SMA Missionaries who were ordained in the 1976 – 1986 period were invited for 12 days reflection at the SMA Motherhouse in Lyon, France, from 7 – 16 July 2016.
11 Irish SMAs attended: Fathers Tom Casey, James Clesham, Anthony Kelly, Aodhán McCrystal, Eugene McLoughlin, Colman Nilan, Michael O’Leary, Noel O’Leary, Fergus Tuohy, Tom Walsh and the current Superior General of the Society of African Missions, Fr. Fachtna O’Driscoll. They were joined by brother SMAs from other branches of the Society: Gérard Sagnol [Lyon], Séraphin Kiosi [DR Congo] and the SMA Vicar General, Antonio Porcellato [Italy]. Translators were SMA Fathers John Suakor [Nigeria] and Jean-Paul Kpatcha [Togo].
The theme chosen for the reflective gathering was ‘Bridges and Confluences’, inspired by the rivers Rhône and Saône that converge to the south of Lyon’s historic city centre. Their gathering together afforded the participants an opportunity to discuss where they see their missionary vocation now, to evaluate their current reality and to reflect on the future.
The animators who offered a number of thought provoking presentations were Fathers Basil Soyoye [Nigeria], Tom McNamara [Ireland] and Dermot McCaul [Britain]. Presentations included reflections on the following:
- Caring for self in Ministry in a time of change and transition;
- 12 Step spirituality;
- The Mystical / Prophetic Foundations of Missionary Life: Its Implications for Celibacy.
Among the several invited Presenters was Dr. Beatrice MENARD, a member of the Fraternite Laics Missionaires (the lay missionary group affiliated to Lyons Province) who spoke about the importance of healthy living which involves a proper diet, regular exercise, healthy relationships and proper sleeping habits. Avoiding sugar, salt, tobacco, drinking a lot of water and eating five different kinds of fruits a day helps us to remain healthy and same with healthy social life and interactions.
Dr Beatrice also encouraged proper stress management: breathing exercises, Yoga and similar techniques can contribute positively to health. In a later session, Tom and Dermot shared on how to indentify, own and manage our stress. This includes having a positive image of God trusting Him as the one leading our lives. They offered participants an opportunity on how to acquire some basic techniques in stress management.
Faith development theories were offered from the perspectives of James W Fowler, who understood faith as a verb rather than a noun – as a way of relating to the world; and from John H. Westerhoff III, who depicts faith like rings growing on a tree – as the tree grows, more rings appear, simultaneously changing the tree, yet building on what has grown before.
Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina were also part of the two-week event.
The gathering also involved visits to places of pilgrimage and scenic beauty. Highlights included a visit to the shrine of the Cure de Ars; the burial place of the SMAs 3rd Superior General, Bishop Paul Pellet, and the monastery of the community of Le Prado.
The highlight of the gathering was a climb to the hill of Fourvière and the chapel where the SMA was founded on 8 December 1856. Here the group celebrated a Thanksgiving Mass, celebrated in the Chapel of the Dark Virgin, which linked them directly with the first group of missionaries who gathered around the SMA founder, Bishop de Marion Brésillac, who consecrated the Society of African Missions to Mary at this very shrine.
In his homily, Fr. Daniel Cardot, former Superior General of the SMA, recalled the fundamentals of SMA commitment. “The SMA charism has always been, and remains, to be at the service of the very poor, especially in Africa, even if it is expressed differently, adapting to different times.”
Participants were taken to where the rivers Rhône and Saône meet. Later Fr Gérard Sagnol SMA reflected: “… we saw the confluence between the Rhône and the Saône, image of the meeting of SMA missionaries coming from diverse origins to put their experiences together, to enrich each other…”
Bastille Day 2016
The group participated in Lyons Bastille Day celebrations which had just concluded when word began to filter through of the juggernaut jihadist attack in Nice. The festivities immediately changed to sadness and uncertainty. The following morning during Morning Prayer and Mass in 150 [as the SMA House is commonly known] prayers were offered for all those killed, injured and their families as well as all those who had to attend the scene and deal with its terrible aftermath.
The Last Day
The great symbolism of the last day was the joining together of two pieces of cloth, a gesture that represented the coming together of two water currents to continue flowing as one river, to symbolize the confluence of these SMA priests, just like the Rhone and the Saône, having met at Lyon, continuing as one river.
Each participant received a cross made from the Akans (Ivory Coast and Ghana) ancient weighing measures and a small lighted candle that had been previously placed on the tombs of our two founders: Bishop de Brésillac and Father Augustin Planque [who continued the development of the SMA after the Founder’s tragic death in Sierra Leone, just six weeks after landing there, on 25 June 1859, less than three years after founding the Society on the hill of Fourviere].
All the participants wish to express their sincere thanks to Fr Antonio Porcellato who had the task of organising the meeting as well as his ‘team’ of facilitators, those who made presentations and the translators. These few short days were interesting and nourishing. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the Local Superior, Fr Pierre Richaud, and the lay staff. They, as well as the entire community, worked tirelessly to make our stay convivial and memorable.
Fr Sagnol captured the spirit of the gathering thus: “In keeping with good Irish tradition we all, after supper on Friday, gathered for a social and fraternal evening. Each one was able to either sing a song or say a poem. The ambiance was so warm that some participants promised to return very soon. Yes, return back to us soon to maintain the SMA international fraternity a living sign of the Good News.”