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Lay Formation, a Challenge to Creativity

Miguel Ruiz, SVD

More and more clearly in the Church today, one cannot think about talking on the topic of Mission, without the close collaboration of all its members, priests, religious and laity. The Mission is the work of everyone and for this task, training and preparation is essential because you cannot give what you do not have. In addressing the topic of laity training, we must consider it is not about accumulating information like small libraries to later repeat the same speech or prescription in different situations but rather, it must be spaces to meet, reflect, internalize and live the faith dimension in face of the challenges of each particular situation. As Fr. Carlos del Valle told us: "Today we are not in an era of texts but of witnesses".

The formation of lay missionaries should have its own dynamics adapted to their reality. We take into consideration that the times and rhythms of the laity are not the same as those of religious. The lay life is marked by their family situations: parents, spouses, children, grandchildren, as well as their employment situations: work schedules, time availability, commitments, etc. ...

The challenges are many, but that does not mean the impoverishment of training because of its limits but rather to creatively search for training and pragmatic possibilities. Many groups fall into the temptation of first training and then going to the mission following the scheme of priestly formation, first the seminary and then when prepared, the missionary activity. This perspective results in that most groups stay in the initial stage without reaching the mission. The lay missionary is trained in the mission, their focus is to reevaluate, grow and reorient themselves with new impulses to improve their missionary task. That is why training must be progressive and permanent.

The growth and missionary impact of any group of laity within the People of God, will be determined by the strength of their training. In this search we want to share some thoughts and lived experiences in the perspective of this direction "enlightened by the formation plan of missionary disciples" proposed by the final document of the V General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean which met May 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil and the 10 year journey of a particular group of lay people in the United States which can serve as inspiration for other lay groups.

Aspects of the Formation Process

The Documents of the Aparecida (DA) says, "The formation plan for the follower of Jesus is rooted in the dynamic nature of the person and the personal invitation of Jesus Christ, who calls his own by name, and they follow him because they know his voice. The Lord awakened the deep aspirations of his disciples and drew them to himself, full of wonder. Following him is the result of a fascination which responds to the desire for human fulfillment, to the desire for a full life. The disciple is someone passionate for Christ, whom is recognized as the leading teacher who guides and accompanies.” (DA 277)

In the process of formation for missionary disciples, we highlight five fundamental aspects which appear differently in each step, but intimately interpenetrate and feed each other:

a. “The encounter with Jesus Christ. Those who will be his disciples already seek Him (cf. John 1:38), but it is the Lord who calls them: "Follow me" (Mk 1:14; Mt 9:9). One has to discover the deeper meaning of the search, which will certainly lead to the encounter with Christ that gives rise to Christian initiation. This encounter must be constantly renewed by their personal witness, the announcement of the kerygma and the missionary activity of the community. The kerygma is not only a stage, but the guiding thread of a process which culminates in the maturity of the disciple of Jesus Christ. Without the kerygma, the other aspects of this process are doomed to sterility, without hearts truly converted to the Lord. The possibility of true Christian initiation is only derived from the kerygma. Therefore, the Church must bear this in all its actions.” (DA 278 a.)

Being accomplices of the Holy Spirit, who does the work, we become useful instruments to enable the experience of God’s unconditional love. This touches the depths of the human heart personally. It is a fundamental encounter with God who calls, accepts and saves for love. Through the kerygmatic announcement, faith awakens; it revives and ignites the heart as it falls in love.

b. “Conversion: (It) is the initial response of those who have heard the Lord with admiration, believe in Him by the action of the Spirit, decides to be his friend and goes after him, changing their way of thinking and living, accepting the cross of Christ, aware that dying to sin enables one to reach life. In Baptism and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Christ's redemption is actualized for us.” (DA 278 b.)

