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Rector Major. Salesian life in present-day Europe




“Consecrated life can never be lacking or die in the Church: it was desired by Jesus himself as a steadfast part of his Church."
Dear Provincials of Europe,
For  my opening talk for this Meeting of the Provincials of Europe, I have chosen to begin with the words which the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, addressed on Friday, November 5, to the Bishops of the 2nd Southern Region of the Episcopal Conference of Brazil during their “ad limina” visit.
The Pope’s reassuring words affirm beyond any shadow of doubt that the decrease of vocations and the ageing of Institutes are not signs of a decline that will lead sooner or later to the extinction of religious life in the Church. Indeed, it cannot disappear because “consecrated life as such has its origin in the Lord himself who chose for himself this form of life, virginal, poor and obedient."
Through this intervention of mine, which I want to be both spontaneous and clear, I wish not only to take stock of the process of reflection in which we are all engaged in our “Project Europe”, but above all to help you focus your work in the coming days on recognizing the concrete challenges we face and identifying the decisions to be made by government. In doing this, I am making use of the reflection carried out by the Superiors General on the theme of “Europe”; in this way, my contribution carries more weight and dispels any fear of our being the only ones to face this critical situation.
In the first place, I shall refer to the aspects of the cultural and moral crisis that have a considerable impact in Europe on consecrated life in general and on our Salesian life. Then, I shall point out the challenges that this situation poses to consecrated life and the possibilities it offers. Finally, I shall list the strategic decisions to be made by government: these we shall have to study and assume as the criterion of our animation in the Provinces.



The present situation of consecrated life in Europe is not to be lived only or above all in a negative manner; it can indeed become an opportunity, a transition in which what must die dies in order to give birth to something new.
In our case, this means: a consecrated life that is perhaps poorer and weaker, less visible, but more prophetic and more centred on its essence which is the glory of God and not our survival; which is to represent God and not defend our works; a consecrated life that is less clerical and more evangelical, “lighter” and closer to people, more capable of perceiving the needs of our times and grasping its questions; and able to give, through the witness of a joyful and free self-gift, answers in a language all can understand.
To admit the weakness and fragility of consecrated life can really be an experience of grace and a rebirth of faith: the “days of omnipotence” and omnipresence (the big numbers, the power, the forces and the structures of the 1960’s with which we often draw comparison, even unwittingly) are not necessarily followed by days of impotence and disappearance, but by days of a more luminous rebirth of God’s power “opening new ways for his people in the desert”, because, as St. Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
A crisis is a moment of purification, a call to personal and institutional conversion; it helps us to reflect and zero in on the things that really matter in our lives; seen this way, it is a time pregnant with hope.
Our re-reading and understanding of the time in which we live and its difficulties require us to have for a backdrop a theological vision based on the conviction that God saves in human history; this enables us to occupy joyfully the space of time God has given us and to love him, for the simple reason that God loves this time and he loves us.
At the same time, we can and ought to accept reality and be honest with ourselves: objective facts confirm that we are ageing and going down in numbers. And these facts form part of the history of salvation.
We can highlight in the following manner the aspects of the cultural and moral crisis that are also having a considerable impact on our world:

  • The first and fundamental aspect of the European crisis extends far beyond us: it is the lack of faith, the attempt to banish God from the world, to reduce him to insignificance, to leave him outside - outside of the lives of persons and their relationships, and what is more,                                                                     outside of the political decisions made by States. In such a situation it is rather difficult to imagine young people embracing a life like ours, viz. wanting to be a representation of God, an existential remembrance of Jesus Christ.

The individualistic culture and the so-called “right to a good life” have entered the way of life of many religious; some of our brothers have adopted an unmistakable “practical atheism”; sometimes, our houses and life-style keep us away from the poor and marginalized, and associate us instead with the social classes that enjoy a good standard of wellbeing. All this has a negative impact on the spirituality of religious and the dynamics of our communities.

