February 17, 2001 will mark the 175th anniversary of the approbation of the Constitutions and Rules, and consequently of our Congregation, by the Holy See. To mark this occasion OMI Documentation has chosen to publish this paper on the Oblate charism by the late Fr Fernand Jetté.
The text was prepared to be delivered by him at the first congress of lay associates held in Aix-en-Provence in 1996. Due to his precarious health at the time Fr. Jetté was unable to attend the congress and the text remained un-published to this day.
Fr. Jetté’s commentary on the Constitutions and Rules, O.M.I. The Apostolic Man, is well known. The present paper is a kind of commentary or re-reading of the first ten articles of the Constitutions, in which he seeks to present the spirituality of Eugene de Mazenod and the way it can be lived even by the Christian laity.
|Oblate Charism |
the Lay Associates
Fernand Jetté, o.m.i.
This meeting wants to be a moment of reflection, of sharing on the Oblate vocation, which I try to live from day to day as a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, and which you yourselves in your way and in your environment also want to live. I often recall a letter that an Italian lady wrote to me in 1980. She had, I believe, taken part in 1975 in the beatification of Eugene de Mazenod. This is what she said:
“I knew Blessed Eugene de Mazenod through his writings. I knew his spirituality, his charity, his love of the Church and the poor. I was wholeheartedly won over by it, so much so that today I can tell you, I feel I am a spiritual daughter of Blessed Eugene... That is what I wanted to tell you! Although a lay person, in spirit I feel, a part of your religious family. I desire to live as you do, feel as you do, serve like you, love like you and, like you, to always do the will of God” (June 11, 1980).
She was a fifty-year old woman from the north of Italy. How many men and women are there in the world today who react like her and who would react even more if they knew Eugene de Mazenod better?
I have been asked to explain the oblate charism to you, such as it is presented in the first ten articles of our Constitutions, and to do so while recalling the Founder, Eugene de Mazenod’s attitude, toward the Christian life of the laity. Basically, the spirituality of Eugene de Mazenod is Christian spirituality: it is firmly rooted in the Gospel, it is oriented towards the glory of God, it is committed to the following of Jesus, it is attached to the Church and is open to the world in order to make Jesus Christ known and loved. This it does with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother, and it does it with concern for the absolute and for fullness, which will lead himself and his companions towards the religious life and give him the opportunity to look at the world, especially the world of the poor, with a great thirst for its salvation and its sanctity.
His exhortations to his mother and his sister when he was a seminarian in Paris (he entered the Seminary at the age of 26) go in that sense. To his mother he repeated his deep union and how he could not say “NO” to Jesus Christ who so loved him and who invited him to follow him in the priesthood. “Dearest Mother,” he wrote on December 25, 1808, “do you really think that I was not beside you last night? Indeed yes, we spent the night together at the foot of the altar, which for me represented the crib in Bethlehem. Together we offered our gifts to our Saviour and asked him to come to birth in our hearts and strengthen us in all that is weak ... Share often in his adorable Body; it is the best way to bring us together, for, as we each of us find our common identity in Jesus Christ we become but one thing with him and through him and in him we become one thing with one another”1. And in February 1809: “So let us lift up our hearts to God and consider if there be any happiness like that of sharing in the divine mission of the son of God”2.
For his sister Eugenie, younger than he and married, he expressed his wish: “Let her go into the world, but once there let her be Christian and very much the Christian”3. He wrote to her on August 12, 1811: “Let us love the good God with all our heart, let us use this world as if we did not use it . . . . Are you not a married lady, a mother, a nursing mother because it is God’s will? So in fulfilling the duties of a woman, a mother, a nursing mother you are doing what is pleasing to God, and how could one maintain that in fulfilling the duties that God has imposed on us, be they what they may, we are not fit to respond to the sweet invitations he makes to all his own to come to him, to draw from his Sacrament strength and life . . . “4. “Someone else who did the good you do would perhaps be doing enough, while God is asking something more of you. Why? Because he has showered his gifts on you since your infancy, shown you his signal favour on a number of occasions and in particular at the most decisive moment of your life, because he wanted you to serve as an example for all the persons in whom he would inspire thereafter the holy desire to become saints in the world ... When one has faith and even a tiny modicum of love of God, it is easy to find ways of not losing sight for too long of one’s beloved”5.
With the young people of Aix in 1813, when he founded the Young Christian Association, it is the same attitude: “We affirm that we wish to live and die in the bosom of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church to which we vow a filial love like that which has truly engendered us in Our Lord, Jesus Christ. We further make by these acts resolute profession of acknowledging Our Lord, Jesus Christ, as God our Saviour, our Sovereign Lord and Master, whose faithful disciples we wish to be all our lives”6.
In his first sermon to the poor of Aix, the same attitude is again found: “The Gospel must be preached to all men and in a way in which it can be understood ... Our sermons will be given in language that even the least educated will understand. Like the father of a family, we shall gather our children about us and reveal a treasure we have for them ... It involves what the Lord demands of you ... You are the children of God, the brothers of Jesus Christ, co-heirs of His eternal kingdom, the cherished portion of His inheritance ... Oh Christians! Know then your dignity”7.
