The bridge between understanding something intellectually and knowing it in practice can be a familiar crossing for religious congregations. Fabio Ciardi, OMI succinctly describes how,
“We have studied and deepened religious life in all its anthropological, psychological, sociological, theological, and spiritual components. And, still, we often do not know how to actualize (implement) what we have understood. We notice almost a dichotomy between intellectual understanding and our lived experience.”
Here is where practical theology can step in and make a contribution to the quality of our religious life. The rise of this kind of theologizing over the past fifty years has been sporadic. This is due in part to how we tend to think of theology: understandings and truths about God accessed through words, usually other peoples, who we call ‘theologians’. However, the departure point for practical theology is not words, but faith practices and actions, a kind of living text of human actions, and asks what these practices can nurture through us what God is inviting today. Thomas Groome identifies that one of the Catholic principles at play in practical theology is stretching St. Anselm’s traditional definition of theology to its natural conclusion: Faith seeking understanding… and then what? We don’t stop at understanding something or someone; we live that understanding!
I have recently completed nearly five years of studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, a postgraduate theological university that is an amalgamation of religious institutes throughout the USA. The major focus of my time there was undertaking doctoral research into the practical theology of our founder, that is, founding in the most universal sense for by the time of his death in August 1868, St. Peter Julian Eymard had established two religious congregations and a lay aggregation comprising women and men, so that his universal vision of the Eucharist could permeate throughout the whole people of God.
One of Fr. Eymard’s key themes in preaching and his letter-writing ministry was transmitting a teaching that the Gift of Self is the ultimate response to Christ’s self-giving in the Eucharist. Yet, this teaching wasn’t to rest as an idea but be manifested in practices. The problem was this was greeted with ambiguity and confusion. Certainly, the first Blessed Sacrament Father’s had difficulty grasping it. His letters to a small group of laywomen were more explicit and spelled out with clarity what Gift of Self looks like when it is lifted off the page, and put into practice.
Many religious congregations face the same problem when they attempt to re-trace the charismatic identity of their founders. Key aspects of the charisms that make up our web of religious life can sometimes appear to us as so abstract that to make the leap to practical application seems beyond us. A couple of years ago, a formation director commented to me, “I don’t know how to animate the subject of Gift of Self with the students. Everything I read about it always sounds very dry and abstract. What to do, Darren?”
The research project I undertook identified methods and procedures to contribute to that ‘What to do?’ question, which largely provides some tools to relate what we practice as religious and lay associates to the original inspiration of our founder. The undertaking of the research rested upon two important distinctions. Firstly, how we looked at St. Peter Julian would affect what we see; there is a difference between looking at his life through the biographies for example, and looking within through Fr. Eymard’s own self-disclosures. Secondly, the preoccupation of the research wasn’t only about what he taught, but how, and the corpus of his written letters provided plenty of scopes to make some propositions about how Gift of Self forms part of Eymard’s practical theology.
The research itself was extremely time consuming, but I had the very definite conviction that the fifteen participants comprising SSS priests and associates from the Province of St. Ann had the opportunity to experience a sense of renewal in their ongoing ministries through being part of the thesis-project. Recorded interviews, focus groups, narrative analysis, and qualitative research methods were the bedrock that made for the completion of the six-chapter thesis that was successfully defended in Chicago on April 11th this year.
The cross-cultural value of this work is also of immense importance as our cities and religious communities are today increasingly international in scope. The animation of the research I have undertaken has been regularly given to our 95 students in India, as well as our lay aggregation members in Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. My hope is that the thesis-project will make some contribution to the important business of getting to know St. Peter Julian on his own terms, his words, and contexts, which we must harness in our own cultural settings and locations as part of our formation programs for future religious and members of the Aggregation. Encountering something of God’s Eucharistic saint from within does make a difference as to how future ministries and mission take shape as members of this Eymardian charismatic family of ours.
Finally, the kind of approach to our shared religious life in God that I have begun in Chicago can be summarized by what Esther Posada calls ‘Theological listening to the Charism’
“It is the silent listening to the charism in its theological density. That does not mean stoppage of formal and systematic study, but an active, serious, and persevering effort, done with amazement and gratitude for what God does and has done.”
Be blessed and inspired in the charismatic identity of our founder through your listening!
August 26, 2019
Father Darren Maslen, sss
Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Dublin