In this wide-ranging”cyber” interview conducted via email with Most Rev. Louis Lougen, OMI, he graciously addresses a variety of topics in detail, from the Triennium, to his experiences visiting missionaries around the world to the upcoming 2016 General Chapter Meeting in Rome. In Part One of the Two-part Interview, Father General reflects on this second year of the three-year Triennium observance, the “state of the Oblate World” and shares experiences he’s had in mission territories during his first five years as Superior General.
Q: We are entering the second year of the Triennium. The themes for this year are: Formation and the Vow of Poverty. What do you hop emerges from the reflections? What are some of your reflections on these themes:
The second year of the Oblate Triennium is part of what I like to call our “pilgrimage of grace” for all Oblates and for all those associated with the Oblate charism. I hope these three years of the Oblate Triennium will prepare us for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Congregation by deepening our response to the 2010 General Chapter “call to a profound personal and community conversion to Jesus Christ.” The General Chapter call to conversion has given all Oblates and Associates a serious challenge to open our lives anew to the ever-transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Last year as you know, we focused on our commitment to live in apostolic community and the way we live our vow of chastity.
This year we are looking at the place of ongoing formation in our lives and the vow of poverty. The precise title for this year’s theme is “Ongoing formation: a lifelong process.” It is easy to begin by saying that this year is not primarily about doing formal studies, although that could be a part of what this theme is about. And it is not just about what we call “first formation,” the preparation of young Oblate missionaries, although it includes that.
The ongoing formation that this second year of the Oblate Triennium envisions is our continuing holistic growth and development as human beings, people of faith, consecrated religious, and missionaries. For those living the Oblate charism as lay people, it is the same call to develop throughout life in an integral way. The Oblate Constitutions and Rules state: “Ongoing formation encompasses all aspects of our development. It renews and develops our spiritual life and its inner resources and favours our growth in emotional and affective maturity. It increases our pastoral skills. It enables us to be critically aware of the integration of our life and mission at all stages of our development.” (C# 69).
You can see that this year dedicated to ongoing formation is for everyone. How am I growing as a human being? Am I integrated, mature? How have I grown in my personal relationship to God as my Creator, Savior and Sanctifier? Have I become more deeply shaped by the vows I have professed: am I poorer; more chaste; more obedient; have I persevered in love throughout my missionary life? How am I ministering pastorally: am I closer to the poor; am I more generous? Do I have a deeper missionary spirit, ready to go wherever the Congregation needs me?
This year focuses on the vow of poverty and this is a challenge for us as men who make this commitment to follow Jesus who was poor. It challenges all Christians who seek to follow Jesus in a life that is simple and expresses sharing with others. We are heavily influenced by the consumer, materialistic society. We are seduced by marketing schemes that urge us to buy, purchase, upgrade and possess more and more. Are we able to live simple lives that respect God’s wonderful work of creation? Do we need to have cars that are big and fancy or expensive clothes to impress people? Do we believe we are entitled to some privileges or luxurious things because we think we have given up so much for God?
Poverty is also about allowing ourselves to be emptied for the mission to which we are sent. It means being able to work with others and not imposing one way, my way, of doing things. Poverty makes us available to go wherever we are needed and to do whatever needs to be done. It is very much connected to humility so that I place others before me and serve others. Poverty is growing into the person of Jesus in a very close union with him. It is a call to conversion for all of us, vowed Oblates and Associates.
Poverty is also about sharing with others what we have and who we are. It is expressed in generosity and joy and it is not lived out just on one’s own terms. Often what we have or who we are is taken from us without permission. A person who is evangelically poor responds by generously giving from his/her very heart that which was pulled or taken away without permission. This was the radical freedom of Jesus. Poverty is very closely connected to freedom. Remember when Jesus said in Chapter 4 of Saint John’s Gospel: “No one takes my life from me. I freely give it.” Jesus’ poverty on the cross was the free gift of his life for us. The cross is the ultimate meaning of poverty.
Poverty is also inseparable from obedience. Jesus’ deepest poverty was his obedience to the Father: “I have come not to do my will, but the Father’s. That is my food.” Jesus gave up the possibilities of his own mission and handed his life over to the Father. It could have been so different! When we live radical obedience we are people who are poor in the spirit of Jesus.
I am hopeful that in the year of the Oblate Triennium, by considering these themes, sharing our faith and praying over them, we will be more open to God’s grace to be converted. I hope we have the courage to see where we have stopped growing as human persons and have become stuck in a rut of non-growth. God’s grace frees us and helps us to develop as human persons and as a people of faith. Pope Francis has challenged religious men and women calling us to look at our lives to see whether we have become just grumpy old bachelors, self-centered, gossipy and mean-spirited or are we filled with joy, compassion, life serenity and happiness? What a challenge! This goes for all of us who are Christians and are inspired by the charism of St. Eugene de Mazenod.
