242 - october 2001

Letter to the senior Oblates
Fr. Wilhelm StecklingO.M.I.

Dear brother Oblates

“Now that I am illI have accepted God’s will andlike the little Saint TheresaIhave become a missionary in the conventpraying…. The Lord evangelizesmore by what we are than by what we doby giving our work a fecunditywhich surpasses our understanding.” (An Italian Oblate on the eveof his 60th anniversary of priesthood.)

I am addressing this letterfirst of all to youthat portion of our missionary family that is advancedin age. I would like to have a conversation with you about your specificway of being missionaries. Many of you are dedicating yourselves to awide range of activities: serving as pastors and chaplainsprofessorsand retreat preacherssuperiors and treasurers to mention but a few ofour ministries. Others have gone into partial or full retirementas inthe case of the confrere quoted above. Others still struggle with illhealth and infirmity. All your lives and experience are part of the communionamong Oblates. Somy hope is that many others will also read this letter.The Congregation is fundamentally onewe evangelize the poor as one family.So each of us should be concerned not only about his own doingshis ownage groupbut also about the way others respond to their call.

A good number of our memberscan be counted among those advanced in age. People today live longer thanin former times. If we arbitrarily take 70 years as the threshold to oldagethen there are all in all about 1400 elderly Oblatesroughly 30%of our total number. Note that we have the same number of men under theage of 43.

Is there any comment to be made on thesefigures? Should they be different? Of course we would all like to seea flourishing of vocations everywhere. It is one of the signs of vitality.Thanks be to Godsince 1992 vocations are increasing steadilyfrom 570to 679 Oblates in first formationthat is from 11% of the total to 15%.Certainly a higher percentage would be even better. Yeteven when weconsider our high number of older confreres in some parts of the worldI do not think that God is making a mistake when he graces us with a longerlife and our communities with many confreres advanced in age. If it istrue that a harvest of vocations is a sign of life in some sectors ofthe Congregationthere is also another vitality hidden in the older Oblates.Youour elderly brothersplay an important part as missionaries andevangelizers. The Congregation is bound to value you highly as a hiddentreasure. The Founder would have sold the silverware and the chalicesto attend to your needs (cf. Letter to Fr. Courtès in 1826SelectedTextsNo. 388.)

I usually express my ownappreciation of youour older Oblatesthrough a little letter that Isign for each jubilarianfollowing the tradition set by Archbishop Zago.Oftentimes I receive an answerand in the following paragraphs I willquote from some of those responses so that this address to you becomesmore of a conversation. What you write is proof of the great spiritualtreasure the Congregation has in you. Perhaps we should not call you elderlybut elders following the custom of many aboriginal people who holdin particular esteem the bearers of the wisdom and the values proper tothem. Surely from its earliest days the Church has valued the leadershipof “presbyters.”

Let me spell out for you the sense in whichI see in you a treasure and a source of life for our Congregation. Yourimportanceit seems to meis threefold: You help us to see our presentour past and our future with Gospel eyes.

1. The present: you show us how to evangelize morethrough our being than through our doing

The quotation at the beginningof this address expresses the idea well: “The Lord evangelizes morethrough what we are than through what we do.” If the Lord evangelizesthrough our being this does not imply that we have to be perfect first.It does imply a humble authenticitya virtue which young people appreciatein a special way. Youour eldersshow yourselves more and more as youreally areeven with some of your defects. Older people show us thatit is the heart that countsnot a false and only apparent perfection.

Contemplation is at thebasis of this evangelizing through what we are. Truemany of you havereceived the grace to lead an active life even beyond the eighties andit is good to remain active in an adapted way as long as ever possible.Howeverold age offers many a special way to live out what RedemptorisMissio says: “The missionary must be a ‘contemplative inaction.’ . . . the future of mission depends to a great extent oncontemplation. Unless the missionary is a contemplative he cannot proclaimChrist in a credible way.” (91) An Oblate from Belgium writes tomeand it may well become a message for all of us: “After 50years of priesthooda man has not finished following Christ in orderto know and to love him better. FortunatelynowadaysI can devote moretime to prayer.”

Sometimes you express your missionary lifebesides in prayerthrough little services which we could call sacramentalin the broad sense. They are more in the realm of being than of doing.Taking care of flowershaving time to talk to some lonely personkeepinga corner of the house cleanis more than a useful practical contributionto the running of a community: it becomes a sacrament of God’s lovingpresence among us.

