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pcd2 coverYears pass and the Society of African Missions grows. Every year, representatives from all SMA units meet to reflect on its past, analyse its present and set perspectives for the future. This year the meeting is being held in Nairobi, Kenya.

Welcome

I t is my pleasure to welcome all of you to the fourth and most likely the last Plenary Council of this mandate. In a short while, we will be formally welcomed by the hosts of this gathering. I wish to thank Fr Jean Baptiste Musa-Bino, Superior of Great Lakes District-in-formation, Fr Thaddeus Ogato, Regional Superior of Kenya and Fr Mohan Divya Raj, Superior of this House of Formation and all their teams, for inviting us to this beautiful setting to conduct our Plenary Council.

I welcome those who may be attending a Plenary Council for the first time: Francois du Penhoat, Désiré Salako, Francis Barka Nado, Joy Andrews, Janusz Machota and Narcisse Seka Ogou. In a particular way, I welcome our two laity representatives: Dympna Mallon from Ireland and Mara le Mahieu from Netherlands and missioning in Tanzania.

Charism and Culture

pcd2 2For the three days immediately prior to my flying out to Nairobi, I attended the meeting in Rome of the Union of Superiors General. Such meetings hold twice per year, once at the end of the May and the second one at the end of November. The participants at the May 2017 meeting were fewer than those who attended in November 2016; this is likely explained by the fact that an audience with Pope Francis was not scheduled for this May meeting. The theme of the gathering was Vocational Discernment in an Intercultural World. The theme was prepared in light of next year’s Synod of Bishops on the theme of youth. It was agreed that the Superiors General will devote the coming November meeting to a further exploration of this theme.

The opening talk was given by Fr Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The title of his presentation was Interculturality, Catholicity and Consecrated Life. Many of the points raised in his presentation and further discussion are pertinent to our own discussions here at Plenary Council 2017. Later today, Rozario will bring us through a presentation and small workshop on Intercultural living. I am looking forward eagerly to these sessions.

Fr Sosa clarified that a charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, given to an individual at a particular time and in a particular cultural context. But this charism is not something static. When people from a different culture to the original and from a different historical period ‘receive’ this charism, they bring to it something new from their own cultural background and experience. Thus, the charism is always developing or evolving. I quote one section of Fr Sosa’s talk which, I think, is particularly relevant to us, as we continue to seek clarity around the charism of the SMA today.

The “cultures” of religious congregations are [also] dynamic and evolve according to history. We cannot fall prey to the temptation of considering the charism to be intangible and unchangeable, as something external to and different from the cultures of the persons that live it and their cultures. The call of Vatican II to go back to our sources is not an attempt to freeze the charism as an intangible “culture” that is passed on unchanged from generation to generation. On the contrary, it is a call to creative fidelity to the dynamics of incarnation shown by Jesus and to openness to the present-day challenges to the mission of Consecrated Life as part of the Church, whose raison d’etre lies in evangelizing history.

A quotation from a second paper delivered at the meeting is also relevant.

While sharing a common charism, the members of an international congregation bring diverse experiences of church and religious life, shaped by the many cultural backgrounds they represent. The assumption that all have exactly the same vision of church, ministry, religious life, and spirituality can lead to misunderstandings, resentments, and conflict. It is important to recognise the diversity of ecclesiologies and lived experience of religious life, and not to assume that the way it is lived out in the host country is the one and only way the congregation’s charism should be incarnated.

Vocational Discernment in an Intercultural World, Fr Mark Weber SVD

Of course, the charism has to be first of all rooted in the new culture before it can evolve. One must also be careful to note and challenge whenever cultural background is used as an excuse for a refusal to conversion to the common charism. Indeed, one may also note that the charism of a contemplative, mendicant or teaching order is significantly different to that of a missionary Society; one might expect more variation of cultural expression of the charism in the former than in the latter. Nevertheless, I believe this understanding of evolution of charism can help us in our own reflection and practice.

Event 2017 Tresseurs de Cordes

We will have discussion during this Plenary Council on Event 2017. This Event, conceived at PC15 at Chaponost and developed since then, is an initiative to help the whole membership of our Society to reflect together on how our charism is being lived today. It looks to the past with gratitude; it looks to the present with passion; and it looks to the future in a spirit of hope. The idea is not to get stuck in the past but rather to learn from the past to see how and where we were at our best and to take from this ‘best’ for our future witness.

GA 2019 and Structures

This same mind-set of positive thinking is the basis on which a methodology of Appreciative Discernment will be proposed to this meeting for adoption as the methodology for General Assembly 2019. In preparation for this same Assembly of 2019, we will look at this meeting at some proposals around our structures. In light of our discussion above on charism and culture, it might be helpful to analyse the models proposed in light of an evolving charism through its different cultural expressions. Is there one model that is more likely to guarantee fidelity to the original charism while allowing for positive evolution? Are there aspects to the model that may require extra attention in order to help and sustain fidelity?

Visits

Since PC16 the General Council has paid many visits to Units and Regions. I made a canonical visit to the following areas: Benin/Niger, Poland, Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco, Lyon and Strasbourg, and Nigeria. In each of these places, I was inspired by the dedication of many of our members, both young and old, at the coalface of mission or in the retirement house. This is not to suggest that there are no challenges. Reports to this Plenary Council outline many such challenges. It is noticeable that in all these areas, members live the present time with passion and prepare for the future with a great deal of hope.

Conclusion

pcd2 1As we will see when we look at the agenda, there is no shortage of topics for discussion. I hope and pray that our discussions will be carried out in the fraternal atmosphere that has always characterised such gatherings. I have every confidence that this will be so. I believe our discussions will be fruitful and the decisions we take will impel us to greater fidelity to our missionary vocation.

May our discussions be blessed by the Holy Spirit who has gifted the charism of SMA to each and every one of us. May Mary Mother of God intercede with the Father on our behalf. And may the Servant of God, Melchior de Marion Bresillac look down on us with paternal care.

I conclude this short address with the same quotation from Bresillac with which I concluded the opening address to the first Plenary Council of this mandate. I have no doubt his words remain forever valid. These words were used at the end of a retreat given at Pondichery, India, in January 1849:

“The joy I wish you, that which must be the faithful companion of our work, is the joy of heart, the joy of a pure conscience, the joy of a servant who loves his master and who rejoices in working for him. It is the joy of a vocation which makes us feel at home wherever the Lord sends us. It envies nothing, desires nothing, regrets nothing, because it has only one desire in the world: to do what God wishes and nothing else.”

With these opening remarks I declare Plenary Council 2017 open.

Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA
Superior General