We have just given a brief generic description of our formation communities. We also have to do a more serious and refined analysis in order to discover how individualism is present. We have to admit that it can “slip in” without our being aware. Individualism is promoted by contemporary society and accepted as a good thing because it is a plus for the individual in her/his personal development, professionally, politically and economically. We are not just talking about blatant selfishness but a subtle variation of that, presented as “self-fulfillment”, the search for the happiness that God wants for everyone etc.
In our analysis it would be interesting to ask ourselves what is the origin of the individualism that we observe in the community. Is it the young who come to us, who arrive already loaded down with individualism? Or do they come to us and then are influenced by a form of RL shaped by individualism? Or is it a combination of both factors? It is the formators’ task to analyze and discern in what measure we accept and live the false values dominant in society.
Individualism is an attitude that has infiltrated our life and which is manifested in different ways, for example, putting more trust in an academic title than in religious profession, seeking success in ministry more than humble and unselfish service, giving priority to the development of personal talents rather than offering oneself freely for whatever type of service might be asked and investing the best of ourselves in that service.
One criticism of religious and priests is that we end up becoming narcissists. The very way we celebrate the liturgy or preach or organize the parish has more to do with self-affirmation and self-praise than real service to the people. Liturgies and preaching as ways of showcasing the one who presides; a sense of one’s self importance and superiority by reason of the one’s role one, expecting to be served, accepted (without criticism), admired etc.
Another aspect that could be interesting would be to ask ourselves about the influence of the culture of suspicion. To what extent do we accept the gut level suspicion that the search for truth is a “mission impossible,” that philosophies are nothing more than a collection of ideologies and criteria for discerning which is the true one do not exist. What’s more, when the conscience suspects itself, making a commitment “forever” becomes very difficult, if not impossible. Interest in utility over truth shows itself in dislike (and even rejection) of intellectual argument, intellectual effort, dodging questions of dogma or complex moral issues, and just being satisfied with some teaching that may seem good for people, one that seems to work. There is a tendency to function more on the feeling level than the reflective one.++++
Another way in which individualism may manifest itself and at the same time be fed is by an individualistic spirituality that sees salvation as a private matter. Religious experience is cut off from communion and commitment to the growth of others. The rejection of institutions (“I believe in God but not in the Church”; I’m spiritual but I don’t belong to any religion.”) can also be a way of undervaluing the communal dimension. I use the congregation or the community for the concerns that really move me but these concerns are not those of the group. I take from the community what helps me, what interests me, what “fulfills” me, but I don’t sacrifice myself for the community.
Finally, we may be promoting a type of individualism with our very model of formation. In our style of formation we have opted for “personalization,” giving attention to the specific circumstances of each person and trying to move them toward transformation from within and not from a mere assimilation of habits or ways of acting or thinking. Certainly personalized attention does not mean encouraging individualism, rather it is meant to help the brother in formation to draw out of himself the best he has and to develop the personal ability to put that at the service of the mission. However, we have to ask ourselves, whether at times there is not excessive “psychologism”, the constant reference to “my situation, my inner state, looking within myself etc.” which can cause the formand to be centered in himself than in others. We can forget that the “personal PARL” (and community PARL) is an instrument for discernment and for being faithful to the will of God. The PARL ends up being a way for carrying “my plan” (not God’s plan or the vocation to which he has called me).
B. Adequate insight from theological anthropology
We said above that the concept of the individual is very related to Christian thought. The consideration of the individual human being as an individual subject with his own dignity, is one of the contributions of Christianity. Individualism is a degeneration of the human condition. We experience ourselves as human as an individual subject, in interpersonal relationships and in the search for the common good. Theological anthropology presents a Christian sense of the “individual” as part of a community, part of a people, and part of a “body” (Pauline theology), which has the Spirit of God as its unifying and animating element. The personal fulfillment of each individual is understood as the giving of oneself out of love.
The biblical vision of the human person is that of the individual in communion.5 There is nothing negative about individuality, the uniqueness of the person, the dignity of the individual person, beloved of God and called to the fullness of life. Individuality affirms the value of the person. Individualism exaggerates it and ends up destroying it. The present day appreciation of the individual and his inalienable rights has its roots in the biblical and Christian concept. The exaggeration of individualism and the rights of the individual ends up as an assault on the rights of others.
Society’s tendency to appeal to “individual rights”, self-fulfillment and “my right to happiness,” easily ends up colliding with the interests of the common good. An individualistic definition of the rights of the person ends up dissolving the very content of the human condition (e.g. the right to have sex always and whenever one desires it; the right to kill the conceived unborn child (abortion), the right to redefine marriage…) An anthropology that really leads to human fulfillment is based on care for the other, the value of the other, the recognition of the other’s dignity and placing oneself at the service of the other. The logic of the Gospel is that the grain of wheat that dies, and so does not remain alone, for in dying it produces much fruit.
Our culture today emphasizes comfort, immediacy, efficiency without valuing effort, sacrifice, renunciation and the cross. Living Christian love has never been easy. Today it can be questioned as useless and absurd.
However we also have to find what’s positive in the contribution of the so-called “masters of suspicion” (Nietzsche, Freud, Marx), because they have contributed to purifying the image of God and they challenge us to be constantly aware of any kind of anthropological naivety. God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth makes us to take everything that is human and the truth of humanity seriously. This is an area where we have to be in dialogue with today’s world and also in dialogue with our own truth.
C. Things to be done in formation
In our formation plans and programs we have to always keep in mind formation in ss.cc. communion. The General Plan of Initial Formation (nn. 52-70), gives us some good orientations and suggestions of tools for formation (the personal PARL, community PARL, meetings, and to keep in mind the provincial perspective, mission, cultural diversity etc.).
It corresponds to each formation team to organize activities that that can more directly address formation in communion and that help brothers and communities to be more aware of the individualism than can be present. For example: