by Fr. Keith Branson, C.PP.S.
Once at Clergy Days in the diocese where I was serving as pastor, I was at table with the local Dominican community. It was an entertaining conversation; they were a group who seemed to know each other well, and they regularly gave each other a hard time. “Fifteen minutes; plenty of time to get a sermon ready.” Particularly, they called each other heretics about a dozen times, which was amusing enough that I considered becoming a Dominican for a few brief moments, but then I came to my senses. Every day doesn’t need to be a theological sitcom.
Being able to deal with difficult topics honestly calls for a level of trust, intimacy, and mutual respect that many religious community spiritualities try to develop. Our current culture doesn’t help with this. As members of a polarized society, we tend to avoid confrontation, reinforced by the harsh diatribes surrounding us, which usually spawn condemnation and division. In this time of confrontation, perhaps the best question is “How do we have difficult discussions?” What we don’t confront can harm us and burying differences only brings about a false, fragile, easily broken peace, and an easy acceptance of ongoing states of decay.
As people of reconciliation, we should be able to confront internal differences of opinions and goals and remain together. Gaspar proposed this as he was drawing up his first rule for the community: “In order that everything proceed in good harmony, there is to be a meeting of the Missionaries each month, and more often, if it is deemed opportune, where they will discuss the good progress of the pious works and whatever else is necessary, in order that no individual can make a decision in a matter.”(Italics in the original are in Gaspar’s handwriting.)
Being at a congressus was a challenge of listening, respect, and humility, not to mention trust. Gaspar thought all decisions affecting the community were to be made there (an attitude still present in our current statutes: our assemblies are superior to the provincial director and council.) The monthly meeting could be a dangerous place, a place where people could get into arguments and develop ongoing grudges, which could tear a group apart. Gaspar had some comments about the nature of dialogue as well:
“In (study conferences) one proposes and responds without fire, rather with using civil, prudent, humble terms…no one is to judge himself beyond that to with the responsibility assigned him autho- rizes, reserving himself to expressing his feeling as needed in the meetings; and if it should be necessary to make up for an instruction of a companion, which charity and respect remind him of what might be necessary, and thus the bond of love in Jesus Christ be preserved.”
Here we see a practical part of Gaspar’s vision of the Bond of Charity at work. Gaspar wasn’t in favor of witticisms or sharp remarks, however. Gentle humor is born of care and respect—as well as deep insight—and not in seeking the best comeback, sound bite, or tweet. He wanted his Missionaries to live together as good friends.
What holds us together is our spirituality and as long as there are at least two of us in the community, there are bound to be differences about it. It is tempting to carry our banners alone, call like- minded people to follow us, and form a smaller community. That wasn’t Gaspar’s vision, and even though he was the leading light of the early community, he wanted collaborators, and attracted some very gifted people to his community.
Paul writes this in in a passage—usually read at weddings—which was really written for a community torn by division and rivalry: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13: 4-7).
There was no free press or even large networks of reliable communication in Gaspar’s time: fake news and alternate facts had free reign. In this past year, I think we’ve literally seen how these can poison relationships, both on a small scale and a national one. The relativization of Truth breeds lack of trust in people and institutions, which make any level of community difficult, if not impossible. The effects of such a lack of trust and how it can be manipulated were played out most dramatically January 6 in Washington, DC. It was a singular result of not being able to discuss difficult topics well.
Gaspar’s community had a political purpose in his day: reconciliation of the banditti, people living on the margins of society. He had to convince his own missionaries of this mission before they went out, help them see the truth he saw. They were partly convinced by their trust in him, and the word he preached. As we look to a New Creation, a new community, and even a new country, it is through the establishment of trust in each other and the cause we embrace that new life becomes possible, a goal which we can plan strategies to achieve. Learning to dialogue effectively and be changed by the dialogue is the key to any New Creation and finding ways to help that happen a real objective to work for.
This article appeared in the New Wine Press, January 2020. It has been updated by Fr. Branson for reflection upon recent US events.