ADDRESS OF THE SUPERIOR GENERAL TO THE 2016 GENERAL ASSSEMBLY
Without a doubt, our most significant resource are the missionaries, our confreres. These are words shared with us at the inter-assembly Visitors’ Meeting in Mexico in 2007. They come from the heart of Father Hugh O’Donnell. These words struck a chord with me and have always been the vision from which I have tried to carry out my responsibility as animator of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Vincentian Family.
I speak to you today, my brothers, as the Superior General, directly to you, the delegates of this General Assembly, and to all the confreres of the Congregation of the Mission. These 12 years as Superior General have been a blessing, through which God has enabled me to see, with great clarity, the dynamism of our charism, expressed in different ways and different cultures throughout the world. For this, I am truly grateful and I can say that what I have given has been minimal in comparison to what I have received.
I have hope for the Congregation of the Mission. That hope is based on the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit that we, as members of the Congregation of the Mission and through different means, particularly our most recent General Assemblies, seek to implement. The direction that we are given comes from the discussions that take place here in the General Assembly. As I made clear to my Council from the beginning and repeated at the very end in an evaluation we had together in the Holy Land, the project that we carried out is not my project. We tried to be faithful to that which guides us, the directives given to us by the General Assembly. We have tried to follow through on them and we leave them now to the Holy Spirit, working through the next administration, the new Superior General and his Council. I exhort them to follow through not on what they want, but what the Congregation of the Mission wants. This will be evident in the discussions that we have here and that began in the Domestic and Provincial Assemblies in preparation for this General Assembly.
Our theme is very clear. We are celebrating 400 years of the birth of the charism. I speak of this not just as the birth of the Congregation of the Mission, or the birth of the Confraternities of Charity, which today we call AIC. It is truly the birth of the charism, Saint Vincent’s vision of service and presence in the Church, evangelizing and caring for those most in need, whom we call, and I refer to continually as, our lords and masters. I pray that we may always do this as good and faithful servants.
We are the Congregation of the Mission. This is our name. That means our mission is to evangelize and to serve the poor. We are called to follow Jesus Christ, the Evangelizer. In a small way, but one that is significant to me, by our name we should recognize our identity. It is unfortunate that popular names have been given to us, like the Lazarists, or the Vincentians, or Paulinos, or Paúles. They come from the people, but they do not identify clearly, whom we are as does our name, the Congregation of the Mission, given to us by Saint Vincent de Paul. This thrust of ours, our identity, is both international, as well as missionary. We are an international congregation at the service of the Church through evangelization and we try to cultivate that in the different apostolates that we have developed.
Another way to help us deepen our sense of identity is to know our Constitutions well. Unfortunately, I find, in my visits around the world, that many confreres do not know the Constitutions and, sadly enough, do not even have copies of the Constitutions available for their students in the Internal Seminary, etc. How can we understand or even have a sense of who we are if we do not know our basic common law, which is contained in our Constitutions? Unfortunately, what I see as an obstacle of growing in our knowledge of who we are, as international and missionary, is that many times we are guided by our traditions. I grant that there are very healthy traditions that we have to maintain within the Congregation, but there are other traditions, which I do not consider healthy, and even contrary to our Constitutions, which guide us more than our Constitutions do. Without going into detail on this matter, let us know our Constitutions and know them well.
Let us know well the writings of our Founder, the documents that have been developed by our General Assemblies and Superiors General and their Councils to help orient us to live more deeply the charism. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. We have lots of information before us in order even to do our own ongoing formation in terms of what our identity is. I think, perhaps, one of the things on which we have to focus more and more is being faithful to what Saint Vincent de Paul teaches us. If you want a good Vincentian, find a man who is willing to deepen a sense of the five characteristic virtues in his life. Vincent saw these in Jesus. They were the ones that attracted him, perhaps the ones in which he himself needed to grow. These characteristic virtues identify who we are. When we see a man who is simple, when we see a man who is humble, when we see a man who is gentle, meek, a man who is willing to sacrifice, and a man who is enthusiastic, we can say: that man is a Vincentian. Let us ask the Lord to help us in our everyday lives, in our union with him in prayer, in our experience of him in the poor to live more faithfully that which is our spirit, that which comes to us through the characteristic virtues, our Constitutions, and other documents that are there to help us grow. We do not have to look outside to other places for any great, illuminating materials. We have it all. All we need to do is apply it. With God’s grace, we can do that.
