Fr. Wilhelm StecklingO.M.I.
This is the first ofa series of circular letters I intend to write on our vows. I will start withthe vow of poverty. My original plan was different. I wanted to considermission first. Howeverthe Inter-Chapter meeting made me aware that theCongregation has decidedly engaged in a reflection process on our missionarypractices – the Immense Hope project. The Inter-Chapter and my visits havealso convinced me that many feel a deep longing for spirituality in order to befaithful to our mission.
Through speakingabout the vows I intend to emphasize what underlies all missionary worknamelythe relationship with the One who sends us. The apostles are sent only afterhaving been called to live with the Master. “And he appointed twelvewhomhe also called apostlesto be with himand to be sent out to proclaim themessage. . .” (Mk 3:14). Our Foundertoofelt strongly that we start inthe same way: “Howindeeddid our Lord Jesus Christ proceed when heundertook to convert the world? He chose a number of apostles and discipleswhom he himself trained in pietyand he filled them with his Spirit. These menhe sent forth. . . .” (Preface to our Rule)
Deepening thevalues that underlie our mission
At present there isa widespread conviction that we need to work on the spirituality that underliesour mission. From Africa-Madagascar I read: “We have not forgotten themandate of the last consultation: Spiritual depth!” (. . .) “We needspiritual revamping.” (. . .) “We need renewal.” A report to theInter-Chapter states: “Young professionals join us in a search formeaning; we have to stress. . . spirituality.” Recentlya letter reachedmy deskrepeating: “When I suggested ‘Mission and Mysticism’ asthe theme of the next General ChapterI had in mind the need to elaborate atypically Oblate spirituality. . . . What is missing in many of us is aprofound convictiona life project which gives us the determination andstrength to build the Kingdomwithout hesitatingjust like Christ who facedup to betrayalinsultdefeattorture and deathwithout flinching from hispurpose. . . . Passionately committed to Jesus Christto Jesus Christ presentin the most excludedthose discriminated againstthe oppressed.”
One approach to ourspirituality is through the vows considered as some of the basic values thatunderlie our mission. Our Rule even goes so far as to call the spirit of ourvows a requisite for mission. “Our mission requires thatin a radicalwaywe follow Jesus who was chaste and poor and who redeemed mankind by hisobedience” (C 12).
The vows areconstitutive of our identity as Oblates. Without them we would be good andactive Christians or good and zealous priestsbut we would lack our specificidentity. Our Oblate vows are not generic as if they were the same for everyreligious in the world. Made in our Congregationthey express a specific wayof following Christanimated by a unique charismthat of Eugene de Mazenod.
|The vow ofpoverty: ideal and shortcomings|
History and currentexperience teach us that there are two forms of povertyone which isdestructive afflicting the majority of the world’s populationtheother which frees energies for love and service. The latter we chooseand vow. These expressions are from the 2002 Synod on Bishops to which I willreturn at the end of my reflection.
Why do I start withthe vow of poverty? Firstfor a very practical reason. At the Inter-Chapterspecial attention was drawn to the topic of financeswhich are a matter ofgrowing concern. Several Oblate units including the General Administration arefacing a scarcity of financial means. Some units face the danger of bankruptcyor serious financial shortage over the short and medium term. These financialrealities affect our mission as it is functioning now and they will touch ourfuture. We cannot dissociate these concerns from our life and practice ofpoverty.
We are also awarethat in the backgroundthere is a still broader issue. The traditionalpatterns of our missionary practice are changing. We suddenly have come torealize that it is commonplace today for missionaries to be sent out bycountries with quite limited material means. The type of Church they build willhave to be different in the way it finds its resources.
In view of thesefactsa number of Provinces have immediately shown decisiveness in tacklingthe issue. One Provincial states: “We simply have to cut our cloth tosize.” Then he goes further and proposes to seek a more profoundperspective. Sometimes “getting rid of a pet” will mean “asacrifice that could open our eyes to a deeper reality like St. Paul'to havesuffered the loss of all things. . . that I may gain Christ and be found inhim'.” (Phil 3:8)
The theme is alsotopical in other religious congregations. The next assembly of the Union ofSuperiors General has chosen “Economy and Mission” as its topic.
