Mission: a journey into gratitude
On June 1 this year, the Comboni Missionaries celebrate 150 years of their foundation. Not long before, on April 16, Comboni Missionary Fr David Glenday celebrates forty years of priesthood. Here, drawing out the missionary meaning of gratitude, he shares something of what these two significant milestones mean to him personally. From 1991 to 1997 Fr David was superior general of his Congregation, and, after eleven years spent in the Philippines, he now serves as secretary general of the Union of Superiors General.
Anniversary, celebration, remembrance, memory: all these things are readily and rightly associated with inspiring a sense of gratitude. Yet, at its most authentic, gratitude is more than a passing sentiment, more than a stirring emotion: at its deepest, gratitude is a journey, a discovery, a new beginning. As Pope Francis has remarked: "the joy of the missionary always shines against the backdrop of a grateful memory", because "a disciple is fundamentally someone who remembers".
Gratitude is not static, but dynamic; gratitude is movement - inwards, outwards, and forward. And mission is truly a journey into gratitude. Gratitude, in the first place, means to know - in the deep, rich and biblical sense of knowing - that the deep - down meaning of everything is love, or, as Cardinal Carlo Martini, archbishop of Milan once memorably put it: "Everything has a meaning, and this meaning is luminous and life-giving. In other words, despite the darkness of humanity's current circumstances, despite the human tragedy surrounding us, despite the trials of the Church and the well-nigh absurd situations through which the world and we ourselves have to pass, at the bottom of everything there lives a Gospel, a Gospel which assures us that that there is indeed a luminous and life-giving reason for all these things, if only we know how to grasp it and let ourselves be transformed by it".
This is gratitude's first challenge: to let myself be led to the experienced conviction that the key which unlocks the mystery of existence is Grace, and that Grace is present in history - in our/my story - as Providence. Grace is active and at work, always; Grace searches us out, and waits for us to catch up; Grace never loses hope in us, and is always ready to begin again; Grace always grows, and always has dreams for our future. Grace always hopes, because Grace believes in us.
So to be grateful effectively means to re-read our history and our stories: How, where, by whom have I been loved? What has been the name, the face, of love for me, for us? How has Grace made it possible for me, too, to love? In this sense, the journey of gratitude will perhaps often mean surprise and unexpectedness, a whole new and different way of seeing things.
I find something very encouraging about the fact that Jesus foresees that his disciples are likely to forget what he has said while with them, and that he knows his Father will send the Spirit to help them with this amnesia of theirs. There is a powerful and consoling insight here: for the disciples, for us, remembering is in the first place not an effort or project of our own, but a gift, a grace, a work, of the Spirit. 150 years of my Institute, 40 years a priest: to keep an anniversary is not in the first place something we do for ourselves, but rather something the Spirit does in us and with us: in the end, the one who really remembers is the Spirit. And this means that remembering, when thus rooted and founded, is likely to trigger fresh discovery and surprise.
Each of us individually, and all of us together, can experience this gift of Spirit-led remembering. For my part, recently I have sensed that this grace has been offered me in two distinct and rather beautiful ways.
First, I have been, as it were, brought to remember times, situations, encounters, circumstances of life, that for many years I had simply forgotten. Now, as they come once again and unexpectedly to mind, they become new and deeper reasons to be grateful, to say, perhaps even to sing: the Lord was in that place, at that time, in those persons. It is as if the Spirit - precisely as Jesus promised - leads us to hear the word of love that Jesus was saying to us long ago in those experiences. There is an exciting challenge here: discovering in this way how great is the potential of our personal and community history, to treasure, cherish and re-visit that history in ever renewed hope and expectation.
Second, I have noticed the Spirit nudging me not only to re-call apparently forgotten times and experiences, but also to re-read only too well remembered experiences in a new way. Times until now read as times of hurt emerge as times of healing; times of sin and fragility are revealed as places of mercy and wisdom; times of fault are recognized as places of joy: felix culpa, happy fault, fortunate fall; times of sin as times of forgiveness and growth in compassion. In Gospel terms, to remember is to be transformed.
The first line of the first poem in Irish poet Seamus Heaney's last book of poems runs like this: " Had I not been awake I would have missed it…
The poem, written after Heaney had suffered a severe stroke is, we might say, a hymn to attentiveness. The sudden and unexpected experience of serious physical fragility had brought Heaney to a new and deeper appreciation of the preciousness and beauty of being alive, and this had made him more attentive to the power of life in the present moment.
So true gratitude is never mere nostalgia, a hankering after the old days: true gratitude heightens my awareness of and deep respect for the present moment, so as to discover and cherish there the seeds of the future. A grateful person will tend to be a person willing to accept the challenge of discernment, very likely identifying with some of the things Pope Francis shared when he met the superiors general in November 2016:
"I am very keen on the theme of discernment… We are used to formulas, to black and white, but not to the gray areas of life. And what counts is life, not the formulas. We need to grow in discernment. The logic of black and white can bring casuistic abstraction. Instead, discernment means going beyond the gray of life in a search for the will of God. And you look for the will of God following the true doctrine of the Gospel and not in the fixations of an abstract doctrine… This is the key point: discernment is always dynamic, as is life. Static things don't work… So two words: listening and movement. This is important".
