Thursday, May 23, 2024

A creaking hinge

February 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Pat Bearsley

Most of the many, many other congregation’s dedicated to Mary have great respect for Mary and would look on her as more or less the boss, etc. etc. but we seem to be the only one to make such an explicit mention of Mary as superior.

Moreover, it’s one of those threads of the tradition which is common to all four branches of the Society. As you know, the Marist tradition, charism, manifests itself in various different ways with different emphases in the Marist Teaching Brothers, Marist Sisters, the SMSM Sisters and in ourselves. We are four sort of facets as it were, of the one diamond, but one common facet, one thing which flashes out in all branches is this notion of Mary as superior.

The extraordinary thing is that we do try to make it a reality. One of the common symbols throughout the Society, one of the few things that goes right back to the beginning which we still do, (although I think we do) is to have an image of the superior over the little superior’s door. You find it throughout the world. It’s interesting.

The new Constitutions made a great point of the same thing. It occurs at least five times in the new Constitutions that Mary is our Superior. In number 10, “Mary, as their first and perpetual superior, inspires them with the courage to pursue the aims of the Society… etc.”

We seem to have two phrases, “first and perpetual superior” (nn. 10, 144, 178) or we link it up with the notion of “foundress and superior” (n. 156). Both are important. Mary is the first superior; everyone here on earth is at best, second superior. First also in time because she is very much the foundress.

Notice too with regard foundress and superior at the time of the great act of consecration, “we recognize Mary Queen of Heaven as their true founder and we choose her again, freely and spontaneously as their first and perpetual superior.” It’s different. We tend to run together the notion of foundress and superior but we’ve got no option according to the pioneers with regard to Mary as Foundress. All we can do is recognize that the Society is hers. She is the one who started it.

But that doesn’t automatically make her superior. As we know, historically Fr. Colin was the founder, but he wasn’t always the superior. So it took a special act on the part of Marists to accept Mary, to choose Mary to continue to be the superior. Now if this is to be more than just a pious fiction that we hang onto, it has to be given a fairly concrete application.

As Coste insists, this notion of Mary as superior has got much more to do with the superiors in our Society than with the rest of us. It’s an abuse of the notion if the superior ever uses it to impose on the subject. Apparently he has come across a few who insist, “Listen to me, do it because I’m taking Mary’s place and what I say she wants.” I’ve never had a superior quite like that. I’ve had a few who thought they were Almighty God! No, it’s not telling us anything really about our attitude towards our earthly superiors, our brothers. It’s not there to inculcate a special obedience in that way. But it is there very much reminding anyone who takes a position of authority or leadership in our Society that you’re there only as a vicar. In one of Coste’s latest essay’s, that lovely one on the Superior General in the thought of Fr. Colin, this comes through so very clearly.

Yes, it’s a great burden really on a superior to make himself simply the spokesperson for Mary, to be the channel whereby her will, for her Society can become known. Somehow or other, the superior has to empty himself of himself so she can speak and she usually whispers. It’s a great command to pray, to make oneself available for Mary.

We do need to have an authority. We do need to have people who are prepared to go when asked, to drop what they have and go. And so, this notion of both government, authority and obedience somehow or other really have to go together.

For us, part of it is that the most urgent needs of people are to be spotted, identified by, met by the Marists working out there at the grassroots. It’s not to be left to the responsibility of the Superior General sitting in Rome to identify the most urgent needs of Mary’s people. There has to be a partnership between those in leadership and those at the grassroots you might say. There has to be constant dialogue.

Although Colin was very strong on the strictness of obedience and we might consider very narrow in his interpretation what that style means, nevertheless again, instinctively, (and this is a characteristic of his government) every leader must have counsel, every leader must be talking before any decision is made. Officially to his counsellors, they are the structural things, but even more importantly, talking, communicating with the men. The dialogue must be going on continually so that the needs are identified so that the most urgent calls of Mary’s children are being heard but at the same time, there is discussion as to the best way so as to respond to them.

Ultimately though, someone is sent, missioned. But the thing about our government structures and it has been emphasized in the Constitutions, is the co-responsibility of every Marist for the mission and the spirit of the Society. It’s a co-responsibility, it doesn’t rest just in the so-called superiors, nor does it rest just in the grassroots, nor in the cutting edge of the mission or wherever it is.

Colin insisted that the Superior General, the local superior, the Provincial must have counselled, must consult before any decision is made and as we know, notoriously he said, that even if you don’t like what your council is saying, go with it, submerse your will. It’s all this nineteenth century language but its all getting at the need, I think, for dialogue, communication, linking with, so that the mission can be both identified and then more efficiently carried out.

Mary as foundress and superior therefore says more about how a superior should lead than it does about a religious obeying. The superior must lead with one ear open to what Mary might be asking and the other ear flapping for the voice of the world.

However, Fr. Colin doesn’t let the ordinary Marist off the hook and nor do our new Constitutions. The vow of obedience is obviously linked here too. “Marist must excel in obedience because it is the hinge upon which the whole mission of the Society turns” (C. 221) It’s a hinge.

In fact all our vows are important but for Fr. Colin, this was a critical one. Obedience … is the bond of religious discipline by which members of the Society are joined together, and indeed the very hinge on which the whole Society turns; should it be broken or rendered immobile, the whole Society would collapse” (1872 C. 431). Typical language I know, but a hinge is a critical thing, it’s got to stand firm. The hinge is the part of the door that mustn’t move if the door is to open effectively. If it is to swing easily, it’s got to be well oiled, it’s got to be kept up to date.

So that image with regard to obedience is quite important because it is the vow that (well, I’m not too sure what your attitude to it is, there’s obviously no common theology or spirituality on it in the church today) but nevertheless, I think we have to make something of it. More than something of it. It is the critical hinge, which I suspect, is creaking a little in some parts of the Society, at least in my province anyway.

It’s important in the Society for the sake of the mission and the new Constitutions again make that very clear. We cannot be an army doing the battles of the Lord under the banner of Mary unless we have troops prepared to go where the general leads them. That’s the image. It’s not at all a very popular image today, but it is one we can understand.

Obedience is necessary so that the work of Mary can be done. The way the Marist arrives at obedience is certainly by way of dialogue with the leadership. It is not the Marist way for the leader just to indicate, go there, and he goes without another thought. It is the expectation that the leadership consults, dialogues, both with regard the needs of the province and how best this individual Marist can contribute to meeting them. But then, finally, the Marist is then sent to his mission and that of course is obedience.

Obedience has got something to do with the will of God. It’s not just a human virtue. How is the will of God manifested?

Source: Fr. Pat Bearsley, Video: Conference 7 Boston Province Retreat, 1994

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