Our main thrust throughout this whole Assembly, as you know from the Domestic Assemblies, is evangelization and how we might better do that in the world in which we live today. All the major themes that we have discussed in the last General Assemblies continue to be very much present in this Assembly, whether it be collaboration in the Vincentian Family or interprovincial collaboration. The latter includes reconfiguration and a willingness to enliven our missionary spirit by encouraging our young men in formation to enkindle within themselves a missionary spirit and to be willing to go even beyond the frontiers of their own provinces.
I have to say, with all sincerity, that probably one of my greatest challenges has been the promotion of being an international congregation with a missionary spirit. We come up against one of our biggest obstacles, which is provincialism. I will say it again, provincialism. As many people have commented, there is a sense in some provinces that we are nothing more than a loose federation. Perhaps this is a reaction to the overly centralized government of the Congregation prior to our last Constitutions of 1984. Our new Constitutions, although reserving some authority to the Superior General and his Council concerning the direction to be given to the Congregation of the Mission, nonetheless remain weak with regard to our “internationality.” There are still indications, at times, that little importance is given to what takes place at the international level. This is reflected in poor communication between the Superior General or the secretariat and some of our provinces, particularly the Visitors. I must admit that, in these 12 years as Superior General, I have seen some improvement in communication on the part of a number of our Visitors. However, another obstacle, besides provincialism, is the closed mindset of some, who cannot see beyond the frontier of their own provinces and cannot see us as part of an international missionary operation at the service of the Church throughout the world.
One effort to promote our missionary dimension has been the establishment of international missions. In my 12 years as Superior General, we have grown from three international missions, which were begun by my predecessor, Father Robert Maloney, to ten official international missions. In addition, we have expanded our presence in one of those international missions, Tunisia, with a new apostolic presence in that country most in need. We hope to extend our presence beyond Tunisia to Mauritania, with the presence of one or more other confreres. I see this as a new missionary thrust in honor of our 400th anniversary.
Besides the seven missions established during my time as Superior General, there is hope for other missions too. On an experimental basis, we are going to open a new mission in Beni, Bolivia. It is a wonderful mission of evangelization in the jungles and rivers of that country. This mission was begun by the Daughters of Charity, who, for lack of personnel, are withdrawing. We have two missionary candidates who will go, at least on an experimental basis, from September to December of this year. I hope that we will be able to grow that mission.
We have another request from Belize, a country that is part of or not part of Central America, where the Daughters of Charity have a mission. The bishops have asked us to participate in that mission, accompanying the Daughters, as well as responding to the pastoral needs of the people.
Another possible site, which I visited most recently in Brazil, is Tefé, Amazonia, where our confrere, Bishop Fernando Barbosa, has asked us to begin a mission. It is one of the poorest dioceses in all of Brazil and we want to respond where we are most needed and where the poor are most abandoned. That is our call as members of the Congregation of the Mission.
Some people at times have cautioned me to be careful about opening missions, but really, in my heart I feel that the requests that we receive are often very clearly areas where people are abandoned. They want to hear the Good News and it is our vocation to share that Good News with them.
In this same light, I would like to point out something that I consider significant, as our way of collaborating with the Vincentian Family. Every single mission that has been opened, both in this and my previous administration, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, resulted from a call to mission by some branch of the Vincentian Family. For example, we were invited to the international mission in Cochabamba, Bolivia by MISEVI. Our lay missionaries wrote, telling us of this great need in a neighboring parish, close to where they were, and we responded. We hope to move on from there to another area of need, because the work has been well done so far. Another mission in Benin, Africa, was a response to a request of the Sisters of the Miraculous Medal, a Community from Slovenia, founded by a Daughter of Charity. A group of Sisters from Croatia went to Benin. The Community now has native Sisters and is beginning to grow. The request of the Sisters came through the bishop. We responded to the need and now have three Polish confreres there. I hope that mission too will grow.
