REUNION OF THE GENERAL COUNCIAL
AND THE MAJOR SUPERIORS
To all of you my fraternal greetings and a most cordial welcome to this house, which is yours, and welcome to this city of Rome which has such a profound meaning for all Christians. Very near to this spot—this past Sunday, June 8th, on the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost—Pope Francis met with the President of Israel, Simon Peres and the President of Palestine, Abu Mazen, in the gardens of the Vatican in order to pray for peace in the Middle East.
Permit me also to say that my first invitation is to prayer for all of the Order, calling to mind in a special way the situations of conflict and of persecution that some communities and brothers of Africa are living through, while at the same time not forgetting other places where reconciliation and unity are urgent. When we see that great powers are capable of sitting down to dialogue and to build bridges toward the accomplishment of peace, we should confess that we are far, at times, from putting into practice all of our possibilities that make possible the miracle of fraternity. To pray is not to renounce our responsibilities, but rather to invoke God as a supreme act of responsibility and of logic, because faith, as we say, is the center of our life.
Praying for peace, like praying for our communities, is not an act we can choose to do or not do, but a commitment that leads us to construct day by day a climate like the dream of Saint Augustine and reflected in the Rule: “Before all else, may you live together in one house, and have one mind and one heart on the way to God” (Rule 1, 3).
As you know, this meeting is intended to complete the program for the six-year term, 2013-2019, that began in the Chapter meetings of last September. The General Council has met at different times; the international Commissions have also met, and the time has come to sort out the fruit of the reflection and the richness of the received suggestions. That the table of the General Council be may be widened in order to elaborate this programming and this seeks to be a sign of collegiality in the framework of a synodal Church in which as members of the People of God we walk together. It is in this sense of collegiality where all of us are heard in that which we are responsible for, we all are called to unity and to communion which is the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is also in this collegiality where the Churches of the periphery are able make heard their voice in the center and, in the context of our Order, the circumscriptions farthest away and younger make heard their word and transmit their fresher spirit to the circumscriptions which experience the weight of history and the effects of their immersion in a world indifferent to what is religious.
The flow of reciprocal and fraternal communication will guarantee that in the upcoming days we may be surprised by the immense fortune of creativity. “Each time that we try to return back to the fount and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, there spring up new ways, creative methods, other forms of expression, more eloquent signs, words charged with renewed meaning for the actual world” (Evangelii gaudium, 11).
We need to make our own the proposal of the Conference of Aparecida (2007), which Pope Francis takes up in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium: to make the transition “from a pastoral plan of mere conservation to a pastoral plan that is decidedly missionary” (Evangelii gaudium, 15). This missionary transformation of the Church happens necessarily by a spiritual renewal that is both personal and communal and by the pastoral revitalization and conversion of our works. Two great goals are always the object of attention that must fit the shape of our Augustinian charism and become concrete in well-defined objectives. Already up to now we must call upon ourselves not to elaborate a document of survival, but rather to make some guidelines that can orient our life in the next six years, which we began in September 2013. An effort more spiritual than organizational because it treats of readjusting the theological fabric that is the basis of the following of Jesus, the only one who justifies and sustains any model of religious life.
Religious life does not have a monopoly either on the following of Jesus or on the Spirit of Jesus, but it is a call to be responsible so that the Spirit in the Church does not diminish and constantly recalls its charismatic nature. To retrace the proper charism, more than constructing a way of strengthening our being, it causes us to remember the charismatic identity of religious life and does not exclude the dimension of service and ministry, but implies the preference for certain services and ministries in the Church and in society. The charismatic, by being the ministerial way, leads to mission.
A definitive element of Augustinian life is community life as a creative element of fraternity and explicit sign of a distinct way of being and living in the Church and the world. Saint Augustine turns us to look back toward the origins of Christianity and fixes our gaze on the first followers of Jesus who were living in Jerusalem (Acts 4: 32-37). On that group Saint Augustine based his monastic model (Sermon 356, 1) and the remembrance of the primitive community will be the ideal model which serves to initiate the experience of community which will lead to the actualization of the essential of religious life: fraternal love.
The Church is essentially the mystery of communion. Let us not lose the vision that religious life, particularly Augustinian religious life, because its spirituality is nourished by the ecclesiology of Saint Augustine, and is in communion with other forms of life, and, therefore, we are called to be experts in ecclesial communion, signs of dialogue and of fraternity among people and culture.
To foment a spirit of communion in a world which does not understand itself, which topples down walls, and at the same time raises up barriers and points to new frontiers, which is more fitting for discord than for understanding.
The place of testing our spirit of communion is the community, the living feeling of membership in the Church, the inter-congregational dialogue and collaboration with the laity. Like those first Christians which Saint Augustine recalls in his Rule, we place all in common, we do not feel ourselves owners of the Church, the ecclesiology of communion proceeds by an authentic co-responsibility.
