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Marist Bulletin - Number 273


Br. Séan Sammon - Meeting between the members of the General Council and young people from the African continent

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The “meeting of the General Council with young people of Africa” took place from the 25th to the 27th November as was planned in the calendar developed by the General Council for the pastoral animation visits to the Provinces of Marist Africa. The Brother Superior General and his Council wanted to be attentive to a group of young Africans to reflect, dialogue and share about their Christian life and Marist vocation today. Together, they tried to discover the current reality of Africa, to understand how the young African faces this reality, to share their role and commitment as young Christians in the African context and to respond to the reality of each country.
Today, with this Bulletin, we are sending you the final remarks given by Brother Seán Sammon, Superior General, at the conclusion of the meeting.

“Thank you for this opportunity to say a few words as we bring to a close our time together. My plan is quite simple. First of all, I want to offer a word of thanks to all of you. Next, I look forward to telling you some stories, linking each to a lesson. Finally, I hope to offering some challenges.
At the outset, then, a word of thanks to Lilian, Terry, Collins, Felix, James, Justus, Nicholas, Simeon, Willis, Wyclife, Godfrey, Emmanuel, Emmanuel, Catherine, Eleanorah, Baraka, Edwin, Bernard, Denis, Claudine, Pamella, Christopher, Patrick, Virgile, Protogene, Prisca, Phillip, Kizito, Brian, Osvaldo, António, Jaona, Erick, Noble, Nnamdi, Sábado, and Nelson. Yes, I want to thank each of you for your presence here, and for all that you have contributed to these days. If our time together has been helpful--even successful in meeting our goals—that outcome is due in no small measure to your interest and cooperation, and your hard work. Many, many thanks
I also want to say a word of thanks to those brothers of mine who made up the coordinating team, Brothers Auxensio Dickson, Adriano Safuanda, Hosea Mugera, Albert Ongemba, and Teodoro Grageda. They planned these days, organized transport, made sure meals were on the table, and guided us through the dynamics of the program. I cannot thank them enough for their efforts and hard work.
Thanks too to my brothers from MIC who helped with the on-site logistics of our meeting, translated, and animated the music at Eucharist: many thanks to Brothers Stephen Binikwa, Sylvanus Onwuanaku, Henry Uzor, Vicente Halle, Valerian Stephen, Kiven Muchibo, Anthony Siryeh, Valens Mushinzimana, Ebel Muleveri, Joseph Iheme, Paul Angulu and Emile Motanda.
A word of thanks also to those brothers who accompanied the all of you to this weekend and throughout its many activities: thanks to Brother Protais Rusanganwa, Modeste Randriamanalina, Ekene G. Osuji, and Sergio Vazquez, and to my brothers from Rome: Brothers Luis Sobrado, Emili Turú, Peter Rodney, Maurice Berquet, Antonio Ramalho, Théoneste Kalisa, and Antonio Martinez Estaún. Special thanks to Brother Ernesto Sanchez who coordinated efforts from Rome and saw to many of the details of the program.