Or, in Heaney's terms, gratitude means staying awake - and so not missing the movement of new life.
Given all this, it comes as no surprise to find that gratitude in the end turns into mission, that thankfulness lies at the heart of every authentic outreach to others. Gratitude sends us out, urges us into the future, rekindles the dream, challenges to commitment, makes giving joyful. Mission as gratitude enacted is a recurring and ultimately delightful theme in the lives of many outstanding missionaries.
So then, mission: a journey from gratitude into gratitude, a place where praise is discovered ever anew, in the folds of real life, with all its beauty, challenge and opportunities to begin afresh. Or, as St Augustine urged his people in his famous Easter homily:
Brothers and sisters, see that your praise comes from your whole being; in other words, see that you praise God not with your lips and voices alone, but with your minds, your lives and all your actions.
Peru. The Gospel along the river
For some years now, a group of Comboni Missionaries has been present among the Ashaninka and Nomatsiguengas indigenous peoples in the Central Selva of Peru. In the area, there are also powerful Drug traffickers and terrorists.
San Martin de Pangoa is a district of the province of Satipo located in the Central Selva of Peru. The majority of the Pangoinos include members of the Ashaninka and Nomatsiguenga indigenous ethnic groups and a smaller number of settlers who moved into the region in the eighties from various parts of the country.
The main occupation in this area is agriculture and coffee, cocoa, oranges, pineapples and other tropical fruits are cultivated. The land is fertile and irrigated by large rivers. This region is known as the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (VRAEM).
Father Percy Carbonero, a Peruvian Comboni tells us: "The parish is dedicated to St Martin de Porres and covers practically the whole region of St Martin de Pangoa. Our works consists mostly in accompanying the Christian communities scattered throughout the territory. This involves the formation of leaders and the preparation of children for the Sacraments".
Father Percy shows us a map of the territory saying: "The sheer size of the parish is a huge challenge. The district of Pangoa counts 300 villages spread all along the Valley. The Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro rivers has an area of about twelve thousand square kilometres. In the valley of the Ene River, for example, there are inhabited centres and indigenous communities that we can reach only after an eight-hour journey by boat. The right bank of the river belongs to the Rio Tambo district".
Nevertheless, the missionaries from Pangoa visit the Christian communities on both banks of the river since there is no parish able to assist the other district.
"This is considered an emergency area - Fr. Percy comments - because of the drug trade and the continuing existence of the terrorism of Sendero Luminoso. This is reason why there are so many military bases along the rivers."
Fr. Randy Recalme, a Filipino Comboni, continues: "According to a 2015 report by the Office of the United Nations for the Control of Drugs and the Prevention of Crime (UNODC), this is the second largest area of coca cultivation in the world. The activity is controlled by drug traders. The farmers prefer to grow coca because it requires very little labour, unlike tropical fruit that is often attacked by parasites that destroy the fruit completely".
In the eighties and nineties, terrorist groups like Sendero Luminoso entered this territory, burning houses, killing the local authorities and abducting boys and girls. A large number of religious were ordered to leave the area under pain of death. There were also martyrs among the Christian leaders who gave their lives for the faith.
Fr. Randy describes the situation today: "Sendero Luminoso continues its presence in various remote areas of the region. It is the only terrorist cell active here, killing indiscriminately and abducting people. We have the testimony of people who managed to escape. Their accounts are horrific. The Sendero people offer protection to the drug traders to control the cultivation of coca and the production of cocaine. In exchange, they receive arms and communication systems".
"Another problem is that of the environment - Fr. Randy continues - The valley of the Apurimac River produces a lot of cocaine and the river is badly polluted. When the coca leaves are soaked in tanks and the chemical has been extracted, the water enters the small streams that become loaded with heavy metals. These streams reach the river Apurimac River and contaminate it".
Given their experience of violence and death, it is easy to understand some Ashaninka groups who have lost confidence in the local authorities and are inclined to mistrust people from outside such as the missionaries. The Nomatsiguengas have reacted differently. Even though they suffered much violence, they have welcomed and accepted the presence of the missionaries. From the point of view of evangelisation, this group has made significant progress in the past ten years. This progress is confirmed by the fact that the New Testament has been translated into the Nomatsiguengas language.
Fr. Percy points out: "There is no cultural difference between the Ashaninka and the Nomatsiguengas; their languages are quite similar. The Ashaninka are the more numerous than the Nomatsiguengas and inhabit the Central Selva. The more time we spend with them, speaking their language and coming to know their traditions, the more we are convinced that these two ethnic groups, despite their long drawn-out sufferings, are open to the Gospel. It is up to us to present it in the ways and times of these two peoples. We must not be in a hurry but we must walk with them. We must walk at their pace also in condemning the abuse that these two peoples are suffering at the hands both of Sendero Luminoso and the military." (S.L.)