The rest of the missions have been a response to requests made, directly or indirectly, by the Daughters of Charity, whether in Alaska (USA) or in Punta Arenas, Patagonia (Chile), or in Chad. In the last named, we now not only have a missionary parish in the same place where the Daughters of Charity are, but we also assumed the responsibility of the minor seminary, with the help of some of our missionaries from the Province of Congo.
We now have three confreres working in our mission in Angola with an invitation for others to participate and expand this mission, because the needs are great. My first visit there came at the invitation of the Daughters of Charity and the Vincentian Family. In a gathering of the members of the Vincentian Family, a young gentleman from the Saint Vincent de Paul Society stood up and said, “Father, the only branch of the Vincentian Family that is not present here in Angola is the Congregation of the Mission. The needs are great, as you can see.” So, I said, “I promise you the next time I visit, within the next couple of years, there will be a mission.” Thank God, we are there. The mission is doing well.
In Papua New Guinea, the mission that was originally established by the administration of my predecessor, Father Maloney, has been extended to include the Trobriand Islands, the Diocese of Alotau-Sideia, where our confrere, Bishop Rolly Santos, is present. We want to give priority to the needs of the Church and the calls of bishops, but particularly bishops from our own Congregation. It seems only right that we support them, as our brothers, in carrying out their mission.
This is an example of how we can deepen our sense of internationality by promoting the international missions. I was doubtful if we were to move forward with this or not and that is why it was included in the questions for the Domestic and Provincial Assemblies. Truly, I was surprised that the overwhelming response supported continuing the international missions. Now, my brothers, it is one thing to say that it is important that we continue, but another to make it happen. Now you have to encourage confreres, from the initial stages of their formation, enkindling in them this missionary spirit and urging them to respond. In the various places where we have missions, they are made up, for the most part, of men from different provinces; this is interprovincial collaboration. These are our international missions. It has not always been easy, but it is certainly worthwhile learning how not to see cultures as differences, but rather to see them as an enrichening experience.
We have noticed the difficulties and have tried to respond by giving better formation to the mission superiors and by inviting confreres to participate in ongoing formation programs in preparation for these missions. We want to do even more along that line if we can get the financial help necessary to prepare missionaries. We do not want that to be a burden for the provinces, but rather something that the Congregation of the Mission should assume. Let us develop the sense of being missionary and encourage our young men from the beginning stages of formation to enkindle in their hearts a missionary spirit and respond to calls even beyond their own provinces.
This does not mean that I do not recognize the need for missionaries in each of our provinces. That is true, but not in every case. There are places where I think we are too comfortable. We are too installed. We are too locked into our own comfort zones. Pope Francis is saying it, but we said it years ago. Saint Vincent de Paul said it. Let us get out of our own comfort zones, move forward, and go to places where the Church needs us to respond. The overwhelming response of confreres, who have opened their hearts to international missions, who opened their hearts to going to missionary provinces, has been that it is life changing for them. They report experiences of conversion, transformation, and the best experiences of their lives as missionaries in the Congregation of the Mission. I, for one, can say the same.
My life changed radically when I went to our mission of the Eastern Province in the Republic of Panama. I can remember every year of my presence there having a striking impact on my life and calling me to a deeper commitment to following Jesus Christ, Evangelizer of the Poor. I have heard that story from many, many other confreres, who have participated in missions within either their own province or one of the international missions that we have established. Let us go forward in that sense. In our Vincentian tradition, Saint Vincent de Paul taught us that the Holy Spirit is a fire. I said this in a homily on Pentecost Sunday, in the house of the Congregation of the Mission in Jerusalem, in the presence of three members of the Province of the Orient and the Daughters of Charity from the area, as well as the members of my General Council. We need to put that fire under ourselves to get moving, to get up and get out, and truly to give of ourselves as we are called to do.
If we are tired, if we are worn out, it is because we do not give ourselves fully enough to meditation on the experience of the poor whom we encounter, finding strength in the grace of God that comes through prayer. Let me say it. We need to pray more. Every letter to the confreres, after a canonical visitation, mentions the need to deepen our sense of unity with Jesus Christ in our prayer and private meditation, as well as in our communal prayer. We need to reflect on our experience of Jesus Christ in the poor, whom we encounter, and be nourished by it. Why are we tired? Perhaps because we do not give ourselves enough to Jesus Christ in prayer so that he might rekindle the fire within us to go out and preach the Good News to those who are most in need of God’s love.
