It is just short of four weeks since we began the 20th General Assembly of the Society of African Missions. This Assembly has been the culmination of a long period of preparation that began at Plenary Council 2011. Each member of the Society was invited to share their perspective on the challenges facing the Society and the possible pathways to renewal.
It was gratifying that so many of our members accepted this invitation. Their work was the background for our focussed attention to the challenges and priorities for SMA mission for the next six years. We have now agreed the action plans for mission, formation, spirituality and life-style, administration and finance. Our voting for these plans commits us to work towards their realisation. We are not only carriers of the message to those who elected us but we must also be apostles of the spirit of the message. This will be done by realising these plans through our own Units
We have committed ourselves anew to ‘the most abandoned’ in whatever milieu we live our mission service. We know that this is a challenging task. It will require of us patience and forgiveness; forgiveness of the other when we are offended, and forgiveness of self when we have satisfied our own needs rather than those of the ones we are called to serve. I quote from Pope Francis, in his last pastoral letter as Archbishop of Buenos Aires,
“Crossing the threshold of the faith leads us to forgiving and knowing how to break into a smile. It means approaching every person that lives on the edge of existence and to call him by name. It is taking care of the fragility of the weakest and supporting his trembling knees in the certainty that in what we do for the smallest of our brothers [and sisters] it is to Jesus himself that we are doing it.” [October 2012]
We have not come up with grandiose plans. Our plans are relatively straight forward and need to be lived in a spirit of humility. We challenged ourselves to be patient and now ape the worldly way of competition. Our psalm response on Wednesday asked the Lord to give success to the work of our hands. The scriptures rarely speak of success, they speak more of fruitfulness. When our focus is on success then we easily fall into the temptation of trying to climb ‘the ladder of success’. The danger in trying to climb such ladders is that we may indeed find ourselves climbing but very likely we will eventually find that all our energy has been consumed by climbing the wrong ladder.
Our mission is not our own. It is God’s mission, entrusted to the SMA through the Church. This ought to make us people of deep humility but also people of faith and hope. Another quote from Pope Francis is appropriate here,
“Crossing the threshold of the faith is to be active, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit present in the Church and who is also seen in the signs of the times. It is to join in the constant movement of life and of history without falling into the paralyzing defeatism that everything in the past was better. It is an urgency to think in new ways, to offer new suggestions, a new creativity, kneading life with ‘the new leaven of justice and holiness.” [October 2012]
I believe we have honestly tried to think in new ways, to offer new suggestions and begun a path that seeks to knead into all of our lives a new leaven of justice and holiness. The new vibrancy of internationality that we live in the SMA today has opened up the possibility of new thinking and new possibilities. Coming together from seventeen countries with such diverse cultures, and electing for the first time two members of the General Council from the world of the south, is a great expression of life and energy in this Society. We told many stories at this Assembly – in the hall, in the chapel and, yes, even in the bar. Story telling in all traditions allows us to free ourselves from the sometimes crippling insularity of the mind and opens us to a greater breath of humanity. We are inheritors of the Greatest Story Ever Told. By virtue of baptism and special call to mission through SMA, we have been mandated to tell this Story of Jesus the Christ to all peoples, especially to Africans and peoples of African origin. We are asked to tell this story in an often hostile environment and to give reasons to those who question us for the hope that is within us.
Our being together these four weeks was characterised by fraternal warmth. The laughter in the refectory or TV room manifests a spirit of togetherness that is vital to the future of our mission. We don’t all have to agree always on every point; had we done so it would suggest an organisation of sycophants rather than a mature community struggling to renew our passion for a shared mission. In that struggle it was good that we were joined by Steve Phillips, representing all our lay associates. This Assembly re-endorsed the openness of SMA to the participation of laity in all dimensions of our mission. Through Steve I salute all SMA lay collaborators, whether they have a juridical link or collaborate on another level.
As we come to the close of this Assembly I want to pay tribute to the outgoing General Council. Six years ago we elected the team of Kieran O’Reilly, Jean-Marie Guillaume, Paul Ennin and Tom Wright. Half way through the mandate Kieran was called to service as bishop of the diocese of Killaloe inIreland. Jean-Marie stepped into the breach and Tom Curran was elected to fill the Councillor position. I thank you Jean Marie for the service you have rendered not only in the past three years but throughout your ministry in SMA. Your leadership throughout has been characterised by competence and unfailing courtesy. To Paul, Tom and Tom, the Society is grateful for your generous service and looks forward to this generous service being manifested in new ways. I remember here too the good work of Didier Lawson and his colleagues in the Bursar Department. Thankfully Didier will continue in this role with the new administration.
I thank our animators, Sr Generose Sibay FSP and Fr Basil Soyoye SMA. You have shown your competence and there no doubt that you were up to the task. You were called to push us a bit here and there but eventually the task was accomplished. The delegates appreciated in a particular way the beautiful and creative prayer sessions that opened our days. The presence of the feminine was especially obvious and we are grateful to you Generose for sharing your time and gifts with us in such a gentle and womanly way.
My thanks too go to the backroom staff without whom this Assembly could not have completed its work: To Frank Wright and Francois Gnonhossou for the translation and to Derek Kearney, Paul Amegashie and Gislain Inai for the secretarial backup and technological competence. You proved that it is possible to conduct a ‘paperless’ Assembly and to achieve the desired outcome.
My thanks also go to the redactors, Joe Egan, Augustin Houessinon, Paul Quillet and Francis Rozario who often worked late into the night and despite a seemingly thankless job refused to throw in the towel but persevered to produce a work of great quality. The moderators of groups are owed our gratitude and, perhaps in this ‘paperless’ Assembly more than in the past, the secretaries deserve our huge esteem. Their competence in the world of technology was the mechanism by which we reached our goal. Secretaries too worked long past the normal schedule and so we are indeed grateful. Technology was also much to the fore in the communication of the spirit of the Assembly. Thanks to Andre N’Koy, Donbosco Mawdsley and all others who contributed to the communication effort.
My thanks to the staff of the house: to Alexis Bassoma, Tom Wright and the kitchen and support staff. Each day people spoke of the excellence of the meals. Many of us will need to go on a strict diet for some months to come. The Presentation Sisters are due a huge debt of gratitude; not only is there service to the community always of the highest standard but what makes it particularly lovely is that it is invariably offered with a smile.
The Society has a new leadership team for the next six years. I along with Antonio Porcellato, Francis Rozario and Francois Gnonhossou will do our best to continue the leadership of service that has characterised administrations in our Society from the beginning. The new mandate agreed at this Assembly asks a greater co-ordinating role of the General Council. We seek to carry out such a co-ordinating role in a spirit of collegiality.
This Assembly has inaugurated a new phase of our Society. We have challenges before us and we have good plans to meet those challenges. Working together we can find that energy to make such plans and such a vision a reality.
May the blessing that Pope Francis imparted on our Society at Wednesday’s audience fill us with courage and faith. May Our Lady of Africa keep an ever watchful eye on all our undertakings. May Melchior de Marion Bresillac, Servant of God, continue to intercede for us.
With this prayer I now declare this 20th General Assembly of the Society of African Missions closed.
Fachtna O’Driscoll SMA
3 May 2013, Rome