  • A world in constant flux, a society which does not offer certainties, the instability of persons due to a certain psychological immaturity, and the frequent experience of difficulty or inability of young people to assume definitive commitments – all these factors place in jeopardy the proposal of a  perpetual commitment proper of consecrated life.
  • Fragmentation is another characteristic of the life of persons and society in present-day Europe. It is not a phenomenon far removed from us. We feel the need of working to harmonize the various dimensions of the life of religious, but this will only be possible when there is a foundation of a deep life of faith and a strong vocational steadfastness, fruits of a solid formation making for a total identification with the obedient, poor and chaste Christ. We shall have to insist on fostering deeper interpersonal relationships in the community which create communion, a sign of the newness of the Kingdom and a help to withstand the forces of disintegration.     
  • A fear of the new and unknown, observable in a European society increasingly populated by people from different cultural contexts, is also to be found in consecrated life. Not only those for whom we work belong to multicultural backgrounds, but the new confreres as well. One cannot help asking: Where will all these changes take us? What will they mean for our life-style and apostolic works? Discernment becomes an urgent task, and it must involve all members of the community.

In short, the problem of consecrated life is to live its “prophetic” identity, returning to becoming something significant, viewing as a gift its “minority” status, its loss of social relevance and importance, its “invisibility”. As a matter of fact, in Europe today we are not much known, hardly appreciated and not considered “necessary”… But it does not matter. What matters is to be completely what we are called to be in the Church and in the world; what matters is how God sees us and not how the world receives us. We are to be an evangelical provocation, a brotherhood possible for people who are different, a credible witness, a hope for the poorest.
In the final analysis, it does not matter whether we are many or few; what matters is to be ourselves, fully and joyfully. We have to transmit to our brethren our daily experience of Jesus Christ, our only Good. We have to return to Jesus and to following him radically: this is the essential thing for us! And, in spite of everything, we have to be grateful to him for the gift of consecrated life and proudly bear witness to it.
In this way, consecrated life is called to attempt a recovery of its voice within European society, not so much and not only to regain a place in society but to remain faithful to its vocation. It is not a question of status but of fidelity.
All this requires a serious analysis of the phenomena characteristic of this society and a great clarity concerning the frame of reference for consecrated life to live and situate itself according to its pronouncements.
The problem also lies in enabling the message to reach those who are not interested in listening to it. To reach the people of present-day Europe, consecrated life must adopt a true attitude of dialogue with culture and attune itself to the life of the people.



The challenges we face also point to us the new and proper spaces opening up for consecrated life in present-day Europe, in spite of the perceived awareness of our frailty. Paradoxically, it would seem that the more Europe needs consecrated life, the less ready consecrated life is to carry out its mission.

  1. The greatest challenge that consecrated life must face is itself, i.e. it must begin again to have full trust that the Lord will open a secure way to overcome the difficulties – as he did at the Red Sea.
  2. Then there is the challenge of language, viz. the ability to make consecrated life understood. All too often we are aware that people have a limited and distorted knowledge of religious. We have to find new ways of making known what we are and live. It is not just a question of a “habit”, but of an ability to let us be seen as persons who live together for an ideal, in authentic brotherhood, and work not for the sake of power but to become Samaritans for the poor.
  3. Another challenge is that of reaffirming the values which distinguish us and perhaps are no longer understood, viz. the definitive nature of a choice of consecrated life, of chastity, of obedience, etc. The difficulty of making the value of these choices understandable does not dispense us from giving joyful witness to them and continuing to propose them to young people, who, despite their confusion and fragmentation, are still fascinated by radical choices and by truly prophetic and alternative figures.
  4. A further challenge is our witness of communion at all levels (also among Institutes and the various charisms): we have to come together, reflect and work together in a divided society that closes itself up in the private domain and in individualism.
  5. There is another great challenge, and it concerns the position of consecrated life in the Church. It seems necessary to “de-clericalize” consecrated life within a Church that quite often presents itself as very clerical; in some Congregations, in fact, the manner of exercising the priestly ministry seems to have neutralized some of the more characteristic aspects of consecrated life.
  6. We are challenged today to live the vow of poverty as a life-style - we could ask ourselves, for example, how far the world economic crisis affects or has affected us - and also as an ability to occupy a place on the frontiers of marginalization. We have to allow the poor to become our masters. Our poverty is also to be lived as freedom with regard to structures: at times we seem as though suffocated by managing structures which have no future. It is possible that some structures do not respond any more to today’s needs… And we already know – as Jesus has told us – that old wineskins cannot contain new wine! Perhaps we need to rethink our life in another way, courageously divesting ourselves of the many things that hinder us from being with those to whom we ought to be close. This manner of living poverty is fidelity to the Spirit and a witness to which present-day society is very sensitive.
  7. An important challenge today – in formation too – is the proper use of new technologies in a way that helps to enhance our service instead of becoming an obstacle. They certainly have a bearing on our community and personal life. We need discernment.
  8. The “generational” situation of consecrated life in Europe -  with so many elderly persons and few young confreres - is a double challenge. In the first place, the challenge of making the elderly confreres among us feel they are an asset and not a burden in our communities; we draw on their resources of experience, fidelity and wisdom; we also have to educate others and ourselves to grow old gracefully so as to continue to give our proper contribution to the community and to the mission. At the same time, there is also the challenge of adequately integrating our younger religious, since there is often missing an intermediate generation that could ease the integration; we have to face the problem of how to make the young confreres more involved: at times, they are super-protected because they are few, or perhaps are not given responsibility; at other times, however, they are overburdened and given the responsibility of managing outsize works.        
  9. In general, we are asked to pay special attention to the situation of the young. We need to learn to dialogue with them, using their languages and educating ourselves to get on the wavelength of their aspirations and preoccupations. Oftentimes the young do not understand our language, and they seldom find in our communities someone to accompany them on their spiritual journey and the experiences of brotherhood they seek. In our formation processes, it will be necessary to accompany and allow the young confreres themselves to find new ways of expressing our charism which may then be translated into valid responses to the challenges of today’s world.

