Letter of the Prior General about Youth
LETTER TO THE MEMBERS OF THE ORDER OF ST. AUGUSTINE
On the Feast of All Saints of the Order,
On the way with young people toward the future
“Be holy, because I am holy (Lv 19:2), yes, let Christ’s body dare to say it, let this one single person who cries from the ends of the earth dare to say I am holy, for he has received the grace of holiness, the grace of baptism and the forgiveness of sins” (St. Augustine, Comment. Ps 85).
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, the Feast of All Saints of the Order, I am writing to you to extend sincere greetings and to invite all members of the Order to give thanks for the vocation we have received, on this day that is designated as “Vocations Day” in our Order, inviting you to reflect upon the meaning of our vocation, on the call to holiness received by all in Baptism, as well as to give attention to a topic that is vital for the future of the Order: ministry and life with young people.
This year has seen numerous events centered around our life and our ministry to young men and women. In January, the Peruvian circumscriptions of the Order sponsored the first Latin American Encounter for Augustinian youth. On that occasion, over 700 young people gathered in the Colegio San Agustín in Lima, having traveled from most of the countries in Latin America where we minister. Several members of the General Council were present as well.
The “young friars of Europe” were invited to gather once again, this year in Kosice, Slovakia, at the end of April. Only a small group was able to take part, but the opportunity to speak with one another and to share common challenges and hopes was much appreciated by those who were present. This initiative began in 2008, when a group of 31 friars from the Provinces of Europe gathered to reflect upon the renewal of the Order in Europe and to think about possible ways of creating collaborative initiatives across provincial and national lines. This initiative, officially sponsored by the Organization of Augustinians of Europe (O.A.E.), continues, although with smaller numbers of participants.
In August, Madrid was the site of the World Youth Day, where Pope Benedict XVI and two million young people celebrated our faith in Jesus Christ. Augustinians from around the world took part in the festivities, and added several events for the young people there from our own schools and parishes. The following week, the Order’s International Commission responsible for youth encounters organized a congress for youth ministers, which was held at the University “Maria Cristina” at El Escorial.
During the month of September, a group of professed students gathered first in Cartoceto and then in San Gimignano, Italy. They took part in a four-week experience, organized by the Secretariat of the O.A.E., for friars preparing for solemn vows, or in the case of a few of the participants, for those who had recently made their solemn profession. I had the opportunity to meet with them toward the end of their experience, and to listen to their reflections as they approach their definitive incorporation into the Order.
At the end of October, I was in the Dominican Republic, at a National Augustinian Youth Encounter, in which 600 young people took part, with the theme “Augustinians on fire, united in Christ”. (Agustinos encendidos, en Cristo unidos.) For the third time this year, I had the opportunity to witness and to be inspired by the dynamic and life-giving experience of working with young people who enthusiastically dedicate their time and energies to living and sharing Augustinian spirituality.
These outstanding events, along with others over the past several years, are in a significant way the motivation and the basis from which I write this letter to you. The enthusiasm and conviction of so many young people has proven to be a sign of hope for the Church and for the Order, and it is of vital importance for all of us to understand how much our future and the future of the whole Church depends upon the continued involvement of young people in our ministry and in our lives.
The Feast of All Saints of the Order provides the occasion, therefore, to reflect upon the importance of the young members of our Order and on the service we are called to give to young people in the Church.
I. YOUTH MINISTRY
“Special attention should be given to the pastoral, catechetical and liturgical care of youth, who are to be encouraged both individually and in groups to follow Christ generously after the example and spirituality of our Holy Father St. Augustine.” (Constitutions, n. 156).
The Church has, over recent decades, made an explicit “preferential option for young people”. First expressed in Latin America (Puebla, 1979), it was affirmed by Pope John Paul II, in his message to young people on the occasion of the Second World Youth Day in 1987. This year, in Madrid, Pope Benedict XVI urged bishops, priests and religious to continue reaching out to young men and women, to invite them to know Christ and to be a part of the Church. This is a commitment that we need to make and to strengthen, in all of our ministries.
In the various youth gatherings in which I have taken part, I have usually had the opportunity to meet with the group leaders and Augustinian friars who give so much time and effort to the organization and promotion of such events. Several times, in speaking with youth ministers about the challenges of their work, I have been told that the most difficult challenge to them comes at times from the indifference of other Augustinian friars. I ask myself, just as youth ministers have asked me, how to explain the lack of support (perceived or otherwise) from some friars. I want to invite all of you to reflect about and to search for ways in which we can better promote various forms of youth ministry, including the sharing of Augustinian spirituality with others. Young people are looking for friendship, they want to belong to a community where they will feel welcomed and affirmed. The treasure that we hold in Augustine’s writings and in his own experience of conversion and growth in faith is something that is highly attractive and meaningful to young people. And yet, for some reason, we are not always prepared or willing to share the treasure we have received.
