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Opening of the 21st General Assembly.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

A word of welcome:

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to welcome all of you participants to this 21st General Assembly of the Society of African Missions. We have twenty-one “ex officio”– Marcos Delgado represents Spain in an official capacity in place of Rafael Marco, who is indisposed - and twenty-three elected delegates to this Assembly. We come from seventeen existing Units and nineteen countries, reflecting the broad international character of this missionary family. As well as those present in this room, I welcome also all those who are following us on live streaming. For the first time, the opening address is being live streamed for all members and supporters to engage with us. I ask you to accompany us with your prayers throughout the coming weeks. Each day there will be a media event summarising the main elements of the day.

I welcome in a particular way our two lay representatives, BozenaLatochaand Dympna Mallon, who have been invited to live and work with us during this Assembly. I believe it is the first time that we have two laity representatives at a General Assembly. Significant too is the fact that both of you are women. I believe you feminine genius will contribute in a very meaningful way to produce fruitful outcomes.

I welcome our two facilitators, Sr Jeanne Marie Ouedraogo and Fr Basil Soyoye. Basil needs little introduction to any of us here: a member of the Nigerian District-in-formation, formerly carrying the following responsibilities, Director of the Stage programme in Cairo, Egypt, Rector of Bodija, Ibadan, Superior of the Bight of Benin District-in-formation, Superior of the Spiritual Year Centre at Calavi and presently Director of Carrefour Des CulturelAfricainesat 150 Cours Gambetta in Lyon. Sr Jeanne Marie is a native of Burkina Faso and comes to us from the Communauté de Centre Spirituel at La Pommeraye in France. I am grateful to you both for graciously accepting our invitation to serve as facilitators of this Assembly. I welcome our translators Michel Savadogo and Dominick Wabwireh, our Secretaries Sylvère Atta and Steven Phillips and our media team of Gérard Sagnol and CharlesJebamalai.

Many participants are coming to an Assembly for the very first time. Some may have been here before in other service roles but are coming now for the very first time as members of the Assembly. By my reckoning,well over 50% ofparticipants are enjoying this experience for the first time. I hope it will be for you and for all of us a deeply nourishing experience of our common life in Christ.

Thanksgiving:

We must begin by giving thanks to God for calling us to God’s mission and making it possible for us to reach this day. I am particularly grateful that God has supported us throughout these six years, in spite of our frailties, inadequacies and inconsistent responses, to launch onto a new pathway. I am grateful for all the support I have received personally from my Council and support team and from all the confreres and associates I have met during my travels. It has been a deeply humbling but most rewarding experience.

New Adventure:

We have chosen, for what I believe may be the very first time, to have our Assembly outside our own house at Nocetta. Accommodation availability at Nocetta would simply not be sufficient to meet the demand. We have come here to la Casa per Ferie on Via di Val Cannuta. Coming here to this Centre allows us all to be together throughout. No rushing to and fro to Casa Benefratelli to grab a hurried siesta. We have been welcomed warmly by the staff of this premises. They are ready to put whatever is needed at our disposal. We have spacious grounds in which to walk, pray, sit and play. This is a convent ofla Compagnia di Santa Teresa di Jesu, whose community live in a section of the building, and so we work in an atmosphere of prayer. I am confident that our stay here will be both comfortable and enjoyable and will enable us to attend to the tasks demanded of us.

We are embarking on this venture with a new approach. For over three years now, the General Council has been discussing what might be the best approach to adopt for General Assembly 2019. Our choice for the Appreciative Discernmentapproach was approved by Plenary Council 2017. There, we chose as the theme for our Assembly “A family faithful to its missionary charism in the changing and complex context of today”. The Appreciative Discernment approachseeks to begin from our strengths, and then try to build on those into the future. We have all been engaging with the process for over a year now, through the Apostolic Communities in our places of mission. I offer my gratitude here to the members of the Preparatory Commission for producing some guiding questions to aid in the stages of Discovery and initial Dream stage. The Questionnaire was published as bulletin 148. I wish to record that there was a very good and serious engagements with this Questionnaire throughout the Society. My thanks to the members themselves and the Leaders who organised meetings at different levels.The responses to the Questionnaire throughout the Society is produced in Bulletin No. 151 and will form the backdrop for our work here on the following Stages: Dream 2, Design and Do It. The methodology will be explained in detail later today.

Global contest:

I am conscious that we live our mission today in a global context that is fractious. Wars and rumours of wars are all about us. The mission we live as SMA is in many places a context of high insecurity. We cannot but have foremost in our thoughts and prayers today our confrere, Pier Luigi Maccalli, kidnapped in Bomoanga, Niger, on the night of September 17th last year. His whereabouts have still to be identified. We earnestly pray, as we have been doing on a daily basis,these last seven plus months for his safe release. We must also keep in mind that two other confreres were kidnapped during this past mandate. Thankfully, both were released physically unharmed after a number of days. Groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Niger and Seleka and anti-Balaka in Central Africa have been wreaking havoc to those countries and their peoples. In such areas of high insecurity and terror, while NGO personnel may leave for safety reasons, missionaries and Church personnel stay, ready to lay down their lives for their flock.