How are we to welcome the young confreres of today? The challenge is one of visibility, but let us keep in mind that the true sign of visibility is the love we have for one another, above all in our community living which ought to be nourished by respect for the other’s originality and openness in accepting him. The young must come to see community life as fascinating and full of meaning. In the outlying areas of cities where there is a strong presence of foreigners, the international and intercultural nature of our communities ought to be a prophetic witness to the fact that it is possible to live together in harmony, in spite of being different.
It seems that, in general, we lack the capacity to study questions in depth and come up with the answers we seek. We list the challenges, we name the problems. We embark on processes in search of answers, but then we abandon them all too easily without having found the answers.
We must learn to re-read our past and also be able to identify the answers that have been inadequate, because all too frequently we repeat the same mistakes of the past. On the other hand, we need to look at the future without letting ourselves be blocked by our everyday problems: to have a “vision” is an indispensable condition for advancing energetically towards the future and bringing about the necessary changes.
The great challenge is always that of being able to ”celebrate” our life, that is to say, to live and propose it with joy and simplicity, and recover the aspect of gratuitousness, so necessary in a world like ours based chiefly on efficiency and profit.
The challenges give rise to the paths and commitments we need to pursue.

  • There is in young people a search for a purpose in life, a quest for meaning and for humanity, and also a thirst for recognition. Even if they no longer believe, the young possess a lot of humanity and generosity in themselves: they have a great need of accompaniment in their lives, and that is where we can and ought to be present.
  • The community life with its joys and difficulties that we lead in the midst of people shows that we are not above them. Like them, we too have our own frailties; for us too to live together is sometimes hard, but it has meaning.
  • Our presence in solidarity with those who are neglected communicates to them the message that they too are loved. We are committed to being brothers who help other brothers live fraternity in a deeper and better way.
  • Secularization too, in the last analysis, is an opportunity for us if we are able to be quite humble in walking side by side with others, as their brothers in humanity, in the presence of the Lord.
  • Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue are important areas where we ought to be present and work together with the laity and other religious.

Our commitments are:

  • to build communities where the gift of brotherhood is joyfully lived: in a society that is often multicultural and therefore fraught with tensions, the witness of communities made up of persons of different geographical and cultural origin who live with joy the gift of brotherhood, is an important testimony to the transforming power of the Gospel, and at the same time, a parable indicating future paths for European societies;
  • to offer serious programmes of spiritual growth to those persons who seek answers to their religious anxieties and feel a certain nostalgia for God. Naturally, this requires that we deepen our own spiritual experience and create environments and community projects that can serve this endeavour;
  • to recover the centrality of our mission and serve it with greater transparency. Consecrated life must stop thinking primarily of itself, and instead place the challenges of its mission at the centre of its preoccupations. In such a context it becomes inevitable to rethink charisms and ways of expressing them;
  • to make use of the experience of sharing with those lay people who wish to live the charism of our Institute. In this context, our role as religious is one of glad welcome, formation and accompaniment;
  • to support the new apostolic presences set up in recent times by various religious Institutes. The return to city outskirts and marginalized areas, and less institutionalization mean, among other things, the recovery of an aspect that has always made consecrated life particularly significant;
  • to live deeply the experience of interculturality within a perspective of reciprocal enrichment, without an air of superiority, and to return, in Europe, to “breathing with two lungs”: a greater attention to the East could offer us points for rethinking and action.