Our financialsituation is not the most important issue. For a good number of Oblatesthevalue of the vow of poverty is intrinsically linked to the plight of the poorin our world. To relieve the poverty of the people has been the primary motivefor many to join a missionary Congregation and the corresponding vow liberatesin them special energy for love and service. Surely this vision rests on goodtheological foundations. Did mission not first begin when He who was richbecame poor for our sake (2 Cor 8)? “The option for the poor is inherentin the very structure of love lived in Christ” says VitaConsecrata (82). Like Jesusmany Oblates too feel sent mainly to becomefriends of the poor and abandonedsomehow sharing with compassion theirdeplorable state.
In passing I notethat some authors simply give this vow the first place. They see in it“the key value in the vows. . . celibacy and obedience are ways of beingpoor.”(1) This coincides with the Rule in the time of the Founder:“Voluntary poverty [has been regarded by all the Founders of religiousOrders] as the foundation and basis of all perfection.”(2)
Experience alsoteaches us that the deeper values we espouse in our life as missionaries oftenreveal where our human weaknesses lie. It should not surprise us that ourpractice of poverty falls short of the ideal. While it is normal to be temptedwe must find the means to resist. Saint Eugene mentions such difficulties inwords that are clear and he encourages us to be faithful:
“Holypoverty” challenges us in many ways. What are some of those challenges foran apostolic community? Are our buildings and organization really at theservice of the poor and abandoned? Do we always respect the intentions of ourdonors? Do we exercise careful stewardship over the maintenance and care of thematerial resources with which we are blessed? Do we respect the environment inour way of living and disposing of that which we have already used? Do wedepend too much on the “easy” money of projects and funds instead ofrelying more on our own work and on the people themselves? Do we make enoughefforts to seek out support or do we rely too much on others to find it for us?
In our personal lifethe temptations may consist in being drawn into the logic of a consumer societyand feeling too much at home in our comfort zones. There may be othercircumstances. We may be content to have escaped from a personal background ofeconomic misery or deprivationand so be reluctant to choose voluntary povertyas a value. If our lives lack fulfillmentif Christ is not really the heartand soul of our existencethen we tend to take refuge in material things: carsand gadgetsmoney that is not sharedbig institutions and high walls.
Something that couldmirror back to us what is good and evil in the practice of poverty will be ourcontact with our candidates. What is it in us that attracts them? Is it ourgenerosity and sacrifice or do they just want to share what appears as comfortsecurity and easy access to material goods?
Having consideredsome aspects of the contrast between the ideal and our shortcomingslet us nowturn our faces to the light of the Gospel and its first beatitude. I propose athree-step reflection: about Jesusabout the poor and about community.According to our Rule“Our choice of poverty compels us to enter intocloser communion with Jesus and the poor. . .” and it makes us “holdall things in common” (C 20-21).
|Following a Master who made himself poor for us|
For an apostlepoverty is first of all a natural and very practical thing. The Oblates liveout their vow of poverty by adhering to the apostolic purpose of theCongregation. Like the apostles we follow our Master and share his kind oflife. He was sent to evangelize the poor and he proclaims as the firstbeatitude “Blessed are you who are poorfor yours is the kingdom ofGod” (Lk 6:20). True to his word he became poor for our sake and hadnowhere to lay his head. It is he who invites us to join him in the sameexperience.
If religious lifemeans to live publicly like Jesus lived and that every charism expresses aspecial facet of Jesus' lifewe Oblates follow Jesus in evangelizing the poor.Included in our mandate are the privations typical of apostolic life: stayingclose to the poorsharing their worriesdepending on their hospitalitybeingalways on the road.
In 1819 Fr. Tempierwrites to Eugene de Mazenod from the mission in Rognac where nothing had beenprepared to receive them: “The result is that we are living like theapostles.” De Mazenod answers: “I envy your position.”(4) Atsome periods of his life when he was less directly involved with the peopleSt. Eugene wanted to live very simply. As a seminarian he chose to sweep hisroom himselfas a bishop he preferred to wear old and worn-out clothes when hehad not to appear in public. He wanted to follow Christ who announced theGospel to the poor not only by wordbut through his very life even to death onthe cross.
