“This Congress is the culmination of a dream begun eight years ago,” Father General Marcello Zago stated simply. As an opening sally, it was pretty impressive – and as he continued speaking, it was quite clear his expectations were high. The dream was stunning in its simplicity: ‘to see lay association as a new reality in the congregation.’ It was, as we were to find, also multifaceted and complex.
Zago took us back to a speech he had given in 1988 at Notre Dame-du-Cap, an Oblate shrine in Quebec, Canada. There, speaking to over five hundred laity and Oblates, he laid out the principal points of a vision for lay-Oblate collaboration. The themes he articulated in that speech would become common for him in the following years. He recognized it as a sign of the times that he was asked so often to speak about Oblates and laity and how they work together.
It was thrilling to hear him expound on his dream. “Today,” he told us, “there are people and groups who feel called to incarnate the same ideals and example of Eugene de Mazenod,” even as they retain their lay status. He invited us to be open to new requirements and new possibilities which form part of a wider ecclesial movement in the Church.
As he traced the emergence of the laity in the Church and the Oblates’ interest in it, it brought to mind for me the great Vatican II model of the Church as the People of God. All the baptized are equal in dignity and co–responsible for mission and ministry. My parents who were part of the old-fashioned, ‘Pray, pay and obey,’ role of the laity would not have recognized it.
But I did! It was the ecclesiology in which I had been formed and was currently living, thanks to the Oblates. I had always seen my full-time work as the lay director of an Oblate retreat centre as ministry and, as I carried it out, that I was living my baptismal commitment.
Zago further pointed out how Apostolicam Actuositatem and Christifideles Laici developed the role of the laity in the Church. It is changing, he noted, and as a missionary institute, the Oblates not only are required to be in step with the Church, they should be in the forefront of its activity.
He showed us how this was already happening in Oblate practice. He drew on the vision of various Chapter documents, beginning as early as 1966, immediately after Vatican II. There is a dawning sensitivity to the role of the laity but it is the 1986 Chapter and ‘Missionaries in Today’s World,’ that presents collaboration with the laity as one of the urgent challenges facing the Oblates.’ ‘Witnessing as Apostolic Community,’ , builds on that insight and encourages, ‘new ways of association.’
And therein lay the dream, embodied in the Congress. We were to be together for four days: three work days and the last day, de Mazenod’s Feast Day, a day of celebration. What he wanted from us during this time, Zago said, was two things. We were to begin by sharing experiences among ourselves, at the Congregational level, of what it meant to be in association with the Oblates. In this way we could define what it means for laity to share the charism. Secondly, we were to identify and express our expectations and hopes for the future. In this way we could establish guidelines for developing new ways of lay association with the Oblates.
We were 32 laity and 11 Oblates, representing 13 countries with different cultures and experiences. We had been invited to gather at the close of the de Mazenod year, a time deliberately chosen to emphasize the importance of the task. We, laity connected to the charism, were the main actors, working in conjunction with Oblates, to give shape to a new form of association.
It was a simple dream but a big order.
Sandra Prather, HOMI