A first story
And now a story. In her novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison tells the story of an African-American woman preacher by the name of Baby Snuggs. On Saturday afternoons this woman would gather her congregation in a wide open space that cut deep in the woods—she called it the Clearing—and here she would invite them to laugh, and to dance, and to cry.
She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. Nor did she insist that they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek, or its glory bound pure. No, she told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they could not have it.
Now, why do I tell this story about Baby Snuggs and her flock? I tell it quite simply to illustrate the fact that each week this itinerant preacher gave the members of her congregation a great gift: she taught them how to dream. Yes, she taught them how to dream some very large dreams indeed.
We have spent the last few days together talking about the reality of life for young men and women on this continent of Africa. Using simple and straightforward language you have described some of the challenges that you and people your age must face. They are many and varied: drugs, poverty, sexual behavior that fails to respect the dignity of each person, violence, war, corruption in government and elsewhere, a lack of opportunity.
You have also expressed your concern about the history of age old conflicts between one group and another, as well as the past hatreds and suspicions that plague this continent as they do so many other parts of our world.
In spite of the concerns that preoccupy you, you also see reason to hope. You realize that Africa is a land of incredible beauty, made up of people with rich and varied cultures, traditions, and languages. You can see the potential in what you have. You are a new generation born in the latter part of the twentieth century and you bring to the life of your countries a fresh perspective, new ideas, great hopes, and like the flock of the preacher Baby Snuggs, many dreams.
While you respect the past, you also want your collective voice to be heard. Realizing, too, that there is far more that binds together all of us who inhabit this planet than might ever divide us, you want to be not only part of the new future that is emerging on this continent, you also was to be some of its co-creators. And you want to do this together, as a community, rather than individually, one by one, and with Jesus Christ as the center.
These recent days have also been filled with new experiences and people. For some of you, the trip to Nairobi was the first time you had ventured out of your country and region. For others it was your first time to set foot in an airplane and to experience this way of traveling or to be in a climate very different than what you might be used to. All of you have met some new people and it is a credit to you as a group that you mixed so well in spite of differences in language, age, and experience. And each of you had an opportunity to share some of the richness of your culture and customs in dance and language.
We have also prayed together these days: prayed for peace in our world and in this region, prayed for our families and friends, prayed for a future brighter than the past and one that sees us all acting more like brothers and sisters to one another.
From what you have related, it is clear that the Church is important in the lives of many of you. Your relationship with Jesus Christ gives you strength and consolation, and Mary, his mother, serves as a model of what it means to be a young Christian: full of life, full of hope, open to God’s will and dream for each of us.
And at the center of all of our discussions has stood Marcellin Champagnat, the founder of the Marist Brothers. He lived during a time not unlike our own. For example, Marcellin experienced war and the suffering that follows it.
He was also a poor student; studies did not come easily to him. When he decided to enter the seminary, he lacked the basic education necessary and so was sent to study for a year with his brother-in-law, a certified teacher. At the end of that 12 month period, his brother-in-law recommended to Marcellin that he think about doing something else with his life. In spite of this recommendation, he entered the seminary.
After the first year, however, he was asked to leave. The reason? His grades were poor and he was out too often drinking with a group referred to as the “happy crowd.” Marcellin’s mother, though, worked to get him back into the seminary. On his return he applied himself more but was never what we might call a “good student.”
The most important thing you need to know about Marcellin Champagnat, though, was that he was a man who was in love with God. He was not born a saint, but rather spent a lifetime becoming one. And he did not become a saint because he was extraordinary. No, rather he became a saint because he did ordinary things exceptionally well and loved others with an extraordinary love. And he challenges you and me to do the same today.
You also need to know that Marcellin loved young people. He often said, “I cannot see children and young people without wanting to tell them just how much Jesus Christ loves them.” He believed too that you cannot teach young people unless you love them first and loved them equally.
Marcellin Champagnat was also a dreamer. When he founded the Marist congregation he had but two uneducated recruits who shared his interest, an old house that needed a lot of repairs, and a dream. He dreamed about changing our world for the better, together with others and in the name of Jesus Christ. So the first challenge I offer this afternoon is this one: dream large dreams and have the courage to work to bring them to life.

