Fr MICHAEL MCCABE SMA
It is my pleasant duty to welcome all of you to the second and final EPC of SMA Ireland in this mandate. I welcome especially those who have come a long way to be here – our Stream II leaders still on mission in Africa, representing the diffeerent countries where Irish SMAs are assigned.
A special word of welcome to our lay invitees: Dympna Mallon, Laity Co-Ordinator and Gerry Forde, Justice Office Director. We will also be joined later today by Elizabeth Murphy, Safeguarding Designated Liasion Person [DLP] for the Province, who will give a presentation on Safeguarding; and tomorrow by Paul Murphy, Assistant Bursar, who will share the presentation of the Financial Report. I am grateful to Fr Paddy O’Rourke and his colleagues for agreeing to host this meeting in the idyllic setting of the Dromantine Retreat & Conference Centre.
I returned to Ireland a few days ago following the annual meeting of the SMA Plenary Council which was hosted by the SMA Formation House in Nairobi, where I had lived and worked for five years. It was like a home-coming for me, renewing old friendships and bringing back a host of grateful memories. The two weeks of the meeting of SMA leaders from the four corners of the globe with the members of the General Council was an exhilarating experience, reminding me of how much the SMA as an international missionary Society has changed over the past twenty-five years (since I first started attending these meetings). It is not simply that the leadership of the Society has shifted from the older provinces to the new SMA units in Africa and Asia and that language is no longer a barrier to communication. We have become much more international at every level. Old conflicts have dissipated; new issues have come to the fore; laborious paperwork has disappeared to be replaced by the wizardry of instantaneous communication through internet technology; above all, there is a palpable air of vitality, energy and enthusiasm, an openness to new initiative and new ways of living the SMA charism which is a source of great hope and encouragement for the future of the mission entrusted to us.
In his opening address at the Plenary Council, our Superior General, Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll, spoke about the need to constantly re-discover our charism and incarnate it in the changing circumstances in which we live and work. He quoted from a talk he had recently heard which struck me as relevant, not only to our Society in general, but also to the particular situation in which SMA Ireland now finds itself. I repeat the quotation here:
“While sharing a common charism, the members of an international congregation bring diverse experiences of church and religious life, shaped by the many cultural backgrounds they represent. The assumption that all have exactly the same vision of church, ministry, religious life, and spirituality can lead to misunderstandings, resentments, and conflict. It is important to recognise the diversity of ecclesiologies and lived experience of religious life, and not to assume that the way it is lived out in the host country is the one and only way the congregation’s charism should be incarnated.” (Vocational Discernment in an Intercultural World, Fr Mark Weber SVD)
When I returned to Ireland in 2013, following five years in Kenya and six years in Rome, I was struck by the enormous changes that had taken place in the Irish ecclesial and cultural scene. I experienced an Ireland from which I felt deeply alienated, a secularized Ireland, not merely hostile to the Church and its traditions, but also disconnnected from its past; a rootless Ireland that had somehow lost its way. I penned some reflections on my experience in a paper I delivered in Milltown Institute in December 2014. I now think I was being overly-pessimistic in some of these reflections, though not as pessimistic as others who believed that the Church has lost its capacity to influence today’s society.
Well, I don’t think this is true. We should not be silent nor turn in on ourselves. We have a long tradition of living our missionary charism, especially in Africa, where we have laboured to bring to birth churches that are now full of life and energy;
churches in which the laity exercise vital leadership roles;
churches that know how to celebrate the gift of life and of God’s love made visible in Christ;
churches that are incredibly resilient in the face of enormous obstacles and problems;
churches that are now missionary and ready and willing to give something back to the churches from which they first received the faith.
Indeed, with two African SMA priests as seconded members of the Province, we are now recipients of this ‘mission in reverse’. How can we say that we, who have been part of that “great historical drama”, as Saint John Paul II puts it, of missionary outreach have now nothing to say, or no contribution to make, to our home country and to the Church that mothered us and is now in dire need of renewal?
At the present time, as you can see from the statistics, the Irish Province has 164 permanent members and 2 seconded members. 33 (20%) of these are still on mission in Africa, in the service of the local Churches there – though increasingly in an ancillary and supportive role. Almost 70% are living in Ireland, either retired, or in the service of our houses, or in parishes. While very few are under 70 years of age, we are far from throwing in the towel yet (the average age of deaths in the Province has risen to 86 years) and we surely have a contribution to make by living our missionary charism in the context (and culture) in which we now find ourselves.
In a recent article in The Tablet (10 June 2017), Archbishop Eamonn Martin of Armagh stated that “We are in a new time. We have to accept that reality that in many people’s lives faith does not impinge any more”. He went on to say that, if the Catholic Church is to engage with that reality, “we will not simply be able to do it at the level of bishops and priests”. It can only be done, he insists, with the support and collaboration of lay people. This does not mean ‘clericalizing the laity’ by allowing them to undertake functions once carried out by a priest or a deacon. What it means is empowering committed lay people to “bring the voice of faith into the areas…. of politics, education, health and social action”.
This vision of a Church, in which lay people are encouraged and empowered to take an active and leadership role in evangelizing society, is not new. It is essentially the vision of Vatican II, unfortunately eclipsed during the long pontificate of Pope John Paul II when clericalism raised its head again, and that has now been prioritized by Pope Francis. It is also the vision of Church that underpinned the key commitment of our last Provincial Assembly (2013) to a deeper engagement with laity in the living out of our missionary charism in Ireland today. Some tentative efforts have been made towards implementing that commitment but there is a much greater potential yet to be realized. One of the tasks of this EPC will be to review the commitments of PA 13 and EPC 14 and see what steps we need to take to advance them.
A further task will be to begin the preparation of our next Provincial Assembly (2019) by agreeing a methodology and representation.
As we will see when we look at the Agenda, there is no shortage of topics for discussion. I trust that our deliberations will be carried out in a congenial atmosphere, and that the decisions we take help us to persevere in fidelity to our missionary vocation. May we be guided by the Holy Spirit who has gifted the charism of SMA to each and every one of us, and may Mary, our Missionary Mother, look down on us with maternal care!
With these opening remarks I declare EPC 2017 open.
Michael McCabe SMA
Provincial Leader 14 June 2017