In this final phase of our Congregation-wide Animation Plan, and in preparation for our forthcoming General Chapter, we have embarked on an in-depth reflection on our Spiritan mission in the contemporary world. Are we truly faithful today to the intuitions of Claude Poullart des Places and Francis Libermann who saw the fundamental purpose of the Congregation as the ‘evangelisation of the poor’? How best can we place our missionary charism, a precious gift of the Holy Spirit, at the service of the different local Churches in which we serve, taking into account our actual and often limited resources and in such a way as to ensure genuine community living which is integral to our Spiritan way of life?
In addition to seeking to clarify a vision and a strategy for Spiritan mission in response to the signs of the times in which we live, however, it is equally important that we rediscover the missionary spirituality that sustains and gives life and meaning to all that we do. Many of us carry out our mission today in very difficult and personally challenging circumstances: the reality of conflict, insecurity and the daily threat of violence; crippling poverty, corruption and injustice; pervasive secularism where our faith is eroded and undermined; a Church whose credibility has been seriously damaged by the revelation of successive scandals and the failures of leadership; circumscriptions and communities that are divided by internal tensions and interpersonal mistrust. We need deep inner resources to sustain and support us in these situations and to enable us to avoid falling prey to pessimism, discouragement and disillusion.
Francis Libermann had to face the limitations of his own nervous temperament and debilitating illness, the pain of rejection by his father and hurtful criticism from others, among them Church leaders and close associates (cf. N.D. VI, 38 to M. Desgenettes; L.S.IV, 273 ff to Le Vavasseur) and the devastating failure of his first missionary venture. He felt inadequate as a leader of a new missionary Society and at times was overwhelmed by the tasks with which he was confronted (cf. L.S. IV, 275 to Le Vavasseur; N.D. VII, 5 to S. Libermann). Yet his profound inner spiritual resources enabled him to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in the midst of it all and to continue unwaveringly on the path to which he believed the Lord had called him. At the heart of his spirituality was the conviction that God is present, not primarily in miraculous signs or events, but in the midst of the reality that we live – even when at times he appears painfully absent – and that it is precisely in this situation that we must hear his voice and discern his call. Martin Buber points out that finding God in the reality of the human situation is rooted in Biblical spirituality: “The believing Jew,” he says, “lives in the consciousness that the proper place for his encounter with God lies in the ever-changing situation of life…Again and again he hears God’s voice in a different way in the language spoken by unforeseen and changed situations.” In a similar vein, Orthodox Archbishop Timothy Ware, reflecting on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, writes: “We do not find the Holy Spirit merely on some rarefied level…but he is present in all the events of our daily life. True ‘mysticism’ is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. My ‘spiritual life’ is the same as my daily life lived out in its fullness…This moment through which I am now passing, this familiar task which I perform each day, this person with whom I am at present talking – each is of infinite value…Sacred space and sacred time are nothing else than this place and this moment, seen for what they are – as filled with the Holy Spirit.” The perennial temptation for all of us is that of the two disciples in the Gospel who, after the death of Jesus, departed Jerusalem for Emmaus – the temptation to leave behind the place of our hurt and disenchantment in search of an alternative and illusory future. Together with St. Luke, Libermann reminds us that the true place of encounter with the Risen Lord is in Jerusalem, in the midst of the suffering to which our discipleship has brought us and which we would probably prefer to avoid. It is precisely into this situation that the Spirit comes bringing renewed meaning and hope and empowers us anew for our mission.
As in the case of Mary and the disciples in the upper room, the experience of our limitations and powerlessness is paradoxically the necessary condition for the rediscovery of the presence and power of the Spirit in the most unlikely situations. Libermann, based on his own experience, spoke often about the need for the serene acceptance of our limitations, weaknesses and mistakes (e.g. N.D. XII, 171 to Sr. Agnes). In a similar way, he recognised that there are situations and circumstances that are beyond our control; we need to know how to accept patiently obstacles that cannot be overcome, at least in the present circumstances, and wait for “the moment of God” (cf. N.D. IX, 328-9 to the Community in Dakar and Gabon). In words which could well have been spoken by Libermann himself, Yves Congar writes: “If my God is the God of the Bible, the living God …My action, then, consists in handing myself over to God, who allows me to be the link between his divine activity regarding the world and other people…I can only place myself faithfully before God, and offer the fullness of my being and my resources, so that I can be there where God awaits me, the link between this action of God and the world.”
Essentially, Libermann calls us to a contemplative view of the world in which we live and of the mission with which we are entrusted. It is an invitation to see ourselves, our brothers and sisters, our mission and the world from God’s perspective rather than from our own; it involves letting go of our preoccupations with ourselves and our compulsions, of our desires for success and recognition, in the serene knowledge that we are simply limited participants in a mission that is ultimately God’s not ours. This is precisely the purpose of the “practical union” or “union of operation” on which he insisted for his missionaries (cf. N.D. XIII, 699) : it is an ongoing disposition throughout all our activities to ‘let that mind be in us which was in Jesus Christ’ (Phil 2, 5), an acknowledgement of our dependence and the expression of trust in the most difficult situations, whether personal or in my ministry, a persistent desire to align my activity with that of the Holy Spirit or, more simply, to allow the Spirit to accomplish his mission through my actions.
May the coming of the Spirit this Pentecost renew our hope, our confidence and our courage in the midst of the difficulties and challenges our mission entails and empower us anew in his service.
John Fogarty, C.S.Sp.