Goal in Europe still the same: share the Gospel

Participants at the European Conference on Secularity

The SCJs’ European Conference on Secularity was held October 18-20 in Clairefontaine, Belgium. The theme of secularity took root at the 2009 General Chapter where members of the European entities noted the effect of secularity on the church and a desire to better understand its impact, especially as it affects vocations, ministry, and the members of the Priests of the Sacred Heart themselves. Below is the third and final report from the gathering.

Click here to view photos from the event.

A background for discussions

Fr. John van den Hengel of the General Council began Thursday’s session.  He emphasized that the expectation of the conference isn’t to leave with a well-developed plan for a European project, but instead, to discuss possibilities for such a project and envision how it might look.

At the 2009 General Chapter the major superiors of Europe talked about the status of their entities. They said that they wanted to find a way out of their perceived sense of malaise. From this, the idea of a European project was born.

Before SCJs discussed details of a possible project, Fr. John reflected on discussions that have taken place in the church in regards to Europe and shared what others have done.

He first cited the Vatican’s reflections on Europe, noting the 1999 European Synod, as well as Ecclesia in Europa, the 2003 document written by Pope John Paul II. In these reflections Europe was called to not forget its Christian heritage and to rediscover a sense of mysticism, remembering that Christ is a source of hope.

Religious life in Europe

In May and October of 2010 the Union of Superiors General focused their discussions on religious life in Europe

“Europe is worth saving,” concluded the USG. Europe may no longer be as “friendly” to institutionalized religion, but there is resurgence in less institutionalized forms of religion.

Religious communities shouldn’t simply try to survive emphasized the USG in their discussions. They shouldn’t allow their concern for a lack of vocations to stifle who they are and what they do. Religious need to stop looking nostalgically at the 1950s, hoping that things might return to what they once were.

The goal of religious communities continues to be the same as it always has been: to bring the Gospel to Europe. Religious must be present where they are most urgently needed according to their individual charisms. They should reach out not just to Christians but to all believers.

Internally, religious must work to keep God at the center of their lives; God must remain the core of religious life. Religious must remain humble. “In weakness we are strong,” said Fr. John.

The USG encouraged religious to develop an intercultural, international project. Laity should be invited to share in the charism of religious. Mission must take precedence over a struggle for survival.

The work of others

Other religious communities have considered, or begun, European projects. Fr. John noted several examples. One community declared Europe to be a mission land. Another set up European offices to work in solidarity with others to help keep the commitment of justice, peace and reconciliation at the forefront of society’s concerns.

One community chose to address what they perceived to be a loss of faith in Europe by focusing on the evangelization of young people. Part of this renewed focus includes examining current outreach to youth, including the religious community’s schools. They have chosen to reduce the number of formation houses and focus on international formation teams.

There is an emphasis on creating new alignments with laity and other religious communities who are called to similar missions.

Now the question is, “Where does the love of Christ impel us, Dehonians, to go in Europe?” asked Fr. John.

Dehonians in Europe

Fr. José Ornelas Carvalho, general superior, spoke of the general administration’s visitation of Europe during the past year. “These visitations are a privileged time for me to be involved in the lives of my confreres,” he said. He added that he admires the commitment of SCJs throughout Europe.

Reflecting on the current state of Europe and its challenges, Fr. Ornelas noted the economic crisis that is testing the dream of a united Europe. As Europe struggles and its status as a global leader is challenged, other decision-making centers of the world are vying for attention.

There are parallels between the current situation of Europe and consecrated life. For hundreds of years, Europe has been the center of religious life. It is from Europe that Christianity and religious life have been sent to the world. But now that center is changing.

The dwindling number of vocations in Europe impacts religious life in a variety of ways. Years ago, dioceses could staff their parishes with their own priests. Religious could more freely focus on living their charism outside of parish ministry. But now with a shortage of personnel, religious often fall into a diocesan way of ministry and lifestyle as they help dioceses maintain their parishes.

With this backdrop, Fr. General said that there is a need to explore what it means to be a religious in Europe. How do religious welcome partners in their mission? How do religious learn to listen to these partners? Fr. General said there is a need to better involve the laity in the life of the community.

