today; vocational motivation for Oblate missions; the next generation of Oblate missionaries; information on “new foundations;” financing and managing the Chablais Fund; the work of the General Mission Coordinator; and an on-going action plan. The input and discussions of this part of the meeting were tape recorded. Written minutes will therefore be available in the coming months.
In preparation for this meeting, I wrote a background paper entitled, “Oblate Missions: Past, Present, Future.” In this paper I express my understanding of the origins of, and the Congregation’s continuing responsibility for, our traditional missions in Africa and Brazil. I also give my understanding of how our newer missionary fields emerged in recent years and the likely import of the 17th General Chapter’s call for an openness to additional missionary fields, particularly in the developing world. I will be happy to share this document with anyone who requests it. Each Provincial and Regional Superior already has a copy in his own language and will also provide a copy to any interested Oblate. In fact, I would very much like it to be more widely read and studied by Oblates throughout the Congregation.
As a way of continuing the work which was so well begun at this meeting, two new ad hoc committees were approved by the General Council. One committee, “The Committee on Oblate Missions in the 21st Century,” has as its principal task the formulation of a comprehensive plan for the Congregation’s missionary spirit (“the Chablais Spirit”) and its missionary activities in the new century. It will present this plan, possibly accompanied by several concrete proposals, to the General Chapter of 2006 for action and implementation in the six years that follow that Chapter. Although the General Council has yet to determine the full membership of this committee, it has appointed as its Chair the General Mission Coordinator, Father Josef Költringer.
The second committee, “The Committee on the Chablais Fund,” has as its principal task the development of a framework for building up managing the Chablais Endowment Fund for Oblate Missions. Although the General Council has yet to determine the full membership of this committee, it has appointed Father Joseph Morrissey as its Chair and the General Mission Coordinator, Father Josef Költringer, as ex officio member. The General Treasurer will serve as an advisor to this Committee and outside professional financial experts will be utilized as deemed appropriate.
The Superior General and the General Council will work closely with these committees in the formulation of both short-term and long-term goals. The Chair of each committee will make a presentation on the work of his committee at all future meetings of major superiors. The General Mission coordinator will do the same regarding the further articulation and implementation of his mandate as “liaison between the Provinces and the Mission territories.”
There are many reasons that one might give for the Congregation’s increasing missionary consciousness, but I believe that, in the end, it is in response to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us and to the example of both our Patron and our Founder: “The Oblate missionaries continue the work of St. Francis de Sales who began his priestly life in this role. Missionary activity was also one of the first activities of our Founder, who never ceased to show an active interest in this apostolate and to send religious to continue it.” (Constitution 199)
MOTHER GENERAL REWARDED THE LEGION OF HONOR
Every country rewards its citizens for extraordinary achievement in various fields of religion, the arts and human endeavor. Recently, France honored Mother Françoise-Isabelle Stiegler, OSFS, for the esteem and honor which has come to the country with the recent canonization of one of its citizens, Léonie Aviat. In bestowing this honor on Mother General, the country of France has recognized her tireless efforts--and those of the members of her Congregation--over the course of many years in bringing about this happy event. On behalf of each of you, I extend very sincere congratulations to Mother Françoise-Isabelle. Her honor, so very richly deserved, is ours as well! Perhaps the best way to translate our congratulations is to follow up, in the years ahead, on the commitment which the 17th General Chapter made to the cause of our common Founder, Father Brisson: “The Congregation of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales pledge[s] itself to support the efforts of the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales to promote the cause of our common Founder, Father Louis Brisson. The Superior General and his Council [will] decide, in terms of personnel and finances, the reasonable and suitable means to support these efforts.” Accompanied by two members of the General Council, I will meet with Mother General in Troyes in October to discuss the implementation of this conciliar directive.
THE PROVINCE OF THE NETHERLANDS CELEBRATES 75 YEARS
In mid-October the Oblates of the Netherlands Province will gather for two days to celebrate their 75 years as a Province. They will be joined by members of the General Council, Oblates from other Provinces, former Oblates and their spouses, members of other Salesian groups, and many lay people, including members of the “Salesian Circles.” With expert help on site in Europe and in the missions, professional video tape recordings have been prepared for this occasion. The themes of these video presentations include the life and work of St. Francis de Sales and Father Brisson, the life and ministries of the Oblates in the Netherlands, and the missionary efforts of Dutch Oblates from the beginning to the present. Through these videos, Oblates who are not able to be present for the celebrations will be able to participate nonetheless.
