Christian Life Community - Europe

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To the General Assembly of the Christian Life Community


Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ
Nairobi, August 4, 2003




Thank you for your invitation to join you at this meeting of CLC. In this talk, I want to comment on what Saint Ignatius understood by "the genuine attitude which we ought to maintain in the militant Church." (352) This group of rules seems to be simply an addition to the Spiritual Exercises, which we tend to ignore, since they refer to a militant Church that seems to be no longer of our time. They appear to propose an attitude toward the Church that is not consonant with the teachings of the second Vatican Council. Some directors of the Exercises look on these rules of Saint Ignatius as so out-dated and embarrassing that they ignore them and do not refer their retreatants to them.

We should remember, however, that in the fourth week Saint Ignatius invites us to share in the Church's beginnings through encounters with the resurrected Christ. We should note also that he places these rules to think, judge and feel with the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) after his rules on the discernment of the spirits, reminding us that only the Spirit can give the true sense of the Church obtained through a prayerful discernment. To learn from Saint Ignatius how to grow in union with the Church, we go to the Spiritual Exercises which convey his perception of the Church that some have called “dramatic”.

Since Vatican II Council the Church has been engaged in a tension between tradition and progress, between continuity and change. The world is now mission territory and the Church seeks to respond to the call for a new evangelization that is ever old and yet ever new. It is sufficient to read the newspapers or to watch television for knowing about the tensions in the liturgical field, or about real conflicts in ethics, different approaches to the necessary inculturation of our faith.

As such this situation is normal. After a prophetic event like a Council, where the Spirit of the Lord is speaking to us, there was always a lengthy process of reform and renewal which did not reach a lived consensus for centuries. Especially Vatican II, which has helped us to rediscover the Church as a “koinonia” of local churches under the entire college of bishops, of which the Bishop of Rome is the head. This, in turn, has renewed the distinctive role of the laity in the life of the Church. It has deepened the sense of the co-responsibility of all God’s people for the whole life of the Church, leading to the formation of numerous ecclesial movements and to hear more voices speaking in the Church. This is a source of life, creativity and vitality, but also of creative and less creative tensions, because not all voices are saying the same thing. Sometimes we are dragged into conflictual, even explosive ecclesiastical situations.

Ignatian obedience is one of concrete fidelity to the real, visible hierarchy of the Church, not to some abstract ideal. We belong to the Church and we share its joys and pains, its martyrs and its scandals, because the Church is and always will be a communion of saints and sinners, of triumphs and tragedies, which we share.

The ecclesial context in which Ignatius lived is quite different from that of today. But there is a profound mystical bond that transcends the particularities of his sixteenth century. Rooted in the faith that the Spirit is guiding the Church, that bond drives us to seek out of love to grow in oneness with the Church, because the Lord loves the Church, our Church, as a bride, as his spouse.

If we only look at the Church with the eyes of a member of a multi-national NGO we will never grasp its mystery. This does not mean that we are to deny the reality of the Church, but to look at it with new eyes. The picture is not complete as long as we do not see the powerful Spirit and the weak human hand working at the same time in the Lord’s Church. And if our love of Christ, inseparable from our love for his spouse the Church, impels us to seek the will of God in each situation, it can also oblige us to engage in constructive and loving criticism based on a powerful discernment, which could also lead us to remain silent for the moment. But it cannot justify a lack of solidarity with the Church, from which we are never nor in any way distinct or apart.

In a certain way, Saint Ignatius lived the experience of Christian Life communities in the Church. He was a member of the Confraternity of the Holy Spirit that can rightly be seen as a precursor of the CLC. Long before the establishment of the Marian Congregations in 1563, ecclesial life found expression in the confraternities. As the word suggests, they were an initiative of the laity in the Church. While organising themselves in guilds, according to their professions, as artists, workers, merchants, they sought to model themselves on the first Christian communities whose members, believers in the resurrected Christ, put everything they owned in common, selling their properties and their goods and distributing the proceeds to each according to his need. Each day they gathered to pray and to share a common meal in joy and simplicity of heart.

