GENERAL’S NEWS XXI
THE PRESENT MOMENT: A REFLECTION
Another autumn has come to the northern hemisphere and another spring to the southern. The change of seasons is just another reminder of the rhythm of life with its ebb and flow, its beginnings and endings. Changes in nature have their counter part in the Church’s liturgical cycle. Through the rhythm that extends from Lent to Easter, from Pentecost to Ordinary time, and from Advent to Christmas, we remember with reverence and make present in sacrament the life, death and resurrection of the Lord, the gift of his Holy Spirit to the Church and the daily lives of Christians throughout history. With each turn of the liturgical cycle, our hope for the Lord’s final return is renewed with joyful anticipation. We look forward to the time when he will bring to completion what he has created and saved and, through the Spirit, has made holy.
For Christians the rhythm of life is never simply a return to what has already been. It is, rather, always a move forward, onward, homeward. For us life is a pilgrimage, a journey, from the sinful but redeemed past to God’s future and its promise of completion and glory. Although its object lies in the future, Christian hope gives to each succeeding present moment a depth that is divine and a promise that is eternal. Indeed, each present moment is at the same time a celebration of what has been and a joyful anticipation of what will be. In the moment at hand, therefore, we totally dedicate ourselves to the accomplishment of whatever lies before us. In Salesian terms, in the present moment we are fully responsive to God’s direct or indirect will for us, that is, to the evil that is be avoided, the good that is to be done, the cross that is to be embraced, or the neighbor that is to be served. Our conviction is unshaken: if we live well each succeeding present moment, then we can with confidence entrust the past, whatever its failure or sin, to the compassionate mercy of a forgiving God and the future, whatever it may bring, to his provident care. To live well each moment we need only love well in that moment. To do that, we need only do or accept whatever God is asking of us in each succeeding present moment. Briefly put, to live well, we need only love well, now.
GOOD NEWS ON THE GOOD MOTHER
A few months ago we received some very good news regarding the cause of the Good Mother. The Holy See has made available for scholarly research its files on the Good Mother. Following that happy development, the Causa of the Good Mother has been reactivated by a unanimous vote of the General Council. The Congregation’s Archivist, Father Roger Balducelli, has been entrusted with the important task of researching the Vatican documents with the double goal of uncovering the reasons for the 1921 “Reponatur” and of refuting them. Father Emilio Testa has been appointed the Postulator of the Causa of the Good Mother and will undertake that task as soon as the Church formally reopens the process. Both Oblates have accepted these responsibilities with generous enthusiasm. I know that you all agree with me that these important tasks have been placed in very capable hands. I now invite each of you to join your prayers to their efforts. Each of us gratefully acknowledges the vital role that the Good Mother played as the “Inspiration” of the Congregation. We Oblates are forever in her debt!
It goes without saying that, in this as in everything, we follow the Church’s lead here, careful not to jump ahead to the next step before the earlier one is taken. That having been said, I believe that this year’s celebration of Founders’ Day will be one of special joy. We have reason to hope that what we Oblates have always believed of the holiness of our founders will soon be shared by countless others.
I am pleased to announce that, as of early October, Father Valdir Formentini of the South American Region has assumed the position of Pastor of St. Charles Parish in Monte Carlo, Monaco. In this position he succeeds Father Cesare Penzo of the Italian Province.
Father Formentini was originally scheduled to assume his responsibilities in July, 2004. But with the untimely death of Father Jean-Claude Dietrich and the recent commencement of doctoral studies by Father John Sankarathil, the need became urgent. I am grateful to the South American Region for its willingness to free Father Formentini for ministry in St. Charles and for their sacrifice in freeing him earlier than anticipated. I know that Oblates, already very busy, will now assume additional responsibilities in order to cover his duties as pastor of Santa Isabel in Porto Alegre. Upon the death of Father Jean-Claude members of the French Province provided generous assistance to Father Penzo. These examples of fraternal selflessness are truly admirable. I am deeply grateful for them and to Father Valdir for his willingness to leave the familiar life and ministry of his home Region for the very different life of Monaco as well as for the very challenging demands of St. Charles.
I am in discussions with the Regional Superior of another Region of the Congregation who is prepared to provide a young Oblate priest as parochial vicar for St. Charles as early as next May or June. The parish of St. Charles has always been blessed with gifted and generous Oblates. With these additional confrères, that tradition continues!
