Opening Address of the Congregation Leader
12 April 2017
Good morning Brothers and Sisters.
On 29 March, a Salesian Sister from Syria, was one of a number of women honoured by the United States with the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award.
Sr. Carolin Tahran Fachakh, who lives in Aleppo, Syria was recognised for working “tirelessly to support the needs of Syria’s most vulnerable population, particularly internally displaced persons and children”.
During a period of intense bombing around a neighbourhood school, Sister Carolin selflessly ensured that the children were brought safely home to their parents. The US State Department said “she has been a beacon of home to both Muslims and Christians alike, while putting her own life at risk”. She has continued to advocate for women’s rights, empowerment and justice often at great personal risk.
The link with our own Chapter is that Sr. Carolin is part of a press conference in Rome this morning, organised by the U.I.S.G. (Sr. Pat Murray) drawing attention to the plight of the Syrian people (Sr. Pat will be with us on Friday).
I find many aspects of this Syrian Sister, strong, amazing and inspiring. What I find most inspiring is how she speaks of her gratitude for her vocation and her gratitude for being able to serve her people in Syria at this time.
Gratitude is the hallmark of the Christian. St Therese of Lisieux says that the entire Christian life can be summed up in the phrase “Surrender and Gratitude”. Eucharist is the heart of the Christian life and we know that the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”. So the question I ask myself is: Am I a grateful person? Are we grateful people? And do we express that gratitude to others?
Gratitude is a journey
Anniversary, celebration, remembrance, memory: all these things are readily and rightly associated with inspiring a sense of gratitude. Chapters too, are a time for gratitude. Yet, as its most authentic, gratitude is more than a passing sentiment, more than a stirring emotion: at its deepest, gratitude is a journey, a discovery, a new beginning. As Pope Francis has remarked: “the joy of a missionary always shines against the backdrop of a grateful memory”, because “a disciple is fundamentally someone who remembers”. Gratitude is not static but dynamic; gratitude is movement – inwards, outwards and forward and mission is truly a journey into gratitude.
Beginning from love
Gratitude, in the first place, means to know – in the deep, rich and biblical sense of knowing – that the deep-down meaning of everything is love, or, as Cardinal Carlo Martini once memorably put it:
Everything has a meaning and this meaning is luminous and life-giving. In other words, despite the darkness of humanity’s current circumstances, despite the human tragedy surrounding us, despite the trials of the Church and the well-nigh absurd situations through which the world and we ourselves have to pass, at the bottom of everything there lives a Gospel, a Gospel which assures us that there is indeed a luminous and life-giving reason for all these things, if only we know how to grasp it and let ourselves be transformed by it.
This gratitude’s first challenge: to let myself be led to the experienced conviction that the key which unlocks the mystery of existence is Grace and that Grace is present in history – in our/my story – as Providence. Grace is active and at work, always; Grace searches us out and waits for us to catch up; Grace never loses hope in us and is always ready to begin again; Grace always grows and always has dreams for our future. “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29.11). Grace always hopes, because Grace believes in us.
So to be grateful effectively means to re-read our history and our stories: How, where, by whom have I been loved? What has been the name, the face of love for me, for us? How has Grace made it possible for me, too, to love? In this sense, the journey of gratitude will perhaps often mean surprise and unexpectedness, a whole new and different way of seeing things.
The Spirit will remind you (John 14.25)
I find something very encouraging about the fact that Jesus foresees that his disciples are likely to forget what he has said while with them and that he knows his Father will send the Spirit to help them with this amnesia of theirs. There is a powerful and consoling insight here: for the disciples, for us, remembering is in the first place not an effort or project of our own but a gift, a grace, a work of the Spirit to keep an anniversary is not in the first place something we do for ourselves but rather something the Spirit does in us and with us: in the end, the one who really remembers is the Spirit and this means that remembering, when thus rooted and founded, is likely to trigger fresh discovery and surprise.
Each of us individually, and all of us together, can experience this gift of Spirit-led remembering. For my part, recently I have sensed that this grace has been offered me in two distinct and rather beautiful ways.
First, I have been, as it were, brought to remember times, situations, encounters, circumstances of life that for many years I had simply forgotten. Now, as they come once again and unexpectedly to mind, they become new and deeper reasons to be grateful, to say, perhaps even to sing: the Lord was in that place, at that time, in those persons. It is as if the Spirit – precisely as Jesus promised – leads us to hear the word of love that Jesus was saying to us long ago in those experiences. There is an exciting challenge here: discovering in this way how great is the potential of our personal and community history, to treasure, cherish and re-visit that history in ever renewed hope and expectation.
