200 YEARS AGO: A MISSIONARY GROUP DISCERNMENT

The letter from the Diocese of Digne offering the care of Notre Dame du Laus to the Missionaries stated that two priests would be needed. In the summer they would devote their whole time to the many pilgrims who came every day, and during the winter, they would evangelize the neighboring villages.

Based on the Mémoires of Marius Suzanne, Rey describes the discernment around the requests:“The Founder evaluated them. To avoid uncertainty, he decided to consult the companions that God has given him. He gathered around him the six priests that make up the small Society. He read them the letter from M. Arbaud, reading slowly and stopping at the most significant passages he urged them to give their opinion.
He was careful to point out that acceptance of this foundation would lead to huge consequences. Among others, that of the transformation of the Society, which would cease to be diocesan, and which could continue to exist only if all members committed themselves to it by religious vows.
This proposal did not alarm anyone, says Father Suzanne, and all gave their assent with enthusiasm to the foundation of the House of Our Lady of Laus.” (Rey I, p. 228.)

Eugene was thus able to write to the Diocesan authorities of Digne:

… if you think that the plan you have thought of might gain some glory for God and contribute to the salvation of souls, I am totally disposed…

Letter to M. Arbaud, 23 August 1818, EO XIII, n 16

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200 YEARS AGO: A QUANTUM LEAP FOR THE MAZENODIAN FAMILY

Two and a half years after the foundation of the Missionaries, this seemingly insignificant letter, written by St Eugene, signaled an explosion in their life and a new direction.

The letter was written in response to an invitation from the Vicar General of the Diocese of Digne. He had asked the Missionaries of Provence to take over the shrine of Notre Dame du Laus, some 150 kilometers from Aix, and to make it a center of pilgrimage and of missionary activity.

I have no other desire than to do a little good; thus, if you think that the plan you have thought of might gain some glory for God and contribute to the salvation of souls, I am totally disposed to offer myself for all the arrangements which are compatible with my commitments in this diocese and the duties of my position in our little Society.

Letter to M. Arbaud, Vicar General, 23 August 1818, EO XIII, n 16

The result of Eugene’s letter of acceptance was to be that:
          this tiny group of Missionaries realized that their future was not limited to only one house in Aix en Provence – as had been their original intention. It would eventually open the way to a world-wide expansion;
          this group of diocesan priests were to change their status and to become a group of religious priests and brothers with vows;
          they would produce their first comprehensive Rule of Life as religious;
          they understood that the care of Marian sanctuaries was part of their missionary charism.

What the Missionary Oblates and the Mazenodian Family are today is the fruit of this decision.

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200 YEARS AGO: A MAJOR CHANGE OF DIRECTION

In 1816 Eugene de Mazenod and his first companions had come together to form the Missionaries of Provence. The plan was to have only one community, based in the former Carmelite Convent, and to concentrate on evangelization in the villages of Provence through preaching missions. Nothing further was envisaged.

Then in 1818 everything changed with a new step being revealed by God’s will: the invitation to consider changing plan by establishing a second community and a ministry that they had never imagined for themselves: a Marian Shrine.

This was to have major consequences for us: the decision to change from being a single group of diocesan priests to becoming a religious congregation in vows with more than one community, drawing up a Rule of Life, and launching into shrine ministry.

All this happened in 1818 – and we celebrate 200 years of these decisions in November. For this reason I will focus on these events and their meaning in the coming weeks.

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SOME THREATEN TO LEAVE IF THEIR OBEDIENCE IS NOT CHANGED

The house in Billens, Switzerland, had been opened as a formation house for the scholastics when it appeared that the Revolution of 1830 was about to begin a persecution of the Church. Three years later the students returned to France, and the house in Billens was a house of itinerant Oblate preachers. The community became somewhat unfocused and discontented, unleashing Eugene’s anger:

I have to confess that the pen fell from my hand each time I made the effort to write you. What’s there to say to men who after so many years of religious life don’t have the first idea of their chief and essential obligations, and some of whom go so far as to threaten to leave if their obedience is not changed, in other words, if instead of being told what they have to do, they are not asked to place their orders, so that their tastes can be complied with … .
You want me to write and I have no blessing to impart, only anathemas. You are all at fault, without a single exception.

What would have hurt Eugene deeply was the fact that some who had made perpetual oblation and given their lives to God and to the Congregation, were now threatening to leave the Oblates if they did not get their own way. He made some personnel changes and harmony was restored.

I begin by recalling Father M. He will leave immediately on receipt of this letter…. I will let you know the destination of the others in due course… It is my wish that this letter be read aloud in the community so that each individual will be made aware of my displeasure, and no one will escape the reproaches that I feel obliged to make in all conscience.

Letter to the Fathers in Billens, 23 June 1833, EO VIII n 447

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THE SACRED HEART

As a person passionately in love with Jesus the Savior, it is no surprise that Eugene had a strong attachment to the devotion to the Sacred Heart. In 1819 he had made the Oblate Church of the Mission the center for this devotion in Aix. When he moved to Marseilles, he tried to return to Aix every month to be with the Oblate community on first Fridays.

… You know quite well what a pleasure it would be for me to spend the Feast of the Sacred Heart with you. But various reasons oblige me to be absent. In the first place a pastoral visitation has been fixed for the vigil and the day after ….

Letter to Hippolyte Courtès, 5 June 1833, EO VIII n 446

Now that he was a bishop, it appears that he was to preside at the procession through the city on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Pastoral commitments in Marseilles did not make this possible.

René Motte writes about how Eugene instilled a sense of the importance of the love of Jesus Christ in others.