Some of the concrete methods for ongoing formation that the Constitutions and Rules give us are daily prayer and reflection; studies; special sessions such as workshops, retreats or days of recollection. Fundamental for us is spiritual direction. I have asked all our communities to begin faith sharing which is essential to our communion as brother Oblates and men of faith. One of the strongest experiences I had of faith sharing was when our Belleville district was animated by the superior at that time, the late Fr. David Kraus. We were formed and nourished by sharing our experience of God and our lived experience of faith. We really helped each other and drew on our experience of formation and spiritual growth with life as our starting point. Sometimes our ongoing formation needs physical help from a doctor or emotional help from a counselor or therapist. We use these means and such helpful programs or workshops to help us grow.
Q: What’s the general state of the “Oblate World?” Areas of concern? Areas of special success?
We are inserted in the society in which we are located and we live that reality. So it is challenging to say something about the general state of the Congregation because we are in so many different realities and sometimes they are very different from one another. There is an immense missionary effort in the Congregation and there is an enormous concern among us to bring the Good News to the poor. Everywhere this is what Oblates talk about, pray about and study: how to make the Gospel known to those who never heard it, who have forgotten it or who have rejected it. At the same time, there is a real hunger among us to go live our Oblate identity and the values of our life as vowed men, religious men who are missionaries to the poor. We are seeking to find new ways to live together in apostolic communities so that our lives more clearly witness to God, to the Kingdom, as signs of Christ’s light for the world. We are looking everywhere to see the faces of the poor and trying to read the signs of the times. And we are seeking to recognize “new” faces of the poor, new ways in which poverty marginalizes people and makes them neglected and thrown away.
Despite some very challenging situations, all around the world Oblates are close to the poor and to people who suffer. If there is any common thread this is it: Oblates are in the midst of situations of poverty and the poor people whom we serve regard us as friends, spokespersons, ministers of faith, defenders, men who are close to God, available, approachable, understanding and compassionate, down to earth and have a good sense of humor.
We face the same challenges of the Church wherever we are. We are growing and expanding in Asia and Africa and we have difficulties in accompanying this growth with sufficient mentors, elders, formators and leaders at times. Finances are also a challenge. We are seeking to develop the best structures of formation in these places to welcome the many new candidates that come to us; and this situation requires food, clothing, housing, education, etc. to form young men. In Much of Europe and North America, along with the Church, we will be fewer Oblates and many Provinces are shaping their community life and mission to adjust to this radical difference which at times is difficult for us to face with trust and joy. The diminution of those who practice the Catholic faith especially among middle-aged and young Catholics has affected every Province in Europe, North America, Australia and other places where life is more cosmopolitan in the large urban centers. The great number of Oblate elders who need health care is a concern as we go toward the future. In Latin America there is the proliferation of sects which are often hostile to the Catholic Church as well as masses of poor people in extreme material poverty and the spirit of secularization that offers things other than religion to the young. We live the challenge of how to respond bringing the Gospel to a continent that has centuries of Catholic life and yet is often quickly losing the practice of the faith. We need to nurture apostolic communities and a proactive and organized vocational and formation ministry which responds adequately to this reality.
We are in these contexts reflecting on what is happening and trying different responses to the various situations. In this sense the legacy given us by St. Eugene de Mazenod is so important because the reality is similar to his after the French Revolution. We count on the creativity and daring spirit of the charism as lived by Saint Eugene to inspire us and to lead us forward with new responses to the times.
Q: As you near the end of your first six years, what are the experiences that have been most inspiring? What has been most humbling?
The most inspiring experiences that I have had in these six years are seeing the Oblates when they live the charism. I am inspired by the closeness of our men to the poor. Wherever I have gone the Oblates live an unpretentious life of generous service to the poor. There are some spectacular projects we have undertaken and these have been life changing for the poor. Just recently in Guatemala an Oblate developed a way of pumping water from a font in the mountains to many villages that is short of miraculous. The pump operates on the pressure of the water itself and costs practically nothing, is environmentally friendly and needs no gasoline or oil. The lives of thousands of people- usually women and children- who had to walk hours on the mountain paths to carry water are suddenly transformed because of the dedication of an Oblate. I was there when the pump was connected and the miracle of the water reaching distant villages was witnessed by the people. What joy and thanksgiving!
In Australia, the work of the ****Rosies who go out at night with coffee, sandwiches and a friendly conversation for the street people is very inspiring and so Oblate! The Rosies know the street people, their names, their situations and just “hang out” for a while on the streets in a posture of simple human relationship, gratuitous presence. In a meeting with many of the Rosies I heard their testimony: “We went to do this ministry for the people who live in the streets, and many people admire us and see us as so generous; but it is our lives that have been changed because of what the street people have done for us and for what they have been to us!” High school kids from the Oblate schools participate in this outreach of presence and solidarity. They share with me how this changed their lives. This is another extremely Oblate characteristic.
