Reflections on Our Unfolding Heritage
by Brother André Mathieu, C.P.
Introduction by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
We all attend meetings. We know the drill well. We take our seat in the conference hall, small group, or round table. We talk. We share. We listen. Routinely, we all come to meetings with our active imagination. In some cases we pursue the data before us with intense detail. In other cases we daydream.
In this case Brother André Mathieu challenges us to be honest about what goes through our mind during and after a meeting. His unsolicited essay—sent to the Heritage Newsletter this summer—makes us all aware that we bring our historical experiences to any meeting we attend.
It is not uncommon to think about events of the past at meetings. Planning meetings, especially, for a religious order, a corporation, social organization or club operate along similar dynamics. Often young members have all the excitement to move ahead with vigor and risk. Veteran (old) members have much the same energy. However, activating plans often requires that we listen to their personal stories. With patient impatience we listen. Both camps have individuals who make us react. Some conjure up a groan of frustration from our psyche when they speak. Others offer wisdom and perspective from experience that sets the context with precision.
The essay of Brother Mathieu is important because it offers us a history that comes alive as a result of his attendance at a planning meeting. The value is that this historical reflection compels us (old) Passionists to look at the past with honesty. On the other hand the essay asserts that all Passionists at the next meeting should listen to those in attendance who have experienced cultural changes. For example, the picture that accompanies this essay is a reminder of the distinction between the life of a Passionist brother and the life of a Passionist priest prior to the changes that took place in the 1960s.
Finally, in the last section—entitled “the challenge”—Brother Mathieu expands the parameters of planning to Passionist and the laity alike. Today, whether we uphold the traditional or the progressive values of religious life and the Church it does us well to ponder that our meetings do not operate in an historical vacuum. In my view, and why I decided to publish this essay, the combination of history and future serves as a valuable leaven that might nourish us at the next meeting we attend.
The rattle rouses me from a deep sleep. I quickly get up and put on my habit; head for the washroom to splash some cold water on my face and then head for the choir. My movements are slow-fast. I only have a few minutes to walk down the long, dimly-lit corridor. I don’t want to be late for Matins. I take my place in dean order. There is a dean order set-up for the priests; one for the professed brothers; one for the cleric novices and one for the brother novices. While the priests and cleric novices stand and chant the Office in Latin; I sit quietly and pray the Little Office in English (recently introduced for the brothers) and when finished join the other novice brothers in making the Stations of the Cross on my knees going from station to station in the center of the choir floor. When I finish I return to my place and spend the remaining amount of time in quiet prayer or praying the Five Wound Beads. When the chant is finished, all of us kneel in silence with the lights off to finish the hour. I then join the silent procession back to my cell where I take the discipline if it is one of the prescribed nights. On my way back to my cell, I pause a few moments each night and look out a window that gives me a panoramic view of Pittsburgh, 3 AM. I remind myself that I have been called to Passionist life to pray for and work for the salvation of souls. The inconvenience of broken sleep and the bell that will sound in a few hours to wake me up again for a long day of prayer and work is an expression of my commitment. I know that I am where God has called me, and I know that life will consist of the same routine for however long I live.
The time frame is 1960-62. The place is St. Paul’s Monastery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I am a brother novice as distinct from a cleric novice. There is a common novitiate with two formation tracts: one for clerics and one for brothers. I know that I will lead the rest of my life in community: clerics and brothers together with two tracts. I accept it without really understanding what it will comprise. I am grateful to God for calling me to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross although I barely know anything about it. I am a novice along with 28 other cleric and brother novices. I make my first Profession of vows on March 4, 1962, in the Monastery Church. There are five of us brothers making profession. Clerics have their own date of profession. Father Martin Joseph Tooker, C.P. is the Rector, and he decides that we will make profession of vows in the context of the monthly Confraternity of the Passion meeting. Provincials do not preside at profession ceremonies. Profession of brothers receive some emphasis; cleric professions are barely noted. Province focus is on the yearly ordinations in Union City, New Jersey. I am allowed to invite my immediate family. They drive from Hartford, Connecticut. There is a collection during Confraternity meetings. Someone forgets to tell the ushers not to take up the collection from our families. There is an hour reception afterwards in the lounge of the new retreat house. I say goodbye to my family and re-enter the cloister. There is a stay-up in our honor that night, but I go to bed early. I have to be up by 5:30 AM the next morning to work in the laundry room. Novice brothers do the retreat house laundry. Two days later, the five of us are packed into two cars along with drivers for the long drive to West Hartford, Connecticut and our introduction into the Junior Brother Training Program. I am excited! I am now professed! What I do not know is that I am entering upon a journey that will bring me upon paths never dreamed of by me or anyone else that day. A jolly rotund man named Angelo Roncalli—John XXIII—is about to open up the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air!
At our recent 2004 Passionist Assembly, I found myself in conversation about the history of pastoral planning in our province. I said that pastoral planning began with our General Chapter of 1968 and our Extraordinary Provincial Chapter of 1969. We have been on a bumpy journey since then. We do not always refer to pastoral planning in what we do but the reality is that we have been in process of restructuring our province since 1969. We have closed monasteries and residences; returned parishes to dioceses; opened up experimental communities; closed down a formation system and for thirty-six years have been reenvisioning recruitment and formation as necessity dictates. We have undertaken new overseas missions as well as new ventures in this country and we have committed ourselves to extensive collaboration with laity and other religious. Some of our planning has been visionary; some of it has been out of sheer necessity and some of it has occurred by default but whether we are excited about it or not, we are in it for the long haul.
