Divine Word Missionaries
Arnold Janssen Spirituality Center
Formation for Life
Peter McHugh SVD
The Sixth Formators Course (12 March-3 May) had 30 participants missioned in 18 countries. The emphasis of the Course focused not so much on general principles of formation but the self-identity of the formator – on the spirituality of being a formator. So it was important that the group spend some time in Steyl, getting in touch with our roots and meeting our Founding Generation in a deeper way. Being in Steyl where Arnold and the first confreres and Sisters lived and worked can make a deep impression. We focus on them not just because of their significance in our history, but to see how they responded to the needs of their time, and how their legacy can inspire in us and in our formandi similar generosity in responding to the needs of today.
There’s a curious paradox here. There are many things to admire, yet what strikes me is to realize how ordinary they were, and how much the Lord accomplished through them. A remark of Nicholas Blum is significant. Blum was vice-general to Fr. Arnold and succeeded him as second superior general. In 1902 he wrote in his diary: “It is strange.
In other congregations you find holy men at the beginning. But no sign of any with us. Among us until today – and that’s almost 27 years – there is still no sign of sanctity.”
Blum was right. St. Arnold was not a saint, nor any of the first generation! – if saint means a person who has finally got it all together. Yet Blum’s assessment apparently missed a lot of the beauty in his companions, because, after all, there were four official saints in that first group! Perhaps his comment simply illustrates the truth that we all see the world not as it is, but as we are.
This ties in very well with the formators’ encounter with Joseph Freinademetz during our pilgrimage to his birthplace on our way to Nemi. St. Joseph’s experience is very encouraging. His bishop told Arnold he was giving him “the pearl of my diocese.” Yet when he arrived in Hong Kong this pearl of a priest was filled with prejudices and negative attitudes towards the Chinese typical of Europeans at the time. He wrote: “The Chinese are not as naturally endowed as we Europeans.” What saved him from remaining a prisoner of his negative attitude was that he tried to see reality ever more through the eyes of Christ Crucified. “In this light everything takes on a new, quite unique hue; what is small and unimportant becomes singularly attractive, what is bitter gains a peculiar sweetness.” The rest of his life was a process of allowing the Spirit to open the eyes of his heart to see reality as Jesus sees. Saints are those who try to shape their lives according to this vision. It led Joseph to his deep love and respect for the Chinese people.
Closer acquaintance with the imperfect members of our Founding Generation thus leads to a clearer focus on the truth that God’s beauty is reflected differently through each person. For, when the Incarnate Word revealed God’s loving goodness, he revealed too the potential in each person to embody and pass on that goodness. Otherwise how could Jesus dream of inviting us to love one another “as I have loved you”?
This is the aim of formators as they initiate the formandi into this lifelong “growth by the power of the Holy Spirit into unity with the Incarnate Word of the Father..” (c 501) The theme of the Course was Paul’s words in 2 Tim 1,6: “Fan into flame the gift you have received from God.” Encouraging words that highlight the ministry of formation as a specific invitation by Jesus. They also stress that keeping our hearts ablaze with love for Christ and his people requires constant attention. Initial formation is not the point of arrival, but a signpost pointing in the right direction to life. For us SVDs it is along the road of mutual respect in dialogue. Hopefully the Course has encouraged the formators to continue limping along this road, helping and being helped by the formandi, aware that it is the journeying that counts, not the arriving. For, the Christ to whom we are moving is already present in us, in our weaknesses; he is our walking, our longing, for he is the Way to the depths of this Mystery – of God, and of the human person.