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"Animating" pastoral councils
The spirituality of unity can renew the Church’s instruments for participation
An important achievement of the Second Vatican Council was the creation of structures for promoting communion and participation at all levels. Experience has shown that in order to be effective, they have to be animated by a spirituality that can bring about the communion they are designed for. What follows is an experience of some priests from Slovenia.
A proposal offered to allWe are a group of diocesan priests who are nourished by the charism of unity of the Focolare movement. We felt that we could not simply keep to ourselves the positive experience of communion in our Pastoral councils. It could be a gift for many, so why not share it with members of other parish councils who might be interested?
So we set up a meeting to offer our experience of the Church as communion, and chose a neutral title, “An exploration of the spirituality of communion”. About one hundred people came, more than half of them knowing nothing about our spirituality.
It was a new experience for everyone, because we had never held a meeting of that kind. Many of the members of our pastoral councils already knew the spirituality and know how helpful it is in creating relationships of unity, so difficult at times, between priests and laity, and for promoting more effective pastoral work suited to our situation and our times.
We met with about a third of them on the previous evening, They openly shared how true evangelical love is often lacking in the structures, and spoke about experiences and situations in their parishes. A very good family atmosphere was created, which became like a leaven for the following day.
Spirituality of communion
A fundamental moment of the day was the talk on the spirituality of communion given by one of the priest focolarini who has experienced this with other priests and laity for many years. He began by clarifying what is meant by a spirituality: a way of living the Gospel, a style of Christian life. Although Christianity is one, there are many ways of living it, as the various charisms have demonstrated along the centuries: the Carthusians live in a different way to the Franciscans, the Carmelites emphases different things to the Jesuits, and so on.
He then described how the Holy Spirit over the centuries has brought aspects of the Gospel or key passages to light, giving life to spiritualities in response to the needs of the time. Following the ideas developed by Fabio Ciardi, he described how, broadly speaking, in the spiritualities of the first millennium, a personal relationship with God was foremost, »You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind«. There are well known examples: it is enough to recall the monasticism of St Anthony Abbot, Saint Benedict, and many other founders who with their followers generated currents of spirituality, many of which had a great influence on Christianity, and on the social and cultural life of their time. Those spiritualities mainly emphasised personal union with God, of living for him through prayer, penance, solitude, silence...
In the second millennium, greater emphasis was given to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, and ways of putting the gospel into practice, with human beings at the centre as a special presence of Jesus waiting to be served: sick people to be cared for, children to instruct, poor and marginalised of all kinds to be looked after according to the needs of the time (this was the era of Camillo de Lellis, John of God, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac… and many others with their religious families).
In our third millennium there are many indications that the main emphasis is now on the commandment that Jesus called his and new: “love one another as I have loved you”. The Holy Spirit is in this way leading the Church back to the life of the early Christian communities, which were one heart and one soul, leading us to discover in new ways – as model, root, matrix and vocation of every community – participation in the life of communion of the Trinity (as much as is possible in human experience).
God has responded to the needs of humanity and of the Church today by presenting with a new energy the spirituality of communion. In Novo millennio ineunte, John Paul II says this is necessary in order bring about the Church-as-communion, so central to the Second Vatican Council.
How can this be lived in pastoral Councils?Above all we tried to demonstrate during the meeting, through experiences as well as ideas, just what such communion is and how it can be lived practically in order to help the PPC to become a living organism, from which flows life for the parish and for the surrounding society.
Something received well by those present was the well known expression from Novo Millennio ineunte, “Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, "masks" of communion rather than its means of expression and growth.” (43).
In this light, the Pope’s concluding statement is clear, “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning…” (43)
All too often the members of the PPC do not know one another. Much is needed for them to grow in communion, as a true family of disciples of Christ. There is a danger in the meetings that energy is spent in solving parish problems and programming different activities, without first creating true fraternal relationships and a climate of calm and authentic dialogue.
The PPC is called to be first of all the best home and school of communion in the parish. When animated with this spirit, it becomes the living, creative heartbeat of the parish community.
We can see in fact that the harmony created in the PPC brings many benefits to the life of the parish and civic community. The experiences shared during the meeting, of parishes animated by this spirit, were a witness to that. They made it clear how communion inspired by mutual evangelical love can be lived in our Council meetings, in sincere and total attentiveness, in losing in order to become one with the others, in putting forward ideas and proposals not as an imposition or impatiently but as a gift. They also showed the characteristic effects of this unity, which “attracts” the presence of the Risen Lord: the light for a better analysis of reality, creativity in finding answers that come from the Spirit, operative efficiency, activities that become not only attractive, but which multiply and become long term…
Bishop Andrej Glavan raised the importance of the meeting and added a special touch by speaking about new evangelisation using Novo millenniio ineunte, and commenting on it with some texts by Chiara Lubich
Some effects in those presentBoth the talks and the experiences were for many something new. Some said, “We have never heard these ideas, which are so important for parish work and life. This was actually a deep need we had, and now we have discovered what it was.” Others commented, “We had heard or read about these things, but actually didn’t know how to live them. Now we have found the way.”
The meeting also gave renewed energy to those who already live the spirituality of communion, because they gained a new awareness of its universality, and of what the Church needs today. It was a joyful surprise to experience with everyone a climate of unity with the light and joy of the presence of Jesus in the midst.
We can see how important this kind of meeting is from the things said by those who took part.
“I don’t know why, I have never felt so close to Jesus. I prayed to him with renewed faith for many things. This was surely an effect of Jesus’ presence among us.” A priest said, “The atmosphere was special, you felt that the words penetrated people’s hearts. We were presented with a new vision of the Church, not just in the content but also in the way of talking… This meeting has increased my optimism for my ministry and has strengthened my faith in the presence of Jesus among us. This face of the Church was radiant, it was the face of Jesus, attractive and relevant. I want and dream of a Church like this. And what’s more, I can live it and make it happen.”
A woman said, “I have received new enthusiasm for my work in the Pastoral council, with my gaze fixed on Jesus crucified and forsaken as the measure of my love when faced with any difficulty, and as the key without which the achieving and maintaining of communion would be a utopia.”
And another, “I am convinced that this meeting has helped to give the Church in Slovenia new energy. This strong experience of communion was the fruit of the presence of the Risen one that we experienced.”
And finally the witness of another priest, “The meeting was the reconfirmation that the spirituality of communion is entering the Church and humanity. What convinced us in a special way is the novelty that we want to live in our parishes. I have seen how important it is to work together with lay people to present the Church at its best. More than ever, I realise that the basis of every activity in the parish has to be the new commandment of Jesus.”