The Privilege of Living the Lives of Martha and Mary in an Intercultural Xaverian Family by Brother Placide Ngoie Munanga, C.F.X.

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Often, when I’m trying to find the words to express something that is important for me personally or for the community — for example how I live the Xaverian charism or more than that what I felt and what I still feel when I realized that I’ve fallen in love with God and with His service and what I am doing about that in the example of our Founder—it quickly hits me that language is limited and full of difficulties.

I try to express myself as clearly as possible, but I’m always conscious that my words seem to diminish the truth that I am struggling to make known.

I reel, I waver, I stutter, but I keep trying.

So let me speak about what is strange or mysterious to me, such as the charism of religious congregations, which I understand as a mystery of the Holy Spirit that involves me.  Let me start with what is familiar to me, because words cannot capture the mystery of the founding charisms of congregations, but they can paint a picture of what the mystery is.

I was 16 when I made the decision to leave a family life full of freedom and a sense of responsibility, of love, of spontaneity, of active participation, of a spirit of sacrifice, in short, of an innate sense of belonging, to take on the experience of another life that I felt attracted to, in order live other dimensions of life that I couldn’t describe clearly enough to meet the many questions I was getting from all around me. So, I was feeling a call and I felt compelled to give a firm response, on my own initiative, as my own personal decision.

Therefore, very young, just after my primary education at the age of 13 or 14, I was led to draw close to the Xaverian Brothers at Sacred Heart College in Likasi and to know from a distance those of the Railway Technical School of that era.

The reputation of “strict” that the College had at this time made me shiver, but after a brilliantly successful entrance exam, I came into direct contact with these people called “Brothers,” the Xaverian Brothers!


To hear my father tell it, this name of “Brothers” meant people who knew everything and who were there to guide others in their lives: young people in schools and adults in their human and Christian life. For my father, these were people who worked hard and who led others to all kinds of activities in society.

At the “Collège” I could see that the brothers knew how to do, how to live, and how to be, so much so that they had created an atmosphere to make me feel entirely comfortable, at home, at ease.

The Brother Director at the time knew most of the secondary school students, not only by name but by place of origin. He had an extraordinary memory and even knew the results each one obtained at the end of a marking period.

My God, what a fellow!? What a lifestyle!? Why be so interested in each one!? We asked each other.

All of this stimulated an atmosphere of interpersonal relationship between us and the brothers. We felt comfortable with them and most of all felt we were treated as worthwhile in reports and in human considerations.

In short, it felt like a family. I was not lost or homesick for the family relationships I mentioned above. Here I pay homage to Brother Roger Demon.

He was very strict but he knew how to get the kids to work and he instilled in young people the values of labour and of a job well done.

The brothers were generously interested in each of us as individuals and took time outside of class to be with us. Groups included the Dominic Savio Club, Drama Club, Scouts, Kiro (Chi Rho), and well as the unemployed youths  and this last group of young people very much interested Reverend Brother Georges, Brother Joris, who already, at a time when school education held first place in the mission of the congregation, had established by his language and his actions a special relationship with the poor and the marginalized for whom he wanted to dedicate himself body and soul in an all-out solidarity with and for them.

Now I began gradually to comprehend the words of my father.  The Brothers were “people who work hard for others.”

All categories of youth had a special place in the activities and the hearts of the brothers and I would say in a word that the brothers were magnetic. With them, we studied seriously, getting an education of quality and excellence; and also we had fun, there was room for entertainment: a healthy mind in a healthy body, a good old educational principle.

All those educational principles for good management and better formation and guidance of youth were applied in Xaverian teaching.

We often saw the brothers together as people who accepted each other and joined efforts for the same work.

The brothers, both young and old, all showed joy and enthusiasm to live with each other and with students and the young unemployed.

Some of the best teachers I have ever known were among the brothers.  they had a gift for capturing the imagination and inspiring the desire to study and do better. They inspired our lives. “The future is in your hands,” Brother Roger always told us, and that constantly pushed us towards always exerting more effort in the work to be performed, and we knew instinctively what direction to follow.  I was very impressed by the spirit of discipline that the brothers taught us. They were demanding, but kindness and firmness went along with that: it was their principle of education.

