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18 June

St. Elizabeth of Schoenau
1900: the first Brothers leave for Bom Principio, Brazil

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Marist Bulletin - Number 132


Interview with Brother Luis García Sobrado, Vicar-General

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Interview with Brother Luis García Sobrado, Vicar-General

Brother Lluís Serra

The 20th General Chapter is now a part of history. It remains for the brothers
and their co-workers to address the challenge of implementing its decisions here and now. In a timely way, this interview analyzes the main themes of the Chapter’s Message, “Choose life.”

Our 20th General Chapter concluded just over a year ago. Its principal thrust was the issue of vitality. How would you describe what has transpired throughout the Institute since then?
The Chapter ended on October 13, 2001. For those of us on the new General Council, the rest of that month and all of November was a time of transition. Some of us had been Provincials, others in charge of schools or projects. It took about two months for us to find and prepare others to take on these responsibilities. We spent December, January and February improving our language skills, some of us studying English, others Spanish. When we came together again in March for the first plenary session of the new Council, all of us were able to understand and communicate in English and Spanish. During this first session, in March and April 2002, we made a concerted effort to develop a strong spirit of community. We wrote up a 12-page Plan for Community Living, and it’s working well. We came out of our meetings with a clear plan of action and a detailed calendar for the period from that time until the General Conference of Provincials scheduled for September 2005. We have made get-acquainted visits to each of our Administrative Units, and a first “formal” visit to each Unit in Africa. We’ve also continued to be of assistance in the process of restructuring, attending meetings and chapters that we have considered to be of special importance. We now have a draft copy of the first circular…I could go on and on. We’ve gotten a lot done this year.

The document “Choose Life” was the legacy that the Chapter bequeathed to us. Doesn’t it seem so little when you consider that 118 delegates worked for 40 days?
The idea of producing a single Message, described as such, was the decision of the Chapter itself. Anyone who has read the bulletins chronicling the day-to-day work of the delegates can easily recognize the quality of deliberations and intensity of activities during those forty days. The book containing the Acts of the Chapter comprises 164 pages of profound thought, with much supporting material and deliberations from commissions, working groups and groups in discernment, as well as contributions by various brothers, such as the deep and balanced opening address given by Benito and the closing address, so rich in insight and analysis of the Chapter experience, presented by Seán. Those were 40 intense days. The Chapter document was meant to put forth a clear message, filled with fraternal warmth, to touch the hearts of the brothers and, through them, lay Marists. It is a clear call to holiness - to personal transformation, as well as the transformation of our communities and apostolic works, growing out of a profound and passionate encounter with Jesus Christ. It was important that this message not be diluted amid a flood of additional documents, and that it stand out clearly as “the document of the 20th General Chapter.”

Based on what you say, it seems that in religious life and in the Church itself there is an over-supply of textual material and norms. Is it a matter then of producing a minimum of guidelines and placing the emphasis on life, on transforming reality? Is that what you’re saying?
I don’t agree with you there. My mother used to write me a letter almost every week. I resented it at times, feeling obliged to find time to answer her. Looking back though, I see her letters as an expression of love and tenderness. They often inspired my prayers and more than once my conferences to the student Brothers. Sometimes those letters would help me to overcome a crisis. Any text inspired by a genuine need and fraternal love produces good results. Already people are responding to Seán’s recent letter to young brothers. It has helped more than one brother find peace and wisdom in his discernment. Writings such as these presuppose many hours spent in prayer and reflection; being tired, staying up late and rising early. They are the concrete expression of fraternal love. So I don’t think that generating texts does us any harm. The important thing is that they be inspired by the wisdom and love that comes from God. Then they become like live coals that stir up the dormant flame of our fervor. The Chapter Message is filled with love and responds to the specific needs of today’s Marist hearts.

