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Great misery is the proud man, but greater mercy is the humble God.
(De cat. rud. IV, 8)
The absence of the Lord is not an absence. Just believe, and the one who you do not see is with you.
When did the Lord want to show himself? At the breaking of the bread. We can be sure of that: by sharing the bread, we recognize the Lord.
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Part Six

Formation to Community Life in the Light of the Three Vows

INTRODUCTION

Reading The Plan of Augustinian Formation, particularly the section on “Formation to Community Life in the Light of the Three Vows,” evokes questions and insights which are fundamental to the entire formation process. For this reason, we would like to devote the first part of this commentary to questions and insights which are at the heart of the formation process, especially as they pertain to individuals and communities called to be formators of our newer members. The second part of this commentary will deal more specifically with the three vows as centered in the person of Jesus Christ.

I.  QUESTIONS AND INSIGHTS

What is Formation?

It is not helpful to presume that this question is answered because the Rule, the O.S.A. Constitutions, pre- and post- Vatican II, and Augustinian documents, as well as our Plan of Augustinian Formation provide a focused answer. The question however, is a fundamental one. How are our newer members formed?

During a course for formators given at the Salesianum in Rome, the professor, Father Giovenale Dho, S.D.B. presented as his basic teaching: Every formation director has to discover and make his own a theory of human development. So simple and yet so profound.

The above statement provides clarity, but it can also cause discouragement. Most formation directors have the honesty to admit that their own human development is not fully integrated. Only death brings the developmental process to completion. Father Dho encouraged formators to:

  • Continue to grow in self-knowledge
  • Continue to cultivate healthy relationships with Jesus and others
  • Continue to educate themselves
  • Be grateful for strengths
  • Face weakness with trust and help from others
  • Continue to deepen their understanding that we develop and  grow in stages.

These are some of the factors involved in discovering and making our own a theory of human development. They help us to answer the question: What is formation?

FORMATION FOR WHAT?

Those in formation today have perceptions (not always accurate) of how community life and the vows are lived in their provinces. We admire their idealism and hope that they can gradually come to appreciate the legitimate variances that are part of all large groups. When, however, there are major disconnects between the Augustinian life lived in formation houses and the majority of communities in a province, this perception must be addressed, for obvious reasons. The climate, focus and the Gospel-vision of each Province affects the entire formation process. The two questions: What is Formation? and Formation for What? help to keep us honest and ensure that the formation process is inserted into the reality of our everyday experiences, both within and outside of our communities.

A final insight deals with a formation factor only touched upon lightly in the previous section: All formation is a continuum of developmental stages in a person’s life. This is in fact a statement about a theory of human development. Since 1968, it is evident that Augustinian documents and assemblies dealing with the life of the Order subscribe to the theory that formation takes place in stages. Likewise, Vatican documents dealing with formation, priestly and/or religious, reveal a great respect for the human person and how he or she develops throughout life. Both sources (Augustinian & Vatican) indicate a remarkable understanding of initial and continuing formation as a process of development which includes all components and stages: Human, psychological, spiritual, theological and pastoral. We are called by God several times in our lives. We are not struck by God with a once-and-for-all thunderbolt which seals us into a static living of life. Formation into community life in the light of the three vows speaks of the stages beyond initial formation in which our call continues into young adulthood, middle age and, finally, the poetically labeled “Golden Years”. At various stages of our lives, individually and communally, we are called again to share our understanding of the three vows and see how living these vows is very much a part the challenging call to deepen our lives together.

In concluding this first part, we cite a portion of a 1983 Vatican Document entitled Essential Elements in the Church’s Teaching on Religious Life:

Religious formation fosters growth in the life of the Lord from the earliest stages, when a person first becomes seriously interested in undertaking it, to its final consummation, when the religious meets the Lord definitively in death. The religious lives a particular form of life, and life itself is in constant ongoing development. It does not stand still. Nor is the religious simply called and consecrated once. The call by God and the consecration  by Him, continues to grow throughout life…..

[Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, May 31, 1983, Number 44.]

