COMMUNITY‑ COMMUNION‑ MISSION
THE FIRE OF LOVE
LIVED AND KINDLED
Sister Anna Mary Mukamwezi, DMJ
original in English
Community is necessary and even essential to the apostolic religious life and its mission in the Church and in the world. A life of communion is intrinsic to the apostolic religious life. Apostolic communities are first and foremost faith communities and not social clubs. As religious, we are called to discipleship … to communion… and to mission. It is our faith that is the reference point of our communion, and it is our baptism that calls us to mission.
Where and when community really exists, it becomes outgoing and thus, in itself, it is missionary. Apostolic communities are called together to be sent… to move outward to the gospel witness of hope, peace, joy, and solidarity with all peoples, especially the poor and marginalized. Apostolic communities are gathered in the name of Christ to continue his mission according to a specific charism.
A strong common vision fosters community and community favors the development of a corporate vision in and for mission. The communion fostered in communities imparts communion in the Church and in the world. The contrary holds true: a lack of communion is reflected negatively.
The community finds its source in the Trinity. The Trinity is the first community and the Trinity beacons us to become communities of communion. The icon of the Trinitarian community is, for me, the model most apt to help us understand the ideal of a human‑religious community. Indeed when
“…consecrated persons strive to live in Christ with one heart and soul, fraternal life becomes an eloquent witness to the Trinity. It proclaims the Father who desires to make all of humanity one family. It proclaims the incarnate Son who gathers the redeemed into unity, pointing the way by his example, his prayer, his words and above all his death, which is the source of reconciliation for a divided and scattered humanity. It proclaims the Holy Spirit the principle of unity in the Church”. (VC 21)
It is this love of the Trinity poured into our hearts that enables our communities to be in communion. “The fraternal life seeks to reflect the depths and richness of this mystery, taking shape as a human community in which the Trinity dwells, in order to extend in history the gifts of communion proper to the three divine Persons. ” (VC 41)
Apostolic communities, however, do not just happen. There is no spontaneous generation in community living. It is an ideal, a road to follow. Community needs to be lived intentionally; it must constantly be creatively built, fostered and nourished. On our part, this calls for a sustained level of motivation, a deep faith and a genuine concern for the mission accomplished as disciples gathered around Jesus. Indeed, Jesus himself assures us that where two or three are together in his name, he is with and among them (Mt 18:20).
Frequently, I need to recall these convictions, and I must constantly strive to incarnate them in my life as a member of a community in and for mission.
Let us now consider in more detail some of these points.
1. Community as a concrete/lived
experience of communion (koinonia)
Community can rightly be experienced as the privileged place of fraternal communion with Christ, with self, with others and with the poor. It is in community that we experience a personal love of God, and it is where we give and receive love from our sisters and brothers. In community we are enriched, we are empowered for the mission, but we do not receive these gifts for ourselves. Rather, they are for the world that is thirsting for genuine witnesses. Pope John Paul II has said this clearly in his Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata: “By virtue of their dedication lived in fullness and in joy, consecrated women (and I add men), are called in a very special way to be signs of God ‘s tender love towards the human race and to be special witnesses to the mystery of the Church, virgin, bride and mother. “ (VC 57) Community needs, then, to be fraternal and life‑giving; it is this togetherness that generates life in abundance, a life which engenders a sense of urgency and a passion for mission/ministry among the poor of our world.
According to the African understanding, community has a meaningful, personal and collective identity: “I am, because we are, and since we are, therefore I am”. Indeed, people in the African cultures see community as the center of life just as the heart is for human body. It is viewed as a gift from God of the highest value. It is because of individual persons that the community is able to exist. In other words, the community ‘is’ because of the individual persons who ‘constitute it’. It is the contribution of the uniqueness of each and every person‑not alone but living together in unity—that creates/builds/constitutes community. Individual uniqueness includes the giftedness, the joys, the sorrows and the weaknesses/limitations of each and everyone in the community. It is when the uniqueness of the person is allowed expression and is appreciated that she/he becomes free, blossoms, and gives life to others in the community.
