GENERAL’S NEWS XXII
“DUTIES OF STATE”
Whenever members of the Association of St. Francis de Sales, a lay Salesian group with which I have worked for many years, cannot attend a meeting or accomplish some task or other in a timely fashion, they invariably give as explanation, “Duties of State!” They are referring to the Salesian teaching that one’s duties of state as spouse or bread-winner or teacher, for example, are the principal locus for God’s will for us and that those duties are therefore to receive the highest priority in one’s list of things to do or to accomplish. Because of an unusually busy several months of travel related to my own “duties of state,” this issue of the General’s News is later than usual. I know that you understand.
It was Easter Monday. I had just sat down to begin this issue of the General's News when I received the sad news that Mother Françoise-Isabelle Stiegler, the Superior General of the Oblates Sisters, had died a few hours earlier in Troyes. Immediately Father Mark Mealey and I began to make arrangements that would get us to Troyes in time for the Mass of Christian burial that was to take place just four days later. It was an honor for us, along with General Councilor, Father Konrad Eßer, to represent the Congregation on that sad but hope-filled occasion.
Easter Friday dawned bright, sunny and beautiful. Signs of new life were everywhere in evidence, especially in the budding trees and spring flowers of Troyes’ many parks. Nature itself seemed to be echoing the joy of the Easter season and framed a reassuring back ground to the day ahead.
In the morning, we made a brief visit to the Mother House of the Oblate Sisters. There we spent a few moment of quiet prayer in the chapel where lay the simple and sealed casket of Mother General. Afterwards we walked the short distance from the Mother House to the monastery of the Visitation. Our destination was the tomb of the Good Mother. In the course of our visit to the monastery, Mother Superior reminded us that everyday at 1:30 PM the Sisters pray at the tomb of Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis for their “cousins,” the Oblates of both Congregations. I know that you will find it a comfort, as I do, to know that those holy women pray daily for us at the simple crypt of Congregation’s “Inspiration.” Both Oblate Congregations have their origins in that very special monastery that is intimately related to the lives of all three founders
The liturgy was scheduled to begin at 2 PM, with the Bishop of the diocese presiding and preaching. Long before that hour, Troyes’ imposing 15th century cathedral began filling up with hundreds of mourners that included two bishops, many concelebrants, Oblates Sisters, Visitation Sisters, relatives and friends of Mother General. I was proud that a number of Oblates were present. They had come from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Monaco and the United States. Those of you who could not be present in person were, I know, very much present in prayer and spirit. The Oblate Sisters know that too.
There were many gestures of love and esteem for Mother shown on that occasion. I was particularly struck by the touching gesture of the Dutch Oblates. Remembering how delighted Sister Françoise-Isabelle had been with their gift of hundreds of yellow roses at the time of the canonization of St. Léonie Aviat, they now brought with them a hundred red roses to honor her worthy successor.
At the end of the Mass of Resurrection, each person in turn was invited to approach the casket and sprinkle it with holy water in the sign of the cross. With that simple gesture, each of us was reminded of our baptism into the waters of the dying and rising of Jesus. We were comforted by the hope that springs from those saving waters.
After the Mass, the members of Mother's immediate family and the Oblates of both Congregations were driven to the cemetery of Troyes where her body was committed to the earth in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection. The cemetery has limited space. For that reason the crypt for the Oblate Sisters is dug deep into the earth and contains many levels. The earthly remains of Mother General were placed on one of those levels. There the body of Sister Françoise-Isabelle will lie in death among sisters whom she had loved so dearly and served so well in life!
A simple reception followed at Cité Aviat, to which all who had participated in the Mass of Resurrection were invited. Cité Aviat, an apostolic ministry on behalf of working girls, dates from the time of Father Brisson and Mother Aviat. Holy cards were distributed there that depict a smiling Mother General on the occasion of the canonization of St. Léonie Aviat. How fitting, for that that canonization was surely the crowning achievement of her life’s work. I can only imagine the heavenly meeting between those two holy, gifted and very generous women!
