THE GENERAL’S NEWS XXVI
As I begin this final issue of the General’s News, it is about five months until the election of my successor. It is, I believe, an appropriate moment to reflect on these past twelve years as Superior General.
In Book 2 of the Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales dedicates five chapters to a discussion of divine providence (chs 3-7). For our Patron, providence is a Master Symbol. In one broad sweep, it embraces God’s passionate desire that each of us attain lasting happiness with Him in glory, as well as all the means, large and small, that he provides for us over the course of our entire lives in order that we might, at life’s end, attain that glory. As he writes in the Treatise, “supreme providence is nothing else than that act by which God wills to furnish men and angels with the means necessary or useful for attaining their end” (Bk 2, ch 3). We are free. We must, therefore, freely embrace the means with which providence provides us in each present moment, doing so by actively uniting our will with whatever God wills for us. Over time, the faithful practice of such a union of wills will result, as it did with Jesus, with our complete unity with God so that our will “is converted into God’s will” (Bk 9, ch 13). When that occurs, there are no longer two wills but only one, God’s (see Galatians 2:20). Before we can embrace the divine will, though, we need to know it. For that reason, discernment figures prominently in the life and teaching of Francis. Thus, three key elements of Salesian spirituality are: providence, the union of wills, and discernment. They will form the headings for my reflections on my tenure as Superior General.
At this point, five months from the beginning of the General Chapter, all the delegates to the Chapter have been chosen. In all likelihood the next Superior General will come from among their numbers. That was also the case twelve years ago. But before arriving at the Chapter, I never imagined that I would be elected to that position. I say this only to point out how, on several levels, I was unprepared for what occurred. Still, I accepted my election as a manifestation of the divine will for me and chose to rely totally on the promise of providence. With that, my initial disquiet--stemming in large part from a lack of experience--yielded to complete confidence that He who had entrusted me with this responsibility would also help me to shoulder it. A quiet peace soon descended upon me and never once in these past twelve years has confidence in the fidelity of providence left me. Even when I was dealing with substantial difficulties and major challenges--no, especially at those times--my confidence in providence has never lessened. I simply trusted that God would provide. And He did, again and again. May my successor have a similar confidence in a providence that is not only powerful but warm and personal as well! Francis speaks in the Treatise of God’s “passionate love for us” (Bk 2, ch 8). When we link that passionate love to its beautiful manifestation in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, “the heart’s intimate friend,” all worries cease and insecurities disappear, leaving in their place a quiet and trusting confidence. Thus, following the advice of our Patron, when difficulties mount and challenges begin to overwhelm us, we simply “wait in peace for the effects of God’s good pleasure” and “let his willing always be sufficient for us since it is always the best.” But once His will has become clear to us, our “waiting changes into consent or acquiescence” (Treatise, Book 9, ch 15). The sometimes abstract-sounding spiritual advice contained in the Treatise soon became for me the solid foundation upon which to practice the virtue of confidence in the exercise of Salesian leadership.
I have always thought that our stress on the “union of wills” is best understood as the natural consequence of a prior, and more fundamental, “union of hearts.” This was, after all, the life journey of St. Francis de Sales who, as a teenage student in Paris, learned from his study of the Song of Songs that our relationship with God is best understood as a love story. Once the lovers in that biblical poem find one another, they embrace and assure each other that they will never again let go of the other, uttering the words that were to become our Oblate motto, “tenui nec dimittam!” And they sealed that beautiful promise with a kiss. As our Patron reminds us in the Treatise, the kiss described there “is a vivid symbol of a union of hearts” (Book 1, ch 9). United in their mutual affection, the two lovers are now but one in heart. And because they are one in heart, they are also one in will and life as well. The beautiful union that is their experience is the deepest truth about the relationship between God and every believer. As Pope Benedict XVI expresses it, “the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 17). As far as Francis de Sales is concerned, such a love, warm and tender, is the starting point for the Christian’s journey in faith. It is also the believer’s entire life project. Thus, for de Sales, we embrace God’s will because we love God. Love and obedience are one in the sense that love is a totally free act that engages us from within and manifests itself as fidelity--in heart, will and life--to whatever the Beloved wills for us in each succeeding present moment of life. Pope Benedict XVI expresses the intrinsic connection between love and obedience most powerfully in these few words: “Love can be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 14). For believers, then, the commandment to love is simply the commandment to be who we already are through grace, and to be that well in our daily lives, that is, in our relational lives with God and others. Understood in this sense, love leads to both human completion and Christian perfection.
