GENERAL’S NEWS XX
OPTIMISM TODAY: NAÏVE?
As I sit down to begin this latest edition of the General’s News, it is a snowy and gray February day here in Washington, DC. The terror alert threat level in the United States is at “orange,” its second highest level. This naturally has many people on edge for possible biological, chemical, or radiological terrorist attacks. With each passing day, war with Iraq seems more and more likely, despite the peaceful desires of many and the efforts on the part of individuals and nations to stave off that possibility. Tragically, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated just minutes short of landing in Florida. The world’s economy is sluggish, with little sign of a brighter future any time soon. As one article in today’s paper summed up this period, it is “a time of terrorist attacks, looming war, starving masses, sudden tragedy and other pressing concerns.” Today’s global situation seems a perfect parallel to the personal, financial and relational disasters that befell hapless Job.
If there were ever a time for Salesian optimism, for us and for our world, now is that time! Salesian optimism is not to be confused with naiveté. We are very much aware of the sad consequences of individual and social sin, as well as the very harmful effects in many societies of unjust political and economic structures. Nor do we bury our heads in the sand, wishing away war and terror. Still, because we share our Patron’s celebrated optimism, we refuse to let failure or sin, war, terror or tragedy, be the tune to which we dance. We believe, rather, that on the cross of Christ God’s grace has vanquished sin and death of every kind. Even in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary, our confidence in God remains unshaken: ultimately God’s love and goodness will triumph in human affairs. Our joyful confidence and stubborn optimism are not rooted in ourselves but in our good and provident God who knows each one of us by first and last name and treasures each of us as his very own (Treatise, Bk. 12, chap. 12). We are a part of God’s creation, a creation that he shepherds and sustains with caring, tender love. The comforting knowledge of being intimately related to such a God as both our origin and our destiny lies at the root of Salesian optimism.
Every six months, the members of the General Council meet. One important agenda item at all those meetings is an assessment of the “State of the Congregation.” That assessment is arrived at after looking at the major directions that are occurring in every province and region. We made such an assessment at our January 2003 meeting in Monaco. In the course of doing so, we came to the conclusion that a major focus for the General Chapter of 2006 ought to be a serious consideration of the question of a possible restructuring of the Congregation.
As far back as General’s News III (1995), I urged us to begin to look into the possibility of restructuring the Congregation “so as to better address the challenges confronting many of us today due to decreasing numbers, an aging membership, and increased apostolic demands.” At the time of that letter, I suggested informal discussions and joint ventures among “Oblates who share a common language, culture, or history, or who share common borders.” The 2000 General Chapter invited 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.” Happily, many such cooperative efforts have taken place over the past eight years and many continue to this day with largely satisfying results. It might be helpful to share with you some examples of these cooperative efforts: a common novitiate between the two American Provinces as well as between the Austria-South German and German Provinces; the presence of two Italian novices in the novitiate of the South American Region; an international scholasticate in Pretoria, with scholastics from South Africa, Namibia and Bénin; a discussion of a joint novitiate between the Keimoes-Upington and Keetmanshoop Regions; periodic exchanges of provincial councils and joint retreat experiences between a number of provinces; and two gatherings of European Oblates.
Still, if anything, the reasons that were given for urging informal efforts at restructuring in 1995 have even greater urgency today. It is therefore the unanimous opinion of the members of the General Council that now is the time to deal with restructuring in a more formal manner and on a Congregation-wide basis. The members of the General Council will work on this important matter over the course of the next three and a half years that lead up to the 18th General Chapter in 2006 in order to prepare for a fruitful discussion and possible action on this issue by the members of that Chapter.
In July 2003, for instance, we in the General Administration will continue our own reflections on this matter while exploring the possibility of inviting someone who is familiar with restructuring in other Congregations to meet with us in January 2004 and with the Major Superiors in July 2004. If in light of those meetings it seems appropriate, we will invite that expert (or another) to meet with the members of the Preparatory Commission in July 2005 and with the members of the General Chapter in 2006. In the course of those meetings, it is possible that we may develop concrete proposals regarding restructuring for consideration and possible action by the General Chapter. Proposals on this matter may, of course, also come from individual Oblates and groups of Oblates. Among the concrete action proposals envisioned for the 18th General Chapter are the following: the capitulants will decide, first of all, (1) whether they agree that restructuring is necessary and, if so, (2) they will determine which particular paradigm for restructuring is best suitable for our Congregation. Finally, (3) they will decide how that paradigm is to be implemented in the years that follow the General Chapter.
