The Acts of the recent Columban General Assembly in Taiwan are entitled Transitioning for Columban Mission.
I always thought the word ‘transition’ was a noun rather than a verb. But it seems that, in North American circles in particular, the word is being used as a verb to put the emphasis on the process of changing from one state, stage or condition to another. As such, the focus is on something dynamic and evolving, rather than a static reality. Having just celebrated one hundred years of Columban life and mission, we are told that we should not think we have now reached a settled state. We continue to be is in a process of transitioning, which will always be an essential hallmark of our life and mission. Let’s try to look at this in the light of faith.
Jesus, the Centre of our Life and Mission
The starting point for any Christian spirituality, including a spirituality of transitioning for mission, has to be our call to be disciples of Jesus Christ. The centre of our life and mission is not a philosophy, ideology or social analysis, not a collection of beliefs, ethical code or ritual system, not a sacred book. The centre of our life and mission is a person who walked on this earth, a prophet who by word and action proclaimed the liberating and transforming Reign of God, one who shared our human weakness and vulnerability to the extent of dying on a cross, but who transitioned through death to new life. By reason of his resurrection, Jesus is not a figure of the past, but one who is present, alive and active in our world today. He invites us to follow him today, to identify with him, to take on his attitude and values, to live as he lived, and to share in his mission. His call comes not just at one moment in our lives, but is an ongoing call to us. Pope Francis stresses, time and time again, that Jesus Christ must always be our fundamental reference point. He opens his major document on the Church’s mission with the words; ‘The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 1). In his reflections on the call to holiness in today’s world, we read: ‘Mission has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him’ (Gaudete et Exultate, 20).
Transitioning with Jesus
Jesus experienced transitioning in his life. He was constantly in transition, continually moving forward on the way which the Father was pointing out to him, ever journeying towards his God-given destiny. We see this especially in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is portrayed as a prophet who ‘set his face’ to go to Jerusalem with great determination, resoluteness and singlemindedness (see Luke 9:51). In journeying to Jerusalem, he invites others to walk with him on the way with that same unwavering commitment (see Luke 9:57-62). In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke calls the whole Christian movement the ‘Way’ (see Acts 9:2; 19:25-26) to underscore the dynamic nature of Christian discipleship. To be a disciple is to be ‘on the way’ with Jesus, to transition with him, continually moving to where God is calling us. Again I’m reminded of words of Pope Francis: ‘God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond’ (Gaudete et Exultate, 135). Jesus did this and he invites us to do the same with him.
In our transitioning, we can take inspiration from St Columban, the tireless ‘Pilgrim for Christ.’ He left his settled monastic life and spent many years transitioning, constantly on the move in the service of the Gospel and facing many dangers, challenges and risks in the process. We could say that transitioning is part of the Columban DNA. It has taken a number of forms for us. We have crossed boundaries of country, language, race, culture and religion in the service of the Gospel. All these transitioning experiences have had their moments of joy and pain.
We have come to understand the Gospel as the good news of universal communion, the good news of a loving and hospitable God, who invites all to sit at God’s table as members of one human family. All are called to live in harmony and right relationships with God, with one another and with all creation. As people who proclaim the all-inclusive love of God, we are being called to have a special concern for those who are excluded or marginalised in any way. Crossing boundaries which often divide and keep people apart, we can be agents and instruments of the universal communion God wants in a world where excessive nationalism, populism and isolationism are on the rise.
We are being called not only to be agents and instruments of communion, but also signs of communion by the way we relate to each other. In a world and Church where many experience alienation and exclusion, this involves transitioning to structures for Columban mission which are marked by partnership, networking, complementarity, participation, mutual support and challenge. In the Acts of the General Assembly we read: ‘We are men and women, lay and ordained, from different cultures and generations, who seek to respond in communion with one another and with all creation to our baptismal call to participate in God’s mission as expressed in the life and ministry of Jesus and in his commandment to preach the Gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).’ More and more, Columbans will be working together in multicultural teams, being called to authentic intercultural living which recognises diversity as mutually enriching. More and more, Columban mission will be carried out in partnership between lay and ordained, women and men of different generations – a partnership in which each one is seen as a unique gift to mission and the gifts of one complement the gifts of another. In living true communion and partnership among ourselves, we are doing mission, not just preparing for mission. ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:35).
Transitioning as Discernment
On the journey of transitioning in Columban mission, we are not given a detailed map for the road ahead. We have to engage in Christian discernment. As a group discerning together, we prayerfully read the signs of the times to get a deeper sense of where the Spirit of Christ is leading us in mission today. Pope Francis, who speaks of discernment quite a lot, says: ‘we must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways’ (Gaudete et Exultate, 172). We listen especially to the cry of the poor and the wounded earth and in that process we are evangelized ourselves. Discernment is not just about enlightenment, clarifying our vision to get a better view of the road ahead. Discernment is also about empowerment, opening ourselves to the Spirit who not only shows us the way, but also gives us the strength to walk on that way. As Pope Francis says, we are being called to be Spirit-filled evangelizers, ‘fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 259). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a Spirit-filled prophet, who on his journey frequently engages in discerning prayer to keep in touch with the guiding and empowering Spirit. As we walk with him on the way, we are being called to do the same.
Transitioning is part and parcel of human living. All of us have to face it at a personal level. And it takes various forms for us, depending on our circumstances and stage of life. We can resist transitions, grieving over what has been and what we are now asked to let go. Or we can embrace transitions, seeing a new call and new possibilities on the path of missionary discipleship. Conscious that many Columbans are experiencing the diminishment and limitations which come with increasing age, the 2018 General Assembly encourages more senior members to develop a ‘spirituality of letting-go’ as they move into less active ministries. While sharing the wisdom and experience of years and remaining open to new ways of mission, we are being called to encourage and support younger Columbans and others in mission. Like Barnabas in the early church, more senior Columbans especially are being asked to be ‘sons of encouragement,’ letting go and putting what we have at others’ feet (see Acts 4:36-37), as well as facilitating the mission of others (see Acts 9:27; 11:25-26; 15:36-39).
In our personal experience of transitioning, when we feel we are losing control in our life and mission, we remember that we are always being led by the hand of a loving Father. Furthermore, our mission is a participation in the Mission of God which will continue and succeed, perhaps in ways not seen by us now. For this reason, we remain people of hope and joy, eager to share Gospel joy with others.
We bring all our transitioning, communal and personal, to the celebration of the Eucharist where it is united to the great transitioning which is the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. Only when our transitioning is stamped by the dying and rising of Jesus, will it become life-giving for us, for those with whom we work, and for those we serve on mission.