What does this discussion have to do with the past twelve years? Oblate governance is rooted in the Salesian understanding of loving union. Thus, in our tradition, the emphasis is placed on “winning hearts,” not on compelling them through the force of authority or position. I have attempted to translate this emphasis through the manner in which I have conducted myself with others as Superior General. For instance, in canonical visitations and other visits, as well as in the meetings of major superiors and in my dealings with the members of the General Council, I have desired most of all to be a confrère among confrères, treating each Oblate with the dignity and respect that is innately his as made to God’s image, and giving every opinion a fair hearing and a place at the table of decision. Whenever possible, I have attempted to persuade, to win over, to reach consensus and to engage in a common search for the divine will. And when the exercise of leadership suggested that I go up ahead and point out what I felt God was calling the Congregation to, I tried to do so with both prudence and patience. While being faithful to what I perceived to be God’s will for us, I was also sensitive to the pace and the opinions of those who had not yet arrived at a similar conclusion. I felt that the efforts needed to persuade were energies well expended and, further, that they worked in both directions. At times this approach meant that we arrived later than I had hoped and sometimes not at all. Still, the opposite was true as well. Often an idea that I had originally suggested went far beyond what I had imagined or could have envisioned. Yet, I did not thereby conclude that the direction was incorrect simply because it was not mine. Rather, I tried to say “yes” to the God who was stretching me beyond my limitations. As you see, embracing the divine will has been an exciting adventure, taking both me and the Congregation to places that none of us could have envisioned twelve short years ago. These days I often wonder where it will lead us in the next twelve years. I pray that we will continue to be as supple, flexible and open to the divine will as our Founder would want us to be. And along the way, we will have to learn more and more the art of adapting the principles of union in heart, will and life that Francis originally articulated principally for individuals to the larger issues of Congregation, Church and world.
Francis tells us in the Treatise that God’s will is made known to us through commandments, counsels and inspirations (Book 8). Commandments and counsels are clear. Inspirations, whether personal or communal, often require discernment. Discernment is a major component in the exercise of religious, and especially Salesian, leadership. Over these past twelve years, there have been many opportunities to practice the art of discernment. Early on, I concluded that discernment in the Salesian tradition is largely a step-by-step process. Through the continual unfolding of events and a careful study of the “signs of the times,” we try to read what God wants us to take as the next step. In this understanding of discernment, we are not so much concerned about the end of the process. Indeed, at the beginning of the process, its end is frequently known only to God. So in Salesian discernment we concern ourselves principally with “the next step,” fully confident that fidelity to each next step will ultimately lead us to the final goal that God desires for us.
Responding to each next step in this manner has led us to take many “next steps,” some large and some small. It has, for instance, led us from one community in India to three and from a growing foundation in India to the exploration of a new one in the Philippines. It has led us to invite Oblates from South America and South Africa to staff St. Charles Parish in Monaco. It has helped our Swiss confrères to reach the difficult decision to change their status from Province to Community. A similar process has recently led the Oblates of the South American Region to their exciting decision to change their status from Region to Province. Discerning the next step has often meant “thinking outside the box.” French, Italian and Haitian novices have received or are receiving their canonical year in Brazil; confrères from Bénin have studied philosophy and theology in South Africa; and young candidates from the Yucatan are discerning their Oblate vocation in Ecuador and Brazil. The Austria-South German Province has agreed to welcome and form vocations from Ukraine. Discerning the next step has led the two southern African Regions to agree to a merger, while it has led the German and Austria-South German Provinces, as well as the Toledo-Detroit and Wilmington-Philadelphia Provinces, to meet more regularly as Councils and to cooperate more fully on a number of different levels, including formation, retreats, and joint efforts in fund raising for Oblate missions. Discernment led to the emergence, almost twelve years ago, of the idea of a Chablais Mission Fund. That, in turn, led to almost a decade of reflection on the meaning of foreign and domestic missions today, the place and function of the “Chablais Spirit” in the life of the Congregation, and to a number of concrete proposals to both the 2000 and the 2006 General Chapters.
The examples could be multiplied. But hopefully the point is clear. For those of us in the Salesian tradition, discernment, especially discernment of “the next step,” is not only central to our spiritual tradition, but it also plays a significant role in Oblate governance. We want only what God wants for us and are therefore eager to know His will for us, not only as individuals but also as a Congregation. And we are committed to following that will as it unfolds before us, step by step. Where it will lead us may, at the beginning, be unclear or even unknown to us. Still, because our trust in providence is firm, we follow wherever God leads. We may not always know what lies up ahead, but we are always certain of the One who will greet us when, faithful to His inspirations, we arrive there. That is sufficient for us to take each next step in faith and hope. For we are certain that love guides our every step.
