for Saint Eugene de Mazenod (I)
Bernard Dullier, O.M.I.
Table of Contents
The experience of common life at the seminary 1808 to 1812.
The experience of common life with Brother Maur from 1812 to 1815.
Neither in this case can we speak of community: Brother Maur is a good servant, nothing more. And when he leaves Eugene de Mazenod to return to the Trappists, September 18, 1815, there is nothing dramatic about it and this brief episode of common life has no influence whatsoever on the community life towards which he is going to turn in a few weeks.
Therefore it is not in these past experiences of a kind of faith sharing and common life that we should look for Saint Eugene’s founding intuition. We must look elsewhere.
It is, in fact, only out of a long evolution, lasting three years, from 1812 to 1815, and marked by the serious crisis of 1814, that the foundation of an original community whose intuition is rooted in the identity of the first apostolic community will arise.
1 - Back in Aix (1812 - 1814)
He has known for a long time that he will not be a priest in the style of the Ancien Régime. He seeks no ecclesiastical office whatsoever and refuses obstinately to become Vicar General in either the Diocese of Amiens or of Aix.
He wants to be a priest and just a priest, “in everything seeking God alone, his glory, the salvation of souls and progress in the ways of perfection.” (3) He gives notice to his mother that when he returns to Aix there is no way he will give in to the social rounds that his rank, title and name might expect: “This is why no one should entertain any idea that on my return I shall be entering into the round of visits, and the observance of the so-called social niceties, etc., etc. All that sort of thing is out.”(4)
Encouraged by the example of his masters at St-Sulpice he draws up a rule of life for his return to his home town: six hours of sleep, two hours of oraison, the entire Office, the Eucharist followed by a long thanksgiving, four hours of study and reading of Holy Scripture, topping everything off with the rosary.(5) There is hardly any time left for what we today call ministry. He would be a priest for himself, living in his mother’s house on Papassaudy Street, regular as a monk and living like a hermit: “It has always been recognized in the Church, and by people wishing to reach perfection, that if one would reach and maintain oneself in it, one must submit to a fixed and invariable rule which, in its ceaseless subjugation of the disorders of the senses and the inconstancy that is native to the human will, was like a strict and rigorous pedagogue who in his unbinding strictness never permits his disciple to depart on frivolous pretexts from the rules that an enlightened wisdom has dictated to him.” (6)
This nice schedule, completely self-centered and intended to be invariable, nevertheless soon gives way to some exceptions, because we see a new resolution appear in a paper that Fr Y. Beaudoin dates in early 1813: “Visit to the hospitals and prisoners and to the poorhouses.” (7) A few days later he tries to dampen the apostolic zeal of his friend Forbin-Janson. “You have to put limits on that zeal of yours, if you want it to be both more productive and more enduring.” (8) But at the same time he ends his letter saying: “There will perhaps come a time when I will indeed say to you: Come, let us die now, we are no longer good for anything else. Let us press on to death!”(9)
Taking this last line literally, March 3 he launches into a series of sermons for domestic workers in the church of the Madeleine. On April 9 he begins preaching his first mission for ten days at Puy-Ste-Réparade. At about the same time he begins his apostolate among the prisoners in Aix.10 And finally on April 25, first Sunday after Easter, he founds the Association of Christian Youth with seven young people.
What happened? Very simply, Eugene de Mazenod had met people, concrete persons for whom Christ his Lord had shed his blood on the wood of the cross. He cannot help but have the same feelings as Christ Jesus for these poor, these drifting youth, for the prisoners abandoned by everyone, and for the low class of domestic workers.
He does not take back the need for his rule of life. He will mediate on it during his retreats in 1813 and 1814. But to the need for a life with Christ in the Eucharist, for prayer and study, is now added the need to serve the Church in the most abandoned whom he meets on the streets of Aix.(10)
For the moment, he finds it impossible to reconcile the two discoveries. He moves unceasingly from one to the other, bemoaning too much time spent for people as time stolen from God and too much time spent in prayer and meditation as not caring for the people on his doorstep. “It is evident to me that in working for others, I have been too forgetful of myself.... No one will deny that it is good to be always ready to serve one’s neighbor, but this year this service has been a real slavery, and I am much to blame for it.” (11)
There is no longer any question of living as a hermit concerned only with his personal sanctification. But his many pastoral activities, in response to the needs of the people he meets, resemble closely the reckless activism of which he reproached his friend Forbin-Janson. Through all this Eugene de Mazenod is alone, and if from time to time he speaks of community life, it is the monastic life where he sometimes feels an urge to seek refuge and freedom from the tension that is tearing him apart.