The holy card contains a saying that was composed by Mother General on the occasion of the canonization of Mother Aviat: “Happy is the one who clings toYou. That person will bear fruit and that fruit will last.” She was speaking of her Foundress, but those who knew her will find in those words a true description of herself.
Her final words were, “All through love.” They speak of how she lived her own life and how she interacted with others throughout life, both God and neighbor. For in the Salesian tradition, love is both a union of wills with God in each passing moment as well as a selfless and compassionate service of others, especially those most in need.
At this point, I would like to share with you the brief reflections that I gave after Communion on that day.
“Bishop Stenger, Sister Thérèse-Espérance, my dear Oblates Sisters and Oblate confrères, friends and relatives of Mother Françoise-Isabelle:
“Ten years ago, shortly after her election as Superior General, I wrote a congratulatory note to Mother Françoise-Isabelle in which I pledged to her my personal friendship and support. In that letter I also expressed my great desire that our two Congregations would, over the years ahead, grow more closely together in mutual esteem and affection. After all, I wrote, we share a common Founder. Daily we are nourished upon the same “Salesian bread.” For both of our Congregations, the Spiritual Directory is the privileged means of a continual and loving union with God and with his holy will for us. I wrote, further, that I hoped that she and I would enjoy a special spiritual friendship that would serve as both a parable and a model for the members of our two Congregations. To my delight, Mother Françoise-Isabelle responded to my letter with one that expressed the same spirit and a similar desire.
“From that moment on, I have never wavered in my esteem for that gifted and holy woman. Time and again over the years that followed, she opened her arms and her heart, and those of her entire Congregation, to her “younger brothers.” Over time –and much to our shared delight—the members of our two Congregations have grown ever closer in the bond of love and friendship, the bond of perfection.
“The members of the Congregation of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales have lost a good friend in the death of Mother Françoise-Isabelle. The members of the Congregation of the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales have lost an inspired and wise Mother who knew how to govern in the spirit of suaviter and fortiter and how to “win hearts” through gentle persuasion and the example of selfless service. This dear woman was tireless in her efforts on behalf of her sisters throughout the world and their many ministries. She was truly “mother” and “friend” to each one of them. Like her holy Founder, St. Léonie Aviat, she worked tirelessly for the happiness of others! Each of us here is a witness to such a life so well lived!
“Christians throughout the world rejoice this week in the joy of the risen Lord! We Oblates of both Congregations rejoice that our dear good Mother now knows what “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it so much as entered into the human heart” what lies in store for those who love Jesus and who live Jesus. She is happy now, for she lives forever with the One whom she has always loved! They have hold of each other and will never let go: “tenui nec dimittam!”
“I conclude with the prayer of St. Jane de Chantal. May it be a comfort to each of us who now grieve.
“Find strength in the confident hope that one day we shall all be reunited in the joy of a blessed eternity!”
“May God be praised!”
DECEMBER VISIT TO HAITI
A few weeks before Christmas, I concluded the canonical visitation of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province with a visit with Father Thomas Hagan in Haiti. Two other Oblates accompanied me. The brief visit took place several weeks before the country was, yet again, in chaos. Deject poverty is the lot of much of the country and most of the people. The government, notoriously inept and infamously corrupt, does little to help. Without outside help from good and generous people throughout the world, the Haitian people would be without hope. Through the volunteers and financial support of his “Hands Together” foundation, Father Hagan has been able to bring the good news of Jesus to many Haitians, along with food, medicine, basic education, human dignity and some opportunity. The people whom he serves in Haiti’s capitol are so poor that some of them are reduced to making so-called “mud pies.” These they make from disease-infested water and mud that they then eat and sell!