Recently the Holy Father has published his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Its subject matter, a rich and discerning reflection on the double commandment of love, is worthy of serious study and prayerful reflection by every Christian. Oblates will find in this important document themes that are so central to Salesian spirituality that it could easily have been written by St. Francis de Sales himself. Limiting myself to Part I (of two Parts) of the encyclical, I would like to point out some of the “Salesian” elements of Deus Caritas Est.
The first line of the encyclical is a verse from the first letter of St. John: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (4:16). In its broadest scope, the encyclical spells out the implications of that verse by clarifying the nature of God, as love as well as the nature of our participation in God’s love in terms of a union that comes to expression in affective and effective love.
Pope Benedict describes the relationship between the love of eros and the love of agape. For the ancients, eros is an ecstasy or a movement that is directed out of oneself towards union with the divine. For the Holy Father, eros can never be content, as it was for many of them, simply to be “a moment of intoxication.” Rather, purified through faith, it needs to become “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God” (No. 6). Francis, too, begins with the notion of ecstasy. In its initial stage, ecstasy is for him something quite neutral. It means simply “to go out of oneself” (Treatise, Bk 1, ch 10). Both Francis and Pope Benedict want to direct that movement outward toward loving union with God and, from that union, toward union with neighbor in concrete acts of tangible love. In other words, both want to balance and complement the love of eros with the love of agape, with the latter purifying the former and providing it with a direction that is derived from the teachings of Scripture and the example of Christ and his saints.
For the Holy Father, as for Francis, the Song of Songs provides one of the best biblical understandings of love (pars 6 & 10). This short book uses two words for love. One, dodim, suggests “a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching.” The other, ahabà, which is translated as agape in the Greek version of the Old Testament, moves beyond the selfish character of dodim love to “a real discovery of the other,” demonstrating a “concern and care for the other.” It is no longer self-seeking; it now “seeks the good of the beloved (cf. the love of benevolence): it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”
For the Holy Father, agape love finds its fullest expression in Jesus, especially in his pierced heart (pars 7, 12, 17). From the example of Jesus we learn that God’s love for us is passionate, gracious, forgiving and suffering. It is also concrete: God loves each of us in a personal manner, even by our first and last name (Treatise, Bk 12, ch 12). The pierced heart of Christ reveals the deepest nature of God’s love for us as suffering love. It also points us to the Christian model of our love for one another. This is why Francis calls Calvary “the true school of love” and why he exclaims at the end of his Treatise, “O supreme love of the Heart of Jesus, what heart can ever bless you as devoutly as it ought!” (Bk 12, ch 13) By contemplating the pierced side of Christ, “the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move” (No. 12).
The encyclical rightly reminds us that Jesus gave his “act of oblation” on the Cross “an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.” The Eucharist draws us into “Jesus’ act of self-oblation” and “into the very dynamic of his self-giving” (No. 13). Union with Christ in the Eucharist leads us “towards unity with all Christians.” Thus, Eucharistic communion “includes the reality of being loved and of loving others in turn”(No. 14). Agreeing fully with this sentiment is why Francis calls the Eucharist “the sun of all spiritual exercises” (Introduction, Part II, ch 14).
Through the whole sweep of salvation history, culminating in Christ and continuing in his Church, God “seeks to win our hearts” (No. 17). Francis would certainly agree with that assessment. Indeed, “winning hearts” becomes the central inspiration in his understanding of Christian praxis: “whoever wins a man’s heart has won the whole man” (Introduction, Part III, ch 23) That is the manner in which Jesus, gentle and humble of heart, acted with people and it is how Christians are to relate with one another.
Pope Benedict boldly affirms that God’s passionate and forgiving love for us “is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice” (No. 10). Francis says something very similar in his Treatise when, alluding to James 2:13, he writes that God’s “mercy surpasses his justice” and, continuing, agrees completely with the sentiment of I Timothy 2:4 that God desires all “to be saved and to come to know the truth” (Treatise, Bk 2, ch 8).
