Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Opening of the 16th SVD General Chapter

This blog on the opening of the 16th SVD General Chapter comes a little late. But as they say in Tagalog, "Huli man daw at magaling, naihahabol pa rin!" (rough translation, "Better late than never" or "Better late than later" as we say in the Philippines).

The past chapters were always held in Nemi, ca. 30 kms south east of the city of Rome. This time, due to a much bigger number of capitulars (a good sign for the SVD indeed), it is being held at the Salesianium Hospitality Center, which can easily accommodate 170 capitulars and staff. The center is located few kilometers away from the Fiumicino Airport.

The Chapter commenced last Sunday (04 June 2006), the day the Church's celebrated the Pentecost, the anniversary of the sending of the Holy Spirit, in the forms of tongues of fire, to the gathered disciples. The said disciples, now equipped with new "tongues" came out and preached about Jesus in the languages of those who came up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish holiday. While most of us spent years and years and lots of money to master another language, the disciples did it just like that.

These Aramaic speaking Galileans were suddenly fluent in the languages of the ancient Near East and of Roman Empire: "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs." That's why people thought they were dead drunk at 9:00 in the morning (see Acts 2).

It was not difficult to see that the opening mass was a celebration of languages (also a Chapter agenda). Tony Pernia, incumbent superior general who presided the Eucharist, switched from English to Spanish, though he is a Filipino, a Boholano native speaker in particular. The songs were in these two major languages of the SVD though the organist was a German.

Prayers of the faithful were read in yet uncommon languages of the SVD: Mandarin, Kikongo, Guarani, Hungarian, Pidgin, Malagasi and Vietnamese,seven prayers corresponding to the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Paul Jaucian, the provincial of the Philippine Central Province who speaks Mandarin, explained later that the first prayer on Wisdom by a confrere from the Mainland whose name is withheld here for security was meant for the Chinese government to allow more rights for the Christians to practice their faith in that huge country where the SVD Founder, Arnold Janssen had first wished to send his members to do mission. Our Chinese confrere must have been thinking of the recent tension between China and the Vatican in the ordination of two Chinese bishops without the latter's approval. The secretary general of the China Patriotic Catholic Association stood to his ground while the Cardinal of Hong Kong raised his protest to the world media. Indeed, the intervention of the gift of Wisdom is vital.

The "Our Father" was prayed each in his or her own mother tongue. The sound of that prayer was interesting and, foreboding. It sounded like glossallalia, the Charismatic "praying/speaking in tongues".

While the SVD is opening their Chapter, huge number of lay people belonging to charismatic movements, called here in Italy "movimenti ecclesiali" were celebrating Pentecost (and a vigil the night before) with the Pope in St. Peter's Square. The Pope addressed the groups mostly composed of Focolare, Communion and Liberation, Sant'Egidio, Neo-Catechumenal Way, L'Arche, the Sant'Egidio Community, Cursillo (surprised it still exists), and the Christian Life Communities and praised them as "a bright sign of the beauty of Christ and the church" in the world today.

Being Religious
Are religious orders and congregations now seen as an antiquated sign?

This seems to be an unarticulated question mark in the minds of some officials of the Vatican who overpoweringly promote these lay movements at the expense of the religious orders. In consequence, relations between the Vatican and the religious orders have become constrained. Some time late last year, the Vatican snubbed the conference of 800 superiors of religious orders; it forgot to invite their leader, a brother and a non-cleric, to the papal funeral last year; and last May at the gathering of 1,500 superiors of women's and men's religious orders, Benedict XVI himself commented on the religious life as experiencing "the danger of mediocrity, adopting bourgeois values and a consumerist mentality" (whew!).

This should be left unsaid but well---the opening liturgy in the Chapter is a vector of this tendency. The singing was phlegmatic. While there are now lively, lovely and professionally recorded songs composed by our SVD confreres around the world (e.g. Raul Caga's two albums), most songs were "foreign to the SVD", and older than the youngest capitular (the Indian Jude Herald Menezes, 33 who works in Siberia; the oldest is North American Robert Pung, 90).

The so-called symbolic offering was perfunctory. Each SVD zone was supposed to present something that symbolized itself (we've heard this before). The Americans carried a piece of multi-colored piece of cloth, either a banner or flag, but short of a cheering paraphernalia for the forthcoming World Cup in Germany (09 June 2006). The Asia-Pacific zone, for instance, brought in a basket of fruits direct from the Salesian dining hall and the bananas must been imported from Ecuador as observed by Joey Artienda who works there. It would have been exciting if the offering was the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Mahayana texts considered sacred by majority of people living in that part of the continent.

All of these must have been what the Filipino superior general had in mind when he preached in the homily about "beginning". Pentecost recalls the beginning of the Church but also Creation. Rather than making the usual contrast between Babel and Pentecost, the general linked the Spirit at the beginning of the Church with the Spirit that was hovering over face of the waters at the beginning of the world.

The Spirit (the ruach Elohim, literally "wind/breath/spirit of God") that was moving, shaking, awakening the earth to emerge from the waters through God's Word was likened to the Spirit that shook the disciples to their feet and loosened their tongues to proclaim boldly Jesus' message. It was hoped that the same Spirit breathe into each SVD member in and out of the Chapter and "renew the face" of this Society.

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