Marie Pitcher, Institute Leader
It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to our first international gathering since the Collegial Assembly in 2007. We come together as a leadership group, in a spirit of co-responsibility, to review the direction of the Institute, set out in the orientations of the Collegial Assembly and to renew our response to God’s call within this dramatically changing world. Our overall objective is to discern together what the Spirit of God is bringing about among us, where the Spirit is leading us and how we can respond to the challenges of our times.
The theme for this Council of the Institute emerged from the suggestions and proposals that came to us from each of our provinces, vice provinces and districts. We are “pilgrims on the journey, always ready to go forward and allow the new to emerge” (CA doc). The image of a pilgrim speaks of a person who is open to the way ahead, free to walk into the unknown and who is ready to face the unexpected with courage.
So we gather here together in Tokyo as pilgrims on the journey to which we are called as Infant Jesus sisters in the world today. This is a very important, significant and privileged time together, especially now in the midst of worldwide recession, which is affecting so many people everywhere. Our response to God’s call is being challenged greatly in the midst of the ever-increasing and varying needs around us, resulting from human suffering, such as war, famine, poverty, displacement and migration, as well as the economic crisis. And yet we see signs of hope every day in the generosity and courage of so many committed people, who reach out to their suffering brothers and sisters without counting the cost. How can we join with them in living out our call to be “women of hope” in the world today?
Today, the first day of this Council of the Institute, is also the feast of our founder Blessed Nicolas Barré. He was a man of prayer, a man of compassion, who was deeply aware of the lived experience of those around him. He was in touch with life as it was in 17th century Rouen, in touch with people – the rich and the poor, adults, young people and the vulnerable. His whole life was centred on God. He listened, he prayed and he noticed particularly the plight of the children in the streets. His prayer led to awareness, discernment and action. One step led to another in his response to God’s call in his life. His attentiveness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, his own human giftedness and the wholehearted response of the young women he gathered around him to teach the children led to the birth of the Institute. Our journey as an Institute continues with this same attentiveness to God’s call more than three centuries later.
The spirit that Nicolas Barré wanted us to embrace is rooted deeply in the mystery of the incarnation, “We must follow Jesus in all His ways” (FM 10). Contemplation of the Word made flesh in our lives opens our hearts to see as God sees and to respond as Jesus responds. We grow in our commitment and openness to recognising God’s presence and God’s gentle and, at times, challenging guidance in the events of each day. This spirit is echoed in the orientations from the CA, “rooted in the mystery of the Word made flesh, who dwells among us (John1:14), we are called...”.
Religious life today is becoming more and more a shared journey, whether with other religious or with lay people who are also searching for the way forward in faith and trust. Our ministries are increasingly being lived with others, learning, sharing and working together in reciprocity and equality. In our journey alongside lay people, have we the freedom and confidence to “allow ourselves to be challenged by others and welcome with humility the richness we encounter” (CA doc).
Witnessing to Jesus continues to be our call on the roads we are asked to travel, for He remains the focus of our search, of our desire to receive and to give new life. Our experience of living religious life in fidelity to the Gospel, now more than ever, calls us to a life of faith rooted in love, which in turn calls us to live as people of hope. Hope, based on faith, enables us to believe that each one of us has a particular and unique contribution to make within God’s wonderful process of creation. Religious life has always had an element of risk as we face the unknown. An integrated spiritual life and a deepening faith results from embracing risk, daring to be prophetic and having the courage to hope. God’s faithfulness is the source of hope, which grows, not when we clutch it tightly, but as we live it with open hands and open hearts.
As Infant Jesus sisters today, we experience the need for an ever deeper life of prayer, contemplation and reflection in the midst of the anguish and the hopes of the people around us, especially the most fragile and vulnerable. Without that reflective time with the Lord, the quality and direction of our lives is less clear and we can become tired and disillusioned on the road. How can we deepen the quality of our lives together so that we can enable and free one another to respond in a world that is searching for meaning? Have we the maturity, courage and faith to rise above our personal hurts and differences and learn how to genuinely love and accept one another as sisters in Christ?
Pope Benedict’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, presents a refreshing, sobering and yet inspiring look at the world today through the lens of God’s creative love. He speaks of charity as being at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. According to the teaching of Jesus every commitment and every responsibility comes from following the law of charity, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” and “You must love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22: 37-39). Charity is love received and given. It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with one’s neighbour. To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of “all of us”, made up of individuals, families, communities and other groups who make up society. To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of charity and justice.
While each person in the Institute has a responsibility to take her place in the on-going discernment for the direction of the Institute, as leaders, we have a particular responsibility to be attentive to God’s call. It is important to give ourselves the space to be visionary in facing the future, while trusting the Lord to provide what is needed. He is the guarantor of the future. At this Council of the Institute let us remember that none of us is here just to represent individual provinces, vice-provinces or districts. This gathering is a gift to us as leaders, giving us a wonderful opportunity to share our experiences and learn from one another in a spirit of trust, confidentiality and true sisterhood.
The role of province, vice-province or district leadership teams is significant, especially in this time of rapid change. The support and encouragement of all is needed if leadership teams are to foster the mission in the light of the Gospel and the charism. They must have the freedom to lead and guide. This calls for a reflective and prayerful approach that gives the Lord space to act. It calls for courage and daring. It calls for compassion, sensitivity and an ability to listen deeply to others. Good leadership ensures continuity with the past as well as assuming a prophetic role, open to the needs of today and alert to how God is calling us to journey alongside others into an unknown future.
Looking around the Institute, we see the obvious differences between the needs and lived realities of the larger, older provinces and those of the younger and smaller vice-provinces and districts. These differences are part of the great richness of the Institute. Those who are from older provinces can offer their wisdom and experience, while those from newer foundations can offer their idealism and vitality. The vice provinces and districts seem to be in a particularly vulnerable situation in their countries, with small numbers and many needs. How can they learn from the experience of others, without losing the energy and enthusiasm that animates them? What is our vision for the future of our older provinces? What is our vision for the future of our younger foundations?
Our gathering here in Tokyo during these two weeks offers its own unique invitation. It is a time to pause and to ponder. It is a time of reflection and of choice. It is a time to believe in our capacity to change and to adapt our responses. We are called to a contemplative attitude in order to recognise what the Lord is doing and to allow the Lord space to work among us. We have much to reflect on as we journey onwards if we are to continue to live the mission of Jesus with compassion and joy, with passion and love. So let us resolutely set our eyes on the road ahead as we continue our journey together as pilgrims with renewed confidence, vision and hope.