Fred Groleau, OMI, shares his reflections on the focus that the Oblates are giving toward the formation of the young candidates who are seeking to join the Oblate community. Fred brings five years of experience with Oblate formation in Pakistan (where Christianity is a very small minority). He has spent the past five years in formation work in our Oblate mission in Kenya.
The experience of two very different Church situations provides Fred with a broad horizon in which to evaluate where the stress must be placed in the development of the Oblate mission in Kenya. The first contrast is the speed with which the Oblate mission accepted young Kenyan candidates. In Pakistan some of the religious communities (men and women) deliberately choose not to move into formation immediately. They felt they were not ready for this ministry. Only with time did the communities become sufficiently established to move into formation work.
Fred is very careful to situate the discussion of the mission and the formation work within the context of what is happening in the whole of East Africa. There is a ground swell in the numbers of young people within the society. The infrastructures of the country are not able to handle these huge numbers of young people. After political independence from their colonial rulers there was a very strong push to have universal education throughout the country. This did happen to an extent but the structures and resources were not in place to provide adequate and quality education. What is happening within the Church is but a microcosm of what is happening or not happening within each country in East Africa.
The contrast between the two countries is very bold. In Kenya the candidates for religious life are in abundance. With a simple image the religious community just has to put up a shingle that they are available and you get candidates. “We put an ad in Catholic magazines and you get response. The vocation animator receives lots of mail. You could be involved full time with the mail and response to these mail requests.”
There is a strong pause in the conversation. “For us the question is how we are doing discernment with the young people that are coming toward religious life.”
Fred began to outline the religious situation of the Kenyan people in contrast with Western secular societies. “Africa is a religious continent. The people have faith. In Kenya sixty percent of the people are Christian. Thirty percent of the people are Catholics. In the city of Nairobi there are churches all over. In the country of Kenya there are sixty-three male religious congregations in operation and one hundred and forty-four women’s congregations. All these congregations have candidates.
“The Church is very visible and developing. The churches are full on Sunday. The bishops complain that they do not have sufficient priests to cover all the parishes even though they have many ordinations every year. Our parish in Kionyo has eleven out-stations and everyone is full every Sunday. We are living in a very religious ambience.”
Fred works the horizon over which religious vocations must be discerned and evaluated. “Many of these young men who come have genuine vocations. This situation is much like our own in Canada five decades ago. Many of those who come forward would have had a religious vocation in their family membership. The element of church structures and visibility within the society is still working in Africa. The religious education is working in the schools.
“Our young men are active in their parishes. There is a strong atmosphere of faith within the country.”
Fred brings us to understand the other side of the horizon in which they must work and live. “Socially speaking this is one of the best opportunities for young people who are looking for a future that is better than the one they came from. This is a land of deep poverty. In the area of vocation discernment there are so many human elements to be included. There is the need for financial security and the opportunity to fulfill themselves. Membership in a religious congregation can be an avenue to fulfill their very legitimate human aspirations.”
The discussion works through the danger of two very simplistic solutions, both of which are not helpful in the process of discernment.
The first simplistic danger is to see that we have all these candidates and everything is beautiful. The simple solution is to accept them all. Fred cautioned, “We have been there in Canada in our past and it is not good of itself. We have to be actively journeying with each of the candidates.”
The second simplistic solution is a more cynical position. “All these men want is to get their education and then they will leave us.” Both solutions are not helpful. The process of discernment means to sort things out in the lives of each candidate. There are strong drives provided by the religiosity of the people and the family life of these candidates. There is such a strong struggle just to survive. There is a forty percent unemployment rate within the country.
Fred adds at this point. “Our seminaries in Kenya are full. But we must learn from the history that we know. We have learnt that we must not accept just any candidate that comes forward.” He places a period at the end of the sentence of historical awareness. “We must not be naïve.”
Like an experienced builder Fred lays out the building blocks. “If we do not provide the proper discernment it would be discarding genuine religious vocations.” Even though the numbers coming forward are very many, the strong but unspoken human need for financial security and a decent future must be recognized. A sincere religious vocation must be discerned and tested.
Fred stepped back and recognized the danger of having only Western eyes to see what is happening. “We must be careful not to interpret the African reality with our Western secularist lens. There is always the danger that when we are confronted with such a religious people we cannot see that these people could have such a faith response to our Gospel message.”
Discernment of an authentic religious vocation means that “we have to be open to the total reality and look at young men for what they actually are. Recognize the genuineness of their calling and recognize their true motivations. Discernment means to help them go beyond their own limitations.” This demands that religious training help these young men transcend their own sense of religiosity and be conscious of their own attraction to religious life which may be a very strong need for security.
Several times within this conversation Fred went back to the directions that a past superior general of the Oblates, Fr. Fernand Jette, OMI, gave. “We must have the candidates encounter Christ and as soon as possible!” Lead them to a genuine contact with Christ.
“We [the Oblate mission] are still establishing the foundation to provide good formation for our candidates. We have lacked the personnel for this work up to this point.” We came with a very strong sense of being missionary and serving the social development of the people. But the mission work cannot focus only on a strong formation program for the new candidates. “We would suffer in the mission if we did not have the missionary involvement as the basis of our life here.”
The understanding of the Oblate community must see that “our missionary work has to be deliberate and done with planning. We cannot have lone rangers out there on their own. All missionary work must be a concerted effort, deliberate and planned.
“In East Africa we [The Oblates] are not known. We are only a seed. We are only beginning to become known. This is in contrast with South Africa where the church began through the work of the Oblates.”
Fred summarized his five years with the Kenyan Oblate mission. “The country is beautiful. The people are expressive and warm. The liturgies are dynamic.” He took a breath. “There is something painful about the human struggle through the conditions of poverty. There is a helplessness we experience in not being able to do anything about the poverty.”