A journey that shaped them
Kevin O’Rourke SJ was one of over 200 people who attended a 40th-anniversary Zoom celebration of the Religious Formation Ministry Programme on Saturday 10 June 2023. The event was organised by the current RFMP team based in Loreto House in Blackrock, and Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications was the facilitator for the gathering. Former programme participants from all over the world, as well as team leaders and resource people, all took part in the celebration.
The RFMP started back in 1983 when the Conference of Major Religious Superiors (now the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland, AMRI) noted that there was no place for formation in Ireland and decided to rectify that situation. Jesuit Joe Dargan, enlisted the help of Srs Patricia Sweeney (Columban) Eleanor Dorgan (Sacred Heart) and Fr Brendan Staunton (Jesuit). Their job was to design and implement a formation programme in the absence of any blueprint.
That small group’s key concern was to add the ‘experiential and group dynamics dimension’ to intellectual and spiritual formation. The RFMP became an academic year-long renewal programme of formation offered to male and female religious and diocesean clergy, by AMRI.
According to Brendan Staunton, “The year complemented the intellectual and spiritual programmes already set up in places such as Milltown Park and Manresa. Provincials from all over the world sent people for formation training, so they could offer formation to other religions. It was individual and group dynamic oriented.”
The focus of the year was and is on spiritual renewal, prayer, ongoing personal formation, human development, confidence building, liturgical creativity, community building, social transformation, theological enrichment, and cultural diversity. Those who take part are also given the opportunity to reflect on their pastoral practice and the development of skills for leadership and formation ministry.
The event on Zoom marking the anniversary year started with an ongoing welcome to the participants when the meeting was opened at 11.45 am. “They started coming in from all over the world,” says Pat Coyle, adding, “And their excitement was palpable and infectious. I was a bit nervous about how it all would go, especially around the technological bit, but Ger Gallagher, Communications Director with AMRI was looking after that and did a great job. Meanwhile, those first 15 minutes reminded me of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples as recounted in Acts. It was a veritable babble of babel, full of joy and warmth.”
At midday, all microphones were muted and after some scene-setting and housekeeping from Pat Coyle, Sr Josephine Ennmo, the current Director of the RFMP programme welcomed everyone officially and invited them to light the candle they had all been asked to bring.
As is the tradition in RFMP schedules, a time of song and prayer formed the prelude to a reflection piece led by Fr Joe McGee, a one-time participant and team leader of RFMP, who led everyone in a reflection based on the Emmaus story. As he spoke and asked questions for reflection, photos of the groups from every year, starting in 1982/83, were shared on screen.
This ritual was followed by the creation of 42 break-out rooms where participants from each of the 40 years were invited to join those who had turned up from their year group. There was a group also for resource people and team leaders and one for those who found themselves with no one in their year group!
Fr Joe’s ‘Emmaus’ questions were still ringing in their ears as they met in the small break-out rooms. So too was a phrase suggested to them by Pat Coyle. “The US philosopher Henry Thoreau once wrote, ‘I will tell you of a journey that has shaped me’, she said. “You all were on a journey in your RFMP year, and have journeyed on since in so many different ways. How have you been shaped? What can you share now with those you spent so much deep time with, learning together for your mission?”
After 45 minutes of sharing, all were invited back to the large group and invited to say a few words if they felt so inclined. It was clear that the overwhelming experience of those who spoke was one of gratitude and joy to be celebrating such an occasion with people who had meant so much to them.
The celebration concluded with a short ritual led by one-time participant and team leader St Anne Harte-Barry. She invited people to recall those associated with RFMP who had died in the intervening years. Mikes were unmuted and names of the deceased from all over the world were spoken and honoured in a cacophony of remembering.
Another hymn and a final word of thanks from Pat Coyle and Sr Josephine marked the official end of the celebration. But the meeting room was left open for a while longer and many participants lingered, sharing some final words with people who were once an important part of their daily lives and whose influence they still carried with them down all the years.