Let me go onto another challenge that I see before us as an international missionary congregation; that is, the need to collaborate more fully with others who share our charism, as well as those who evangelize and serve the poor in our Church. Our Founder, Saint Vincent de Paul, together with Louise de Marillac, was among the first to promote collaboration with the laity by founding the Confraternities of Charity, followed by the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. Truly, from the very beginning, they worked together, as a Vincentian Family, in the promotion of evangelization. In my opinion, it has been 12 years of hard work, taking up what my predecessor began. Somehow or other we fell away from that sense of collaboration as time went by. It is probably because we grew and each of the branches developed an attitude, “So why do we need others, when we can do this all on our own?” Those times need to end, whether we have sufficient numbers or whether our numbers diminish. We need one another as a Vincentian Family to move forward the charism that Jesus Christ has given to us through the spirit of our Founder, Saint Vincent de Paul. Enough about wanting to be the center of attention and saying that we do this and another branch does that. We do what we do as members of the Vincentian Family at the service of our lords and masters, the poor, in order to discover more deeply Jesus Christ in them and to carry the message that we do it together.
As I have said everywhere I have visited, “The Superior General, yes, he is the spiritual animator of the Vincentian Family, but he does so in conjunction with all the leaders of the Vincentian Family throughout the world. We made a great effort over the past 12 years, and particularly these last six years, to include more and more members of the Vincentian Family who participate in the charism. They want to do so. They are enthusiastic about being part of something that is bigger than they are. Many times, the resistance comes from the more traditionally established branches, including ourselves. Therefore, my brothers, let us move forward. Let us extend our arms openly to those who share our charism with us. Give them the formation they are seeking. Encourage them to collaborate with us in a common mission, as we will hear in this Assembly. I have asked a layman, the President of MISEVI-Spain, to share with us, from the perspective of the laity, what it means to have a common mission. They desire to work together with us, as we carry out the mission of Jesus Christ, evangelizing and serving the poor.
It has been a long road. There have been ups and downs. However, the Commission for the Promotion of Systemic Change, the Commission for Collaboration within the Vincentian Family, and the Haitian Initiative, developed to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the death of Saint Vincent and Saint Louise, are some of the signs that we are moving forward together as a Family.
The big question now is “What more must be done? The way that Vincent influenced change and maintained it was by framing the right questions.
It is now time to think about a bigger vision of what we are growing toward – what is going to be the fruit of our collaboration or as I prefer to say, our shared mission? Of the focus on systemic change? How will the Family continue to be visible and effective in the world?
How do we make the transition from our present reality of managing decline to one that allows our evangelization, service, spirituality, and values to flourish, grow, and endure?
What if we sponsored a symposium focusing on the next 100 years of the Vincentian Family? It could be comprised of the current leadership and past leaders who can bring wisdom to bear. We could invite contributions from other major figures in the Family and others outside the Family who see the big picture and are not afraid to articulate it.
What if we created a Global Vincentian “NGO” with national subsidiaries covering the areas of education, health, and social services? I hesitate to use the word NGO, because we often misunderstand what a truly Christian, Vincentian-based NGO could feasibly accomplish. Nonetheless, I have said it. Please try to transform your understanding from a truly Vincentian theological perspective.
I would like to see the pooling of patrimonial funds to underpin it and the transfer of assets to give it strength. The Franz Foundation has encouraged us to look toward the creation of a mega-patrimonial fund in this light. I believe that today we, as a Family taken collectively, are probably among the top ten NGOs in the world but we have not taken the time to verify this, let alone use its leverage to have a voice together with our lords and masters in global debates on poverty.
Our major means of communication, FamVin, began years ago with the vision of John Freund and now continues with the work of Father Aidan Rooney. It is an attempt to bring us together in a significant way using social-media. It is incredible that, during my visits, as I ask our candidates how they learned about the Congregation of the Mission, any number of them say, “through the Internet” or “through your website” or “through Facebook.” The contact is through social media. Our call is to take advantage to promote the evangelization of the poor through our charism together with the rest of our Vincentian Family. I pray that this continue, because it is not an option, but an obligation. Minimally, our Constitutions commit us to working to promote the Vincentian Family, but beyond that, it is the best, most significant, and most efficacious way that we can be faithful to our charism of evangelizing and serving the poor. I think I have said enough about us as an international missionary congregation, collaborating with others in a common mission to move our charism forward.