A second story
In January 1994 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I can remember the day well. It was a Friday and snow was falling lightly in Pelham, New York where I was living at the time. A friend was visiting from California and asked if I wanted company as I set out for the doctors. I decided, though, that this was one journey that I needed to make alone.
Upon arriving for my appointment I took one look at the doctor’s face and knew immediately that the news was not good. “Sit down,” she said, “I will explain what we have found and then I will tell you what you must do.” She then went on to say that tests had revealed a tumor of major proportion. “It is five centimeters in diameter,” she said, “and located in the center of your head. We will use medication to shrink it as much as we can but you cannot avoid neurosurgery.”
She then went on to give me some practical information, some prescriptions, and the name of a neurosurgeon whom I was to contact. Then she looked at me and said, “I must tell you also tell you one other thing: another year of life for this tumor will cost you your own.” I was 46 years of age.
Why do I tell this second story? Because that day and the days that followed caused me to begin a journey the implications of which I am still struggling to understand. It was a journey from my head to my heart. I had lived much of the earlier part of my life in my head; I have found in recent years that the heart is a messier place to live but ultimately far more satisfying. The wife of a friend of mine uses the phrases, “pre-tumor Sean” and “post-tumor Sean” to describe the difference.
The spirituality of Marcellin Champagnat is likewise a spirituality of the heart. Marcellin believed in the presence of God and believed that God loved him unconditionally. The story of the prodigal son is a good illustration of what we mean here. You probably know well its details. A son asked his father for his share of the inheritance and then went off and squandered that inheritance in a foreign land. Remorseful, he returned to the land of his birth, unsure of the reception he would receive but hoping to have at least a roof over his head, some food, and a place to sleep.
Scripture tells us that while the son was still a long way off, though, the father saw him and rushed to welcome him royally. The father could only have seen this son of his at this great distance if he had gone out himself each day looking for the boy.
All these details are familiar but one important fact is often overlooked in the traditional telling of the story. For the sin of the son was not the fact that he used his inheritance living a loose life in a foreign land. No, his sin was far more serious.
In that day a son could ask his father for his inheritance and receive it prior to the father’s death. The catch was this: the father was entitled to the interest that the inheritance earned for a long as he lived. By squandering his father’s money, the son literally wished his father dead. That was the sin of the Prodigal son, a far more serious sin than that of living a loose life in a far away land. And, yet, despite the fact that his son wished his father dead, the father forgave him and welcomed him back warmly.
Marcellin came to know and love the same forgiving and welcoming God. That relationship was the rock-bed of his spirituality. He also treated Mary like a sister in faith. She had made this journey of life prior to him and all of us here and he looked to her for direction and guidance. He encourages us to do the same.
Finally, Marcellin’s spirituality was marked by the virtue of simplicity. He was plain spoken, down to earth and, as Théoneste said yesterday, a practical man living a practical Christianity. His life made a difference for the better in the lives of so many others. Today he challenges us to do the same, to spend our lives in the service of others.
A final challenge: a word about vocations. Whenever people ask me what a vocation to religious life is like, I answer by saying that it’s a bit like falling in love. You meet someone and find you like that person, over time you spend more time together and eventually a friendship develops. And, then, one day you begin to discover that this person who was an acquaintance, and then a friend has now become someone very special indeed.
Yes, a vocation is like that. At first it feels like a slight tug in one direction. You resist it, and maybe even hope it will go away. But it persists. And over time it begins to take root and grow. God loves us unconditionally and wants the best for each of us. Some among us, God calls to religious life. As I said last night, it is a wonderful way to spend your life, a rich blessing in very many ways.
A few words of conclusion. I must say that I admire all that you want to do to build the future of this continent and its people. What you may not realize is that you have on hand already the means by which to achieve your goals: peace, equality for all, and end to injustice. I’d like to end these remarks with a prayer, a prayer for courage and zeal so that you and I and all of us together can bring to life the dreams that are in our hearts and minds today.

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end war;
for we know that you have made us in such a way
that we must find our own path to peace
within ourselves and with our neighbor.

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end starvation;
for you have already given us the resources
with which to feed the entire world
if we could only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to root out injustice;
for you have already given us the power
to stand up against wrong and to live in solidarity,
if we could only believe in this power for good.

Therefore, we pray to you instead, O God,
for strength, determination and will power,
so that we might question, and dream and act in your name.
Grant our prayer through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Thank you again and safe travels as you return home.”

Seán Sammon, FMS
November 27, 2006

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