2 - The crisis year - 1814
When he stops to assess the situation, he finds his personal spiritual state a mess: “I think I have discerned what most harmed my progress during the course of this year, namely, an excessive inconstancy in my resolutions, and a total lack of discipline in my exercises occasioned by my relations with my neighbor.” (12)
The only remedy he can find to resolve the tension is to follow his daily schedule more strictly and to “impose a penance on myself for each inexcusable failure to keep the articles of my rule.... There is no other way of escaping from the deplorable state of languor into which I have fallen.” (13) But he sees how this diverts him from people, and so becomes caught even more in a vicious circle with no way out.
The crisis that had been brewing since the Lent of 1813 explodes in March 1814 with the arrival in Aix of 2,000 Austrian prisoners of war who are abandoned by all. He gives himself to them heart and soul, to the point of contracting the so-called “prison sickness” (14) (cholera or typhus). His condition is considered hopeless and for several days he is at the point of death. Yet he survives and attributes his recovery, that everyone considers miraculous, to the fervor and prayers of the boys in his youth group. But this is a sharp warning, and he needs a long convalescence. This period of rest gives him time to think about himself. He finds that nothing is going right. “This morning again, immediately before going up to the altar, I had to hear confessions. I had scarcely laid aside the priestly vestments when I had to hear them again. Yesterday, it was one o’clock and I had still not said Prime, as I stayed on until then in the confession box. In the morning, I hardly said my thanksgiving, as I had to be with a crowd of young people who had spent a good 2 and three quarter hours in pious exercises. It cannot continue; always everything for others, nothing for oneself. In the midst of all this turmoil, I am alone.” (15)
In September, his friend Forbin-Janson decides to gather a group of priests to preach parish missions. He invites Eugene to join them. The latter, who has just written how much he feels alone, should be tempted by such a proposal.
However, he refuses: “I am not thinking of it just now.... I am everyone’s servant and at the disposition of the first-comer. This is apparently God’s will.” (16) The reason for the refusal is important: he does not feel attracted by this type of group which is simply living under one roof and is not a community in the real sense of the word. It is religious life that attracts him: “I yearn sometimes for solitude and the religious Orders that limit themselves to the sanctification of the individuals who follow their Rule and attend to that of others only by prayer.... When I do not have before my eyes the extreme needs of my poor sinners, I will not be so upset at not going to help them.... In the meantime, however, my time and my attention are for them.” (17) But religious life is still seen more as an escape than a means of ridding himself of the tension that haunts him.
Yet the solution is in sight and a month later he comes to a decisive stage in his reflection. As usual, he announces it to Forbin-Janson: despite his financial troubles, he is thinking not of a society of priests but of a community. “This community which for now is but in my head, will be established in my house....” (18) Yet, the project is already quite matured because he adds: “I already have in mind some rules, since I insist that we live in an extremely regular way.”
It is during his December 1814 retreat that the three poles of his life will finally come together – the glory of God, personal sanctification and the salvation of souls. The text of this retreat is one of the essential documents for understanding the Founder’s spiritual evolution.
From the outset, he clearly sets forth the problem he faces: “To work for the salvation of souls, one must be holy, very holy, because without that it would be of no avail to try to convert anyone. How can one give what one has not got?” (19)
He no longer seeks personal sanctification for his personal happiness, to close himself up jealously with the love of God that he has discovered, as was the case after his ordination and during the three first years of his priesthood. On the contrary, it is his concern for the most abandoned that pushes him to become a saint. The more he feels himself called to announce the Good News to those who are far off, the more he feels the need for his own sanctification. And the more he advances on the way to holiness, the more he feels tender compassion for people, the same feelings that were in Christ’s heart: “My soul, come back to fervor... you must needs live in the world, for its building up, sanctification, salvation without doing harm to yourself.”(20) But how to avoid having this tender compassion for people fragment him spiritually? “This neighbor whom I must love, whom I must serve in soul and body, dissipates me, upsets my arrangements, and when I go back home after being with him, I am no longer good for anything, it should not be like that.” (21)
The twentieth meditation will be crucial. It is on the imitation of Jesus Christ: “The third (and last) degree of perfection consists in this... being filled with a sincere desire to imitate Jesus Christ.” (22) Imitate Jesus Christ in his desire for the glory of the Father. Imitate Jesus Christ in his desire to bring the Good News to the poor. Imitate Jesus Christ who gathers and sends the apostles to carry out this mission.
Now Eugene de Mazenod has the answer to his question. Community life, as an imitation of Jesus Christ in the midst of the apostles, will become the object of his entire concern and the answer to the call he has heard. He will need yet another whole year to give shape to what he has just sensed, but the foundations are laid.
The first six months of 1815 are stormy ones. First of all there is Napoleon’s return from the island of Elba and the period of the Hundred Days (March 1 to June 18, 1815), and with it the new exile of the legitimate monarchy, Eugene’s plans to become a chaplain with the royal forces of the Duke of Angoulême,23 and the disturbances of the White Terror in Provence. There is also the difficulty of finding a home for his Youth Sodality, which occupies him for several weeks. The Ursulines, who had welcomed the group after it left the De Valbelle Mansion, were more and more reluctant to accommodate this group of youngsters, who no doubt pious, were nonetheless a disturbance. Then comes a last difficulty just as the plan was about to come together with the purchase of the old Convent of the Minimes: “The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament very skillfully and politely snatched it up before him.” (24)
It is only in early October of 1815 that he can finally give all his time to establishing the Missionaries of Provence.