When you look at today’s world, what do you see?
As I see things, the greatest agent of change at the dawn of the 21st Century is the reality of people pouring into cities. It is a complex phenomenon. We are in the final stages of a process leading to the urbanization of the entire human race. Africa, the last rural continent, is becoming urbanized at a rate never before experienced in history. Urbanization is now turning into a socially upsetting and inexorable flow of immigrants that has only just begun. It is a continuation, and to a certain extent, a consequence of the formation of the mega-cities of the 60s, 70s and 80s. That, together with the technological revolution in communications, is leading all of us to a new way of being and relating to one another. And so the global young man and woman is being born. In Mwanza by Lake Victoria in Tanzania, in Fiji, São Paulo, New York, Madrid, and Seoul, young people are checking out the same videos, dressing the same way, and trusting neither politicians nor civil authorities. All are anxiously searching for meaning in their lives and a happier way of life. This global uprooting of humanity necessarily puts us in a multicultural and international situation, with a new way of looking at such basic realities as interpersonal relationships, religions, ecumenism, and the family. The very essence of what it means to be a human being.

Faced with the diversity of fields and tasks that you’ve mentioned, isn’t it possible to blur the image of our Marist mission here and now, so that one no longer knows what a Marist Brother stands for?
Your question touches on a central theme of this past Chapter - mission. What is our purpose as Marist Brothers today? The origins of AT & T, one of the most successful telecommunications firms in history, sprong from a revolutionary vision about the future of railroads in the United States. The membership was divided between those who saw the future of the Corporation consisting of more and better tracks and trains, and those who saw its future in terms of a qualitative leap: “Our future is not in transportation, it’s in communications.” The latter group saw transportation as nothing more than one way among many to put people and cities in touch with one another. Our Marist mission is to educate young people. The traditional school, and how we operate it, is one way among many others. The important thing is to do everything we possible can to have a significant impact in educating the new generation. The new society of young people is basically urban, global, and deeply secularized. As I see it, our 20th General Chapter went even further: it identified Marist education as an evangelizing mission. Out of that identity, I see diversity playing an important role in our Marist search for a corporate approach to being “the Good News” for the young people and society of the 21st century.

The Chapter defines the first call this way: “To center our lives and communities in Jesus Christ, like Mary, with passion and enthusiasm, and to implement processes of human growth and conversion which promote this.” What processes can promote Jesus’ real presence at the center of a brother’s life, seemingly such a lofty ideal?
I see this question once more aimed at the need to grow in our identity. If the previous question sought a definition of “the purpose we Marists serve today,” this one invites us to answer the question “What gives our lives meaning today,” and refers to individuals as well as Marist communities. I really like the way Jesus refers to himself in Matthew’s gospel: “Come to me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Seán is constantly reminding us that our communities will not be renewed unless we enter into a profound process of reconciliation and personal and institutional conversion. This brings us to the heart of Marist spirituality, apostolic by its very nature. I believe that as an Institute we are slowly entering into this process of growing in the goodness at the core of our hearts and in the humility that comes from being radically dependent on God. Mary inspires us and shows us the way to arrive at that experience of the meek and humble Jesus. This transforming experience grows out of simple service to the most needy – from them we learn humility and a sense of God’s providence. At the same time we are transforming ourselves through simple dialog — sharing our woundedness — with our brothers. There is no healing, no conversion, without this deep interaction in community, in our nearness to the needy, and in the simple sharing of our experience of Jesus.

