marianist lay communities and synods – a reflection

2014 International MLC Meeting, Lima Peru
2014 International MLC Meeting, Lima Peru

I may never attend a synod of bishops, but I have attended four international meetings of Marianist Lay Communities; 2001 in Philadelphia, 2005 in Bordeaux, 2009 in Nairobi and 2014 in Lima. As I followed the daily news from the synod, I couldn’t help pondering the similarities with our MLC international meetings.

First of all, there is the mind-opening reality of any international experience. As brothers and sisters in a worldwide community of communities, our commonality is grounded in a shared charism and spirituality. Our diversity is present in how we live this charism in the day to day.

Beyond obvious differences in language and culture, there are differences in political realities and agendas. These differences affect the mission of each community. It is important to share one’s local experience. After all, this is one of the main reasons to gather across the many miles. It is equally important to come with an open mind and heart to listen carefully to the experiences of others. This requires checking in our natural, parochial mindset at the door.

This is especially true for those of us in the western world. Our issues may not be the issues of our neighbours in the global south. We are sometimes so ready with an answer to the problems before us, that we fail to listen, really listen, to the experience and wisdom of others.

MLC International Team, 2009 Nairobi, Kenya
MLC International Meeting, 2009 Nairobi, Kenya

Watching the bishops in the synod halls struggling with headsets reminded me of the long meetings listening to simultaneous translations through static sound systems. It required extra attentiveness to follow the English translation going on in your headset while you could still hear the French or Spanish being spoken on the floor. Add to that the deliciousness of a hefty midday meal, late nights and jet lag, fighting the mid-afternoon demons of sleep was inevitable.

MLC writing team, 2009 Bordeaux
MLC writing team, 2005 Bordeaux

Writing international documents is a major challenge. I was on the writing team at two of the international meetings I attended. We had the added disadvantage of not having a shared language to work with around the table. We struggled to make the necessary changes and edits in three languages. Our translators were our trusted and indispensable companions as they helped us to communicate in our discussions and in our writings. Late, exhausting nights were the norm.

Compiling the numerous statements, comments and edits was often a herculean task. The documents we were writing would become our foundational identity documents. We had to discern which statements reflected the general assembly, and which were indicative of a more individual or local preference. As Marianist Lay Communities, we value inclusivity. The challenge was to make the documents inclusive of our diversity while specifying the foundational characteristics that united us. It was not easy, and there was always a point where our efforts seemed doomed. Relief came when the final document was voted on and approved by the assembly.

As with the synods, our international meetings provided the dual challenge for delegates to faithfully represent the grass roots experience of their region, and to take the fruits of the meeting back home so that visions and carefully chosen words could be transformed into action.

Interest in our international meetings was often mixed at the local levels. Again, as with synods, international meetings come and go while the lives of communities go on.

a Marianist experience of global vocation realities


This is a photo of the World Council of the Marianist Family (WCMF) taken at last November’s meeting in Rome. The members represent the leadership teams from the four different vocations in the Marianist Family: Marianist Lay Communities (MLC), the Society of Mary (priest and religious brothers), the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (religious sisters) and the Alliance Mariale (a secular order of consecrated women).

In my two terms on the MLC leadership team, I attended nine WCMF meetings. We gather as equals around the table sharing the current blessings and challenges of each of our branches around the world. In these conversations, I learned much about the global reality of the church, and the global reality of religious vocations. I wrote about this in my latest Prairie Messenger article, for a special issue on Vocations…

In my Marianist work and travels I have made many friends with sisters, brothers and priests of all ages and from all corners of the world. The ones who stand out are those who are, indeed, attractive witnesses. They dare to live differently in the world but not as strange otherworldly creatures that stand above or apart from others. Hierarchical mindsets and self-appointed exclusivity may be attractive to some, but not for most Catholics today.

The attractive witnesses, for me, are the religious women and men who embrace the joys and trials of community life for it keeps them grounded in their humanity. Collaboration with the laity is assumed and comes naturally, because the only way to be church is to be church together. They do not seek special status or privilege for they know that holiness and wisdom are not automatically conferred with vows or sacramental oils. Their holiness comes from their wholeness. Read more…..

On the first Friday of each month, the Marianist Family is called to pray the Magnificat for a specific social justice issue or project. This month we are united in prayerful support with the newest project of our Marianist Sisters in India. To fully appreciate the magnitude of this project, you have to realize that the Sisters are small in number (with only a handful of members in India), but truly audacious in faith!

Singhpur, is located in a poor rural area of northern India near Ranchi. The Marianist sisters there were aware of rising rates of infant and maternal mortality in childbirth, diseases and infections that could be easily treated if there was a local medical clinic. Through the support of Accion Marianista, the Marianist Sisters, and the Italian bishop’s conference, such a clinic became a reality.

