From the individualism to the Family spirit in the light of St. Conforti

From the individualism to the Family Spirit in the light of Saint Conforti

By Edmond TASSE,sx

There was a time when God sent angels from heaven with an urgent message for his people. He still does. For me, this angel was a  sexagenarian Xaverian that I met eight years ago. He invited me to have lunch in the philosophy community of Bafoussam-Cameroon. There, I was deeply moved by a simple thing: the joyful atmosphere. In fact, during lunch, a dozen of youth from the four corners of Cameroon were eating, drinking and chatting together as the member of one family. Just after lunch, everyone, even the priests, went to the kitchen to wash the dishes. For me it was really amazing to see priests do such humble task with such humility and easiness.  After that I began to visit this community more frequently and gradually I fell in love with this joyous place. Two years later, I joined the Xaverians. One of the reasons which led me to join our family is that I really wanted to understand how is it possible that people from so different cultures and backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony.  After more than six years of journey in this beautiful family, I would like to stop a little bit, to look back and to reflect about the family spirit which is in my opinion the core of the Xaverian dream (make the whole world a single family). Thus, in the following lines, I will attempt to make a spiritual journey from our natural tendency of individualism to the confortian family spirit.

According to the eminent philosopher Aristotle, human is a “social being”. It means that interpersonal relationship plays a major role in the healthiness of human life. It is true because all of us know either the sadness that loneliness causes or the joy that friendship bring about. Nevertheless, the paradox is that even though each of us is instinctively driven towards his or her fellow human, there is a strong trend towards individualism. This individualism can be justified by what Saint Augustine calls “the concupiscence of the flesh” which is our tragic inclination for sin or our shameful penchant to choose the low road.

Indeed, our contemporary world, including our religious and even Xaverian communities, is characterized by this individualism. We live in an age that stresses personal goals, careers, happiness, work, success and even religion. The emphasis is on the individual and how best that individual can satisfy himself or herself. This stress is made in the name of the absolute freedom to do as one pleases. This wrong understanding of freedom leads us to think that gratuitous love has become merely a biblical term no longer relevant or possible in an age of modern enlightenment and of techno-science. So in front of this individualism which is increasing, even in our religious communities, what can we do to correct and heal it? Where do we start?

If these questions were asked to Saint Conforti, undoubtedly he could have answered that the only medicine that can cure this cancer of individualism is the “family spirit”.  But what is exactly the Confortian family spirit?

First of all, the family spirit is more than a simple harmonious family life. Actually, people can live in congruence on the same roof without having a family spirit. They could be together as religious for the noble purpose of ministry without having such a family spirit.

For the venerable bishop of Parma, the family spirit could be marvelously summarized in this statement: “Love each other as brothers and respect each other as princes”. Some days ago I was pleased to learn in what circumstances our dearest father pronounced this pretty statement. One day two among the first Xaverian students were playing and suddenly one, out of anger, punched his fellow. The priest in charge of discipline took both of them in the office of Bishop Conforti and explained to him what had happened. After a short time of silence and deep thinking, the wise Conforti said to both students these sublime words “love each other as brothers and respect each other as princes”. Hence, for Saint Conforti, family spirit has a two-fold dimension: love and respect. These love and respect should lead to friendship among brothers in vocation.

Friendship in a religious family requires for the entire members a “genius heart”. We should live and love life to the fullness. As Augusto Luca points out, our founder was a man of friendship who enjoyed people’s company, stopping to talk with his seminarians. Regularly, he invited the young missionaries to visit his room and to have some informal talks. By that he gained their friendship and inspired great confidence.[1] Maybe in the school of our noble founder we can rediscover the central importance of friendship among us.

Besides, this family spirit could not be reduced to a merely friendship among us. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes in Wind, Stand and Stars, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.” Thus, if our primary gaze in Xaverian communities is on each other, rather than on Christ, relationships cannot lead to a real family spirit. For that reason, Conforti urged his missionaries to keep their eyes fixed on Christ, to feel that he is close to them at all times.

Therefore, it is clear that our founder wanted us to make the best possible to build real christian communities where biblical standards govern relationships. It means that we should be resolved to follow the biblical law of love, to work hard in the aim of making our communities families of brothers who love the Lord and one another. Let’s have this sublime ambition: that our neighbors (and all our xaverian friends), like the first century pagans who observed the early church, will marvel at the love we have for one another.

Concretely, we can reach this high goal if and only if we are open to one another’s needs. We can avoid to let anyone get left behind friendless and frustrated. We ought to keep the Golden Rule in mind (“Do to others as you would have them do to” Lk 6:31). We must also try to build up, not tear down. One better way to know if we are building up is to examine our day-to-day speeches. The rule is “don’t speak unless your words are edifying.” (cf Eph 4: 29) Criticism of one another will sometimes be necessary (for the sake of truth and objectivity), but we should do it in a godly way. I believe that if we have a serious criticism of one of our brothers, it is absolutely necessary to neither murmur behind his back nor gossip. We have to be mature enough to talk to him, as our Lord requires in Mt 18:15. That is really the foundation of what Conforti call family spirit. 

At this level, it appears that the family spirit should be understood as a spiritual journey that we make together toward Christ. There are periods of discouragement on the journey, as well as periods of joy, peace, and love. To nurture this wonderful journey, we come together as family. We gather in order to support each other by our gentle words, our prayers, and especially by our presence.

To conclude, I do believe that for the Xaverian Missionaries, family spirit is neither something optional nor a value alongside others but rather the corner stone of our charism. In fact the confortian dream is to make the whole world a family. This dream could be fulfilled if and only if the Xaverians evangelize together, as a family. So with the event of the Canonization of Conforti, it’s a reminding for all of us that this is the time to evangelize, and to evangelize together, and to evangelize united, as a family. 

[1] Augusto Luca, Guido Maria Conforti. Bishop and Missionary, Rome, Ed. Paoline, 2007, P72

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