The description of the Church of the Apostles and first disciples (Acts 2, 44-46) is no doubt somewhat idealistic, but it inspired the confraternities as it does today the base communities and other new movements in the Church. At the moment of death, everyone wanted to be supported by the paschal faith and prayers of their brothers and sisters in the Lord. But they were not concerned only with death. They also wanted to grow and share in the life itself of the Church, going beyond a simple formal adherence. The clergy concerned itself with spiritual matters. The laity, by their membership in the confraternities, took on the mission of manifesting concretely the Lord's compassion by visiting prisoners, feeding the hungry, helping the poor and the sick. The numerous confraternities practised various forms of charity, but all drew nourishment from the same sacraments.

Then as today, it was a lay movement, arising from below so to speak and inspired by the same faith. Not in any way was it a church in opposition to or independent of the hierarchical Church. The members were autonomous but they chose a priest to assist them and who served as a link to the Church. They were attentive to the Spirit. Saint Ignatius spoke from experience when he wrote that “we believe that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, his Spouse, there is the one same Spirit who governs and guides us for the salvation of our souls.” (365)

It is this spirit of creative fidelity and respect for diversity moved by the same one Spirit that inspired the Jesuit Jean Leunis in his establishment of the first Marian congregation, so called because its members met in the little Roman chapel of the Annunciation. In the tradition of the confraternities, there were congregations made up of specific groups with a focus on young students wanting to come together for prayer. The change of name was deliberate. The confraternities were mainly spontaneous gatherings of lay people. The rules were decided on by the members themselves. As we said, a priest was invited to accompany them.

By using the word 'congregation' which means 'gathering', Father Leunis changed the ecclesial perspective. He chose the members himself and presented them with a set of rules that he laid down in the name of the Church. On one hand, there was continuity with the confraternities in that membership in a congregation was made up of people from the same background or interest. The congregation of nobles still exists in Rome, and that of workers in Beirut. On the other hand, the congregations were more regulated and less democratically governed than the confraternities. The Jesuits, as true sons of Ignatius, placed the congregations firmly under the authority of the Holy See, as is evidenced by the numerous papal letters beginning with that of December 5, 1584, which gave detailed instruction on the life of a congregation. Another example is the papal intervention of September 8, 1754, which allowed feminine membership in the congregations.

Father Louis Paulussen, who years later would make the transition from congregation to CLC, addressed the congregation members in 1954.  As if summing up a long history, he said: “The congregations were established by the Church, they are directed by the Church, they are totally dependent on the Church, their aim is to foster the growth of the Church, to serve and to defend it. They seek in all things to adopt the thought of the Church. Their ultimate goal is to love the Church as their mother.” These words were inspired by Ignatian spirituality. Saint Ignatius would have made them his own.

From the very beginning of the Church, a group always has the tendency to become a kingdom apart, endangering the communion in the Spirit distinctive of the Church. Thus, in the same year of Father Paulussen's statement of position, Pius XII warned against the danger of isolation and of claiming for oneself certain apostolates. “Be always ready,” he said, “to go wherever the hierarchy wants to send you. The Church is not to be perceived as a foreign power, nor as a family grouping, but as the spouse of Christ, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. Its interests are those of Jesus.” These words reflect a concern that the Church militant, in the words of Ignatius, might lose the powerful arm of the Marian Congregations. They are echoed in a conference of Mgr J. Felix Gawlina, at the time director of the world federation of the Marian Congregations, in which he warned the members against becoming free-lancers seeking personal fulfilment. They should endeavour to remain a disciplined army (acies ordinata - in the words of the Song of Songs) ranged in battle order.

The same energetic language, though less military in tone, is found in the document of May 31, 1971, when, with the approbation of the Church, the name change became official, from 'Congregation' to 'Christian Life Community'. There was a certain return to the spontaneity of the confraternities and to the exercise of lay responsibility in and for the Church. There is also a break with the tradition in the Marian congregations of having Jesuit directors. But this is done while remaining rooted in Ignatian spirituality, profoundly ecclesial because it is Christo-centric.

The General Principles place a strong emphasis on the communitarian aspect at all levels, from local to international, so that is maintained the 'Koinonia' of the Church that the Lord wanted: a communion of saints, a community of faith that unites in the eucharistic celebration the Christians with Christ and with each other. The CLC live the communion of saints as people of God and members of the Church. They are held in union by the Holy Spirit, nourished by the sacraments, praying and working in charity for each other so that the Kingdom may come. These are the perspectives of Vatican II that are expressed in the General Principles of the CLC which stress the missionary vocation of the people of God working with those who hold an apostolic responsibility in the Church. A CLC is not turned in on itself, nor does it restrict itself to any particular activity. It shares with the whole Church a common yearning for the coming of God's kingdom on earth. It exercises a continued discernment to discover what the master of the harvest wants of it. It strives to develop in a creative way a generous apostolic disponibility for the mission in whatever concrete way it may be served.

