The morning of the second day of the European Conference on Secularity was devoted to hearing about the realities of six Dehonians (SCJs) who live and work in various parts of Europe. They spoke of the cultures in which they minister, and the challenges they face.
Starting in the north, Fr. Zenon Strykowski talked about Finland, a country that he described as highly secularized. It is small both in overall population (5.4 million people total), and in the percentage of Catholics (less than .2%). Many who call themselves Catholic are in name only. Most Finns who are Christian affiliate themselves with the Lutheran church.
Fr. Zenon talked about the challenges of developing a Catholic tradition in a country where the church wasn’t present for many years. Foreign-born priests and religious were expelled from Finland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. When the Catholic church returned, much of its membership was immigrant based. Immigrants continue to be a significant part of the Catholic population. Dozens of languages are spoken and over 95 nationalities can be found in the Finnish Church.
Ministry in the country often focuses on the needs of immigrants, helping them to feel at home in a new place. Fr. Zenon said that the SCJs focus on building a sense of community in the parishes and diasporas. There is also a focus on the growing number of Finns seeking to enter the church. “It is something joyful for us,” said Fr. Zenon.
Teaching future business leaders to be GOOD, not just good executives
Fr. Simon Reyes spoke of the development of ESIC, a business school in the Spanish Province. In the mid-1960s SCJs recognized a need for people to be trained as marketing and business professionals in Spain. When ESIC was begun there were no significant marketing and business schools in the country.
At first, many students had difficulty with the courses, and the drop-out rate was high, “but we stayed with our standards and businesses soon respected our efforts,” said Fr. Simon. ESIC has grown to six campuses in Spain and one in Brazil. It also has a well-respected publishing house. Students from around the world come to ESIC to study business in its accredited programs.
Fr. Simon said that the presence of the SCJs has diminished at the school; members of the community no longer teach there, they now only serve in administration. However, the imprint of the SCJs is on every student who graduates from ESIC.
“We teach students to be GOOD, not just be good executives,” said Fr. Simon. “They leave us with good ethics. They are responsible business people with ethical standards.” All students take obligatory courses in ethics and the social doctrines of the church. “Now, many business schools have ethics departments but we did this at the beginning.”
Publishing methods may change, but the need is still vital
Fr. Marcello Mattè spoke of the SCJs’ publishing house in Bologna, Italy. Communication is a significant focus of the North Italian Province. Eighty-nine lay staff are employed by the SCJs in this ministry.
The editorial aspect of the publishing house has struggled in recent years; during the last two the center has undergone reorganization. The publishing house is looking at new ways of pursuing its mission, including e-books and other digital publishing options.
This province ministry sprung out of a desire to share information that came out of Vatican II. The need for the publishing house is as vital as ever, said Fr. Marcello, since the need to disseminate information is as important, if not more so, than at any other time.
With a growing sense of secularization in Italy, Fr. Marcello said that it is important that the church emphasize dialogue with those on the margins of society, including those who have left the church.
Continuing a strong partnership
Fr. Levi Dos Anjos Ferreira spoke of his experience of being a Brazilian SCJ who is now a member of the German Province. For many years Brazil and Germany have had a strong partnership. German SCJs began the congregation’s presence in Brazil, and now Brazilians are becoming an increasingly important part of the German Province.
The Brazilians came to Germany not simply to support the province with personnel, but to truly be a part of it, bringing their own culture to color the tapestry that is the German Province. “At first it was very hard for us,” said Fr. Levi. “I wondered if I could ‘turn into a German.’” Eventually the Brazilians realized that they didn’t need to leave their roots behind to become a part of the German Province. They didn’t need to “become German.” Instead, they learned about and embraced German culture while giving to the province something from their Brazilian background.
“Being in Germany has allowed us to know the congregation in a new way,” said Fr. Levi. “And by traveling in Europe we have come to experience plurality, we get to know other cultures. It is interesting to live in plurality.”
It is interesting, he said, but not always easy. Humor can go a long way in smoothing a sometimes bumpy road.