Later when he was Bishop of Marseilles he was to stress the same subject with his diocesan priests. Two very strong convictions sustained and animated him: all men are called to salvation and holiness, and secondly, all that occurs on earth on the personal level as well as in political and social life, comes from Divine Providence. To the Oblates he had given this advice: “We must spare no effort to extend the Saviour’s empire ... we must lead men to act like human beings, and then like Christians in order to help them to become saints”8. While bishop he dreamed of making Marseilles “a city of saints”9 followingthe example of his predecessor, Jean-Baptiste Gault. “We keenly occupy ourselves”, he wrote, “by means of assuring your sanctification which before God we have most at heart.…”10 Subsequently, he encouraged his diocesan priests to become with him and in their own way, apostles: “Do not be astonished”, he told them, “if we come to associate you in some manner to our ministry, and have you share the crown of apostolic men.… Faith is essentially communicative just as charity is helpful.”
It is in this light that we must read and meditate the first chapter of the Constitutions. We shall do it together. At the beginning of each part we shall quote the article studied, putting between brackets the few lines which more directly concern the Oblates as priests and religious.
The first article is a look on the world and the invitation to follow Jesus. Each adult looks upon the world. He looks at men, women, the children around him and in the other countries. He reflects on them and wonders what to give them, what they need ..., or again, if he is a commercial person, what to sell to them ..., how to help them or how to exploit them?
The call of Jesus Christ, heard within the Church through people’s need for salvation, draws us together as Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Christ thus invites us to follow him and share in his mission through word and work.
(We are a clerical Congregation of pontifical right. We come together in apostolic communities of priests and Brothers, united to God by the vows of religion.) Cooperating with the Saviour and imitating his example, we commit ourselves principally to evangelizing the poor.
Following their Founder, Eugene de Mazenod, the Oblates therefore look upon the world and are touched by it. Their look is not that of a business man or a financier — it is a Christian look. “It is the call of Jesus Christ, heard within the Church, through people’s need for salvation” which gathers them. Their eyes are on the world, they love the world, but what they see first of all in it are “people’s need for salvation”. This goes away beyond the purely human level. Our look is a look of faith. Further, in article 5, it will be explicitly stated: “Wherever we work, our mission is especially to those people whose condition cries out for salvation and for the hope which only Jesus Christ can fully bring”.
That does not exclude earthly needs: the need of food and medical care, the need for freedom and education. But our look penetrates more deeply into the human person and perceives there another need, that of faith: the person’s fundamental need of salvation and salvation in Jesus Christ. For you as lay people, who have a family, children, who have a trade or a profession, who enjoy social relations, it will be generally through these human activities that you will live your union with Christ and radiate your faith.
We must recall what the Second Vatican Council teaches in Gaudium et Spes. “We can justly consider that the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping” (n·31). For the Church, these reasons of living and hoping are finally only found in Jesus Christ. She believes that “for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved” (Act. 4, 12). She believes also that “in her most benign Lord and master can be found the key, the focal point, and the goal of all human history” (n· 10).
From the start therefore, our outlook is an expression of faith. “Through the eyes of our crucified Saviour we see the world which he redeemed with his blood” (art. 4). And this outlook of faith is impregnated by the spirit of the Church, by the sense and love of the Church. It is made in deep communion with it. I discern these needs within the Church, with a spirit like the Church. In this perception of faith we hear the call, “the call of Jesus Christ who invites us to follow him and share in his mission by word and action.”
We must note in this article the supreme place attributed to Jesus Christ. It is he who calls. He invites us to follow him and take part in his mission. That corresponds to the call of the Apostles: “He appointed twelve; they were to be his companions and to be sent out to preach” (Mk. 3, 14). This call comprises two complementary realities: to be with him, and to be his companions. This will be our style of life. To be sent to preach will be our mission. In this way, through our reply, we shall become cooperators of Christ the Saviour and we shall imitate his example. Priests and brothers are this, and the lay associates are also.
In the second article we clarify our response: Jesus Christ will be at the heart of our lives. The Associate, like the Oblate, is animated by the spirit of St. Paul. He wishes to become “another Jesus Christ”.
We are men “set apart for the Gospel” (Rom 1: 1), men ready to leave everything to be disciples of Jesus. The desire to co-operate with him draws us to know him more deeply, to identify with him, to let him live in us.
We strive to reproduce in ourselves the pattern of his life. Thus, we give ourselves to the Father in obedience even unto death and dedicate ourselves to God’s people in unselfish love. (Our apostolic zeal is sustained by the unreserved gift we make of ourselves in our oblation, an offering constantly renewed by the challenges of our mission).
This article will be the great inspiring force of Oblate life and of that of its Associates. Eugene de Mazenod is “impassioned for Jesus Christ”, Paul VI said at the beatification. The Associate will also be impassioned for Jesus Christ. The article consists of three parts: the first, which signifies our choice; the second which makes the requirements of this choice known; the third, which recalls the deep unity between our commitment and our missionary work.
For the Associates, to “leave everything to be disciples of Jesus” signifies a perfect interior freedom themselves. They love their family, their children, their spouse and sacrifices themselves for them. They love their work and accomplishe it with the greatest possible joy. They willingly respond to the demands of social life ... At the same time however, deep in their heart, they are impregnated by the words of St. Paul: “the living should live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised to life for them” (2 Cor. 5, 14). The Associates live in this frame of mind. It is their personal choice.
