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num. 295 - May 2010

Index:

Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate
General Chapters -- 1972-2004
1972-1998: Fr. Ronald Carignan, OMI
2004: Fr. Oswald Firth, OMI

The General Chapter of 1972

The Chapter of 1972 marked the beginning of a new era in the Congregation. From my perspective, it was a pivotal Chapter, one that set the agenda of the Congregation to this day. Three priority areas of deliberation were identified by the capitulars: Mission, Fundamental Oblate Values and Community. The first task accepted by the plenary assembly was to “clarify our missionary outlook and our involvement with the poor.”It is the theme that received the most attention. Mission had pretty well become a zone of individualism in the Congregation and the Chapter was determined to regain a collective sense of direction and mission. Its key document Missionary Outlook is considered to be an Oblate classic. It was divided in three sections: 1) A look at the world from where we are. 2) Faced with these missionary challenges, who are we? 3) What concrete lines of action are now open to us? In a sense, this document utilized the dynamics of the Founder’s Preface and produced a text with which most Oblates could resonate. It became a springboard for a continuing discernment and a reshaping of our mission at the Region, Province, and Local Community levels. In the years following the Chapter of ‘72, a clearer focus emerged at these various levels through Congresses and Assemblies. The General Chapter of 1986 in its Document Missionaries in Today’s World brought this reflection to fruition and set forth a vision of the world and evangelization along with our corresponding missionary convictions.

The Capitulars produced a second document, Administrative Structures, which addressed a stated desire in the Congregation for decentralization and subsidiarity. Significant changes were made in the organization at the General Level. The Superior General would no longer be elected for life but for a term of six years. He would be assisted by a Vicar and two Councillors based in Rome, one for mission and one for formation. A General Councillor for each of the six Regions would serve a liaison function and facilitate communication and collaboration between the General Administration and the Regions. Thus initiated a period of learning through experimentation that was eventually finalized at the Chapter of 1998 when the Capitulars voted to accept a revised Part III: Organization, of our Constitutions and Rules.

The Chapter Body wanted to address the renewal of our common Oblate way of life. Due to the time and energy factors, it was not able to do so. It asked the new General Team to produce a document on community based on the values that surfaced during the Assembly’s discussions. Thus, a third document associated with the Chapter of 1972, Community, was published in the Fall of 1972. It clearly reinforced the notion that community is an essential part of the Oblate Charism, that community and mission were inseparable in the thinking and planning of Bishop de Mazenod. The reflection called for by this document became the theme for the General Chapter of 1992 which produced a strong document on Oblate Community: Witnessing as Apostolic Community.

The General Chapter of 1974
 
The General Chapter of 1974 was convened at a rather difficult time in our recent history. Our General, Richard Hanley had resigned since he no longer saw himself able to lead the Congregation. During his short term of service, Richard became a much loved Oblate leader. His departure was a hard blow for many. The Chapter of 1974 was convened to elect a new Superior General and to address the crisis caused by the resignation of the General.

In his letter of resignation, Richard Hanley had indicated that the fundamental values of religious life as presently lived in the Church were increasingly problematic for him. The members of the Chapter could not ignore the challenge this admission presented. The meaning of consecrated life and of the vows within the context of our Oblate missionary vocation claimed a privileged place in the Chapter agenda. There was much personal sharing in small groups as well as full assembly deliberation around three questions: 1) What are the values which are important in my life as an Oblate? 2) What are the obstacles which I meet in making these values real in myself and in my Oblate life? 3) What are the helps which permit me to make these values real?

The Capitulars reached a moment of decision around our fundamental values as Oblates and around our commitment to Religious Life as a Congregation. In retrospect, it became clear that the Chapter of 1972, so daring in its missionary outlook, had not clearly highlighted the relationship between Oblate mission and our religious life. The participants wanted to communicate an uncompromising stance as clearly as possible to the members of the Congregation. They chose to write a letter From the 1974 Capitulars to all Their Brother Oblates. In a key passage, the Chapter Assembly wrote:“In order to be more meaningful our consecration to Jesus Christ commits us jointly to the ideal of life proposed by our Constitutions. The Preface, furthermore, provides the impetus and promotes an ever-timely implementations of those constitutions. That is why we restate our faith in apostolic religious life.

