Divine Word Missionaries
New SVD General Council
Assumption of Office
Antonio Pernia, svd
First of all, a warm welcome to all of you – especially our guests – to this Eucharistic Celebration this morning during which the new SVD general council will begin its mandate.
Although the Ordo says “nihil fit”, still we wish to celebrate today the feast of the patroness of the missions, St. Therese of the Child Jesus. As we all know, this fragile Carmelite nun lived for only 24 years. But this short life was entirely lived for the sake of the mission of the Church. This is why today St. Therese is patroness of the missions.
The example of today’s saint shows us that mission is not just a work we do but a life we live. Mission is something we live and not just something we do. The same message is contained in the theme of the last general chapter, “Living Prophetic Dialogue”. The last general chapter was, indeed, an invitation to us all to live fully our mission.
Let us pray today for the new general council, so that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and through the intercession of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, they may be able to guide our Society in the coming six years to “live prophetic dialogue”.
To make ourselves worthy to encounter Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and present among us here, let us call to mind our sins and ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
“I feel the call to be an apostle. I would like to travel all over the world, making your name known and planting your cross on heathen soil. But I would not be content with one particular mission. I would want to preach the Gospel on all five continents and in the most remote islands. But even that would not be enough. I would want to be a missionary, not for a few years only but from the beginning of creation until the end of the ages”.
These words come from the saint whose feast we celebrate today – St. Therese of the Child Jesus. As we all know, on December 14, 1927, St. Therese of the Child Jesus and St. Francis Xavier were declared by Pope Pius XI as patrons of the Church’s missionary work. The choice of St. Francis Xavier is quite obvious. For his untiring work of evangelization in India, Japan, the Moluccas, and his dreams of China make him one of the greatest missionaries in the Church’s history. Not as obvious is the choice of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. A Carmelite nun since the young age of fifteen, she lived a hidden life of prayer and contemplation and never once left her convent in Lisieux. And yet this fragile nun possessed an ardent desire to be a missionary and was passionately concerned about the Church’s work of evangelization. “Since I could not be an active missionary,” she wrote later, “I wanted to be a missionary of love and penance”.
Pope John Paul II, in his discourse on October 19, 1997, proclaiming St. Therese a doctor of the Church, says:
“St. Therese ... ardently desired to be a missionary. She was one, to the point that she could be proclaimed patroness of the missions. Jesus himself showed her how she could live this vocation: by fully practicing the commandment of love, she would be immersed in the very heart of the Church’s mission, supporting those who proclaim the Gospel with the mysterious power of prayer and communion.”
In a certain sense, then, the two patrons of the missions underline the two essential dimensions of the Church’s task of evangelization – the dimension of action and work (represented by St. Francis Xavier), and the dimension of prayer and contemplation (typified by St. Therese of the Child Jesus). Thus, while mission entails a whole series of activities, it is nonetheless a profoundly contemplative undertaking. Indeed, missionary work and contemplative prayer mutually imply each other.
On the one hand, mission implies contemplation. This is especially so when we understand mission as originating from the Triune God. If, indeed, the origin of mission is the Triune God, then our participation in mission is an encounter with mystery – the mystery of the Triune God who calls all of humanity to share in his life and glory, the mystery of God’s salvific plan for the world, the mystery of the presence and action of Christ and the Spirit in the world. Thus, the very first challenge in mission is to seek out, discern and strengthen the presence of Christ and the action of the Spirit in the world. But it will be impossible to discern if we do not approach mission in contemplation. For to contemplate is precisely to look, to listen, to learn, to discern, to respond, to collaborate. If, indeed, our call to mission is a call to collaborate with the mission of the Triune God, then the first requirement in mission is to attune ourselves with God, find out what his will is, and act to implement his design for our world. But it will be impossible to attune ourselves with God’s will if we do not approach mission in contemplation. For contemplation is precisely entering into God’s world and learning to see the world as he sees it.
On the other hand, contemplation implies mission. For contemplation entails not just an “ascending moment” of prayer, meditation, adoration but also a “descending moment” of gazing at the world with the eyes of God. And it is only from the perspective of God’s larger world that we see how much the world is in need of redemption, liberation and salvation. Only from the perspective of God’s larger world do we see how much the world suffers, how many are the people who hunger, how often children die an untimely death. Only from this perspective do we see how much the world needs mission. Indeed, without this “descending moment”, contemplation would appear to be a flight from reality and an escape from our concrete world. Only a contemplation that is directed towards mission is contemplation that reaches its full circle. And only this kind of a silence can speak a word of hope to our world. For only a silence that embraces the pains and fears of the silenced and the hopes and aspirations of the voiceless can speak a word of hope to our world of today.
How different would our world be if people learned to see the world with the eyes of God. Under the gaze of God’s eyes, enemies would become friends, separating walls would become open doors, strangers would become brothers or sisters, borders would become bridges, diversity would lead not to differences but to unity. Indeed, only if people learn to see the world with God’s eyes would our mission truly bear fruit.
Ultimately, however, learning to see the world with God’s eyes requires growing in our union with Jesus himself. St. Therese, writing about her mystical experience when she received her first communion, says: “I knew I was loved (...). Now it was not a question of looks; something had melted away, and there were no longer two of us – Therese had simply disappeared, like a drop lost in the ocean; only Jesus was left, my Master, my King.” This echoes a statement of St. Paul, the greatest of all missionaries, in his letter to the Galatians: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20). Ultimately, then, the primary conversion that should take place in mission is that of the missionary himself or herself. As St. Joseph Freinademetz puts it: “The greatest task of the missionary is the transformation of the inner self”.
Dear confreres, it is auspicious that the new general council begins its mandate on this feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. For part of the mandate we received from the general chapter that elected us is “Living Prophetic Dialogue” – that is, the mandate to promote the living out of our mission, or the mandate to foster the awareness that our mission is not just a work we do but a life we live. This is what St. Therese showed us and why she is patroness of the missions. May she help us fulfill this mandate. May Blessed Maria Helena and our Blessed Martyrs intercede for us. May Sts. Arnold and Joseph guide us in our task and responsibility as the general council of the Society of the Divine Word.
Before concluding this celebration, I wish to say a special word of thanks to all the members of the general council for their generosity in accepting this task and this responsibility in our Society. We know we are not alone. We place our trust first of all in God’s grace and help and in the prayers and support of our entire religious family. We hope to be able to serve our Society according to God’s will, the Founder’s vision, and the needs of our confreres spread out over the whole world.
And still a word of profound gratitude to those who are finishing their term of office – Fr. Herbert Scholz, Fr. Michael McGuinness, and Fr. Leo Kleden. In the name of all our confreres, heartfelt thanks for all the years of service to our Society. May the blessings of the Lord accompany you in your new ministry and service to the Society.