Every day around 10 AM, during recess, you could see their Congolese novices going back and forth in the schoolyard. I wondered where they went so regularly. It was only later, when I was a novice myself, that I understood that they were going to make visits to the house chapel, to worship the Blessed Sacrament and recite the Rosary.

They went in a tidy order, dressed in their white habit, with a rosary hanging beside the habit. This impressed me a lot. I understood that, beyond the religious habit, the brothers were, in a sense, men of God, men of prayer.

I felt before I joined the brothers that I was integrated into their lifestyle, their way of life, their spirit in life and I experienced it on a daily basis since they shared it openly and voluntarily.

I experienced this charism and shared it with the brothers long before my entry into the congregation.

This has been a challenge to me, both yesterday and today. I have understood and I understand that charism must be experienced and shared in a diffuse way, by osmosis, i.e., by living it concretely all around you.  It must be expressed in one’s own way of living and I have understood that the religious vocation is not primarily a life for oneself.  But a life for others, a service for the neighbour and for God, in the manner of those Xaverian Brothers I have known since my tender youth.

All this has made me understand that a charism is a particular gift in life that characterizes a religious community and all its members, and as such it cries out to be experienced and shared.

Each one of us brings our person, the unique expression of our person, our spirit, our particular gift and our life experience to the community to live together a dream, a gift, a spirit, a vision.

Little by little I came to this inner conviction: I think that as a Xaverian religious I am not trained to a religious life in general, but to the religious life in one of its defined forms. so in practice, the way of spending my life for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven will be specific, in a direct line with the charism and the spirituality of the Founder. Thus I have discovered that I am not inserted into the life of the Church in a vague and ambiguous manner, but in a style of life proper to the vision of the Founder. I am therefore a Xaverian because I am inspired by the dream, by the vision, of TJR following Christ.

Here, I would like to paraphrase Brother Philip Eisenhaur who expressed his thoughts about this in preparation for the General Chapter of 1995: I’m not a Xaverian Brother because I want to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple. Like you, I share this call with all the disciples who call themselves Christian; I share this call with the whole baptized people. I was not forced to leave my family and my friends to follow the Gospel.

I’m not a Xaverian Brother because I want to live the consecrated life of a religious brother. There are many congregations that offer similar forms of community and lifestyle under vows. It is not the Franciscans or the Dominicans that I chose.

I don’t remain a Xaverian Brother because I want to be an evangelizing Christian. I share this mission with other religious and with the laity.

I have chosen to continue as a Xaverian Brother because I’m inspired by the Dream and the Vision of TJR, by his charism, by his life.

That said, I have made an effort to study Xaverianism, i.e., the values, the spirit, the symbols, the customs and traditions, the principles that unite and determine membership and commitment as a Xaverian Brother:  Xaverianism.

Strong in this conviction of mine, I decided to direct almost all my religious life as a formator towards cultivating the following attitude in my personal encounters with young people:

I try to orient my quest to understand the founding charism and the religious vocation more and more towards the accompaniment of the young, whose intentionality, aspirations and vision greatly inspire me to develop for myself and for them the various dimensions of the founding charism.  I discover this charism every day through these interviews, and I realize that the choice of a particular Congregation is made first emotionally, spiritually, mystically, personally and communally and in terms of presence in the world.

Thus, as a Xaverian formator I work constantly to check whether personal gifts are consistent with, whether they fit with, the founding charism of the congregation.

 

A Spirit of Contemplation in Action or the Complementarity of Action and Prayer

In the plans and letters of TJR, there are deep and penetrating considerations of the relationship with God and the human relationships with which Ryken wanted to inspire his future religious community and which for me constitute a practical spirituality.

I would like to reiterate in my own my way what Ryken meant by this deep spiritual dimension of unity between prayer and action in daily life, which affects my life concretely.

I have realized that this dimension was at the heart of his life; more than that, it was the heart of his life.

I have also realized that it was this dimension that inspired him to dream and to face problems.