If any of you who are reading this letter have any suggestions or insights on this matter that you would like to share with the members of the General Council for their consideration, please do not hesitate to contact any of us. If any of you know of someone who is familiar with restructuring and who might be available to work with us, I would appreciate that information. Since restructuring will impact on all of us, the greater the input over the course of the next several years the better. In this case, as with most others, many heads are better than one!
NEW CHAIR FOR THE ICSS
Father Alexander Pocetto has indicated that he wishes to step down as member and Chair of the International Commission on Salesian Spirituality when his current term ends on August 1, 2003. The Congregation owes Father Pocetto a great debt of gratitude. With unflappable charm and contagious joy, he has guided the work of the Commission over many years. Competence and care have characterized his stewardship. In his enthusiasm for the blessings of the cyber age, he has done much to bring the work of the ICSS online. Thank you, Father Pocetto, for a job well done!
I am happy to announce that Father Joseph F. Chorpenning of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province has accepted the nomination of the General Council as member and Chair of the Commission. Father Chorpenning, a noted Salesian and Teresian scholar, has worked on many projects that bring together Christian art and spirituality. In recent years his scholarly interests have included research and writings on the spirituality of the Holy Family in the writings of Pope John Paul II, and the vocation and mission of Saint Joseph. Most recently, he has edited a work which studies the various spiritualities that are depicted in the stained glass windows of all the churches, chapels and oratories of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, USA. This fine work is rightly considered a major contribution to the spiritual patrimony of the Archdiocese. In Father Chorpenning, the Congregation’s goal of promoting Salesian doctrine and spirituality in today’s world has found an accomplished and competent guide. In your name I thank him for accepting this position and wish him every success in it.
OBLATE MISSION COMMITTEES
In General’s News XIX, I spoke of the creation of two ad hoc Oblate mission committees. “The Committee on Oblate Missions in the 21st Century” will formulate a comprehensive Plan for the Congregation’s missionary spirit (its Chablais Spirit) and its missionary activities in the new century. That Plan, possibly accompanied by concrete action proposals, will be submitted to the General Chapter of 2006. In this letter, I wish to announce the membership of this committee: Fathers Josef Költringer (Chair), James Cryan, Aldino Kiesel and Jan Mostert.
The second committee, “The Committee on the Chablais Fund,” has for its principal tasks the building up and management of the Chablais Endowment Fund for Oblate Missions. I wish to announce the membership of this committee as well: Fathers Joseph Morrissey (Chair), Franz Aregger, Konrad Eßer, Josef Költringer and, as advisor, the General Treasurer, Father Rainer Vorsmann.
Both committees were established following the July 2002 meeting of the General Mission Coordinator and the Congregation’s mission procurators with the major superiors. The Congregation’s missionary activity is a vital participation in the Church’s fundamental mission of evangelization. In keeping with our Oblate charism, it is also an integral part of our ongoing efforts to bring Salesian spirituality to those who already believe in Jesus. Formed in the spirituality of our Patron, they will be better able to deepen their loving union with God and, by living Jesus, to align their hearts, their wills and their lives more fully with God’s holy will for them in each succeeding present moment of life. Seen in this light, the work of these committees is a vital and important one, one that is central to the mission of the Congregation. Please join me, then, in praying for the success of their efforts.
PREPARING FOR THE 18TH GENERAL CHAPTER IN 2006
Even though it is three years off, it is not too early to begin planning for the next General Chapter. For that reason, I wish to announce that, following my consultation with the members of the General Council and with the consent of their Provincial, I have appointed Father Sebastian Leitner as Chair of the Preparatory Commission for the 18th General Chapter of 2006 and Deacon Thomas Mühlberger as his Assistant. In these two confrères, the many tasks that lead up to the Chapter as well as the day to day running of its business will be in very capable hands. In your name, I thank them both for accepting this challenging and very important service to the Congregation.