What will be the requirements of such a choice? The fundamental requirement is this: to force oneself to “know Jesus more intimately, to identify with him, to let him live in us.” Jesus, though invisible, becomes the central person in us. Three steps are demanded of us which will be simultaneously developed. Firstly, knowledge, an intellectual and affective penetration of the mystery of Jesus, his life, his virtues, his behaviour with his Father and with men, and his mission of salvation. Prayer and reading, the spirit of prayer and spiritual fervor, the effort at imitation, and of interior conformity will lead there. These means also permit us to fulfill to a certain degree, the second step, that of identification with Christ. Little by little we identify ourselves with a person when we contemplate him each day for a long time and with love, and when we apply ourselves to imitating him, to penetrating the various sentiments which animate him. As for the third step: “let Christ live in us”, to let ourselves be led in everything by his Spirit, perfects and crowns the two preceding ones. It is an availability, an unconditional welcome which prepares us to become truly for Christ “additional humanities”. “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me”, says St. Paul, “The life I now live in this body I live in faith: faith in the Son of God who loved me and who sacrificed himself for my sake” (Gal. 2, 20).
In this life of union with Christ, the article lays stress on two virtues which have characterized the teaching of Eugene de Mazenod: obedience and apostolic zeal. “We give ourselves to the Father in obedience even unto death and dedicate ourselves to God’s people in unselfish love”. Like Jesus, the disciple of Bishop de Mazenod will be one who seeks the will of God in all things, even at the sacrifice of his life, and he will be a man of burning apostolic zeal, totally unselfish. His dedication will sanctify him and his holiness and virtue will nourish his devotion.
Article 3 and the following ones present the most outstanding features of Oblate life. First is the community. Eugene de Mazenod regarded the community essential for two reasons: as a support and stimulus in our effort towards sanctity, and as a means of stability and effectiveness in missionary action.
The community of the Apostles with Jesus is the model of our life. Our Lord grouped the Twelve around him to be his companions and to be sent out as his messengers (cf. Mk 3, 14). The call and the presence of the Lord among us today bind us together in charity and obedience to create anew in our own lives the Apostles’ unity with him, and their common mission in his Spirit.
The model of our community is the early apostolic community: the Twelve living with Jesus, in intimacy, to be formed by him before being sent by him as his witnesses in the world. The place of Jesus needs to be noted in this article: it is a common “call” of the Lord and it is his “presence” among us today which constitutes the bond of our unity. There is no real ecclesial communion if there is not first of all a personal communion with Christ. It is through Jesus Christ that we are brothers to one another. Note also the word “today”. The presence of Christ among us is an actual living reality. His Spirit lives in us, enlightens us and transforms us. The Spirit is the spiritual lifeblood which nourishes our friendship and enables us to form one body.
This article also mentions the two major virtues of an apostolic community: fraternal charity and obedience. The community does not survive if its members do not apply themselves in a constant manner to the practice of these two virtues.
Another point to retain: it is in the Spirit and through the action of the Spirit that this unity will be deepened. As Fr. Durrwell, C.SS.R. wrote: it is the Holy Spirit who unifies us in the Mystical Body, and in a special way, in an association such as ours. The fortunes of one are the fortunes of the other as are also suffering, pain, and weakness. “The communion of the saints is a union of persons, linked to one another in a mutual gift of oneself. Those who love one another are rich. The saint belongs in love to the poor little Christian. The latter is very important through the saint who loves him . . .“ (F.-X. Durrwell, L’Esprit Saint de Dieu, Cerf, 1983, p. 95). And this Spirit who intensifies the union among us, opens our hearts more to the world, to its needs of understanding and love, of goodness and salvation.
In Oblate life, this community spirit is very important. The Associate forms a community with the Oblates, those in heaven and those on earth, and he forms a community with his environment and his family. Often it will be the family itself which will form a community with the Oblates.
As a second special mark, the Associate will force himself to extend the Paschal mystery: that of the Cross and the Resurrection.
The cross of Jesus Christ is central to our mission. Like the Apostle Paul, we “preach Christ and him crucified” (1 Co 2, 2). If we bear “in our body the death of Jesus”, it is with the hope “that the life of Jesus, too, may be seen in our body” (2 Co 4, 10). Through the eyes of our crucified Saviour, we see the world which he redeemed with his blood, desiring that those in whom he continues to suffer, will know also the power of his resurrection (cf. Ph 3, 10).
This love of the Cross and salvation through the Cross are found in theConstitutions from the very beginning (1826). Eugene de Mazenod, who gave to the Oblates the Cross of Jesus Christ as a distinctive sign of their habit, was very attached to it. The Cross is the way chosen by God to save the world.
The Cross, the sufferings of the Associate, will often be different from those of the Oblate: the cross of illness, material poverty, insecurity, isolation, lack of affection, family difficulties, the poverty around us ... Each one bears some crosses in life, one’s own and those of others, but the Cross of Jesus, that which we accept and which is “at the heart of our mission,” is not alone, it always opens onto the hope of the Paschal joy. Our cross, like that of Christ, is the seed of resurrection and life. In contact with the Cross our outlook and our love will change. “Through the eyes of the crucified Saviour we see the world which he redeemed with his blood”. Our eyes that see the world - and ourselves - become the eyes of Jesus. It was the gaze of Eugene de Mazenod after his “ conversion”: to see himself and the world through the blood of Christ. The expression, “the souls which cost the blood of Christ,” returns constantly in his writings. This vision, this look normally generates the desire for the salvation of the world and the wish to cooperate with Christ in the work of redemption. Further on, in Rule 12, we shall find the complementary expression: “to love others as Jesus loves them”. Your apostolic spirit as an Associate consists in contemplating the world with the eyes of Christ, in loving it with the heart of Christ, and in cooperating with Christ in the work of the redemption of the world.