We still have five essential documents to help us understand how our Founder conceived community life at the beginning. They are:
We will analyse these letters while noting that nothing can replace reading the texts themselves.
– Letter to Fr Hilaire Aubert (October 1815)(25)
The document itself is short. The author comes directly to the point and explains very clearly his intentions.
First, he exposes the urgency of the situation: it is a matter of “remedying the most pressing ills” for “those who deal with them dwindle.” And, “there is nothing more urgent.”
Then he presents the means: to do this, there is need to be together. “Ah! If we could form a nucleus.” This would mean living in community, “united by bonds of the most tender charity, in exact submission to the Rule we would adopt.”
This will benefit those who are evangelized as well as those who, as a community, evangelize: “Oh! Do not doubt that we will become saints in our Congregation.”
And there is one final word to close the letter: “We will live apostolically.”
We already find in this brief note all the elements of what the Founder sees as the only reason for community life, elements that he will repeat time and again throughout his life in all of his writings: the community he wants to establish is a 'regular community’ of men who have but one heart and one soul, men inspired solely by the love of Christ and his Church, and who at the same time continue the 'apostolic community’, working at their own sanctification and taking part in the evangelization of the most abandoned.
– Letter to Fr. Tempier (October 9, 1815)(26)
This document is longer than the preceding one. It contains the same ideas, but they are more developed and the connection between them is clearer.
In the first paragraph he gives the interior attitude needed: “Read this letter at the foot of your crucifix with a mind to heed only God.” This means to put oneself at the Lord’s feet and to be guided by him. It is he and only he who is the 'Institutor,’* the one who is at the center and who calls. [*Editor's note: 'Instituteur’ in De Mazenod’s text, the one who institutes, commonly 'Founder’ in English.] Eugene de Mazenod is content to echo the call of the Lord. Thus ready to listen to the Crucified, it is possible to hear: “the interests of his glory and the salvation of souls.”
In the second paragraph, Eugene de Mazenod throws out his call to Fr. Tempier: “I say to you that you are necessary for the work which the Lord inspires us to undertake.” To convince him, he draws a picture of the deplorable situation of the Provence countryside that he wants to remedy. There is only one remedy: “in destroying the empire of the demon, while at the same giving the example of a really priestly life.” Contrary to what he had felt during the difficult years of 1812-1814, he no longer opposes exterior zeal and personal holiness. Now they complete each other and they need each other.
Then he makes that basic statement, the one that provides the means to create that unity: “(this will be done) in the community which they will form.” And to make his thinking clear the Founder adds: “we will live together in a house that I bought, under a rule we shall adopt by common accord.”
It is not only a matter of living together under the same roof, but also of living under the same rule, which alone will make it possible to attain the proposed goal. Common life will be the witness, in the strongest sense of the word, that is, the meaningful realization of the work he feels called to do. He is not looking at it from the angle of just some kind of means to make the group stronger and more efficient, but as a sign that makes present what it signifies: the proclamation of the Gospel to the most abandoned and the personal sanctification of the missionaries.
The third paragraph is the keystone of his thinking: “We wish to choose men who have the will and courage to walk in the footsteps of the apostles.”
As in the letter to Fr. Aubert, the word apostle is the high point of the letter. That is really what the Founder is aiming at.
Having sat at the feet of the Lord and discovered in Christ’s heart his sole desire to render glory to the Father, and convinced that this glory comes through the salvation of mankind, he feels called to this unique mission like the apostles and in the manner of the apostles. The Apostles are only apostles because they are a community gathered by Christ and around Christ, under the same rule, that of following Christ.
– Letter to Fr. Tempier (November 15, 1815)(27)
First of all, it must be a real community of brothers and not a group of clerics in the same work living together. That is why he begins his letter with, “God be blessed, my very dear brother.” According to the ecclesiastical usage of the time it was customary to say 'monsieur’, especially in St. Sulpice circles. Not only has the monsieur been replaced by brother, but the whole tenor of the letter is one of fraternal warmth: “Were you but close enough for me to press to my heart, give you a fraternal accolade.... How sweet the bonds of perfect charity!”
That is what the nascent community must be: a community of total charity where one can read in the perfect fraternity a sign of the apostolic community gathered around its Lord.
He insists on the community qualities that will be required. It is because Fr. Tempier possesses these qualities that he is invited, and the fact that he is not very talented for the mission work is of little importance: “I count on you more than on myself for the regularity of a house which, in my mind and hopes, must reproduce the perfection of the first apostles. I base my hopes on that much more than on eloquent discourses.”