Commitment to youth
Fr. Humberto Martins spoke of the Portuguese SCJs’ commitment to youth ministry. The province does retreats, holds national gatherings of youth, educates youth leaders, and develops volunteer opportunities and mission experiences for young people.
“This ministry is fundamental to our province,” he said.
Fr. Humberto spoke of today’s youth. There is much competition for their attention and they are not necessarily drawn to things connected to the church. In reaching out to youth, SCJs much be professional in their approach so that their message is heard. They need to be with youth beyond parish structures. The modern tools of communication, including social media, must be used.
However, real contact with youth is more than what is found in the sometimes superficial world of the internet. Relationships may begin and be nurtured through technology, but to have an impact, SCJs must foster real interpersonal communication.
Young people are looking for a “courageous and audacious church,” said Fr. Humberto. Youth can have limited hopes for the church. Many feel that it does not speak to them. This is why it is important to “go where the youth are, don’t expect them to come to us… we must not forget those who often feel forgotten.
“But we must not be afraid to challenge as well.”
Solidarity with workers and immigrants
Fr. Joseph Duquet spoke of the French SCJs’ literal presence among the working class –– they have had men who have lived and worked (in the factories) alongside the people they serve. These SCJs have been a part of trade unions and experienced many of the same struggles as other workers. “Our presence alongside the workers has made us attentive to the way they live and the injustices they experience.” Diocesan priests have also been a part of this ministry.
Immigrant issues are a significant concern today. SCJs help workers – when possible –– with the maze of paperwork that allows for legal residency and employment. French SCJs are also present to more transient immigrants, “seeing their humanity when often others do not.”
“We bear witness to the Gospel by the way we live among others,” said Fr. Joseph.
Processing what was heard
In small groups SCJs processed what they heard. Back in plenary, they shared some of their discussions.
The importance of listening to the world in which SCJs live and serve is vital. “We must always read the signs of the times,” said one SCJ. Noting the many challenges presented by the morning’s speakers, including the disillusionment of youth and the issues of an increasingly multicultural society, it was evident, said another SCJ, that the presence of the congregation to Europe is still vital. There is much that SCJs can and should offer to Europe through its charism.
“How can we, as Europe, cooperate in addressing these concerns?” said an SCJ. Dialogue is vital not only between SCJs and those they serve, but among SCJs themselves. It is important to be authentic and flexible among those served and among each other. Traditions must be linked to today’s realities. And always, there must be solidarity with those who suffer.
Education is important in general for society, but so too is good formation of SCJs. Members of the community must have solid formation to be capable of recognizing the needs of society and finding creative ways of addressing them.
“It is important to not only focus on our own needs, but on the needs of the people whom we serve,” said an SCJ.
Reviewing what was heard
The final part of the day was given to Fr. Gilles Routhier, a professor on the faculty of Laval University in Quebec, Canada. Fr. Routhier has done extensive research in how the ideas of Vatican II have been received and processed by the church. He is a frequently sought speaker throughout the world.
Fr. Routhier’s role at the European Conference is to help SCJs process what has been presented.
Speaking to the specifics of what he had heard over the past two days, Fr. Routhier noted that the Catholic church has the capacity to embrace the totality of life. The Gospel can be present in all cultures. In all the milieus presented on Tuesday, the Gospel can and is present.
Passage from one reality to another is not easy. The transformation from a world of yesterday to what is now considered the “modern world” is complicated. Throughout history the world has changed and there is always a sense of loss for what was. Instead of viewing a changing world as something that is in opposition to the church, the church must dialogue to be a part of and a response to a new world.
The church should not view itself as a “victim” of secularization. This is a passive response that doesn’t ask the church to look at itself. If the church’s impact on society is less than at another time in history, what is the church’s responsibility for this? How does the church relate to the changing world? How is it building its relationship with the modern world?
Again and again, Fr. Routhier came back to his message that the Gospel has the capability of being present in all cultures, in all realities.
Fr. Dehon was a man who insisted that the church listen to the modern world and the new realities that it presents. SCJs must continue to do this.