Marists from Ireland, The United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany gathered together for the last time as the Province of West Central Europe in Furth, Germany, from 13th until 15th October – the place there the Province began in April 2000. It was a bitter-sweet event, as it was a time to celebrate significant moments in the 23-year history of the Province, to bring to mind the 168 Brothers who had died since the beginning of the Province – including Brother Jean Koob who died on the first day of the Assembly – to recall initiatives, especially in the area of mission, as well as moments of sadness and loss.
Brother Ernesto Sanchez, S.G., was not able to be present as Pope Francis has appointed him as a member of the Synod on Synodality in Rome. Brother Luis Carlos Gutiérrez, V.G. who was asked to represent Brother Ernesto, sadly could not be present as his father died in Spain the day before the Assembly began. Brother Ben Consigli, C.G. one of the Councillors for Europe, represented the General Council, and spoke on behalf of Brother Luis Carlos. Br. Joe McKee, former Provincial (2006 – 2009) and Vicar General (2009 – 2017), was also not able to be present due to a previous commitment in Rome. Some Brothers from Scotland and Belgium, as well as some lay people from Scotland and The Netherlands, were not able to be present due to travel difficulties or for personal reasons.
The absence of these participants, who had all played an important part in the life of the Province, was keenly felt when the Assembly began on the evening of Friday 13th October. Fortunately, Brothers and lay Marists from all five countries of the Province managed to find their way to Furth in order to participate in the Assembly. Brother Gabriel Villa-Real, and Brother Xavier Giné, Provincial and Vicar Provincial of the Province of L’Hermitage, were present along with Brothers and lay Marists from France and Catalunya. Brother Robert Thunus, the outgoing Provincial, opened the Assembly and handed over to Mr Rob Walsh, who had been the facilitator of the Province discernment process since April 2022.
During the first evening Rob invited us to participate in paired conversations with other people. This helped to create a relaxed atmosphere while enabling participants to introduce themselves to each other and to create a good foundation for the working sessions that were planned for Saturday,14th October, especially as many people were meeting each other for the first time.
During Saturday, 14th October there were video recordings from the former Provincials who spoke personally about their time as Provincial; the joys, challenges and difficulties, and positive developments. There were also video presentations from each of the five countries, with reflections on how each country had responded to participation in the Province of West Central Europe, with an emphasis on positive and significant experiences during these past twenty-three years.
There were also “Vox Pop” video clips from lay Marists of the Province who each spoke about how their Marist life began, the most important chapter in their Marist life, things they were grateful for, and how they imagined their future Marist involvement as we become members of the new District attached to the Province of the Hermitage. These videos added a personal dimension to the history of the past twenty-three years as seen through the eyes of the Province leaders and the experiences and contributions of lay Marists. It was moving to hear these experiences and they each demonstrated the extraordinary achievements of the Province of West Central Europe and the significant personal investment of so many Marists.
Rob Walsh asked each of the participants to share a photo in a small group that evoked a personal story of the Province journey for them. These photos were then posted below the large Marist (and West Central Europe) Time- Line which covered one of the walls of the Conference Hall, reminding everyone of our rich Marist history and the developments of the five countries of our Province since the beginning of the Province of West Central Europe in 2000.
Brother Ernesto, in his letter of 1st September 2023, encouraged us to look to the future. However, some people reflected that we also needed to grieve the loss of the Province of West Central Europe. We were able to look back on the forging of new relationships, struggling with the challenges of language and different national and Marist cultures, learning how to make decisions together, the energy which led to new projects and initiatives, and the way that the new Province was able to take difficult decisions that may have been impossible for the former Provinces. The new Province also saw the development of the Mission gatherings in Guardamar and the Hermitage, new initiatives in mission in all of our countries and the establishment of the Province Mission Council in 2019.
The last session on Saturday, 14th October, was devoted to a video presentation where we remembered all of the Brothers who had died since the beginning of the Province. Brother Andreas Krupp, community leader in Furth, accompanied this 15- minute power point presentation on the guitar. It was moving to watch this presentation of “marvellous companions,” to use Brother Sean Sammon’s phrase, as we called to mind Brothers who had worked in the five countries of our Province and often beyond, in Africa and Asia, supporting Marist mission at home and abroad. Seeing the faces of these Brothers brought back many memories and reminded us of Brothers who had touched our lives.
The last session ended with a ritual where Brother Robert Thunus thanked the members of the outgoing Provincial Council (Brothers Ronnie McEwan, Roberto di Troia, Michael Schmalzl and Nicholas Smith), as well as Mr Gerry Devlin, outgoing Assistant Bursar, and Brother Alois Engel, Province Secretary, and introduced the new leadership group (Brothers Brendan Geary and Michael Schmalzl), as well as Mr Robert Vastmans, who will take up the role as Assistant Provincial Bursar. When Brother Jacques Scholte became the first Provincial of West Central Europe in 2000, the Brothers in Ireland gave him a replica of an ancient Celtic Cross which has since become the symbol of Province leadership which was passed on to new Provincials when they assumed office. Brother Nicholas Smith handed this Celtic Cross to Brother Robert Thunus as he begins his mandate as the first Leader of the District of West Central Europe. At that point the transition from Province to District was complete.
Later that evening the participants gathered in the restaurant in the new distillery building in Furth for a celebratory meal where Brother Robert Thunus gave gifts to the Committee that organised the Assembly, as well as to those who had supported the Assembly in a range of ways. All participants were given a bookmark to commemorate the event. The Furth Brass Band offered musical accompaniment during the evening. Brother Andreas is a member of the band, as well as Mr Andreas Horsche, the Mayor of Furth, who joined the participants for the occasion.
Conny Stuart from the Netherlands led two reflective meditations during the assembly and Fr David Formella from Recklinghausen, a good friend of the Brothers, presided over the well-prepared liturgy on Sunday, 15th October.
The Province Assembly in Furth brought to an end a process that had its beginnings in a meeting of the Provincial Council of West Central Europe with Brother Emili’s General Council in February 2017, when we were asked to make a presentation on the future of the Province. This work was taken up by the current General Council which initiated a discernment process that involved a range of meetings (via Zoom or in person) with Brothers and lay people, the Provincial Council and members of the General Council, larger meetings in Dublin (November 2021), Furth (November 2022), and Freising (April 2023), as well as meetings between the Provincial Councils of West Central Europe and L’Hermitage. The outcome of this process was the transition to becoming a District of the Province of L’Hermitage. When the participants were asked about what they were looking forward to, the key ideas were about opportunity, more lay involvement, engagement with the larger world of Marist Europe, and ways of continuing contact and support for Marist schools and projects. The twenty-three-year history of the Province of West Central Europe provides confidence that these hopes can be realised.