by Fr. Colm Meaney, CSsR
A decision for restructuring at the global and regional levels is surely a timely priority: not just because of congregational demographics (falling numbers) but much more importantly as an expression of evangelical cooperation – a fruitful sharing of the Spirit’s gifts, variously and prodigally bestowed. The building up of the Lord’s body will surely be more securely achieved through the sharing of our various charisms – and these in their local (national) flavor or variety. Or more prosaically, many hands make light work.
With all this I am naturally fully supportive, and indeed for two years I lived in an international community of some 95 confreres coming from two dozen cultures. But it’s difficult for me to see how the timely desire for restructuring impinges on us in the serene backwater of Dumaguete, not to mention in the remoter backwoods of Negros. Restructuring-cooperation, at this stage, seems largely to concern formation – surely a mighty gain, whatever minor hitches may be accompanying the process. Still, I can’t help feeling that a confusion of categories and an infelicitous choice of words are the cause of what I consider pretty unimpressive gatherings in recent months. And if informal comments of others are any indication, I’m not alone in my observations.
For example, the question of the “tone” of our apostolic priorities and activities – whether they are inspired and shaped by either a “missiological” or “pastoral” thrust – this seems to me to be only very tangentially related to restructuring.
Speaking entirely impressionistically, I’d say both that most confreres are supportive of moves regarding regional restructuring, and that most are happy to keep tipping away at their preferred ministry. And for all our talk of, say, modeling our churches and shrines into “centers of evangelization” (they weren’t such in previous years?), I predict that 20 years hence the content of our weekly novena (prayers and songs), which attracts a captive audience of hundreds of thousands nationwide every Wednesday, will be largely unchanged from what it has been for the past 20. Talk of restructuring at the macro level is fine (and distant), because it hardly impinges on us. But tamper at the micro level…!
At our gatherings, we seem to adhere slavishly to certain (entirely arbitrary and therefore eminently changeable) protocols: long introductions to the day’s or week’s schedule; the cringe-inducing morning recap of the previous day’s happenings; power-point presentations whose colorful graphics and hi-tech wizardry often seem in inverse proportion to the actual “meat” or “content” being presented. My own “evaluation” (to use one of the in-words) is that the latest conversation was a rather mediocre affair. Gems there certainly were: the three homilies I thought excellent, Mike Brehl’s on November 9 deserving of special commendation; Noel Connolly’s talks were also note-worthy, in equal measure because they came so patently “from the heart” (it wasn’t so much his opinions as “the man himself” we heard), as well as the freshness of the presentation of his thoughts: not all entirely novel, but shared with an air reminiscent of post-Vatican 2 earnestness and energy.
The coming together of so many confreres from Manila and Cebu, and a representation of our lay cooperators – this was also a boon. And before we ended, our leadership teams had come up with a directive whereby all CSsR communities in the Philippines could help the victims of typhoon Yolanda: and this was well before the extent of the destruction and misery was known. (Top marks also to the Holy Family staff whose service was excellent, even in the maelstrom of the hurricane; even if Cebu city was merely inconvenienced, compared to the disaster visited on other places). All these were gems, and not insignificant ones either.
But there was also the dross! I mentioned above our unvarying adherence to certain procedures, and the chief culprit must surely be the morning Recap. And while I admire the honesty of a speaker who prefaces his long-winded and rambling recap of the eve’s proceedings with the disclaimer “now bear with me, because this summary is not well worked out” – really, is it fair to foist this kind of thing on an audience at 8.30am, or indeed at any hour? Presumably most of us have sufficient resources of memory and intellect to recall and understand events a bare 24 hours in the past – and even if we don’t, we have copious records in the abundant handouts. I think the institution of the Recap is largely, if not wholly, a waste of time – quality time that could be devoted to more worthwhile pursuits. And no, I don’t mean more small-group discussion or “buzz” sessions. In our small group we were blessed with a leader of positively titanic facilitating skills, and the members of the group were eloquent to a fault. But the questions were woefully unclear and unimaginative and loaded with needless jargon (more of which anon). If our group was loquacity incarnated, why did we always finish first?
It was supremely ironic that the advice of Alphonsus was quoted with approval: “what is preached should be intelligible to all present, from the most educated to the simplest listener” – and then causally ignored by many of the speakers. There were even times when theologically-literate confreres were furrowing their brows and scratching their heads in a state of bewilderment at the unending stream of jargon: the key culprit this time being “missiological” contrasted with “pastoral” – the former positively throbbing with dynamism, creativity and a lot of fluffiness; the latter almost a synonym for stagnation, maintenance and fatigue. Interestingly, Noel Connolly advised that this distinction may in fact be beguiling us, diverting our attention. The church is at the service of God’s creation, to bring the evangel to those who thirst or seek. With this outward focus, the missiological-pastoral opposition or antagonism may lessen in importance and even prove to be merely a phantom presence.
My fundamental point is simple enough: we could have far more fruitful and fluent discussions if we could rediscover an Alphonsian simplicity. There really is no need to decorate our documents with florid phrases or to deface our discussions with jaundiced jargon.
Come into the Parlor!
But I wish to end on a high note – in fact, I was experiencing the best next thing to a “high” during what follows. 15 youth from our parish joined 15 youth from Jimalalud for a short recollection in Jimalalud. The highlight for me was undoubtedly one of the parlor games, aptly called Bayanihan (team spirit): a splendid blend of thrill and dread – only for the nimble-footed! Chairs are in a circle, participants seated, with one chair vacant. To begin, the two on either side of the vacant seat join hands and run and choose somebody who they literally drag back with them. So now the original chair is no longer vacant, but another one is. And the two on either side of that chair join hands and run and choose… And it at a breakneck pace and if you happen to be seated on one side of a vacant chair, and you don’t move briskly enough, there’s the penalty: sing a song (I know because it happened to me and the other hapless youth who didn’t move quickly enough!). Well I’ve hardly ever had more fun, the histrionic squeals adding to the delirious enjoyment; a combustible combination of thrill and spills, with no frills!