Remember the wonders the Lord has done…(Ps. 105,5)
On September 7th this year, I had the privilege of participating in the ceremony which marked the closure of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Spiritan ommunity at Chevilly-Larue in France. In 1863 Fr. Ignace Schwindenhammer, with the help of his own patrimony, purchased a hunting lodge on the outskirts of Paris belonging to the nobility of the day and transformed it into a home for future Spiritan missionaries and for the Superior General of a Congregation dedicated to the service of the poor. Written by the lives of ordinary, simple Spiritans, Brothers and priests, and their collaborators, the story of Chevilly is truly a remarkable one. It is the story of successive generations of formators and professors who through their wisdom and witness shaped the lives of some 4000 missionaries who in turn founded, formed and inspired flourishing Christian communities across the globe; more recently it is the story of the evolution of a community, once uniquely dedicated to the formation of young missionaries who left for foreign lands, into a home for them when they finally return due to old age or illness and when their mission takes on a new form, perhaps more important than when they were young and active, that of accepting their limitations with faith, dignity and joy and witnessing to God’s healing and transforming presence in a world in need of hope and meaning.
The 150 anniversary of the founding of the community at Chevilly was but one of a series of similar events that took place in different parts of the Spiritan world in 2013 and 2014. These included the establishment of the Catholic Church on the island of Zanzibar; the opening of St. Mary’s College in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and the beginning of Spiritan presence on the island; the founding of Rockwell College, Ireland; the arrival of Spiritan missionaries and the foundation of the local Church in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where the celebrations envisaged for November 2014 have been postponed indefinitely due to the tragic outbreak of the Ebola virus; coincidentally, 2014 is also the 150th anniversary of the death of Blessed Jacques Laval in Mauritius. These various anniversaries reflect a period of extraordinary diversification and international expansion of the Congregation after the death of Francis Libermann and, consequently, the imaginative and courageous decisions taken with very limited resources by his gifted, if controversial, successor, Fr. Schwindenhammer. His period in office (1852-1881) incredibly saw 79 new foundations, 33 of which were in Europe or the United States, 25 in the West Indies and other former colonies, and the remainder in Africa. Several of these new foundations were actually seminaries, colleges or agricultural schools, and many were dedicated to the education and training of underprivileged young people in the society of the day.
It is very important that we commemorate and celebrate these and other significant milestones in our Spiritan history, particularly in the context of our current reflection on our identity as Spiritans. In the first place, memory is essential to our identity as the people of God. “Remember the wonders that the Lord has done,” the Psalmist invites us (Ps. 105,5). The role of the Holy Spirit is precisely to remind us of all that the Lord has done in and through our human story, to help us discover the presence and action of God shaping his plan of love through the fabric of our human history, through the lives and actions of ordinary men and women, despite their limitations and mistakes.
As so many of the Gospel parables tell us, memories of our experience of God’s compassion, love and forgiveness in our own personal lives lead us in turn to be compassionate, loving and forgiving towards our brothers and sisters. Faith and memory are very closely linked; forgetfulness is often at the root of our failures. “Never forget the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 103,2).
Secondly, as we recall memories of the past and the stories of those who have gone before us, we get in touch once again with our own deepest motivations as missionary religious, with what unites us most profoundly with our brothers and sisters in the Spiritan family, the call and the charism we share in common. We realize how much we owe both personally and collectively to those who have preceded us, to their inspiration, their vision and their courage. We are reminded once again that God can truly do wonderful things through the lives of ordinary men and women who are conscious of their own limitations but open to the power of the Holy Spirit. We discover that human weakness and failure are not necessarily an obstacle to God’s grace or to the effectiveness of our witness; as Pope Francis pointed out in his address to Superior Generals in November 2013, “a religious who recognizes himself as weak and a sinner does not negate the witness he is called to give, rather he reinforces it and this is good for everyone.”(“Wake up the World,” Antonio Spadaro, S.J., p.3).
I recently visited the Province of Canada in Quebec which has this intriguing motto: “Je me souviens (I remember).” “This motto has only three words,” explained historian Thomas Chapais, “but these three words are worth more than the most eloquent speeches. Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glories…(This motto) says so eloquently in three words the past as well as the present and the future,” adds archivist Pierre-Georges Roy. Memory not only concerns the past. The way we remember the past determines to a large extent how we live in the present and actually shapes our future. Just as negative memories of hurt and injustice affect the way we perceive the world, our relationships with others and our capacity for enjoyment, and to a very real extent limit the possibilities for our future, so positive memories of the experience of love, of acceptance, of the inspiration and support of others, equally colour our ability to relate to our brothers and sisters and shape our future in a positive way. “Memories of love make possible all our achievements,” said Mr. William Dietrich, the American philanthropist, as he gave away his vast fortune in 2011 to various educational institutions in Pittsburgh. “They give us the confidence to take risks and reach beyond ourselves.”
Margaret Silf, the British writer, expresses the same conviction in a different way:
“Everything that has happened to and in (this place) has made it what it is today, which in turn is the seed of everything it has the potential to become…our history matters- our collective stories and personal ones. When we listen to our memories, we expose hidden layers of who we are. We have a sacred duty to share our treasure with those who follow. If we don’t, we risk becoming one-dimensional beings with no depth beyond the immediate impulse, no hinterland to lend perspective, and a very diminished sense of who we are. Let us tell our stories. They are our gift to the future.”(Compass Points, p. 208).
In the words of Pope Francis: “Tradition and the memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God” (Interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., August 2013). We will shortly celebrate the foundational story of our Christian faith, the coming of the Son of God among us, divesting himself of status and dignity and identifying himself totally with our human condition, thus opening up a new future for humanity. May the commemoration of this extraordinary event deepen our awareness of our call as Spiritans to identify with and share the lives of those on the margins of contemporary society, giving them new hope and dignity; may it give us, as it gave those who preceded us, the courage to open up in our hearts, in our communities and in our Congregation “new areas to God.”
John Fogarty, C.S.Sp.