The opening week of the 17th Provincial Assembly of the Society of African Missions has been one of prayerful reflection and discernment. It was a time to look back; a time to pause and pray; and a time to begin charting the course of the Society for the next six years and, indeed, the coming critical decades.
The assembly includes 24 elected delegates; three ex-officio members, our Laity coordinator, Dympna Mallon, JPIC Director, Gerry Forde and Communications Officer, Don Mullan. Also attending the Assembly is Fr. John Dunne SMA. Input to the Assembly has already been given by Sr. Kathleen McGarvey Provincial Leader of the OLA Sisters, and representatives of the Friends of Africa, SMALA and Lay Volunteers.
Fr. Derek Kearney SMA is secretary to the Assembly, and Fr. Tom Curran SMA is the Assembly’s technical assistant.
The Assembly is blessed to have as its facilitator, Br. Michael Burke, CFC. Delegates have all been deeply impressed at his ability to hear beyond the spoken word and to synthesize the emerging discernment on where we want and need to go. His natural gentleness is complemented by a powerful intellect that is focused on helping us to engage in a process of integrity and faithfulness.
The first week has been an opportunity to take stock with many carefully considered and presented papers.
One of the most powerful presentations was made by our Laity Coordinator, Dympna Mallon, with the support of Katherine Dulleghan, SMA Laity Outreach (Cork), Mary Campbell, volunteer, and Ciaran McShane, Friends of Africa.
With a series of signposts Dympna and her team took us on a journey through our history:
1856: The SMA founded with a ‘concern for Africa and the most abandoned’. The SMA Constitution, Paragraph 2, from its early days stated: “We are a clerical Society of Apostolic Life, approved by the Church. We are composed of clerics and laity.”
1912: Under the faithful guidance of Fr. Joseph Zimmerman, Ireland becomes the first Province of the Society of African Missions.
1959: The Family Vocations Crusade (now the Family Vocations Community) was founded at Dromantine. Dympna reminded us that ‘The FVC began as an idea of the SMA and became a reality.”
During this presentation, projected onto the Assembly screen, was the following quotation from Proverbs 3: 5-6:
“Trust wholeheartedly in Yahweh, put no faith in your own perception.
In every course you take, have him in mind,
he will see that your paths are smooth.”
1969: The Dromantine Summer Camps began which resulted in many young people becoming connected and committed to the SMA mission.
1998: Friends of Africa (FAO) was founded. It was established by four young men who had been through the Dromantine Summer Camps.
2001: SMALA (SMA Lay Association) was founded. It was and is comprised of a group of engaged, committed, faithful and loyal people “who have adapted and exchanged.”
2013: The last Provincial Assembly which recognized all of the above paths and made a decision to do more.
2015: The Laity, Justice and Communications Commissions were established.
2016: The SMA Thumbprint Campaign for Climate Justice launched. As Dympa introduced the developments of 2016, the following PA13 statement appeared on the Assembly screen:
‘An open and inclusive missionary community centred on Christ
and committed to making a positive difference
in and for Africa.’
2018: The SMA Family Tree Programme launched; the piloting of the Formation Programme; the Laudato Tree and Great Green Wall Project launched at Aras an Uachtaráin by President Michael D. Higgins – all speaking of the possibilities of what can happen with goodwill and faith.
2019: Leading us to now – and the present possibilities. The journey which Dympna took us through led to a river without a bridge. Delegates were given a gray sheet of paper cut in the shape of a large stone. Each was invited to write on the stone the number of years of service they had given to the SMA and its mission to Africa and the most abandoned. When totaled the combined years of commitment of the SMA members present came to 1047 years! Over a millennium of service, representing an extraordinary wealth of experience and wisdom.
We were reminded that due to the aging profile of the Irish Province we cannot continue with the way we are going. New relationships are required.
Katherine, Ciaran and Mary all emphasized this in their contributions, and reminded us that what motivates young people today, is not traditional religion, but social justice. Katherine suggested to the Assembly that we need to find a new language. “What attracts young people to the SMA ethos is faith with Justice.”
Ciaran informed the Assembly that he is involved with the SMA because the society offers a way for him to put into action his faith. “When you speak of Catholicism or the Church to young people they switch-off, but when one speak about the work of social justice they switch-on.”
Mary stated that its all about relationships. She said there was an epidemic of loneliness in society today, including people in detention centres across Ireland which we euphemistically call ‘direct provision’ centres. “It’s all about relationships,” Mary reminded us, ‘founded in the love of God.”
Leading us to the river was a quotation from Seamus Heaney:
“Running water never disappointed.
Crossing water always furthered something.
Stepping stones were stations of the soul.”
Referring back to the years of experience we were reminded that the accumulation of 1047 years represented wisdom, experience, knowledge and a huge charism that is still attracting people, all of whom ‘represent the living word of God’.
Each delegate was invited to lay their stone over the river to build a bridge ‘to enrich the work of those following’. Dympna reminded us that the work of the SMA is needed now as much as 150 years ago. She then offered 4 signposts that looked at the possibilities of where we can go…
a. DIALOGUE – a two-way process of listening and talking
b. A policy framework, developed on the basis of a PARTNERSHIP of equals”
c. A formal COMMITMENT for laypeople to be part of the SMA and
d. The ENGAGEMENT of a panel comprised of SMA and laypeople for lay appointments
At the conclusion of the presentation, Br. Michael offered a thought for us to reflect upon:
“What has sustained us is our call to be part of our faith based mission, there are certain fundamentals:
We ask the wider membership of the Society, our lay associates and many friends to continue to keep the Assembly and its contributors in your prayers. Next week we will discern more and begin the onerous but faith-filled task of charting a new path as well as electing a new Provincial Leader; and the following week we will elect a new Provincial Council.
Your prayers and goodwill are needed. And please be assured the Assembly is also remembering you in our daily prayers and Eucharist.
We have included several photographs from the Assembly which we hope will give you an idea of the work in progressed.