Community life needs to be a personal and free choice. Persons really need to make this choice willingly and without being forced. This choice we make in accordance with the rule of life and charism of our Institute. But, once we make the choice we are called to live accordingly and to take full responsibility for a word given. “I am because we are”. This African understanding can be compared with the analogy of the body as writes St Paul in I Cor. 12. It is a life of sharing in all its dimensions: spiritual, personal, psychological, and social and relational personal gifts… Another example is found in the Acts of the Apostles in reference to the early Christian community. All was shared in common and no one was in need. (Acts 2: 44).
I ask you: Is this spirit of the early christian community alive today? Or is it gone? If so, are we able/willing to revive and kindle it? Do we consider community essential today? Community life of tomorrow is in your hands, young brothers and sisters. How are you going to shape it or perhaps even how will you endeavor to revive it? What concrete steps are you going to take to make your dream become a reality? Again, let us read the words of Pope John Paul II:
“The fraternal and human dimensions of the consecrated life call for self‑knowledge and the awareness of personal limitations, so as to offer its members the inspiration and support needed on the path towards perfect freedom. In present-day circumstances and especially in formation centers, special importance must be given to establishing the degree of interior freedom of consecrated persons, their effective maturity, their ability to communicate with others, especially in their own community, their serenity of spirit, their compassion for those who are suffering, their love for the truth, and a correspondence between their actions and their words. ” (VC 71)
Indeed, community does not just happen, it must be developed, fostered and constantly nurtured. The image that comes to my mind, and which is universal to us all, is that of a plant. First of all, a plant in order to exist, needs to be sown or planted. Then, it has to be watered and sometimes nurtured with fertilizers, especially when it is weak. At times, a person or various people take the responsibility of rendering this service to the plant. It is the same for the life of the community. Indeed, community is not an artificial, mechanical or computer‑like entity; it is not a microwave! It is a demanding reality. Without constant vigilance, community cannot exist. The role of vigilance is not merely for superiors general or for older members; it is to be exercised by all members, by you and by me. We are all called to contribute to the building of a life together. Building an evangelical community is costly in dedication, energy, time and talents. While community living is a great privilege, it is also a grave responsibility. In actual fact, community living can only become an enriching and life giving experience in and for mission, when members take their responsibility seriously and make a sustained genuine personal contribution.
In the words of Pope John Paul II:
“In christian discipleship and love for the person of Christ there are a number of points concerning the growth of holiness in the consecrated life which merit particular attention today… “In the first place, there is the founding charism and subsequent spiritual heritage of each Institute” (VC 36).
Community is the locus where the spirit of our Founders/Foundresses is fully alive. It is where the charism and spirit is concretely lived and becomes evident. In African cultures, this can be understood in the light of our appreciation of our ancestors whose spirit lives on in the offspring. The ancestor does not die, he/she lives on forever through his/her children and grandchildren. Once the charism is expressed and lived, it becomes ever more attractive and challenging for the members. Others are attracted and they more readily seek to live it.
2. Community in and for mission
Community forms, enables and strengthens members for ministry/mission. Community empowers, it sends and it awakens to solidarity with all peoples ‑especially the poor. “I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). Community exists precisely and essentially for mission. Community/discipleship is formed for mission. Also, community life in itself is formative. Persons learn through experiences which strengthen and liberate them so that they might then strengthen others. “I have prayed for you Simon, that your faith may not fail… and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers/sisters…” (Lk 22:32). Yes, community forms to incarnate and live these very words of Jesus.
Living in community provides an excellent opportunity for promoting and sharing in the Trinitarian Communion. “Sharing in the Trinitarian communion can change human relationships. (VC 41) This communion not only changes our relationships, it enables us to create a new type of solidarity with those we serve. I believe very strongly, yet more, I am convinced that when we experience community as a dwelling place of the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we release the Spirit to liberate people. As Jesus himself said: “The spirit of the Lord is on me, for He has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord” (Lk 4: 18‑19). Because of the way we allow God to be God it becomes easier for those we live with and serve to enjoy God’s presence. The community may be viewed as a laboratory of and for dialogue, discernment reconciliation, sharing, conflict resolution, acceptance of and respect of difference, and of growth in all its dimensions.