We can and must look to the future with hope.

  • The sincere and humble acceptance of our present weakness as an opportunity to become more deeply rooted in evangelical values is a factor that makes for spiritual growth.
  • Consecrated life faithfully continues in its vocation of positioning itself on the geographical, social and cultural frontiers of its mission. No doubt, the conditionings of age and of a lesser number of religious weaken this prophetic dimension, but, there is a vivid awareness of this being the mission of consecrated life and there is a strong will to be faithful to it.
  • The increasing presence of lay people who wish to share our charism is a reality which animates and calls upon us, consecrated persons, to rediscover the richness of our own charismatic heritage and demands greater fidelity.
  • The emergence of new forms of religious life and of new communities that seek to respond in different ways to the new needs of our society is a positive development; it indicates an openness to the promptings of the Spirit and a dynamism in the life of the ecclesial community. At the same time, it calls for careful discernment processes, for which Institutes with a long-standing tradition can be of help. This reality, when known and approached with a positive and gracious attitude, serves as a stimulus for everyone’s renewal.
  • The effort made to identify perspectives for the future is a source of hope; in fact, the absence of horizons is no help for growth. It is important to have courage in dreaming the future and realism in building it. The commitment with which shrinking communities are drawing up their plans for the future is a clear sign of hope.    

Consecrated life was born in Europe, and so was Salesian life. There is a risk of their now  disappearing in Europe, at least in the forms we have known until now. Their disappearance would place not only many charisms at risk, but also the work of evangelization. It is our responsibility before God and the young to do everything possible to ensure a future for consecrated life and Salesian life in Europe.
Doing our best, if not everything, implies a personal and community conversion, a return to the roots of consecrated life, viz. Christ, its sole foundation. The future of consecrated life does not depend so much on its reorganization, however profound and painful its necessity, nor on a better utilization of personal and financial resources, nor on a repositioning of our presences. It depends primarily and as such on a sincere and radical search for God, on a total conversion to Christ.

  1. The Salesian’s conversion of heart must be a priority for the ordinary government of the Congregation. We have to identify the most suitable means for making this fundamental objective a reality.
  2. Listening to the true needs of the young is the norm and the path of discernment leading us to find “what God wants for his churches”. The young people of today do not often give voice to their wishes and needs, sometimes because they do not recognize them, and at other times because they are afraid of showing any weakness. It is we who have to carry out the discernment with and for them, and perceive God’s voice in the cries and silences of the young.
  3. The path of conversion and discernment is a community process. The local community, guided and accompanied by the provincial community, examines the charismatic validity of its presence in the territory. Having laid down the common criteria for its search, the provincial community studies the location of its works and decides how best to establish  itself in the territory.
  4. The animating nucleus of the process is the community of consecrated persons. All members of the Salesian family, lay collaborators and youth… are responsible for the process, but it is the community sent to them by God that must guide and sustain the process.

In our communities, the adult and young Salesians are mutually irreplaceable agents of the process. The elderly have an important role in so far as they have spent their lives in existing works for the sake of the Salesian mission and bear within them the historical memory and lived reality of the Salesian charism in the territory. But the young confreres, on whose shoulders will be placed the burden of change and the responsibility for bringing it about, must not only be listened to but above all involved in the entire process.

  1. Project Europe is, first of all, a process from within. Before thinking of receiving help and resources from elsewhere, the Provinces, aware that it is a matter of a spiritual rebirth of the charism in each of the confreres, a necessary restructuring of the Salesian presences, and an unconditional openness to new missionaries, must programme their “rebirth” in an organic plan that has been drawn up, discussed and accepted in a provincial assembly,

Fr. Pascual Chavez V., SDB
Salesianum, 26 November 2010

Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the 2nd Southern Regional Bishops’ Conference of Brazil during their “ad limina” visit, Osservatore Romano, 6 November 2010, p. 8.