Thus have I understood that his Ministry was sustained by his prayer; in other words, his prayer stimulated his apostolate.

Between the lines I have seen that:

  • The reading of the word of God must go hand in hand with the reading of daily events;
  • Action must go hand in hand with prayer;
  • Struggle, effort, and zeal must be joined with daily meditation.

This spirituality must be influenced by the Gospel passage about Martha and Mary [Luke 10:38-42].

I have come to realize that my life has often been scattered by my desire to be everywhere at once, and that I worried constantly because sitting and doing nothing can be boring and it also annoys those who are working.

I felt compelled to get involved with the many activities offered by life.  There is so much to do.

My life was filled with the idea of eager service and of concern for all the demands of hospitality.

But to be there for Jesus and for Him alone: that I couldn’t always do, because I felt more dedicated to material service and being sociable.

I found I was very attentive to profitability, performance, immediate effectiveness; and then it was easy to perceive listening to the word of the Gospel as but an escape from reality, a useless activity, because the needs of the apostolate were numerous and urgent. It was important to act, it was important to work.

One day a youth group in a parish where I was active in ministry said to me, “Brother Placide, please don’t come, you religious, and tell us how all-powerful God is, how he is all goodness, and all merciful. Come instead to tell us how God works in you, how He is felt in you…Good…Merciful… how you experience Him.”

It was as if I were getting a slap right in the face during the meeting.

The spiritual void in me, I realized.  I could do nothing about it, yet the desire to make things better was still very deep in me.  and that’s all.

Without going into detail, my encounters later on with Brothers Richard Mazza, Ed Driscoll, John Hamilton and Romeo Bonsaint and Joe Pawlika and more besides have influenced my life and made me understand that other, transcendent dimension of life.

Like them, I started to go deeply into this word of Psalm 45:11… “Be still and know that I am your God.”

I love to say it in English because it’s in this language that I’ve experienced it and felt it deep within me, like a saying that can be translated by these other expressions.  Relax — Slow down — Be reflective — Take your time.  It is my very personal experience of the discovery of the contemplative spirit.

Insofar as I have felt and realized that my dedication, however admirable it may have been, could end up as simple generosity or degenerate into a purely human activism, I finally understood that Martha needed Mary.

I understood why Jesus kept Martha from distracting her sister, who had chosen the better part: that of listening to God speak one phrase: “This is my beloved Son…listen to Him” [Mt. 17:5].

I understood that, like Mary, I had to bring myself to the school of Jesus to have the true spirit of the contemplative and active life, so as gradually to be enabled, without hesitation or fear, to give up solitude, peace, quiet, and above all my ease and my safety, so as to entrust myself firmly to His grace, which acts and transforms.

In the Gospel according to John, 11:28-29, I see that it is Martha who led Mary to the Lord: “The Master is there: He is calling you.” This is the complementarity mentioned at the outset and which is confirmed in these words of the Gospel.

Yes, the reading of the word of God must go hand in hand with the reading of the signs of the times and of daily events.

I acquired the spirit of work and I acquired the spirit of contemplation from the lived experience of the Xaverian Brothers that I spoke of earlier, and I am personally delighted that I experienced this spirit of the Congregation from the concrete experience of certain Xaverian Brothers alongside whom I lived.

 

Inculturation – Africanization of our Xaverian Style of Life

Historical events in the Church and the Congregation stimulated us to establish a Congolese-African
community.  It was the time of Africanization of structures and mentalities.

Brother Victor Kazadi challenged me one day while we were living in a mixed, multicultural Belgo-Congolese community at the Collège du Sacré-Coeur in Likasi, for the two of us to leave this secure and safe community to go move somewhere on Avenue Lumumba and for the two of us to start an African community in an African environment.  Hey! What an idea !?!

After reflecting and remembering Theodore James Ryken, I understood that his story seen from the natural perspective was the story of an enterprising, tenacious and persevering man (in his project, his works, his endurance, his stubbornness, his determination); and from the spiritual point of view, it was the story of the faith of a man living under the providence of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

The obstacles on his path were many but his love of God continued to stimulate him to overcome them.