No words can adequately describe the environment into which “Père Tom” has managed to bring a bit of human joy and Salesian hope. Each of his education centers bears a Salesian name and many Salesian images. I wonder how, in such a setting, they manage to convey a sense of Salesian optimism to their students and their families. Father Tom says daily Mass for Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity. They confided to me that he goes several times each day into a part of the city, Cité Soleil, that they, who serve the poorest of the poor, are afraid to enter! It is a dangerous, often lawless, slum. But it is where his people live. Therefore, it is where he goes.
In the midst of all this poverty and human degradation, there live a good and noble people. I met with a number of young men who, against all odds, have obtained an education and now earn a meager living. Many assist “Père Tom” in his ministry, often at risk to their very lives. In fact, several of his workers in the city and elsewhere in the country have been killed. Many others have been threatened or seriously harassed. About eight of the young men I met with are eager to know more about the Oblates and, since my departure, have written me letters indicating their interest in our Congregation. I have asked the General Mission Coordination, Father Josef Költringer, to visit them when he comes to the United States in May for a meeting of the Committee of the Chablais Mission Fund. He plans to make a visit of four or five days, after which he and I will meet. Please pray for Haiti and for her people, especially for those who are served by “Père Tom.”
SEVERAL RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
As you no doubt know by now, Father Aldino Kiesel was elected Regional Superior of the South American Region during the February canonical visitation. This created an opening on the General Council. I am happy to announce that Father Leoclides Dalla Nora has been selected as his replacement. Because of his work in formation, pastoral ministry and as regional superior, he brings to the General Council a wealth of experience. We welcome him! We will miss the wise and gentle presence of Father Aldino on the General Council, but we are delighted that he is serving his confrères in so important a position.
I am delighted to announce that the Congregation has a new General Treasurer, Father Robert Mancini of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province and a new Assistant General Treasurer, Father Konrad Eßer of the German Province. I wish to thank these two very competent confrères for assuming these important responsibilities for the Congregation. I would also like to thank Father John Crossin of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province for his years of generous service as the Assistant General Treasurer. For the next several months he will help to insure a smooth transition.
In March I conducted the canonical visitation of the German Province and the Netherlands Province and made brief visits to the confrères of the Swiss Oblate Community and those of St. Charles in Monaco. This was followed by a week in Rome and several visits to the Italian Province. Father Josef Lienhard has been selected as the new Provincial of the German Province and Father Kees Jongeneelen has been elected to a third term of the Netherlands Province. Both provinces are in very capable hands. I wish to thank Father Leo Vieten, whose term a Provincial expires on June 30, 2004, for his ministry of service on behalf of the German Province.
On April 1, 2004, I joined most of the members of the Italian Province, along with family and friends, in the blessing of the beautifully renovated house in Assisi. After a tour of the house, Mass was celebrated in the Chapel. During Mass all those Oblates who had been associated with this former scholasticate were remembered in a special way. Mass was followed by a festive meal during which was inaugurated the Golden Jubilee year of the Italian Province (1954-2004). I know that you join me in congratulating our Italian confrères on their Golden Jubilee as a Province and on the recent first profession of their two scholastics. These are bright signs of hope and new growth.
The 2004 General Director and Necrology has been shipped from India. Hopefully most of you will have received it by now. I think that you will like its format and I know that you will find it useful. Remember that it is also found on the Congregation’s web site [desalesoblates.org/osfs.htm] where it is updated monthly. I wish to thank Robert A. Carlston and Johann Angleiter for their persevering work on this project and for our confrères in India for their hard work in having it printed and shipped from there.
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION OF SALESIAN SPIRITUALITY (ICSS)
In a recent General’s News I announced the appointment of Father Joseph Chorpenning as the new Chair of the International Commission of Salesian Spirituality. In this letter I announce with regret the retirement from the Commission of Father Jean Gayet. Father has served on the Commission with generosity and great distinction for many years. In recent years he has painstakingly scanned and placed on CD Roms the works of St. Francis de Sales and Father Brisson, including the new millennial edition of the Founder’s works. He has also digitized and placed on CD Roms countless pictures, paintings, statues and other Salesian works of art. I can safely say that he will be sorely missed on the ICSS. I am very grateful that he will continue to translate my writings into French.