The vision of the second Vatican Council that inspires so strongly the CLC was not exactly and in all that of Ignatius. It comes as no surprise that he could not perceive the Church as 'democratic'. For Ignatius, authority in the Church was predominant and he avoided any form of opposition to it. The distinction between the Church as a social body and as spiritually founded did not exist for him. Ignatius' view of the Church was realistic, but that view, which embraced its lights and shadows, was a spiritual one. For him, the Church is an institution, a hierarchical body which is always, and this is crucial, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is not possible to speak of the Church other than in the language of the Song of Songs, a language of love. “We believe that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom and the Church, his Spouse, there is the Spirit (of love) who governs and guides us for the salvation of our souls.” (365) As always, Ignatius expresses his faith without accompanying explanation or commentary. It is the loving revelation of a life in the Church which is also the spouse of Christ, as we read in the Song of Songs: “You are wholly beautiful, my love, and without a blemish (4, 7), “black but lovely. Take no notice of my swarthiness, it is the sun that has burnt me.” (1, 5)

The late Cardinal Villot (06-08-76), exhorting the CLC to live with Ignatius the spiritual reality of Church-communion, spoke the following words: “Remain men and women of the Church. Keep the spirit of the Church, sharing in its sufferings and joys. Listen to the Church but especially love it, for it needs your love, and teach others to love it.”

One can ask whether Ignatius is not somewhat unrealistic in his perception of the Church. He could not have ignored the sad contemporary state of the Church of his time, so dismal that it provoked reforms and schisms. For us, the Church for which we are willing to suffer is also the Church that causes us suffering. In the Church-Spouse, along with fidelity, we see so much throughout its long history that it should have done and did not, so much that it should be today and is not. Assuredly, there is much criticism of the Church that is neither just, nor justified. Yet we should not be surprised that an authentic but disillusioned love expresses itself occasionally in strong complaint.

This should not lead us to abandon our hopes and efforts. It did not deter Ignatius from action. In September 1539, he had set down the broad outline of his spirituality and of his apostolic aims, such as the CLC and the Jesuits live by today. He did not jealously keep this spiritual treasure to himself or share it only with his immediate companions. As later he would renounce the copyright of the Spiritual Exercises, offering them as a gift to the Holy Father, so now he sent his plans and papers to Pope Paul III, as a concrete expression of his prayer “Take, Lord, and receive.” For Ignatius, his apostolic hopes, his mission, had no value in themselves. He sought only God's greater glory and their confirmation by the Pope, Vicar of Christ on earth. Ignatius placed the results of his discernment before Paul III, so as to avoid taking the wrong road, as he said himself. The Pope listened to the expression of Ignatius' vision as it was read to him by Cardinal Contarini, interrupting every now and then to say, “Truly, the Spirit of God is here; here is the finger of God.”

Let us now take a moment to look at the person of Paul III, so that we can better appreciate the faith present in Ignatius' action. We are so accustomed nowadays to God's gift of Popes of high moral integrity that we have difficulty imagining anything different. During the 25 years of John-Paul the second's pontificate, the press has at times been critical of his teaching, but no one has ever put in doubt the sincerity of his religious stance. Pope Paul III, however, in whom Ignatius saw the hand of God, led a less than exemplary life. He had four children and, as pope, he favoured his family, not hesitating to name two of his descendants cardinals at the age of 14 and 17. It is true that as he grew older he became more aware of the deplorable state of the Church, of the scandalous conduct of the Roman curia. He started working toward the reform of the Church. But it is still to this person, in whom Ignatius saw the Vicar of Christ, that he turned for approval of his spirituality and of his apostolic goals.

