A Reflection of the General Secretariat of Mission in the Light of the Chapter Acts
An in-depth reading of the Chapter Acts reveals how mission is present in the five dreams from which derive the guidelines that will characterise the path of the Institute in the coming years. In continuity with the 18th General Chapter, the 19th celebrated last June renewed the call to let ourselves be questioned and challenged by the epochal change we are experiencing (CA’22, 9. 29-30).
The Chapter took note once again of how not only the reality is changing radically, but also how the Institute is going through an unprecedented transition. New vocations bring greater internationality and multiculturalism; the Church is on a path to overcome self absorption, clericalism and closure, and the Institute also feels called to grow in a spirituality that promotes the fraternal and intercultural dimension. Moreover, we also live the challenge of the sustainability of our mission , not only from an economic point of view, but also in terms of models of missionary presence and ministry (CA ’22, 10).
A Comboni Style of Mission
Faced with this complex situation, the Chapter did a discernment that charts the Institute’s direction in the coming years. Having opted for the “appreciative” method, it looked at what the Spirit is already doing in history; at the invitations the Spirit is making to us in the different parts of the world, and at what we are learning through the experience of the Risen Lord in our missionary life. The five dreams that characterise the Chapter Acts are interconnected, and show the qualitative leap to which we are called as missionaries, communities, circumscriptions and Institute. As the Guide to the mplementation of the 19th Chapter shows, the guidelines and commitments made by the Chapter – in relation to the five dreams – call for accountability and contributions at each of these four levels.
Growing towards the fulfilment of these dreams means growing in fidelity to our Comboni missionary vocation in a world that is changing rapidly and radically. And it also means making a qualitative leap in our response to the challenges of today’s mission. In this reflection, we will dwell only on three aspects that will contribute to this qualitative leap in the service of evangelisation, namely spirituality, community life and ministeriality at the service of re-qualification. These elements help us to grow and increasingly realise a Comboni style of mission.
1. Rooted in Christ together with Comboni
Spirituality is the first element on which to build evangelisation pathways that respond to the new challenges with a charismatic Comboni sensibility. At the centre of it all, there shall be our rootedness in Christ (“keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus Christ” – Writings 2721), as Pope Francis also emphasised in his meeting with the chapter members:
Indeed, the mission depends entirely on union with Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. (…)We can do many things: initiatives, programmes, campaigns… many things; but if we are not in Him, and if His Spirit does not pass through us, all that we do is nothing in His eyes, that is, it is worth nothing for the Kingdom of God.
If, on the other hand, we are like branches that are well attached to the vine, the sap of the Spirit passes from Christ into us, and whatever we do bears fruit, because it is not our work, but it is Christ’s love that works through us. (…)
The missionary is the disciple who is so united to his Master and Lord that his hands, his mind and his heart are “channels” of Christ’s love. The missionary is this, not one who proselytises. (…) This is why some great missionaries like Daniele Comboni (…) lived their mission feeling animated and “spurred” by the Heart of Christ, that is, by Christ’s love. And this “push” allowed them to set out and go beyond: not only beyond geographical limitations and borders, but before that, even beyond their own personal limitations. This motto should “make noise” in your heart: going beyond, going beyond, going beyond, always looking to the horizon because there is always a horizon; to go beyond. The spurring of the Holy Spirit is what makes us go out from ourselves, from our closure, from our self-referentiality, and it makes us go towards others, towards the peripheries, where the thirst for the Gospel is greatest. (…) Go, go, go! Go to the horizon and may the Lord accompany you.
Faced with the challenges of the changing epoch we are going through, Pope Francis has invited us to “go beyond”1, undertaking paths of conversion and discernment.
The Chapter took up this invitation and gave guidelines to develop our rootedness in Jesus and the sentiments of his Heart to proclaim the Word to the poor ( CA ’22, 13). Underlying the redevelopment of our missionary service is the desire to grow spiritually as missionary disciples united in the passion of Jesus (cf. “mystery of the cross”, RV 4), who experience God, develop and nurture this experience in order to be his witnesses in mission ( CA ’22, 21). As Pope Francis reminded the chapter members,
The essential trait of the Heart of Christ is mercy, compassion, tenderness. (…) And so I think that you are called to bring this witness of God’s style – closeness, compassion and tenderness – in your mission there where you are and where the Spirit will guide you. Mercy, tenderness is a universal language that knows no boundaries. But you bring this message not so much as individual missionaries, but as a community, and this entails not only care for your personal style, but also for your community style.
