A warm welcome to each one as we enter into our reflections these days and celebrate the feast of Nicolas Barré tomorrow. May the Holy Spirit be our source of joy and keep our hearts and minds open to where we will be led. May we look to the future with confidence and trust, firmly believing that the Lord continues to call us especially through one another as we gather in His name.
The theme for this Council of the Institute is taken from Pope Francis’ address to religious at the beginning of this year of consecrated life, “Go into all the world... I am with you” (Mark 16:15, Matt. 28:20) as he invites us ‘to come out of ourselves and go forth to the peripheries…’ He highlights two underlying attitudes for religious: gratitude to God who fills us with his grace, and generosity without measure, lived by those who allow themselves to be moulded by God.
The Council of the Institute is a consultative body, whose purpose is “to reflect together on the life of the provinces and the Institute as a whole” (BI 95). It is an opportunity for us, as a leadership group, to come together to review the Acts of the Chapter and the steps we have already taken to live them out. The consultative role of the CI and our openness to enter into a communal discernment is vital in decisions that will affect the life of the Institute.
Discernment as a way of life is the basis of our lives and decision-making as well as the reason for the continued promotion of co-responsibility for all. It is a call to welcome and respect the contribution of each one, allowing ourselves to be changed and transformed (cf GC 2013). This was emphasised at the Chapter when we decided on an alternative way of functioning for our leadership teams so as to give more responsibility to team members and to many more sisters in each province.
A new way of functioning began with the Central Team immediately after the Chapter. While we continued to work closely as a team, some members took particular responsibility for a geographical area of the Institute. This way forward has been taken up in different ways in our provinces, following consultation of the sisters in each country. The full participation and co-operation of each sister is part of this way of functioning. It calls for a deepening commitment to prayer and a constant openness to how God is calling each one of us individually and together. Mutual trust, communication and listening are essential.
Throughout the Institute initiatives have been taken to meet as continental groups, age groups, profession groups, leadership groups and others. All of these have been positive experiences and promoted relationships and exchange between different cultures. There have also been renewed efforts to learn another language, especially English, and there has been a very successful pilgrimage in France, following in the footsteps of Nicolas Barré and Mother Mathilde, for our Asian sisters and lay friends. All of these initiatives required a lot of hard work and great co-operation on the part of many people. All agreed that the benefits were well worth the effort. They remind us that the Institute is one community of sisters, which will be strengthened by deeper relationships with one another and renewed commitment to our shared mission.
At this Council of the Institute here in Bangkok we have chosen to focus on two main aspects of our shared responsibility, Finance and Leadership, both arising from the last Chapter. The focus is on the future and how we feel the Lord is calling us to be concerned about tomorrow’s world and those who will inherit it.
At the Chapter we took a decision to review our responsibilities with regard to finance. All our resources are at the service of those most in need (cf BI 109). We may have to change our way of thinking so as to see that our responsibility is for the Institute as a whole and not only for our own provinces. We will have the opportunity to learn, in a practical way, how to be more transparent and accountable and to take responsibility together for the use of the resources that have been entrusted to us for the service of mission.
Leadership is a shared responsibility at every level. It is a relationship and relationships are built on mutual trust and understanding. We need each other and we are called to walk with each other as sisters. There will always be differences of personality and ways of thinking and this is probably the greatest challenge in team leadership and co-responsibility. With maturity, openness and deepening trust in God, we will be able to let go of our previous certainties and search together for the direction in which God is leading us. No one person has the answers. We need to grow in our sensitivity to the needs of others, to ask questions, to listen, to provide support, to ask for help. Our task is to enable others to be even better than they already are. In order to be credible leaders, people in whom others have confidence, we need to listen, both to our own hearts and aspirations and also to the needs and desires of others. We need especially to grow in inner freedom as we listen to the God within us and to the God in others. This is the way of discernment.
- How can we enable one another to grow in our sense of co-responsibility?
Soon after Pope Francis’ election there were many comments on the type of shoes he chose to wear, not the red handmade shoes of Cardinals or previous Popes, but ordinary comfortable walking shoes – shoes that really are for walking! Since then, he has shown his readiness to walk with all people. He reminds us, consecrated religious, “A whole world awaits us: men and women who have lost all hope, families in difficulty, abandoned children, young people without a future, the elderly, sick and abandoned, those who are rich in the world’s goods but impoverished within, men and women looking for a purpose in life, thirsting for the divine…”. He invites us to join him in walking with them.
- Where are the new peripheries to which we are called today?
Like Nicolas Barré and the first sisters we too need to literally walk towards emerging areas of need. Those most in need today rarely come knocking on our doors. We have to be people who really walk with them, who are willing to physically go and knock on doors, seek out people who are in need, join conversations and make friends, so that we can offer a helping hand or be a kindly presence to a brother or sister.
The vast movement of peoples in Europe in recent weeks and the tragedies that have occurred as a result have caught all our attention and evoke a particular response in our prayer and in whatever practical ways we can help. The refugee crisis is a huge challenge, not only in Europe and the Middle East, but in many other part of the world, where large numbers of refugees live very uncertain and perilous lives. Many of us are already involved in helping to support the most vulnerable of refugees through prayer, sharing our different gifts and skills such as language teaching, participating in or organizing support groups. We can all be attentive to those who are vulnerable and newly arrived in our local communities and parishes. A warm welcome can be the most simple yet effective of gifts we can offer.
- How can we continue to respond to the obvious urgent needs of the thousands of migrants in many of our countries today? Is there a response we could make as an Institute?
This year of consecrated life calls us to live the present with passion. Our passion for living comes from our deepening relationship with God in prayer, and “gives us strength for mission… to hear, as God hears, the cry of the poor and the aspirations of all God’s people.” (BI 16). Prayer based on the Gospel gradually becomes our source of passionate living. We must therefore discover its freshness anew.
- Is the Gospel truly a “manual” for our daily living and the decisions we are called to make?
The Pope’s letter also speaks about the need for religious to embrace the future with hope. Religious life worldwide is facing many challenges - decreasing vocations and ageing members in the Global North and economic difficulties and intercultural challenges in the Global South. In a polarized society, where different cultures experience difficulty in living alongside one another, where the powerless encounter oppression, where inequality abounds, we arecalled to acknowledge the dignity of each person and, by sharing our respective gifts, show how it is possible to live as brothers and sisters.
- What challenges face us as we try to embrace the future with hope?
- In our fractured world, how can we become witnesses of encounter and of true communion?
In his encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’, Pope Francis links concern for the poor with care of the environment. He calls us to ‘an ecological conversion’. Throughout the encyclical there is a strong focus on the spirituality of such a conversion. Firstly, we have a common, shared home. We are called to explore our relationship with all creatures with whom we share this world. Secondly, the word ‘home’ is important. He speaks about ‘an integrally ecological caring culture, a civilization of love’, in which human beings can be truly at home on this earth. The attitude of being in love with all God’s creation lies at the very heart of an ecological spirituality. Love inspires and impels us to take action.
- How can we be truly ‘at home’ in our world? How does ‘Laudato Si’ challenge us?
The cry to religious to “wake up the world” requires that we first of all wake ourselves up to the mercy and compassion of God. Having experienced God’s immeasurable loving kindness, are we ready to take up the task to awaken others and go forth? There is much to do – the pilgrimage of life continues but we know that God accompanies us along the way.
As we walk forward together in hope, may we go towards the peripheries with courage like Nicolas Barré, Mother Mathilde and our first sisters, trusting that we each have a part to play in God’s life-giving work.
Marie Pitcher IJS
20th October 2015