Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The annual celebration of Christmas is an opportunity for me to be in contact with all of you and to send to you my greetings and brotherly care. With the words of Saint Augustine, I say to you: “Exult with joy you just ones; he who is born is the one who justifies you. Exult you who are weak and infirm; the one who is born is the one who heals you. Exult you who are in captivity; the one who is born redeems you. Exult you servants; the Lord is born. Exult you who are free; the one who is born is the one who frees you. Let all Christians exult; Christ is born.” (Sermon 184, 2)
I want to share with you, at the same time, some simple reflections from my experience, although brief, as the loving servant of the Order, which also can help us to read the messages and documents from the 2013 Ordinary General Chapter of the Order, which will be coming to you soon.
I have been able to visit some circumscriptions of the Order, to enter into contact with other religious institutes, and, above all, to participate in the 82nd Assembly of the Union of Superiors General, (USG), celebrated at the Salesianum in Rome, from the 27th to the 29th of November, 2013. At the end of this assembly, on Saturday morning, there was a meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican, which was not a formal audience, but rather at the insistence of the Pope, a meeting that lasted the entire morning, in which the Pope responded like a brother to the questions of the religious superiors, adding his own personal anecdotes and stories from his own pastoral experience, and telling us that 2015 will be dedicated as the Year of Consecrated Life.
Pope Francis mentioned the four pillars of formation: spiritual, intellectual, communitarian and apostolic.
--Above all, there is spiritual formation because our life speaks clearly about God. In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), 107, he writes: “Seminaries cannot accept candidates on the basis of any motivation whatsoever, especially if those motivations have to do with affective insecurity or the pursuit of power, human glory or economic well-being.”
--Intellectual formation in order to make possible dialogue with the contemporary world has to be such so that faith and reason can advance together in a new way and enter into dialogue with all cultures. “This means an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics which would encourage greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all” EG, 132).
--Communitarian formation, because, if Jesus came to put back together that which is broken apart and to bring about the gathering “into one all the dispersed children of God”, (Jn 11:52), then it is evident that communion is the ultimate meaning and central mission of Christ: a communion that, beginning with his own, (cf. Jn 17:20-23), goes far beyond his own personal circle, and reaches out to all people of every age. Therefore, “the kerygma has a clear social content: at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others. The content of the first proclamation has an immediate moral implication centered on charity”, (EG, 177).
--Finally, apostolic formation, for “a Church that goes forth”, (EG, 20), because “missionary activity represents still even today the major challenge for the Church” and “the missionary task must remain foremost”, (EG, 15, quoting words of Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio).
Supported by these four firm formative pillars, the Pope said, religious “are men and women who can wake up the world. Consecrated life is prophecy. God asks us to leave the nest that protects us and to go out to the ends of the earth avoiding the temptation to be confined by them. This is the best way to imitate the Lord.”
Some of the ideas expressed by the Pope form part of and are already integrated into the text which was put forth by the Intermediate General Chapter of 2010, celebrated in the Philippines, (which today is actuality because of the devastating effects of the earthquake and typhoon they have suffered), and which was approved last September on the occasion of the 2013 General Chapter: “Attention to the wider application of the Augustinian value of unity and communion seems to us a natural development resulting from a heightened awareness of the implications of our religious profession which is made, in every instance, to the Prior General, accompanied at the same time by affiliation to a particular province or vicariate. This reflection is occasioned also by the positive results we have witnessed stemming from collaborative initiatives on the part of a number of the Order's circumscriptions in recent years, as well as the need to meet more squarely the challenges to collaboration in other areas. We wish to foster on every level, and within every circle of our religious life and structures, the gifts of unity and communion in order to experience more deeply the richness of our spirituality and to be more effective instruments and heralds of these goods in the Church and in society”, (The Unity of the Order at the Service of the Gospel, 7).
The geographical map of the Order is today much bigger and we are called to be a leaven and a testimony of communion and unity. “Fraternal life itself is a prophetic act, in a society in which there is hidden, and at times without even being aware of it, a profound desire for brotherhood without borders”, (Vita Consecrata, 85). If for us as Augustinians this personal and communitarian urging does not exist, then we are not fulfilling one of the most basic demands of our charism.
It would be good to re-read the observation, full of wisdom and opportunity, that the Blessed John Paul II made to the participants of the 1995 General Chapter: "A problem you share with other Orders with centuries of history is internal cooperation between the various parts of the Institute. Ancient and venerable juridical structures are not always adaptable to the mobility and other characteristics required in newer times. This can sometimes mean negative consequences for apostolic efficiency and even for vitality of religious commitment. I am certain that the good of the Church and the Order will always be your principle criterion of discernment. This may mean a sacrifice or even renunciation of some acquired right in order to sharpen the edge of an apostolate or to adopt structures or activities up to now unknown" (John Paul II, September 23, 1995, n. 4, and cited in the document: The Unity of the Order at the Service of the Gospel, 31).
We can confirm that the projects of the greatest boldness and of the greatest scope for evangelization that have pushed the Order forward are those that are supported by the collaboration of the circumscriptions working together. There, where there is unity, there is life, and where individualism reigns and there is no sign of community, neither is our Augustinian charism made visible nor are there signs of the Gospel. As Pope Francis points out: “It always pains me greatly to discover how some Christian communities, and even consecrated persons, can tolerate different forms of enmity, division, calumny, defamation, vendetta, jealousy and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs, even to persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts. Whom are we going to evangelize, if this is the way we act?” (EG, 100).
“The Crisis of Communal Commitment” is the title of the second chapter of this important document in which the Pope outlines the paths of the new evangelization. Even though the content refers to themes such as the economy, the inequality that causes exclusion and violence, and the distinct forms of confrontation between peoples, we can bring this text close to our lives and confess with humility the lessening of a sense of belonging and the lack of passion for community. These are two attitudes that erode fundamental convictions and lead to disappointment and sterile pessimism. As the Pope calls out in a phrase that we could take as a slogan for all of the followers of Saint Augustine, “Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of community!” (EG, 92).
In June 2014 I have requested all the leaders of the Order to convene in Rome to discuss the Order beyond the borders of our present provinces. That we might do this in good faith each of us needs to review the borders that exist within our communities and our circumscriptions. We should prepare for new life by examining our own living application of the four pillars of formation. In that way we may bear faithfully the gift of communal commitment, our gift of prophesy to new peoples and new lands.
In the intimate context of Christmas, I invite you all, in the presence of the child Jesus, to take up the task “to care for the vulnerable of the earth” (EG, 209). Saint Augustine said to his faithful: “Behold, here it is that we are, with the grace of God, in the winter! Think of the poor! Think about how to clothe the naked Christ. (…) Each one of you waits to receive Christ seated in heaven, but see him now lying there at the door; see him going hungry and cold; see him poor!” (Sermon 25, 8). Christmas calls us to recover the original freshness of the Gospel and of Augustinian spirituality, in order to remember that “the Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (EG, 88), to be men of prayer and of work, who read and who pray the Word, who transmit hope and who surrender our lives for the mission.
I summon you all to the mystery and the joy of Christmas, to the side of Mary, the mother of the living Gospel, “the friend who is ever concerned that wine not be lacking in our lives” (EG, 286).
With my best wishes, my prayers and my fraternal concern,