The Order published, in 2001, a document on Augustinian Ministry with Young People. This is a worthwhile document to pick up once again, to reflect upon what we are doing and to look for new ways of responding to the call to work with youth. In addition, and on a very practical level, if a “preferential option” for young people in the Church is going to be an option that is more than just empty rhetoric, it needs to be translated into school and parish budgets, the hiring of personnel (religious and lay), and investment in preparation of creative programs. Resources and energies should be directed toward helping young people feel wanted, welcomed and actively involved. Being welcoming to teenagers and young adults must mean more than hospitality, and it will entail a vigorous outreach beyond our schools and parishes.
II. THE VALUE OF THE GOSPEL AND OF OUR AUGUSTINIAN CHARISM
“Listeners listen more attentively to a preacher through the testimony he gives with his life than through the words he speaks” (St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 4).
It has been said that if Augustinians truly lived our lives in the manner in which Augustine intended us to live, young people would be lining up outside our doors asking to join our communities. Without exaggerating, and without taking the comment too literally, it is important that we search for ways of reaffirming our identity and of strengthening our own conviction about the value of our charism in order to rediscover the sense of our human and Christian lives. Interiority enriches and superficiality impoverishes; friendship and sharing life in community are ideals that many people are longing for, especially as they experience the ever-increasing individualism in today's society which leads to greater isolation and loneliness. Solidarity and the willingness to serve others are recognized, especially by young people, as very important elements of an authentic way of life.
The God of Jesus Christ is the God of life, friend of all, who offers salvation and in whom we can all find the true meaning of life. The Gospel of Jesus is the gospel of love, justice and peace. The Christian way, the following of Jesus Christ, understood from the perspective of the Sermon on the Mount, offers a path of happiness, accomplishment and human fulfillment. Christian community, when lived according to those elements that captivated St. Augustine, offers an attractive model to young people, and common life becomes highly attractive to those who join us with a sincere, simple and human heart.
Today as in the past, the answer to our questions and problems lies in the authenticity of our lives as human beings, Christians and Augustinians. At this point in history, 50 years after Vatican II, Augustinians are called to take up once again the path of renewal. This requires an attitude of true conversion and a strong option for what is fundamental in our lives, and above all a willingness to make choices about those things that can and indeed must change.
III. LISTENING TO OUR YOUNGER BROTHERS AND SISTERS
“Let no one think less of you because of your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity” (1Timothy 4,12).
consecrata, the post-synodal document on Consecrated Life (1996), summarized in the phrase "creative fidelity" the attitude that is needed today for the proper renewal of religious life. The expression “creative fidelity” provides a valuable formula, but one that is difficult to implement. Certainly, and as part of the generational problem, either word carried to an excess can cause fear on the other side. An exaggerated insistence of certain “traditions” in the name of fidelity can limit or even eliminate the room needed for creativity. On the other hand, an uncontrolled need for “creativity” may carry some to an extreme that has no time or appreciation for those who have lived as Augustinians with great loyalty and fidelity for many years. But the correct approach to the issue is not to make an exclusive choice, some for fidelity and others for creativity, but rather that together we all seek ways of living with creative fidelity. Naturally, each member of the community will understand this according to his own experience and identity, but it is also important that we respect one other in the choices we make. We also need to give a voice to young people, who are the heirs of a tradition and loyalty they received in their formative years, but who are also called to creatively embody this cultural and historical moment of religious life in the Church and the world today. If we make our choices from this approach, the Augustinian way of life will continue to be a sign of the Kingdom.
Young people need to feel that they are trusted, and we also need to give them opportunities of exercising leadership. They are looking for ways of experiencing faith, community life, pastoral work and presence in the world today that are truly authentic and meaningful. The hope for the future of the Order depends largely on young people who have the skills and generosity to respond to the challenge of living Augustinian life today. Responsible, generous and persevering young religious, with a strong faith experience, who are integrated into the community and convinced of the value of the basic principles of Augustinian spirituality, will be capable of responding to today’s challenges without forgetting the fundamentals of our life. But if they do not find meaning in their lives, and if they are not supported, we may find ourselves uttering the Gospel phrase, “whensalt loses its flavor...”
We all need to invite and encourage more young people to live Augustinian life with enthusiasm and authenticity, as well as to suggest changes and initiatives that make it possible to provide opportunities for their views and proposals, as together we look for ways of promoting renewal of the Order.
IV. COMPANIONS ALONG THE WAY
We are travelers along the way. If our pace is slow, go on ahead of us. We will not envy you but rather will seek to catch up with you... There is only one goal, and we are all anxious to reach it” (St. Augustine, Sermon 306B,2).
