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THE COMMUNITY LIFE  IS A THERMOMETER OF RELIGIOUS  LIFE.

SEARCHING FOR THE BALANCE OF GOOD HEALTH.

 

Roma, 3th december 2015

Community life is the central and identifying aspect of our life of consecration, so much so that we can say ‘without community life there is no religious life’.[1]
Article 52 of the Constitutions reminds us that ‘We live our consecration to God as a link that unites us at the same time to a brotherly community’

Don Orione expresses this same idea with a vivid image: “How will you know if you are faithful to your vocation? If a person wants to check  his temperature, or a fever, he uses a thermometer, and we need a thermometer to  check ourselves to see if we are faithful to our vocation and the holy rule.  Such a thermometer exists: it is community life”. (Parola, 12.4.1918)

This ‘thermometer’ of our vocation indicates a simple fever or a cold or even a heavy flu caused by the present conditions and climate in our communities and can be an indication of deeper malaise and deterioration of the body?

Some of the problems that touch community life.
These are structural problems: non consistent communities,  small groups of two, or sometimes one, disbanded into various areas of work and apostolate.
Personal factors: individual mind set, personal relationships, running apostolates as if they were mine personally, and of course all this doesn’t help brotherly relationship.
Then there are spiritual causes: a lessening of relationship with God, which obviously effects relationships with others, bringing about utilitarian vision of living together, a crisis of mystical and apostolic charity etc..
Different problems, different therapies.

Some models of community.

 

THE APOSTOLIC MODEL

One model religious community is ‘the model of apostolic life’ presented in Mark 3, 13-16. “Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted and they went to him.  He constituted twelve who stayed with him, and whom he sent out to preach and gave them power to cast out demons”.

This text reminds us of the three essential elements that make up religious life: a personal call, community life and apostolic mission. The way it is carried out may be many, according to the times and the particular charisms, but it must always be a balance between love for God,  family life and apostolic passion, but there must always be a balance and integration  between ‘love of God’, ‘family life’ and ‘apostolic passion’.

Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor” is what the beautiful document ‘Fraternal life in community’ reminds us.
The religious community is fruit of vocation from and relation to God. If one abandons relationship with God one shatters the “vinculum fraternitatis”,[2]  because our communities are born not of the will of the flesh or blood, or personal sympathies or human motives, but ‘of God’ (Jn1,13) and with a common mission.

 "If our religious had the hearts of sons , lovers of God – don Orione used to say – everything would be wonderful.  But if the religious are lacking a spirit of piety – when even outside the house their names are repeated on everyone’s lips and all admire their abilities, cleverness and even apostolic zeal – those in the house who see them all the time, who eat at the same table, who have the right to possess them as Guardian angels, are in fact not at all happy with them.  Wonders when outside: but miseries when at home!" (Parola III, 33s).
Without mystical charity (love of God) and fraternal charity ( love of neighbour) the community turns in on itself and begins to perish.

 

COMUNITIES OF THE RULE (the Rule at the centre)

Before the second Vatican Council, the model of community and religious life  was practically one, defined by the Code of Canon Law which constituted a great part of the Constitutions of the various religious congregations.  This solid model more or less well functioning responded to a social and ecclesial context that was homogeneous and stable.  It had within it ‘a state of perfection’ because that way of life was considered the best way for reaching holiness. The more the religious observed the rules the better they walked in the way of perfection and the community grew in strength and improved.  The observance of the Rule was the norm and sure guide of every good religious.

This model of community functioned for a long time, around three centuries, it produced saints, developed evangelization and charity for nearly three centuries.
We know that in the last few decades, this model of observance went slowly into crisis, due to theological changes, and social and radical changes in religious life.
It was no longer enough just to be ‘observant’. Many religious brought up in the system of ‘observance’ found themselves in crisis, without the stability of detailed rules and norms.  Indeed the new interpretations sometimes had great gaps and lack of faithfulness.  The meeting with new generations and the elaboration of new models wasn’t easy. 

 

COMMUNITIES OF INDIVIDUALISTS (‘the person at the centre’ - or self-fulfillment)

It is a model frequently encountered today, and a reaction against the ‘observant’ communities, where personal aspects where sacrificed to the needs of uniformity.
In this type of grouping the principal idea is ‘the person at the centre’.  This is an important aspect that needed to be recovered, but when overemphasized generates a community of “solisti” - individualists (and often loners). This model centres on the individual fulfillment of the religious without reference to the others.  The community must allow the individual to satisfy his own wants.

When self-fulfillment becomes an absolute, a journey begins that ends in a loss of relationship with God or of belonging to the community. Personal relationships become based on the expression of self, and forms of competativeness/aggressivness, and self interests (live and let live), with the usual excuses (that’s the way I am).  Some religious even become ‘untouchables’ and are closed to any idea of changing house or role and become incapable of adapting, and make life miserable for others.  This causes a continual running to the provincial to change other religious or the individual causing the tension.  .

