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General Chapter XVIII - 2018

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Opening Mass – 18th General Chapter

Sunday: 17 June 2018

INTRODUCTION: As shared variously in the past years, right after the first visits, a thought came to mind that stayed until the end of my term and was confirmed along the way again and again: The world without religious congregations such as the Society of the Divine Word would be a much poorer place. And this is undoubtedly true for all countries where we are working. Today we come together to open our 18th General Chapter representing some 6,000 members of the Society of the Divine Word and many lay mission partners from around the world. We want to thank the Triune God for all that we can contribute to enrich this world in His name. At the same time, we continue to ask ourselves anew where we can be better rooted in his Word and committed to his mission, allowing the Love of Christ to impel us. We begin our opening Eucharistic celebration in the name of the Triune God.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what GOD is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously. (Micah 6:8)


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

1. Today, at the opening of our 18th General Chapter we come together in thanksgiving bringing before the Triune God the joys, hopes and also sorrows of our confreres and partners in the missions from around the world. When asking our members for a chapter theme, the majority felt the need for a spiritual renewal that would bring us back to the Divine Word as the source of our inspiration and commitment. Any discernment and renewal will have to take its beginnings from here, going back to the most genuine motive of the mission, the love of Christ that impels us.

2. Together with our mission partners worldwide we are invited to ask two fundamental questions: What does God want us to do? & What can we ask of God?

2.1 The first question: What does God want us to do? Always remembering that it is God’s mission we are called to share: What does God want us to do in this discernment and renewal process? In the search for answers we can, among others, look for help at our Founder, Pope Francis and the Scriptural readings of today.

Our Founder’s life is a witness to the importance of this perpetual discernment and renewal process. Arnold Janssen reminds us: “May his holy will always be done. If our work is not his doing, it is better that it fails – and the sooner, the better.” Once I asked the author of Journey in Faith, Fr. Josef Alt, what had touched him most about the life of Fr. Janssen after writing a biography of the Founder of close to 1,000 pages. Fr. Alt said that the most touching aspects were “the simplicity of Arnold Janssen’s life” and “his deep faith in God,” and that everything else was secondary. In a later conversation Fr. Alt added another point, and that was, “perseverance.” Simplicity, deep faith and perseverance are probably the Founder’s answer to the question of what God wants. They are important characteristics of a renewed congregation.

Pope Francis writes: “You […] need to see the entirety of your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you. Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received. …” [Gaudete et Exsultate (GE) 23] We know how demanding a discernment and renewal process can be, and yet for us as religious missionaries and for others too, there is no other way than to continuously discern the will of God in all our living, planning and action. Simplified, Pope Francis emphasizes three essential pillars of any renewal process for the church, which are also equally important for any religious congregation: First, we have to put Jesus/the Gospel back into the center; secondly, a real conversion, a turning around has to take place, looking at the Lord once again for direction and guidance on the way; and, thirdly, this renewed encounter with the Lord has to have an impact on the way we live, plan and engage in mission in His name. Pope Francis reminds us that “prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways. … In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. (GE 172)

Living with the Divine Word at the center of our lives, being rooted in the Word, we will find more answers to the question “what God wants us to do” each time we share the Word. The readings of today fit the Chapter theme well. Each has a specific message in the context of a renewal process: In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel (17:22-24) takes an example from nature. He reminds us that the Lord, and not we, is the owner of everything that is. The Lord remains in control of any development. He turns things upside down if a change is needed. He can give life back to what has become lifeless and dead. – The Psalmist (92) tells us that it is thus good to give thanks to the Lord and he reminds us that what is good in life the Lord sustains, and what is not good the Lord allows to die and pass away. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (5:6-10) shares some essentials needed in the way of renewal with the Lord. What God wants us to do is always to be courageous … “to walk by faith, not by sight” … and “to aspire to please him” … Mark in his Parable of the growing seed (4: 26-34) wants us to rediscover the secret mystery of how the Reign of God develops. Like the seed is being sown, so the Word of God has to be preached continuously – It will grow and bear fruit even though we do not know how. Like the mustard seed, our contribution might seem small but God allows what is small to become big and life-giving.

In any discernment and renewal process we might need to keep in mind that our spirituality and prayer life need to be always challenged by the world and life that is there outside our walls and frontiers. This is a call to grow ever closer to the Triune God, and at the same time closer to the people and the world. One dimension without the other leads us to a reduced vision of spirituality (CD 27). Along the way, we will find the need for conversion:

In our SPIRITUALITY, there might be a need for a conversion to a new and more biblical image of God. In COMMUNITY, conversion is needed to what we have and do in common rather than what we merely want to do alone. LEADERSHIP requires conversion to taking responsibility, to serve, and to trust. In line with FINANCES, there is a need of conversion to transparency, solidarity, and professionalism. And in the context of initial and ongoing FORMATION, conversion faces, among others, the challenge of transforming habits and to learn to think out of the box.