Whoever has experienced the saving love of God cannot remain the same; he/she must find new ways to move through the fascinating adventure of faith. Conversion is not only leaving sin to live honestly. It's not even a life of fidelity to the precepts and commandments of the Lord. It's much more than that. It involves becoming friends of God instead of his servants; passing from the righteous to His children; from "do not do evil to anyone" to letting God do what He wants in our lives. Finally, it is about letting Him take control of our lives.

c. “Discipleship: The person constantly matures in the knowledge, love and following of Jesus, the teacher; delves into the mystery of his person, his example and his doctrine. For this step, on-going permanent catechesis and the sacramental life is of fundamental importance, for it strengthens the initial conversion and enables missionary disciples to persevere in the Christian life and in the mission within the world that challenges them.” (DA 278 c.)

The formation of the laity will have its own dynamic where life experience is essential, and where an adult faith is constantly growing; and in which being confronted with others and with the world, is the best training program.

A newly converted may be tempted to transplant their old values ​​to the work of God. Therefore, those who have lived immersed in sin need to have a good length of time rehabilitating oneself. Just as alcoholics or drug addicts need a detox stage, so too those who have been dependent on worldly standards require a purification step. At this stage, the Christian learns new criteria, which are those of Jesus and his church. It's a time to mature and appropriate Christian values ​​with a solid doctrinal, pastoral and spiritual formation that must be lived with patience, perseverance and constancy.

d. “Communion: There can be no Christian life except in community: in families, parishes, communities of consecrated life, grassroots, and other small communities and movements. Like the early Christians, who met in community, the disciple participates in the life of the Church and in the meeting with others; living the love of Christ in the fraternal life of solidarity. They are also accompanied and encouraged by the community and its shepherds as they mature in the life of the Spirit”. (DA 278 d.)

First of all, the most perfect communion between brothers and with God is lived in the Eucharist, meeting face to face with the beloved who renews our strength and nourishes for the continued journey. Following the example of Mother Mary, we must be filled with Him so as to give birth to Him in the world today. Therefore, regular participation in the Eucharist gives us the wellspring of living water in which we constantly renew our loving encounter with the Lord.

e. “The Mission: The disciple, according to how much he knows and loves his Lord, feels the need to share with others the joy of being sent, to go into the world to proclaim Jesus Christ, dead and risen, to bring love to life in the service of the person in most need, in other words, to build the Kingdom of God. The mission is inseparable from discipleship, and therefore should not be understood as a post-training stage, although it is carried out in various ways according to their vocation and human and Christian maturation of the person." (DA 278 e.).

The disciple is undergoing formation, a person who follows his teacher to let themselves be formed by him, to learn and be like him, and in the case of the Christian, to be transformed in Christ. But is also, an instructor; he is called to continue the mission of Jesus to form missionary disciples in the Church at the service of life.

As beautifully explained by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, "the mission in the heart of the village is not a part of my life, or an ornament that can be removed from me, it is not an appendage or another moment of existence; It is something I cannot tear out of my being if I do not want to destroy myself. I am a mission on this earth, and for that I am in this world. We must recognize ourselves as branded by the mission to enlighten, bless, enliven, raise, heal and liberate."

The MLVD Experience

Surely after having slightly outlined the formation process proposed in the document of Aparecida, we can ask ourselves: How are we concretely carrying it into practice? To that end, we share with you the experience of a ten year journey of that search for the “Misioneros laicos del Verbo Divino” (MLVD) Lay Missionaries of the Divine Word in Riverside California, United States.

They are a lay association of Catholics who freely and deliberately promise to devote and shape their own lives in the SVD missionary spirit. The Lay Missionaries of the Divine Word are only the reapers who bring in the harvest of Christians. They plant and water, but the growth and development still depends on the one who sent them. "Being a missionary is not a sacrifice we offer to God, but a gift of grace from God." (Joseph Freinademetz)

The MLVD members are single men and women or married, who feel called by GOD and respond freely with their time, talent and treasure to share in the mission of the Congregation of the Divine Word Missionaries, mainly in the proclamation of the Word of God to all people. Through their work of evangelization, they strive to bring the Word of God to others, spreading the Catholic faith and deepening one's life of faith, promoting and restoring communities of God's people, and raising awareness of missionary responsibility of the whole Church.