THE DEATH OF BISHOP ANTONIO CHIMINELLO
The death of any confrère is a sad event. When that death is untimely, the loss is even more poignant. And when the one who is lost to us is the young Bishop of one of our oldest missionary Regions, esteemed and loved by Oblates of both Congregations as well as by the people he served so long and so well, the loss is particularly bitter. Such was the case with the death of Bishop Antonio Chiminello on November 23, 2002. Father Mark Mealey and I were able to attend his funeral Mass and burial in Keetmanshoop. In your name, we extended the sympathy and prayers of the Congregation to the Bishop’s family, to the confrères of the Region of Keetmanshoop, and to the people of the diocese at the sudden loss of their beloved Pastor.
FRIENDS OF THE GOOD MOTHER
As you know, the village of Soyhières, Switzerland, is the birthplace of the Good Mother. In honor of its 900th anniversary of foundation, a pamphlet celebrating the lives of three holy people associated with Soyhières is to be published. Those holy people are the Good Mother, St. Léonie Aviat and Father Blanchard (d.1824). We know these holy women well but are perhaps not familiar with Father Blanchard. He was a diocesan parish priest who died in 1824 “in the odor of sanctity” in the parish of Soyhières and is buried in the crypt of that Church.
Also in honor of this anniversary, “l’Association des Amis du Père Blanchard et de la Mère Chappuis” has been formed. This organization is composed of diocesan officials, religious men and women and members of the laity. Inspired by these three holy people, they will study their lives more deeply and promote their spirit more widely. Oblates of both Congregations have been invited to appoint a representative to the Board of this new Association. I am happy to announce that a Swiss confrère, Father Franz Aregger, will represent our Congregation.
My long-term hope is that this group will one day, when the moment is right, join us in promoting the cause of the Good Mother.
In the past year or so I have twice had the opportunity to speak about Christian Humanism and the Salesian understanding of the relationship between God, creation and the human family. In this letter, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on this important theme in Salesian spirituality.
In the expression, “Christian Humanism,” humanism refers to the Renaissance celebration of human achievement in literature, the arts and sciences. In the sciences above all, it also came to refer to the distinction between faith and reason and to the assessment of them as parallel, separate and, for some, even incompatible approaches to reality. Such a separation threatens the intimate relationship, in Judeo-Christian thought, between Creator and creation and, thus, the unbreakable bond between the truths of one’s faith and human behavior and achievement.
While also celebrating human accomplishments of all kinds, “Christian” humanism roots them in the most fundamental truth about the human family: that we are created to God’s image and are therefore intimately related to Him as our origin and our destiny. Taking its lead from the Book of Genesis, Christian humanism begins with the affirmation of the individual person who, as created to God’s image and likeness, is imbued with the deepest dignity and is, therefore, to be treated with unfeigned respect, unfailing gentleness and a deeply abiding reverence. Further, because the human family has been joined irrevocably to God through the Incarnation and Redemption of Christ it enjoys a new divine depth. This means that we never have to jettison our humanity in our quest for holiness. In this tradition the saint is the fully actualized human person.
Thus, Christian humanism asserts that because of grace, we are not only God’s friends but also his partners in fostering the creative spirit throughout human history. In that light, every human accomplishment, however small, is, at the same time, a celebration of our relationship with God and, in a very real way, a furtherance of the divine plan and will for the human family and for all of creation.
BELIEVER AND THINKER
Francis de Sales urged his contemporaries to “Be what you are and be that well!” (Letter to Madame Brûlart, 10 June, 1605, OEA, 13, pp. 53-54) Since Christians are both believers and thinkers, they are to look for the deeper Truth in all things. The Christian assertion that God is Creator, for example, permits us to affirm that the truths of faith are always, fundamentally, one with the truths of the various sciences. Originating from the one Source, they tend towards a common Goal. While this may not always be immediately obvious, we remain convinced of its truth and we permit that truth to guide our pursuit of knowledge and to suggest how that knowledge is to be placed at the service of creation. Many humanists in the school of classical Renaissance are convinced that they must either commit to faith, with its corresponding demands on behavior and practice, or to the unfettered pursuit of scientific truth wherever it leads them. The Christian humanist, on the other hand, is committed to living the truth of both and to demonstrating, in thought as well as in life, their fundamental inner-connectedness. Learning strengthens one’s faith and faith guides one’s pursuit of knowledge, while both are placed at the service of others and of creation itself.