Your desire is that “men in whom the passion of Christ continues know also the power of his resurrection”. This reminds us of what B. Pascal wrote: “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world: we must not sleep during that time” (Pensées, n· 736, in Oeuvres complètes, La Pléiade, 1962, p. 1313).
A double trait is expressed in the fifth article : we are missionaries and our concern, our work, is especially in favor of the poor, the most abandoned.
We are a missionary Congregation. Our principal service in the Church is to proclaim Christ and his Kingdom to the most abandoned. We preach the Gospel among people who have not yet received it and help them see their own values in its light. Where the Church is already established, our commitment is to those groups it touches least.
Wherever we work, our mission is especially to those people whose condition cries out for salvation and for the hope which only Jesus Christ can fully bring. These are the poor with their many faces; we give them our preference.
Note how from the beginning the first sentence in all these articles is important. It gives the tone of the article and summarizes it. “The cross of Jesus Christ is central to our mission” (C. 4); “The community of the Apostles with Jesus is the model of our life” (C. 3); “We are men ‘set apart for the Gospel’, men ready to leave everything to be disciples of Jesus” (C. 2); “The call of Jesus Christ, heard within the Church through people’s need for salvation, draws us together as Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate” (C. 1). It is the same here: “The Congregation is entirely missionary”.
“To be missionary”, means to be sent on a mission of evangelization, be it missions abroad or at home or popular missions, it matters little. The missionary is the man of the frontiers, the one who seeks always to go forward, and to go further. Zeal, daring, mobility, availability, that is what characterizes him! So does obedience: he receives a mission from another, mission from the Spirit, mission from the Church, he is “sent”.
To be an Associate of the Oblate Congregation one must have a missionary heart, not be withdrawn into oneself. For some people, that is quietly accomplished in prayer, in domestic services, in the acceptance of illness, and it is achieved with the spirit of Christ, by offering it for the well-being and salvation of the entire world. For others, the commitment will be more external, more apparent. They will devote themselves to the poor, they will support the missions, they will work for them, and even in certain cases will work in a mission territory with the Oblates. But everywhere, it is the same spirit which animates us, that of the Oblate Family.
Through this spirit all are missionaries, and they are so through the Congregation to which they are atached. The ultimate aim of this mission is to “proclaim Christ and his Kingdom to the most abandoned,” to “preach the Gospel among people who have not yet received it and help them see their own values in its light.” The chief beneficiaries of this action will be the poor, the most abandoned, the furthest away from the Church or the Christian faith. “Wherever we work, our mission is especially to those people whose condition cries out for salvation and for the hope which only Jesus Christ can fully bring. These are the poor with their many faces; we give them our preference.”
Another mark of the Associates is their love for the Church, their church life, and their collaboration with the Church. Article 6 states it clearly. It applies to the Oblates and to all their Associates.
Our love for the Church inspires us to fulfill our mission in communion with the pastors whom the Lord has given to his people; we accept loyally, with an enlightened faith, the guidance and teachings of the successors of Peter and the Apostles.
We coordinate our missionary activity with the overall pastoral plan of the local Churches where we work, and we collaborate in a spirit of brotherhood with others who work for the Gospel.
Our efforts will be characterized by a genuine desire for unity with all who consider themselves followers of Jesus, so that, according to his prayer, all may believe that the Father has sent him (cf. Jn 17: 21). Finally, in our hope for the coming of God’s reign, we are united with all those who, without acknowledging Christ as Lord, nevertheless love what he loves.
The Associate, missionary of the poor, can only be so in the Church, that is, in being deeply united to the Church by faith, hope, charity and by becoming wholly integrated in it by prayer and example. This article indeed reflects the love of the Associate for the Church, a desire for faithfulness and at the same time an ecumenical concern, a desire to collaborate with every sincere person, desirous to promote the values of the Kingdom of God.
The notion of the Church used in the article shows at once the institutional Church, hierarchically organized, and the Church, the people of God, the Kingdom of God, which strives to reunite in its breast all men and all women of good will. Eugene de Mazenod has asked us to be men and women of the Church, of the Pope, and of the Bishops. These expressions must be interpreted correctly. When, in 1975, Pope Paul VI defined Blessed Eugene de Mazenod “an ardent supporter of the Church”, he wished to point out something very real (cf. A.A.G., 1975, p. 284).