A book on these and other themes has been prepared, for which I was invited to write a forward which I present here:
“Recently I had the opportunity to read a brief life of Father Matthias Spiessl, OSFS. In 1927, his superiors asked him to found a Missions House for the Oblate Congregation in Tilburg. His immediate response was, “I am coming!” The same spirit of generosity which prompted their Founder to leave hearth and home in order to bring the charism of the Congregation to the Netherlands has characterized all the members of the Netherlands Province for these past 75 years. As teachers, pastors and missionaries, they have spread far and wide the gentle spirit and warm spirituality of St. Francis de Sales.
“From the very beginning, the members of the Netherlands Province embraced with zeal and generosity the Congregation’s missionary character. They did this by sending many fine men to Oblate mission fields where they have served--and continue to serve-- with great distinction. To this day they continue to extend with open arms and smiling eyes fraternal, financial, and material support to all of our missions, old and new. Following the fine example of their Provincial and Council, Oblates of this Province have been in the forefront of those ready to assist in building up the Chablais Endowment Fund which was recently established to meet the long-term needs of Oblate missions throughout the world.
“Following the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Oblate Congregation has rededicated itself to its special charism of living and spreading the spirit and doctrine of St. Francis de Sales. The Oblates of the Netherlands Province have been in the forefront of those efforts as well. They have established “Salesian Circles” in which both Oblates and members of the laity are nourished on “Salesian Bread.” They have continued to publish the excellent periodical “Salesian Contact.” True to its title, this fine work keeps Oblates and their extended Salesian family in frequent contact with one another and with developments in the larger Oblate world as well as in Salesian spirituality. With the full and enthusiastic support of the entire Province, Father Dirk Koster recently published a new biography of St. Francis de Sales, one which speaks readily to the contemporary reader by presenting his life, teaching and spirituality in a refreshing and attractive manner.
“My dear Oblate brothers, on behalf of the entire Congregation I thank you for your wonderful and generous spirit. By living well our special treasure, the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, you have successfully extended it throughout this lovely land and far beyond its borders, touching the lives of all those you have served and continue to serve, at home and in our missions. All those whom you have served so well for these past 75 years join me and the whole Congregation in thanking each of you, and in thanking God for all of you.
“Congratulations on being who you are as Oblates and being that well! In doing so, you are a blessing to Church, Congregation and the People of God!”
“DETACHMENT” AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTION
I would like to continue my on-going reflections on Salesian spiritual direction with the theme of “spiritual detachment.” St. Francis de Sales does not treat of “detachment” in an extensive or systematic manner beyond his insistence in the Introduction to the Devout Life (Part I) that anybody who is really serious about becoming devout (holy) must not only renounce all sin, large and small, but must also reject any lingering longing for the supposed pleasures and allurements of sin. In short, Philothea must be freed from both sin and from “affection for sin.” Detachment has a spiritual counterpoint which is our loving attachment to the person and will of God. Such an attachment is attained largely through an affective or loving union with God which is mediated through prayer, especially mental prayer, and the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist (Part II of the Introduction). In practice, attachment often precedes and makes possible detachment from sin, but not only from sin. For it makes it possible for us to reject even good things if our pursuit of them distracts us from “the one thing necessary.” The successful and dynamic interplay between attachment and detachment, experienced daily from one moment to the next, leads to a solid and sustained practice of virtue, especially the relational virtues of love of God and love of neighbor. Each of these elements --attachment, detachment and the robust practice of virtue--forms an important part of a complete understanding of spiritual detachment from a Salesian perspective. The interplay among these elements is recoverable from a familiarity with both the writings of the saint as well as his approach to spiritual direction, especially his guidance of St. Jane de Chantal during her famous retreat of 1616.
Following these introductory remarks, we are ready to look at the theme of detachment and its importance in the life of anybody who wishes to love God above all things and to fulfill his will as perfectly as Jesus did.