The General Council has chosen Father Dirk Koster of the Netherlands Province as Father Gayet’s replacement on the ICSS. His recent biography of St. Francis de Sales is a major contribution to a contemporary appreciation of the person, life and work of the Gentleman Saint. Currently, Father Koster is researching the life and times of Father Louis Brisson in preparation for a contemporary biography of the Founder. Oblates of both Congregations look forward to the completion of this work. For many of us, it will provide a fresh interpretation of the life and work of a very gifted, eminently practical and truly holy man. For many others, it will provide an introduction to a man of action whose long and incredibly full life was guided at each step by a burning zeal and a lively faith. It will include a bracing vision of one of the forerunners of modern Catholic social action and a pioneer in the Salesian approach to the education of the total person. As with his biography of St. Francis de Sales, this new life by Father Koster will bring before the reader a flesh and blood human being. After all, Francis de Sales wanted all hagiography to include “warts and all.” Father Koster is faithful to that kind of biography. He will, therefore, write a life of Louis Brisson in which we will discover a man in whom, despite human foible and shortcomings, grace was powerfully triumphant. In that way, he will give every reader reason to hope for a similar triumph of grace in his or her own life, no matter how “ordinary” that life may be and no matter how imperfectly it may at times be lived.
The ICSS commission, through its Chair, has solicited essays from Oblates and other Salesian scholars on the various dimensions of human encounter. These essays will be collected into a book and published in honor of the 400th anniversary of the initial encounter between two spiritual friends, co-founders and saints, Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales (1604-2004).
JULY MEETING OF MAJOR SUPERIORS
During the week of July 25, 2004, the major superiors of the Congregation will meet in Fockenfeld, Germany. In addition to reports from the major superiors themselves, the agenda will include reports from the ICSS, the General Treasurer, the General Mission Coordinator and the Archivist. A workshop on Restructuring will be conducted by Father Séamus Finn, OMI. There will also be substantive reports by the two mission committees, the Committee on the Oblate Missions in the 21st Century, and the Committee on the Chablais Mission Fund. The Chairs of both committees will be present, as will be the Executive Secretary of the Committee on the Chablais Mission Fund, Father James W. O’Neill.
As a result of the work on restructuring and Oblate missions, it is hoped that a number of concrete proposals will be formulated for submission, first, to the Preparatory Commission of the General Chapter in July, 2005, and then, depending upon its action, to the General Chapter of July, 2006. Even from a distance of two years, it is increasingly evident that the agenda for the 18th General Chapter will entail a great deal of hands-on work which will require the full energy and many gifts of its members. The delegates to that Chapter will by their actions provide an agenda that will be implemented by the next General Administration.
THE FEAST OF THE VISITATION
Since the majority of you will be receiving this issue of the General’s News in translation sometime before the May 31st celebration of the feast of the Visitation, I thought I would share with you some reflections on that great feast which is so central to the history of the Visitation Sisters and Salesian spirituality. My thoughts here are based on a homily that I gave several years ago to the Visitation Sisters of Washington on the feast of the Visitation. I begin with a reference to a conference by Father Brisson, the exact reference for which I cannot at this moment locate.
Father Louis Brisson loved the Gospel of St. John and meditated upon it throughout his long life. When he was almost 90 years old, he commented on Chapter 1, verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
He opted for a reading of that verse which is based on the Greek text. Thus, instead of reading it as, “He made his dwelling among us,” the Greek suggests this reading: “He has pitched his tent among us.” Or, even better, “He has come into our tent.”
Through his Word made flesh, God chose to dwell in the closest intimacy with us. The image of tenting with us would, of course, remind John’s readers of the early history of the Israelite people when, as a nation of shepherds, they followed the grazing patterns of their flocks, pitching their tents, now here, now there, wherever they found green pastures and life-giving waters.