Can it be said any more clearly that the essence of the missionary group being formed at the Carmelite house in Aix is to be an apostolic community?
Fr. Tempier had written: “What I cannot do in outstanding speeches, I will do in catechetical classes, conferences, in the confessional and by all other means that are apt to establish the kingdom of Jesus Christ in souls.”(29) Fr. de Mazenod had in essence answered saying: it is by our 'being as community’ that we will do it.
– Letter to Fr. Tempier (December 13, 1815)(30)
However, the text goes beyond this purpose. Under his pen, the words community, which he repeats three times, and mission are closely linked, as if in his thinking they were one and the same reality.
He also comes back three times to another point that is dear to him: the community is both the place for the personal sanctification of its members and the place from which they are sent out on mission. That is the sense behind the program he has for the coming days: “We will begin by working on ourselves. After, we will rule on the kind of life we will adopt for the city and for the missions. Finally, we will become saints.”
Personal sanctification and mission are two facets of the same reality, crystallized by and in community life. Only one order: “to work together for the glory of God and for our sanctification,” because “we must be truly saints ourselves,” if the project is going to succeed now and in the future. It is the same link between community, holiness and mission that he speaks about a few days later in a letter to Forbin-Janson. He worries that Fr. Tempier will not get permission to leave Arles: “A fourth, who is an angel, and who seems destined to be the joy of the community, cannot obtain permission to leave his parish , although he protests that he cannot bear to stay and wants to work only in the missions.” (31)
This link will be found all through his life. He will not judge those who present themselves to enter the Congregation primarily by their competence for preaching or their intellectual knowledge but by their aptitude to enter into the vision of the apostolic community he has founded: “Were it but a question of going out to preach more or less well the Word of God, mingled with much alloy of self, of running around the countryside for the purpose, if you will, of winning souls for God without taking the pains to be men of interior life, truly apostolic men, I think it would not be difficult to replace you. But can you believe I want merchandise of that sort?”
– Letter to the Capitular Vicars of Aix (January 25, 1816)(32)
Given its nature, this text had to be brief and clear because it was an official request. Despite the dry administrative style, it reflects perfectly, and perhaps even more clearly than the preceding letters, the vision of the apostolic community that the Society of the Missionaries of Provence is to be.
In the first five paragraphs the Founder describes the “deplorable situation of the small towns and villages of Provence that have almost completely lost the faith.”
Then in the next five paragraphs he states what the Society of the Missionaries of Provence proposes to do. Though he is speaking of a society of priests that is being born, it is the word “community” that comes back in each paragraph. They propose “to live in community under a Rule.” They will find “in the Missionaries’ community more or less the same advantages as in the religious state.” “They have preferred to form a regular community ... to be useful to the diocese, while at the same time working at their own sanctification.” They will “strive in community to acquire the virtues proper to a good missionary.” And finally, “when their apostolic journeys are over, they will return to the community.”
The last paragraphs, without using the words religious life, which will be officially introduced only at the Chapter of 1818, nevertheless put in place all the structures. Thus, the first thing set is perseverance: “The missionaries must resolve to persevere in it until the end of their lives.” For, how can one form a community of brothers, a true family, without stability? Then comes obedience: “Each member assumes the obligation of living in obedience to the superior and of observing the statutes and regulations.” This because the community must live in imitation of Christ who was obedient to the Father. Finally he insists on exemption: “The house of the Mission will be totally exempt from the jurisdiction of the parish priest.... It will enjoy the privileges of former religious houses.” It is not a matter of adding another work to the many works already present in the parish, the city and the diocese, but of putting the nascent community firmly in the footsteps of the apostolic community, and therefore solely dependent on Christ and the one who represents him, the bishop.
This request, which officially defines the status of the Missionaries of Provence, completes the picture of what we have seen come together piece by piece for the Founder since his return to Aix in October 1812. It gives shape to what was present, but dispersed, in the three letters to Henri Tempier. Fr. Yvon Beaudoin has summarized this evolution very well: “The plan to preach to the poor of Provence implies from the beginning the formation of a community of priests who live together in the same house, with a rule and a regular style of life.” (34)
But to be complete and to be true to the very basis of community life according to Eugene de Mazenod’s thinking we must add: “like the apostles instituted by Christ,” because this idea is present in all the documents. It is essential in the letters to Aubert, Tempier and the Capitular Vicars General. It comes back insistently in other writings of the same period as well as in this letter to the Capitular Vicars. It is even present in other documents of the same period, for example in the letter to his father, exiled in Palermo, requesting that he ask “the rich of Palermo to contribute” to financing the purchase of the old Carmelite house. He tells him that he is in the process of founding“like an establishment of Missionaries whose task will be to go around the countryside to bring the people back to religion.... We will live in the old Carmelite house from where we will go out for our apostolic rounds.” (35) Even here it is the link between community and the apostolic work that is the determining factor.