Today we often talk about the “problem” of vocations. While not wanting to ignore the issues related to the promotion of vocations and initial formation, it is important that we give priority to ongoing renewal. The priority is our own vocation, especially during the early years of community life and pastoral activity.
Ongoing formation must be integral (not merely theoretical and academic) and continuous, as its name suggests. True renewal will be possible only within a community that is authentically alive and fraternal, where community members will be encouraged to share faith, and to understand and support the vocational experience of each of its members. This is an essential part of Augustinian community, but unfortunately the concrete experience of common life does not always respond to our ideals, and the exercise of authority is not always helpful in promoting this spirit of trust and dialogue.
Just as youth ministers sometimes complain that the lack of support from some friars is the main obstacle for their activity, problems such as a lack of fraternal care and the empty formalism of our common life are often at the root of many vocational crises and decisions to leave the Order. For some religious, the temptation to look outside community for satisfying relationships and for meaning in their lives is very strong when little or no support is found within the community itself.
This is therefore an invitation to all members of the Order, and especially to those who have been called to serve in authority, to review the life and the structures of our communities, and to create and promote in our houses an authentically human and spiritual life, based upon the values of the Gospel experience and upon the treasure of our Augustinian spirituality.
V. A WORD TO THE MAJOR SUPERIORS AND TO ALL WHO LIVE WITH YOUNG RELIGIOUS
“The superior, for his part, must not think himself fortunate in his exercise of authority but in his role as one serving you in love. In your eyes he shall hold the first place among you by the dignity of his office, but in fear before God he shall be as the least among you. He must show himself as an example of good works toward all.” (St. Augustine, Rule, VII,46).
Within the context of the program organized for young friars preparing for solemn vows, held in Italy in September of this year, the participants raised a number of questions of particular importance. I believe that it will be helpful to listen directly to them. I quote here from an article that was written by one of them after the conclusion of the program, as published on the Order’s webpage:
The experience was both positive and promising for all of us. We discussed a number of issues, guided by three experienced Augustinians. Among the topics were the state and identity of the Order in Europe and participants' apprehensions about returning to their home provinces or vicariates after a significant period of time away. Out of this open and fraternal dialogue there arose a genuine concern for the promotion and improvement of Augustinian life. In being together in oneness of mind and heart there developed a consensus of thought regarding the need to rediscover the meaning of discipleship in Christ, considering all that this entails in one’s religious vocation in community and what it is to encounter Christ constantly through his Word, through the brothers with whom one lives, and through those who are served in the apostolate. Finally, we saw the need to renew Augustinian communities through an authentic living of our charism. We were unanimous in support of a vision to move beyond provincial boundaries in our work and look at possibilities for more international communities. Here follows a summary of common beliefs and desires:
We believe that communities have to be aware of the serious challenges that confront our vocation as Christian disciples and as Augustinians. Religious life has been negatively affected by secularization and there are clear tendencies towards materialism and individualism (for example, owning cars or properties, and absenteeism). As a consequence, common life and the practice of the vows become hollow or empty words in a community setting. We recognize our common desire for a renewal of common life and of its members. Common life should be marked by simplicity, genuine sharing of goods, shared prayer through “lectio divina”, meditation/contemplation, and adoration of the Holy Eucharist. We long for a community where we can share good recreation, our hopes, our desires and even our pain, that is, an environment where a healthy relationship among brothers is felt and in which life together is truly a communion with God and with one another. We realize the importance of welcoming and respecting diverse cultures. This is a means for a fruitful ministry and effective pastoral activity in the midst of today’s world. We cannot encounter Christ if we do not encounter and live in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized both materially and spiritually. All form part of Christ’s body. In line with this we perceive the value of renewing our commitment to the study of St. Augustine’s writings and teachings, especially during initial formation in order to be equipped with knowledge and to appreciate and imitate Augustine’s pastoral service to the Church. Our apostolate has to be grounded in Augustinian spirituality which gives our presence in the world its unique identity.
In facing the present reality we acknowledge the pressing concerns of the Augustinian communities in Europe marked by decreasing numbers of friars, struggling to understand the phenomenon of abandonment among young friars and acknowledging the presence, at times, of a certain pessimism regarding the future. Consequently, a number of questions were raised: Do we have a future? Do we want men to come and join our communities…, and if so, why? Our answer to both questions is YES! The future before us as Augustinians will depend on how we help and assist candidates in their discernment and formation, accompanying them on their journey as brothers to live authentic religious life. We certainly want men to join us. Augustinian presence does not mean, however, filling the spaces in rapidly aging communities, but rather living in the manner described above.
