FR. GENERAL'S MESSAGE TO THE CONGREGATION
FEBRUARY 17, 2010
CONVERSION: A TASK AND A GIFT
As we celebrate the 184th anniversary of pontifical approval, we have reached 2010, the year of our 35th Chapter. The proposed theme is “conversion.” This year began with a terrible catastrophe - in Haiti, the capital and other cities have been destroyed by the earthquake, over 160,000 people have died, and there has also been loss of life among the Oblates and their relatives. The provincial administration of one of our strongest provinces is displaced, our scholastics have had to abandon their studies, important buildings are destroyed.
The terrible disaster of Haiti brings to mind the passage about the fall of the Siloam Tower, which speaks explicitly about conversion. Jesus says there: “Those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Lk 13:4-5) - In which way does the earthquake call us to a change of our ways?
Every General Chapter deals with conversion to our original call, but this time we have made the theme explicit. A certain urgency was felt. Saint Eugene de Mazenod, too, felt a call to urgent conversion right at the time of our congregation’s approval: “In the name of God, let us be saints”, he wrote on February 18, 1826. Do we feel that same urge? Will conversion really happen with us today?
Even with a special focus and a reflection process in place, we might remain skeptical. By experience, we know too well that our good intentions often do not last long; the classic example are the New Year resolutions which are said not to survive January! We tend to become discouraged because of our resistance to change, or even cynical. Perhaps we need to learn more about conversion, look at it from different angles.
1. One way of looking at the change of mind we are called to is from our side. Jesus uses imperatives when he says: “the kingdom of God is at hand; reform your lives and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). Saying: reform your life! He indicates that an effort on our part is clearly required.
But the gospels themselves speak of our difficulties with Jesus’ urgent call. When Jesus makes the statement: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” the text continues: “Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” (Lk 18:25-26)
2. Repentance, change of life, conversion can also be seen from another angle. Jesus, in his answer to the disciples’ question above, “Who can be saved?” makes a consoling statement: “What is impossible with humans is possible with God” (Lk 18:27). In other words, there is help. We are not left alone; conversion is not just our own affair.
Let us try to describe this help we may count on. Comparisons, metaphors come to mind. What about “shortcut”? It may appear ambiguous. One would have to reject it if it meant sidelining conversion; of course, God “has not given any one permission to sin” (Sir 15:20). There is no shortcut for avoiding conversion to the Kingdom, to a world where God will reign, to the Jerusalem that comes down from heaven. But there is a shortcut in the sense of the shorter way God may want to indicate to us once we have started with our effort.
Another metaphor could be “power conversion.” It might sound a bit trendy; the word “power” is used today in many new combinations – power steering and power tools; power charger, power search, and even power nap. It means that there is additional energy involved, not just our ordinary strength. Could there also be a power conversion?
One can go so far as to say: we must gain access to power greater than our own if we want to get anywhere on the road of reform. St. Eugene was convinced that such a higher power had become available when he had received approval for our Rules. On February 18, 1826 he wrote: “they are no longer simple regulations …. They are Rules approved by the Church … they have been judged holy and eminently suited to lead those who have embraced them to their goal.”
Shortcuts, special means of power -- they are metaphors for saying one thing: that conversion is not possible without God’s grace. It is a task but much more a gift. Scripture scholars point out that Jesus’ call, “reform your lives, and believe in the gospel”, puts change of heart and faith inseparably together; one cannot happen without the other. Among the many powerful gifts of grace – sacraments, Scripture, community, etc -- let me point out one special way and means to achieve the change God is asking us for: our commitment to the poor. It becomes particularly relevant in the wake of the earthquake.
Constitution 5 reminds us that “We are a missionary Congregation. Our principal service in the Church is to proclaim Christ and his Kingdom to the most abandoned.” When Jesus makes his comment on the tower of Siloam, he must have observed that some people distanced themselves from the victims saying: “This happened because they were sinners.” Similar voices have recently been heard about Haiti; yes, even today! Jesus’ answer is: they are human beings like you’ you have no privilege over them; you could perish like them at any time -- therefore be converted!
In practice, these means for us who were not hit by the earthquake that we must show solidarity and not distance ourselves – we are in the same boat. The provincial of Haiti wrote in a recent letter: “This is an occasion to look at life with new eyes and to better appreciate God’s gifts to us. This is an occasion of a stronger solidarity between us.”
Since 1826 we bear the name of Mary. How would she have reacted in front of those “on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” I believe that she, who is mother of all, is asking us today to find the grace of conversion in our solidarity with the poor.