Fr. Fernand Jetté was elected Superior General and Fr. Francis George was elected Vicar General. A Post-Chapter Committee was named to work on the preparation of a revised text of the Constitutions and Rules to be presented to the 1980 Chapter. Father Jetté had insisted that all is grace and that we had to live fully the moment of grace provided by this difficult event. It would seem that we passed the test as a Congregation.

The General Chapter of 1980

The Chapter of 1974 was primarily dedicated to producing a revised text of our Constitutions and Rules as required by the postconciliar Church. It was not the first time that our Constitutions and Rules were revised. During the Founder’s lifetime, our text was changed a number of times in response to the needs of an expanding Congregation. In 1926, our text was adapted to take into consideration the new norms on Religious Life included in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. The Chapter of 1966 drafted a text that sought to reflect the vision and spirit of the second Vatican Council. This text was to be studied and finalized at the Chapter of 1972. However, this Chapter was unable to handle that task preferring to produce three documents that eventually influenced the revised text produced by the Chapter of 1980.

The capitulars at the 1980 Chapter accepted as its working document, a text prepared by a special Commission established in 1975 and headed by Father Alexandre Taché. Along with the text, the Commission had put together 16 volumes of comments and commentaries coming from the various sectors of the Congregation. The text was reviewed, discussed, shorten, refined and eventually unanimously accepted by the Assembly. I was one of the moderators for the Chapter and at the end of the proceedings, I experienced a very united international congregation. Father Fernand Jetté was elected to a second term as General and Father Francis George to a second term as Vicar General.

The General Chapter of 1986
 
The theme for the Chapter of 1986 was “Missionaries in Today’s World” The Assembly worked hard exploring the emerging features of Oblate mission in a world going through a time of quantum change. How do we, in such a world, hear the call of the poor? How do we promote justice? How do we approach secularization and Inculturation? How do we blend Community and Mission. The Chapter document is worth revisiting!

Fr. Marcello Zago was elected Superior General. At the end of Chapter, John Paul II received the Capitulars in a private audience at which he had high words of praise for Fr. Zago. “I turn first of all to the one you have just elected as your new Superior General, Father Marcello Zago, whose good work at the Secretariate for Non-Christians I have appreciated. I offer him my wishes of fruitful service to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.” The Pope added at the end of his talk: “I wish to end this family conversation by inviting you to look afresh at the place of the Immaculate Virgin in your personal lives, your communities and your missionary work. You recall that Blessed Eugene, having first decided upon the name of ‘Oblate of Saint Charles’ while in Rome had the intuition of a different one: ‘Oblates of Mary’. On 22 December 1825, he wrote to Father Tempier: “Oblates of Mary! This name satisfies the heart and the ear.”You know....that your Founder attributed to this Good Mother a singular grace: an interior assurance of the excellence of his society and of the good that it was going to do in the future.

The General Chapter of 1992

The General Chapter of 1992 was a mid-term chapter for Father Marcello Zago. He was unanimously re-elected as General on the first ballot. During his first term he had insisted, time and again, that community was an essential element of the Oblate charism and, as such, was the key to the future of the Congregation,. And so after consulting Oblates throughout the world, he announced in his Letter of Convocation to the Congregation that community would be one of the main topics of the Chapter of 1992. The capitulars spent much time reflecting on the question of community, on our present practices as a Congregation and on the lack of real community life in many sectors of the Congregation. The results of the month-long Chapter deliberation produced an exceptional document entitled: Witnessing As Apostolic Community. The Chapter affirmed that as Oblates, the first task of our evangelizing activity is to seek to achieve quality in our community life; that financial sharing constitutes an essential dimension of our life in communion and interdependence.

The Chapter of 1992 also opened up a theme that has received a renewed attention since: New Forms of Association with the Laity “A new reality is becoming evident: families, married couples, single people, and young people wish to be more closely united with us and manifest special commitment to our charism.”

The Chapter also issued a statement on Social Communications and Media. In it the Capitulars requested that: “the Superior General and Council bring a special attention to the area of media, and seek to develop appropriate resources within the Congregation.” The Chapter supported “the development of an international Oblate communication network.”

In a statement on Finances and Sharing, the Chapter committed itself to Capital Sharing in the Congregation and “mandated the General in Council to create suitable means for the implementation of capital sharing.”

