Collaboration in the Vincentian Family: Needs, Expectations, Models

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoSystemic changeLeave a Comment

Author: Michael Ngoka, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2009 · Source: A paper presented at the Session for the Leaders and Advisors of the Vincentian Family on Systemic Change, Yaoundé, Cameroun, 19-25 July, 2009..
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I thank the organizers of this gathering for considering me to give this talk. I am not in any way an expert in the Vincentian Spirituality and far less an expert in discussing the principles and praxis of collaboration in the Vincentian Family, especially as it concerns Africa and Madagascar. I am humbled anyway and challenged by this recognition. I will try to be simple and direct in this discussion while apologizing for my inadequacies.

We gather here in Yaoundé, Cameroun, as members of the same family: the Vincentian Family, from every part of Africa and Madagascar. We come from many diverse cultures, nationalities, languages and even the various branches of the Vincentian Family. Although diverse, we have come to affirm our common heritage, language, identity of love in the service of the poor in Africa. Perhaps the greatest success of this week lies in the fact most of us are meeting each other for the first time and are also realizing our common rich heritage. We would be encouraged to realize that although we may not all speak the same accent and phonetics; we do speak the same language of love and service of the poor. We have the same prayer, spirituality, understanding that the poor are “our lords and masters”.

The choice of Yaoundé as the venue for this encounter could not be better. The city of Yaoundé seems to have emerged as the meeting point for ecclesial collaboration in Africa. For instance, Pope John Paul II inaugurated the post-synodal document “The Ecclesia in Africa” in this city in 1995, and in 2009 another pope, Benedict XIV visited here and officially presented the Instrumentum Laboris for the next African synod coming up this fall in Rome. In some way the Vincentian Family in Africa and Madagascar has come to share the joys and pains, the hope and despair of the church in Africa. The poor and poverty alleviation are central to any sustainable development in Africa; and the Vincentian Family feels obliged to play a small but dynamic role in fighting poverty.

What is Collaboration?

According to an English Dictionary, the word collaboration means the effort of two or more people who come to work together in order to achieve a special goal. The key words here are ‘work’ and ‘together’. It comes from a Latin word: ‘colaborare’, meaning simply, working with or working together. In two words, collaboration means a ‘joint effort’. It is one good strategy for transformation especially when there is an understanding of shared mission. Another striking word has appeared here: transformation. Every collaborative effort leads to a transformation. The discussion on systemic change later this week will highlight in detail how transformation is linked to collaboration.

Collaboration as working together originated with God the creator when he said, “let us make human in our own image…” (Gen 2:26). In the New Testament, Jesus spent his life building a collaborative enterprise. His invitation to discipleship, “… come after me, and I will make you fishers of people (Matt. 5:19), is a call to collaboration.

St. Vincent and Collaboration

Undoubtedly, St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), following Jesus our Lord, was very good in “getting diverse groups of people to work together, and he used every means to inspire in them sensitivity to the poor, who are the privileged image of Christ” (Constitution of the CM: Introduction). Despite his innovative ingenuity, Vincent knew well enough the necessity of collaboration in his approach to work and projects. He so often labeled or termed the establishments he founded either as “confraternity” or “company” or “little company”, not merely because of size but for reason of collaboration that would enrich his mission of charity.

St. Vincent lived and breathed collaboration. He said that “the poor suffer less from a lack of generosity than a lack of organization” (Marie Poole, “Charity of Women (Chatillon-les-Dombes) edited & translated, in Vincent de Paul Correspondence and Document, 14 vols. (New York: New City Press, 2003), 13b: 8). His passion for the poor and profound humility might have revealed to him that in order to serve the poor better “organization and networking” are very important. Father Robert Maloney, C.M, whose mandate as the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission saw the emergence of the modern day Vincentian Family Collaboration, notes that St Vincent is unbeatable when it comes to organization and networking. Vincent realized that effective evangelization and service of the poor would require organization. And to this end, he created numerous lay groups “The Charities” and founded two congregations (Robert Maloney, “Understanding Vincentian Collaboration”,

St Vincent mobilized women (volunteers) of Chatillon-les-Dombes to founding the Ladies of Charity on 8 December 1617. They are known today all over the world as AIC (International Association of Charity). He collaborated with the De Gondi family in founding the Congregation of the Mission on 17 April 1625. In 1633, St. Vincent invited Louise de Marillac to assist him with the Charities, in the parishes of France. On 23 November 1633, St. Louise, in her own home, began to train young women for the needs of the poor and how to live in community, which later became the company of the Daughters of Charity, the largest female religious community in the church today. Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853), the co-founder of Society of St Vincent de Paul and his companions’ vision of “Vincentian preference or self-forgetful charity over ostentatious philanthropy” was also inspired by Rosalie Rendu (1786-1856); a Daughter of Charity who served the needy and stood at the barricades with the poor.