Second, I have noticed the Spirit nudging me not only to re-call apparently forgotten times and experiences but also to re-read only too well remembered experiences in a new way. Times until now read as times of hurt emerge as times of healing; times of fragility are revealed as places of mercy and wisdom; times of fault are recognised as places of joy: O felix culpa, O happy fault, fortunate fall; times of sin as times of forgiveness and growth in compassion. In Gospel terms to remember is to be transformed.
Had I not been awake….
The first line of the first poem in Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s last book of poems runs like this:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it…….
The poem, written after Heaney had suffered a severe stroke is, we might say, a hymn to attentiveness. The sudden and unexpected experience of serious physical fragility had brought Heaney to a new and deeper appreciation of the preciousness and beauty of being alive, and this had made him more attentive to the power of life in the present moment.
So true gratitude is never mere nostalgia, a hankering after the old days: true gratitude heightens my awareness of the deep respect for the present moment, so as to discover and cherish there the seeds of the future. A grateful person will tend to be a person willing to accept the challenge of discernment, very likely identifying with some of the things Pope Francis shared when he met superiors general in Rome in November 2016:
I am very keen on the theme of discernment…. We are used to formulas, to black and white, but not to the grey areas of life. And what counts is life, not the formulas. We need to grow in discernment. The logic of black and white can bring caustic abstraction. Instead, discernment means going beyond the grey of life in a search of the will of God. And you look for the will of God following the true doctrine of the Gospel and not in the fixations of as abstract doctrine… This is the key point: discernment is always dynamic, as in life. Static things don’t work….So two words: listening and movement. This is important.
or, in Heaney’s terms, gratitude means staying awake – and so not missing the movement of new life.
How can I thank the Lord?
Given all this, it comes as no surprise to find that mission in the end turns into gratitude, that thankfulness lies at the heart of every authentic outreach to others. Gratitude sends us out, urges us into the future, rekindles the dream, challenges to commitment, makes giving joyful.
Mission as gratitude enacted is a recurring and ultimately delightful theme in the lives of many outstanding missionaries. Paul, for example, could write to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor 1, 3-4).
At the end of his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius of Loyola invites the retreatant:
To ask for an intimate knowledge of the many blessings received, that filled with gratitude for all, I may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty (233) (x2).
As a Congregation, we have much for which to be grateful, much for which to give thanks to God. I think the CLT Report and the Province Reports will give thanks for many people and projects in all three Provinces who truly continue the vision and mission of Edmund. We meet for our Chapter in Rome, symbolic in itself of a new sense among us of being a truly international community.
What is true of the Church and the world in general is true of us as Presentation Brothers. In my 12 years as Congregation Leader, nowhere has the change and progress been so dramatic as in Africa.
Africa – The Next 20 Years
The International Monetary Fund says that since 2003, GDP across sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries has risen an average of 5% to 7% per year. In the past decade 6 of the 10 fastest growing countries in the world were African.
Africa is in the midst of a historic transition and during the next few decades hundreds of millions of Africans will likely be lifted out of poverty, just as hundreds of millions of Asians were in the past few decades.
The average African is 19 years of age.
In 2017 there will be over a billion mobile phones in use on the continent.
Africa owes its take-off to a variety of accelerators, nearly all of them external and occurring in the past 10 years: billions of dollars in aid, especially to fight HIV/Aids and malaria, tens of billions of dollars in foreign debt cancellations; a concurrent interest in Africa’s natural resources, led by China; and the rapid spread of mobile phones, from a few million in 2000 to almost a billion today. Business increasingly dominates foreign interest in Africa. Investment first outpaced aid in 2006 and now doubles it.
Setting out again
So, I believe, the challenge for us now is to see our mission, to see where we are with a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Mission: a journey from gratitude into gratitude, a place where praise is discovered in the midst of the challenges of real life, with all its beauty – and the invitation always to begin afresh. Or, as St. Augustine urged his people in his famous Easter homily:
Brothers and Sisters, see that your praise comes from your whole being: in other words, see that you praise God not with your lips and voices alone but with your minds, your lives and your actions.
In thirteenth century Assisi, St Francis had a mystical experience in which Christ spoke to him from the crucifix at San Damiano. Jesus said: “Francis, re-build my Church, which you can plainly see is falling into ruin.” So Christ speaks to us today, in the Church and world of our time. Christ speaks to us, Presentation Brothers, in this special moment of Chapter.
‘May God’s will be done in this and everything we undertake.’ (Bl. Edmund Rice)
Br. Martin Kenneally.
12 April 2017