Opportunities:

Many opportunities for growth are presented to us during this Assembly. We will dream, design and implement the best Leadership and Structures that can aid our mission going forward. This will be a challenging task, but I have no doubt that this Assembly is ready to take on the challenge. Thankfully, we are not coming at it from scratch and my gratitude goes to the members of the Structures Commission and all those who subsequently engaged with the process through their Apostolic Communities to contribute to a working document that can lead to the road forward.

One challenge and perhaps even a tension in this past mandate has been that of trying to maintain and even strengthen SMA presence in older Units while at the same time maintaining our primary focus on Africa and its peoples. New missions have been opened in various countries of Europe and North America. I believe this reality will continue to be a challenge and opportunity for the coming six years. Our task here will be to design and implement policies and action plans for better outcomes.

Another challenge will be to maintain or even strengthen our charism of being missionaries “ad extra”, “ad gentes” and “ad vitam”.I hope we can strengthen our ‘apostolic’ zeal. I am grateful to Fr Bruno Semplicio, former Postulator for the Cause of the Founder, who has, over these years, been regularly calling to our attention that we are called by our Founder to “do just as the Apostles do”. Keeping this focus constantly in mind will aid us in dreaming and designing how we live our mission with greatest fidelity today. I have no doubt that this will include ways for greater inclusiveness of laity in order to improve our response and empower the laity to more fully exercise their baptismal call to mission.

We will of course be electing a Superior General and Council to lead the Society for the coming six years. I pray that we will do a good discernment and make good choices.

Influence of Pope Francis:

Pope Francis was elected to be the Servant of the Servants of God just a mere few weeks before this mandate began. So, our mandate has been contemporaneous with that of Pope Francis. His influence for good in our world is incalculable. Two seminal documents of his pontificate, EvangeliiGaudium and Laudato Si, have had a huge influence on the Church and wider society. Dare I say it, but they are critical documents for the SMA. Inaugurating the Year of Mercy at the door of the cathedral of Bangui in Central Africa was a powerful and prophetic message to us and to the world. We are truly privileged to live our mission journey in the time of Pope Francis. We are truly privileged too to be received in audience by His Holiness on May 17th.

Hope:

I personally come to this Assembly with great hope for the future. In the Scriptures we do not hear many words like success. But we hear a lot about fruitfulness. We live our Assembly in the light of Easter. We have been reliving and will continue throughout the Assembly to relive the experience of the early Christians, as they came to deeper belief in the resurrection of Jesus and that God’s Kingdom has really broken into our world. It is the basis of all our faith; it is the basis of all our hope. There is a missionary imperative: not to stay locked in our rooms in fear, but rather to march on with the courage of a convicted Christian and proclaim to all and sundry the Good News and confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

My belief is that this Assembly will be fruitful. My belief rests on the fact that it is indeed not our mission we serve but rather God’s mission entrusted to us with our specific charism as SMA. We will discern and reflect and decide together on behalf of the whole Society. We will try to distance ourselves from any petty attempts to gain for my own corner of the SMA at the expense of another. Our task is a communal one, to seek what is best for the mission of the whole Society for the coming six years.

Conclusion:

I conclude my address by offering a word of gratitude to a number of people. First of all, I wish to say a very sincere thank you to the members of my Council and all the support staff at Nocetta. They have been immensely kind and extremely patient. I have depended on them to help me out with various language challenges and they have never failed to be gracious in their response. Our Council experienced something of a rupture in the early years, when Francois Gnonhossou was appointed by the Holy Father to be Bishop of Dassa-Zoumé in Benin Republic. Francois de Paul Hounge was elected to replace Francois at Plenary Council 2015 and has settled in seamlessly to the team. Living in the community of Nocetta these past six years has been enormously enriching and enjoyable. A beautiful fraternal and maternal spirit permeates the place. It is a buzz of activity throughout the year. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of days in these past six years when we were not blessed by visitors. Our Muslim brothers who have lived with us for the past four years have brought a freshness to daily life. And the Franciscan Sisters of the Presentation of Mary from Coimbatore in India, through their joyful spirit and prayerful presence, contribute enormously to an atmosphere where one feels nourished in body, mind and spirit. I do not omit our dedicated lay staff, those who work in the archives and bursar’s department, and the many who give joyful and generous service in the domestic arena.

Prayer:

We pray as we have done daily in the past months from the prayer in preparation for this Assembly.

“Gathered by Jesus Christ and fashioned by His Word,

help us to move forward with a new vision, in hope!

Renew in us the joy of the Gospel

so that we might be credible witnesses

of the Good News, especially in Africa.”

Our Lady, Queen of Africa, intercede for us throughout all our deliberations. I call on the Servant of God, Melchior de Marion Brésillac and all our SMA missionaries who have gone before us, to pray for us.  

With these words I declare open the 21st General Assembly of the Society of African Missions.

Rome, 30th April 2019

                                                                                                           Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA

                                                                                                           Superior General