Much has been written and said about sharing our spirituality and mission with the laity. From your experience, do you see indications that we are traveling down the right road in this regard?
We Marists have our way — I would call it charismatic — of being and doing things. I think we must respect this Marist “character”. If we don’t, we run the risk of rejecting our “charism,” like a body that rejects a transplanted organ. As a member of the General Council, I’ve met on at least three different occasions with the De La Salle Brothers and the Marianists, and also with our Marist congregations. We always end up chatting about the lay De La Salles, the lay Marianists, and the lay people of the Marist Third Order. Both the De La Salle Brothers and Marianists evolved into who they are today from a founding group made up entirely of lay people, inspired by a priest, and dedicated to education and evangelization, especially for youth. The Third Order Marists, a lay association, came on the scene at the very beginning, as part of the plan of the founding Fathers. However, the Marist Brothers had a different beginning. They did not grow out of a group of lay people, nor were they envisioned as part of the original Marist project. In the end, Marcellin was told: “Look, since you think brothers are so important, go ahead and start a group!” We started out as a religious institute, with religious vows; we had no “secular” roots. So here we are now, taking our first tentative steps, trying to find a way to carry out this deeply felt call, one that we sense worldwide, to share our Marist charism with the laity. There exists an abundance of examples. Our outlook as Marist Brothers has always captivated many teachers and others who have worked with us, past and present. I think the existence of “the Little Sisters” illustrates this very well. They’re a good example of a group that is fascinated by our charism and do not feel an affinity to that of the Marist Sisters. Steps that are gradually being taken around the world include living in community with groups of young people, sharing our life and mission with married couples filled with missionary zeal, and many other forms of association and work in a more or less formal setting. It’s important to create channels for people to participate in the spirituality and mission of the Marist Brothers; to find practical ways to help us discover what God wants us to be, for and with the laity.

Many brothers because of their age feel distanced from the present generation of children and youth. How do we bridge this gap to bring about closer ties and dialog?
I’m firmly convinced that age is no obstacle when it comes to relating to young people. When I was director of the Post-novitiate center in Nairobi, Brother Joseph Ronzon of Beaucamps-St. Genis, in his 60s at the time, came for a few months to help us improve our French. Then he stayed on for two more years at the request of the student Brothers. He became a very positive influence in their lives, listening to them with great compassion and helping them overcome difficulties. At the same time he would come to see me regularly in order to be sure that what he was doing was not interfering with the formation process. Elderly Brothers, filled with goodness and wisdom, are jewels wherever they are found. Frequently, they are masters in the art of interpersonal relationships. Young people see such men as priceless gifts and don’t hesitate to confide in them. I wonder if this isn’t what our young brothers, lay teachers, students, street children in many of our centers, and people in general are seeking and longing for: people filled with goodness and wisdom who help us to experience God’s presence.

Keeping in mind that restructuring means some geographical areas are being expanded, and that this might threaten progress in inculturation and cause our energy to be dissipated, do you think the process is beneficial for the vitality of the Institute?
Restructuring, as it’s been taking place throughout the Institute, has already brought about positive results: it has helped many brothers and lay Marists to see our life and mission beyond provincial boundaries and, in most instances, beyond national borders. This in itself is a clear example of conversion that is enhancing our vitality. Preparing the Institute for the 21st century means among other things opening up its structures to multicultural and international realities. Cultural anthropology shows us that true inculturation, the development and enrichment of a particular culture, does not occur unless we risk entering into a vibrant dialog with other cultures. This is the starting point for “cultural missions.” I am convinced that a necessary element for vitality is this openness of the Marist community to a multicultural perspective in our everyday lives.

Seán and you make a good combination, together with the General Council. What are you going to emphasize in your program for animation and governance? What can we expect from you in this regard in the coming years?
More and more I believe that Mary gives us the leaders we need at each particular time in the history of our Institute. Seán arrives at just the right moment as we begin the 21st century. He is a master of the art of interpersonal relationships, a talented writer, a great communicator, with a capacity for work that seems inexhaustible. It’s a constant challenge to keep up with him, yet at the same time an invitation to respectful dialog, to teamwork, to work as a community. He is helping me and the Councilors build community and do our work of animation and governance as a community. Perhaps this is what the Institute can expect of us: a united Council, working as a team and happy to be brothers among brothers.
As for the rest, may Jesus, Mary and Marcellin inspire us at all times to be creative in our fidelity.

(FMS Marist Message 32, May 2003)

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