FR. GENERAL'S MISSIONARY MEDITATION
GOD'S WORD FINDING NEW WAYS
In number eight of the Oblate Constitutions and Rules we read: “We will always be close to the people with whom we work … [we] seek out new ways for the Word of God to reach their hearts”.
In December, I spent four weeks in Sri Lanka. On the Island, the Congregation boasts of two vibrant Oblate Provinces totaling 260 members. I was happy to see Oblates being close to the people and seeking out new ways for the Word of God.
Most of our confreres are young. Youthful energy as well as the wisdom of the elders is much needed in the present situation of the country, a few months after the guns of war have fallen silent. A great multitude, numbering nearly 100,000, still live in camps and need to be resettled; psychological help must be offered to those depressed by grief and haunted by traumas; animation programs for affected children and youth are urgent; and above all there remains the task to bring about a deep reconciliation that could overcome 30 years of war and 60 years of strained relationship between two ethnic groups. Where to start? What to do next? How to give momentum to a movement of reconciliation broad enough to bring about healing of relationships, trust and a proper, lasting peace for a whole country?
This is the present context of our Oblate mission in Sri Lanka, which of course needs to follow its ordinary work as well. Many responses are already being given or are in the process of being worked out. Let me recount to you just one conversation we had among Oblates at Trincomalee in the north-east of the Island. I was told about the hardships people in our parish had gone through: five years ago the tsunami -- since they live close to the sea -- and this year, the final phase of the war which killed tens of thousands and affected almost every family. I asked the local Oblates the question: how can people cope with all these disasters, and for those who are Christians, how does their faith resist? Are we able to help in any way?
The answer I received was twofold. Firstly, the Oblates admitted that they often remained without words after listening to peoples’ grievances. All they could offer was a compassionate presence. They were told by the people that this helped them more than words to cope with desperate situations. Constitution 9 calls this being “close to the people with whom we work”.
I must say that when visiting several places in Sri Lanka that had suffered, in both of our two provinces, but especially in the north, and listening to stories that were told, I too, found it hard to say anything. I could only offer a listening ear.
Secondly, the Oblates in Trincomalee explained to me that in extreme situations, it would not be in human words where the Christians would find answers to their questions. People had learned to listen directly to the Word of God, without much need of interpretation; they could apply it to their lives. It found an echo in their hearts when they heard biblical words, for instance about earthquakes and wars that are to come, but that this is not yet the end; and when they listened to exhortations like “when these signs begin to happen, stand upright and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (Lk 21:28).
Does this not give us a clue for dramatic moments when so much needs to be done and we do not know where to start? This simple parish community in Trincomalee made us Oblates understand that the best service we can offer to people does not come from our own strength. They do find help if they can get into an immediate connection with the very source of hope, grace and strength, as it can be found in God’s Word. Constitution 9 speaks of seeking out “new ways for the Word of God to reach their hearts”.
God communicates not only with Christians. In many of the Oblates’ activities in Sri Lanka, the largest number of beneficiaries are people of faiths other than Christianity. The Oblates work with children and youth at large; they run orphanages, have started an English academy, continue to establish counseling centers (I saw three or four of them), are getting more deeply involved in JPIC activities and all these benefit a cross-section of the population with a majority of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Also, in these activities, God’s grace can be seen at work, since what people receive is clearly more than our limited, human contribution can warrant.
During my visit, I discovered anew the secret of any missionary work: it lies in becoming intermediaries so that people come into contact by themselves with the very source of life. Especially in a post-war situation like in Sri Lanka, it becomes evident that reconciliation and peace can only be God’s business. God alone can forgive our sins and make us forgive the offenses of others; God alone can give new life after so much death. In these circumstances, we realize that we are missionaries, not so much through what we can do as effective helpers, but more for what we are as persons, consecrated to God’s ways; what we are is what helps people to find the source of reconciliation, peace and life by themselves.