The Holy Father speaks frequently of love in terms of union. He speaks for instance of “a communion of will” (No. 18) and of a “community of will and thought,” and of “a communion of thought and sentiment.” He anticipates, as Francis does, that “our will and God’s will increasingly coincide.” God’s will is “no longer an alien will…but is my own will” (No. 17). Francis describes love in terms of a union of heart and of will (Treatise, Bk 1, ch 9). He also speaks of a unity of wills, of a will that is totally “converted into God’s will” (Treatise, Bk 9, ch 13). When our loving union with God becomes unity, we then begin to live Jesus. Rather, Jesus begins to live in us and to act through us in our world today (cf Galatians 2:20). This is how the prophecy of the Good Mother is realized in the Oblates, a prophecy that promises that Jesus will be seen once again walking upon the earth--in us.
These are just a few examples of the “Salesian” flavor of the encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. I encourage all of you, my Oblate confrères, to read and study it for yourselves. In it you will find papal confirmation for what we Oblates strongly desire to live in our own lives and what we earnestly want to share with others!
The latest edition of the Personnel Directory and Necrology will soon be published and distributed to every Oblate. This data is updated monthly on the Congregation’s web page. The web page also contains other helpful information and can be accessed at this address: www.desalesoblates.org. Please send updates, as warranted, directly to Johann Angleitner at this e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Given the availability of this data to Oblates with access to the Internet, the question arose at the January meeting of the General Council as to whether a printed version of the Personnel Directory is still necessary. It was decided that, for now at least, the availability of the Personnel Directory in both cyber space and the printed page is helpful and necessary.
Constitution 256 mandates that at the opening of the General Chapter, the Superior General “will make a report, previously approved by the General Council, concerning the spiritual, disciplinary and financial situation of the Congregation.” Once the General Chapter begins, that Report will also be available in several languages on the Congregation’s web page.
There are many anniversaries and celebrations this year. On March 25, 2006 our Dutch confrères formally established a new Provincial Residence and Salesian Center, and in December they issued the golden edition of Salesiaans Contact. Throughout this year the Austria-South German Province is celebrating its centenary. A major celebration will take place in Vienna during the weekend of May 27-28, 2006. And on Sunday, August 6, 2006, the capitulants to the General Chapter will celebrate this anniversary in Fockenfeld. This year the Province’s Salesian magazine, Licht, is also celebrating its centenary. Pope Benedict XVI has written a congratulatory letter to its editors, writers, sponsors and readers, extending upon them his apostolic blessing. On April 21, 2006, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of First Profession and the 70th year of ordination of their venerable Father Theodor Syberichs, the confrères of the South American Region will inaugurate a year-long celebration in honor of a hundred years of Oblate life and ministry in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. On February 9, 2006 the members the South American Region, meeting in Chapter, voted to change their status from Region to Province. Approved on March 1, 2006, by the Superior General and General Council, this change in status will formally take place in February 2007. The ICSS is celebrating its 30th year of promoting and coordinating, in cooperation with many others in the Salesian family, the dissemination of Salesian spirituality throughout the world. Congratulations and best wishes to all the provinces, regions and confrères who are associated with these happy events, celebrations and anniversaries!
One of the prerogatives of the Superior of the Troyes Visitation at the time of the Good Mother was the privilege of being able to drive the horse-drawn coach around the grounds of the monastery. Therefore, whenever the Good Mother was no longer Superior, she would humorously describe her situation in this manner: “I am no longer commissioned to drive the coach.” In this, she was simply following a time-honored tradition of the Visitation Order in which, for one year, the former Superior assumes the lowest rank in the community. This tradition gives her the opportunity to practice humility, one of the signature virtues of the Order. It also provides the new Superior with the space to implement her own insights and dreams for the Community. In keeping with the spirit of this venerable tradition, I will ask the capitulants to the General Chapter not to consider me as a candidate for the position of General Councilor. Twelve years ago I was elected to this position from the relative obscurity of an Oblate professor of theology and spirituality. While it has truly been a great honor to serve the Congregation during these years as Superior General, I am now ready to step down and to assume the life of a “Père déposé.” Like the Good Mother, “I am no longer commissioned to drive the coach!”
As I prepare to step down from this office, I wish to apologize if, in the exercise of my ministry, I have in any manner offended any of you, my Oblate confrères. Such was certainly never my intention. At the end of twelve years, I am older and hopefully a little wiser. I am also very grateful to each and every one of you. You, my Oblate confrères, are gifted, good, and very generous men. You have made my ministry among you one of incredible joy and lasting satisfaction. For that I am sincerely and forever grateful!
Yours very fraternally in our saintly Patron and holy Founders,
Lewis S. Fiorelli, O.S.F.S.