Animated by the fire of the Spirit, we want to place at the centre of our lives the dream of the Kingdom, which we proclaim as a community ( CA ’22, 15). We feel in solidarity with and inspired by our brothers who, faithful to the mission, work as “hidden stones” in very difficult and violent contexts (AC ’22, 9). We felt the call to renew our total dedication to Jesus and the Missio Dei, reaffirming the importance of the aspects of missio ad extra and ad vitam. This is found, at the level of guidelines and commitments, in the mandate to review our formation programmes.
2. Comboni Identity and Community Life
A second fundamental aspect is a renewed sense of identity and community life. Internationality and cultural pluralism are growing in the Institute, while the Church invites us to synodality, to walk together. We feel the challenge to overcome individualistic attitudes and practices, to arrive at a missionary style proper to the cenacle of apostles: intercultural communities, living in prayerful fraternity, where we take care of one another ( CA ’22, 16), acknowledging gifts, welcoming fragilities and respecting the rhythms of life of each confrere (CA ’22, 17). From a structural point of view, we want to commit ourselves to having communities of at least 3-4 members, with formal and informal dynamics of sharing and community discernment, and to ensure their animation through the service of the community superior.
We want to be a fraternity that is in itself an evangelical witness to the conviviality of diversity, a prophetic sign of a new humanity (CA ’22, 18) in a world torn apart by divisions, conflicts, polarisations and violence. Indeed, we see the culture of the other as an opportunity – a theological place – to enrich our understanding of God, mission and charism. This is why we have also decided to find moments and means for an intercultural and spiritual dialogue to share and deepen the richness of our Comboni charism, to value it and to live it in order to hand it over to the next generations and to the church.
This six-year term will also be marked by the synodal path traced out by Pope Francis, through our involvement in local synodal processes. Requalification, therefore, also entails communally listening to the challenges to be faced together, with constant confrontation in view of shared choices on common processes to be undertaken. This is necessary to respond prophetically to the challenges of our time with the style of participation, communion and the church’s permanent state of mission (AC’22, 20).
3. Ministeriality at the Service of Requalification
The Chapter’s discernment regarding the missionary service of the Institute recognised the importance of the criteria ad gentes and ad pauperes (CA ’22, 29). These are criteria that the Chapter revisited in the light of the signs of the times and the invitations of the Spirit. Faced with the reality of fragmentation and breadth of commitments – beyond the current and probably future capacity of the Institute – the need for greater focus was felt. However, the way to get there must be inclusive, through participatory paths, so as to arrive at a convergence in which the different sensitivities and perspectives can belong to, without flattening out or getting lost.
a. Ad Gentes Criterion
In fact, there has long been a solid consensus on continental priorities (cf. CA ’15, 45.3). If we consider them according to the ad gentes criterion – that is, priority human groups with whom we are engaging – we realise that there is already sufficient focus at the continental level. The Chapter reaffirmed the development of specific pastoral ministries with priority human groups as the cornerstone of the ministerial requalification of our mission (CA ’22, 31).
The reflection of the 18th General Chapter, considering the themes of Evangelii Gaudium2, had already emphasised how we are often present at the frontiers of mission, at the human and existential peripheries. However, our pastoral response tends to be generic, proposing ordinary pastoral work that has little impact on the particular situations and cultures of the marginalised human groups we work with. Furthermore, we note that the integration of different ministries and the style of life and mission remain a challenge. In response to all that, the last two Chapters have pointed to the path of specific pastoral ministries – in relation to continental priorities – as an opportunity for a redevelopment of our missionary presence.
Considering our identity as a missionary Institute ad gentes, specific pastoral ministries starting with marginalised and excluded human groups are a source of great inspiration as they are in line with both our missionary tradition and the new model of mission proposed by EG.
A specific pastoral ministry includes several aspects, for example:
= Insertion: this is where immersion in the language, culture and spirituality of the people comes into play; their history, their struggles, and making common cause with the people. But it involves also our lifestyle and structures, which condition our relationship with the people and local communities.
The Chapter opted for a style of mission that is more inserted in the reality of the peoples we accompany towards the Kingdom, with simpler lifestyles and structures and intercultural missionary communities that bear witness to fraternity, communion, and social friendship; as well as a commitment to the service of the local churches by getting involved in specific pastoral ministries, ministerial collaborations, and shared pathways (CA ’22, 28).