In communities where self-fulfillment is prevalent there is usually a loss of sense of the mission of the community because this is subjected to the needs of the individual. The person begins to think of his kingdom rather than the kingdom of God.

So what about the Superior in these types of communities? In the community of individualists the superior loses his role of animator of dialogue, discernment, decision and communion. He is a simple coordinator…
Such ‘self-fulfillment’ communities end in the break up of community..

Our Constitutions recommend a balance between person and community:
“The community must rediscover the person with his gifts and talents, if it is to become a communion; and the person needs to allow himself to become involved in the community to realize himself.  Everyone feeling himself a living member of the congregation sees himself as a corresponable for the things going on it and contributes to its growth.” (Art. 53).

 

COMMUNITY AS A COMPANY (the service at the centre)

“Service comes above everything” is the way of the community run as a company. It is never planned thus of course, but we have some in the congregation, that administer the apostolic activities  geared to efficacy and prestige, and involve activity more than anything.

Among the religious, the great worries are more on professional and organizational skills than spiritual and apostolic. They dedicate to God and the confreres and those we minister to only the ‘the few moments they can’, justifying that they are working for God and the brothers anyway.  This absorbing involvement in the apostolate makes up in part for the lack of relationship with God and brotherly relations with the other religious. In these communities the superior is estimated if he has a good administrator and a good business man.  

After a while, the religious in such works feel as though they are employees – proud or perhaps inadequate, and so they go into a crisis of vocation: “did I need to become a religious or priest to do what I'm doing?”. Some religious making this passage from directors to pastors go into crisis: “without my work I am nothing”.

For we Orionine, the risk of activism, not always in an apostolic field, is stronger because of our tradition of hard workers. The problem is not entirely new. Don Orione said o the superior of one community. “I cannot hide from you all the tribulation I have suffered and still suffer for this poor house which is always like a stormy sea, where there is no unity, no harmony nor brotherly charity among you my dear sons, which should be the true relationship that unites you in Christ and in religious perfection. It’s good that you give me news of the produce of beans, rice, of streams of water and strips of land etc., but what do I care, my dear son, if there is not unity and charity among you, some have  already left and others want to leave.?. (Lettere I, 129-136)

Remember the thermometer of community life indicates if there is the fever of selfish activity or true apostolate.

 

GLASSHOUSE COMMUNITY (the community at the centre)

This model is typified also by a fundamental value of religious life: “The community first of all”. It is the answer (unbalanced) to the rediscovery of the need for community.
Glasshouse communities overprotect us; they organize ‘their’ life around prayer, work, and activity according to themselves.  Outside ‘the hours of service’ they do not accept invasions of their privacy, or disturbance to their peace.  The superior becomes an eagle (or a mother hen) hovering over its nest and protecting its young.

These communities tend to forget that they are ‘communities of mission’, gathered together and sent out into the world. The demands of a just  intimate enclosure leads to an isolation from the world, to becoming bourgeois, and insisting on privacy.  Such communities are more prevalent among sisters, but they also exist in male congregations.

It is best not to use the word "community" if we can not replace the word “community” with “us”. The community is not an outside party.
It is not enough to go from I to We, we must become to apostolic We

Don Orione again: “The Congregation and each one of us in it does not live for himself but for charity and the Church mother of saints and souls.  We are united in Christ to live for each other, only in that way will we be true sons of Divine Providence” (Lettere I, 185).
We know how much don Orione insisted on this apostolic work. “Charity commands us not to be comfortable but to feel and have real compassion for the sufferings and needs of others from whom we must never consider ourselves separated and who are one with us in Christ” (Scritti 80, 283).

           

SECULAR COMMUNTIES (the life of people at the centre)

Sharing life of with the people” is the determining factor of these communities. Insertion into the world (secular) is the characteristic of these communities.  It is the opposite of the glasshouse community.

They are communities who propose to live totally in social and secular marginalized areas, the peripheries existential.  In these communities there is a tendency towards being secular in order to live fully the lives of the people.
This type of community is characterized by its worldliness, and is often found in clerical congregations.  Especially in parishes, where the members tend to live a diocesan life.  Because they are in a parish many religious rules and practices are suspended: no use of common fund, community life, common projects of the congregation.  Sometimes the religious themselves take on this secular aspect justified by being pioneers, and seeing to the great needs of the people.

Naturally the value of this insertion is, to a certain point good. But if they lose their moments of prayer, brotherly sharing, dialogue, personal reflection, quiet they become fractured and lose their religious identity.