The power, that the values of the Kingdom of God in a community, measures, like no other thermometer, its human and apostolic quality. I remind you, brothers, and we remember that the encouragement of communities necessitates today more closeness and an accompaniment more direct than in any other past time. For distinct reasons that all know, there are a number of persons older in age, in whom, sometimes, the helplessness of age and infirmity are joined together. There are others who take upon their shoulders the responsibilities and works which erode their health and, on occasions, weaken the religious sense of life and of work. Finally, the smallest group, numerically speaking, is the young.
Unity of hearts is the primary goal that Saint Augustine proposes (Rule, 1), but this love of neighbor has its connection in the love for the common good as a form of liberation from egoism which isolates and impoverishes. The community is the place of experimentation for our surrender to the Body of Christ, to the Church. The interests of the community, affirms Saint Augustine, are those of Christ (Commentary on Psalm 105, 34).
This communal ideal which defines Augustinians suffers today the harassment of a culture marked by individualism and the primacy of particular interests. Apostolic activity has overshadowed the contemplative and witness-bearing dimension of our life. Apostolic activity has overshadowed the contemplative and witness-bearing dimension of our life. In so far as action has put itself forward thus have the essential and undeniable dimensions of prayer, the celebration of the faith, the witness of transcendence been overshadowed. All that has led us to value the ministry with criteria of apostolic effectiveness and including economic profitability. Thus, this has led to a utilitarian and functional interpretation of that which we are and what we do, and urges religious life to recover that which is its own, its original inspiration, that which makes of it a characteristic form of a different Christian life. The recovery of the charismatic identity does not exclude the mission because “all renewal in the heart of the Church must tend to the mission as objective in order not to fall prey to an ecclesial introversion” (Evangelii gaudium, 27).
It is time to ask ourselves if our communities are centers of spirituality, of life animated by the Spirit, places of seeking and finding God, places of concord and unanimity where the Lord has his dwelling place (cf. Commentary on Psalm 67, 7). The answer to this important question must not suppose to have an inquiry into the environment to request the opinion of those who know us, but rather a self-criticism that leads us to measure the level of fraternal communion through reciprocal love of those who form community.
On the part of his habitual realism, Saint Augustine notes that “The enemy has dispersed to all parts jaded hypocrites in the habit of a monk… All ask, all demand the benefits of his profitable poverty or the price of a pretended holiness” (The Work of the Monks, 28, 36). Here are those who understand the community to be like a service station that has to cover all needs. Despite these human weaknesses, however, Saint Augustine emphasizes that trust and love must prevail over suspicion and distancing: “I always think well of my brothers and I have full trust in them” (Sermon 355, 2, 22).
I wish that this important theme of the community, of local priors and their function of leadership and of the ordinary means of renewal such as local chapters and the chapters of renewal would be the object of our reflection in the next days. To think that our communities are made up of adult persons and that it is not necessary to have any form of authority or encouragement would be both naïve and reckless. The function that our Constitutions grant to priors unfolds itself in a double direction: material, “to distribute to each one what they need” (Rule 1, 4), and spiritual, “he has to give an account of all before God” (Rule 7, 46). The authority of the superior is one of paternal charity (Response to the letter of Parmenian 3, 16), in such a way that “he desires to be loved by you rather than feared” (Rule 7, 46).If obedience is understood as a gesture of love of God, it is a fount of joy: “It seems that all servitude would have to be bitter, then we see that, in general, slaves obey while murmuring. But do not have fear of service of God: in him there is no weeping, there is no murmuring, no despairing” (Commentary on Psalm 99, 7). Our Constitutions define the local prior as a man “of obedience and of fidelity to the will of God… a model for the flock that has been entrusted to him, knowledgeable of the rights and obligations of all of the community” (Constitutions, 304).
The Union of Superiors General (USG) celebrated its 81st Assembly in Rome, 22 to 25 May 2013. The theme of the study was: “Leadership in religious life in the 50 years since Vatican II”. No one is ignorant of the fact that Pope Francis has established a new form of leadership in the Church that is based in the credibility of an evangelical spirit, nearness, simplicity and mercy.
We stand before the need of a leadership both personal and institutional which extends itself beyond ecclesial structures in order to arrive at the geographical and existential peripheries and to bring about a meeting with all the people and all the cultures. It is the Church “going out” of which Pope Francis speaks (Evangelii gaudium, 20).
