Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Marist Project and Assessment

February 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Spirituality for Today

How we think and feel about the Marist project will affect deeply how we approach the issue of assessment. I want to see myself thinking and feeling about the Marist project in a mode that I would describe as open, hopeful, articulate, likely to generate enthusiasm, to communicate a sense of purpose, to provide direction. In so far as our delineation of the Marist project is in that mode, I want to keep it before us as we look at assessment. What is the project in function of which candidates are being assessed?

Our view of the Marist project, of course, is at work long before assessment becomes an issue. It affects how people are attracted to the Marist project – and until that happens not much can take place by way of assessment. That people have been attracted to the Marist project is something we will assume to have occurred. Still, let us remember that by the time a candidate is being assessed, much has already happened: a given image of the Society has been projected, it has attracted certain individuals, has created certain expectancies. We no longer stand on neutral ground. If a candidate became interested in the Society of Mary because he perceived it as dedicated to solitude, silence, and prayer; while the Marist doing the assessment views it as clearly apostolic and missionary, misunderstandings are likely to arise.

In assessing candidates, therefore, it will be important to be aware of the image the candidate formed of the Society, but it will be even more important for the people doing the assessment to be aware of the image of the Society they carry within themselves. The more they will have an articulate, specific, explicit understanding of the Society as a project, the more they will be able to be articulate, specific, and explicit in their work of assessment.

Using the view of the Marist project I outlined yesterday, I plan to illustrate how it can provide direction and focus in the assessment process. My aim is to throw a bridge between our under- standing of the Marist enterprise & the examination of candidates applying to join the enterprise. Hence, I will use the four components I proposed yesterday as making up the basic structure of the Marist project and I will give for each a sampling of the skills one would like to find in a candidate.

Two cautions are in order: the first is that I do not plan to cover all the areas that need to be covered for a comprehensive assessment. I make no claim to be exhaustive. I simply want to illustrate how assessment can be concrete and specific, drawing on our knowledge of the Marist reality. The second caution is that, even though a candidate is being assessed in view of a very specific Marist project, the more he appears gifted with the skills and talents one would wont to see in a Marist, the more he will also be capable of pursuing other vocations.

1. The Axis of Relationship to Mary
a) Mary as mother of mercy: the missionary dimension
Let us start, for instance, from that pole of the Marist’s personal relationship to Mary which has to do with Mary as mother of mercy. This aspect of Marist spirituality is intimately linked to a reality which lies at the core of the gospel and governs much of a Marist’s personal spiritual living as well as his apostolic or ministerial work. This reality can be summed up as the sense of God’s merciful love for the sinner. It is at the heart of the good news. A person experiencing this love will easily practice the virtues of joy and zeal. These are simple, old fashioned virtues. We readily see them at work in the lives of the first Marists and we can translate them into behaviors that both we and Marist candidates can clearly identify.

Take joy. Remember the “extreme sweetness” that filled Colin’s first six years at Cerdon. It flowed from his certainty that God wanted the Society of Mary and it led him to spend his nights making that Society exist on paper in the form of a rule. Here is an essential ingredient of Marist living: a joyful certainty that God wants the Society, not as a whim, but as a tool of his merciful love for all. A few years later, Colin and Declas spent the winter months preaching missions in the unheated churches or poor mountain villages. The joy of bringing the good news of God’s love to some of his most forlorn children was stronger than the cold and hunger which often tormented them, Colin remembered in his old age how they could laugh in the midst of it all.

Joy as an ability to wonder, to be grateful, flowing from the experience of God’s love for sinners, including me, is an important dimension of Christian and even more specifically, of Marist living. It is not just optimism or positive thinking. Nor need it be boisterous. At the same time, how can one be a messenger of God’s good news if nothing indicates that the good news is part of one’s life? An alarm bell would ring in my mind if, in interviewing a candidate I found myself faced with excessive sadness, anger, resentment, bitterness.