Don Orione loved the proximity to the people and popular style. But he reacted to ‘secular’ and ‘individual’ styles of apostolate.
He speaks of a situation in the missions. " I would like you to start as soon as possible the mission in Devoli (Albania), a dwelling built for the religious, even poor and simple…rather than  leave them isolated, one here another there, no I can’t have that.  Unless there is  some hope to have a dwelling for the religious so they can have community life and spiritual refreshment, I would say it is better to come home.  " (Scritti 50, 36).
In Argentina don Orione had to resolve concrete situations. He writes to Fr. Zannochi with regard to a certain confrere of good standing: "Come back to the refuge of the congregation.. in conscience I cannot put up with a confrere who is living outside the community.  I cannot allow excuses or turn a blind eye: you must all be involved in religious life (Scritti 1, 97)".
He warned the brothers of the danger: "If the religious do not receive a very good formation, then (parish life) will distance them from the regularity of religious life" (Scritti 1, 160).
In many parishes today, the religious mode of management is problematic.

 

COMMUNITY AS FAMILY

All the descriptions above are based on some important value: the person, the community, the mission, sharing with the people, service etc.  But among all these values there must be a synthesis; creative faithfulness to one’s vocation is nurtured and grows in balancing them: tradition/newness, person/community, self-fulfillment/giving of oneself, action/contemplation, separateness/connectedness, evangelization/service, etc.

As was said at the beginning, it is the apostolic model that inspires the life of the community.  In it, the person, the community and the mission are integrated and geared to the Kingdom of God. “Jesus went up the mountain, and called to himself those he wanted and they went with Him.  He constituted twelve, who stayed with Him and he sent them out to preach and gave them power to cast out demons ” (Mk 3, 13-16).

Don Orione, we know laid down in the model of a family human, spiritual, and practical attitudes, just as in a natural family, just as in the family of Nazareth.
A family united in Christ” is the title of the chapter of our Constitutions that presents the community life.

The religious family, like the natural family, is given over to God: it must be lived and received with the same sense of sacredness . "Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor"(we are gathered together in the love of Christ ):  the  community is a gift of the Spirit and a reciprocal gift of brothers.

Today we speak a lot about  ‘sense of belonging’.
How many sad spiritual and psychological consequences there are in those who live  with the  attitude of being in community ‘under condition’ (one’s own) and not as a stable ‘given’ (the grace of God) ! In the conscience of the religious there would be a sense of instability, ephemeral and immaturity.  He would be a ‘slave and not a son’ to use don Orione’s phrase. He would be ‘a user and not involved’.
And not only the community would feel it but also the ‘self’ would to because it would be lacking in that important relationship of the I-We, community-family. The absence of family brings fragility, neurosis, sad and immature compensating behaviour.

Don Orione left us the spirit of family  as a typical model of Cngrgation, and thanks be to God it is still so. The spirit of family has helped us avoid in the past the risk of formalism in the era of the ‘observance’.  Today, however, in an era of individualism it must support a family structure with all its relationships and dynamics. If not, our spirit of family could become a sentimental thing, doing little good for  the members or the apostolate.

 

AND TO FINISH ... POPE FRANCIS

“In every family there are problems; and to imagine or dream of a community with no one in difficulty, does no good, because reality tells us that, everywhere in every family, or human grouping, there are conflicts.  Therefore conflicts must be borne.

We have to do as in the parable of the Good Samaritan: should we be like the priest and the lawyer who see the conflict and pass by, ignoring it? Or the fool who sees the conflict who goes into it and stays there? Or take on the conflict, do what you can, overcome it and then carry on.

Once a town council leader told me that when he was 22 years old he had a crisis that made him depressed and made him an alcoholic. He lived with his mother who was a widow and very humble.  He worked but when he was drinking he would oversleep and would not go to work at the factory.  His mother worked taking in washing.  In those days there were no washing machines, or they were very rare, and things were washed by hand in one’s house.  He told me that in the mornings he would still be recovering from his drunkenness, and used to see his mother up already, pass by his room before going out and look at him without saying anything and then go out.  She looked at him with tenderness, and he could not resist this tenderness of his mother and he changed his way of life.  Today he is a person of importance, a director. We need to have the goal of tenderness, in this way to look at the confrere who is the cause of the conflict.  Our charity must reach this dimension, I would say almost to have a motherly tenderness. Fraternity is something very, very, delicate.

I remember a phrase from a hymn for St.  Joseph’s feast day from the office of readings, in the Argentinean text, that went straight to the heart.  It spoke of how to treat people, of how St Joseph treated his family and it said that he treated his family with “ternura de eucaristia”, Eucharistic tenderness).  It is poetic: treat one’s brothers with “Eucharistic tenderness” the human and the sacred are one.  It is a strong image that can help us.  Therefore don’t be afraid of conflict, face it, resolve it, accompany it, embrace it.....walk with it.”

 


[1] Cfr.12th General Chapter p 70.’Although not the whole mission of the religious community, fraternal life is an essential element’ (VFC 55; Cfr CJC 665).

[2] “The apostle Paul cals it ‘vinculum perfectionis’. It is the virtue that assures us we are on the right path of the evangelical counsels. Charity is what holds us together, the link, the bond and it sustains us.  It is charity that comforts us in our trials, it is charity, the love of God that spurs us on to give a hand in helping together”; Parola I., of 1916.

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