It felt like the invitation of the Spirit: find a new unity in our diversity; uncover a complementarity that respected differences; open the door to innovative relationships between ordained, vowed and lay. Early on, Father Chaigne named it. Then we prayed it and lived it.
Father Chaigne’s homily that first day reminded us of our fundamental unity. We are all the People of God, he said, laypeople, religious, priests – one family of God, all responsible for mission. We have moved, he said, from dependence to sharing, from helping to co-responsibility, from the relationships of ‘superior/inferior’ to one of partnership. The Congress was our opportunity to take the next step: to discover our complementarity, not just with regard to our ‘doing,’ but at the level of our ‘deepest being.’ We become disciples together, we heard, living Eugene’s charism. Religious live it one way; laity another, but we need each other in our following of Christ. Together, he stated, we would explore what that meant.
We prayed it the next day at Morning Prayer. Organized by the delegates of one of the Canadian provinces [not mine!], we were all given two lengths of different colored string to hold. As we sang, listened to Scripture and prayed, we were asked to reflect on the strength of our strings. “Try breaking one of them,” we were told. As we all found, a single string broke easily. “Now,” they said, “turn to your neighbors, and twine your strings together.” As three, four and even five strings came together, a thicker rope was formed. “Try and break that,” they instructed us and of course, we could not. The lesson was obvious: together, we are stronger. We also noted that the multicolored strands braided together gave a splendour to the rope that no one color could. Again, the lesson was clear: together, we enrich one another.
We heard it, we prayed it and we lived it. As I looked around the room that first day, our diversity was obvious. The invited laity seemed a microcosm of the Oblate world and our connectedness to the Oblate charism as varied as the languages reverberating off the stone walls. I came to know Ginger, an American who, along with her husband and three children had spent three years as a missionary with the Oblates in Zambia. A second American woman, Nancy, worked as accountant in the financial area of her Oblate province. Steve, a university student from Australia, was a ‘Rosie’, one of a group of young people, Oblate-founded, who spent one night a week driving a ‘soup kitchen’ van into downtown Melbourne, praying the Apostle’s Prayer before they set out each evening. Sandra, also Australian, worked in Administration in an Oblate college. Cecilia was a female parish worker from Lesotho while Manuel was the head of a youth movement in Italy. And so it went: parish and MAMI workers, catechists, educators, administrators and more. Some worked in the church; many worked ‘in the world,’ in a variety of jobs. We were men and women; single, married, widowed; childless, parents and grandparents. It was clear that any definition of an Associate would have to take this diversity into account!
The Oblates mirrored our diversity. They were a range of ages and ethnicities, involved in a variety of ministries. Members of the General Administration sat alongside parish priests, professors, counsellors, chaplains and the like. It was always a delight to sit with an Oblate and ask about his ministry. You never knew what the answer would be, except that it would be rich, profound and entertainingly told.
What brought this motely crew of laity and Oblates together? What moved us from a group of strangers sharing a space to companions on a journey? I think it was our desire to live our baptismal call radically and faithfully – shaped by the Oblate charism. Ordained, vowed and lay, we had discovered that our hearts resonated with Eugene de Mazenod and his gift to the Church. In our living, sharing and praying together, we discovered we were of one mind and one heart and one spirit. That was our bond.
Unity in diversity; complementarity and not homogenization; Oblate and lay: the Congress and its work was a testament to the Spirit who delights in multiplicity and who gifts the Body with an array of gifts. We learned, together we are stronger; together we enrich one another.
Sandra Prather, HOMI