How would I assess that aspect of someone’s behaviour? As the candidate tells me his story, I will gradually acquire information related to it both from what he tells me and from what is happening in front of me. How does he speak of his experiences as a child? Does he express gratitude for what his parents did for him? Can he identify what he owes them? Does he admire his parents? What does he admire in them? Does the family appear as a place where he experienced joy and learned to be grateful? I would listen for similar information regarding his experience with the church, the school, friends. What has he experienced in each of these settings? Does he speak of the people he met there as people to whom he can be grateful, whom he wants to admire and to learn from? Can he identify what he is grateful for, what he admires, what he has learned? As he talks of his parents, his brothers and sisters, his teachers, his friends, does he express gratitude and admiration? No single incident will provide an answer to the question: Should this candidate be accepted? But if a young man speaks of his parents as people from whom he has received loving care, who gave him examples of courage that he wants to imitate, from whom he learned to share, to be truthful, he is providing me with experiences of joy in his life.

I will also be interested in verifying to what degree joy, gratitude, admiration are part of his religious experience. From what the candidate tells me about the way he prays, about what he has done and is doing to learn from Jesus, about what he does as a member of the church, I should get an idea of the tone of his relationship to God. Does he experience God as merciful, as a giver? Is thanking God for his gifts and his love part of what John does on a regular basis? Does he give me evidence of that? Does he give me evidence that joy and gratitude are part of his being a disciple of Jesus?

Again, our attitude is not that a negative answer to any one of these questions would seal the fate of this candidate. Rather, we are taking a respectful look at a decision in the making: John is considering becoming a Marist in order to live out his call to discipleship. Is that a wise move? What evidence do we have, from what he has done so far, that he will be able to participate in the Marist enterprise? There will be assets and deficits, strengths and weaknesses. Identifying those will help come to a decision with regard to candidacy and will also make it possible to target specific areas on which work during formation.

Let us take another example of a virtue which measures directly a candidate’s ability to participate significantly in the Marist project and which, like joy, is related to the dimension we refer to as Mary, mother of mercy. The virtue I mean is zeal. For Colin and the early Marists, the Marist project was unthinkable without it. The whole point of ever wanting to become a Marist was to place oneself entirely at the service of Mary’s desire to leave no one outside the reach of God’s merciful love and to work tirelessly to that end under Mary’s name.

How would one assess the potential for zeal in a candidate? You will agree, perhaps, that a foundation for it would lie somewhere in a field that would include energy, a sense of purpose, confidence, effectiveness. In very simple terms, what evidence does this person give me that he can do things? The headings I might want to have in my head could be such things as goals, plans, execution, follow-through. As the candidate tells me of his activities as a child, as a student, as a worker, as a participant in social activities, I would look for instances of projects he initiated, of goals he set for himself, of planning to bring these goals about, of actually carrying out the plans, of satisfying himself that the goals he intended were achieved. By the age of twenty, everyone has had to make a number of decisions about life goals, and it is possible to gain a sense of how effective this individual has been in setting goals and pursuing them.

Again, no single item either qualifies or disqualifies a candidate, and deficits in an area can be remedied in formation (provided they have been identified), but whether or not it is wise for a candidate to join the Marist project can only be determined on the basis of concrete evidence. Not evidence that he already possesses all the skills he will need to exercise as a Marist, but evidence that what has taken place in his life so far provides reasons for thinking that he will benefit from a formation program designed to help him prepare himself to live and work as a Marist.

b) The holiness required of Marists as instruments of mercy
Let me pursue my illustration with further examples. The second dimension of the Marist project can be tagged, for convenience, Marists-as-instruments-of divine-Mercy. It refers to the set of virtues which enable Marists to be suitable instruments of God’s mercy. In Colin’s view, the point of having Marists around was to enable Mary to do her work of mercy. For this, Marists need to become like Mary so that they can work like her. This is what Colin is trying to spell out when he unfolds the implications of appearing hidden and unknown. Humility, detachment, self denial, are some of the words he uses. Spirit of faith, recourse to prayer, also frequently come to his lips. The point of reference is always Mary herself, and the goal is always to become more effective ministers of God’s merciful love.