In Ignatius' mind, the Church militant, become later the Lord's vine, is a Church made up of sinners. It was symbolized by the moon, an image that is not of Ignatius' invention: a moon of rock and sand, which yet sheds light into our nights, a light that it itself receives from the sun. Ignatius saw God in all things. He discerned his presence even in the darker moments of the Church's life. He could read the signs of God's presence. These signs are still with us; all that is lacking is our ability to recognize them. As in the past, congregations and CLC must live in faith painful social and ecclesial situations of persecution and oppression, of tension and conflict, of misunderstanding and suspicion. This is not to say that there are no positive signs if we pay attention to them: Gospel sharing, liturgical celebrations, the participation of the laity in the mission of the Church, a yearning for a deeper inner life, the preferential option for the poor, the rediscovery of the rosary, the concern of the Holy Father for the problems of the world. The inevitable negative aspects should not blind us to the positive signs of our time and prevent us from proclaiming God's love and the true sense of the Church, in the spirit of Ignatius. May his example strengthen us.

We have seen how Ignatius wished to receive his mission from the Vicar of Christ as confirmation of his decision. This attention to the Church's teaching must be accompanied by a prayerful discernment within the communities in search of what the Lord expects from the CLC in the service of his Spouse, the Church. The Spirit has spoken to us through the documents of the second Vatican Council. John-Paul II is unceasing in making known his thought and apostolic hopes. He seeks our cooperation in their realization, for the Lord who speaks through his Vicar seeks our help. The bishops also draw our attention to the spiritual and material needs of the people. Prophetic voices are heard from among the people. Often the members of the CLC simply have to look at their families and their areas of work to discover a mission to which the Lord is calling them, individually and as a community. The universal, apostolic body of the CLC may discover a call to use its enormous potentiality in some concrete apostolate. The CLC assistants can be of great help by providing accompaniment, information, suggestions or advice on specific forms of service. But always, like Ignatius, we must turn for confirmation from the Church at the local, parochial, diocesan and universal levels in order to avoid error.

Does the effort to live as an apostolic community in close union with the Church that missions risk depriving the CLC of its specific charism and autonomy? What if our efforts are not well received by the local church? Should we not follow our own way to avoid eventual tensions and conflicts? We can find answers to these questions in Ignatius' own experience. His apostolic orientations and intentions for the service of the Church occasionally met with rejection and attacks from the ecclesial authority.
Following on a prayerful, deep and prolonged discernment, Ignatius set out on a pilgrimage in September 1523 to the Holy Land to work for the conversion of the Muslims in Palestine as a continuation of the Lord's mission. Ignatius believed that he was headed for martyrdom, but he was so convinced of the correctness of his discernment that nothing could prevent him from taking up residence in Jerusalem. Well, almost nothing! The Church authorities were not eager to have vagabonds wandering around the Holy Land. When the Franciscan custodian showed him an order of the Church to abandon his plan under pain of excommunication, Ignatius obeyed and took the road back. It is obvious to us now that without this intervention of the Church, Ignatius would have stayed in the Holy Land with the likelihood that neither the Jesuits nor the CLC would have come into existence.

From this experience and others, Ignatius put down two rules in the Spiritual Exercises to help in making correct decisions. The first goes like this: “What seems to me to be white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church thus determines it.” We should not make Ignatius say what he doesn't. If something is objectively white, no ecclesial authority can declare it to be black. Ignatius is speaking subjectively. I can see something in a certain way and be certain of my viewpoint, when in fact it can be wrong. Thus Ignatius was convinced that his discernment was correct and it took the Church to point him in the right direction. To effect a proper discernment, we must obviously include prayer, reflection, consultation. Reasoning also has its place. But we must also heed the voice of the Church, which goes counter to the view of some that all authority is repressive. It is sometimes easier to believe in God, who is invisible; or to believe in Jesus, who is no longer humanly visible. It is more difficult to believe in the mystery of the Church, for it is very much present and visible, speaking loudly and clearly but in a human way. What is needed is a faith strong enough to allow us to leap forward into the unknown that finally leads to light, a faith that makes us trust in the invisible presence of the Holy and Living Trinity that guides the Church.

This brings us to Ignatius' second conclusion: that our mission must be accomplished in communion with the Church. For always it is “the same Spirit that governs and guides us for the salvation of our souls.” It is the Spirit that leads to a true understanding of the role and place of the Church in human lives, whether it brings Ignatius to bow before a decision of the ecclesial authority, or helps him with a few companions to solve a problem of service in a church, or points him in the direction of a new apostolate. It is also this Spirit which will keep before you during this meeting in Nairobi the ecclesial dimension in your Ignatian discernment, out of love for the Spouse of the Lord.


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