“I am with you” (Gen 28:15, Isa 41:10, 43:2, Mt 28:20, etc) is an oft-repeated assurance of God, and these are the words that adorn the wall of the sanctuary of all Pauline churches and chapels the world over. Sixteen-year old James Alberione, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament exposed during the night that divided the 19th and 20th centuries, was given this assurance from the Tabernacle. He was assigned to do something for the new century, to tread the unknown, unbeaten path of living and giving the Gospel to the farthest corners of the Earth using the means of the times. Walking through some of the Pauline centres, I am overwhelmed at the very sight and thought of what our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, has accomplished for Jesus the Divine Master and his people. Our Pauline presence, spread across 70 countries today, brings home to us the message that ‘no one is outside the plan of God’. And we are simultaneously reminded of how God’s designs and plans for humanity are granted to a particular human person who will work under the influence of the Holy Spirit to make them a visible reality announcing the eternal truth that God continues to love us in spite of us.
Pauline life and mission are not a continuation of some age-old ministries or activities. Rather, they were then new and unheard of. Priests and religious operating printing presses, publishing books and periodicals, running book centres, producing and directing films, and using media platforms was something unheard of until then and obviously, such a charism and spirituality met with lots of resistance and even hostility within the Church and in society. It withstood all the rough weather, not because of human propensity but because it took birth from the Tabernacle. An entity born from the Tabernacle cannot be aborted by human endeavour. Indeed, the Pauline Family has been willed by the Father, conceived by the Son, and guided and nurtured by the Holy Spirit. Pauline existence in Church and society alike thrived vigorously, Alberione spreading his wings far and wide, sending his sons and daughters out as disciples of Christ to share the message of the Gospel.
The Holy Bible remains the reference point for Pauline life. Every Pauline is to live the word of God and accept it as his or her way of life. It is in the Bible that every Pauline should encounter Jesus, the Divine Master, and from the Bible trace the Way, the Truth and the Life intrinsic to living the Christian life. Paul’s Christ-experience led him on an entirely new trajectory. He went from being someone who persecuted the Church to one willing to endure persecution for the Church. In the end, Paul would give his life for the Gospel. He overcame himself and put on Christ as he became aware that ‘self-life’ resists ‘Christ-life’. He collaborated with the Holy Spirit to increase Christ in him and so was able to proclaim: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal 2:20). In the life Saint Paul, as Christ increased, the self decreased and this makes Paul challenge us: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ”. What we see in the life of Paul is total Christification.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” During the lifetime of James Alberione, the Pauline Family increased both in quantity and quality, with the best available means being put to use in the service of the apostolate. The Pauline family that drew strength from the Tabernacle was a spiritual powerhouse that announced the Gospel to the people of God. The Founder opened for us the possibility of taking a different route and living a different life – a life totally united with Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and thus Pauline life and mission became a vocation much sought after in the Church.
However, where is the Pauline presence in the 21st century? Why are we not seeing the growth and expansion we so dream of? The Founder exhorted his followers to read the signs of the time and use the latest means of communication to preach the Gospel. Most of the people Jesus chose as his disciples were simple folk. But having called them, he qualified them to continue his mission here on Earth. The disciples were not well known for their accomplishments but they relied on the strength, inspiration and guidance of God and lived a life worthy of the call they had received from their Master and Lord. When a disciple stays focused on the Master, there is always joy, fulfilment, change and growth. It looks like we Paulines have lost sight of our calling and so rely on past glory in terms of growth and expansion. We are proud that we have a unique apostolate in the Church and have remained faithful to our Charism to a certain extent. However, our Founder did not envisage a static congregation but an ever-renewing, growing and expanding one employing the latest means of communication to preach the Gospel. It appears that we are busy continuing to live what has been handed on to us by our forefathers and through this process, we are looking forward to having revival and renewal. At the end of the day, we realize that we are still stuck in the old rut, probably fermenting in ageing wineskins. There is a desperate attempt made by some of us to fit the new wine into old wineskins. Are we looking for a different result? Well, the only way to get it is to listen to our blessed Founder, read the signs of the time, and be conscientious communicators of God’s word. It looks like we are putting on someone else’s armour and fighting the war that God wants us to fight. If we want to fight our enemies, we need to put on the armour of Christ and follow his commandments and values.
Hence, ‘I am with you’ for us Paulines is an invitation to be ever-present to Jesus the Divine Master, the Way, the Truth and the Life. ‘I am with you’ is the bible that every Pauline is called to live and give to the people of God. ‘I am with you’ will become a reality in every Pauline’s life when she or he identifies with our Divine Master and commits him or herself to being communicators of his love and mercy. Busy as we may be, erecting state-of-the art centres and institutions, let us be reminded that we Paulines are called to be channels of God’s word and not anything else.
Over the years, we have realized that we have the same problems now as then and unfortunately, the same solutions are proposed. There appears to be a leadership crisis in every sphere of our life and mission. It is not a change of government that will bring us the change and growth that we dream about but a transformation of our hearts according to the mind of Saint Paul and Blessed Alberione. Paul’s priority was not himself. He was a servant of the Gospel. Each of us needs to ask ourselves, “How will my attitude and behaviour, my Pauline Vocation and apostolate affect the spread of the Good News?” This should become a powerful filter through which to press our decisions and daily lifestyle. Let the Bible, Paul, and Alberione become for us the way to follow and commit ourselves to become Paul alive today in the Church so that we may be sensitive enough to hear with our own ears ‘I am with you’!