The worldview of the Christian humanist is a seamless garment. Faith joins hand in hand with reason, theory gives shape and direction to practice, belief rolls up its sleeves to work for the betterment of the world. As both critical thinkers and staunch believers, Christian humanists place their God-given gifts at the service of others and foster the creative advance in all the sciences and arts according to the divine plan. They are responsible citizens who actively engage in their local, national and international communities. As fully integrated human beings who treasure the divine image in themselves and in every other person, they work tirelessly to enhance and to defend that image in all. They do this by reaching out to all peoples in justice and peace, but especially to those who find themselves on the margins of society and without advocacy.
CHRIST AND HUMANISM
By definition, Christian humanism is deeply related to the person and mission of Jesus. In the view of de Sales, Jesus is “God’s kiss to creation,” its apex and perfection. As such, in the humanity of Jesus creation finds its most perfect response to its Creator, its most beautiful expression of prayer and praise, and its most complete union with God in will and life. For this reason, the manner in which Jesus lived out his brief life among us is the example and model for how we are to live our lives in loving relationship with both God and neighbor.
Jesus treasured his relationship with God. He deepened that relationship by spending whole nights in prayer before his father. And he went forth from that prayer –in response to God’s will for him--to serve God’s people in compassion and love. Thus, God’s Good News came to us in Jesus who fed the hungry, befriended and defended the outcast and marginalized, preached to the poor and died for the sinner. Though Lord, he came among us in the gentleness and humility of the Good Shepherd. He searched after the lost sheep and, having found it, caressed it tenderly, carried it on his shoulders with smiling joy, and returned it to the flock. According to the teaching of Jesus, each one of us is that lost sheep. We have all been searched for, found and carried lovingly by the Lord back to the saving community that is the Church. And that is exactly how we are to treat one another -- no matter how far we have strayed, nor how often we have been lost.
Nor will Christian humanists neglect the example of the hidden years of the life of Jesus in Nazareth. For thirty years Jesus lived and worked within a loving family and among friends and neighbors. Those hidden years of simple family life teach us that a principal focus for our daily practice of virtue --especially of what St. Francis de Sales calls the “little virtues” such as charity, patience, gentleness, good balance, humility, tenderness and kindness-- will always be those with whom we share life and with whom we work and play. We know that even though it never ends there, Christian charity must always begin at home!
In short, for the Christian humanist, the truths of faith and the practice of virtue and the moral precepts are never separable from daily life in this world, nor from our creative efforts to better creation, foster human achievement and love others in peace and justice. All aspects of our relatedness to God, creation and others form a seamless garment whose fabric is the love which Jesus modeled for us and which his Holy Spirit enables in us. That is why, according to the Salesian tradition, “in holy Church all is by love, in love, for love and of love.” (Treatise, “Preface”)
A SALESIAN THOUGHT ON LENT
In his remarks on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the episcopal ordination of St. Francis de Sales (the Vatican, November 23, 2002), Pope John-Paul II wrote, among other topics, of the Saint’s exhortations to his followers “to be faithful to meditation on the Life and Death of Christ: they are the gate of Heaven.” By frequently meditating on the life and death of Jesus, on his Passion and Cross, we increasingly “learn the treasures they contain” and are ever more “conformed to the Son of God” and “guided by the Holy Spirit.” Our “perfection consists” in our conformity to Jesus coupled with the guidance of his Holy Spirit.
John-Paul II concludes this section of his letter with a quotation from the 1622 Good Friday sermon of our Saint. Let these words serve as the special focus for our meditations during the days of this Lent:
“Perfect abandonment into the hands of the heavenly Father and a perfect indifference as to what the divine will decides are the quintessence of the spiritual life….All the setbacks in our perfection come only from the lack of abandonment, and it is certainly true that it is right to begin, to continue and to finish the spiritual life right there, in imitation of our Savior who did this with an extraordinary perfection in the beginning, during and at the end of his life.”
(Oeuvres, X, p. 389; Fiorelli, Sermons of St. Francis de Sales for Lent, p. 205)
During May I will make the canonical visitation of the Toledo-Detroit Province. In June, I will participate in the convocations of the American provinces. The General Council will meet in Overbach, Germany, July 29 (arrival)-August 4 (departure). From September through early December, I will make the canonical visitation of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province. The General Council will meet at Cape May, New Jersey, January 11(arrival)-January 15 (departure). In February, 2004, I will make the canonical visitation and preach the retreat for the South American Region. Please join me in praying for the success of all these visitations and meetings.
May God grant our world peace!
Yours very fraternally in our saintly Patron and holy Founders,
Lewis S. Fiorelli, O.S.F.S.