This is the year of my Golden jubilee. People express some interest, surprise and even alarm that I, at 63, am a Golden jubilarian. I inform them that I am all of the above myself – alarmed and surprised in particular. The question that follows is often “how could one so young know what they were undertaking at 13? Did you know what you were doing?”
I usually give one of two answers. One that the more important question is not what I first said “yes” to but what I continue to say “yes” to in the years that followed. After all, many of my earliest companions opted to say “yes” to other calls as life progressed.
So why do I continue to say “yes” to being a Christian Brother? The answer that continues to hold true for me over the years is quite straight forward and simple. It is this: when I was a teenager, Edmund Rice captured my imagination and has held it captive ever since. I don’t want to be anything else more than I want to be a Christian Brother today! That’s it in a nutshell.
What has this to do with the Call of the Nairobi Chapter and the Edmund Rice Network? Well the whole thing of Edmund Rice capturing people’s imagination and holding it captive came back to me when I was asked to reflect on the call of the Chapter “To welcome as companions, all inspired by the charism of Edmund.”
In my early life as a Christian Brother I, like many other Brothers perhaps, believed that Brothers (Christian & Presentation) were the true followers of Edmund Rice. We saw ourselves thus because we were the ones who publicly professed our lives to God in the footsteps of Edmund. Mistakenly, we led ourselves to believe that we were the sole inheritors of his charism. We, therefore , were his true disciples.
In the late 1970’s and perhaps for the first time, I heard a talk where charism was presented as a gift of the Holy Spirit for the world and the Church. For the first time, the emphasis was on “a gift of the holy Spirit”. Not a gift of Edmund Rice, not a gift of the Christian Brothers or/and the Presentation Brothers, but a gift of the Holy Spirit for the world and the Church.
Where did Edmund Rice fit in to this understanding? It was explained in this way. Though the gift of the Holy Spirit is available to all, some individuals open themselves more to the Spirit’s action in the world. Edmund was one such individual. Through his life experience and particularly through his experience of pain and loss, he became more alert and open to pain and loss and suffering around him, in his world, in his workplace, in his immediate environment. This was especially, though not exclusively so, in poor children. The cry of the poor did not go unnoticed or unheeded by God.. Through Edmund’s reading of scripture, through his regular attendance at Mass and through his attention to his world, he opened himself to “Christ present and appealing to him in the poor.” This was core to his insight, i.e. that not only did God hear the cry of the poor or sympathise with their plight but that the poor were Christ to Edmund Rice!
The speaker went on to say that once the Spirit gifts the world and the Church with a particular gift (charism), the Spirit does not take it back. The charism is available for every generation. What Edmund did for the Church and the World was to recognise the Spirit at work, to identify the poor at his doorstep as the object of God’s special care and to follow the stirrings of his heart. He manifested God’s care for God’s people in a manifestly human way in the world of his time. Edmund’s actions found a resonance in the hearts of others, they too followed Edmund’s lead. In time, in remarkably quick time, the Church gave Edmund’s efforts the seal of approval. The Church recognised his as the authentic work of the Spirit in the world of his time and place. Two new Congregations were born in the Church. It is interesting that two new Congregations were born. But maybe more about that later.
The next major moment of insight for me in my growing understanding of charism came in Rome in 1996. That year Edmund Rice was recognised by the Church as a model that could be followed by the faithful as a way to holiness and fullness of life. He was beatified by Pope John Paul 2 and would, henceforth, be known as Blessed Edmund Rice.
What was very obvious in Rome, and again perhaps for the first time for many of us, was the number of people from all over the world whose lives were inspired by the example and life of Edmund Rice. A lot of people had travelled to Rome because of their association with the Christian and Presentation Brothers. But not all had that association. Others were inspired by the example of Edmund as father of a handicapped child, others by Edmund as the Christian businessman, others by Edmund as the young widow and father, others again by his example of a committed lay man n the world. In other words, Edmund’s charism was not one-dimensional and neither was his appeal. His appeal went across a wide cross-section of society. It even appealed across religious divides. His charism was flying free under no ones control except that of the Holy Spirit.