A second theme that cannot be absent from our agenda is the urgency of the promotion, selection and formation of new vocations for Augustinian religious life. On the occasion of the 51st World Day of Prayer for Vocations (11 May 2014), Pope Francis reminded in his message: “It will be good for you to participate with trust in the communal way which knows how to awaken in you and around you greater energies. A vocation is a fruit that matures in a well cultivated field of reciprocal love that becomes mutual service, in the context of an authentic ecclesial life. No vocation is born through itself or lives by itself. The vocation rises from the heart of God and flows out into a good ground of faithful people, in the experience of fraternal love. Does not Jesus perhaps say: “In this all will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another” (John 13:35)?
The Pope speaks about participating with trust in the communal way that knows how to awaken in ourselves and around ourselves the best energies. What other energies can surpass reciprocal love in the context of a community where there breathes an Augustinian atmosphere of friendship and cordiality and a spiritual life that guarantees a fuller humanity?
Let us not forget that in our preoccupation about vocations, the first one to listen to and to accompany, in an exercise of reciprocity, is our proper vocation, that which already we live in community. From the weakness of our vocation, from the lack of personal integration, and from a very weak sense of happiness there can emerge only the suspicion of a routine and closed life that drowns the space for surprise, creativity and mystery.
Beside the esteem for the vocation of those of us who have consecrated our life to God, the urgent task is that of bringing forward, of welcoming, of accompanying new vocations. In the Order the statistics are low and in the coming years the general statistics will go down significantly.
In vocational promotion one cannot spare either the human resources or the material resources. Men are needed-the announcement of Augustinian religious life and the structures of welcome and of formation gifted with the necessary means such as are indicated by the documents of the Church, our Constitutions and the Ratio Institutionis. This priority will only be possible to convert it into a reality through inter-circumscriptional collaborations. The precariousness of the numbers can not signify a lessening of religious life and – as Pope Francis indicated accurately – “You cannot fill the seminaries with people with any type of motivations, and less so if these have affective insecurities, searching for forms of power, human glory or economic well-being” (Evangelii gaudium, 107).
It is necessary to revise the map of houses of formation and the formation teams with what the Order has today in its wide geography. A great reasonableness imposes itself to tighten the requirements for opening and recognizing as such a house of formation. In the area of formation, common projects can be the best school of the Augustinian spirit and the guarantee of a biblical, theological and pastoral quality consistent for future Augustinians. The call to study that the document of the General Intermediate Chapter of 1998 made must find in the areas of initial formation and on-going formation an immediate and responsible welcome.
Religious life must plan, with urgency, a pastoral action adapted to the youth of our time with a clear impact on the pastoral and vocational area. We cannot live the richness of our Augustinian spirituality in some kind of secrecy. No one loves to commit themselves to something they do not know. To strengthen the Augustinian character of our communities, fraternal, evangelizing and open is a clear vocational reference.
Finally, I wish to make an explicit reference to the worldwide economic situation and to our commitment with the poor. It is not that the international crisis is the reason for our connection with evangelical poverty, but today a clear testimony of soberness and solidarity is more necessary. One speaks today of new forms of poverty which encompass equally material needs as well as spiritual needs. A good test to evaluate the level of fidelity to the Gospel of a community is its sensitivity toward the poor. Every day they are the most forgotten of society, marginalized as not productive and not qualified as consumers. We, from our security, think at times that the political institutions are the ones responsible to remedy these problems that attack human dignity and we forget that those who are excluded are the chosen ones of the Kingdom. The alliance with the sectors of power presupposes, in practice, a censure of the Gospel in order to justify a kind of life where an affective and committed option for those in need and for the victims of the actual economic systems is not visible.
In light of our commitment with poverty we must revise the functioning of our works, the use of our patrimony, the purpose of our goods, and the soberness of our communal life. One cannot think that poverty is merely a political and secular cause, when in the Church there is a fundamentally theological question because justice and human rights form part of the nucleus of the Gospel.
We are not conveniently doing individual acts in favor of emigrants and other marginalized minorities, rather it is necessary to highlight that poverty is an essential component-and therefore not able to be renounced-for religious life. If “all Christians are called to care for the most fragile of the earth” (Evangelii gaudium, 209), then much more are religious called to live “as one who has nothing and possesses everything” (The Work of the Monks, 25, 32).
In the neoliberal culture in which we live it appears to be an absurdity to preach the value of poverty because the ideal of riches is proclaimed and needs are created in order to increase consumption. To choose for poverty is a manifest sign of contradiction that is not always understood. The proof of the validation of the Gospel values is precisely in their incomprehensibility which confers on poverty a prophetic significance. Much of the profound crises that religious life has suffered have been associated with the abandonment of evangelical poverty.
When we speak of this theme theoretical consent is clear, but it appears that theological clarifications overcome us and the gestures of daring to act fail us. Is religious life without faith in a provident God possible? To recover a certain austerity both on a personal level as well as on a communal level is not only an ascetic practice and a testimony to moderation, but rather a way of sending a message about the primacy of the Spirit, a way of living the essential.