THE COMMITTEE ON OBLATE MISSIONS IN THE 21ST CENTURY: AN UPDATE
During the July meeting of the General Council in Haus Overbach, we met with the General Mission Coordinator and the members of the “Committee on the Oblate Missions in the 21st Century” which he chairs. The members of the committee had met during the prior week and presented for our study and suggestions the fruit of their labors, a draft paper entitled, “Thoughts on Developing a Comprehensive Plan for Missions.” By the time you receive this letter, it will have been translated into the languages of the Congregation and distributed to every Oblate for study, reaction and input. It will also be discussed at the 2004 meeting of major superiors. Modified, refined and perhaps further developed during the course of this ongoing process of discernment, it will eventually make its way to the General Chapter as a proposal for its deliberations and action.
The paper deals with a number of important aspects of mission. It treats, for instance, of the multi-layered meaning of “mission” itself, as well as the meaning of the “Chablais Spirit.” It makes it clear that “mission” is not always “foreign.” It deals with the challenge of exercising responsible stewardship regarding present missions while establishing a protocol for Congregational expansion in the new century. It also suggests a manner for the distribution of the annual assets of the Chablais Fund once it is sufficiently funded. It recommends a process similar to the one currently in use for the consideration for funding of ICSS projects. Further, it suggests that the Chablais Spirit be fostered during the years of formation, not only in theory but also in practice. It emphasizes the need for sensitivity and understanding in all intercultural encounters and stresses the priority that Constitution #12 gives to the needs of the poor and marginalized in all Oblate endeavors, including our missions. Finally it urges that vocations continue to be a major concern in all our missionary efforts.
All of these topics are treated in a compact document of only several pages. I sincerely hope that each of you will, upon receiving it, give it the serious and prayerful attention it deserves.
THE CHABLAIS MISSION ENDOWMENT FUND COMMITTEE: AN UPDATE
Prior to the meeting of the General Council, we had received a proposal from the Chablais Mission Endowment Fund Committee. This proposal recommended the creation of the Office of Director of the Chablais Mission Endowment Fund (CMEF) and described the responsibilities of the proposed Director as well as the means for funding this position that follows generally accepted practice for such a position. Over the course of several days, we undertook a thorough discussion of this proposal and were joined by the helpful presence of the General Mission Coordinator, the General Treasurer and James W. O’Neill, OSFS, the Oblate recommended for the position of Director.
At the end of our reflections, we formulated a response to the proposal that will be in effect until the matter is brought before the 2004 meeting of the major superiors for further discussion and action.
Until that meeting of major superiors, the position of Executive Director to the Chablais Mission Endowment Fund Committee is established, the responsibilities of the position described in an initial fashion, and funding provided, for this year, from the Generalate’s operating account. Our very capable confrère, James W. O’Neill, has been appointed to the position of Executive Director of the Chablais Mission Endowment Fund Committee effective September 1, 2003. I know that your prayerful support will accompany his efforts.
As was noted in the General Council’s response to the proposal, we very much appreciate the direction that is taken and the spirit that is reflected in the proposal. We are hopeful that, in the long term, something very much like what is envisioned by the proposal will result in the sure and steady growth of the Chablais Fund. In time, the Fund will be able to meet the ongoing needs of our missions, old and new, throughout the new century.
It is anticipated that the two mission committees will work closely together over the course of the years ahead to formulate well-coordinated proposals for consideration and action by the members of the 2006 General Chapter. The decisions of that Chapter will, in turn, set the direction for Oblate missions and the growth and management of the Chablais Fund for the six years following the General Chapter and perhaps for many years beyond that.
RESTRUCTURING: ONGOING DISCERNMENT
At the July meeting of the General Council, we continued our discussion of restructuring. In the process we formulated several questions for Father Séamus Finn, OMI, who will be present with us for our January meeting in Cape May. Father Finn was part of the restructuring process undertaken by five American OMI Provinces that resulted in the creation of one American OMI Province. We are hopeful that he will join us for the July meeting of Major Superiors. We are also looking for someone with a similar experience from a European perspective to join us as well.