When St. Francis de Sales urges Philothea to reject both sin and affection for sin, he argues that if one were to leave sin in fact but not in affection one would be imitating the example of the Israelites of the Exodus. Although they had left Egypt in fact, they still longed for its “onions and fleshpots.” Only their feet had followed Moses into the desert, not their hearts. But to leave the Egypt of sin in this manner amounts to carrying a heavy spiritual weight upon our shoulders, a weight that prevents us from practicing virtue and doing good “promptly, diligently, and frequently” which is “the very essence of devotion.” To distance ourselves from sin with our feet but not with our heart is to leave ourselves in a state of “a spiritual weariness.” In that state, we practice virtue and do good deeds but only sporadically and usually in a lackadaisical, spiritually anemic manner, not with the passion and spiritual gusto worthy of Jesus whose example we are to imitate. In the words of our Oblate tradition, they are not done “passionately well.” To pursue the devout life in earnest, then, Philothea must not only renounce sin but she must also cut off any lingering longing that she may still have for its false allurements and fleeting pleasures. Thus, in the Salesian tradition, the first step to spiritual perfection is a true and firm detachment from all sin, large and small.
But to renounce sin and to detach ourselves from any lingering affections for sin is just the first step of our spiritual journey into God. That first step must be followed by a long purifying trek through the desert and a slow, often painful, ascent to the heights of the holy mountain where the living God is encountered. For it is only in and through that encounter with the Holy One that we are gradually transformed and purified. Transformed in that manner, we become ever more completely one with God in heart, will and life. In that union which, in time, becomes of unity of hearts and wills, we become increasingly detached from anything, even good things, which might separate us from either the person of the Beloved or from his will for us. Eventually this state of union permits us to experience what St. Paul experienced when he wrote in the letter to the Galatians, “I live now, not I. Christ lives in me.” (2:20)
In the Salesian tradition, we do not remain alone with God on the holy mountain for long. Daily we descend that mountain of prayer and sacrament, that experience of loving union with God, so as to be with others. But we are completely transformed now into another Christ. Jesus lives in us and we live Jesus. In us, he is seen once again walking upon this earth, fully present to others as one who serves them.
This is a general description of the dynamics of attachment, detachment and the practice of virtue. Let us now see how they played themselves out in the spiritual journey of St. Jane de Chantal, especially at the critical moment of her 1616 retreat. We begin where St. Francis de Sales does, with the centrality of the person and mission of Jesus. Like St. John the Baptist, Francis was convinced that Jesus must increase and we must decrease. After all, only Jesus saves. Therefore, Christians must learn how to get out of the way or, --in the expression of the Good Mother-- to “make room” for Jesus. He must take over the driver’s seat, as it were, so as to work through us for the world’s betterment.
But experience makes it very clear that it is never easy for us to make room for Jesus. In fact, there is a stubborn tendency in all of us to want to hold onto center stage in both will and life. We want to measure everything through the lens of our own will which is frequently selfish and often distorted. The result? Jesus cannot fully live in us, nor can he completely act through us, at least not to the extent envisioned by Galatians 2:20.
It was not easy even for St. Jane de Chantal, great-hearted woman that she was, to completely get out of the way so as to make room for Jesus to live within her and to act through her. Over the course of her life, however, and especially during her 1616 retreat, she did ever more fully make room for Jesus within. “Detachment” was the theme she had chosen for her retreat that year. St. Francis de Sales was gravely ill at the time and could therefore only direct her by letter. At the end of her retreat she asked for an extension because her anxious concern for his health had kept her from the theme of her retreat. In asking for the extension, however, she suddenly realized that her concern for Francis had been something of an attachment that was, in practice at least, a threat to the place and primacy of Jesus and to the divine will in her life.
This realization was a graced moment for St. Jane. From that moment on, she was determined to become truly detached, not only from sin but even from every good, including her friendship with Francis and family and friends, in order to become more completely God’s and, thus, to become more fully his instrument for good in the lives of others. Francis applauded her inspiration and during the retreat’s extension guided her in this resolve. He did this by leading her through a spiritual process which he would later describe in the Treatise as stripping and denudation. By the end of the extended retreat Jane was totally stripped of all inordinate or disproportionate attachments and was now clothed with Christ alone. Jesus now lived in her and was able to act in an unimpeded manner through her. She had become a pure capacity for God!
Clothed now with Christ alone, she could take up once again her friendship with Francis and all other relationships. But these were now taken up in Christ and solely according to God’s will for her. From that moment on, Jesus was seen once again walking among his people in that special woman!