I would like to talk a bit about my hopes for the new Superior General and his Assistants. There is nothing in our Constitutions that gives a description of what the role of an Assistant General is, other than canonical visitations, participating in General Council meetings, and living in the General Curia in Rome. But over these 12 years, I have tried to lessen the centrality of the Superior General by facilitating greater participation of the Assistants General in the different responsibilities that we have. That is why I called, even prior to being elected Superior General in 2004, for another Assistant General. In the last General Assembly, in 2010, we were able to get that fifth Assistant. With all the different responsibilities that have been given to the Assistants General in order to be an extension of the Superior General in animating the life of the Congregation of the Mission and the Vincentian Family, it is necessary that we have five Assistants General, one of whom is the Vicar General. I hope we will continue to choose members who represent the geographical presence of the Congregation in the world. We have to be very conscious of where our presence is growing, is dynamic, is young, and so is in need of even greater accompaniment.
We know from the statistics that we heard that our greatest growth is in Asia, particularly in Vietnam and in both of our Provinces of India. Our growth also is in Africa. There can be even greater growth in our Province of Nigeria and our new Vice-Province of Cameroon and in our Province of Congo. We are beginning to grow even in our international missions. In the Solomon Islands, the formation of the candidates, attracted to the charism through the service the confreres have provided, has been assumed by the Province of Oceania. We hope the same for the international mission of Papua New Guinea, that its members might be given formation with the help and assistance of the Province of the Philippines. In a desire to strengthen our presence, we need a sufficient number of Assistants in order to accompany these different geographical areas.
It is clear from our Constitutions and I agree that all Assistants General are Assistants General with the Superior General for the Congregation of the Mission. There is not an Assistant General for Africa. There is not an Assistant General for Asia. But, because of cultural similarities, it is a benefit to have that presence on the General Council in order to help us understand and discern, so the decisions we make might be best for that particular area of the world. And it works, especially when the General Assembly chooses candidates who are truly persons with their hearts and minds open to the internationality of the Congregation and a willingness to serve the entire Congregation.
In this past administration, some of the different responsibilities assigned to the Council have been significant. Together with the Secretary General and our Procurator General, the Vicar General, Father Javier, has helped us with what we consider one of our largest provinces; that is, confreres who are outside the Congregation or in difficult situations. We need to work on caring for the confreres, because, as I said at the very beginning, they are our greatest resource.
We also continue with an Assistant General responsible for our international missions who, together with the Treasurer General, works on the dispersal of our Mission Fund Distribution. The priority is always given to our international missions, as well as to Conferences of Visitors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America in those developing areas of the world.
Father Stanislav Zontak has been responsible for ongoing formation within the Congregation. He is our liaison with the CIF program and with the scholarship program for confreres who come to Rome to study. He has done a fine job. However, in our most recent evaluation, the idea arose, and I am in agreement with this, that there be an Assistant General formally named as responsible for formation, working together with the Superior General and the rest of the Council to deepen our formation in the Congregation of the Mission. It is one of our greatest needs. We lack formators and need good formation to accompany our candidates. We want to move more and more toward interprovincial collaboration or even international settings for the formation of our candidates, in order to break down that sense of provincialism and develop an even greater sense not only of inter-provinciality, but also of the internationality of the Congregation. Therefore, I ask that that be a consideration. We will speak about this during the General Assembly.
One of the Assistants General, Father Eli Chaves, has done a fantastic job in accompanying, together with me, the Vincentian Family. However, in order to give greater growth to the Vincentian Family, we separated the Vincentian Family Office from the General Curia in Rome and developed an independent one. It is operating, at least for the next two years, in Philadelphia, under the direction of Father Joe Agostino, who is here present. In addition, there is another confrere, Father Flavio Pereira, who has been generously offered to the international Congregation from the Province of Central America. This is obviously a project in collaboration with the Vincentian Family and with the help of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Marge Clifford and, hopefully, other collaborators.