This theme cannot be converted into an argument of a discourse, rather it has concrete ramifications that indicate if there exists or not a spirit that sustains each one of our actions. Work-even if it might seem paradoxical-is a form of poverty because it is a link of communion with human society and with the religious community, an offering of one’s own talents in benefit of the common good.
Without work it is difficult to have solidarity. Here is the great difference: to work in order to be able to share or to work in order to accumulate and to clothe oneself with power. To work in order to share is a form of charity. The credibility of the Church and of religious life works in the area of solidarity, in the graciousness and the affective and effective option for the poor and the excluded, the poor and the excluded that are around our parishes and in the classrooms of our schools.
The administration and the distribution of our goods is a chapter that necessitates a critical reflection full of charity and of realism. There exist reasons to challenge the transfer of goods when there is a delay and a lack of transparency in the information of the aid received, unnecessary expenses and costly trips that many times could be avoided.
These three observations about communal life and the importance of leadership of local priors, of the promotion, selection and formation of candidates for Augustinian religious life and of the need of a life according to the spirit of the beatitudes, do not seek to be more than the target output for the meetings of the next days. The agenda encompasses many other themes that take us to the same goal: Mission. We are “Augustinians in the Church for today’s world”, as was the title of the document of the Intermediate Ordinary Chapter of Villanova of 1998. Our mission is to make transparent and to call forth the experience of God, to transmit the faith in the Absolute One, to make visible the practice of the Gospel. Acting comes after being; the tasks are secondary but necessary.
The works of the Chapter of September 2013 were centered on the theme already known to all: THE UNITY OF THE ORDER IN SERVICE TO THE GOSPEL, which had been studied in the Intermediate General Chapter of 2010, celebrated in the Philippines. This document invites us to reread the first chapter of our Constitutions where we are reminded that our identity as an Order proceeds from four constitutive sources: the monastic heritage of Saint Augustine, the eremitical roots, the particular ties coming from the intervention of the Apostolic See, and the state of the mendicant Order (Constitutions, 4).
The Chapter of 2013 will pass into history for being the first Chapter that was begun with the Eucharist presided by the Pope in the Basilica of the Saints Trifon and Augustine in Rome, on Wednesday, August 28. In the homily Pope Francis highlighted the importance of restlessness as the characteristic note of the life of Saint Augustine. “This word makes an impression on me”, he noted, “and it makes me think. I wish to start off with a question: What restlessnesses does this great and holy man invite us to sustain and to maintain alive in our lives? I propose three: the restlessness of the spiritual search, the restlessness of the encounter with God, and the restlessness of love.”
I wish to end my discourse because the most important thing are not my introductory words and not even the directions elaborated in the General Council or in the meetings of the inter-provincial Commissions. The most important thing is that in these next days the Order represented here through the major superiors is strengthened in us. May you always count on the support and unconditional offering of the Curia toward you and toward all the members of your circumscriptions, and the recognition of your work as “servants in love” (Rule, 7). You were elected not for managing some works but in order to encourage the life of people and of religious communities.
To speak today about religious life is to repeat the call to the experience of God (Cf. Document, CGI ’98), the call to interiority. Interiority which, in its fullest translation, can be formulated as to experience God, to place oneself in God, to communicate with God, to open oneself to a God who acts… One must remember that religious life establishes its firm foundation, its living roots, in the realities of faith. This is the principle that encourages and generates life. The realities of faith are Jesus and his Gospel. These are the critical instances, the objections of conscience in the face of some ways, traditions, and forms of acting which, many times, in their confronting with the Gospel, cease to be felt.
I conclude by inviting you to read and interpret the passage which surrounds us like an eloquent parable as a reminder of our fidelities. Our fidelities are our loves. We live next to the Basilica of Saint Peter. It is a sign of our fidelity, as Augustinians, to the Church. The Piazza of Saint Peter is the place of encounter; the Basilica is the place of prayer, the Cappella Sistina is the place of art, fantasy and contemplation. We are close to the Patristic Institute, the sign of our fidelity to study, to the personal and communal search for truth. We are also very close to a house of the Missionary Sisters of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa, the sign of our fidelity to the poor, those who do not have bread and the poor of the world who move in the midst of abundance but without finding sense in their lives, vagabonds without welfare, buried under their own egoism. And the street, our familiar street of Via Paolo VI, with its concert of noise and constant traffic. It takes its name from a Pope with an Augustinian soul. Someone called Paul VI “the Augustine of the 20th Century” and we could give to Benedict XVI the title of “the Augustine of the 21st Century, men of intuition, more that security, of dialogue and of reasonable doubt. This address of our neighborhood, may you carry it, please, in your heart which is where we hold on to fidelities and important things. Welcome to Rome and welcome to this, your home.