THE LOCAL SUPERIOR: “THE SHEPHERD OF HIS BROTHERS”
By Fr. Paolo Archiati, OMI, Vicar General
Continuing our reflection on Oblate community, I would like to share some reflections on its components. In particular, I would like to say a word, in this issue, about the local superior. As you know, the term “superior” today meets some opposition due to several factors, not least of which is the change in the cultural context of recent decades, on both the social and ecclesial levels. In some congregations, the superior of a local community is called the guardian; in others, the one responsible; in others, the facilitator or coordinator. Whatever you want to call it, in many cases we simply reject a term without being able to find a more adequate one. Often the terminology is inadequate when you find yourself having to translate a reality that goes beyond the meaning of the words, as in this case. In real life, you can find a superior who knows how to be a subject, a servant of his brothers and you can find a coordinator who acts like a despot or dictator. It is a matter of perspective, mainly linked to the way of living a role, a service, a presence.
Our rule of life speaks of the local superior on several occasions. Constitution 38 sees the local superior as the guardian of the joint project of the community, called to be vigilant so that this project be realized. But it is Constitution 93 that describes more fully the identity and role of the local superior. It would be appropriate for each local superior to read this Constitution at least at the beginning of each week. This Constitution is accompanied by two Rules which explain in detail the tasks that each local superior is called upon to perform. In the printed text, there is also, at this point, a reference to the 1825 edition of the Rule of the Founder. This text of St. Eugene could frighten a local superior since it is demanding and because of what is required of those who are called upon to perform this ministry, but it can also be read as an ideal toward which every local superior is called to strive in his service to the community, as a “call” to give the best of himself in the service he offers to his brothers.
In a 1996 writing on the role of the superior in a formation community, Father Marcello ZAGO wrote: “In my ten years of experience as Superior General, one principle has become more and more obvious to me: there is no personal and missionary renewal without true community life and this is not possible without a true local superior. Moreover, this is also a belief that comes out of the General Chapters that have reflected upon our renewal.” Much of what Father Zago writes in this article can be applied to any local community.
One characteristic that I would like to emphasize here, taken from the document Witnesses in Apostolic Community, defines the superior as “the shepherd of his brothers,” a term with explicit biblical overtones. He is the promoter of fraternal charity and is called upon to perform this task in the most varied of ways, often sacrificing personal interests or desires. It is the prerogative of the shepherd “to lay down his life for his sheep.”
In the last part of this article, Father Zago lists some behaviors and attitudes typical of a superior. In a few strokes, he paints a picture of extraordinary beauty. For reasons of space, I must confine myself to listing these suggestions without comments. The superior believes in the community and in its theological, formative, missionary and apostolic value. The superior loves the community, loving each of its members, caring for them with the greatest availability and being an example for them through an affective love towards them, as St. Eugene himself would do. The superior goes before the community, pointing the way forward through an exemplary and faithful life. The superior animates the community in many different ways: through community meetings convened by him to foster communion; through a gospel-based discernment about the life of the community and of each individual member; through the elaboration of a common missionary project and the promotion of a spirit of cooperation and initiative; through effective dialogue in which he is able to explain to his brothers the challenges to be overcome and the shortcomings to be corrected. Finally, the superior prays for the community, knowing that it is a gift of God rather than the result of human activity.
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