By Louis Lougen, OMI, Superior General
The Interchapter meeting in April is the halfway point between Chapters. We begin to look toward the Chapter of 2016 which will coincide with the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Congregation. This anniversary of the Congregation is already a subject of conversation among Oblates and Associates. It cannot be a nostalgic reverie about the past, celebrated with ceremonies, dinner parties and “business as usual.” I believe that the years leading up to the anniversary are a graced opportunity to deepen the 2010 Chapter call to “a profound personal and communal conversion to Jesus Christ.”
In 1981, Fr. Ruben Elizondo, O.M.I. and Fr. Jaime Sullivan, O.M.I. published “Oblate Animation Manual.” An extremely useful resource book for Oblates around the world, it presented a theory about the lifespan of religious congregations. The cycle of a congregation’s beginnings, growth, solidification and decline, was shown typically to extend over a period of 150 to 200 years with one of three consequences: its extinction; its survival at a minimum level; or its revitalization. At a time when, in certain parts of the world, many religious were departing from consecrated life, vocations were quickly diminishing and there was great confusion about who we were, the authors of the “Manual” gave us this great resource to help us collaborate with the Holy Spirit in the work of revitalization.
I invite us to make the bicentennial of the Congregation a focal point of grace to reaffirm the path to revitalization. Ruben and Jaime named three characteristics of a congregation that is revitalized: 1) it has a transformative response to the signs of the times; 2) the members appropriate the foundational charism; 3) they undergo a personal and communitarian conversion to Christ consisting in a profound renewal of faith and prayer life. We can see that the Call to Conversion of the 2010 Chapter contains all of these characteristics. We have been on the road to revitalization and I propose that we intensify this work as the best way to prepare for the jubilee of our 1816 foundation.
In many ways throughout the world Oblates are seeking to respond to the signs of the times in a transformative way in our Oblate life and mission. Some of the ways we are responding in the mission are in creative approaches to youth ministry, outreach to victims of war and violence, support and orientation for migrants, accompanying indigenous peoples in their struggles and many forms of dialogue with other religions. Since we are vowed religious, our response to the signs of the times must also shape our way of living. In this area we continue to struggle to form meaningful community with quality relationships, to seek God’s presence in prayer and to live the vows prophetically. Discernment of the signs of the times in community and the grace of conversion are needed to help us respond in a more fully transformative way.
The second characteristic of congregations that become revitalized is appropriating thefoundational charism. We have witnessed tremendous growth in discovering our charism since Vatican II. There are many Oblates to be thanked for this awareness. A congress (1976) on the charism of the Founder, the many subsequent charism workshops around the world, the organization of the De Mazenod Experience, retreats, seminars, books, articles, theses, popular writings, etc. by many Oblates have opened up the charism to us. This richness continues to be studied, reflected upon, and shared. Recently I spoke with a prenovice who told me his vocational story and related it to the Founder’s life. I was amazed at his knowledge of the charism and his love for it! The challenge we face for revitalization is to live what we have learned about the charism. The calls to Conversion in the five areas given to us by the Chapter help us judge our life and mission in the light of the charism and call us to go deeper.
It is striking that the “Manual” in 1981 listed “a personal and community conversion to Christ” as the third quality for revitalizing a congregation. The beginning of the book includes Father Jetté’s letter for February 17, 1981: “… [I]t is precisely in our Oblate life that we are today being called to a second conversion. A second conversion is often more painful than the first because it penetrates to greater depths, it draws us out of attitudes and habits that are more firmly rooted and it reveals to us an attachment to our own self and will that we may never have suspected.” Notice how the General Chapter of 2010 echoes and expands upon this theme of conversion! The Holy Spirit has been calling us to and preparing us for revitalization.
The “Manual” describes two other possible paths following the decline of a Congregation: stagnation and extinction. The reality for most of the congregations in the history of the Church has been death which usually comes from of a loss of identity; exchanging the original missionary thrust of the charism for maintenance ministry; and a loss of passion for God and for holiness.
I do not accept the theory that we have completed our mission, we have served the Church, and we will die peacefully. I believe this is a secularized vision and a self-fulfilling death wish. I don’t believe lay people who love the Oblate charism and live it are going “to replace” vowed Oblates. This is a patronizing attitude and disrespectful to their commitment to live the charism. I realize the Congregation is not an eternal institution in the Church but I am not willing to say we’ve done our job and R.I.P.
I believe in God, the Spirit of Life, who does not engender death. I call us to be intentional about the revitalization of the Congregation as we prepare for our 200thanniversary. I call us to make a conscious choice to live, thrive and be a vibrant missionary body inspired in Saint Eugene’s charism. I have the privilege to visit the Congregation and to see so many signs of life everywhere. I will be sharing these with you in the future. I am convinced God is calling us to live fully. The choice is ours to respond to God’s grace.
The 2010 Chapter call to “Conversion” is the only path to revitalization. Conversion is painful, but will lead us to life if we allow the Spirit to transform us: men who are not just called “oblates”, but who live oblation; missionaries formed by the Word of God; ready to serve in the most difficult missions; very close to the Poor; serving the Church with love; and passionately cooperating with Jesus Christ the Savior. One of my hopes for our anniversary is that we would celebrate it by gathering as communities for holy hours before the Eucharist and holy hours of service with the poor.
On August 15, 1822 Saint Eugene received a special grace through Mary that confirmed the value of his dear Society and revitalized him at a particularly difficult time. We claim this blessing today for the Congregation. Under Mary’s example we open ourselves to the Spirit’s breath of life so that we will be prophets of revitalization as we prepare for our 200th anniversary.