This brings us to astill deeper and mystical dimension of a missionary's poverty. According to St.Eugenewe achieve the spirit of poverty through an intimate closeness toJesus. He states: “The first means to acquire holy religious poverty iscontinual and fervent prayer. The second means is to consider attentively ourLord Jesus Christ as the model and reward of poverty.”(5) How can thismystical poverty be described?
What can we do on aday to day basis to become more faithful to our communion with Christ in hispoverty?
We could strive toemulate St. Eugene’s spirituality of dependence on Providence. In aNovember 1815 letter his father he writes about “a foundation ofMissionaries whose duty it will be to cover the countryside. . . . We willestablish ourselves in the former Carmelite monastery and go out from there onour apostolic travels.” Then he comes to the point: “What is goodabout it is that I am forming it without a penny. We must trust fully in divineProvidence.”(7)
Some Oblates arecalled to live an extreme form of poverty by enduring persecutionevenmartyrdom. We should be deeply grateful to our brothers who suffer in this way.From the beginningreligious life has been seen as taking the place ofmartyrdom; therefore communion with our own martyrs might help us to understandmore fully the vow of poverty.
A short prayer thathelps me personally to live this vowand I guess it works for obedience aswellis the following: “LordI thank you for small humiliations.” Iuse it when I suffer as a result of my own stupidityor if I am put in myplace by a defenseless personetc. At such moments I have a sense of beingpoor.
Our blessed MotherMaryour patronessis a beautiful model of “practical” and mysticalpoverty. She concretely experienced hardship and early on came to know thepoverty of being a refugee (Mt 2:13-15). She is truly one of the poor in theSpirit whom Jesus calls blessed. Vatican II says of her: “She stands outamong the poor and humble of the Lordwho confidently hope for and receivesalvation from Him” (LG 55.)
|Towards acloser Communion with the poor|
a) Closeness tothe poor. – In our following of Jesusthe Spirit “compels us toenter into closer communion. . . with the poor” (C 20).
In my contacts withthe Congregation I am always amazed to observe how close the Oblates are to thepeople and how real their sharing in poverty can become. As an example I quotefrom a letter of a Latin American-born missionary: “Yesterday I was in apoor communityvery poor indeed. I felt happyI had a lively experience ofthe presence of Jesus in those people. I stayed to sleep in a family home. . .. They put my bed in the dining room; there was a Christmas tree at the head;the bed smelt of the baby’s urine and there were visitors during the night– mosquitoes and how many of them! I spent the night awake in prayer. Ifeel very happy with the experience. I believe that is the wayto live withthe poor. I am not satisfied with going once a month to stay with them for justan hour and a half and then go back home.”
Poverty is sowidespread in today's world! A recent issue of an Oblate newsletter from Africareports: “We have no rainthe crops are drying up in the fields andpeople are going to bed hungry at night. [Our two Oblates in X tell us how]poverty is the talk of the day and is realyoung and old people are dyingthey go for days without food. . . . The urgent need of the people at thepresent moment is food. . . . They do not come to churcheven forinstructionsbecause of hunger in the homes. This has also been seen in theschools; children are not attendingand when they dothey faint duringlessons.”(8)
There is no shortageof statistics concerning poverty. For instancethe number of people living onless than $2 a day amounts to 2.8 billion56% of the world’spopulation.(9) Instead of poverty we could more accurately speak of misery.Poverty might allow for some human dignity but misery degrades the person.Misery creates resentment. It means that someone in the family will die becauseof the lack of a mere 50 dollars. It forces many into dishonesty becausewithout bribingwithout cheatingchildren will starve. As a young man St.Eugene felt specially called to serve those “poor without the least ideaof their dignity.” To reveal that dignity he used to teach them catechismduring his holidays from the seminary.(10)
It is true that asreligious we will seldom be like the destitute. For one thing we have the giftof a fine educationand enjoy a certain security by holding all things incommon. Ours is a voluntary apostolic povertynot the misery of those whostarve. Our mission is to overcome the evil in poverty by our practice of thevirtue of poverty. The reality is that not every Oblate is and can be in closecontact with those who live in miserybut all can practice the virtue. Thepoor and the “most abandoned souls” as the Founder calls themcanhave many faces. There are also different types of service to the poor. Rule 9aspeaks of those Oblates who “identify themselves with the poorsharingtheir life and commitment to justice” and of others who “are presentwhere decisions affecting the future of the poor are being made.”