2.The past: You are the guardians of our history and keep us in contact withour roots.

Part of our collectivememory as Oblates has been put down in writing. But what is that comparedto the witness to the past that you can give in personthe stories thatyou can tell out of your experience? I was gladyears agoto meet anold priest who in his youth had met another old priest who had been ordainedby the Founder. We need your memories to get in touch with our roots.Therefore we have included the celebration of our memory in the ImmenseHope project. Please tell us your stories in personbut I also encourageyou to write down or to put on tape your part of Oblate history.

There is another treasurehidden in the one who has a rich past behind him. When we are youngerwe tend to take persons and things for grantedas something to whichwe are entitled. Many of our elders haveinsteadbecome very gratefulpersons. Gratitude means to acknowledge that all has been a generous giftfrom God and that most of it came through people who have lived beforeus. Your letters often reflect this way of relating to your own history.One Oblate writes on the occasion of his golden jubilee of priesthood:“In these fifty yearshow many have been the occasions for givingthanks to the Lord for all those he has placed along my path and who havehelped me to be of service.”People like him teach those of uswho are younger that the most important things in our lives have beengiven to us. Only this realization will give us the humility to becomeservants of others in their own process of growingfrom their own roots.

3.You point to the futurereminding us how central the Paschal mystery is.

It would be a mistake toidealize too much the “golden age.” You do not always live lightand happy days andfor some of youyour many years may have become aheavy burden. But in this way tooyour mission is important for us andfor the world since it speaks to us about something central to our faith:the mystery of Easter and the future transformation of all things. Twoyears agowhen I took part in the Synod for Europea good number ofthe participants expressed their concern that in Europe we do not talkanymore about the end of our lives and about what happens thereafter.The eschatological perspective seems forgotten. It is you who can remindthe people of this modern age and timeand also us Oblatesto get readyfor that baptism through which all of us must pass.

I found the Paschalway of approaching death poetically expressed in some verses by BrotherWilli Günschmann from the French Province who died in 1992. Hewritesthough we do not know in which context:

“Last nightLord .... I was afraid.You knocked so loudly I thought death had come. And yet ... You came asa friend to remind me that life does not last forever ... Am I asleepam I dreaming? A mysterious curtain arises. Am I alive... am I dying?I no longer know. Once againlight cameand in the early morningI fellasleep at last. What remains of your visitLord? All is engraved on myheartnever shall I forget itI shall remember it forever.”

Yet another Brother wrote to me recentlyin a simpler way:I've turned myself over to the Father.May she who is the Mother of us all and St. Joseph help me to reach oneday the place where so many of us are already gathered. Let us pray foreach other then that we may reach that goal.”

We tend to forget about“the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”Butas St. Paul states clearlyif death and resurrection are not ourhorizonthen our faith makes no sense. We missionaries would not receivethe spiritual strength to become saints without having previously beenreborn from the Paschal mysteries. You are there to remind us of thatas you prepare yourselves for the great journey. In his booklet Resteavec nous car le soir vient (Remain with Us for Evening Comes)CardinalGodfried Danneels writes “The closer we approach deaththe morewe must dream of a new birth.”

Dear eldersyou are an importantpart of our missionary Congregationjust as important as the youngermembers to whom I addressed a letter a year ago. Thank you for what youarefor your evangelizing by your very presence. If you live your missionto the fullthe work of all the Oblates will bear rich fruit and thepoor will be evangelized in unexpected ways.

I can find no betterway to conclude my chat with you than with the words of Fr. Fernand Jettéas he describes how he saw his own old age. After a few linesthe textbecomes an invocation to the Mother of all Oblates. She will always beclose to us whatever shape our mission may take.

"I have lived all my life in the companyof Mary. She has sustained meencouraged mehelped me. It is to herthat I entrust the time I have left to live.

Help meMaryto thank the Lord forall the good he has worked in me and through me.

Preserve me from an old age of selfishnesssadnessa burden to myself and to others.Preserve me from useless regretstroublesome memoriesanguish and doubt.

Help me each day to offer to Godmy physical and moral sufferinguniting them to those of Christ for thesalvation of the worldthe good of the Churchthe development of myreligious family.

Keep me to the end in lovein trustand in joy!" (1986Notes and testament)

United with you in the same Oblate missionI greet you in Christ and Mary Immaculate

Fr. Wilhelm StecklingO.M.I.
Superior General Rome
September 82001

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