A number of Congregations have already had experiences in restructuring and there is a growing body of literature on this subject. We reviewed some of that literature during our July meeting. Those congregations and provinces that have successfully plied the still largely uncharted waters of restructuring share a number of factors in common. For one thing, they all recognize that restructuring is never undertaken as an end in itself. It is, rather, always undertaken for the sake of the mission of the Congregation and its charism. In other words, the goal of restructuring is to create a structure or structures that are better able to carry on the mission of the Congregation under new and often challenging circumstances such as those that we currently experience in many parts of the Congregation: fewer and older members who are nevertheless confronted with increasing internal and apostolic demands. They also recognize that, however it is begun, the process –which is largely a discernment process—must at some point engage all the members involved. No one is left out of the process. That often means a gathering, or several gatherings, of all those involved. When it comes time to restructure, no single province subsumes the others. Rather, each province gives way to a brand new province, one whose administration is frequently located in a new place and given a new name. And if, say, several provinces become a single new province, someone from the administration of each of the former provinces serves on the council of the new province.
But, as the saying goes, “no one size fits all.” There is, therefore, no preconceived idea of what should be the end result of the discernment process. As the process itself unfolds, the Lord makes increasingly clear what concrete end will accomplish the overarching goal: to better accomplish the mission and promote the charism that has been committed to the Congregation by the Church for the good of God’s people. No matter how well the process has been undertaken, nor how long it has lasted, in the end every province, every region and every confrère will have to sacrifice something for the desired, greater good of the whole. In biblical language, each will have to die in some manner to bring to life something brand new.
But we are only at the very beginning of what is likely to be a fairly long process. I do hope, however, that over the years leading up to the 2006 General Chapter we will be able to develop a proposal for its consideration that will give guidance and authority to my successor and his council as to how to proceed with restructuring in the years ahead, if indeed that is what the capitulants decide is the best course to follow.
I will no doubt write again on this subject in the next General’s News in light of what has transpired at the meeting of the General Council in early January of 2004. Since it is a discernment process, we count on the Lord’s spirit to point out the way before us. Join us is praying for that guidance.
The 2000 General Chapter encouraged the Congregation to “actively invite the laity into closer association with itself, in both its identity and its mission.” Throughout the Oblate world this encouragement to closer association with the laity has been embraced with enthusiasm and is being implemented in a variety of ways. This is not surprising. The spiritual empowerment of the laity is deeply rooted in the Salesian tradition, and comfortable collaboration with lay people has been a hallmark of Oblate ministry from the beginning.
St. Francis de Sales is perhaps the earliest --he is certainly one of the best--champions of the universal call to holiness, no matter one’s vocational state in life or natural temperament. He is also convinced that the means to holiness are immediately at hand in the Church’s sacraments, prayer and one’s robust practice of virtue. He teaches much on the practice of virtue. Indeed, for him, each person’s vocational state in life, with its duties and responsibilities, is the privileged location of the divine will for that person as well as the principal arena for the choice and practice of virtue.
We are familiar with the Salesian emphasis on “the little virtues.” They are the relational virtues of everyday life such as charity, gentleness, compassion and kindness. Less familiar, perhaps, is the role that St. Francis de Sales gives to the relational virtue of what he calls true or spiritual friendship. The chaste, warm and affectionate friendship that he enjoyed with St. Jane de Chantal is celebrated in the annals of Christian spirituality. Coupled with their common dedication to a ready observance of the double commandment of love, their special friendship with one another greatly assisted them in becoming not only fully actualized human persons but great saints as well. It is important to appreciate that, in the Salesian tradition, their experience of spiritual friendship is meant to be the norm, not the exception. 
In the years before us, the members of the Congregation will likely continue to experience an ever-closer association with the laity. For this reason, the place and practice of spiritual friendship will doubtless become increasingly more prominent among us. It is for this reason that I would like to reflect on the virtue of spiritual friendship in this twenty-first edition of the General’s News.
Many have suggested that the third millennium will be the age of the Holy Spirit. Others have suggested that it will be the age of the Laity. In the practice of spiritual friendship, I believe that it will be both.
THE INTRODUCTION AND SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP
The Introduction to the Devout Life is, we know, principally a guide for the layperson’s quest for holiness --precisely as a layperson. In the forty-one chapters of Part III of that masterful work, St. Francis de Sales treats of a number of virtues that are especially helpful in one’s pursuit of the devout life. Six of those chapters deal with friendship (17-22). Francis treats of several types of “friendship,” including what he calls vain, evil, and frivolous friendships as well as “fond loves,” the 17th century version of courtly love. But the principal focus of those chapters --as well as ours here--is his insightful reflections on what he calls “true friendships.”
In Chapter 17, St. Francis de Sales reminds his reader of the three characteristics of any friendship. Friendship must be mutual. The friends must be aware of their friendship for one another. And there must be communication between them. The character of communication is what defines the several types of friendship. If, for instance, the communication between friends is false and empty, so too will be their friendship. The better, the nobler, the content of their communication, the nobler or truer will be the friendship between them.