“Nothing special is achieved without much labour, effort and zeal,” the Founder has told us!

Ruminating these words, I discovered that TJR stimulated the members of his new Congregation to have Faith in the future through the establishment of a Xaverian Mission as a community formed by people of Faith.

Yes, people of Faith.  Brother Kazadi and I weren’t sure of the realization of this community but in accord with our motives we believed it could happen.

I told myself then that based on this attitude and like the Founder I would support and accept Br. Kazadi’s challenge, giving the new African community the name “Community of Our Lady of Faith,” to tell future generations what our vision was in founding this African community and to remind these generations to come of Proverbs 18:29: “Where there is no vision, the people perish….”

Why “Our Lady of Faith”? Yes the Virgin Mary is for us a model of Faith; it was with this attitude of Faith strong as a rock that she gave us the Redeemer, the Saviour, and it with this attitude of Faith like Mary’s that the Founder communicated his own deep experience of faith and left us the legacy that we want to hold onto, so as to give Christ to the world.

How am I to behave on a daily basis as a man of faith to accomplish the mission?  The formation of an African community?  The continuation of Belgian missionary work in the Congo? The storm in my heart was huge and I had deep wounds there.  Where could I find the strength and the energy necessary, if not to defeat this storm, at least to tame it within me?  I was overwhelmed and my soul was plagued by questions. Why?  Haven’t we seen all these departures of our African colleagues, who left one by one at very short intervals? Yes, their reasons were both spoken and unspoken.

While the house was quickly emptied of its occupants, and I stood by helpless faced with these departures, many, many young people in search of their vocation were coming to parish meetings about formation for the religious life.

Invitations to these meetings influenced me as well as Victor. Therefore, we needed to form this African community, despite everything. What did it mean for me to stop living a European style of life and to become incarnated in the population?

Yes, that’s what it meant: to live an African religious life amid an African population. What white attitudes would have to be dropped and what authentically African attitude would have to be adopted?

One attitude needed at any cost to be given up in the new community was. We needed to abolish the functional barriers between the “Brothers” and the youth. There would be no separation between the young people in training and us “Brothers.”

We share the same life. We are the older brothers and we live side-by-side with the young, sharing our lives with them: the same table, the same food, common prayer, and ministries.

Another attitude to impress upon the new community was that it should be equipped with a great potential and a great sense of welcome through each one of its members, who should know how to develop a sense of listening to anyone who came knocking on our door.  without excluding anyone.

We needed to break the walls of solitude, distance and petty privilege, and to level the road for a community without privileges granted to anyone, a community open to the world that surrounds us, but a community that respects the personality of each of its members.

What in fact had to be inculturated or Africanized in Xaverian religious life that had come from the West?

And here I must stress that questions remain topical. Did we need to inculturate the language? The food? The rites and ceremonies? The manner of dress?

In the course of asking these questions, I was able to understand from my life experience in a multicultural community that food is often the cause of problems but that we are called to go beyond this aspect of things, which is not the essence of African or American or Belgian or Kenyan religious community life, where the differences lie mainly in how to prepare and present things. We can however adapt and avoid unnecessary quarrels. I see culture shock at the beginning of the pastoral year with third-year postulants in Nairobi. But they learn to go beyond the problems.

I also understood that the language too could be a source of problems but once again this is a phenomenon of acculturation and adaptation.  All must make an effort to avoid provoking sensitivities, of which there is no shortage in my multicultural community in Nairobi, but it’s a matter of lifelong learning.

Can inculturation in Africa be reduced to just these factors? There lie the problem and the challenges. For me the fundamental question is this: what is needed to teach Xaverian religious life in Africa and to ensure its future?

There are all kinds of difficulties: moral, financial, apostolic (to clearly define the mission), etc., and these problems and difficulties will only lessen when everyone understands why he became a religious, and it is therefore a matter of fidelity to essential religious values.

I understand inculturation as a process involving a deep relationship between Faith and Culture. In this process, the Gospel becomes the standard and the force to transform culture; the Gospel message is assimilated and becomes an integral part of the culture.