For Bishop de Mazenod, Christ and the Church are one. The Church is “that glorious inheritance purchased by Christ the Saviour.” It is “the beloved spouse of God’s only-begotten Son”. It is that which he redeemed by his blood, and that “which earnestly appeals to the ministers” to whom he confides his children ... (cf. Preface of the Constitutions). Eugene de Mazenod suffered for the Church and the Pope. He accepted equally to suffer because of the Church and because of the Pope. At the same time, he displayed an unshakeable loyalty to the Church and to the Pope. In his affection for the Church there was especially an attitude of faith, and he has asked the same attitude of us. To be capable of welcoming the teaching of the Church with an open frame of mind, with confidence, receptivity, strong attachment and a deep faith, and if there was to be criticism, it was to be truly positive, like that of a child in the family.
As a general attitude towards the Church, love is given prominence. The Associates are persons who love the Church. If this deep and simple love did not exist, the they would not be happy. They love the Church as they love Jesus Christ. In it they see Jesus who continues to give his life for the salvation of the world. They know that the Church is a mystery. It is composed of men and women, sinners and saints. It is inhabited and animated also by the Spirit of Christ who constantly purifies, transforms and directs it. Often it gropes along, seeking better ways, more adapted to the times, in order to tell the world who Jesus Christ is and make the Gospel present in its midst. In spite of its weaknesses and limits, the Church knows that it has the promises of eternity and that the Spirit guides it: “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time” (M 28, 20). Through the grace of Christ, it is “the universal sacrament of salvation” (Lumen Gentium, n· 48). It is fully aware of this, and advances century after century with confidence, serenity and humility.
The principal outward sign of the Assicates love for the Church will be their his communion with it and its shepherd, both in thought and in action. Concerning the local Church, two things are asked of the Associates: that they coordinate their activity with the pastoral plan of the diocese and that they collaborate in a spirit of fraternity with the other workers of the Gospel. The wish to be faithful to the Oblate charism, far from separating them from the local Church, integrates them more so in it. Concerning other believers and those who endeavor to promote the values of the coming Kingdom, such as peace, love, joy and freedom, the Associate is invited to have an attitude of welcome and solidarity in good works. It is no longer a question of condemning the others, of remaining aloof from them. One must on the contrary be united to them and even support them in the work they do. To “all who consider themselves followers of Jesus”, the Associate simply responds to the prayer of Jesus: “I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me” (Jn 17, 20-21)
.Concerning “those who, without knowing Christ as Lord, endeavor to promote the values of the coming Kingdom,” the Associate needs to imitate God who recognizes the good works in all people of good will and accords the gift of salvation to them if they seek it with a sincere heart and endeavors to accomplish God’s will while being faithful to the dictates of their conscience (cf. Lumen Gentium, n· 16).
As the universal sacrament of salvation, the Church has no frontiers. Its mission is “to proclaim and establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ibid. n· 5).
For the Associates, as for the Oblates, the responsibilities in the work of evangelization are complementary. Here is Article 7:
[As priests and Brothers,] we have complementary responsibilities in evangelizing. We will spare no effort to awaken or to reawaken the faith in the people to whom we are sent, and we will help them to discover “who Christ is”. Our mission puts us on constant call to respond to the most urgent needs of the Church through various forms of witness and ministry, but especially through proclaiming the Word of God which finds its fulfillment in the celebration of the sacraments and in service to others. We have as our goal to establish Christian communities and Churches deeply rooted in the local culture and fully responsible for theirowndevelopment and growth.
We must clarify what is “the work of evangelization”. Several expressions describe it. Each one brings a new special aspect which calls for reflection. Some aspects are traditional, rooted in history, while others are more recent. They express the present missionary sensitivity. The first expression used is classic in Oblate vocabulary: “to spare no effort to awaken or to reawaken the faith in the people to whom we are sent, and we will help them to discover ‘who Christ is’..”
“To spare no effort”, is a call to daring, creativity, and limitless devotion. To dare all, but why? To what end? “To awaken or reawaken the faith ...”, in order to discover “who Christ is.”
Here we touch the very core of the work of evangelization. It is neither the Oblate nor Associate who bestows the faith. It is God who gives it, but the Oblate and the Associate prepare the person’s heart, remove obstacles, proclaim the message and implore God to arouse the faith, to render it more alive, more dynamic among the people.
In this, the Associate is a missionary. He cares about making Christ known and loved around him - in his family, with his children, in the midst of his work, and in the world. His prayer will be missionary, his understanding and goodness will be too, and even, according to circumstances, his word will be. “The word always remains present,” said Paul VI, “especially when it is the bearer of the power of the Spirit” (cf. 1 Co 2:1-5). That is why the axiom of St. Paul always remains actual: “Faith comes from what is preached” (Rm :10,17). “It is the Word heard which leads to belief” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n· 42).
The Associate speaks this word in loving the other, in the respect of their conscience and freedom, in the confidence of faith. Eugene de Mazenod reminds the people of his diocese of this in his Lenten Pastoral letter.
“Your highly Christian conduct will never be without effect in the relations with your neighbor ...; (it) will be as a silent but eloquent sermon, it will be as a light which shines in the midst of darkness....“And he adds that the Christian laity must also speak: “If there are circumstances where silence Is necessary, there are others where what has been said in the darkness must be repeated in the light.... Hasten to take advantage of these circumstances where truth can be useful, to say it with charity. Imply it with gentleness when it cannot be forcefully proclaimed. See that it be indeed welcomed while always allowing the pure sentiment of pious interest which inspires you to be perceived. Present it, if you can, under a tactful form which prevents it from hurting those whom you wish to heal. Avoid rendering it boring by too frequent repetitions, or irksome by too impatient desires; but in this work of mercy, if you owe consideration to your brother, be without worldly fear” (Lenten Pastoral Letter 1848).
The second expression used to describe our work of evangelization is also classical for us: “Our mission puts us on constant call to respond to the most urgent needs of the Church through various forms of witness and ministry, but especially through proclaiming the Word of God which finds Its fulfillment in the celebration of the sacraments and in service to others”.
There is here a double ecclesial preoccupation, characteristic of our time: to establish “Christian communities and Churches deeply rooted in the local culture and fully responsible for their own development and growth”. There is here an invitation to favor inculturation of the faith everywhere where we carry out our work, especially in newly christianized countries, and to promote a sense of responsibility, the desire of a personal commitment and an adult faith among the faithful with whom we work. We wish to establish living local communities.
In the rules which complete article 7, there is one, the third, which helps us to grasp the complementarity within the Congregation and what it can be with the Associates. In the Congregation there are Priests and Brothers. All participate in their own manner in the unique priesthood of Christ. All are religious and give witness of a life inspired by the Gospel and all, each according to his own work participates in the missionary action of the Church.
The Associates, be they men of women, participate also in their own way in the unique priesthood of Christ. As Christians their life is inspired by the Gospel. In their milieu they exercise a personal and missionary influence that is particular to them. Associated to the Congregation, their technical, professional and pastoral service, all as the evangelical witness of their life, constitute their particular “ministry”.
Article 8 deals with another trait of the Associate: his proximity with the people.
We will always be close to the people with whom we work, taking into account their values and aspirations. To seek out new ways for the Word of God to reach their hearts often calls for daring; to present Gospel demands in all clarity should never intimidate us. Awareness of our own shortcomings humbles us, yet God’s power makes us confident as we strive to bring all people - especially the poor - to full consciousness of their dignity as human beings and as sons and daughters of God.
This article applies to the Oblates. It also applies fully to the Associate. One must have an attitude of simplicity, love, proximity, attention and respect for people. An attitude of strength and daring, of confidence and humility is also necessary. A great desire penetrates it: “to strive to bring all people especially the poor to full consciousness of their dignity as human beings and as sons and daughters of God”. In a word, the Associate is asked to behave in a manner similar to that of Jesus: to see people with the eyes of Christ and to love them with the heart of Christ.
To be “close to the people” means that we try to reduce distances which separate us from them as much as possible. These distances are both physical and material such as living far from them, not speaking their language, having a totally different lifestyle than theirs, etc., but they are especially of a psychological order, like cultural, sexual or racial prejudices, susceptibilities, attitudes of superiority, of self-importance and selfishness. The Associates go towards the people with a fraternal and open heart. They love them and take the initiative to go towards them. They divine the richness of their hearts and make themselves as much as possible one of them. They are incapable of speaking ill of them.
Our model is Christ, the Son of God, who was incarnated in human flesh to come to us and who took our entire nature, except sin. It is the Apostle Paul who says: “I am not a slave to any man, I made myself all things to all men” (1 Co 9:19-22). Blessed Joseph Gérard, O.M.I. a missionary in Lesotho, was a past master in this love and knew how to be near all people. He practiced “the apostolate of conversation”. “There is another form of preaching,” he said, “It is the apostolate of conversation. This apostolate of being on the same level, sermo pedestris, which is exercised in the streets, the fields, the family home, at the bedside of the ill. Numerous are the souls who are converted especially when the heart helps the word. The Curé d’Ars understood that he would only begin doing good to his parishioners when he would be loved by them. Now there is a secret to being loved, it is to love. It is the same thing for infidels, Basotho, Matebele, etc. On seeing them one can be saddened and wonder what should be done to convert them. The reply is in all the pages of the Gospel, one must love them, love them nonetheless, love them always. The good God wished that we only do good to man by loving him. The world belongs to the one who loves it the most and will prove it to it” (J. Gérard, O.M.I., Lettres et Ecrits divers, Rome 1988, p. 201-202).
According to the social milieu and the temperament of each person, the ways of being present to people can vary, but the feeling of respect, of love and attention will be always there. For the Associate this presence will be not only a human presence. This will be the presence of Christ among them. This is what the second sentence of the article reminds us: “To seek out new ways for the Word of God to reach their hearts often calls for daring; to present Gospel demands in all clarity should never intimidate us.” Such a work is beyond our strength. It is the work of God which is accomplished by our work and our life. Consequently, the Associate will cultivate in his heart confidence and humility: a true humility before his inadequacies and at the same time a steadfast confidence in God who is all powerful and greater than our poverty. The Associate always has the desire: “To bring all people - especially the poor - to full consciousness of their dignity as human beings and as sons and daughters of God”.
Two rules - which I quote - complete this article. One asks us to help people develop their own gifts and take their responsibilities to the heart of the Christian community, the other invites us to let ourselves be enriched, be evangelized by the people with whom we work.
We shall support lay people in the discernment and development of their own talents and charism, encouraging them to undertake ministries and apostolic commitments and thus to shoulder the responsibilities which are properly theirs in the Christian community. (R. 7 f)
This rule remains general. It does not specify a particular domain, but its message is clear. It asks of you, as Associates to commit yourselves to this orientation of the Church of today: to give to others, both men and women, your help in order that they can take on in present society all the responsibilities just as well in charitable actions, the apostolate and the liturgy, as well as in the Christian renewal of the temporal order.
