Religious life in Europe? “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it!”
During the month of March I attended our General Chapter in Rome (nearly four weeks long) and it was a wonderfully positive, fraternal, hope-filled experience. Like with many congregations, our worldwide profile is shifting towards a "southern hemisphere" emphasis, but that does not mean there isn't life left in the north. Quite the opposite, in fact. "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it!!" We are responding to Pope Francis' call to "go to the peripheries" seeking ways to serve the poorest, most disadvantaged, most vulnerable young people, looking to respond to the needs of today's youth in the way that our Founders did 200 years ago (yes, we've got anniversary celebrations coming up).
Recently-founded missions in war-torn South Sudan (a community + school - Ugandan Brothers), Mexico (Canadian Brothers, a French Brother for 6 months every year and a lay woman living in community together and serving the poor together), a new educational initiative in the poorest neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, Haïti (run by a French lay couple, Haitian Brothers and a Haitian religious Sister) and others to follow testify to this. A new model of community life is starting develop where Brothers, lay adults (younger + older ones, male + female) and female religious may live and work together. Two communities in France and two more in Spain are already developing this model. The lay adults have the opportunity to decide how long they wish to live and work with us (a few months, a year, a few years...) without the pressure of it automatically being considered a "come and see" type experience, although obviously, we offer these people guidance in the discernment of their own calling, whatever "vocation" or form of life it may lead to.
In fact, a 27 year-old former pupil of SFX, Liverpool, who'd been with me on 4 "Educational Project" trips to Africa since 2007 and one to Indonesia this time last year, decided to jack in his job in IT when we got back from Indonesia, follow an 80-hour online TFL English qualification (to teach it as a foreign language) and return to Indonesia for 6 months volunteer work in our community and recently opened primary school in Larantuka, Indonesia (a mission founded 15 years ago by French and Spanish Brothers, now run by them and local Indonesian Brothers). He followed the daily prayer + Mass timetable of the Brothers. He is very interested in the missionary life, possibly long term, but also wants to see whether religious life might be for him. However, our aim is to help him find his own vocation, whatever that may be, and so if he doesn't become a Brother but we manage to help him find fulfilment and happiness in following his own calling, then that would be brilliant. He is currently on a 4-month contract teaching in the Czech Republic, but has put in an official request to return to Larantuka for at least a year which has just been accepted by our Assistant General responsible for the Far East missions, so he'll be going back there in August, starting with an intensive course in the Indonesian language.
There are other young adults from France on similar experiences in Africa, Spaniards in S. America, Canadians in Mexico, etc... In general, we have an evermore dynamic "Lay Mennaisian" network, some people (married couples and single people) making commitments as "Lay Associates". 6 members of our international Mennaisian Family Lay Commission took full part in the first week of the General Chapter. Another Old Xav who left SFX 2 years ago has recently begun his own vocation discernment journey with us. What we have to accept with these young adults is that if they do go on to become Brothers, we can't force them to be based in what is currently our only community in Britain, at least not long term. They will be joining an international congregation, not simply a Province or community.
In Europe, we are also undertaking new educational initiatives to help the most needy young people. In Liverpool, the Brothers launched last year a growing group of local volunteers (currently 13, one of whom is a retired Brother), mainly retired, who come in to school and give at least one hour of their time per week (generally more than that) in one-to-one literacy and numeracy support and this is already bearing great fruit. It may be a small initiative, but is symbolic of a shift in emphasis.
P.S. You'll find articles about the recent General Chapter here:
http://www.lamennais.org/category/nouvelles/ (change the language top right by clicking on the flag)
Our new General Council consists of a Haitian Superior General and French, Ugandan and Spanish Assistant Generals. See below for a picture of all the participants at our Chapter (including the 6 lay Mennaisians who were with us for the first week) and 3 photos of our encounter with Pope Francis after his Weds. Papal Audience.