Community is a unique opportunity to live the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved us. (Jn 13:34) It is a gratuitous love which led Christ to the aid of self even to the supreme sacrifice of the cross. So too, even among the communities that have Christ as their center and try to imitate him, there can be no true unity without that unconditional mutual love which demands a readiness to serve others generously and gratuitously. Again quoting the words of John Paul II:
“In community life, the power of the Holy Spirit at work in one individual passes at the same time to all. Here not only does each enjoy her/his own gift, but makes it abound by sharing it with others; and each one enjoys the fruits of the other’s gift as y they were her/his own. In community life, then, it should in some way be evident that more than an instrument for carrying out a specific mission, fraternal communion is a God enlightened space in which to experience the living presence of the Risen Lord… This comes about through the mutual love of all members of community, a love nourished by the Word and by the Eucharist, purified in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and sustained by prayer for unity, the special gift of the Spirit to those who obediently listen to the Gospel. It is the Spirit himself who leads to the experience of communion with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ… a communion which is the source of fraternal life. It is the Spirit who guides communities of the consecrated life in carrying out their mission of service to the Church and to all humanity ,in accordance with their original inspiration.” (VC 42)
As a “cell” of the Church, a religious community is called to be a communion. Communion is and finds its source in the Eucharist. Indeed, the Eucharist is the center and summit of our lives in Christ and with one another. It is also the Eucharist that is the source of our communion with the whole of humanity. And peace, unity in diversity and apostolic zeal are signs that the Eucharist is truly the center of our lives together.
3. Community is missionary in itself
Community witnesses to solidarity with humanity, to communion and to the advancement of the Kingdom. Community is the incarnation, the living witness of the prayer of Jesus, “that all may be one” (Jn 17:21). That all may be one according to the icon of the Trinitarian community.
It is in the presence of such a community that people are able to say, “look how they love one another”. (In 15:17)
In this way, the community is a witness to the love of Christ. Indeed, communities are missionary in themselves when members live together and persevere in faith, prayer, joy, unity, forgiveness, hospitality and harmony, thus giving witness in our world of division and violence. This evangelical life gives witness to communion and it foretells the coming of the Kingdom here on earth. This is so true that when my mother first came for a visit at the novitiate she spontaneously said; “For me to see Europeans, Americans and Africans of different tribes living together, eating the same food, enjoying themselves and being at peace with each other, is an example of the Kingdom of God present here among us.” This is not something one can achieve by one’s own effort, it is a gift from God. Hopefully, international communities will be ever more open to receive and nourish this gift.
The living together, in international groups of diverse cultures and backgrounds, evangelizes per se. When persons of different cultures and backgrounds live in harmony, the People of God marvel at this possibility and they desire to live in this manner themselves. Yes, community is missionary in itself. The “incomprehensible” reality of living without a husband and children, of having good qualifications and yet, being open to serve anywhere and to do anything not just the job in which one is qualified, continues to baffle people in certain cultures. To receive a salary and not to use it for oneself, but to put it in common and share it with those who may be unqualified, is equally confusing for many. To be sent anywhere to serve God’s people ‑ to be missionary ‑ to live not for oneself but for others, especially for those who are less fortunate, is a powerful message which speaks to the world of today more than any other message, no matter how attractive that may seem. A love that takes root and flourishes among members gathered around one charism; a love that radiates the beauty of the Trinitarian communion, attracts others and is a support in times of crises.
4. Mission shapes community ‑ community for/in mission
Communities which are attentive and which listen to God are ever challenged to change, to adapt; yet more, they are convened to conversion. Gathered in Christ, attentive and listening to his word, communities experience a summon of the Spirit to search and discern the will of the Father for the people of God. A life of ministry among the marginalized, the oppressed, the voiceless, those who are under the yoke of oppressive systems, likewise challenge a community to grow in compassion, love and behooves the members to develop an even greater sense of justice and charity. In their life of ministry, of self giving, of gospel sharing of time and talents, religious return to their communities enriched and open to further change.