In this context, the image of God pitching his tent “among us” suggests that, far from being an aloof and distant God who lives in regal isolation, he is a God who finds his “delight” in being among those he loves and in following them wherever their nomadic ways take them. What Ruth says to her mother--in-law, God says to his people: “Wherever you go, I shall go” (Ruth 1:16).
The expression, “tenting among us,” suggests great intimacy. “Coming into our tent” suggests an even greater intimacy. God comes into our very tent, that is, he is found in the nitty-gritty of our daily lives. He does not bring his own tent that he then pitches among our tents. No, our tent becomes his tent. For he is Emmanuel, God-with-us!
Father Brisson drew out some of the implications of this reading of John 1:4. God is no stranger to us; he is our friend. He is never far from us or difficult to reach. He lives in the very tent of our daily lives, where we live and work together. There he speaks to us and we to him. To live that intimately with our God, in the give and take of daily life, is how every Oblate is to live out his daily life.
In short, Father Brisson found in this text biblical support for the Salesian emphasis on the divine depth that is to be found in the ordinary events which occur in the ebb and flow of every day life, in the give and take of our daily interactions within family and community and those we serve in our various ministries. Because God, in becoming flesh, has entered into everything human --especially into human relationships-- there is a divine depth to all of life, however “ordinary.” Understood from a Salesian perspective, there is nothing “ordinary” in “ordinary, everyday life!”
What does this interpretation of John 1:14 say to us on the feast of the Visitation? Many locate the significance of this feast only in the extraordinary sons who lie within the wombs of these two remarkable women and in the saving event their lives inaugurate.
But our interpretation of John 1:14, based on the thoughts of Father Brisson, would surely also find its importance in the kindness and love, in the concrete support and assistance which one cousin extends to another cousin during the days and weeks of a difficult pregnancy. As St. Francis de Sales would express it, these two women had conceived God in their hearts long before their miraculous conceptions in their wombs. How had they done that? By their incredible fidelity to his will for them in each passing present moment of life; and by their ability to find God in others, especially in those in need, and by reverencing, loving, and serving him precisely there!
We surely find God in the beautiful liturgical moment of the celebration of the Feast of the Visitation. As members of the Salesian family, we must also learn how to go from the Eucharistic Liturgy into the liturgy of everyday life with one another. Neither liturgy will have its full meaning without being intimately linked to the other!
Let us serve God as Mary and Elizabeth model for us in this feast: in the practice of the little virtues with one another --in the nooks and crannies of our daily life with one another, as well as in each succeeding present moment. Let us do this, in the spirit of the mystery of the Visitation, in both simplicity and joy, those singular Salesian virtues.
The Feast of the Visitation is the celebration of the Lord among us, in the very tent of our daily lives with one another. Let us invite him in, welcome him with joy and serve him with gladness. He is among us. Indeed, he dwells within our very tents!
During the course of the meeting of major superiors, next year’s calendar will be finalized. As of now, this is how it stands: July 25-30, meeting of major superiors, followed by a meeting of the General Council; September 12-19, canonical visitation of the Namibian Region during the course of the joint retreat of the two African regions; October 28-November 2, meeting of the Second Federation of the Visitations Sisters in Wheeling, West Virginia; November 18-21, renewal of vows retreat at the Visitation Monastery in Rockville, Virginia; January, 2005, meeting of the General Council in India.
OBLATE DEVOTIONAL LIFE
Devotions are back! I had hoped to develop in this letter some reflections on an “Oblate Devotional Life” but the press of travel and “duties of state” has already delayed this issue of the General’s News. I hope to write on that topic in a subsequent issue.
As our Oblates Sisters prepare for their General Chapter in August 2004, let us join our prayers to theirs.
Yours very fraternally in our saintly Patron and holy Founders,
Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS