Columbans Gather in Peru for General Assembly 2024

May 22, 2024

The leaders of the various Regions and Mission Units in the Missionary Society of St Columban, along with some elected delegates and designated others, have gathered in Lima, the capital of Peru for a General Assembly.  This is an event held every six years. Delegates are tasked with reviewing what has happened in the past six years and with discerning the path forward for Columban Mission.  A new leadership team will be elected to lead the Society into the future.

Fr Peter O’Neill has been elected President of the Assembly and President of the Steering committee. The members of the Steering Committee are: Fr Andrei Paz, Fr Carlo Jung, and Sherryl Lou Capili, Coordinator of Lay Missionaries.

Fr Peter O’Neill

Society Leader, Fr Tim Mulroy’s Homily for the Opening Mass
of the General Assembly on Pentecost Sunday

How appropriate that we are gathered here in Lima to celebrate the opening of our General Assembly on the Feast of Pentecost. The celebration of today’s feast serves to remind us that it is the Holy Spirit who leads and directs God’s mission in our world – the Holy Spirit who eagerly wishes to direct and guide our General Assembly – the Holy Spirit who guides us to, and reveals to us the truth about God, about ourselves as Columban missionaries, and about the things that are to come during the next chapter of our Columban story.

Since it is the Holy Spirit who directs and empowers our participation in God’s mission, all Columbans are co-workers – and indeed all baptised persons are co-workers with the Holy Spirit – co-workers who also collaborate with one another to make the risen Christ present in the world today. Our task then is to become more attentive to the Holy Spirit present in our lives and ministries, to be led by the Holy Spirit blowing through the wider church, and to recognize the movements of the Holy Spirit in the world around us.

In today’s second reading, St Paul sets before us the image of the Holy Spirit building up the Body of Christ in order to emphasize that collaboration among all of us co-workers is not something optional, but rather an essential dimension of the ongoing accomplishment of God’s mission in our world. However, collaboration is only possible through meaningful communication. Cooperation is the fruit of mutual understanding.

Pentecost Sunday Mass for the Opening of the Society’s General Assembly in Lima.

For that reason, we – representatives of Columban mission from around the world – will spend the next month engaged in spiritual conversations with one another, engaged in conversation with the Holy Spirt, engaged in Spirit-led conversations, in order to discern together how we can give greater witness to our belief that we are members of the one Body of Christ.

We Columbans who are gathered here have many differences – we come from many different countries, we are on mission in several other countries whose language, culture and religious traditions are distinct from one another. Besides, our personality and talents shape our manner of engagement with the world, while our life experiences and particular role colour our views and vision.

All of these differences require us to become attentive listeners during the next four weeks in order for us to understand the diversity of the body that is Columban Mission. All of these differences require us to become eager students during the next month in order to appreciate the richness of the body that is the Society of St. Columban.

Yes, we are members of the body that is the Missionary Society of St. Columban – and the Society is but one member of the Body of Christ. Columban Missionaries are just one limb of God’s Mission, one particular outreach by the Holy Spirit to the Church and to the world around us. That means that we cannot limit our discernment to the internal challenges facing the Society of St. Columban, but must also discern God’s call to us as Columban missionaries within the context of the universal Church, the Body of Christ, and the movements of the Spirit in the world today.

For example, as Columbans, how do we communicate and collaborate with the universal Church as it wrestles with synodality and the greater inclusion of women in decision-making processes and leadership roles? As Columbans, how do we engage with the forced displacement of countless people all around us, the ongoing revolution in technology and communication, and with the ecological destruction of our Common Home?

In other words, we are called to discern together how the Holy Spirit wishes to invigorate our Columban charism so that we can continue to play our important role within the Body of Christ …and how we can enable Christ to become incarnated through Columbans in the world today.

The Feast of Pentecost is the celebration of God becoming incarnate in the followers of Jesus, the Church, so that we might truly become the eyes and ears, the hands and feet of the risen Christ in the here and now of our world.

On the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit earnestly desires to accomplish once more the same mystery in us as she accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. You might call it the Great U Journey – the letter U written large – which we can see so clearly in the mission story of Christ Jesus. By the way, the Great U Journey of Jesus ought not to be confused with Theory U – they are distinct processes, though there may be an overlap in some places.

St Paul provides the best description of the Great U Journey that was undertaken by Christ. Though he was in the form of God, Christ emptied himself in order to come on mission into our world as a human being. And as a human, he encountered many obstacles and great opposition to his message.

