The present and future of religious life must always be focused on the ministry of encounter.
That's the message members of the Religious Formation Conference heard over the two days of the group's annual national congress, which brought together nearly 200 formators for seminars and inspiration Nov. 17-18 in Milwaukee. The conference also included pre- and post-congress workshops Nov. 16 and Nov. 19.
Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word Teresa Maya, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, delivered a keynote address Nov. 17 on how the ministry of encounter is the call for our time. Maya said she deliberately chose to use the Spanish word for encounter, "encuentro," because it has more layers of meaning, such as "conference," "meeting" or even "sporting match."
"It's like the difference between a taco truck and Taco Bell," she said.
Encuentro requires listening with all our senses, Maya said, and "you only really know if there was an encuentro after you've finished."
Frequently citing Pope Francis' many calls to create a culture of encounter, Maya said true encuentro is "a journey through mystery. When you have a true encuentro, you don't know what's going to happen."
"The encounter with Jesus is truly the golden thread of our formation process," Maya said, and is the perfect model for formation because we are never finished encountering Christ.
"The call for encuentro is rooted in the community gathered for the Eucharist," she said. "Encuentro is a call to journey beyond ourselves, beyond our comfort. It is a call to the margins. Encuentro is the movement from the one to the whole."
Maya said religious need to stop looking at the past and focus on "the grace of the now," saying formation should prepare religious not for the church of 50 years ago, but the church of today and tomorrow.
"It is no longer time for lamentations," she said. "We must answer the call as we are because that is who God needs, that is who God called, and that is why we are here."
Divine Word Fr. Stephen Bevans' keynote address Nov. 18 called on religious to become prophets of encounter.
"Becoming prophets of encounter is to learn to pay attention to ourselves, our world, our God in Jesus Christ and to our sisters and brothers, especially those on the margins," Bevans said.
God himself created the model of encounter when he came to Earth in the form of Jesus, Bevans said, noting he gave up everything to encounter mankind.
"This is a God who loves creation desperately and recklessly," he said, citing British theologian John Oman's observation that in Jesus' parable about the pearl of great price, the merchant who sells all his belongings is God, and the pearl he gave up everything to obtain is us.
That model of encounter, Bevans said, is the model religious need to use in all of their relationships and the model that must continue from formation onward.
About the same time Maya delivered her Nov. 17 keynote, Irish Archbishop Eamon Martin gave a similar message to the International Conference on Priestly Formation.
"Any consideration of priestly formation must see formation as a lifelong process," Martin said.
"A priest is certainly not the man who arrives into a parish, perfectly packaged, with all the answers."
Formation must focus on making seminarians into disciples, he said.
"Formation in discipleship helps to prepare pastors who can meet the challenges presented by Pope Francis for the priests of today: to be priests to 'accompany' God's scattered people and heal their wounds, 'as in a field hospital'; priests who will be shepherds who know 'the smell of the sheep' and are able to serve with the mind and heart of the Good Shepherd; priests who are missionaries, witnessing to 'the joy of the Gospel,' " Martin said.
"Put simply, one cannot be a credible witness, shepherd, healer or proclaimer of the good news to contemporary culture unless one is rooted in a profound relationship with Jesus with the zeal and attitudes of a disciple that will last a lifetime."