= Pastoral guidelines: these are the fruit of synodal discernment, together with the local church, to respond to people’s existential needs, to the great questions of life, to their search for life in fullness. The Chapter gave a mandate to initiate participatory processes to accompany the development of specific pastoral ministries at the continental level and to contextualise them in dialogue and collaboration with the local churches, also networking with popular movements and civil society groupings (CA ’22, 31).
The particular situations, the joys and sufferings of the people, the events that have an impact on their lives, are all starting points for the proclamation of the Gospel and for a personal and community encounter with the Risen Lord. A specific pastoral ministry takes into account all these situations – which characterise the experience of a given human group – and seeks to facilitate a transforming dialogue between culture, life experiences and the Gospel, as well as discerning appropriate and contextual ways of expressing the experience of faith, of life according to the Gospel.
It is a matter of establishing a ‘prophetic dialogue’, on the one hand appreciating the lights present in history, in culture, in the ‘genius’ of the various human groups, and the seeds of the Word; on the other hand denouncing possible shadows, situations of death, injustice and structures of sin, and proclaiming the alternative of the Kingdom of God. In particular, the Chapter mandated to engage in interreligious dialogue and with local cultures, e.g. with Islam, traditional African religions, indigenous and Afro-descendant religions (CA ’22, 31.7 – 31.8).
= Ministerial collaboration: specific pastoral ministries focusing on a human group overcomes dichotomies (e.g. pastoral Vs social) and fragmentation (e.g. sectorialisation) of ministries, which are still widespread in our experiences. Instead, the various ministries are interconnected, carry forward a shared vision and build synergies. They enhance all pastoral agents, create communion and collaboration. In this spirit, the Chapter gave concrete indications to promote dialogue, collaboration and sharing of personnel in and between the circumscriptions in view of the development of specific pastoral ministries (CA’22, 31).
Just as Comboni dreamed of a “catholic” work, we too are invited today to seek to bring together all ecclesial and social forces for the regeneration of peoples and human groups with themselves (CA’22, 33). In particular, the Chapter emphasised the importance of collaboration with the Comboni Family, ecclesial organisations (such as AEFJN, VIVAT, CLAR, REPAM, REBAC, etc.) and popular movements. He placed special emphasis on the ministerial formation of the laity, who are everywhere our companions in evangelisation and social transformation. Moreover, even where our forces are declining, it is possible to requalify our presence through partnerships with other ecclesial and social forces, in which we can always contribute an authentic evangelical witness.
= Synodality: today we are called to live ministerial collaboration in the context of synodality in the church. In particular, the Chapter has decided to embark with conviction on the synodal path outlined by Pope Francis through our involvement in local synodal journeys (CA’22, 20).
Moreover, the development of specific pastoral ministries is the fruit of a journey in the local church and at the same time with the universal church. This dynamic is already present in various areas. For example, the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development – Migrants and Refugees section – has developed pastoral guidelines in cooperation with pastoral agents from all over the world (local churches) and from shared good ministerial practices.
b. Ad Pauperes Criterion
Comboni in his time had been able to listen to the cry of the ‘poorest and most abandoned’. This is not a matter of a scandalous competition in claiming who is worse off; or of a misunderstood heroism on the part of those who want to promote their own work by exploiting the suffering of the poorest. Rather, it is a response to a call that challenges not only the reality of suffering, but also the structural dimension of that reality, which is the result of injustice, the work of structures of sin.
Pope Francis in his social magisterium has proposed a very insightful and sharp reading of the exclusion and exploitation in the world, and of the culture of waste and indifference that are leading towards the sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet. Laudato si’ clearly explained how we are not faced with a social crisis (suffering and exclusion of the poor) and an environmental one (climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution and destruction of ecosystems); but rather we are faced with a single and complex socio-environmental crisis (LS 139). Therefore,continues Pope Francis, “strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (LS 139).
The Church is called to overcome its self-centredness and to go towards all the human peripheries where people suffer exclusion and experience the hardship of economic inequality and impoverishment, social injustice and environmental degradation. All these situations are no longer a dysfunctional aspect of the economic system, but a requirement of the system itself to make profits and continue according to its own logic and privileges.