Chapter 19 is entitled, “True Friendship.” He begins that chapter with the reminder that as Christians we are to love everyone, even our enemies. But as for friends, especially spiritual friends, we are advised to form them only with those with whom we can share “virtuous things.” The greater or more noble the virtuous things shared, the more perfect will the friendship be. In ascending order, Francis speaks of the kinds of virtuous things he has in mind. The friendship between those who exchange knowledge or truth is a praiseworthy one. When what is shared between them is the practice of virtue such as prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, the friendship is even more praiseworthy. When what is shared relates to charity, devotion and Christian perfection, “O God, how precious this friendship will be!” That friendship is an excellent one, excellent because its source is God; and excellent because it assists those who share it to attain life’s goal which is lasting happiness with God. Francis emphasizes that the bonds of friendship that are forged here will last forever. “How good it is to love here on earth as they love in heaven and to learn to cherish one another in this world as we shall do eternally in the next!” Only this kind of friendship is worthy of being called “spiritual friendship.” In its exercise, the friends “share with one another their devotion and spiritual affections.” Doing so, they forge “a single spirit” and share but one heart.
Let us reflect a bit on what Francis says about the nature of spiritual friendship in this chapter. He agrees wholeheartedly with St. Thomas Aquinas that spiritual friendship is a virtue. By definition, a virtue strengthens the character of believers to more readily and better fulfill their responsibilities as Christians, especially regarding the example and teachings of Christ as well as the precepts of the Church. Virtues enable those who practice them to translate their faith more easily, readily and concretely into what Francis calls “life and action.” That is, they help them to better fulfill the double commandment of love.
In this same chapter, Francis expands on the implications of spiritual friendship as a Christian virtue. In affirming, for example, that God is both its source as well as its goal, he is assuring us that our spiritual friends are a special grace from God to us. They make our life’s journey a more pleasant experience and assist us to more easily attain life’s goal, lasting happiness with God. Further, our friendship with them will last forever.
The lasting character of spiritual friendship has many implications. Think of what this means, for example, for married couples who are also spiritual friends. Their beautiful bond of marriage, even when sanctioned by the sacrament, ends with death: “until death do us part.” Yet the bond of their spiritual friendship endures forever! This insight can only be a source of a joyful encouragement to all those couples we serve in our many ministries. Something that they always hoped for, to love each other forever, is possible when their already deep love for their “dear half” (Letter DLVIII) is further deepened by the grace of spiritual friendship. And what is true for married couples is also true for all those who are similarly graced with the blessing of spiritual friends. All such friendships come from God, lead to God, make life more joyful and pleasant, and last forever.
And what about the “single spirit” and “one heart” promised to those who are blessed with spiritual friends? It is nothing other than the union, the community of heart and life, that is so desired by the human family and which has proven so elusive when sought by other means. We try everything to achieve peace in the world, in society, in the family and within the human heart. Why not try spiritual friendship? And why not begin within the Christian community whose members already share a common faith in Jesus and a shared goal, life with God? There are, I suspect, ecumenical implications in the practice of spiritual friendship. It transcends ecclesial borders, dogmatic differences and various liturgical and sacramental expressions to touch human hearts, transform daily life, and bind together those who share it into a union of peace and joy.
Francis confronts the objection in much of classical spirituality to the formation of “special or particular friendships,” especially among religious. Such friendships, selective by nature, are often inimical to the unity, shared vision and common purpose of religious life. Francis readily agrees that in a well-ordered monastery “particular associations” are not only unnecessary but potentially harmful. But in the Introduction he is writing principally to the laity whose lives are lived out in an environment that is frequently indifferent, even at times hostile, to those who wish to pursue the devout life. Indeed, often even members of one’s family are opposed to such a pursuit. For these people, it is not only helpful to form spiritual friendships, it is even necessary for them “to unite together in holy, sacred friendship.” 
Why does he insist on the necessity of spiritual friendships for the laity who want to pursue the devout life? Because they do not have the spiritual benefits of a “well-ordered monastery” with its daily life of prayer, Mass and the practice of relational virtues. Such an environment provides its members with a relatively level road on which to make steady progress in holiness. For the laity, however, the road they must travel is frequently “rugged and slippery.” They must, therefore, grab “hold onto one another in order to walk more safely.” For them to realize their “desire to embrace true virtue, it is necessary to unite together in holy, sacred friendship…so as to encourage, assist and lead one another to perform good deeds.”