As we look at candidates whom we consider welcoming into the Marist enterprise, how shall we try to answer the question: Is it likely that John will eventually behave the way we believe a Marist should behave if he is to be effective in his ministry? The best basis on which to answer that question is what John has already done. What kind of behaviour is pertinent? A better question might be: what is not pertinent? Essentially, we would want evidence that John’s concerns and actions go beyond his own interests, that he can be concerned about others, do things for others, see things from the point of view of others. Gathering information relevant to the second dimension of the Marist project will therefore mean exploring the world of John’s interpersonal relationships. An important aspect of that world is sexuality. Exploring it is a delicate enterprise but it cannot be bypassed.

At the more general level of interpersonal relationships, it is relatively easy to gather evidence related to unselfishness. As the story of the candidate unfolds, and even as he lives before us, what is taking place in his relations with others? A young man can tell me that sharing is something his parents made a point of teaching him, both by word and example. He may have had to practice that a lot as a member of a large family. Perhaps helping people in need was part of family life, either because a sick relative needed care or because the parents participated in charitable activities. School may have taught him more about openness to others by awakening him to social justice concerns. He may have engaged in activities that entailed service of others. All of that is relevant to the topic of unselfishness.

In order to have an adequate sense of John’s world of interpersonal relationships, however, it will be necessary to look at its sexual dimension. Apart from the special respect required in exploring that world, an additional difficulty may be that in the past sexual behavior in candidates to the priesthood or the religious life was at times considered in isolation from its interpersonal dimension. Sexual behavior seemed to be described by a line on which an individual was situated in terms of plus or minus: the degree to which one had engaged in it was pretty much a measure of one’s unsuitability for priesthood or the religious life. A more complex tool might enable us to be more discriminating in our descriptions of sexual behavior. Rather than a one-dimensional scale, one might imagine a window whose horizontal dimension would refer to genital expressions of sexuality and whose vertical dimension would refer to the quality of interpersonal relationships.

Such a conceptual tool would invite us to gather information not only on the actual genital behavior of candidates but also on the quality of their relationships. Whether a young man has had intercourse with one or more women is not entirely irrelevant to his future as a Marist; nor, for that matter, whether he has engaged in homosexual activities. Indeed, even on the dimension of genital sexual behavior, more is relevant than external behavior; what takes place at the level of imagination, of learning, of decisions, is also sexual behaviour and provides evidence pertinent to assessment in view of Marist living. But how this sexual behaviour is related to the dimension of interpersonal relationships is directly relevant to a candidates future both as a member of a community and as a minister. It is quite possible for a young man to be a virgin (scale of sexual behavior) and at the same time to treat women with contempt (scale of interpersonal relation- ships). Conversely, it is conceivable that an individual would have deepened his values of respect and commitment through a relationship which included intercourse.

As we work to form in our minds a picture of the world of sexuality and interpersonal relationships our candidate has shaped for himself, much material will surface which will also enable us to fill in answers concerning unselfishness, generosity, openness to the needs of others, in short, potential for a life of service in the spirit of Mary. Again, the goal is not to fill in a check list which will automatically provide a yes or no answer to a candidate’s admissibility. It is rather to become familiar with the world of experience of the candidate in order to come to an informed decision about his application.

2. The Axis of Relationship to the Church
In using our model of the Marist project to describe how to assess candidates, we explored the two dimensions of the model which have to do with the Marist’s personal relationship to Mary, namely his sharing of Mary’s merciful concern for all her children on the one hand, and his awareness of the high degree of self denial required of him if he is to be a suitable instrument of God’s mercy on the other. In our model, this relationship to Mary also determines how the Marist will relate to the church, and this Mary-defined way of relating to the church is an essential element of the Marist apostolic approach. It dictates how the Marist will work in the church: he will become lost within the local church but will always have his eyes fixed on the heavenly Jerusalem. The Society of Mary will not be carrying out the mission entrusted to it unless this aspect of the Marist project is also implemented.

a) Marists and the local church
Colin described at length how Marists are to behave in their relationships with bishops, pastors, civil authorities, other religious. Not that he neglected to say how they are to behave toward the members of the local church, the people of God, but he had specific things to say about Marists dealing with its official representatives. This manner of behaving flows directly from the specific Marist mission in the church. How a candidate will participate in that dimension of the Marist project is an important part of the assessment.

