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The Church's Mission and Its Connection to Community Life

Taken from Catholic News Service

It was their sex abuse discussions that brought unusual secular media attention to an annual gathering which, in a more typical year, draws only a couple of Catholic press reporters.

But the superiors -- heads of male religious orders that include 15,000 priests and more than 5,000 brothers across the United States -- also devoted considerable time to discussing the connection between mission and community life in religious life.

They challenged U.S. policy in Colombia and World Bank policies in the world's poorest nations and expressed "our growing concern" over the Bush administration's talk of preemptive military action against Iraq.

Conventual Franciscan Father Canice Connors, CMSM president, set a tone for the four-day assembly in his opening presidential address. He acknowledged the religious superiors' need to deal with the sexual abuse crisis and the prominent place it held in their minds and on their meeting agenda. But he warned the participants that if they let that issue dominate and undermine the rest of their agenda, "our leadership perspective will be dangerously myopic."

Their efforts to address the connection between communion and mission in religious life are central to effective leadership in religious communities, he said, and those efforts will "create a context for wise consideration of what does confront us in this 'problemed' post-Dallas world of religious life."

His "post-Dallas" comment referred to the June meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas that focused on the clergy sex abuse crisis and established a national policy, including removal from ministry of any priest who has sexually abused a minor. The CMSM assembly was the first opportunity for heads of religious orders to meet and determine what should be done in their communities to place their orders in compliance with the policy.

The CMSM board, meeting before the assembly, sent President Bush a letter warning of serious moral, political and humanitarian dangers in proposals that the United States launch a military strike against Iraq to oust President Saddam Hussein.

It warned that such a strike would appear to be at odds with "many of the requirements of the 'just war' theory that ... has had wide acceptance for centuries" as a moral measure of military action.

The assembly Aug. 10 overwhelmingly approved resolutions calling for full relief of the debt of the world's most heavily indebted nations and urging a return to a negotiated peace process and alternative development programs in Colombia, supported by a "U.S. policy that promotes human rights and an end to the violence."

In a keynote speech Aug. 8 Passionist Father Donald Senior, a New Testament scholar and president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the mission of every Christian -- "extending Christ's presence into the world" -- is the "life-breath" of religious life.

"Mission includes witness and proclamation, a life of worship, prayer and contemplation, a commitment to justice and peace and a respect for the integrity of creation itself, a commitment to interreligious dialogue, a respect for cultures and the obligation to inculturate Christian life, and, finally, a commitment to worldwide reconciliation in the midst of violence and divisions," he said.

Focusing on different New Testament images of church mission in the second part of his address, Father Senior highlighted three "fundamental and dominant" images, which he emphasized were not mutually exclusive:

-- A sending church, exemplified by the missionary travels of St. Paul, in which the church is understood as "a community of itinerant disciples, schooled by Jesus and sent by him as risen Christ out into the world, crossing boundaries of place and culture, fired by a vision of the ultimate salvation of the world."

-- A witnessing church, as found in the First Letter of Peter and the Book of Revelation, where by their lives the community of believers gives "compelling witness" to nonbelievers to their faith and to the hope that animates them.

-- A "receptive and reconciling community," as found notably in Jesus' healing ministry or in Paul's view in Ephesians, where "the reconciling life of the church bringing together peoples and cultures who had been in enmity is a sacrament, a sign of the cosmic redemption effected through the death and resurrection of Jesus that will extend beyond the boundaries of the earth to include the entire universe."

In a second keynote Aug. 9 Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly of Louisville, Ky., who is a member of the Dominicans, looked at the future of religious life through the lens of its renewal since the Second Vatican Council.

"We're still in that renewal," he said.

Despite the loss of many members and a lack of new vocations, Archbishop Kelly said the renewal of Vatican II brought "great strength" to religious life.

It brought religious to understand themselves as "the humble servants, not proud masters, of the truth," he said. "For the first time we came to see ourselves as true disciples on an equal footing with the laity, not on little pedestals. We learned what it meant to be prophetic, as prophets and voices of justice. ... The forces that generate our spirituality are alive and well."

"I have at least as much confidence now in the Dominican presence in the United States, if not more, than when I first became a Dominican 40 years ago," he said.

He urged the religious to "be faithful to your charism. There is no greater service you can give the church than that." One of the calls of Vatican II for renewal in religious life was for communities to restudy and revive the original charisms, or gifts of service to the church, for which their orders were founded.

He asked them not to give in to pressures to abandon that mission to become "supply priests" filling in the gaps left by shortages in diocesan clergy. "Your numbers are down; our needs (as bishops) are great; the pressure point comes there," he said.

"The great ministries of Jesus were teaching and healing," he said, and those are among the great contributions of religious orders, especially in dealing with the poor and marginalized that often no one else ministers to.

"Stick with the poor, guys. They lend us definition that we need as religious and as church," he said.

The CMSM delegates elected Father Ronald D. Witherup, head of the U.S. province of Sulpicians, as president-elect of the conference, placing him in line to assume the presidency at the end of Father Connors' two-year term next August.