For very many founders, from St. Anthony of the Desert to St. Francis of Assisi, for men like St. Basil of Caesarea, the Father of eastern monasticism, and St. Benedict, the Father of western monasticism, and many others, the inspiration and intuition for their vocation to the religious life is found in the gospel of the young rich man (Mt. 19: 16-22). Like him they feel invited to leave everything to follow Jesus. In a fit of great generosity they leave and commit themselves, alone, to following Christ. It is only later, sometimes many years later, that some companions join them and ask to become their disciples. It is then, and only then, in this second moment urged on by the disciples who come to them, that they establish a community, give it a rule and thus found a religious family.
For St. Eugene the process is the opposite. A diocesan priest begins by gathering other priests so that with them, and therefore in community, he may follow Christ. Later this community will take the form and status of religious life step by step according to the needs of the mission. At first, in February-March 1816, there is the embryo of a Rule, which includes the notions of perseverance and obedience. Then come the vows as such, but in this first stage only the vows of obedience and chastity, introduced by the Chapter of 1818. Finally, the vow of poverty is added by the Chapter of 1821. But community is there from the beginning, like the cornerstone on which the whole edifice will be gradually built up.
For Eugene community is of such prime importance that he will never agree to dispense anybody from it. Sometimes he will grant “dispensations” from one or the other vow (thus Fr. Deblieu will not take the vows of chastity and obedience until 1819, and Fr. Dupuy will never take the vow of poverty). When he authorizes this or that Oblate to live alone – often for family reasons, as in the case of Fr. Gondrand– he requires that he be attached to a community of which he will be a real part. When because of the needs of the mission the fathers had to go out alone, as in Ceylon, they were formed into communities even though they did not live under the same roof. Community life is essential to the work he has founded.
It is normal then that, contrary to most other founders of Orders, Eugene de Mazenod makes no reference, not even an allusion to the gospel of the “rich young man.” On the other hand, he draws his inspiration from the text of the 'institution of the Twelve’:“Jesus went up into the hills, and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he instituted (36)Twelve, whom also he named Apostles,(37)to be with him, and to be sent out to preach.” (Mk 3:13-14)
Foremost in this text is the action of Christ. It is he who takes the initiative to call and to appoint. By his action, by his call, isolated individuals become apostles by the very fact that they are instituted as the Twelve, that is, as a community.
These two ideas of institution by Christ and apostolic institution are essential and sum up all that the Founder means by the word community. They can be found almost literally in the early founding texts of the Congregation.
1 – The Oblate community: a community instituted by Christ
In the definitive text of 1825 approved by the pope in 1826, not only is the phrase maintained, but the title, Society of the Missionaries of Provence, becomes Institute of the Missionaries of Provence. At the time of the pontifical approbation it becomes the Institute of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Institute: having been instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ is constitutive of the whole Society in its very being. In Chapter One the Founder writes: “The end of the Institute of the Missionaries of Provence, after the name of the province where they were born, is to form a union of secular priests who live together and who seek to imitate the virtues and examples of our Savior Jesus Christ, mainly in applying themselves to preaching the Word of God to the poor.” (39)
During his 1831 retreat, while meditating at length on the text of the Rules, he notes with insistence the idea that he considers constitutive of the Institute: “Could the Rule have been any more insistent on the indispensable necessity of imitating Jesus Christ? No. Behold how it presents us with the Savior as the true Institutor of the Congregation, and the Apostles who were the first to follow in the footsteps of their Master as our first Fathers. Could there be any more pressing reason for us to imitate them! Jesus, our Institutor, the Apostles, our forerunners, our first fathers! ... Let us swear to be faithful, to become worthy of our great vocation.... Intimately united with Jesus Christ, their head, they will be as one among themselves, his children, most closely united by the bonds of the most ardent charity.” (40)
This notion of 'Christ Institutor’ is Eugene de Mazenod’s way of reading the text of Mark’s Gospel. The words are a bit different, but it is really the same idea: the assembling by Christ who calls, forms and sends, is the founding act of the community.
We can understand, therefore, why Christ is so often called the Institutor. As he instituted the Twelve by making them a community, so he institutes the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate by making of them a community. As Christ instituted the Twelve to be his companions and to send them to preach, so he institutes the Oblates so that they will sanctify themselves through fellowship with him and then go out to the most abandoned.“What did our Lord Jesus Christ do?” (41) asks the Founder in the 1818 Rule. In this same text he asks, “What must we in turn do?”