Difficult situations, the pain and suffering which surround our society, challenge communities to become self questioning. Community members confronted by difficult situations in ministry are pressed to become self questioning. They are brought to examine the way they live and minister; they are called to adapt/renew/generate new life in community for the mission. Because community is precisely for mission it has to be shaped for mission; it has to be ready to change for the sake of the Gospel and the mission. A perfect example of this is Christ: “Who being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being…” (Phil 2:6-7) There is everything to learn from Jesus. He accepted to become one of us so that he could win us back to the Father. He did this by accepting to “lose” to become “less” so that we could be “made more”. He is our challenge … our life …our truth; he is the way; and he is the first missionary (evangeliser). In a similar manner, Paul speaks of having become everything to win people to God in his missionary life:
“So though I was not a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people, to win as many as I could. To the Jews I made myself a Jew, to win the Jews, to those under the law as one under the law (though I am not), in order to win those under the law, to those outside the law as outside the law but under Christ’s law to win those outside the law. To the weak I made myself weak, to win the weak: I accommodated myself to people in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means I might bring some to salvation. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, that I may share its benefits with others “ (1Cor 19‑23)
5. Challenges which community
faces in mission today
Apostolic communities in and for mission are summoned to be life‑giving. A community which ceases to be a life of communion inevitably impedes life and displays signs of death. Let us examine a few of these death-producing elements.
a) Individualism ‑ High on the list of stumbling blocks is individualism and when most members demonstrate signs of individualism, communion rapidly dwindles. We must ever ask ourselves, do I care about anybody else but me/myself and I? Do I simply live a life of my own while being in the same building with others? Do I habitually use my God‑given talents for the good of the community and others? Or, am I living independently…in the manner of a “parasite” benefiting from the advantages of community? Do I do what I want, when I want it…without concern for the other members? Is the community a boarding place to be used for my personal and often selfish reasons? If so, I reveal signs of individualism… and if we are numerous to exhibit the same phenomenon, the community as a whole will likely fail to nourish a passion for the mission. It is said that individualism tends to be the major problem facing community life today. And, studies reveal that young, as well as older religious, tend to be individualistic. You may want to critically examine and further reflect on this point.
b) Materialism ‑ is likewise said to be manifest in our lives. Undue dependence on material goods or possessions, and other excessive baggage, clutter and slow down the feet of the missionary. Jesus tells communities today, even more strongly than two thousand years ago, when he missioned the twelve apostles: “You received without charge, give without charge. Provide yourselves with no gold or silver, not even with coppers for your purses, with no haversack for the journey or spare tunic, or footwear or staff for the labourer deserves her/his keep.” (Mt 10:8‑10) Jesus’ twofold concern—which must be ours today—is: To proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand”, and to use our talents to liberate and heal others. (Mt 10:7‑8)
Not infrequently, religious are accused of failure to live a simple lifestyle on the pretext that they should not live a life of destitution. Very often it is difficult to find a difference between an upper class family and a religious community in regard to clothing, eating habits, material goods and accommodation. I hold the conviction that a Gospel life‑style calls us to witness to greater simplicity. It would be interesting to know your thoughts.
c) Diversity of groups which become factors of division –
International/multicultural/diversity of groups which in normal circumstances are very enriching to the community can become factors of division and even oppression. The list is endless, I name but a few. Some nationalities/groups/tribes may be inclined to demonstrate to others that they are superior. This is much more common than one may tend to believe! As a religious I must constantly ask myself: Have I fallen prey to this temptation? We may even make a certain language more dominant than the others. At times, we may readily show arrogance when dealing and interacting with one another. Do we not even use words like first and third world? Do we tend to boast about our degrees, our profession when we know that we have not all had equal opportunities? Do we not easily brag about our families and how rich they are, forgetting that in communities all members may not have had similar fortunate backgrounds? What is our attitude when we are presented with some food dishes which are different from ours? Discrimination especially becomes evident against minority groups. Do we/I demonstrate/entertain attitudes of “nationalism”? All these constitute barriers of division; they hamper communion and mission. A divided community no longer witnesses to the Trinitarian communion: it no longer reveals that Christ is its center. The common vision may even become obscured, community prayer and discernment recede, and the corporate commitment to mission loses its gospel flavor. Other stumbling blocks further need to be addressed. I merely name a few. Community members may develop growing excuses and justifications to live solely without a ministry need or perspective. They may make unconscious or conscious choices in line with the status quo and refusal to change. There may exist the desire (obvious to all but to the individual concerned) to be a star in the crowd without concern for the charism/mission of the congregation. There may be no genuine zeal for an apostolate, no missionary interest on the part of the members. There may !!! The real question is: Where do I stand on this spectrum of apostolic community life? What steps must I …communities take so as to correct these tendencies and enhance opportunities for growth, commitment, communion and mission?