What Colin requires of a Marist in his dealings with bishops and others is not simply that he submit to their authority. For Marists to act in such a way that the bishop considers the Society of Mary as his own goes far beyond such a requirement. Still, bishops and pastors possess authority, and the difficulty of dealing with them often arises either from the way they exercise it or from the way others perceive it and react to it. If a candidate’s history were one of persistent and pervasive difficulties with people in authority, one would want to look more closely at that aspect of his behavior. Forcefulness, autonomy, the ability to think critically, are strengths, not weaknesses, in a Marist candidate. Part of becoming an adult is learning to deal with authority, so that one must not be surprised to find young people who have not yet outgrown their difficulties in that area.

It would be part of the work of assessment, then, to obtain as concrete a picture as possible of how this candidate has interacted with people in authority. What kind of authority did he experience with his parents? What did he learn from them in that area? Older brothers or sisters often exercise some form of authority over younger family members; was this part of the candidate’s experience? How did he react to it? Did he exercise authority over other family members? How did others react to that? At school, what was his experience with teachers? If he worked for others, how did he relate with his employers / supervisors? Nothing remarkable may emerge, but a history of conflict would warrant taking a closer look. Some deficits might indicate that the decision to enter is not a wise one; others might provide material on which to work during formation. In either case, the work of exploration would not have been a waste.

When Colin asks Marists to behave in such a way that the bishop consider their society as his own, he has before his mind the picture of Mary present in the early church, hidden, not seeking attraction to herself, but lovingly working for the unity of the church. The Marist contribution consists in more than being able to deal constructively with authority. Marists contribute to making Mary present in the local church through their skill in overcoming whatever eats away at its unity. Such a skill can be described partly in terms of seeking to promote the interests of the local church, not those of the Society of Mary; of being more concerned with the unity of the church than with the triumph of one’s own truth; of being impermeable to feelings of jealousy or competition with regard to other religious congregations.

A candidate may or may not provide grounds for hoping that he will contribute to that dimension of the Marist project. In exploring how he has behaved so far in his relationships with others at home, at school, at work, the assessor can train himself to look for evidence that this individual has learned to behave with others in a mode that is not dominantly competitive.

He will look for clues to cooperativeness. Here again the home is often the place where a young man will first have seen these skills in action. His parents may have worked well as a couple and have taught their children to value the skills of others and to see them as complementary to their own. The candidate’s experience of school activities, his participation in social activities, his relations with co-workers will all offer samples of his skill at cooperating with others, at valuing their talents, at inspiring self reliance in others.

Once again, these are examples. There is no exhaustive list of qualities one needs to have in order to be admitted to the Marists. There is on the one hand a rich and complex reality we call the Marist project which has its roots in a spiritual experience and aims at providing a certain form of service in the church; there is on the other hand the rich and complex reality of a Christian believer who considers joining the Marist project. The question to be answered is: what is there in the history of this Christian to ground the hope that his joining the Marist project is a wise decision? It is not a matter of passing judgment on him as a person. It is rather a matter of taking a humble and respectful look at his unique experience in view of that specific decision.