The clinic serves 28 villages and 900 students of the Chaminade School sponsored by the Marianist brothers. Currently a doctor, nurse, laboratory technician, and two nuns work in the clinic. On the day the clinic opened, November 25, 2013, it served more than 90 people. Adult patients are asked to pay a nominal fee and students of Chaminade School receive free medical service. (From the Friday Magnificat, May 2, 2014)

Here is a video put together by Accion Marianista, a Marianist sponsored NGO and supporter of the project.


Vienna archdiocesan re-structuring provokes many questions

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, has announced a major restructuring of the diocese. Within the next 10 years, 660 parishes will be amalgamated into 150. The shortage of priests and declining numbers of Catholics is cited as the reason.

The situation in Vienna gives us much to ponder. On the one hand, Cardinal Schönborn praises the role of the laity in his vision of a restructured church. When I first read these paragraphs in the NCR article, I confess that my heart skipped a joyful beat,

“I am fully aware that these reforms denote a far-reaching change of perspective,” Schönborn said. “We must take leave of the traditional concept that the church is only present where there is a priest. That is a restricted view that has developed over time but which must now be corrected. Church is community, and leading offices in the church should in principle be carried out collaboratively, even if the parish priest has the final responsibility according to canon law.”

The “common priesthood of all the baptized” will take center stage from now on, Schönborn said, meaning that those who have been baptized and confirmed will be responsible for evangelization and pastoral work. The reform is meant to bring about a new form of cooperation between priests and lay Catholics based on their common vocation to Christianity, he said.

Amen! Now, you’re talking. Granted, it’s rather sad that this is acknowledged only when the kaka hits the fan and reality seems to leaves you no choice. Still, this is what church should be. A high ranking cardinal is empowering the laity to take a more active and collaborative role. This is good! So, how is it going to work?

Several priests — “at least three to five” — would be active in each of the central parishes and would run the parish jointly with lay parishioners.

“Participatory leadership with clear task allocation” was the aim, Schönborn said. One priest in each of the central parishes would be responsible to the archbishop.

Within these large central parishes, there would be many small affiliated communities run only by lay Catholics who would work voluntarily. The cardinal expressly emphasized that no parishes would be closed, but smaller parishes might be amalgamated with larger ones.

Catholics would have to travel to one of the large central parishes to celebrate the Eucharist, but Services of the Word would be celebrated by the laypeople running the local affiliated communities.

Church activities would be dedicated to evangelization to a far greater extent than they had been up to now, Schönborn said.

“More and more vibrant communities will be able to develop,” he said, as there would be less administrative work, costs would be bundled, resources pooled and thus “more time left for evangelization.”

Okay, now it doesn’t look so rosy. Living in the rural prairies, I know how difficult it is when a small, mission parish must shut down. I know the difficulty that many families face when they have to travel many miles to attend a Sunday Liturgy. I know what it is like to have no priest on a Sunday and celebrate an occasional lay-led Liturgy of the Word. So far, we have survived. But, what if all our rural parishes were closed in favour of mega-churches in the cities and larger towns? It could happen one day.

The need for ordained, sacramental ministers is not addressed by merely amalgamating parishes. These reforms are being criticized by the Catholic reform group Austrian Priests’ Initiative, which is in favor of ordaining married men and women to relieve the shortage of priests.

So, is the answer to open the doors to the priesthood, or to open wider the doors for more active lay participation? Of course, this does not need to be an either-or question. Doing both might be the logical response for the current needs.

But, if lay women and men are expected to do the administrative and pastoral work previously done by the priest, then they should NOT have to do it as volunteers.  Personally, I find it cheeky of the good Cardinal to propose this while promoting the cost savings of his amalgamation plan. The church has many women and men who are highly educated in theology and pastoral ministry. We should expect a certain level of experience, training or qualifications from lay pastoral ministers, and pay them accordingly – a proper and just living wage not a nominal stipend.

This is going to be an important story to watch. We have heard dire warnings of priest shortages and shrinking parishes for years. For some, this isn’t bad news. Zealous souls on the left have often shared their eagerness for the church to implode. Only then, they believe, could much desired reform rise, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of a tired and spent hierarchy. They are waiting in the wings and on the margins, eager to lead a lay revolution in the church.

Sometimes we have to be careful what we wish for. The situation in Vienna is proof that the future may be closer than we think.Grandiose visions and exuberant battle cries can easily vaporize in the harshness of reality. It’s easy to talk from the margins. It’s much harder to be working from the inside. Are we, as lay women and men, really ready to take true responsibility of our church’s mission in the world? Am I? Are you?