SOME PRACTICAL APPROACHES

  1. Periodically, formation teams and communities may want to share their understandings about the two questions: What is formation? …Formation for what? Personal reflections are a good beginning. Subsequent meetings may address the question from the viewpoint of the Gospels and Augustinian/Vatican Documents.
  2. At the beginning of the formation year, either in a Vesper ceremony or a community meeting, each member of the community can be asked to share his vocation story. This allows us to get to know one another better while experiencing the richness of God’s call. All community members are invited. This experience may take several days, depending on the size of a community. (Confer, Ratio, Number 32.)
  3. Within the first semester of the formation year, ask the entire community to share their impressions/reactions to number seventy of The Consecrated Life (Vita Consecrata). The questions presented to the community may simply be: What have I learned about myself, others and our community? Does what I have learned speak to my/our personal formation?

II.) JESUS CHRIST:THE REASON FOR OUR VOWED LIFETOGETHER

In the General Chapter of 1977, Tarsicius Van Bavel, O.S.A. spoke of Augustine in the following way:

“Augustine was a man of his time who took part in all important questions and controversies. For us today, this means: We have the challenge of making the Gospel present, without prejudices of any kind---just as Augustine did in his time… Of great importance in our day is his opinion that love of God is expressed in love for men and women.”  (From private notes taken at the 1977 General Chapter.)

Van Bavel also spoke frequently of founders of religious communities having a “Window on the Gospel.” That is, each founder or foundress sees Jesus in a certain focused way and attempts to shape that focus with others. (Cfr., Starting Afresh with Christ, Number 24.)

Augustine’s Window on the Gospel

Augustine had a fascination with Matthew 25 and the Gospel of John. Both deal with meeting Christ in others, as well as with Jesus as the Master conversationalist. Both provide a starting point for considering the vows individually: Who is the hungry, thirsty and naked Christ? Where do we find Him? Is this needy Christ to be found not only in the manifest struggles of our world, but also across the table from me in community, as well as in the people I minister to? If the vow of obedience involves listening, to whom do we listen, both within and outside of our communities? Direct encounter with a superior asking us to do something different may involve 24 hours of an average lifetime. What does attentive listening mean during the 99 percent of our lives wherein we do not move to a new location? Finally, what does it mean to love and be loved in a celibate way? For Augustine, self-knowledge is at the heart of establishing a sense of meaning in our lives. If we do not know ourselves, how can we know and love others, even our best friends and especially the people we encounter daily.

Focus on God’s loving covenant to a repeatedly sinful people and on Jesus’ mysterious presence, love, and care for the poor and needy are key to whatever conversations we may have about the vows. This loving focus extends to all aspects of our community lives and ministries. At the risk of oversimplification, we formators, in engaging in “vow formation” and all of us, no matter what our stages of formation, need to continue to appreciate that the overriding and central motivation for religious poverty, obedience and chastity…and the one under which all other motives may be subsumed, is attachment to and love for the poor Christ, the obedient Christ and the loving Christ. [Adapted from: “The Center of Religious Poverty,” Boniface Ramsey, O.P., Review for Religious, Volume 42, 1983, p. 539.]

There are many questions regarding vow preparation today that did not present themselves in past eras. Smaller communities, diminishing numbers, changing or re-focused ministries as well as the sense that the church may be losing its moorings, are all part of the lives of many - not all - religious, priests and even some bishops. This age tests our faith on many levels. But this age also offers opportunities to insert Augustine’s Window on the Gospel into our formation programs. We are all living in the Biblical “meantime”, a present time which looks to the future. This can be an uncomfortable time to live in, but it is the only “meantime” of our lives. Many of our formation programs - or some parts of them - provide first-hand experiences of working with individuals and families who struggle. The location of some of our formation houses in neighborhoods that are less desirable, from a middle-class mentality, can provide healthy climates for asking healthy questions. What is formation? Formation for what? Guided reflections on the vows experienced in these types of settings can lead to a deeper self-knowledge and a mature experience of loving and being loved within the tensions of ordinary life. All such things are part of this fascinating journey called “Formation to Community Life in the Light of the Three Vows.”