b) Working for a renewed church
The relationship of Marists to the church is not defined only by the way they lose themselves within the local church. Because they bear Mary’s name, they must at the same time keep before their minds the image of the church as Mary wants it, namely as bringing together all men and women so as to form one heart and one mind. Colin had a vision of a church healed of all divisions, a church renewed, a church that could express fully the work of reconciliation accomplished by Christ in his death and resurrection. In Colin’s view, the third order of Mary or, to use his own vocabulary, the confraternity for the perseverance of the just and the conversion of sinners embodied that aspect of the Marist mission. When, through their full acceptance of the local church, Marists lose themselves in it, they bury with themselves a seed that will ultimately transform that church into its heavenly image, the new Jerusalem. For Colin, this meant that, if Marists were truly present and active in the church, then the realities which prevent the church from being fully itself would be eliminated. Colin viewed this in terms of a country which was officially Christian but where huge numbers of so-called believers, the faithful, were outside the life of the church either by their own choice or as a result of the rigid rules which governed sacramental practice. A confraternity which brought under the influence of Mary all those who could not receive the sacraments (sinners, unborn children) together with those who could (the just) made it possible to stretch one’s understanding of the church, to break out of the limits imposed upon it by canon law.

Colin’s attempt to stretch the understanding of church appears very timid when compared with what Vatican II opens up before us, and even more so when compared with contemporary theological thinking. Still, it points to an important dimension of the Marist project which has implications for the assessment of candidates. If we agree that Marists are called upon to work for a renewed church and that this will take place in the area of lay participation and of the breaking down of barriers between Christians, then it will be important to ensure that the people we welcome to participate in the Marist project have something to contribute in those areas. If the Society of Mary were to be made up mostly of people whose main ambition was to preserve the status quo, it would be unlikely to do very much for a renewed church.

What headings would one open under which to gather evidence pertinent to this area? They might have to do with flexibility, openness, creativity, the ability to go beyond the immediate reality in which one is involved. What would constitute evidence? Once again, the experience of family life is a good starting point. Perhaps John had the privilege of growing up in a family where initiative was prized, where the children were taught that they could change things, were invited to persue their interests. As he grew up, maybe John became good at initiating activities, at organizing, at taking charge of his tine. The assessor, therefore, can acquire much relevant information from the history of the candidate’s participation in school activities, in various social, civic, or religious organizations. His real interest, however, is in the quality of that participation: does John’s presence make a difference?

Under the heading of creativity, the assessor can also gain relevant information if, as he is allowed into the world of the candidate, he keeps in mind questions such as: does this individual have imagination? When he finds himself before a problem, can he think of more than one solution? Can he generate alternatives Can he try new approaches? Does he have hope? Is he willing to undertake new things? Can he take risks? John probably had to make decisions about his education or about taking on or leaving jobs. He is in the process of making a decision about entering the Marists. The history of all these decisions can provide material to help answer some of these questions.

Yesterday, we looked at a model of the Marist project. It is a specific model, which implies making definite choices. Today I illustrated how that model can be used in the assessment of candidates to the Marist project. My aim was to establish a link between the more characteristic aspects of the Marist project and an assessment grounded in the history and the experience of the candidate. Hence, I selected examples of behavior more specifically related to the Marist project. Clearly, it will be necessary to check many areas besides those I mentioned. Canon law provides a list of impediments. Many more come to mind: lack of discipline in the use of alcohol or of other drugs, irresponsible use or administration of money, lack of decision making skills. My intent was not to be exhaustive but to open up areas of assessment specifically related to the Marist project I described yesterday.

Two concluding remarks, one concerning the person doing the assessment, the other concerning the person whose decision is being assessed. An advantage of spelling out behaviors subject to assessment in terms of the Marist project is that this puts to good use the expertise of Marists in Marist living. What being a Marist entails is something we know well and, if we choose to, something we can learn to know even better. It may require some work on our part to express that in terms that refer to concrete behaviors, but it is well worth the price.

The process of assessment I describe also has the advantage of making the most of the unique experience of each candidate. It requires entering the world of this individual and seeing with him how the world looks from where he stands, how he sees himself in it, how he relates to others in it, what skills he has developed to deal with it, what he intends to do in it. Nor is it simply a matter of what John says about all this, but of what he has done and is doing: the assessment is grounded in the reality of his life. That seems a good way to respect John as a person and to celebrate the sacrament of his individuality. We are not far from what Colin taught Marists when he spoke to them of approaching people with such modesty and simplicity of heart that, while they would do all that needed to be done for the good of others, still they themselves, like Mary, would appear hidden and unknown.

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