So the Beatification ceremony in Rome showcased not only Edmund’s holiness but his widespread appeal. How were we Christian Brothers now going to respond to this dawning realisation?
The Congregation at its Chapter in Rome in 2002 publicly acknowledged the wider Edmund Rice Family as a gift to the Congregation. In 2008 the Congregation Chapter in Munnar went one step further and stated that all inspired by the example of Edmund, including Brothers, were members of the Edmund Rice Network. These were two important developments for the Brothers and all wishing to be identified with Edmund Rice.
Br. Philip Pinto, first elected Congregation Leader at the Rome Chapter in 2002, said that one of his primary duties as a Congregation Leader, was to safe-guard the Charism of Blessed Edmund and the only way to do so was to allow it to fly free in the market place where it could become more resilient and more relevant. He couldn’t, he said, safe-guard it by locking it away and trying to protect it from engagement with the world. Neither was it in his gift to do so.
Over the ensuing years since 2002, the Congregation has tried to live out this new understanding in the day to day life of the Congregation with limited success. Exceptions to this might be Oceania and England. In these two areas of the Congregation, in my opinion, genuine efforts have been made to allow the charism to fly free, to become robust, relevant and resilient. In most other areas I’m not aware of any real desire to make the aspirational operational.
Our latest Chapter in Nairobi (2014) seems to have lost its nerve when it comes to the Network. It seems to have lost its confidence in the charism to be relevant and life-giving in today’s world. It seems to have lost its conviction that the charism can only prosper by engagement in the market place, by taking risks, by being proactive. Sadly I see the present Call as retrenchment and disengagement.
The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales issued a Pastoral Letter in 2005 entitled: “On the Way to Life” It is an excellent Pastoral letter. It was aimed at the whole community of the faithful of England and Wales and especially to catechists, chaplains and others involved in evangelisation in the modern world. However, despite the Pastoral Letter being such an important one, it was considered to be too difficult and hence inaccessible for large sections of the faithful. The theological language of the Pastoral might prevent large sections from accessing it and so enriching their lives and understanding of modern theology. Fr. Daniel J. O’Leary and other theologians undertook the work of making the Pastoral more accessible to more people. “Begin with the Heart” (Columba Press 2008) is the book that came out as a result of the work of Fr. O’Leary and others.
Begin with the Heart takes a look at Creation theology as a starting point for wonder and entry in to mystery. It advocates the rediscovery of what is called “the Sacramental Imagination.” It is with this aspect of the book that I want to concern myself briefly, here because, I think it might be relevant to my thesis about charism being a gift of the Holy Spirit for the world and the Church. It is not the property of any group or Congregation.
In his cover note on the book, Fr. O’Leary says: “it is from the catechists own inner passion and conviction that the heart of others will catch fire and be transformed.” In other words, the best thing that we can do to preserve the charism is to be passionate about it, be convinced about it, live it with conviction.
Sacramental Imagination is that ability to see beyond the obvious. People with heightened Sacramental Imagination see the obvious beauty, complexity, interconnectedness of our world but recognise that the creative Spirit of the Divine is within and throughout the obvious. As O’Leary says, Sacramental Imagination: “has to do with a wonderful capacity for seeing into, and beyond, the mystery of what happens.” (BMTH p.20)
This stance towards the world will never co-exist with the power and control stance. Occasionally I hear Brothers lament the clerical, hierarchical attitude of the official church. Unfortunately some who do so,unknowingly, work out of a very hierarchical model themselves. This is never more evident than when the question of the Edmund Rice Network is under consideration. We have Brothers who talk about the network and even talk to the Network and even work with the Network but at the same time are very reluctant and resistant to allowing members of the Network to take risks or give leadership. At core, a lot of us Christian Brothers, indeed I would go so far as to say, the majority of Christian Brothers, have not shed the belief that we own the charism. They believe we control it, we are the only valid interpretors of it and we are the only ones who can decide its future.