St Vincent was a man of collaboration and creativity, which put him ahead of his time. He was a man at cross roads, a man of change and a precursor of the “option for the poor”. He urged his followers to “assist the poor in every way, and to do it both by yourselves and by enlisting the help of others” (Vincent de Paul, 1581-1660, “In His own Words…Collaboration & Creativity” in Vincentian Center for Church and Society, New York: St John’s University, 2000). Vincent was very humble and this made him to ask others to help him in all his projects. He was not attached to any messianic delusions to think that he had to do it on his own but trusted in divine providence and in collaboration with others. Vincent found his strength in accepting his limitations. He found his success in trusting in the providence and in collaborating with others. St. Vincent was truly ahead of his time.

Collaboration in the Vincentian Family Today

The modern discussion on practical collaboration in the Vincentian Family was rekindled by Fr. Robert Maloney, superior general 1992-2004. Fr. Maloney visited Mexico and had the opportunity of meeting different groups that constitute the large Vincentian Family in celebrations. He wrote in his letter to the members of the CM, which was published in the Vincentiana of June 1995, “I have often reflected on what enormous potential our family has for the service of the poor, especially when we work together in a united way”. In order to give life to this reflection, Fr. Maloney invited the international heads of the four major branches of the Vincentian Family, namely, the CM, DC, AIC and SSVP, to a meeting in Paris.

This meeting was held on 3 June 1995. The goal of the meeting was phenomenal: “to look for means by which, while preserving the particular identity of each branch, we might cooperate more effectively with each other throughout the world in serving the poor better” (Vincentiana, June 1995). They had five points on the agenda. One, they shared information about each branch of the Family, as regards to statistics, places of service, specific charisma and general characteristics of each branch. Two, each of the four branches briefly described its juridical status within the church and its relationship to one another. Three, they discussed collaboration and improving communication on a local, national and international level. Four, collaborating in the spirit of St Vincent, with particular emphasis on practical charity lived out in simplicity and humility. Lastly they discussed how they might strengthen or foster the Family bond.

The international heads of the Family met again in 1996 and since then the meeting is held once a year either in Paris or in Rome and most recently in Madrid. Hopefully it will one day be held in Addis Ababa or Lagos or Antananarivo. In 1998, the meeting was expanded to include other “…institutions which in a direct or indirect way found their inspiration in St. Vincent at the time of fixing their aims and defining their spiritual character…” (J. M. Roman, “The Vincentian Family, a continual renewal,” in Vincentiana, 1995). Today, we have as the major branches of the VF, the AIC, CM, DC, SSVP, JMV, AMM, MISEVI and the RSV. Joined to these, there are many other Associations and Congregations that nourish their spirit from the fountain of the Vincentian charism.

The CM dedicated a General Assembly to the Vincentian Family. The Assembly called for a greater awareness of the importance of the VF in the service of the poor. “The 1998 General Assembly sent all the members of the Congregation to collaborate with other members of the Vincentian Family, responding together to the cry of the poor. Our mission does not end with just the personal or community surrendering to the poor. It goes farther and calls us to seek concrete ways of involving others, men and women, young and old, so that they, by discovering the richness of our charism, will serve the poor”, (Benjamin Romo, “The Vincentian Family in the World”, in Vincentiana, 2002).

