“It is when I am weak that I am strong …” (2 Cor 12,10)
“Do not be afraid of your fragility,” was the simple but challenging message of Pope Francis at his Angelus address on February 9, 2014 anticipating World Day of the Sick which followed two days later. Perhaps this is precisely the message we as Spiritans need to hear today as we prepare together for the coming Feast of Pentecost with a growing sense of our vulnerability and of our limitations as a Congregation. The term ‘fragile’ has become commonplace in our Spiritan vocabulary of recent years. We speak readily in the Congregation today of ‘fragile circumscriptions,’ ‘fragile communities’ and even of ‘fragile confreres;’ it is a common topic of conversation at the General Council table.
As a Congregation we have become much more conscious of our limitations and our inadequacies in different parts of the globe for a wide variety of reasons – the experience of diminishing and ageing personnel in many of our older Provinces; the lack of young people who wish to identify with our way of life in countries where Spiritan vocations once flourished; inadequate financial resources, sometimes even to meet basic needs, in several of our newer circumscriptions; disunity and division among the members of a circumscription; the realization of our mistakes and of our failures, as groups or as individuals, to live our missionary religious vocation authentically and to be true to the commitment we made publically on the day of our profession. All of this is compounded by the fact that the Church itself has lost much of its credibility of recent years as an authoritative source of hope and direction for others. Today we are being invited to embrace a sense of mission based not on strength as perhaps in former times but rooted in fragility and powerlessness.
It is important to remember that our Congregation was born in fragility and knew many fragile moments in its history. It began with a small group of seminarians gathered together on Pentecost Sunday with very simple aspirations; their young charismatic leader, Claude Poullart des Places, to whom they looked for inspiration and direction, would be dead a short few years later. Without a formal rule or official existence for three decades, the Congregation was later suppressed and restored on two separate occasions between 1792 and 1816; subsequently deprived of essential funding and its buildings seized by the army, it only survived due to the extraordinary dedication of a handful of its members. The Society which was ultimately responsible for its revival was equally fragile. Founded again by seminarians and led by a young convert of fragile health who himself had no hope of ordination at the time, it saw its initial missionary venture to West Africa end in disaster. The challenges faced by Libermann as he tried to deal with tensions within the small community, doubts about his competence as a leader, difficulties in communication, the untimely death of several of his most committed and competent confreres and extremely limited resources are often forgotten today and make very interesting reading in our contemporary context. The new project in Australia, which seemed so providential at the time and which was undertaken with such enthusiasm, saw the refusal of one confrere to accept his appointment, the death of another on arrival, the departure of a third from the young society during his mission appointment, and the disregard of the terms of the initial contract with the authorities – some of these problems are still familiar to us today – and it too was to end in failure. It was no wonder that Libermann spoke readily of his “poor and weak Congregation” [Cf., for example, N.D. XIII, 13]. “Altogether we are a poor lot,” he wrote to M. Briot in 1843, “brought together by the Master’s will, which alone is our hope. If we had powerful means to hand we would not accomplish much good. Now that we are nothing, that we have nothing and are worth nothing, we can form great projects because our hopes are not founded on ourselves but on him who is all-powerful” [N.D. IV, 303]. Fr. Amable Fourdinier, then Superior General, had echoed the same sentiments some years earlier when he said: “I put my trust in God…The more powerless I am, the more confidence I have.” If in the eyes of many outsiders our history has been one of extraordinary success in terms of evangelization over the last three centuries, as is evident in the texts of the Novena you have received, it has been written for the most part by the lives of simple, ordinary, committed confreres who were aware of their limitations and their mistakes but were open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Interestingly, it is precisely the discovery of our fragility that enables us to see things in their proper perspective, that frees us from our compulsions and illusions. “It is in what we lack that we are most open to what we will become,” wrote British author Margaret Silf. “The Samaritan woman at the well would never have met Jesus if she’d had a water supply at home”[Compass Points, p.140]. The revelations of the recent child sexual abuse and financial scandals in the Church, of the complicity of leadership in covering up the former to protect the institution at the expense of the victim, have shattered our illusions of a divine institution that was beyond reproach and have served to call us back to fundamental Gospel values, to authenticity and integrity of life, to the need for accountability and transparency in our dealings with others, and for ongoing conversion at both institutional and personal levels.
In the case of our own Congregation, the experience of our fragilities and vulnerabilities has allowed the Holy Spirit to bring us back to the simplicity of the message of our founders, to the realization that the mission to which we are called is God’s mission not ours and that our role is simply to be docile instruments at God’s service. Perhaps the rightful emphasis in Vatican II on apostolic activity as “of the very nature of religious life” [P.C, 8] in congregations such as ours seduced us into believing that we were “master-builders” rather than simple “workers”, “messiahs” rather than “ministers” in the vineyard of the Lord. An over-emphasis on activity, efficacy, accomplishment and success will ultimately bring us face to face with our own poverty. A sense of powerlessness, therefore, should not lead to paralysis but to a renewed conviction that God’s power is most effective in our human frailty. In fact, as Timothy Radcliffe O.P. pointed out, a sense of our own powerlessness is actually an essential condition for credibility as a preacher of the Word of God today: “To be a preacher is not just to tell people about God… We have a word of hope only if we glimpse from within the pain and despair of those to whom we preach. We have no word of compassion unless somehow we know their failures and temptations as our own. We have no word which offers meaning to people’s lives unless we have been touched by their doubts and glimpsed the abyss”[ Sing a New Song, p.125].
Pentecost is the story of a fragile group of people united together in prayer with Mary and bound together by a personal and collective sense of powerlessness. The coming of the Spirit did nothing to change the chaos of the world around them; rather it led them to the discovery of a new strength within themselves to confront a world which up to then had frightened them, a capacity to communicate in a language that somehow all could understand despite the barriers that separated them, a power to unite and create communion in a divided world.
Libermann saw clearly that God comes to us and calls us exactly in the reality of our concrete situation, not as we were in the past or as we would wish to be today or in the future. As we prepare together in prayer for our patronal feast of Pentecost, perhaps we can make our own the words he addressed to Sr. Saint Agnes less than two years before he died: “God accepted you poor and weak, he knew well what you were; abandon yourself to the goodness and mercy with which he received you” [N.D. XII, 171].
“Glory to Him whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to Him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.” (Eph. 3, 20-21).
John Fogarty, C.S.Sp.