**** Editor’s Note: On their website “The Rosies,” an Austrailian group describe themselves as: “Friends on the Street is a not for profit organisation with a volunteer base of over 900 active volunteers across Queensland, who provide unconditional acceptance and friendship to people who are marginalised within our community – especially people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.”
The Oblate Associates and Oblates in Argentina discovered that there were hearing and speech challenged children and youth in their proximity who had never been able to receive the sacraments because they couldn’t attend catechetical classes due to their challenges. A need was seen and the Associates went to learn sign language. They now have catechism taught in sign language and the Mass is signed. Many young people as well as adults have now received the sacraments in great joy! I visited this nucleus of Oblates and Associates and I immediately recognized their tremendous dedication and hard work was based on their love for the Oblate charism and Saint Eugene.
Some years ago in Zambia, I went with Fr. Jim Chambers to a women’s prison in Mongu to celebrate the Eucharist for the fourth Sunday of Advent. There were about thirty women present for Mass, many with their children living in the prison with them. The conditions were unbelievably dirty and there were no toilets, no light bulbs, no mattresses, very little water. Food is provided by relatives when they can go there. The heat was terrific, mosquitoes and malaria, etc. We had the Eucharist under a tree in the yard. I had brought a gift, the book that has all the prayers for Mass written in the language of the people, Lozi. The ladies were overjoyed and emotional that I would bring them a gift. They caressed and held the book like a sacred object in all that filth and poverty. Our altar was a rusty old tin can turned upside down and one of the ladies had a small piece of beautiful cloth which she put over the tin can to serve as an altar cloth. What love and devotion for the Mass was shown by these women! Truly Saint Eugene was present among us through the ministry of the Oblates who were attending to these women and faithfully celebrating the sacraments for them. In many other ways the Oblates and Associates were helping the poorest of the poor have a more dignified life within the prison.
In Bangladesh our missionaries were not received well by another religious group when we first arrived in a particular area. The local religious leader told the Oblates they need not go there. The Oblates remained and built a clinic and then a school. When one of the Oblates was on his motorbike, he would often offer a ride for any man on the road. At first the religious leader had threatened the people not to have anything to do with the foreign religion and to stay away from the clinic and school. Little by little however, the people discovered the kindness and availability of the Oblates and two Sisters. The clinic began to be visited and the school filled up with students. Rides were accepted from the Oblate on his motorbike. Friendships were made. After trust and confidence were built up, people told the Oblates that they are more helpful and human, more approachable and open that this people’s own clergy man. The people came to see me when I visited and presented me with the traditional garland of flowers to welcome me. Then over some tea and sitting on the floor they told me all that the Oblates were doing for them.
In Africa we often have a challenge how to support the mission because we are with the very poor. In the Province of Cameroon, two Oblate Brothers have been trained in mechanics and operate a lucrative vehicle repair shop. While they often give a break to the Sisters and poor people, their business brings in a substantial amount each year to help the Province. Presently they have two aspirants with them, inspired by these two Brothers who support the mission in a unique way with their gifts. The repair shop has pictures of Saint Joseph there and a spirit of joy. The Brothers do evangelizing and pray while fixing customers’ vehicles and everyone knows it is the most trustworthy car mechanics shop in the country. One of the Brothers is a Province leader and is on the Provincial Council and is a Superior. He has other pastoral ministries entrusted to him at the same time. One of his many talents is cutting hair, and after seeing his mechanics shop, he gave me a nice trim!
In Lesotho the first two hearing challenged students recently finished High School and passed the university entrance exam due to an Oblate who learned sign language and coached these two students. Without this assistance the young women would have been condemned to a life of exclusion and poverty and would have been exploited by others. Now they are on the way to an entirely different kind of life because of the efforts and initiative of one Oblate.
In Sri Lanka I visited a group of children who had been maimed, traumatized and had lost their parents in the 30 year war. The children told me their stories which were hard to bear. Without any reluctance they showed me their maimed and lost members. One boy showed me his right arm blown off above the elbow and wiggled it for me. He said he didn’t want a fake arm because now he can write and throw a ball with his left arm. A girl who lost both legs showed me where they had been severed and then how she can now run with prostheses. This went on for about an hour and a half and then we had tea. After tea the children sang and danced traditional songs for me. The last song was especially chosen for me in English and they had worked on it a long time. The students had selected it and knew the meaning. They sang for me “I believe in angels… there is something good in everything…!” Everyone in the audience who was able to understand the words had tears in their eyes. There are two Oblates who direct this center with a group of lay people who are trying to help the children recover from the ravages of war. What an experience of seeing the Good News preached, or rather, lived!