We will let our lives be enriched by the poor and the marginalized as we work with them, for they can make us hear in new ways the Gospel we proclaim. We must always be sensitive to the mentality of the people, drawing on the riches of their culture and religious traditions. (R. 8a)
This second rule has a particular flavor. It recalls that the Associate, like the Oblate, goes to the people not only to bring them something, but to become their beneficiary and to be enriched by contact with them. They have their wealth and the Associates has their poverty. People, even the poorest, the most removed from the Church, can bring much to him, if his heart is open. They sometimes have a human experience, a cultural and religious richness, a generosity, a thirst for justice and truth, a sense of duty, which perhaps the Associates do not possess to the same degree. It will even happen that some of them, often simple people with a deep faith, will come to the Associates to get help or ask advice, allowing them to know God, to admire his action, in a manner which up to then was unknown. These people have a contact with God, an experience of God and his presence in their soul, which the Associates have not. Truly, “they can make us hear in new ways the Gospel we proclaim”. It is one of the graces of the life of the Associate.
Article 9 expresses a new way of evangelization. It responds in a special way to a present need: commitment for justice and peace, for the holiness of God in the world. The Associates are members of the prophetic Church.
We are members of the prophetic Church. While recognizing our own need for conversion, we bear witness to God’s holiness and justice. We announce the liberating presence of Jesus Christ and the new world born in his resurrection. We will hear and make heard the clamor of the voiceless, which is a cry to God who brings down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly (cf. Lk 1: 52). This prophetic mission is carried out In communion with the Church, in conformity with the directives of the hierarchy and in dependence on our Superiors.
Everyone acknowledges the need for a missionary Congregation and for its Associates, to be open to this new dimension and to become involved in a clear manner in this fight for justice and the defense of human rights. Indeed, the prophetism, required even if it bears on social justice, is much more vast than the sole defense of human rights. It expresses what is at the heart of Christian life, its fundamental prophetism: questioning the world, that is the very ambiguous world marked by sin, in which we live, and questioning it through justice and the holiness of God.
“To announce the liberating presence of Jesus Christ”, is to evoke the still actual role of Christ in the liberation of man and the establishment of a better world, one that is more just, more friendly to the poor, the sick, and the unfortunate. “The new world, born of the resurrection of Christ,” has a double meaning. First, it is the eschatological world which will come at the end of time, when the Kingdom of God will be fully realized. It is also a more evangelical world, already possible on earth, thanks to the action of Christ who continues in the heart of men and through the ministry of the Church, and who tends to establish more justice, confidence and love between men and among the people of the earth. Father James Cooke, a former Assistant General, often recalled this duty with the following reflection: “To await heaven on earth is an illusion, but to allow hell to exist on earth is not Christian. We are called to work with the poor in order to help them make the world less similar to hell and more akin to heaven”.
Besides announcing the liberating presence of Christ, a second condition is asked of us, that is to be a spokesperson for the poor: “They hear and make heard the clamor of the voiceless ones, a call to God who has pulled down the powerful from their thrones and exalted the lowly” (cf. Lk 1:52). This shows firstly that the Associate is perceptive, attentive to the cries of the poor, of those who have no freedom of speech or do not know how to express their sufferings and their needs. The Associate takes time to listen to them, to see all that is hidden under their cries and complaints.That means to help them find the necessary way to express their demands and be heard, even if it means becoming at the opportune moment their spokesperson, the voice of the voiceless ones. This clamor, this cry of the poor forms in a way a prayer, a “call to God who pulls down the powerful from their thrones and exalts the lowly”.
The Associates accomplish this mission in their own environment according to their particular grace and the call received, and they do this in union with the Congregation and in the communion of the Church. Some activities possible for Oblates mentioned are sharing in the life of the poor, commitment for justice, presence where decisions are taken which affect the future of the world of the poor. But especially, at the end of Rule 9 it is recalled that whatever the work of each person, all Oblates - and the Associates - must “collaborate according to their vocation and by every means compatible with the Gospel, in changing all that is a cause of oppression and poverty. They thereby help to create a society based on the dignity of the human person created in the image of God” (R. 9a).
A final and excellent article closes this chapter on the mission of the Congregation, the article on Mary Immaculate. Its content can be applied fully to the Associate as to the Oblate himself.
Mary Immaculate is patroness of our Congregation. Open to the Spirit, she consecrated herself totally as lowly handmaid to the person and work of the Savior. She received Christ in order to share him with all the world, whose hope he is. In her we recognize the model of the Church’s faith and of our own.
We shall always look on her as our mother. In the joys and sorrows of our missionary life we feel close to her who is the Mother of Mercy. Wherever our ministry takes us, we will strive to instill genuine devotion to the Immaculate Virgin who prefigures God’s final victory over all evil.