The idea has grown to give greater autonomy to the Vincentian Family, still under the guidance, direction, and spiritual animation of the Superior General, but helping each of the different branches, as I mentioned, grow in its collaboration and move the charism forward, especially as we celebrate 400 years of our presence in the world. In order to help lessen, perhaps, the burden or responsibilities of the Superior General in accompanying at least three of the branches of which he is directly responsible as Director General, it might be well if one or three of the Assistants General help the Superior General by accompanying one or all three of these groups in their meetings. These groups, the Vincentian Marian Youth, the Miraculous Medal Association, and MISEVI, recognize the importance and the need for the presence of the Superior General or his delegate.
Another responsibility given to one of the Assistants General is our relationship with organizations outside the Congregation. The Union of Superiors General has a well-developed committee on Justice and Peace and the Integrity of Creation, of which we should be very active and participative. An Assistant General accompanies or serves as a link with our United Nations Representative. Father Joe Foley carried out this latter role for many years in a very fine way. He now has been replaced by a young Colombian confrere, from the Western USA Province, Father Guillermo Campuzano. Father Guillermo is moving forward with our representation at the United Nations, expanding our strength and our presence there through membership on another level that is more significant in giving us input into decisions that could benefit those living in poverty.
The Treasurer General has the responsibility of being our link with the Vincentian Solidarity Office, which, under the guidance of Father Miles Heinen, has done a fantastic job during the years he has served and particularly the last six years of this administration. As you know well, from the correspondence you received from the Superior General, some of our donations have fallen off, so we have not been able to give regularly to the micro-projects that the Vincentian Solidarity Office offers. However, we are trying to build it up and even build up the base for the fund of the Vincentian Solidarity Office in general. We are soliciting collaboration not just from a few select provinces, who, in the past, have been a great support to the Vincentian Solidarity Office, and I am speaking particularly of the provinces of the United States. Now we have solicited the help of more provinces. These are provinces, which might not have as many economic resources, but they want to be able to contribute and act in a way that we call solidarity. I want to be very simple and clear here. In my opinion, according to our Constitutions, the economic assistance that we give to our developing provinces is not a question of generosity. It is a question of solidarity. Therefore, even according to our Fundamental Statute on Poverty, we are called to assure that there be no differences among us as members of the Congregation of the Mission. It is a very sad thing, and I have said it before and I will say it again here, when distinctions are made between those who have and those who have not. Those distinctions should never be present in the Congregation of the Mission. Our efforts to help one another carry out our mission faithfully have to be shown through solidarity, not only with financial means, but also with sharing missionaries, who are available to go to wherever they might be called to help a province or an international mission that is in need of assistance. That is what solidarity is and you will hear more about that from our Treasurer General.
I want to draw to a close this opening address. Let me reiterate what has been my experience these past 12 years and what I see as challenges for us in the future.
Some people lament that our numbers are diminishing and, in some places in the world, that is true, but, in other places, it is not true. My hope is that our focus not be on simply maintaining the status quo, but let us be more charismatic. Let us promote creativity, through which we can allow the Congregation to grow. Perhaps it is time that those from the northern hemisphere allow themselves to be evangelized by those from the southern hemisphere. Even though the greatest number of missionaries comes from Europe, it is one of the areas most in need of evangelization at this time. The needs are great everywhere, in all the places where we are present. I hope we keep alive our call to respond to those in need of hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I encourage you, as members of this General Assembly, to be concerned about the Superior General and his Council, not focusing only on the Superior General. One man alone cannot do the job and do it well. We need a Superior General and a Council who are collaborative and willing to open their hearts to an even greater knowledge of each of our provinces and the works together with our Vincentian Family. I encourage deepening relationships. We urge the Superior General and his Council to have the Assistants General visit the different provinces more frequently. This will allow them to get to know the province, its membership, and its concerns. They can return later to do the canonical visitation. I know that is expecting a lot in a six-year term, but it is possible. Thus, they can gather information and reflect on it together, allowing them to make decisions for the good of the provinces, for the good of the international missions, and for the good of the Congregation of the Mission in its common mission together with the Vincentian Family.
Gregory Gay, CM
[Video to follow as soon as available]