However, he chose to remain faithful to his mission, even though he knew that he was digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself. Such faithfulness resulted in him meeting a violent death on a cross. Yes, in fidelity to his vocation, Jesus chose to go down, down, to the bottom of the U, to surrender all to God the Father by becoming a down-and-out. In response to such deep trust and fidelity to God’s mission, God the Father raised Christ from death, and exalted him – making him Lord of the universe. Yes, God led him up, up, up on the other side of that great U Journey.

So, Jesus did not arrive back where he had started. No, through that Great U journey Jesus brought a part of our world with him – his risen body – into the bosom of God. In fact, through that Great U journey, Jesus reconciled our world with God, brought planet earth and the entire universe with him back into the heart of God. Jesus’ Great U journey not only significantly changed our world, but also profoundly changed God – since it resulted in the risen body of Christ being enfolded forever within the Trinity.

On this Feast of Pentecost, we Christians celebrate our belief that the risen Christ sends us the Holy Spirit so that we might also make a similar U journey. Like Jesus, this will involve going down, renunciation, going down even further, letting go again and again, as well as a readiness to accept our fragility, suffering and nothingness. This will require us to let go of our own dreams that lack imagination, our own optimism that is a poor substitute for hope, and our own plans that are dull and self-serving. This journey down will require us to put our trust in God and to remain faithful to God’s call even when it leads us into emptiness and we feel compelled to cry out ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned us’.

However, if we take that risk of surrendering everything to God, then we can be confident that God will raise us up in a new way, lead us up in a way that we cannot imagine, guide us to new heights that reveal the power, wisdom and glory of God to the world. As we enter this General Assembly, following Jesus on that U journey means letting go of our own small dreams and petty plans in order to embrace the magnificent dreams and plans that God is already holding out to us.

During this past week as I was reflecting on all of this, for some unknown reason Des Hartford came to mind. Des, who was a Columban missionary known to many of you, spent several years in parish ministry in Mindanao in the 1960s and ‘70s. He then decided to do a 30-day retreat in order to discern how he might deepen his missionary commitment. His retreat director suggested that he make a list of possible options about his future ministry and spend some time praying about each one of them – so Des wrote down two options, then four, then six, then eight options – all of which were in some way attractive to him.

Somewhere at the back of his mind, he knew that interreligious dialogue with the Muslim community was an urgent area of mission in Mindanao, but he didn’t write it down as an option because it felt so unattractive to him, it simply did not appeal to him. However, one day he decided to add interreligious dialogue with Muslims to the end of his list – a last option to be considered in his discernment process.

Fr Andrei Paz

However, as the 30-day retreat progressed, the Holy Spirit gradually led Des down that long list of options, down further and further, until she revealed to him that the last option on his list ought to become the first option for his future ministry. During the months that followed, Des let go of his own small dreams, hopes and plans in order to embrace the dreams, hopes and plans of God. During the years that followed, Des experienced and learned to embrace the cross – which included being kidnapped and held hostage for 12 days – as part and parcel of following in the footsteps of Jesus on the U journey of life.

That same Holy Spirit who guided Des through the Paschal Mystery in his own life, wants to do the same in the life of each one of us, in the Society of St. Columban, and in the life of the universal Church.

While we may grasp all of this easily with our intellect, we know that it takes our hearts so much longer to enter into such a profound mystery. Theologians tell us that, not only did the death and resurrection of Jesus happen in the same moment, but that the Holy Spirit also descended at that very moment. However, the church guides us through the forty days of Lent, the Triduum, and the fifty days of the Easter season to help us enter into the profound mystery of that one moment.

Fr Carlo Jung

And we make this inner journey, as well as this collective journey for almost 100 days each year, year after year, conscious that the more we grasp the Paschal mystery, the deeper that mystery becomes. That is why the General Assembly takes 4 weeks rather than 4 days !

As we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost here in Lima, the Holy Spirit leads us once again as followers of Jesus, as members of the Body of Christ, as Columbans to enter into that mysterious U journey together during this General Assembly. The Society faces hard choices and major decisions, which will entail letting go, suffering, emptiness – as Christians we know that there is no by-pass or ring road around Calvary.

Lay Missionary Sherryl Lou Capili

Therefore, we ought not strive for the resuscitation of the Society – like the daughter of Jairus or Lazarus. Therefore, we ought not strive for restoration of the Society’s past – and become like a vintage car from the 1930’s – a magnificent, museum piece! Therefore, we ought not strive for a revival of the Society – and become like a vinyl disc with songs from the 1960’s – nostalgic but out of tune with the music of life in the world today.

Instead, we ought to strive to enter into the U journey that is the Paschal Mystery so that we can experience Resurrection – yes, a profoundly new way of being, a radical evangelical way of life, and a truly prophetic way of witnessing to Christ in the world today. Come Holy Spirit and make this possible in us and through us during this General Assembly.

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