As I look back over the years since the Chapter of 1969, I see three realities of province life: rejection, renewal and refounding.
I embraced a specific way of life when I made my profession. It consisted not only of a life-long journey with St. Paul of the Cross into the Heart of Jesus Crucified but it also included an external structure. That structure was to flow from the inner spiritual vitality of the community, and at the same time it was to feed that inner spiritual vitality. What I know today is that something was wrong in 1960. The so-called regular observance was being sustained for the most part by the brothers and students and a few priests. Remove the students and brothers and our province choirs would essentially be empty. Dispensations from the common life, from the various fasts, from the discipline, from choir observance, etc, were seemingly the order of the day. The various practices, e.g., culpa and so many others, were passed on to me without much explanation of what they were meant to accomplish. The end result was that much of what was being passed on was trivialized. I recall some conversations with cleric classmates of mine who openly said that the day they would be ordained would be the last day that they would appear in choir. For some of them our whole prayer structure was irrelevant. And yet they were ordained. The structure of Passionist community life was not a value for some and this would be self-evident after 1969. When the changes began to occur, we dismantled and dismissed an entire way of life overnight. I lived in Union City (1965-1972), and I remember as one part of the observance after another was dropped and as one practice after another disappeared—sometimes with barely a word of discussion. A vacuum appeared. Attempts were made to fill the vacuum with innovative forms but we were in a period of rejecting a way of living. There was no stopping the reaction from settling in and taking hold. We were not and are not today isolated from the rest of society. Our period of reaction coincided with Viet Nam, student rebellions in the universities; the sexual revolution—a strong reaction against the past that settled in and took hold of American (and world) society and our province. How counter-cultural were we and are we?
At the same time that we were in our rejecting mode, we also entered into a period of renewal There was excitement about new possibilities. I felt it! I rejoiced in it and took part in it. I was deeply involved in the setting up of the Staten Island House (1972-1978) which sought to incorporate Passionist life and ideals in a contemporary context. I was a member of the community for four years. [See Staten Island Revisited, his article on this experience.] I was young and idealistic and believed that we could envision and execute a contemporary model of Passionist life. Other such experiments were also going on in the province; e.g., Word of the Cross, Chelsea, New York. The pre-novitiate college residences (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Worcester, Massachusetts and Toronto, Canada) were established and our young people were now able to study in great centers of learning. Our province experienced serious hemorrhaging during these years as increasing number of our religious left us and new members grew fewer. We still, however, had a good number of active men, and we were hopeful about new recruits. Our community life, however, suffered from polarization, and we continued to settle for the minimum in prayer and community structures. Our corporate identity was weakened as increasing numbers of our active religious chose to live and minister outside our traditional boundaries. The reasons for this are diverse and legitimate but the fact remains that our local communities were diminished. Some hold the opinion that our corporate face should be erased. To erase our corporate face is to erase our future!
As I understand it, refounding has to do with knowing our history and celebrating it with just pride; acknowledging our need for reform; communally grieving the death of our community as we have known it and then courageously refounding the community in light of the Church and the world that we live in today. It is not a rejection of our past; rather it is a rejoicing in our past but with a frank acknowledgement that a given era is over. We need to live in the present. We are not starting something new. We are infusing new life into something of great value. And we don’t do this ourselves. This is God’s work, and this is our point of departure: acknowledging our powerlessness before the task ahead and humbly entrusting ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit who alone can bring about the transformation that we need for refounding.
Three Hopeful Signs:
The first is that we are well into a paradigm shift from an institutional community to a relational community. That is to say that refounding is not something imposed from above but rather achieved by communal discernment. This communal discernment is shaped by our charism which is fleshed out in our Rules and Constitutions as well as the lived experience of our religious. We live in relationship with each other not merely as members of a corporate body governed by rules and customs. Secondly, this paradigm shift is allowing the individual religious to tap their potential. I am grateful that I live in this era of Passionist life and have been allowed to grow by means of educational and situational opportunities. Developing one’s potential, however, needs to occur within the context of our contemporary life together. Thirdly, Father John O’Brien, C.P. reminded me at the Assembly that: “this is not the age of the laity, it is the age of collaboration of laity and religious.” The Passionist family is bigger and greater than just its priests, brothers and sisters. And this is exciting! Refounding means the growth and development of our province in ways never imagined. We are only beginning to sense the possibilities. We must proceed with a communal heart filled with gratitude and openness to where the Spirit will lead us.
During my sabbatical year (1994-95) I lived with another community whose vocational literature proclaimed loudly: “Come and join us—we are open to everything!” I had difficulties with that literature then and I have more difficulties with it today. Everything will not attract anyone. We have a very specific charism, with a very specific mission in the church and world and we must be very specific in what we offer. We must spell it out. Before we can spell it out for others, we need to spell it out among ourselves. We have the rhetoric. We have more rhetoric than we need! We have the language, e.g., authentic community, etc. We need to spell out what it all means in the concrete, in the day to day living out of Passionist life in this province. We need to do it together. Time is running out. We are a dying province. The window of opportunity is quickly closing. I believe that refounding is the work of a future generation but we need to lay the ground work as best we can. Planning in the sense of merely closing buildings is avoiding the issue. Yes, we must continue to restructure the province. Most important, however, we must continue to give energy to developing viable contemporary communities in the tradition of St. Paul of the Cross. Time and energy need to be given to struggling with the very first chapter of our Constitutions. I believe that the basis for refoundation for us lies therein.