Plenary Council 2011
The SMA Plenary Council brings together the Superiors of the various units of the Society of African Missions. This year it is taking place at the SMA Headquarters of the American Province in Tenafly, USA.
Six Irish SMA’s are attending the meeting: Fr Tom Curran, a member of the SMA General Council who assists the Superior General, Fr Fachtna O’Driscoll, Provincial Leader; Fr Anthony Kelly representing Zambia and Fr Maurice Henry representing the largest SMA Region, Nigeria. Fr Jarlath Walsh, General Bursar and Fr Derek Kearney, Secretary General are also involved in the meeting.
This meeting represents the first time the Society leadership has engaged in a ‘paperless’ meeting. All Reports etc are given through Powerpoint and other presentations.
We present here the Opening Address of the SMA Superior General, Fr Jean-Marie Guillaume (pictured above).
It is an unexpected privilege for me to open the 2011 Plenary Council; the last one of this mandate 2007 – 2013.
I wish to begin by thanking the US Provincial Superior (or Leader), Michael Moran, and the members of the US Province, for proposing that they welcome us to America this year. It has been a long time since a Plenary Council was held in the USA and at the end of last year’s Plenary Council, when it was proposed to come here, it was very quickly accepted. For several among us it is a powerful adventure to come to the USA. All the members participating at the meeting have obtained their visas and are present; welcome to you all. Among us, there are old veterans at this type of thing and, perhaps, I hold the record for this. There are, also, new members. I would like to mention, first of all, Tom Curran, who joined the General Council last November and whom I thank, once again, for having accepted to serve the SMA with us in Rome. A special welcome, also, to Alan de Guzman, the new Superior of the Philippine District-in-formation. Jean-Guy Martel has already participated in past Plenary Councils and he is present here, almost despite himself! There are, now, three Regional Superiors present; two are already well used to Plenary Councils but there is a new-comer from Ghana, James Owusu-Yeboah.
It is fitting that our Plenary Council takes place in the Easter Season, a season that reminds us more of the presence of the resurrected Jesus, in whom our faith and our missionary engagement is founded. It is a time that reminds us of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first small and fragile community of disciples gathered with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It is a time, also, that permits us to re-live the witness of Jesus among his disciples as perceived and transmitted to us by John the Evangelist. The words of John, which we read in the Liturgy in this Easter Season, reveals the love of Jesus for his own, for those he has chosen and sent, inviting them to unity and to the witnessing of fraternity and holiness.
Above and beyond the things that have taken place in each of our Units, several events have marked our Society since the time of the last Plenary Council in Cadier en Keer. I would like to bring to mind some of them. First of all, there was the joyful and emotional Episcopal ordination of Kieran O’Reilly, which several of us had the pleasure of attending. Kieran has just celebrated his first priestly and diaconate ordinations, on May 21st, in Ibadan, in our formation house, of one SMA Priest and five SMA Deacons.
During the year Mid-Mandate Assemblies of the Districts-in-formation took place spurring them on with renewed programmes that will take them up as far as 2013. From the 24th – 28th January 2011, the meeting of Regional Superiors was held in Abuja and whose report you have been given. The meeting ended with the grandiose inauguration of the SMA Regional House. According to the opening remarks of Archbishop Onayiekan, Archbishop of Abjua, this house is a sign of hope and of a great future for the SMA.
Most Regions were able to hold their Regional Assemblies, the last being that of the new and strong Region of Nigeria from the 3rd to the 6th May. The lengthy report from this Assembly is impressive and gives witness to a serious reflection. I recall, especially, the very strong appeal for SMA missionary vocations and an insistence on SMA parishes ‘where we can, not only increase SMA promotion and the appeal for vocations, but also add the possibility of managing directly our pastoral plans, to have a continuity in our ministerial service and to build a deeper sense of community among ourselves and among the Christians we serve. And there is the added advantage that we are able to bring financial resources to the Region and to the wider Society.’ In a Plenary Council whose Agenda carries many financial demands, it is good to know that the Region of Nigeria is productive in the financial domain.