I struggle to understand and to be understood. I struggle to live and to help others live inculturation today as a commitment in a process of acceptance and dialogue, of awareness and of discernment, of faith and of conversion, of transformation and of growth. It is this that I try to explain to the young Congolese and Kenyans of the international year of Postulancy through a course that we have referred to as “Introduction to Culture,” teaching them to talk about their conflicts, struggles and efforts through the approach of sharing our African realities and through daily meditations on the word of God.

I hope you can understand with me that the inculturation I want to promote has to be lived in perfect harmony, with fidelity to the word of God and to the spirit of the Congregation, without either betraying or being betrayed. And whether one belongs to a mixed congregation or not, the effectiveness of inculturation depends essentially on the conversion of hearts, on spiritual motivation, and on the degree to which religious values are assimilated. I feel called to relive the experience of conversion in my life in the example of the Founder.

In real, everyday life tensions and conflicts will exist as long as there is not authentic acceptance of differences and attitudes (a Gospel value that goes beyond natural limits). This is the path of conversion.

Where lie, then, the cultural barriers in our communities, be they be multicultural or not?

The difficulty of inculturation essentially lies in the human heart, which needs conversion, whether one is European, African, American. Have you ever felt like Ryken that you are called to live a conversion experience, no matter how small it may be, in your human, Christian, and Xaverian religious life?

As for me, I imagine that each Xaverian religious should be tailor-fit with the clothing of the Gospel, speak the only language of the Gospel, and eat nothing but the food that is the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ our Lord. It was in this way that I have understood the following of Christ in Africa and not of other things in the Congregation.

And finally, I have one concern, a concern which is challenging and which puzzles me.

Traditional society has known organisation of African religious life of the monastic type that has been called “fetish convent.” Some people made a lifelong consecration, and others, temporary.

The former were few in number and the latter, more numerous, used to come for a fixed stay for formation and returned to the village to continue to carry on a business or any trade to survive in society.

The monks depended on their own work, with nothing from outside coming to the monastery, whether food,
clothing, or shoes.  Everything was produced on-site. Today, almost all of the consecrated men and women in Africa live thanks to subsidies from the West. This gives some security, certainly, but for how long?

Let us not lose sight of the fact that and priestly life in Africa are in the eyes of many like a social promotion, an escape from one’s lot in life, an access to a better life compared to that of the majority of people: studies, power, cars, travel, dignity and honour, health insurance, and the assurance of food, clothing, and housing.

And for families, it is a great honour to have a son or daughter become a priest, brother or sister. But some families don’t take it so well their son doesn’t take care of them, while others elsewhere are buying land and houses for their families, and so on.

I believe that African religious life today is called to cultivate even more the sense of belonging and awareness that allows community to be built.

To assure greater security, each one is called to sacrifice personal growth, freedom, and destiny for the greater good of belonging, because only belonging gives security and power. Inculturated African religious should open up more and more to their religious families!

Let me end by an African tale: The Community of the Rats

Once upon a time there was a community of rats in a village in Africa. A big cat was seriously terrorizing rats, who lived in a house. The rats decided one day to work to arrange a very strong hole which they could easily enter, but not the cat. They set to work and when the work was done, they tested the hole and they were all satisfied with their work. Later, at a community meeting, one of the rats took the floor and said: it is impossible for the cat to enter the hole, but he can catch us when we are going in and out of the hole. Who can go tie a bell around the neck of the cat to warn us when it is approaching?

Everyone remained silent and some even began to leave the meeting. All were afraid.  No rat had the courage to perform this act that was so beneficial action to the life of the group. No rat was ready to risk his life for the community.

The moral of the story:

We can work together but without really paying attention to one another or being carried together by love to sacrifice our lives. That’s what happened to the community of rats: they certainly worked together for a common goal, but above all, the sense of belonging was strongly lacking in this community — belonging, which means communion, attention, sharing, support, sacrifice, strengthening, and going beyond oneself. And this failing led to all possible unfortunate consequences, up to the total destruction of the community.

Thank you!

Placide Ngoie Munanga, C.F.X

July 2012

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