Numerous points can be drawn from the above reflection, but I would like to highlight the following:
a. The need to renew Augustinian community life. This topic has been addressed repeatedly over these past forty or more years (an example that is still relevant today - the Dublin Document, from the Intermediate General Chapter of 1974), and the need is still present, because ongoing renewal is a challenge that requires continued response on our part. The future depends on all of us!
b. In spite of the stark reality of diminishing numbers, young friars are committed to Augustinian consecrated life. But the pessimism of some religious can have devastating effects on younger members over the course of time. We need to work together with our younger members to find meaningful and creative ways for them to live Augustinian life and to be encouraged, along with their local communities, as they enter into active ministry.
c. What Superiors oftentimes perceive as an urgent need to fill the spaces in rapidly aging communities, is not recognized by many as a true priority, and can become a detriment to the life of younger friars, when they perceive that they are merely filling in the gaps, rather than being encouraged to live the Augustinian values that they learned and embraced during the years of their initial formation. In addition, the stress and experience of “burn-out” among clergy and religious today is a true danger for many of our brothers. Reduced numbers of religious and increased work load bring serious consequences, and some of the friars who have left the Order during these past years have done so because of this factor.
VI. SOME QUESTIONS FOR OUR COMMON REFLECTION
· The level of our experience of faith: Is it really strong enough to give meaning to our lives and to promote joy in common life?
· Our prayer and how we celebrate liturgy: Does our prayer life really contribute to building Augustinian community, or are we merely repeating words based on empty ritual and routine?
· The lifestyle of our communities: Does it provide minimal warmth and a genuine sense of fraternity, or is it too individualistic and therefore unable to avoid the frustration of loneliness?
· Our community and governmental structures: Are they effective, flexible and valid, or do they reflect more a way of life and organization which in practice does little or nothing to promote what we are called to be?
· The criteria (social, political, scientific, cultural, religious, etc,) on which we base our choices: Do we have a sense of what they are, and are they truly Gospel based, or are they merely attitudes that respond to the past without offering true meaning to our communities today?
· The concrete reality of our daily lives: Do we want to share life, cultivate friendships, work in team ministry? Or are these ideals that are not reflected in our daily life, either personal or common?
· Our presence in the world and in today's society: Are we a sign of the values of the Kingdom (values that are both human and Christian)? Or are we or do we appear to be insensitive to today’s problems, distancing ourselves from people and from their questions and everyday worries?
VII. OUR ENCOUNTER WITH CHRIST GIVES US HOPE
Just as he once encountered the young Paul, Jesus also wants to encounter each one of you, my dear young people. Indeed, even before we desire it, such an encounter is ardently desired by Jesus Christ. (Benedict XVI, Message for the XXIV World Youth Day, April 5, 2009).
As we think about our lives today and about the future of the Order, we need to remember once again of the Gospel value of hope. Pope Benedict XVI, in his Encyclical Letter Spe salvi, raises the question: “Can our encounter with the God who in Christ has shown us his face and opened his heart be for us too not just “informative” but “performative”—that is to say, can it change our lives, so that we know we are redeemed through the hope that it expresses?” Our vocation, our call to be disciples of Christ as Augustinians provides for us an authentically challenging and deeply supportive way of encountering God and of sharing that encounter with others in community. This in itself is a source of hope as we continue to face the challenges that surround us today. If we continue to search for God personally and in and through our community life, we too will be able to respond affirmatively to the question that Pope Benedict raises. Our lives can be changed, will be changed, if we embrace fully the call to holiness, the call to Augustinian life.
St. Augustine’s reflections are a source of encouragement to us as well. Quoting again from Spe salvi:
Saint Augustine, in the extended letter on prayer which he addressed to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow and mother of three consuls, once wrote this: ultimately we want only one thing—”the blessed life”, the life which is simply life, simply “happiness”. In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer. Our journey has no other goal—it is about this alone. But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,” he says, quoting Saint Paul (Rom 8:26). All we know is that it is not this. Yet in not knowing, we know that this reality must exist. “There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), so to speak”, he writes. We do not know what we would really like; we do not know this “true life”; and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven….
We continue to reach out, to live with hope, searching for the happiness that only God can give us. And we experience and share that longing in community, as we share life and faith together. My brothers and sisters, we are called to share what we have received, and in faith we are strengthened with hope as we look to the future, never alone, but with others who walk together with us, and especially with the young people we serve and with those who have come to join us in common life. Our community life is a sign in the world of that which we long for, of the Kingdom that awaits us, and which is here among us at the same time. Together, as we renew our lives, we can effectively make choices that will offer hope to the Order and the Church, in responding with generosity to the vocation we have all received.
Fr. Robert F. Prevost, O.S.A.
Rome, November 13, 2011
Feast of All Saints of the Order
Article posted on 22nd of November 2011
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