Whatever the concretecircumstances of our life and service may bewhat the abandoned and those inneed expect from us is that our heart be with themthat we be close to them insome real way. Our conscience asks: Do the poor come to us? Do they feelcomfortable with us? Do they feel welcome in our houses? If they do not comedo we visit with them? Do we make their voices heard? Have we ever beenpersecuted because of them? These are some of the questions that come up whenwe envisage the value of our closeness to the poor.
b) Evangelization.– For Oblateslove for the poor and closeness to them is only thefirst outcome of our vow of poverty. It is the typical Oblate path of missionand evangelization.
Oblate experienceteaches us that there is a fundamental link between our practice of poverty andour evangelizing:
Both evangelizationand the practice of poverty leave us seeking a deeper communion with the poor.What could this involve?
One way is to acceptconsciously the hardships of being in the service of the poor. Once we live incloseness to the people they will knock on our doors and may disturb us at anyhour. For them we will have to make long and tiring journeyseven on foot oron horsebacksleep in beds that are not our ownrisk climate and healthconditions not of our choosing. This is a concrete way of living the vow ofpoverty. The same can be said if we do not use certain things we could affordbecause they might scandalize peoplecause astonishment when they enter ourhouse. Furthermore we can make their voices heard in places where decisionsaffecting their lives are madeand be prepared to suffer frustration or evenpersecution with them. Our Rule makes explicit mention of such an experience.“When faced with the demands of our mission and the needs to be metwemay feel weak and helpless” (C 20). It is not however without its reward:“It is then that we can learn from the poorespecially making our owntheir patiencehope and solidarity” (C 20). Our reward is that we can be“evangelized by them” as the 1986 Chapter said.(13)
Let me return to thetopic of our use of financial resourcesin the light of these reflections onthe virtue and vow of poverty.
We may consider FrTempierour first General Bursaras a model in this regard. In his time hewas called “our financial Caesar”and even by Fr. Fabre“Providence incarnate.”(14) The Congregation had many financialstruggles in its early years. A crisis similar to the one today in manyprovinces occurred in 1847 because of Fr. Léonard’s success inbringing in vocations. Another parallel today is the hardshipcreated oraggravated by violencethat some units are experiencing. It is similar to thehard times the Congregation knew during the 1848 revolution. Gradually Tempiermanaged to build up a “a reserve fund” as the Founder had suggestedalready in 1826.(15)
Following Tempier'sexampleone way of living our vow is by being responsible stewardsby tryingto provide the means for an effective evangelization. St. Eugene’s“reserve fund” and our present day solidarity funds are similar.
While we are caringfor the needs of missionwe must always be mindful of the fact that ourfinances should never lose their connection with the poor for whom they weregiven to us and from whomin many casesthey have come to us. At times weseem to be following the opposite path and want to become independent of thepoor. The value of evangelical poverty will shine more brightly in the eyes ofthe people if we accept our dependence on them in our needsbegging them forhelpdoing local fund-raisingwaiting patiently for their contributions. Thiskind of solidarity might even be the only way to go in a given situation. Canwe reverse the present trend of reliance on investments to depending more onsupport coming from the people we serve? The expression “patrimony of thepoor” would receive a more real meaning. It would also have the effect ofmaking us more accountable and responsible in their eyes.
