Saturday, March 29, 2008

charism (IV)

If you ask an LC, especially a fresh, out-of-the-can LC, what the charism of the Legion is he will say, “Charity!”

This is a conditioned response. Not necessarily a bad one, but one that requires a harder look. My response to the question would be different. I might easily be wrong, but I have certainly had plenty of time to think about it.

The first problem with the programmed answer is that no religious order can describe its charism in a one word sound byte. All religious are committed to charity... heroic charity, of the type Christ taught us. Charity, understood as selfless love of neighbor, will be present wherever the Spirit has truly bestowed any of His gifts upon us.

The more specific problem with the typical LC buzzword in my mind is that the practice of charity as a virtue within the LC has been legislated to pieces... pieces that often leave it unrecognizable and confused. The practice of charity outside the walls of the LC house, in our apostolic work, is heavily conditioned by our methodology and its quantifiable goals. That, too, at times sullies and coerces the virtue and the gift.

The vast majority of LCs are extremely decent, charitable and compassionate. I have often been put to shame by the unthinking goodness of my brothers in the Legion and the guilelessness with which they live this most basic of Christian traits. And as far as our spiritual formation is concerned there is no lack of discourse on the ‘queen of virtues’.

But what I’m saying is different: as charism, as the living, breathing heart and soul of the Congregation, charity loses its freedom, its force and its unbridled creativity – whether we’re aware of it or not – because of some of the institutional baggage we carry... elements of a system perhaps not at all essential to our true charism.

On the inside, human relationships – the scenario in which all charity is exercised – can become so minutely regulated by rules and norms that deference to the superiors, topics of conversation, the way we think and express ourselves, the way we work together, the way we enjoy ourselves and relax together make one wonder if it is all really charity or just self-preservation in an setting where uniformity is by far the safest option. By the same token, true friendship, open dialogue, candor and caring for the guy in the cassock next to you are suspect. At times, no matter how many smiling faces surround you, a Legionary community can be an extremely lonely place, indeed.

On the outside, the LCs are primed to cultivate leaders, recruit people for specific works or needs of the Congregation, implement a methodology regardless of the reality they confront, put efficiency above all else and pile up numbers.

There is inarguable merit to our intensity, our focus, our organizational prowess, our method, our work ethic and our insistence on fruitful results. I do not advocate a less demanding apostolate. But, again, charity is often the unnoticed casualty of the campaign.

Who among us has never overlooked souls placed in our path because we were too intent upon catching the ‘bigger fish’? Are the works we ostensibly dedicate to helping the poor ends in themselves or means to other goals? Have none of us ever observed the stampede of LCs that want to be present at the ‘important’ wedding, funeral, baptism or whatever... while finding time for confessions or spiritual direction or hospital visits to the ‘less notable’ is a real chore? Do we worry as much about the people (the people!) we serve through our apostolates as we do about the work itself or the image we project? Do we stick our necks out for our people, take the necessary risks for them... or drop them like hot tamales as soon as we perceive some inconvenience or shadow of disfavor? Is charity always the unadulterated finality of our pastoral efforts or are we out there trying to impress the superiors, hold on to our place or our job, make a name for ourselves because that is what the system expects of us...?

OK. Enough. But I insist that I be correctly understood: the LCs do and have done incalculable good to thousands upon thousands of people. The spirit of outreach, enthusiasm and sacrifice that characterizes our Congregation has been an injection of life and hope for the Church wherever the LC is present.

What I’m saying specifically regards the definition of our charism. I would not glibly and bluntly respond “Charity!” to the question I began this post with. There is pressure exerted by institutional aspects of LC life on the virtue of charity that merits reflection and analysis. We should not fear this task. The Holy See has already given us a push in this direction. In the end, charity will and must be the most vivid and lasting expression of all we are as priests and not simply a shiny veneer held in place by rules and norms.

(to be continued...)