6. Opportunities for growth, commitment, communion and mission
Community offers and monitors opportunities for growth, for commitment, for communion and mission. One of these opportunities is that of verifying the signs of a call ‑ to test one’s vocation to community and to religious life. The motivations to enter religious life may be many but, it is important to be able to discern the correct ones. Community life requires that persons have the capacity and the maturity necessary to live in community with other persons; likewise, they must experience a sense of belonging so that they can also trust. If members are not sure of where they are, they cannot be sure of others in community either. A strong sense of belonging helps individual members to be concerned with and for others, to respect them as they are in their uniqueness, in their gifts, and contribution. Formation is therefore very important in forwarding this unity in diversity. Also personal growth is simultaneously needed to ensure that communion is nurtured through the gift of the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit are made visible in genuine communion in community. (Gal 5:22‑23)
Asceticism and discipline, are unpopular concepts for our time, but they are crucial. They bring inner strength, they curb selfishness and they favor an ability to focus on essential values. Pope John Paul II rightly says:
“The path to holiness thus involves the acceptance of spiritual combat. This is a demanding reality which is not always given due attention today. Tradition has often seen an image of this spiritual combat in Jacob’s wrestling with the mystery of God, whom he confronts in order to receive his blessing and to see him (Gen.32:23‑31). In this episode from the beginnings of biblical history, consecrated persons can recognize a symbol of asceticism which they need in order to open their hearts to the Lord and to their brothers and sisters. “ (VC 38)
Pope John Paul II continues,
“Today a renewed commitment to holiness by consecrated persons is more necessary than ever, also as a means of promoting and supporting every Christian’s desire for perfection. Consecrated persons at the deepest level of their being are caught up in the dynamism of the church’s life, which is thirsty for the divine absolute and called to holiness. It is to this holiness that they become witnesses”. (VC 39)
It is faith that leads the members of communities to live a life of configuration to Christ, a life which opens to others, to genuine human relationships, to reconciliation and to communion. It is in being conformed to Christ that we reflect a special presence of the Risen Lord.
Frank evaluation and ongoing discernment are likewise essential. Evaluation includes reading the signs of the times critically and with sensitivity and compassion. Both evaluation and ongoing discernment help communities to ever find a new language and to develop strategies which are congruent with a relevant proclamation of the Good News in mission/ministry today. This has been well stated by women religious: “We believe that the methods as well as the message of the new Evangelization must be dialogic and life‑giving, and so we continue to search for ways of addressing the greatest drama of our times: the split between the Gospel and culture”. (Women Religious Speak, pp. 20‑21) Discernment also helps individuals and communities to foster energy, vitality and dynamism for the mission.
I would like to end this presentation as I began, that is by affirming that I am strongly convinced that community is essential to Apostolic Religious Life and that communion is intrinsic/vital to Mission.
Brothers and sisters, I now ask you what are your convictions? What is your vision of the challenges for the year 2000? For me and I believe for all of us, the challenge of the year 2000 is to build communities of communion, and for each member of the community to be personally set on fire once again with the vision that Jesus had for the whole of humanity. He came “to cast (this) fire upon this world” and his desire is “that it may be kindled” (Lk 12:49). In order that the world may go on burning with this fire, he chose disciples who would go on doing what he had done in and for humanity. He also chose us…
The challenge of the year 2000 is at once old and new. It is old since it was always the disciples’ mission to carry on their master’s vision; new, because we must ask the following question: Can we set the world on fire in the year 2000 with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom at a time when the search for an all‑encompassing vision of the world has become a matter of life and death? A search for a vision of a world wherein justice, peace, reconciliation, unity and joy are not just empty words but realities that can already be anticipated; and not simply new ideologies leading to frustration and darkness. It is the call for true discipleship in today’s world that is ultimately the challenge for Apostolic communities in the future. Indeed, the situations awaiting true and committed men and women religious are numerous in the world today.
What kind of community ‑ communion do you wish to live and share with the world in continuing Christ’s mission? What model of community must you envision and incarnate in the future? We, your elders, are awaiting your answer. An answer marked by creative fidelity… Why not begin by sharing your vision with one another during this Congress… courageously examining how you incarnate this vision in your ordinary everyday life of community and communion.