The Chapter (CA ’22, 29) mandated us to let ourselves be challenged by the Magisterium of Pope Francis (EG, LS, FT, Qam) to respond to the cry of the Earth and of the men and women of our time. He invites us to practice an honest social analysis to understand reality from a systemic point of view, also as a prerequisite for a theological reflection based on the Word and the Magisterium of the Church. It also invites us to integrate the JPIC dimension as a transversal dimension in all our ministries and to be, in communion with the local church, a prophetic voice denouncing injustices and seeking alternatives.
In response to the challenges of the change of epoch we live in, in the light of the Word of God, the Chapter has decided to take on integral ecology as a fundamental axis of our mission, connecting the pastoral, liturgical, formative, social, economic, political and environmental dimensions (CA ’22, 30). In particular, it was decided to adhere to the Laudato si’ Action Platform (LSAP)3 at various levels and to launch accompanying paths to promote integral ecology in the spiritual and formative journey.
Conclusion: The Importance of Initiating Processes
The Guide to the Implementation of the 19th General Chapter mandates processes to be initiated in the first three-year period and completed, after careful review, in the second three-year period of the six-year term. These processes are the key to the implementation of the Chapter. In fact, the Chapter Acts give us the guidelines and concrete commitments to be implemented in the six-year term in order to achieve a requalification of our missionary presences and ministries. But if we do not plan, initiate and accompany pathways to implement these guidelines and commitments, the Chapter Acts will remain a dead letter.
The first year of the six-year term is therefore crucial: we are called upon to define these processes and structure them in the six-year plans of the Circumscriptions, in the continental planning and in the community projects. In particular, there are four questions that each six-year plan will have to answer:
1. How do we facilitate journeys of conversion and discernment in order to be ever more rooted in Christ together with Comboni?
2. How can we develop an intercultural and spiritual dialogue to share and deepen the richness of our Comboni charism, enhance it and live it as a cenacle of apostles evangelising as a community?
3. What pathways are we called to initiate and accompany to develop specific pastoral ministries according to continental priorities?
4. Conversion to integral ecology helps us in the ministerial requalification of our commitments, since it requires us to connect the different ministries in which we are engaged, our lifestyle and mission, our insertion and closeness to the least, etc. How can we facilitate participation in the Laudato si’ Action Platform both at the community and circumscription level?
We are invited to be bold, to be open, to “go beyond”, towards the peripheries, where the thirst for the Gospel is greatest, following the invitations that the Spirit is making to us and walking in communion among ourselves and with the church.
Rome, 8th February 2023
Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita
Fr. Fernando Gonzalez Galarza
Fr. Arlindo Ferreira Pinto
Bro. Alberto Parise
1Pope Francis then took up this image in his commentary on the feast of the Epiphany (6.1.2023), a missionary celebration par excellence, with reference to the figure of the Magi, a source of inspiration for missionaries: Educated and wise, they were fascinated more by what they did not know than by what they already knew. They opened themselves to what they did not know. They felt called to go beyond. They did not feel happy remaining there; they felt called to go beyond. This is important for us as well. We are called not to settle, to seek the Lord by stepping out of our comfort zone, journeying towards him with others, immersing ourselves in reality.
2EG offers four criteria to guide the discernment of missionary ministry:
a. Reaching out to the peripheries, the impoverished, the marginalised, the excluded. Among other things, this is in continuity with the Comboni charism of making common cause.
b. Witnessing the kerygma, the proclamation of the Gospel, which has to do with “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (EG 7). Communication also means that the Gospel is not simply a one-way process, but a process in which the listener interacts.
c. Prophecy both as a denunciation of evil in society (the economy of exclusion, the new idolatry of money, the financial system that dominates instead of serving, inequality that generates violence, the accelerated deterioration of cultural roots, the process of secularisation that tends to reduce faith and the Church to the the private and personal sphere) and as a proposal to build alternatives that lead to more just and fraternal societies (listening to the cry of the poor and fighting for their liberation and promotion, enabling them to be fully part of society, working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and promoting the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity to meet the real needs we encounter).
d. Evangelisation of cultures and inculturation of the Gospel: here the challenge is to ensure that the missionary presence responds to the deep desires of people’s hearts. In the words of teh document of the International Commission entitled “Faith and Inculturation”, inculturation of the Gospel implies that the “Gospel can penetrate the souls of living cultures, respond to their highest expectations”.
3LSAP is a seven-year journey for an ecological conversion and transition to integral ecology involving the entire Catholic world. (cf. https://laudatosiactionplatform.org/)