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Gathered Around the Same Table

 

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The Vocation of Champagnat’s Marist Laity

20/10/2009: General House

The most recent work published by the General Administration of the Marist Brothers is Gathered Around the Same Table – The vocation of Champagnat’s Marist Laity Rome, 2009.

The theme of the work is summed up in the sub-title – the vocation of laypersons as Marists in the spirit of Marcellin Champagnat. The book deals with persons living very different forms of life – married, single, priests – who choose to live their lives according to Marist spirituality because they feel called by God to this vocation.

Even though the purpose of this article is to outline of the structure of the book, it is of value to underline one of its important themes: that of call.  Some people experience a specific call to live their Christian faith following, the “foundational charism” (p. 17), that is to say, the spirit of a particular religious consecration, practising its spirituality and its mission in so far as they are able.

At the launching of this work on the 6 June 2009, Br Seán Sammon spoke of laypersons receiving a “specific call” (p.8) during the course of their lives, and commented: “As they sought to clarify their identity during the years subsequent to the Council, more than a few lay persons found that the charism of one or another religious congregation came to feel like a home port” (p. 9). The book repeats this idea many times, and offers a definition of the lay Marist: “A third group of persons exist who, after a personal journey of discernment, have decided to live their Christian spirituality and mission in the manner of Mary, following the insight of Marcellin Champagnat. That’s us, the Lay Marists” (#11).

Keeping in mind that the themes in the book will be treated in subsequent articles, let us now deal with the structure of this book that I consider as latest jewel in the treasure of Marist publications.. However, before turning to the structure, we need to note two significant features of the work:

  1. The contents were elaborated by a commission comprised mostly of laypersons. “To accomplish this, the Council set up an international commission comprising seven lay people and three brothers, from different language backgrounds, cultures and personal histories that has worked for three years developing the document ” (p.15). It is worth noting also that three laypersons from different continents wrote the first version of the text.  Similarly, one layperson was closely involved in writing the final edition, helped by the remaining members of the commission.  The final text took into account suggestions coming from both lay people and brothers.  The suggestions were received from a large majority of the administrative units of the Institute.
  2. Another significant aspect to highlight is that 92 lay men and women from the Marist world and from five continents submitted contributions to the commission. The final edition is largely a fruit of their experience. This is not a publication produced inside an office where some experts put brilliant ideas on paper, ideas with little connection to real life. On the contrary, the text springs from the life experience of persons cited throughout the text. “The many personal testimonies placed throughout the book cannot but help the reader to identify more closely with the topics discussed” (p.9).

The structure of the book is relatively simple. After the Presentation and the Introduction, it has six chapters followed by an Open Letter to a wide audience: “Dear Brothers and Sisters” (p. 101). The work ends after the Open Letter with a Study Guide comprising a series of questions for each chapter.

The chapter titles are self-explanatory.

  1. The first chapter (§1 - §35) defines and explains THE VOCATION OF THE LAY MARIST. We have already referred to the brief definition to be found in §11. Another paragraph refers to the lay Marist vocation underlining the idea of a complete call: “[The lay Marist vocation] is a personal call to a specific way of being disciples of Jesus” (§13). Clearly, in this instance, the specific way is the following of Jesus in the Marist way as Champagnat did (cf. §§33, 34; Open Letter p.102), as Mary did (cf. §§11, 67, 79, 111).  
  2. The next three chapters are introduced by the last sections of the first chapter (§§ 34, 35) that mention three fundamental dimensions: MISSION (Ch.2 §§36-64); SHARED LIFE (Ch 3. §§65-99); and SPIRITUALITY (Ch. 4 §§100-123). These three aspects appear often, and at times their inter-relationship is highlighted. Typically: “Our life becomes unified around Christ in the three dimensions of the charism: spirituality sends us to the mission and it engenders shared life; communion strengthens us in the mission and deepens spirituality; the mission discovers for us new facets of spirituality and makes us experience brotherhood” (§123; cf. §34).   
  3. Chapter 5 (§§ 124-148) expands on FORMS OF RELATIONSHIP WITH THE MARIST CHARISM. This chapter is of great importance, answering as it does to the many questions raised about various levels of belonging and linkage to the Institute of the Marist Brothers. In this regard, the text is very open and refers to almost every kind of group related to the Marist Institute, from Associations of Former Students to other lay Marist groups (cf. §§ 135-139). The same openness applies to forms of linkage to the Marist Institute. The range includes links formally recognised by the Brother Provincial to informal relationships not requiring any form of recognition (cf. §§140-143).
  4. Chapter 6 (§§ 149-169) offers useful ideas for discovering and living WAYS OF GROWTH IN VOCATION. Every vocation needs nourishment by processes of formation and assimilation as life proceeds. Otherwise the sense of call is weakened and even dies. The book lays great emphasis on the importance of ongoing formation (§§ 163-169), whether of laypersons alone or of laypersons together with brothers. Such formation either at provincial or international level “make[s] us look beyond our groups and discover new horizons for our faith” (§164).

The OPEN LETTER brings the work to an appropriate ending. In the familiar and friendly form of a letter, laypersons speak of the lay Marist vocation as a gift of God. Their dream includes Marist mission directed to needy children and young people. They affirm their desire to live in the Spirit but in a Marist way, walking with the Brothers to give new life to the Marist charism. It takes up themes already mentioned in the Presentation and Introduction and that re-appear in the chapters from time to time. It speaks of vocation as a call or as a gift; of three fundamentals of the lay Marist vocation – mission, shared life and spirituality; vocation as a journey; a spiritual journey; an apostolic journey; a journey to be undertaken jointly by Brothers and Layperson; a vocation touched by Champagnat and with a Marian aspect.   

 

Responding to a long-felt need in the Marist world, this publication is a very welcome gift for our times. The General Chapter in 2009 gave its full support to the idea of lay Marists as a sign of the times. Their presence is strongly felt in our Congregation today: it isn’t possible to turn back. The charism of Champagnat is for the church and the world, and for both brothers and laypersons. 

But, from time to time, I hear remarks expressing fear that the promotion of lay Marists will lead to a decline of vocations to the consecrated life and a weakening of enthusiasm to promote the vocation of the Brother. Such sentiments arise from a blinkered vision of the Church, and are far from being prophetic. For that matter, our lay Marists do not at all share that opinion.

As I pen these remarks, it is the fourth of October, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most universally-loved saint of the Church. My professor in church history used to call him a saint of “intelligent sensitivity” as opposed to his contemporary, St Dominic de Guzman whom he termed a saint of “sensitive intelligence.” The eruption of the Franciscan movement into the church is remarkable: there are more than 100 congregations of religious and lay movements inspired by the spirituality of St Francis. I have never heard any of my Franciscan friends say that lay Franciscan movements have “stolen” religious vocations from them. On the contrary, these living movements give life to the Franciscan charism and spirituality, providing fertile ground where consecrated Franciscan vocations may burgeon and flourish.

Why should a similar development not occur in our Marist world? Surely, the living development of a lay Marist movement incorporating Marist mission and spirituality, and sharing life with the Brothers in a variety of ways, can produce for us an environment where consecrated Marist vocations could spring up and flourish. This is one of my dreams.

________________
Brother Teófilo Minga
Rome, 4 October 2009


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