Divine Word Missionaries
(The following is Fr. General’s homily at the Eucharistic celebration which opened the recent VIVAT International Workshop with participants from seven member congregations)
VIVAT International: Advocacy and Collaboration
t the start of this workshop, allow me to recall in this homily the two broad aims of VIVAT International. These are: advocacy and collaboration.
First of all, advocacy.
It was Pope John Paul II who spoke, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, of the “modern equivalents of the Areopagus” (RM 37). At the time of St. Paul, John Paul II says, “the Areopagus represented the cultural center of the learned people of Athens, and today it can be taken as a symbol of the new sectors in which the Gospel must be proclaimed”. Among these modern “Areopagi”, the pope mentions the “world of communications ... culture, scientific research, and international relations.” In regard to this last, the pope says: “... international organizations and meetings are proving increasingly important in many sectors of human life, from culture to politics, from the economy to research. Christians who live and work in this international sphere must always remember their duty to bear witness to the Gospel (RM 37).”
It is in the light of this insight that the first broad aim of VIVAT is to be understood. Like all other religious NGOs at the United Nations, VIVAT aims to be a religious-missionary presence which witnesses to the values of the Gospel at this modern Areopagus which is the United Nations. In this context, VIVAT aims to be a channel through which, on the one hand, the concrete experiences of our members working with people at the grassroots could be brought to the attention of the UN, and, on the other hand, information and expertise at the UN could be made available to our members working among the poor in different parts of the world. The aim is, therefore, to be a link between the policy makers at this international body and the poor and marginalized in many parts of the world.
The first reading today (Ex 3:1-8a.13-15) narrates what is considered the foundational religious experience of the people of Israel. Yahweh reveals himself as a God who comes down to liberate his people from slavery. "I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey..." (Ex 3:7- 8). Some commentators see the importance of the five verbs in this verse – witness/see, hear, know, come down, liberate. The affliction and suffering of the people are not unknown to Yahweh. He sees and hears and knows them. That’s why he comes down to liberate his people.
The UN is not Yahweh. Often it does not see and hear and know correctly the affliction and suffering of the poor. Sometimes it is even prevented from seeing and hearing and knowing them. Our religious-missionary presence at the UN is precisely meant to help the UN or the so-called international community to see and hear and know the affliction and suffering of the poor of today. For only from a true knowledge of the situation can genuine liberation come about.Of course, the UN is not Yahweh. The UN cannot liberate today’s poor the way Yahweh did the people of Israel. Indeed, there are many criticisms of the UN today. A recent issue of Newsweek features the new UN secretary general, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, and says because the UN is structurally weak and inefficient.
On the other hand, however, the UN is probably the closest to a world body that can embody humanity’s quest for peace and solidarity and represent the so-called international community. We have to work with what we have, no matter how limited it may be. And the UN seems to be for many the source of hope for justice and peace in today’s world. VIVAT wishes to collaborate in promoting this hope. And VIVAT hopes to do so by trying to bring the Word of God to bear on the policies that affect so many men and women in the world. On the wall in front of the UN secretariat building in New York a plaque is attached on which is carved a verse from Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more” (Is 2:4). VIVAT’s hope is that the Word of God will not just be a plaque on the wall of the UN, but a living principle in the formation and formulation of its policies and statements.
The second broad aim of VIVAT International is collaboration. VIVAT was established with the conviction that mission, by its very nature, is a collaborative undertaking of groups and individuals called by God to share in his mission. VIVAT, therefore, wishes to be an instrument of collaboration in mission. From the very start, it was established as a joint effort of two religious-missionary congregations. Its statutes add that VIVAT is open to further collaboration with other similarly-minded religious congregations. Today, seven religious-missionary congregations make up VIVAT International. Collaboration, therefore, is an essential element of VIVAT.
Collaboration, of course, is also important for the work of advocacy at the UN. The bigger the group is, the stronger its voice, the more it will be heard, the more influence it can have. That seems to be logic of advocacy work. Therefore, we collaborate in order to have a stronger voice, in order be more effective.
In the end, however, collaboration is not just about having a stronger voice and being more effective. Collaboration is a really a statement about mission – that is, that mission is God’s first and foremost, and that our call to mission is really a call to share in God’s mission. This call to share in God’s mission entails a call to collaborate with all others who are similarly called by God. Collaboration implies that mission is larger than what each individual or each congregation can do. It is even larger than what all of us together can do. Collaboration, then, is not just a strategy for mission. We collaborate not just because we want to be more effective in mission. Collaboration is an essential characteristic of mission. Collaboration is a statement about the nature of mission. By collaborating we are saying that mission is God’s in the first place and that the primary agent of mission is God’s Spirit (cf. RM 21).
I believe this should lead us to an attitude of humility and confidence – humility, because we realize that we are not the only ones called to mission; and confidence because we know we are not alone, but have many partners, in mission.
In December 2000 I visited our VIVAT office in New York. While there, I had the opportunity to tour the UN headquarters and to attend a meeting of the NGOs accredited with the UN. I recall walking back to our office with our confrere and sister of the executive team, feeling very small in the midst of the UN and all the NGOs working for peace and justice in the world. But that was because at first I looked at myself apart from, and over against, the UN and the NGOs. When we were back at the office and talked about the work VIVAT had to do, I began to realize that I and VIVAT were all part of the UN and the NGOs. And the feeling of being small began to disappear. This, I believe, is what collaboration does – it makes one feel less alone and less small.
Dear brothers and sisters, advocacy and collaboration – these are the two broad aims of VIVAT. The word “VIVAT” comes from a prayer of the founder of the SVD and SSpS, St. Arnold Janssen, which runs: “Vivat Deus unus et trinus in cordibus hominum”. May the One and Triune God live in hearts of all. But the word VIVAT also evokes Yahweh, the God of life, who reveals himself as “I am who am”. As long as we believe that it is “I am” who sends us, then our mission will truly be God’s mission, and no pharaoh will ever be able to withstand it. This morning let us pray that through the work of VIVAT the One and Triune God may live in our hearts and in the hearts of all. Amen.
Fraternally in the Divine Word
Antonio M. Pernia, SVD
Source: Arnoldus Nota - April 2007*