What Francis had in mind in writing of a “well-ordered monastery” certainly applied to the experience of the reformed monastic life of his time. It also applied to the life of active, apostolic religious well into the 20th century. However, following the Second Vatican Council, many of the familiar spiritual and communal supports found in religious life up to that time began to disappear. Over time, this has left many active religious on that same “slippery and rugged road” that the laity must travel. In short, what is said in the Introduction regarding the necessity of spiritual friendships for the laity can be equally said of many active religious today. Finally, on the selective nature of spiritual friendship, potentially so inimical to the unity of “a well-ordered monastery,” Francis has this to say: “…Perfection consists not in having no friendships, but in having only those which are good, holy, and sacred.” We are all familiar with the saying, “While you cannot choose your family, you can choose your friends.” Francis advises us to make wise and holy choices in selecting those friends. For on that choice, much depends.
Those who are familiar with the teaching method of Francis de Sales know that he often follows an exposition of a spiritual topic with advice, based on long pastoral experience, of the dangers or pit falls to be avoided. He follows that practice here. In Chapters 20-22, he points out several ways to test whether a friendship is truly a spiritual one or not. If the “friend’s” language is like Heraclean honey, that is, if it is too sweet, it is likely a false or evil friendship. Spiritual friends speak to one another only in “plain, sincere language and praise nothing but virtue and God’s grace.... Holy friendship has eyes that are clear and modest, caresses that are pure and sincere, sighs meant solely for heaven, familiarities that are wholly spiritual, complaints only that God is not loved –all infallible marks of purity.” The point Francis wants to make is clear: when the object of one’s love becomes, in language or gesture, the friend rather than God or the practice of virtue, an alarm bell ought to sound. Francis also advises spiritual friends to be careful that they imitate only what is good and virtuous in one another. He writes amusingly that each of us “has enough bad inclinations of our own without burdening ourselves with those of our friends as well!”
With his teaching and, especially, his life experiences, Francis de Sales has left us a valuable legacy on the important place of spiritual friendship in Christian life. As we Oblates begin to engage more closely with members of the laity, inviting them into ever-deeper association with the Congregation in identity and mission, that legacy will serve us well. Indeed, it will ensure that our warm and cordial relationships with others, which come from God, will also lead to God. And along the way, its practice will make life’s journey more pleasant, the practice of charity more robust, and the daily accomplishment of the divine will more assured. For all these reasons, it will be a lasting blessing to the Church, to the world and, especially, to the friends themselves!
A STATISTICAL PROFILE OF THE CONGREGATION
At the annual meeting of major superiors every July, a listing of the changes in the statistics of the Congregation is provided. Since there was no meeting of major superiors this July, an abbreviated version of those statistics is provided here. The full version, “Changes in the Statistics of the Congregation: 1 July 2002 through 30 September 2003,” lists names of Oblates who have made first profession or final profession, who were ordained or who died during that time frame. It also provides a breakdown of the membership of the Congregation according to the number of Oblates in each province and region as well as according to the following categories: bishops, priests, deacons, brothers, scholastics and novices. This information is updated monthly and can be accessed through this web address: http://www.desalesoblates.org/osfs.htm
As of September 30, 2003, there are 585 active members of the Congregation. “Active” means all Oblates except those who are exclaustrated or absent from the Congregation for a any other reason. In the last year, eleven novices professed first vows; eight Oblates took perpetual vows; three Oblates were ordained; and seventeen confrères died.
As I write this letter, I have already begun the canonical visitation of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province. This visitation will extend into early December. From January 11-15, 2004, the General Council will meet in Cape May, New Jersey, USA. The canonical visitation of the South American Region, followed by its Regional Chapter, will take place from February 6-25, 2004. In March, 2004, the canonical visitation of both the German Province (15-20) and the Netherlands Province (22-25) will take place. The next meeting of Major Superiors is scheduled to take place in Fockenfeld, Germany, from July 25 (arrival) through midday on July 30, 2004, with the General Council meeting the following weekend.
 For a thorough and very readable treatment of this celebrated spiritual friendship, see Wendy M. Wright, Bond of Perfection: Jeanne de Chantal & François de Sales (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985).
 On the necessity of spiritual friendship in the thought of Francis de Sales, see the doctoral dissertation of Terence A. McGoldrick, The Sweet and Gentle Struggle: Francis de Sales on the Necessity of Spiritual Friendship (Lanham, New York, London: University Press of America, 1996).