2 – The Oblate community: An apostolic community
In 1819 he answers the Vicar General of Digne who marvels at his missionary methods:“The missions are the highest apostolic work. If we want to obtain the same results as the apostles, we must take the same means.” (42)
Almost 30 years later, he still sees things the same way when he writes to the novice master: “What finer ministry than that of forming these souls called by God to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles.” (43) He had written in the same vein 25 years earlier to another novice master: “You must teach them how to conquer, just as the Apostles did.” (44) When the young novice Guibert hesitates about his vocation, he does not tell him anything different: “The service that will be yours is one that is close to the one the Lord gave to the Apostles.” (45)
Upon learning of the success of the mission at Rognac, the Founder exclaims with joy:“God be praised, my dear friends and true apostles!” (46)
In his Holy Thursday letter while detained in Paris in 1823, when he thinks of his beloved community in Aix, the identification of his religious family with the community of the Apostles is clear for him: “I betook myself in spirit to that room that truly resembles the Cenacle where the disciples... imbued with the spirit of the Savior who lives in them, gather in the name of their Master and represent the apostles of whom Jesus Christ could say 'vos mundi estis’, waiting silently and devoutly for the representative of the Master amongst them, at the word of commandment of the Lord, 'mandatum’, to kneel at their feet, washing and touching these feet... respectfully with his lips.” (47)
Finally for the scholastics he writes: “All their actions ought to be done with the same dispositions as the apostles.” (48)
We could continue this series of quotations. The community is uniquely Christocentric and the members are like the apostles around the Lord: “It has already been said that the missionaries, in as much as the frailty of human nature permits, ought to imitate in everything the examples of our Lord Jesus Christ, first Institutor of the Society, and of the Apostles, our first fathers.” (49) This shows through even in difficulties, because even “the most holy and fervent communities are not exempt from some troubles.” But wasn’t this true also of the apostolic community? “Th e Lord, our divine model, had many griefs from his beloved apostles, who were very often unbearable and bothersome.” (50)
The rhythm of the Oblate community must be identified with the rhythm of the community of the apostles, sent out on mission two by two, then invited to come aside to rest with Christ: “The Rule insists that the missionary, especially one who has rendered the most striking services to the Church, procured the most glory for God and saved the greatest number of souls in the exercise of the holy missions, hasten joyfully into the bosom of our communities there to make himself forgetful of men and renew himself by the practice of obedience and humility and all the hidden virtues, in the spirit of his vocation and the fervor of religious perfection.” (51)
1 – Community for the glory of God and the salvation of souls
At first, concern for the glory of God is uppermost in his mind. As early as 1809 he writes to his mother, quoting the first letter to the Corinthians: “Do everything for the glory of God.” (52) The advice he gives his sister is similar: “I hope that God will be glorified by our correspondence.” (53) His retreats show the same deep desire: “To please you Lord, to act for your glory, will be my daily task.” (54)
Subsequently comes the concern for people. Upon returning to Aix in 1812 (but even earlier), he is overwhelmed by the spiritual and material poverty of the most abandoned, the prisoners, domestic help, youth. The famous sermon at the Madeleine and the reason for it are well known: “The poor, a precious portion of the Christian family, cannot be abandoned to their ignorance.” (55) At the same time, he spends a lot of time for the youth, and exactly for the same reasons: “It is not difficult to grasp that the design of that impious Buonaparte is the entire destruction of the Catholic religion... of all the means possible the one he most counts on is the demoralization of youth.... Was one to remain a sad spectator of this flood of evils, content to bemoan it in silence without coming up with any remedy? Most certainly not; and though I may be doomed to persecution, at least I will not have to reproach myself for not having tried.” (56) Lastly, we must not overlook the important place he gives to the prisoners, for the same reasons: “On Sunday, I go to the prisons to give an instruction in French to those unfortunates, after which I go into the confessional until 6:00 p.m. to hear those prisoners who present themselves.” (57)
During his retreat in December 1814, while meditating on the meaning of the Incarnation and Redemption, he makes the synthesis of his double concern for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. His contemplation of Christ, in both his hidden life as well as in his public life, but especially in the night of Holy Thursday and the elevation upon the Cross, lead him to discover the Savior working for the glory of the Father through the salvation of the world. >From then on it is this Christ, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will through the salvation of the world, that becomes the model to imitate in these two facets of his life: “Not having imitated my model in his innocence, will I be denied imitating him in his dedication to the glory of the Father and the salvation of men?” (58)
We are used to seeing our Founder as an impassioned of Jesus Christ. But we must add, “Eugene de Mazenod, impassioned of Christ, who himself was impassioned of the Father.” Christ comes to accomplish the will of the Father. The will of the Father is that he lose not one of those to whom he has been sent” (according Jn 6:38-39).
The Good Friday experience in 1807 slowly leads him to look upon the world with the eyes of Christ, uniting the glory of God and the salvation of souls, because God can only be glorified if man 'becomes what he is’, according to an expression of St. Leo the Great that the Founder so often repeats. To become what one is, is to become man with all that makes one human, it is to become a Christian capable of confessing God as Father, it is to become a saint, capable of sharing in the intimacy of the Trinity.