As for the Ivory Coast, the members there were unable to hold their Assembly. We cannot begin this Plenary Council without evoking the difficult crisis and the war that this country, which is dear to us and in which the SMA has invested much for more than 115 years, has just undergone. It is impossible to describe the suffering of the people who are ‘tired’ and have really learned at their own expense what war really is. Our SMA Brothers have been very marked by all these events and have been humbly present, close to their people, welcoming them, helping them as much as they could from what they had; their commitment has been admirable. I would like to highlight particularly the attitude of fraternity, of support, of comfort exemplified by Dario Dozio, the new Regional Superior, who has never faltered in his faith in Divine Providence, and in the human and spiritual resource of his SMA brothers and of the people. He has striven, despite a forced confinement of more than two months, to keep contact with everyone, and to offer words of confidence and hope; words often mingled with encouraging humour.
In this situation of war, the CFMA (Mission Formation Centre of Abidjan) and the philosophy faculty of UCAO (Catholic University of West Africa) closed down. The conflict, part of which unfolded around the SMA formation house at Ebimpe, forced our 44 students and the formation team to flee into exile. They were very marked by this experience but since the 16th May the courses have begun again and our students have found asylum with the Capuchin Brothers who have, as far as we are concerned, put into practice their tradition of welcome and hospitality.
The events in the Ivory Coast unfolded with the back-drop of elections. It was a similar context that triggered the violence in Nigeria which greatly effected some of our members whose communities suffered violence, destruction and death e.g. in Tafawa-Balewa and Dass in the Diocese of Bauchi; Marraban-Rido and Sabon Tasha in Kaduna Diocese; Vom and the parish of Saint Louis Jos, in Jos Archdiocese, and the parish of Saint Charles in Kano. Several other countries are conducting elections or are preparing for elections e.g. the Dem. Rep. of Congo.
Elections are always a source of tension and anxiety. However, some countries have conducted their elections with happy outcomes like the Rep. of Benin. This allowed the SMA and a good number of its members and friends to take part in the major celebrations on the 10th April organised for the 150th anniversary of the evangelisation of this country and of the arrival of the first SMA missionaries on the beach at Ouidah. The expansion of the Church in this country and the number of diocesan priests and religious from Benin, emanating from this Church, is for us a good occasion in which to re-orientate ourselves in our choice for mission and to revise our participation in ‘God’s Mission’ – an expression found in current Mission Theology.
The proposed Agenda for this meeting, following the orientations taken for this mandate 2007-2013, and on various other suggestions, cannot be studied on its own without recalling what is or ought to be our mission as SMA.
The points on the Agenda are very concrete and touch on what I would like to qualify as two important fragile points for us; the lack of personnel and the difficulty we have in adapting our structures to the actual context of the SMA and its Mission. The lack of personnel is evident. Every Region is crying out desperately for reinforcements; new requests arrive from dioceses in which we have never been present before, including dioceses in the West. The call from Provinces and Districts which are reflected in item number 9 of the Agenda, the financial requests from the Districts-in-formation are all in accord with our structures and our mission. Ought we to continue to develop our Society on the same model that has served us up until now?
The Agenda of the Plenary Council echoes, also, a constant worry for the General Council, namely the formation of our students, and I am convinced that the Provincial, District and Districts-in-formation Superiors are carrying the same worry themselves. A quick read of the Agenda reveals the enormous financial implications that formation demands. Behind that lies the question: whilst our formation houses have become too small, ought we not to limit the intake of candidates when we lack personnel?
With these reflections I declare the Plenary Council of 2011 to be officially open and I wish the light of the Spirit and protection of Mary, whose Visitation we celebrate today, to be with us.
SMA Superior General, 31 May 2011
For the Homily at the Opening Mass, click here.