Since then and each year, the Family Heads meet and prepare a day for a common prayer which is celebrated annually around September 27, feast of St. Vincent de Paul. In 2001, the Family focused on “the Globalization of Charity: The Fight against Hunger.” In a sense, this was also a way of responding to Pope John Paul II’s appeal to the Family, “to search out more than ever, with boldness, humility and skill, the causes of poverty and encourage short and long-term solutions- adaptable and effective concrete solutions…” (Patricia de Nava, “John Paul II to the General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission in 1986” in Systemic Change and the Vincentian Family, (San Francisco: May 5, 2007). This annual Family celebration remains one of the most successful joint efforts of the VF. It has inspired several joint projects in several countries. I conclude this section with these striking words of Fr. Maloney: “In this Family, there must be neither rivalries nor clerical domination but simple and humble servants of the poor. For that effect, humility should be the great collaborative virtue. It never seeks to dominate, but rather, seeks for God’s gifts, receives them, and as steward, hands them on to the poor” (Robert Maloney, “Challenge of Collaborative Projects Around the World” in Vincentian Collaboration, 1998).

Successes, Expectations, Needs, Challenges and Difficulties of Collaboration in Africa

Vincentian Family Collaboration internationally has recorded remarkable progress and success. There is now, since 1995, an annual meeting of International Heads of the Vincentian Family; there is annual day of prayer in the Vincentian Family since 1996; there is an increased desire to collaborate in several projects; we now realize that together we can do what we separately cannot; there is better communication and appreciation of our common heritage; there was a Jubilee Declaration on behalf of the Poor in 2000; there was Hunger Project in 2001; there was a joint project on fight against Malaria in 2003 and now there is systemic change project. All these are success stories of collaboration. I have just mentioned a few of a long list of progress.

Genuine collaboration is not possible without proper formation. We cannot collaborate with people we do not know well. We need to first understand each other and learn the ropes working together. Formation includes the need for a change of heart; the need to recognize the gifts and talents of others in promoting the reign of God; the need for contact and identifying other members of the Family who work in our locality for a particular purpose, and the need to learn and share each other’s stories. Formation in the Vincentian Family enables us to be open and humble. It enables us to be sensitive to others. It helps us to do it “our” way and not “my” way. It leads us to come to terms with the history of each of the branches and the common strings that bind us together.

In Africa, generally, the founding and establishment of the branches of the Family was done separately. Usually, the CM arrives first and later the DC accompanies them or vice-versa. The SSVP is found in almost every part of Africa and its followership is large, but they have tended to operate in isolation. Because they are into practical charity of disbursing funds, food, drugs, clothing, shelter; indeed the basic human needs, their membership and patronage continue to double. Since most people in Africa live below poverty level and need these basic human needs, the SSVP is therefore the desired group in the church in Africa. It is about the most popular ecclesiastical single group in Africa. The AIC, AMM and the JMV are still “strange” and not popularly known in most part of Africa and Madagascar. Whereas it would be easy to get the permission of the Bishops in Africa to establish the CM, DC and even much easier, the SSVP; it is still very difficult to establish the AIC, AMM and JMV in most part of Africa. Therefore, except the natural ties that usually exist between the DC and the CM wherever they are, the various branches of the VF have tended to live in isolation for many decades and even centuries in Africa and Madagascar. Formation for collaboration must therefore involve the local bishops and some diocesan parish priests who sometimes (perhaps without proper knowledge) block the spread of most of our family members.

Where the AIC, JMV, AMM, etc, are established in Africa, the list of new members is usually filled up on the first day because most people think that it is another way of making money and finding their economic feet. The number continues to reduce as formation begins and the idea of sacrificing and volunteering comes to the focus. The same also applies to some of the candidates that come to join the CM and the DC. Sound formation is the answer. It is the responsibility of the leaders and advisors of the Vincentian Family to continue to push for formation and animation.

There is also the difficulty of communication among the VF members in Africa. Africa is blessed with so many beautiful languages and accents, but this also creates a difficulty of sharing our stories properly and being understood. An African must first think, understand and speak in English or French or Portuguese about African problem before a solution could be found. We cannot speak African languages and understand each other. We must speak any of the European languages to be heard. Unfortunately, there is a significant percentage of Africans who do not speak or understand any of the European languages and to them we speak through translators. But how nice it would have been if all of us in this hall spoke and understood only one language? It would reduce the pains and cost of communication and make our gathering here easier and of course more fruitful. At a recent international gathering, one participant declared: “I have made many friends here but I cannot keep them due to language limitations”.

Language is not the only problem in communication. The modern world is filled with new technologies and better means of communicating. For example, we now have GSM, e-mail, Internet, text messages, skype, i-pod, youtube, etc. Many of these are still out of reach for most Africans whereas they are taken for granted elsewhere. To come to this gathering, several instructions and information were sent out to all the participants by e-mail, but only a few were able to receive them and responded timely. Internet access is still very much limited in most part of Africa and the regular postal delivery service is near impossible. Modern means of communication are still seen as luxury where as elsewhere they are necessary.