Consequently the purpose of the Institute that he founds can be none other than to enter into the Son of God’s view of things: “Will we ever have an adequate understanding of this sublime vocation! For that one would have to understand the excellence of our Institute’s end, beyond argument the most perfect one could propose to oneself in this world, since the end of our Institute is the self-same end that the Son of God had in mind when he came down to earth: the glory of his heavenly Father and the salvation of souls.” (59) The purpose being the same as that of Christ, the means will likewise be the same as those of Christ. To accomplish his mission, “what did Our Lord Jesus Christ do? He chose a number of apostles and disciples whom he himself trained in piety, and he filled them with his spirit. Then once they had been schooled in his teaching and in the practice of all the virtues, he sent them forth to conquer the world.”(60) The community of the Apostles is the means the Lord takes to continue his work. This community of the Twelve is the sign, the place and the means to accomplish this mission of glorification and salvation.
Such is the community that Eugene de Mazenod founds. Already in 1814 he foresees this: “This community at present exists only in my head.... But that God be glorified and souls be saved: that’s everything, I see nothing else.” (61)
The plan he describes to Fr. Tempier a year later has become more precise: “It is not easy to come across men who are dedicated and wish to devote themselves to the glory of God and the salvation of souls.” (62) The plan is perfectly developed by 1817: “For the love of God never cease to inculcate and preach humility, abnegation, forgetfulness of self, disdain for worldly esteem. May these be ever the foundations of our little Society which, combined with a truly disinterested zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, and the most tender, affectionate and sincere charity amongst ourselves, will make of our house an earthly paradise and will establish it in a more solid manner than all possible orders and laws.” (63)
That is the sole mission that Christ, the Institutor of the Missionaries of Provence, entrusts to this community that he gathers: “The sight of these evils has so touched the hearts of certain priests, zealous for the glory of God, men with an ardent love for the Church, that they are willing to give their lives, if need be, for the salvation of souls.” (64)
That will be the line of conduct that the community ought always to follow and be guided by in its choices. For example, when the Oblates at Nîmes consider whether or not they should accept a mission the bishop wants to entrust to them: “We must always keep in sight principally and solely the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls. The moment that these two elements are brought together, one must put aside immediately any particular thought or interest.” (65)
It is Christ and only Christ, continually present in the midst of his own, who can make of this group a true apostolic community capable of glorifying the Father and saving people. It is likewise essential to take the time to discover the fact of being gathered by Christ, “our common love.”66 “We should often come together like this in Jesus Christ, our common center, where all our hearts become as one and our affections brought to fulfilment.” (67)
Everything is summed up in these lines the Founder writes to Fr. Tempier and the missionaries at Aix who had asked for “a few words to help the community”: “Our Lord Jesus Christ has left us the task of continuing the great work of the redemption of mankind. All our efforts must tend towards this unique end.... This spirit of being wholly devoted to the glory of God, the service of the Church and the salvation of souls, is the spirit proper to our Congregation, a small one, to be sure, but which will always be powerful as long as she is holy.” (68)
For Eugene de Mazenod the Oblate community is born out of the mission of Christ himself, the one sent by the Father, and its purpose is the fulfilment, here and now, of this mission. The community does not exist for itself but solely for the kindness of God towards mankind, God who sends his Son so that the world may know him and turn to him.
2 – The community is for the sanctification of its members
All through his seminary he engages in a frenzied pursuit of holiness, that he hopes to gain by a hard-fought struggle in expiation of the sins and infidelities of his youth. What he writes at the time of entering the seminary is characteristic of his feelings: “I cannot pretend that I am other than unworthy, and very much unworthy, to live among the saints who form this truly heavenly house; I must abase myself profoundly in view of iniquities which should have closed to me forever entrance into the sanctuary.” (69) These sentiments remain unchanged on the eve of his ordination three years later: “But who am I, miserable sinner, to even want to love the one who is purity and sanctity itself! Ah! I am well aware that in the sins of my past I made a quite di fferent choice, I gave myself over to the devil and his perverse works.” (70)
It is with these feelings of unworthiness and the desire to become a saint by force, if need be, that he returns to Aix. Refusing any kind of ministry from the diocese, he takes refuge in the solitude of his mother’s country house and lives a quasi-monastic life:“People may say I am uncivilized, a scoundrel even if they like; it’s all the same to me, provided I am a good priest.” (71)
He draws up a very strict schedule for himself and “will impose a penance for each inexcusable failure to keep the articles of my rule.” (72) Because, “the priesthood is a state of perfection which demands of those who have the happiness to be invested with it a scrupulous fidelity, ... an extreme horror of sin, however light it may appear.” (73)
As the days pass, he comes to see that this voluntarism, far from bringing him closer to holiness, to the contrary leads him away from it. He discovers that all the means he is taking to become a saint are useless: “To work for the salvation of souls, one must be holy, very holy, because without that it would be of no avail to try to convert anyone. How can one give what one has not got? I feel my heart growing cold towards the person of God.”(74)
This struggle towards holiness reaches its climax at the end of 1814 and he summarizes it well when he puts the big questions to himself: “What did the saints do?” (75)
The forming of an apostolic community is his answer to the question. Sanctity cannot be won, it is received from another. The Apostles were sanctified through their daily contact with the Lord. They did nothing for it, except to let themselves be called and 'instituted’. So will it be for the missionaries gathered in community.