It was at Rome, it seems, that Eugene de Mazenod decided to put his religious family under the patronage of Mary Immaculate. Already in a sense, Mary was the Mother of the Institute. It was she in effect who had affirmed Father de Mazenod in the foundation of his work. On August 15, 1822, he had erected a statue of the Virgin dedicated to the Immaculate Conception in the Mission church of Aix-en-Provence. He confided to Fr. Tempier the feelings that filled him that day: “I believe I owe to her a special experience that I felt today. I will not go so far as to say more than ever, but certainly more than usual. I cannot describe it too well because it comprised several things but all related, however, to a single object, our dear Society. It seemed to me that what I saw, what I could put my finger on, was that within it lies hidden the germ of very great virtues, and that it can achieve infinite good; I found it worthy, everything pleased me about it, I cherished its rules, its statutes; its ministry seemed sublime to me, as it is indeed. I found in its bosom a sure means of salvation, even infallible, such is how they looked to me” (Letter, August 15, 1822; in Letters, vol. 6, p. 93).
To be “Patron of the Congregation” means that Mary Immaculate is both the one who protects and guards us, who intercedes for us in a special way close to her Son, and who also serves us as a model and inspiration.
She is the model of our gift to God. “Open to the Spirit, Mary consecrated herself totally as lowly handmaid to the person and work of the Savior”. Here is the general attitude of Mary who is proposed to the Associate. She was open to the Spirit, she uttered an unconditional “Yes” to the invitation of God: “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me!” (Lk 1: 38). From that time onwards, she was entirely consecrated to the person and work of the Savior. In confidence and love, Mary adheres with all her being to God’s design over her, according as God makes it known to her. She looks at the events, meditates them in her heart and commits herself to the accomplishment of the God’s will. It is to this that the Associates are called: to become men and women of the will of God, to be available to reply to God’s call, and that as servants and friends of Jesus.
Mary is the model of our zeal: “In the Virgin attentive to receive Christ in order to share him with all the world whose hope he is, the Oblates (and the Associates) recognize the model of the Church’s faith and of our own”. The fiat of Mary was a fiat of welcome, which enabled her to receive the Word of God, who is united in human nature in her bosom: “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man” (Credo). The Son of God is the Son of Mary. The narrowest union exists between Jesus and Mary: a physical union, which is that of the mother and her child, but especially also a spiritual union. Mary, however, received Jesus to give him to the world. She was chosen, not to exclusively enjoy the presence of Christ, but to deliver him to the world and to discreetly accompany him on the road of his public life, his passion and his resurrection. The fiat of Mary was a missionary fiat: in welcoming the Word of God, Mary committed herself with him to his mission of universal salvation: “For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved” (Jn 3: 17). It is likewise the direction of our lives. As Associates, you are called to develop, “in union with Mary Immaculate” a deep “close union with Christ” (C. 36), to become “other Jesus Christs”, not only in order to enjoy his presence, but to reveal him to men and let them discover “who Christ is”.
She is the model of our faith. All these realities are at the heart of the Christian faith. Mary is the one who precedes the Church, and precedes us in our pilgrimage of faith. She is, at the same time daughter and mother of the Church. Her life was “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3: 3), as John Paul II recalls (May 22, 1988) and thus, she has participated more than any other creature in the work of the salvation of the world. The Associates, through their faith, their hope and their love, are the sons and daughters of the Church. They are called, like Mary, and with her, to cooperate in the great work of the redemption of the world: “To receive Christ in order to share him with all the world, whose hope he is”.
The second paragraph of article 10 shows the principal duties and attitudes that the patronage of Mary Immaculate that entail for the Associates:
Finally in this language on Mary, Christians should perceive that the Associates are aware of the needs, sufferings and calls of the world today: a better sharing of riches, peace in the world, respect for family life and human rights, integral freedom of all people, and the dignity of women. In a word, that Mary Immaculate be for the Associates and for all those whom they address, a true source of hope: “who prefigures God’s final victory over all evil”.
Eugene de Mazenod is a “saint”. He possesses an influence, a spiritual charism which goes greatly beyond the settings of the Oblate religious life and the diocese of Marseilles. He reminds the whole earth of the Gospel. He does it simply, in a spontaneous contact with all those men and women who are interested in it.
Many lay people wish to live in his spirit, to radiate the Gospel as he did. The first step is to know what Eugene de Mazenod said, what spirit animated him, how he prayed, how he loved the Virgin Mary and the poor, what attachment he had for the Church, for Jesus Christ, and for the will of the Father. As we know him, we endeavor to live according his spirit. This is the first step. Then according to the vocation particular to the laity, religious or priests, we radiate his faith and love. This can be through silent adoration and the Oblate prayer, through interior attachment to the Church and its work of salvation, especially with the poor. It can also be through exterior commitment, and more immediate, of cooperation in some apostolic field or other. But more importantly, each person must live their vocation fully in the Church and do so with the spirit of the Congregation.
You are such Christian lay persons, sons and daughters of Eugene de Mazenod. Remember the testimony quoted at the beginning of this talk. I repeat it again in conclusion: “I have known Blessed Eugene de Mazenod through his writings. I have known his spirituality, his charity, his love of the Church and the poor. I was wholeheartedly won over by it, so much so that today I can say to you that I feel myself a spiritual daughter of Blessed Eugene .... That is what I wanted to tell you! Although a lay person, I feel, spiritually, a part of your religious family. I desire to live like you, feel like you, serve like you do, love like you and, like you always do the will of God” (June 11, 1980).
1) To his mother December 25, 1808 in Spiritual Writings Vol. 14, p. 84.