The General Chapter of 1992 was a very active and innovative Chapter and it ushered in six years of very creative leadership during Father Zago’s second term as Superior General. Besides the above, the Chapter of 1992 also produced statements on The Anniversary of 500 Years of Evangelizationin the Americas, onElderly Oblates, on Oblate Centers of Theological Studies, on The Association for Oblates Studies and Research, and on Administrative Structures. All of these are worth re-reading.

The General Chapter of 1998

The Chapter of 1998 was quite unique. It was the first Chapter since the canonization of the Founder as well as the last one during the second millennium. The Preparatory Commission placed a strong emphasis on evaluating ourselves as missionaries and clarifying our expectations at the dawn of the third millennium. At first, the preparatory documents were seen as somewhat negative and the capitulars seemed to be in search of a theme. History will eventually pass judgment on this Chapter. However, for many of the participants, it turned out to be an event that opened up a new spiritual focus for the Congregation. The reality of hope emerged as a unifying symbol for Oblates throughout the world. As expressed in the Chapter DocumentEvangelizing the Poor at the Dawn of the Third Millennium: “This Chapter even as it asks us to take stock of both the real pain that so often marks humanity today and of our limits, also brings to life in us an immense hope.

A rather unique moment marked the opening of the General Chapter. Ten lay persons from the various Oblate Regions were present and participated in the deliberations. They talked with the capitulars about their experiences and presented their ideas around sharing in the Oblate charism. They see broad areas of mutuality and solidarity. The capitulars prepared a special statement in the form of a letter to our lay associates indicating that a working group had been mandated by the Chapter to further reflect on the various forms of association and “to search for better ways to express this in our Constitutions and Rules.”

A new Superior General was elected in the person of Fr. Wilhelm Steckling who had served in the previous administration as Assistant General for Formation. Eugene King was elected as Vicar General. Important resolutions were passed on Media and Capital Sharing.
February 2009

The General Chapter of 2004

In many ways, the 34th General Chapter was to be a moment of self-evaluation of the Congregation. In this context, the Chapter could be perceived as the pivotal point of the Immense Hope Project, a process through which every Unit within the Congregation was asked to evaluate and scrutinize its vision and mission, its missionary strategy, its community life and its ministry in the light of our Oblate charism. The Chapter did not bring the Immense Hope Project to a close; rather it urged every Oblate unit to see this as an instrument and an on-going process of self-evaluation and strategizing for mission.

During the Chapter, the reports of the Superior General and those from the Regions helped name our present strengths and weaknesses as a Congregation and highlighted the huge demographic shifts that have radically altered the face of the Congregation. The Chapter also affirmed that our real strengths were to be found not in our numbers, but in the spirit of solidarity and internationality of the membership that pervaded the entire Congregation.

The Chapter put forward a challenge to all Oblates. Recognizing that the world is changing radically, the Chapter wanted Oblates to leave cherished strategies, comfort zones, and like pilgrims be open to the unpredictability of God’s plan for the Congregation. The models for such a challenge were Abraham and Sarah when God called them to leave their homeland and set out into the unknown and the unfamiliar. Faced with a new understanding of culture, ethnicity, religion, ideology and gender in today’s world, “crossing familiar borders” became a catch phrase at this Chapter.

While on the one hand the Chapter urged Oblate units to revitalize and update traditional missionary methods such as the parish ministry, catechesis, pastoral practice and liturgies, on the other, it encouraged Oblates to explore the establishment of new international pilot communities to respond to challenges posed by secularity, fundamentalism and sectarianism.

Other areas on which the Chapter’s attention was focused were: 1) Promotion of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation both in our communities and houses of formation; 2) Developing an animation process throughout the Congregation focused on the needs of the Oblate as a minister of hope; 3) Establishing a Commission of Oblates and Associates; 4) Consolidation of formation houses; 5) Re-introduction of mission to youth into the Constitution and Rules as a mission priority; 6)- Reviewing Leadership and Governance structures in the Congregation; 7) Developing a Capital Sharing II initiative; 8) Creating a network of Oblates in Higher Education; 9) Supporting Oblates whose focus is inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue; and 10) The establishment of a Standing Committee for Brothers.