Missionary work is the reason for the existence of the MLVD movement and the main objective of all efforts, no matter how different they are in nature. All tasks are always oriented to the proclamation of the gospel directly or indirectly, in accordance with the local Church in collaboration with the Congregation of the Divine Word Missionaries.

How do they realize their evangelizing mission and start the training process?

People, either of the parish, acquaintances or simply people who visit the community for the first time are invited by the MLVD members to have an evangelizing experience, which they call an initiation retreat. As a kerygmatic announcement, through direct proclamation of the Word in these “Initiation retreats” missionaries become accomplices of the Spirit, so as to do his work, seeking a personal encounter with God from their own personal history. In the three-day retreat, they are made to become aware that it was Jesus himself, who died on the cross and rose again, who invited them in a personal way and became interested in each of them, which is why they are there. He called each one by name, just as they are. It is He who wants to manifest his grace and power. He has a wonderful plan and He will reveal it to them.

Certainly they do not receive theories, or promises that are not fulfilled. No. They go to experience the power of God at work, saving and changing their lives. There you will see how God is able to make sense of the life of each of those who believe in Him. There is not going to be a promise of anything that you cannot really fulfill and what is promised is not something for your life, but a whole new life: In John 10.10, Jesus promised; I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly, and will now fulfill it among us.

It is the God of the universe, powerful and rich in love and faithfulness who is committed to each of those present. Therefore, it is guaranteed that no one will leave there as they entered. It entails everyone having the experience of personal and unconditional love from God, who is our Father. It presents Jesus, dead, risen and glorified as the only solution to the world and for every individual. Proclaiming we were already saved by his blood. It is such a deep and total renovation of the person, that St. Paul did not find another way to express this beautiful reality but by saying that we are "new creatures": Gal 6:15.

The heart of man can only be changed by God. Therefore, an inner renewal of man by the Spirit of God who transforms him is needed. And God always keeps his word and his Spirit lights the fire of divine love in every heart. This experience is so profound it marks a before and after time period of the encounter with God, that is why it is a fundamental experience of all the Lord begins to build in each person.

And after the retreat, how do they continue?

The retreat is followed by weekly meetings in which the basics of the Catholic faith that help participants grow spiritually are studied. It is the time of conversion, the gradual transformation of their lives, as well as growth and discipleship. Obviously, in order to be a profound experience, this process takes time. During this time, they are accompanied by MLVD members who encourage them to continue participating in the weekly classes of growth, encourage active participation in the parish and service to others in everyday life.

Guided by the Spirit in prayerful mutual discernment, the laity who have followed their growth process are invited to continue their relationship with God through active participation in the evangelization team and in the overall MLVD mission of proclaiming the Word of God to all. It is during this stage where new members are called to integrate into the MLVD movement.

But how does one go about the process of specific training?

The training takes place at two levels simultaneously, one with all the retreat participants, with weekly meetings and the other with the MLVD members, who have monthly meetings.

  •  First year: After the Initiation Retreat, weekly classes follow in which the basics of our Catholic faith are studied and in which all who have begun the process of evangelization continue to grow spiritually.
    Weekly classes are divided as follows:
    •  4 courses of basic spiritual growth (10-12 weeks each) a total of 45 weeks
    •  A course on the life of Saint Peter (6 weeks)
    •  A course on the life of Saint Paul (6 weeks)
  •  Second year: an experience of growth is offered with a "Growing in Faith" retreat, in which the vocation of service in the work of evangelization, as collaborators of Jesus is proposed.
    •  A course in Fundamentals of Catholic faith (22 weeks)
    •  Two advanced courses of “growing in the faith” classes (12-14 weeks)
    •  A course in salvation history, from Genesis to the birth of Jesus (12-14 weeks)
  •  Third year: A Discipleship Retreat in which all are invited to become true missionary disciples of Jesus, helping them discover their mission and to attract new disciples to continue the work.
    •  A course on the life of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon and Esther (24 weeks)
    •  A course on the History of the Church (24 weeks)