The Founder had already said it to Fr. Aubert: “Oh! Do not doubt that we will become saints in our Congregation, free but united by the bond of the most tender charity. We will live apostolically.” (76) This comes back again in the letters to Tempier: “We shall succeed, in spite of obstacles, in working together for the glory of God and for our sanctification.... We must be truly saints ourselves.” (77) Again further on: “We will begin by working on ourselves. After, we will decide on the kind of life we will adopt for the city and for the mission. Finally, we will become saints.” (78) This becomes evident in the request of authorization addressed to the Capitular Vicars of Aix: “If they (the Missionaries of Provence) have preferred to form a regular community of missionaries, it is in an effort to be useful to the diocese, while at the same time working at their own sanctification, in conformity with their vocation.” (79)
For him the community is the tool God uses to sanctify its members, if they know how to make the most of the means of salvation that his mercy gives them: “We are put on earth and particularly in our house, to sanctify ourselves by helping each other by our example, our words and our prayers.” (80)
He takes up the same thought in the first lines of the Rule of the Missionaries of Provence: “If the priests to whom the Lord has given the desire to gather in community to work more effectively for the salvation of souls and their own sanctification want to be of some good to the Church, they must bear firmly in mind the purpose of the Institute they wish to join.” (81)
The personal sanctification of the members of the community is most clearly expressed in the “Nota Bene” of the 1818 Rule, a text that will with some slight changes become the Preface of the Rule of 1826: “What did Our Lord Jesus Christ do? He chose a number of apostles and disciples whom he himself trained in piety.... What must we in turn do to win back to Jesus Christ the many souls who have thrown off his yoke? Strive seriously to become saints, then walk courageously in the footsteps of so many apostles.”(82)
While the first part of the Rule gives the means to work for the salvation of souls, the second part develops at length the means – in particular the community means – deemed necessary for the sanctification of the missionaries.
It is together that they sanctify themselves, whether it be praying together and reciting the Divine Office together, or evangelizing together. The effort towards holiness is always communitarian and in view of the ministry, so that God will bless it and make it fruitful.
See, for example, what is said about the Office. “All the priests, scholastics and novices are bound to recite the Divine Office publicly and in common.... The Institute regards this exercise as the source of heavenly blessings which are poured out upon all the ministry of the whole Society.” (83) Then again, when the community at L’Osier is founded he says:“No one could have forgotten what importance is attached in our Institute to the recitation of the Divine Office in common. It is likewise recommended in all of our communities to be so keen in fulfilling this duty according to our spirit that even if the majority of the subjects of a house were absent and there were only two members of our Institute in the community, they ought to meet in the choir at the prescribed hours to recite the Office together.” (84) In the same text he goes even further: “According to these principles which flow from the spirit proper to our Congregation and should be adopted by all the members of the Society, you will not be surprised that we could not approve of the suppression of all exercises in common on Sunday in order to be free for outside ministry.” (85)
It would be an illusion to want to evangelize, that is, to lead others to become saints, without oneself being on the path to holiness. It would be an illusion to think one could become a saint without being concerned for other people: “I must above all be really convinced that I am doing God’s will when I give myself to the service of my neighbor, immerse myself in the external business of our house, and then do my best without worrying if, in doing this kind of work, I am unable to do other things which I would perhaps find more to my taste and seem more directly adapted to my own sanctification.” (86)
In his letters he often recalls the need for sanctification, both personal and communitarian, one leading to the other.
To the novice Hippolyte Guibert he writes: “We are all tending to perfection, a perfection we will surely attain by faithfully following our holy Rule.”(87)
He shares his joy with Fr. Courtès: “I feel fortunate amongst my brothers, amongst my children, because ... I am proud of their works and their holiness.... Dear Courtès, let us be united in the love of Jesus Christ, in our common perfection, let us love each other as we have done up to now, let us, in a word, be one.” (88)
He writes to all the Oblates the day after the pontifical approbation of the Congregation: “The conclusion to be drawn from this, my dear friends and good brothers, is that we must work with renewed ardor and still greater devotion to bring to God all the glory that we can, and to the needy souls of our neighbors, salvation in all ways possible. We must attach ourselves heart and soul to our Rules and practice more exactly what they prescribe.... Know your dignity.... In the name of God, let us be saints.” (89)
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