Most importantly, religious should not fear the loss of a Euro-centric church.

Being open to creative solutions

As many SCJs learned during the European visitation, the face of the congregation is radically changing. Numbers will continue to diminish in Europe, while the population of the congregation grows in the southern hemisphere.

Fr. General asked if the congregation has the prophetic courage to respond to change. Does the weight of commitments and structures prevent the congregation from being open to creative solutions?

How can the congregation work less as a confederation and more as one body? Fr. General said that he wasn’t seeking to expand the power of the general administration, but wondered if there might be a way to have more collaborative input. Could meetings on the continental level be an effective tool for getting beyond the concerns of individual entities and instead look at the congregation as a whole?

The Priests of the Sacred Heart are doing much good in Europe. There are exciting initiatives for youth and collaborative programs. There is great care for the needs of the elderly of the congregation. But can the congregation be present in a different way in Europe, in a way that better responds to current realities?

In looking at the future Fr. Ornelas reminded SCJs of the times in which Fr. Dehon established the congregation. He too sought new forms of dialogue with society. “Our history is a fundamental contribution to the future,” he said.

In looking ahead, Fr. General urged a renewed, collaborative commitment to formation, both initial and on-going. The congregation must look at what it does well and enhance such ministries. He gave the example of ESIC, a successful program that has met a need in society in a very Dehonian manner. It has expanded throughout Spain, but now to Brazil as well.

There are mission programs with laity –– how can these be enhanced and perhaps expanded to other entities? Examining what has worked well, how can the congregation increase its collaboration with laity?

Looking at provinces that have collaborated well together –– such as the German and the Brazilian provinces –– how can other entities more effectively work together, working as members of the same religious congregation, not just as individual entities? “We can do more as members of a whole than as individual entities,” he said.

The congregation needs to chose its priorities, look at how it can develop alliances and prepare for a new presence of the church and of the Gospel in Europe.

But most importantly, Fr. Ornelas said that the congregation should not be fearful of the future; instead it needs to ensure that it is not left behind by history. “We are called to be pilgrims in the midst of the light and shadows of Europe,” he said. “The world needs new paths… the love of God impels us to move forward.”

Moving forward

Fr. Gilles Routhier from Laval University once again reflected with the group on what he had heard. He noted the importance of not being driven by numbers, of not being obsessed by the number of vocations. What is important is looking at how the community can express its charism at this time in history in Europe. The SCJs must not let themselves get caught up in a survival mode.

The power of the gospel is not found in the governance of society. Instead, it serves as a powerful means of challenging a society. The SCJ charism can challenge and bring the Gospel to light in society.

The final part of the conference was spent in dialogue. SCJs met in linguistic groups to talk about possibilities for a European project. Their discussions were briefly reported in the final plenary session.

A common theme cited by the groups was the importance of having an SCJ presence in Europe and that more collaboration is needed to ensure that presence. One group suggested that all SCJs be fluent in at least two languages to aid in collaboration. Several groups called for a greater focus on youth –– both in general and in SCJ formation. One group called for an international novitiate that would serve all of Europe.

Evangelization was also suggested as an area of focus.

If there is to be a European project, said another group, it must be something that ALL European entities share in, not just those who chose to take part. It was suggested that the SCJs not only look at new initiatives but explore doing more with ministries that have had success, such as ESIC in Spain.

A concern voiced by some was that much has been heard about the situation in western Europe, but little has been noted about eastern Europe. If the congregation is looking at a European project, the voice of eastern Europe must be heard.

One group suggested that international formation is a key in developing a common European voice. Also, more international meetings would help SCJs get to know and understand each other better. It was suggested that there be an emphasis on promoting interaction among SCJs who are 30 to 50 years old.

There was also a call to for SCJs to have a better sense of the people they serve. This means being in dialogue with them to understand their needs, and to live a lifestyle reflective of the area in which they minister.

International communities were suggested; possible locations included Finland, London and Berlin.

The conference closed on Thursday afternoon with mass. During his homily, Fr. General urged SCJs to make passionate choices as they continue to answer the question asked of them at the beginning of the day:

“Where does the love of Christ impel us, Dehonians, to go in Europe?”