Classes are conducted by MLVD members who are thoroughly prepared for the transmission of the faith in each of the courses. The active participation of weekly Mass, frequent celebration of the Sacraments (confession and communion), along with weekly faith formation classes, help keep the fire burning in their hearts during this formative process.

At the same time, the MLVD members have their monthly meetings during which they develop spiritually, in biblical and missionary formation as well as carry out missionary activities.

Among the topics covered are:

  • In spirituality: The Life and Work of Arnold Janssen; Life and work of Joseph Freinademetz; Spirituality and mission of the Congregation of the Divine Word.
  • In Bible: Biblical Introduction, History of Salvation, The Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John. Saint Paul and Saint Peter.
  • In mission: Formation of Disciples, Preacher Training, Mission Animation.

The annual retreat for MLVD members is guided by Divine Word Missionaries or Sister Servants of the Holy Spirit and is helpful for the spiritual renewal of the lay missionaries.

As we mentioned at the beginning, the mission is not a posterior time but rather one which runs throughout the whole training process, we could say it happens simultaneously. It is the field in which it develops with different levels of depth according to the maturity of the process, everything learned thus far.

The MLVD mission is lived in its members through:

  •  Preach in retreats at each level of initiation, growth, and discipleship
  •  Facilitate small group discussions during retreats
  •  Accompany the newly initiated during the weekly classes of continual growth
  •  Volunteer work in the center of evangelization "Kairos Catholic Store"
  •  Support as possible in prison ministry
  •  Proclaim the Gospel anywhere available
  •  Assist the parish and the community through their service in their activities. These may include: Eucharistic ministers, lectors, ushers, leaders of communal prayer, members of the music ministry, members of the Parish Council, leaders of support groups, volunteers in the food pantry, social justice workers, prison ministry, youth ministry, catechists of First Communion, Confirmation, and / or RICA classes, visiting the houses within the parish boundaries to provide information on all services and activities offered at the local parish level.

The supervision and spiritual guidance of a SVD priest is vital for the healthy development of each lay missionary. This helps ensure every missionary effort is in full conformity with the SVD constitutions, the Universal Church and the local Diocese.

Some signs resulting from missionary activity include: the missionaries have visited about 10,000 houses within the territory of the parish. More than 3,500 people have lived the Initiation Retreat either in the parish itself, in neighboring cities and even in prisons. The total population of registered families in the parish has tripled from about 2000, to more than 6,000 registered families. With a Sunday Mass attendance of over 6,000 faithful, it was necessary to build a new church that welcomes 1600 people per celebration, to becoming one of the fastest growing parishes in the United States. Five priestly and religious vocations have emerged in the parish of Queen of Angels and the parish has one of the most important youth movements of the Diocese of San Bernardino, California. Thousands of people come to the center of evangelization, Kairos Catholic Store, in search of religious articles, books and to receive biblical workshops. Actually, with such results we can say the recipe works. Obviously this lay formation process is not without some temptations that can cause one to fall into discouragement, fatigue and inaction; but Pope Francis responds to us with some clues to overcome them:

“What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity.  Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervor dies out. The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer, and to my great joy groups devoted to prayer and intercession, the prayerful reading of God’s word and the perpetual adoration of the Eucharist are growing at every level of ecclesial life.” (EG 262)

It is of vital importance that throughout this process one’s relationship with God is permanently actualized through a consistent return to their experience of "first love”; that moment in which God conquered their heart, so the flame of His love which transforms everything is not extinguished.