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Marist Bulletin - Number 148



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Allocution of Brother Seán Sammon, General Superior – June 5, 2004

On December 1st, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a woman by the name of Rosa Parks broke the law to win release from the prison in which she found herself. Parks, an African American employed as a seamstress, sat down in one of the seats reserved for whites on a city bus. In a racist society, it was a courageous act, and not without its risks.
Legend has it that years later, a student asked Ms. Parks what had caused her to take that seat. Her answer, “I sat down because I was tired.” Now, surely it was not just her feet that were tired. No, what ate at the soul and sapped the energy of this middle aged woman were the years of empty promises that she had heard. Promises that left her heart divided; promises made with only one intention in mind: the desire to keep some people “in their place.”
But on that December day in 1955, Parks made an important life decision. In an act, stunning in its simplicity, she told all who would listen that she would no longer live in a way that contradicted her deeply held convictions. Henceforth, she would live with an undivided heart. And in so doing, she set into motion a civil rights movement that changed the face of a nation and the law of the land.
Now what is the relationship between this story and the feast that we celebrate today? After all, Marcellin never heard of Rosa Parks, or for that matter of Montgomery, Alabama. And the founder was dead for more than a century before she ever set foot on that bus?
Two points. First of all, the virtue of simplicity marked both Rosa Park’s action and the life of Marcellin Champagnat. Taking a seat on a city bus is a simple act. But in so doing, Rosa Parks transformed her own life and that of the lives of many who came after her.
Equally, so, Marcellin Champagnat was known for his simplicity. There was no guile in him. He was direct, honest, unassuming, and he encouraged his brothers to develop the same traits. The founder was clear: as poverty marks a Franciscan, so also should the virtue of simplicity mark each and every one of his Little Brothers of Mary, and, indeed, mark the lives of all who today would claim his charism as their own. There is no place for pretence, or the “putting on of airs” in the life of anyone who wants to live our Marist life out in the way that Marcellin modelled.
Our readings in today’s Eucharist highlight the very same virtue of simplicity. The author of Acts, for example, gives us a snapshot of life among the members of the early Christian community, the manner in which they shared all things according to the needs of each, their joy and simplicity of heart.
And Matthew reminds us again that the logic of the reign of God is in direct opposition to the practice of empire. The evangelist provides us with a surprising means for measuring greatness. Be the least, he advises, and you will be the greatest in the Kingdom. Therefore, the seeking after power and prestige, and looking for the places of honor have no place in the Kingdom, and should have no place in our Church. Sad to say, they sometimes do. And that is why religious life is so important in our age, as it has been in ages before. For religious life is always called to be the Church’s living memory of what it was meant to be, longs to be, must be
With that said, we must remind ourselves that religious life exists for the gospel, and not for the Church. While the gospel will always be in need of a Church, a community of believers, religious life must always be peripheral to the basic structures that make up that Church. And that is why religious Institutes have traditionally focused on those whom the stable structures of diocese and parish are unable to reach: the orphan, prostitutes, the unchurched, and so many others. If religious life allows itself to be domesticated, tamed of its inherent wildness, it will fail to be the prophetic presence it was meant to be in both society and our Church.
A second point. Marcellin Champagnat used this virtue of simplicity to confront the challenge of innovation that the Church of France faced in his day. He was able to read the signs of his times, and to read them accurately. As the revolutionary movements that swept across early 19th century Europe began to wind down, the Church was confronted with this challenge: to be inventive and resourceful to the changed world in which it found itself. Sad to say, once the dust of revolution had settled many Church leaders looked for ways to re-establish the past. The future would not belong to them. Rather, people like Marcellin Champagnat would shape it.
This second point is of critical importance today. Religious life, in many parts of our world, stands at a crossroad. We have witnessed almost a half century of deconstruction in this way of life. But any student of the history of religious life realizes that this situation is normal, indeed necessary if new life is to be possible.
But the moment has not yet arrived for a new beginning to take place, the renaissance that so many expected as Vatican II came to a close. Rather, with the dawn in sight we must begin the task of building something new. And in so doing, we must expect mistakes to be made, disappointment to be experienced, and the presence of those inevitable prophets of doom that have accompanied us throughout the history of this time of change and transformation in our way of life. But was this not also the case in Marcellin’s day. There was Vicar General Bochard who did everything within his power to absorb the Institute into his own Society of the Cross of Jesus, Father Rebod, the founder’s pastor, whose jealousy at his assistant’s success created innumerable problems for the founder, and so many others.
If the last half century of turmoil in religious life has convinced us of anything, it should have convinced us of this much: Jesus Christ comes as a suffering servant and not a conquering King. It is the lesson of today’s gospel; it is the hard learning that we have come by after almost a half century of efforts to renew.
Our Institute faces many challenges today: the need to become a world Institute and not one dominated by western thought alone, the need to renew our institutions and, at the same time, to find new ways to bring God’s Good News to poor children and young people, the need to transform our communities so that they are places where forgiveness is a habit and reconciliation no stranger, and so many others. Yes, we face many challenges, but we have the founder’s example to help us find the means to deal with each of them in turn.
Rosa Parks in all simplicity sat down on a bus in Montgormery, Alabama. Marcellin Champagnat, a man who always had difficulty with studies, in all simplicity followed God’s dream for his life and founded a community of brothers to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to poor children and young people. Today we are asked in all simplicity to trust in God’s goodness and plan for the future of our Institute and way of life and to surrender to the process of renewal with the change of heart it entails.
We needed the present time of renewal in our way of life. It has roused us from our sleep and challenged us to ask again on whom or what do we set our hearts. Although there has been loss and pain, we have also been given the possibility of transformation. In the midst of our efforts to achieve that, we do well to remember, that “in every winter’s heart there is a quivering spring.” As we search for it, let us rely on our faith to guide us, hope to sustain us, and love to support us on our journey.

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