In the Gospel of Matthew it says: “Anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (12: 32). I suspect that I may be taking liberties with the text on this occasion and I admit that I don’t know what a sin against the Holy Spirit is, but I guess that believing that we own or control a gift of the Spirit given for the benefit of the world and the Church, must be coming close!
Anthony Gittens has written extensively on Church, Mission , Evangelisation and Discipleship. He reminds us that Jesus said to his disciples: “You did not choose me. I chose you.” He says that all of us who claim to be inspired by Jesus Christ, believing in a Trinitarian God who became Incarnated , must know that we are about the mission of God. God’s mission, he says will continue after Church or Congregation. God’s providence will continue to provide for God’s people. He says that a word description for God is MISSION! Therefore it can be said that in fact we have often mis-articulated things when we talk about “the mission of the Church”. We have the cart before the horse. Gittens would say that it is the Mission who has the Church.. In the same way, a Congregation or an individual Religious does not have a mission. It is rather the Mission who has us. In the same way the Mission has a Network whose task it is to evangelise i.e. to proclaim, to witness, to dialogue and to liberate. Dialogue must be two way and the individual must be open to change.
In the Rome Chapter of 2002, Fr. Frank Anderson interspersed each session of the day with the chant: “The wind will blow any where it will. We do not know where the wind will blow.” The wind and the Spirit are one and the same in this chant. We all sang it with reverent gusto and passion. We all knew in our hearts that we cannot control the wind. We may marshal its force. We may learn to be alert to its moods – from gentle breeze to powerful storm. We cannot, however, control it. My fear is that even though we know this in theory we find it very difficult to follow it through in practice.
In the 7th Call of the Nairobi Chapter of 2014 “To welcome as companions all inspired by the charism of Edmund” we are not primarily talking about our companions, or the Edmund Rice Family, or Edmundians or Associates or Timirí. It may seems as if we are. We may be more comfortable to believe that we are. But in fact we are not. We are talking about being welcoming, accepting and open to the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst! We are talking about the Holy Spirit at work in our Congregation, in our world, in all inspired by the charism of Edmund. Welcoming our companions is the least we could be expected to do.
The word that springs to mind when I read our current Call around the network is “minimalist”. The image that is conjured up for me is of people, should they arrive at our door, being welcomed, being made feel at home. However, there is nothing in it that sounds proactive, nothing about outreach, nothing missionary or evangelising! Again it smacks of a mindset of a museum curator. The charism is in safe-keeping within our Institution, its up to others to discover that we Christian Brothers are the curators of that treasure. If they are fortunate enough to make this discovery we will, of course, make them very welcome and may in fact allow them a special viewing. They, of course, must first come to the door and knock and ask. Good but not good enough. “Why would you light a candle and put it under a bushel?”
You might well ask, what convinces me that there is a constituency there who continue to be inspired by the charism of Edmund and even if there is, who says we are the people to respond? I could give many examples of people I’ve known and met over the years and Edmund Rice, his spirituality and his life have been their inspiration. I’ve seen it in young people who become leaders in Edmund Rice Camps, both in Ireland and England. I’ve seen it in teachers, young and not so young and especially those who have become involved in Schools Immersion in Africa and India. I’ve seen it in people who work in our Life Centres and commit themselves to educating youth estranged from mainstream education. I see it today in people like Aidan Donaldson and Pádraig Ó Fainín in Ireland who, once having experienced for themselves the poverty in Africa, now dedicate their time, their energy and their talent following in the footsteps of Edmund and working with the poorest of the poor in Zambia. Finally, I’ve seen it in those people who struggle with their place in the official Church finding inspiration, respect and hope when they gather with Brothers to celebrate liturgy or to attend workshops or retreats.