A helpful and remarkable perspective on these times is given by Father Donald Senior, C.P., President of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

The Bible perceives human reality as standing in time between the present condition and future reality. Strangely, it believes that the future - because it is God’s future - is more real and enduring than the present. The future is not a projection of our imagination, but a God-shaped destiny toward which we move. Although the creation story begins the Biblical saga, the deepest instinct of the Bible is not Paradise Lost but Paradise to be Re-gained. The on-rushing movement of Biblical history is from slavery to freedom from death to life. The events of recent history bespeak Gospel truth quite literally. The world needs visible communities of human beings who live in the meantime in a way that give credible witness to the spiritual nature and capacity of the human person. The vows have to do ultimately, not with a set of proposals, but with a commitment to a way of life, a way rooted in Faith. (Living in theMeantime, Paulist Press, 1994, p.71.)

SOME PRACTICAL APPROACHES

  1. Read Number Two of Starting Afresh with Christ (Congregation For Institutes Of Consecrated Life And Societies Of Apostolic Life, (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccscrlife/index.htm) slowly and in silence. Afterwards, reflect on Luke 24, 13-35. What questions does this Lucan passage raise about contemporary darkness and mystery? Where is God’s presence experienced today? Who is Jesus?
  2. Number 28 of The Service of Authority and Obedience (Congregation For Institutes Of Consecrated Life And Societies Of Apostolic Life, (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccscrlife/index.htm)reflects on the consoling, challenging and disheartening aspects of this vow as we experience it today.   A key question individually and communally is this: How can we prevent our superiors and ourselves from becoming “Managers of Routine” and “Resigned to Mediocrity”? The question is important, personal and communal. It has everything to do with formation to community life in the light of the three vows.

A FINAL REFLECTION

In 2004, a creative and daring formation conference was sponsored by the Order on the topic: Affectivity and Augustinian Life. One of the presenters, on the last full day of the meeting, summarized this educational experience for formators in the following way:

  1. Know yourself and your story.
  2. Commit to building and sustaining healthy intimacy in your lives.
  3. Integration is a life-long process…We must work on it and invite others to do the same.
  4. Allow yourselves to live in the tensions you encounter. This is part of self-knowledge and integration. We cannot always reconcile the tensions in our lives. We cannot always “fix” things.

This Rome Conference, and others like it since 1967, was greatly appreciated by most of those attending. Documents from such meetings can lie like corpses on library shelves, but they are also wonderful resources for formation communities. Such documents also speak of the giftedness, creativity and generosity of our membership.

A BRIEF BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Affectivity and Formation for Religious Life (Pubblicazioni Agostiniane, Curia Generalizia Agostiniana - Roma 2006), is a very good resource book for formators. Footnotes, articles and comments also provide a wealth of bibliographical information in several languages.
  2. “Augustine’s Concept of the Vows,” Tarsicius Van Bavel, O.S.A., Augustinian Spirituality and the Charism of the Augustinians, [Augustinian Press, Villanova, PA, U.S.A., 1995, pp. 154-166.] This is a good contemporary interpretation of vows in general and the vows of poverty, obedience and virginity in particular - all from an Augustinian point of view. Provides a good text for a guided discussion of the vows.
  3. Dho, S.D.B., Giovenale, Pastorale Ed Orientamento Delle Vocazioni, P.A.S., Istituto Superiore di Pedagogia, Tipografia, Roma, 1966. An excellent introduction to the pedagogy of formation. Out of print. May be available through the Salesianum University, Rome, Italy.
  4. A re-issue of a video series: Men Vowed and Sexual [Conversations about Celibate Chastity, Conference of Major Superiors of Men, 2009, R. Oliver @CMSM.org] is available in English. Six topics of conversation with guidebooks and questions. Can be used for novices, professed and pre-novitiate candidates in group discussion. The specific topics: Intimacy, Men and Women in Relationships, Falling in Love, Homosexuality, Midlife and Generativity and The Mystery of Celibate Chastity.
  5. T. J. Van Bavel’s The Basic Inspiration of Religious Life (Augustinian Press, Villanova, PA., 1996) gives a brief history of religious life and the vows. Pages 65-90 offer a good basis for a discussion exercise on continuities, discontinuities and our future as a vowed community.

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