What St. Francis de Sales writes in Chapter 16 of Book 9 of his Treatise on the Love of God helps to clarify the kind of spiritual stripping or spiritual detachment which took place in St. Jane during that retreat. He speaks there of holy indifference in terms of the despoliation of the soul united with God's will. This despoliation imitates Jesus in his Passion as he was completely stripped of everything: clothing, skin and life itself. But in his resurrection a new and glorified body is taken up. In the spiritual life, holy indifference amounts to a similar stripping, a like detachment, only to be followed by a re-clothing with the risen life of Christ, taking up, along with him, all that we had stripped off before. Now, however, they are taken up "only because they are agreeable to God, profitable to his honor, and destined for his glory." 
Let us pause at the example of this remarkable woman. An inspiration made St. Jane aware of a defect that was preventing Jesus from becoming her true center. She had the courage not only to acknowledge that defect and to confront it, but also to take all the means necessary --however painful to her-- to remedy it. She instinctively knew that in making room for Jesus, she would provide a deeper capacity for his actions in her and would thus become a more efficacious channel for his saving and sanctifying graces to other in her life and actions on their behalf.
She remains a powerful example for us who follow the Salesian spirit. If we look honestly within ourselves, we will no doubt discover things which are hindering the complete entrance of Jesus there. Perhaps, like her, we too are overly attached to some person or thing; perhaps there is some sin, some imperfection or some character defect to which we still cling tenaciously; maybe there is an unresolved relational difficulty that we have never had the courage to address. A large part of our asceticism as members of the Salesian family will consist in the self-discipline by which we progressively, one moment at a time --always in generous response to the grace of the present moment-- uproot whatever impedes us from making room for Jesus within. The result, as with St. Jane, will be that we will become more and more a pure capacity for Jesus’s life and action in and through us for the world's betterment and our own sanctification.
Detachment is an important theme in Salesian spiritual direction, along with its spiritual counterpoint, attachment to God, and the robust practice of virtue. Once fully detached in this manner, the principal goal of Oblate spirituality will have been attained. We will have learned how to live the way Jesus lived, that is, as one with God in love, will and life, and in selfless, loving service of the neighbor.
ANNOUNCEMENTS, UP-COMING EVENTS AND CALENDAR
Following archdiocesan policy, Father Cesare Penzo steps down as Pastor of St. Charles this September. But he has generously agreed to continue as Administrator until the new Oblate pastor-designate is able to assume his duties around the beginning of July, 2004. We congratulate Father Penzo on a job well done over the course of many years and are grateful that he has agreed to remain as Administrator.
In early October, I will participate in the Assembly of the First Federation of the Visitation in Rockville, Virginia. Immediately following that Assembly, I will depart for India to participate in the dedication of the new complex of buildings at Salespuram in Kerela on Founders’ Day, October 12, 2002. There are now ninety young men associated with the India Mission. With each new vocation, the hope of bringing the Congregation’s charism to India and to other parts of Asia is more fully actualized and the challenge --the prophecy?--of Pope Leo XIII to our Founder to spread the Congregation throughout the world is more completely realized.
Shortly following the dedication in Kerela, I will fly to the Netherlands to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Province. Most of the General Council will be present for this happy occasion, as well as a number of provincials and other Oblates.
The visitation of the French Province will follow the celebration in the Netherlands. Two members of the General Council will accompany me, Fathers Leitner and Mealey. We look forward to visiting our French confrères.
The General Council will meet in Monaco, January 3-7, 2003.
The Salesianum High School in Wilmington, Delaware, USA, will celebrate its 100th anniversary with many events throughout this academic year. A high point of its special anniversary will take place on January 19, 2003. On that day many American Oblates will be joined by civil and religious leaders to celebrate a 100 years of excellence in education and the formation of Christian gentlemen in the Salesian tradition. Congratulations, Salesianum!
During the spring of 2003, I will make a visitation of the Toledo-Detroit Province and will participate in its June convocation, as well as in the convocation of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province that same month.
I know that all of you join me in congratulating our confrères in India, the Netherlands and the United States on these up-coming celebrations. Please join me as well in praying for the success of the forthcoming visitations of the French and Toledo-Detroit Provinces.
Your very fraternally in our saintly Patron and holy Founders,
Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS
 This famous retreat, whose spiritual progress is preserved in letters from both saints, is treated with perception and sensitivity by Wendy M. Wright in her Bond of Perfection: Jeanne de Chantal & François de Sales (NY: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 163-173.
 Treatise on the Love of God, Book 9, Chapter 16.