A Novice Master Goes to Rome

May 13, 2015

Fr. Francis Belanger, O.P., Novice Master of the Province of St. Joseph, recently travelled to Rome to attend the International Congress of Formators, sponsored by the Vatican as part of the Year for Consecrated life.  Below is Fr. Belanger’s account of the experience:

“Little Monsters”, the Tenderness of Christ, and the Good News: A Novice Master Goes to Rome

Having had, like many novice masters, precious little preparation for the job, it was a welcome blessing to be able to go to Rome recently for a Vatican sponsored seminar on formation for the Year of Consecrated Life.  The International Congress for Formators from April 7 to 11 was the first ever of its kind in the Eternal City.  It comprised a prodigious gathering of over 1300 formators from all over the world who gathered to hear experts speak on the topic of formation.  It was a spiritual, educational and profoundly ecclesial experience.

OP StPetes
Dominican attendees gather at St. Peter’s
The Congress was sponsored by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and presided over by the Prefect, João Braz Cardinal de Aviz, and other officials of the Congregation.  They, together with the speakers, participants and volunteers constituted a powerful and diverse “cloud of witnesses” to Christ and the consecrated life.  It was marvelous to see the variety of religious from every continent, to join in the prayer led by different language groups, and hear the profound reflections of the presenters.  Among these last were theologians from Rome, a Poor Clare present by video, and an Orthodox monk.  The first speaker, Prof. Michelina Tenace, of the Gregorianum, set a tone of theological depth by describing religious life as a revelation of the unity and truth of the Trinity. A typically pungent phrase of Pope Francis provided a subtle but persistent theme during the Congress.  In a talk to the superiors of religious communities in November 2013, he said that formation “must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters.  And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps.”  To the end of avoiding such Frankenstein creations, several talks focused on encouraging true inward transformation in the formees.  Fr. Amedeo Cencini, of the Canossian Fathers, gave a powerful talk on the need for young religious to take on the “sensibilita” of Christ – a word implying a deep inward transformation.  Sr. Claudia Peña y Lillo from Chile discussed the urgency of formation that encouraged integral human growth, centered on the Cross of Christ, with the goal of adopting even the feeling – or “tenderness”, to use Pope Francis’ word- of Christ.  Echoing her, Fr. Ricardo Volo, from the Claretianum, used the Latin term docibilitas.  More than simply docility, it implies a life-long attitude of humble learning in imitation of the disciples who lived with Christ.  Thus formation, as our the Dominican Order has emphasized, is a process that is ongoing.
Pope Francis addresses formators
A highlight of a trip with many highlights was the Saturday visit to the Vatican: Mass at the Altar of the Chair at St. Peter’s presided by Cardinal de Aviz, followed by a meeting in the Paul VI audience hall with Pope Francis.  The holy father struck a chord by touching on a theme that had already had much resonance at the Congress, the obligation to be judicious with vocations: “Hence the need to be lovingly attentive … and evangelically demanding in every phase of the formative path, to begin with vocational discernment, so that the eventual crisis of quantity won’t determine a much greater crisis of quality.”  In other words, don’t admit and pass people through just because of the need for numbers. But then he encouraged us with these hopeful words: “I am also convinced that there isn’t a vocational crisis where there are consecrated persons capable of transmitting, with their own witness, the beauty of consecration… This is your ministry, your mission.  You are not just ‘teachers’; you are above all witnesses of the following of Christ in your own charism.” A wonderful coda to the Congress for several of us Dominicans was a meeting with the Master of the Order, Bruno Cadoré, at Santa Sabina, the Order’s headquarters.  Fr. Bruno made some powerful observations about forming preachers.  Prompted by one friar’s question, he touched especially on the problem of homilies that fail to touch the hearer.  Two things stood out: first that preaching “should never answer questions that no one is asking” – i.e., even if a homily is not literally a conversation it should have a dialogical element to it; and the role of the preacher is to “start a conversation with God” in the hearer – a piece of advice I found both profound and simple.  One of his concluding thoughts provided a good inspiration for the job that Dominican formators do: “The Church needs an Order of Preachers because people are waiting to hear good news.”

Image: Leandro Bassano, Honorius III Approving the Order of Preachers, Basilica of SS. John and Paul, Venice.

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