As a practicalconsequence we have to accept a lifestyle and a way of doing mission which aremore at the level of the countries in which we are present. Will this be lesseffective? Let us use an example. Sometimes doing mission work without a carcan limit us: we will reach fewer placeswe will spend more time on the road.But is the equation true: “No car equals less effective mission?” oreven “No car equals no mission?” The mustard seed of the Kingdom hasits own rules of effectiveness.
Our Rule speaks of“communion with Jesus and the poor.” Let me conclude with a text fromthe last Synod as I promised above. At the opening Mass of the assemblygathered in Rome in October 2001 to deliberate on the ministry of bishopsthePope spoke about the spirit of poverty that must characterize a bishop. TheSynod took this up several times and its final message presents the followingsynthesis:
I believe this simplesummary eloquently expresses what I have tried to offer.
|Collectivewitness to the first beatitude|
The vow of povertyis not only a question of our personal following of Christ or a way ofdeepening our communion with the poorit is also constitutive of a new type ofbrotherhood among ourselves. Through the vowwhat happened at the beginning ofthe Church is made to happen again: “The Spirit prompted the firstChristians to share everything. Under the influence of that same Spiritwehold all things in common” (C 21). The vow thus constitutes community. Ifwe fail to live itcommunity will suffer. If we live it outour special wayof being together can be a path of evangelization powerfully united topreaching and to our personal witnessing.
How can the communityaspect of poverty become meaningful for people? Our choices of where we livebuild our houses and facilitiesmake a statement. Many Oblate communities areestablished in poor areas. The 1992 Chapter is emphatic on this point:“Thus sharing in the life of the poorthey will be better able toannounce more fully ‘the liberating presence of Jesus Christ’ and toaccompany the poor in their efforts to construct ‘a world born of hisresurrection’ (C 9). They will then be able to welcome the poor moreeasily. . . .” (MTW 25).
At the same time notall the communities can be “inserted” in impoverished areas. Thesituation of small and large communities also differs. A small fraternity maymore easily live at the level of ordinary people; big houseson the otherhandwitness to saving costs through sharing. But in any situation the vow ofpoverty lived as community should make us counter-cultural.
Greed andindividualism thrive in the present system of global economics. In contrastthe major religions of the world proclaim very different values – care forcreationsharing with the less fortunateholding out the hope of a betterworld. Can our communities become striking witnesses to a life based on Gospelvalues? Can our ways of dealing with finances evangelize society as theBenedictine monasteries transformed Europe centuries agoor as the Franciscansdid in Latin Americaetc.?
Our holding allthings in common will make an impact. More lay associates will take up some ofthe values enshrined in the Oblate charism; othersincluding leaders ofsocietywill find inspiration in our communal use of this world’s bounty.The 50000 participants at the World Social Forum 2002 in Porto Alegre saw“solidarity economy” as an alternative to neo-liberal globalization.Whenamong us Oblates“all we acquire . . . belongs to thecommunity” (C 22) our sharing becomes a sign of the universal destinationof the goods of this world.
Of courseall wehave said about the vows and particularly about poverty may sound idealisticand I have acknowledged that our lived reality is not fully in tune with theChristian message. The Gospelgood news of human and Christian freedomwillalways be in us and beyond usoffering “new energies for love andservice.” It is never too late to changewe are given the chance to startour religious life all over again every morning. A scholastic wrote to mesaying that he renews his vows every monthon the same date as he made themfor the first time.
For our ongoingconversion we need to be challenged by our brothers and our superiors. I intendthis letter to challengeencourageand confirm. Saint Eugene as a superiorwas outspoken in many wayscaring even about details: “I want to advisethose who have to wear glasses to be content with a steel frame which the laitygenerally use.”(17) This particular example belongs to the pastbut thespirit of his advice remains a light for our pathas it flames out in everyparagraph of the Preface to our Rule.
His words sound likea summary of the beatitudesa page of the Gospel rewritten for the Oblates:
(1). M. J. Himes“Returning toOur Ancestral Lands”Review for Religious Jan-Feb 2000p. 21.
EPM : Evangelizing the Poor at theDawn of the Third Millennium. Acts of the 33rd General Chapter(1998).