The impact of colonialism on the African continent is of no small measure. Africa lives, moves and operates according to the European colonial divides of the continent. Consciously or unconsciously it emerges or forces itself out in politics, in thought-pattern, in socials and religion including Christianity. The colonial ideologies of the English and the French, the Spaniard and the Portuguese are seemingly the foundation stones in the construction of most African countries. More or less, an African has been educated to think European. Therefore, our leaders and advisors in Africa ought to see how to get over some colonial and geo- political linings; and thus see how the Vincentian Family collaboration can truly be rooted or related in an authentic African life, expression and context.

Colonialism is not the only problem in Africa. We are so blessed with the richness and beauty of tribes and cultures, which complement and enrich our vitality. But in this too lies one of our greatest challenges. We are easily distracted by our tribal linings. We are often seduced by the attraction to protect out tribal interests more than we do for the overall interests of the poor. In fact in some cases we are too tribally sensitive. Collaboration cannot thrive in an environment of strong tribal sentiments and divisions. Whereas collaboration should take into consideration our vast cultural and tribal richness, leaders and advisors in Africa need to be sensitive to the feelings and sentiments of everyone by making sure that each person and tribe is as important as the other.

Despite the huge amount of money spent in combating poverty and diseases in Africa and Madagascar, our people are still very poor, uneducated, malnourished, sick, hungry, thirsty, unemployed and oppressed. Infant and maternal mortality rate is still high. Corruption, sit-tight governments, nepotism and the contextualization of unjust systems are still prevalent. Despite the efforts to combat the spread of HIV-AIDS and malaria, their spreads continue at alarming rate. There are new forms of poverty and the number of poor people at our doors increases every day. All these show that the fight against the evil of poverty cannot be done by a single individual or organization. We need the hands and support of each other to bring about a systemic change in Africa. Collaboration is most urgent in the Vincentian Family if we are to remain relevant in the life of the poor. We cannot do it alone.

How often do all the branches of the Family meet in your country? What do you discuss? Is there any ongoing joint project in your country where every branch plays a significant role? How much of collaboration is going on in your country? A question for the CM and DC: Is it possible to open a mission house within and outside of our countries whose members are not only confreres and/or sisters but also single and married men and women from members of other branches of the Family? Can we develop a Vincentian justice and peace network in our countries and on continental level, so as to mobilize our energies on specific issues and action on behalf of social justice? The poor in Africa desperately need justice. They need strong voices to fight for justice.

Hopes and conclusion

The church in Africa is relatively young but has a bright future, so also is the Vincentian Family in Africa. The church in Africa is alive and active, so also the Vincentian Family in Africa. God has richly blessed us in Africa with enthusiasm, zeal, vigor and realistic optimism. It is important to keep this in mind.

We are here to discuss and discern how best to improve and sustain our Vincentian mission on the continent of Africa through collaboration. Collaboration would serve to make our work for the poor in Africa more effective and affective. An African proverb says, problem shared is problem half solved. We have made very many outstanding collaborative efforts in the various branches of the Vincentian Family in recent times. We can do more if we continue to pull our resources together. Such resources (human and material) require organization, planning and evaluation. But we need to keep in mind that the service of the poor in Africa has its peculiarity and needs. It should therefore be creative, sensitive, contextual and of course Vincentian.

Thinking collaboration for the Vincentian Family in Africa, I am struck by the reality that more than 90% of participants here are sons and daughters of Africa. This is very encouraging. It makes a difference when Africans tell their stories themselves. Our stories are vast, our needs enormous. Yet in the midst of the many

troubling political and economic uncertainties in Africa, our hope lies in the power and peace of the gospel of Christ, to heal the hurts and radiate joy to the suffering African communities.

This week is a wake-up call to all of us. Let us sustain this momentum. Let us not fail the poor in Africa. We need one another in order to make the required difference. “Let us serve the poor, my brothers and sisters”, St. Vincent says, “but let us serve the poor with the strength of our arms and the sweats of our brows.” Breaking the circle of poverty “requires an array of simultaneous actions; a single intervention is unlikely to be sufficient” (United Nations 2009 Report).

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