My sadness is, that over the years since 2002 we as a Congregation have not responded generously to people in the Network. I know that sounds harsh but I believe it is true. We fail to cultivate their leadership. We fail to consistently help in their spiritual formation except in a haphazard and occasional way. We fail to enter in to genuine dialogue with them to help them discover where we can collaborate in the best interest of making the charism of the Holy Spirit which was vibrant and pulsating in the life and work of Edmund, freely available in our world today.
A glance at the Appendix to the Nairobi Chapter document: Drawn by Mystery, Destined for Life will show the difference in perspective between the Congregation on the one hand and the Network people who attended the Chapter on the other. The Network people set out their Vision for the coming years in terms of verbs like “embrace” “nurture”, “foster”, “harness” and “seek”. To me these verbs speak of a group who want to actively engage with their world inspired by the charism of Edmund. Their Vision speaks of nurturing interconnectedness. The sense here is of appreciation of a delicate plant needing care and attention. The appendix talks about “fostering leadership and inspiration.” Again an acceptance by the network that for leadership and inspiration to grow and develop the right conditions need to be created. Along with the Church in general, the Congregation too must understand that lay leadership needs our encouragement and support. This is again expressed in the statement: “We encourage appropriate formation opportunities for those within our movement.”
Maybe, luckily we share the charism of Edmund with our Presentation Brothers and the Presentation Family. Is there something we can learn here?
For whatever reason, I think that our Presentation Brothers are more conscious of the role of their lay associates in the mission of their Congregation. One thing I’ve noticed over the last 20 years is a certain alertness among our Presentation Brothers to signs of the spirit of Edmund alive and active among those they work with and know. They seem to have no difficulty in approaching people and offering them leadership roles within their body, some in a paid capacity and others in a voluntary basis.
A few years ago I met a woman whom I’d known previously because of our mutual involvement in the Christian Brother schools. She was an active member of her school community and went on from there to take a prominent role in the Christian Brothers Schools’ Network. For a number of years she was retired from these roles and when I met her again she delighted in telling me that she and her husband were going, for a number of months, as volunteers with the Presentation Brothers in the West Indies. It transpired that the lady had become aware that the Presentation Brothers had a volunteer programme and they were delighted that she was excited at the prospect of continuing her involvement in the work of Blessed Edmund Rice. A mutually enriching collaboration! I admire the fact that our Presentation Brothers reach out and make contact with people who they see have potential to continue the ministry of evangelisation of youth and especially the poor. Distinctions between associates of the Christian Brothers, Presentation Brothers or Presentation Sisters are not an issue. They seem, to me, to interpret their role as Trustees of the charism in a more pro-active way than we possibly do. They seem to accept, like Philip Pinto, that the only way to safe-guard the charism, is to strengthen it. And the only way to strengthen it is to build it up through engagement with the world, by taking risks, by letting it fly free.
In conclusion, what I believe is that the charism of Blessed Edmund Rice is a gift of the Holy Spirit for the world and the Church. It is gifted to the world for all time. Blessed Edmund opened himself to the Spirit in the world of his day and gave the gift of the Spirit a particular human face in response to the needs of the time especially among poor and marginalised Catholic youth of Ireland, as Nano Nagle before him had done for girls.
The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in their document On The Way To Life (sounds a lot like Our Way into the Future) might have something to teach us about how we Christian Brothers need to orientate ourselves going forward. The Bishops invite us to rediscover, what they term, our Sacramental Imagination – a way of viewing the world as imbued with the spirit of the Divine. All of our daily encounters are imbued with the Divine spirit and we are invited to stop, stare and wonder. Where is my God manifesting himself to me, to our Congregation, in this time, in this encounter? Where is the Divine Spirit manifesting itself in our Network? Have we the Imagination to see it? Are we interested in seeing it?
Even though composed specifically about Our Way Into The Future, I think the following prayer of the Congregation Chapter at Nairobi, should be equally valid in informing our engagement with the Edmund Rice Network:
when we find ourselves facing choices about our future,
fill us with openness to the new possibilities you offer.
Teach us to move beyond our limited world-view,
and take away our fears of sharing your compassion (charism).”
Br. Martin O' Flaherty cfc