In India I was visiting one of our Oblate communities. The neighbors came over to meet me and when they met me they bowed right down to the ground, their foreheads touching my feet. I felt unworthy of such reverence and bent down to lift them up and to make them stop. But I was stopped by the Oblates who told me that the way I had been introduced as a “most” venerable person and that demanded such respect. I felt totally unworthy and humbled by this. Then what came as shock is that these people were Hindus, not even Catholics. Yet they recognize in religious leaders of other religions the same awesome respect as for their own religious leaders.
Perhaps a humorous humbling experience was when the superior of our Oblate mission in Thailand took me to visit the abbot of a Buddhist monastery. When we arrived, the Oblate told me it is a sign of respect to ask questions to the abbot and he said, “So start asking questions.” I couldn’t think of any questions immediately, so he told me what to ask in English and I asked his question. Then he translated my questions, which were really his questions, into Thai and posed them to the abbot. At one point, Father told me that my head had to be at a lower position than the abbot’s head, so I got down on the floor with crossed legs. It was a little like that old movie about Anna and the king in Siam. Then the Oblate gasped and told me that my feet could not be pointed at the abbot. It was a terrible breech of protocol and a big insult! So I tried to force my feet underneath me, bending them with immense pain, and trying to ask the questions which the Oblate whispered into my ears. When the visit was over I could not stand up on my own and six people were needed to unfold my feet and legs and pull me upright!
In one country I choose not mention, I stayed with a very young Oblate in the parish house. Day and night the people, poor fishermen and their families, came to him for many different reasons, but especially for advice, counsel, and some wisdom. In a rare moment when we were alone and everything was quiet, I asked him if he had enough time for himself and time to pray, just to be with God. He told me he arose each day very early to spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament. I spoke to him about burnout and over work. With all his youthful enthusiasm he told me, “Father the more I work the more I am able to give. God keeps on giving me whatever I need.” I was humbled by his wisdom, his commitment to prayer and the way he was so centered in God who is his source.
I was also inspired and humbled by two Oblates to whom I made a surprise visit. It was an early morning with terrific heat and I went to say hello to them and to have a bit of breakfast. I found the two of them totally absorbed in adoration, on their knees before the Blessed Sacrament in a very precarious chapel. The candles burned around the monstrance as they knelt in total silence and attention for more than an hour. They were praying for the Pope and for the Congregation. With prayer such as this, the Spirit will lead us to heed the call to conversion and open our lives to God’s amazing grace. It was interesting that when I asked the Oblate Associates what aspects of the charism do they live and do they see in the Oblates with whom they work, a number of them told me, “Oblates are men of prayer.” It is so true.
In another country where there is some religious tension, a particular religious group is pushing our indigenous people by moving and occupying the traditional lands of the indigenous. For these people, their entire existence, their very way of being is destroyed when they lose the land and consequently, the environment with which they live in relation. Oblates in various countries are living and ministering in the midst of the indigenous peoples, helping them secure their land and the environment. This at times is dangerous business, but the Oblates are strong in their commitment to the people. When I visited one particular indigenous group I met recently baptized Catholics. I asked them why they had requested to be baptized as Catholics. They told me with great joy that the Catholic faith was a faith of love and hope. It has space for the poor and respects men and women and children. The Oblates who were with them, they told me, had shown them a life of dignity and respect by treating the indigenous with great respect. They said they found a new life in the Church whereas in society they are looked down upon and marginalized. I thought that their witness sounded like the sermon that St. Eugene gave on in 1813 on the first Sunday of Lent in the Church of the Madeleine in Aix en Provence: “You, the poor of Jesus Christ, the afflicted and wretched, the sick and the suffering… You are the children of God… you are… the cherished portion of his inheritance…”
I particularly can think of many simple, ordinary things that inspire me like an Oblate making food for an elderly blind man in his hut or one who stayed up all night praying with the family of a woman who was dying. There are certainly the immense works Oblates are doing that are newsworthy and life changing for so many people. I can think of Oblates who live in remote areas and rely on their own initiative to plant food and hunt or fish to have something to eat. Meanwhile they are pastors of huge areas with many communities, directors of schools and hostels and running clinics all with very short funds. Always the Oblates are approachable and I see the people coming to our residences and finding it so easy to talk to Oblates and to relate to us. It’s the same all over the world.
There are many other things to say, but this is enough to give you an idea!. I am supposed to go on these visits to encourage and inspire my brother Oblates, but it is they who fill me with inspiration. That is why I can truly say, “I am proud of the Oblates, very proud.”
In Part 2 of the interview with Father General Lougen, he discusses his hopes for the upcoming General Chapter Meeting, his appointment by Pope Francis to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, what he would like Oblate Associates, employees, donors and friends to know about the work of the Oblates world-wide, and an experience that had a profound effect on him