We should avoid complacency, Pope Francis says and continues “it tells us that there is no point in trying to change things, that there is nothing we can do, because this is the way things have always been and yet we always manage to survive. By force of habit we no longer stand up to evil. We ‘let things be’, or as others have decided they ought to be. Yet let us allow the Lord to rouse us from our torpor, to free us from our inertia. Let us rethink our usual way of doing things; let us open our eyes and ears, and above all our hearts, so as not to be complacent about things as they are, but unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord.” (GE, 137)

2.2. After asking “What does God want us to do?” we can ask the second question, “What can we ask of God?” What do we (I) need: looking at our world today, at the church, and at our congregation? Asking this question in communities around the world in past years, I was given many different answers.

  • In South Sudan: people asked for healing and reconciliation after decades of war;
  • In Nicaragua, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela: people prayed for peace and an end to violence;
  • In the Philippines/Indonesia/China/Vietnam: people wanted truthful and honest leaders;
  • The victims of human trafficking, people living with HIV/AIDS around the world are longing for justice, fairness, and compassion;
  • In Slovakia, the Ukraine, Latvia, Albania, and Croatia: more people than ever are searching for meaning in life after decades of socialism.
  • In Hungary: a young girl stood up during the mass and reminded the stunned audience that we needed more love in our families and to re-learn to trust;
  • In several Western European countries such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, England, and Ireland, for example: many people miss genuine friendships, as well as faithfulness and perseverance in their relationships. Others say that it would be a blessing to re-learn faith, to have hope, and to practice greater solidarity;
  • In India: a lay leader told me during the mass: “Thank you for sending your missionaries here. Since they are with us we have stopped drinking, fighting and killing each other. We have learned to reconcile and to forgive. Our children are going to school; we have access to potable water and health services. Everything has changed for the better. They are rendering an incredible and priceless service.”

Looking at the state of our environment, the very urgent need of more exceptional care and concern for God’s creation has become ever more apparent to many people we work with around the world.

During the year of mercy, Pope Francis emphasized that in the process of conversion and renewal we could ask the merciful and compassionate God for forgiveness and the grace to forgive each other.

At the beginning of our 18th General Chapter, we can also ask ourselves: “What do we ask of God as individuals, as communities, and as a congregation, for ourselves and for all those we are journeying with in our missions in more than 80 countries around the globe?”

3. Looking at the responses from people worldwide, we may realize how important all this is that we can ask of God – peace, justice, truthfulness, authenticity, commitment, reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, healing, meaning, love, friendship, simplicity, faithfulness, perseverance, solidarity, hope, new beginnings, and new life, for example. We cannot do and live without them. We might also realize that all of these are priceless and cannot be purchased. What is most important in life is priceless and cannot be bought. Surely we have to do our part, and yet ultimately all these are genuine gifts given to those who ask of God. That is why as missionaries, we continue to share and tell the story about God the giver of gifts and all that is good. And that is why missionary work is and will remain important when it is renewed, impelled by love, rooted in His Word, and committed to His mission.

4. In ending, our founder reminds us of the objective our Society. He says: The objective is to strive that the Society as a whole and in its members ever more faithfully fulfills the will of God. This requires firstly the greater sanctification of its members and secondly that the Society endeavor to become an ever more capable, more useful instrument in the hand of God.” [… In this way it will be possible to promote the honor of the Blessed Trinity, and especially of the Holy Spirit, more and more, to spread the Word of God on earth and with it the holy love of God, the love of Christian virtue and the great treasures of grace of the divine kingdom.] [To the Priests and Brothers in Argentina and Brazil, St. Wendel, 3 December 1901 (Arnold Janssen Reader, 2017, sec 321)] This, too, is the objective of our envisioned renewal.

In the name of the Society, I want to thank all of you, dear confreres, Sisters, lay mission partners, benefactors and collaborators, here present or following the opening on line, for who you are and what you do. It is God’s mission we are called to share. We ask the Triune God most specially for his presence and guidance during the Chapter and in the time to come. With Pope Francis we pray: “Let us ask the Lord for the grace not to hesitate when the Spirit calls us to take a step forward.” (GE, 139)