Eugene is quoted as saying to Father Timon-David:

There is no need for me to recommend to you to develop in your young people a thorough understanding that in adoring Our Lord’s Sacred Heart, they should not so much focus their attention on this sacred object of their love as they should extend it to the living person of Jesus Christ who is present.

Blessed Joseph Gerard’s reaction to the news of Eugene’s last illness is one of many illustrations of this devotion when he wrote: “I have just learnt that your Lordship has fallen seriously ill […] We remember with edification your great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and we are going to appeal to this Sacred Heart with the most ardent confidence”.

(See R. Motte, “Sacred Heart” in https://www.omiworld.org/lemma/sacred-heart-the/#_FtntRef3 )

 

 

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A BISHOP IS PRIMARILY A MISSIONARY

Bishop Fortuné de Mazenod was old, and thus handed over the pastoral visitation of seven outlying towns to his newly-ordained nephew, Bishop Eugene.

My dear friend, I am on my way to make a pastoral visitation in a part of the diocese. It will take me a fortnight and, please God. I won’t be wasting my time.

Eugene had been a missionary for some 20 years and it was in his blood to think and act like one. It was with an Oblate heart and approach that he ministered to everyone.

A bishop is primarily a missionary; I know my duty, it only remains for me to accomplish it as I ought.
If resolve were all that were needed. I would have no doubts about it, but it is something that has to be earned, for what greater grace can a man have than that of doing his duty well. It needs prayers: it is up to you to give me your help, my dear children.

Letter to Hippolyte Courtès, 4 May 1833, EO VIII n 445

Since then many Oblates have been called by the Church to become bishops. Each one’s vocation has always been to be “primarily a missionary” and approach people with an Oblate heart like St. Eugene was.

 

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WHAT AN OUTSTANDING FELLOW HE IS!

Writing to Father Guibert at the Marian Shrine in Laus, Eugene asks for prayers for the community. In particular for Casimir Aubert who was preparing himself for his priestly ordination on April 6. He would be the first Oblate to be ordained by Bishop Eugene.

… There is no need for me to tell you that all these good brothers are asking for your prayers and those of our Fathers. Aubert in particular has been really insistent lest I forget his commission; he is on retreat, I could not refuse to let him have a fortnight off to prepare himself for the priestly ordination that his unblemished life has already made him so worthy of. What an outstanding fellow he is! Intelligence, character, virtue, heart: he has them all to perfection. You can congratulate yourself on gaining such a prize and the family will be eternally grateful.

Letter to Hippolyte Guibert, 25 March 1833, EO VIII n 444

Eugene’s praise for his Oblate son was well-founded, and we will be hearing more about Casimir Aubert in Eugene’s correspondence in the future.

I recommend the Oblate Historical Dictionary article: https://www.omiworld.org/lemma/aubert-joseph-jerome-casimir/

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I ADMIRED THE MEANS YOU EMPLOYED TO BRING THIS DIFFICULT MAN TO A MORE REASONABLE FRAME OF MIND

In the previous reflection we looked at the letter of Eugene to the Bishop of Gap regarding the Shrine of Notre Dame du Laus. Now Eugene writes to Fr Guibert directly about the same delicate situation.

I admired the means you employed to bring this difficult man to a more reasonable frame of mind, and in taking the whole affair into your hands you got me out of a very embarrassing situation and saved the day. Discussion in the context envisaged by the Bishop of Gap would have been bound to come out badly.

Yvon Beaudoin explains the background in a footnote: “The Bishop and clergy of Gap were already having thoughts of resuming the direction of N.-D. du Laus and of making it a retirement home for elderly priests. As to the latter, Father Guibert was prepared to accept them but Bishop Arbaud found his conditions too onerous. The Bishop of Gap continued to find fault with the Oblates especially on account of the interests they had shown in Lamennais and of their moral teaching, inspired by St. Alphonsus. While saying nothing more about the dismissal of the Oblates, he asked for at least Father Guibert’s departure. Bishop de Mazenod refused and told the superior to pass on this refusal to the prelate, who left things as they were. The better relationship that now existed between Bishop Arbaud and Father Guibert saved the Founder from an embarrassing situation: basically, it was the latter’s moral teachings and past relationships with Lamennais that the Bishop did not approve.”

We had right, fair dealing and justice on our side, he had might and unbridled power in his hands and given his character and formation he would have used them. You were not too far out in what you said concerning Lamennais’ views. These gentlemen have always mistaken my esteem for the author with the use they imagined I made of his works, nor did they make any distinction as to period. I am also strongly in favour of the plan of action you propose to follow in his respect; for his part he ought to remove the obstacles he places to all vocations…

Letter to Hippolyte Guibert, 25 March 1833, EO VIII n 444

Again, an example of the many sensitive issues and tricky situations that Eugene had to navigate the Oblate Congregation through.

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IF HE IS INNOCENT, WHY SHOULD HE BE PUNISHED?

Bishop Arbaud focused his discomfort with the Oblates on the superior of the community, Father Guibert, whom Eugene vehemently defended. The underlying cause of the Bishop’s unhappiness was not Fr Guibert – but he became the scapegoat to express it. It is a long letter to reproduce, but I do so because it shows how Eugene defended his Oblates when they were unjustly accused – just as he was the first to reproach and correct them when they were wrong.

If Father is to blame, he should be punished, but your letters prove the opposite. If he is innocent, why should he be punished? However, through what ordeals has he not been put? A model of obedience, he has scrupulously obeyed everything, without allowing himself to make the least observation. Now, you are going further and want me to take him away from the house which he is directing with piety, wisdom and discretion. You are asking too much, Your Lordship!
You are wrongly imputing a crime to Father Guibert for not turning away from the novitiate the men of your diocese who come to present themselves there. You know the Church’s rules in that matter of vocations …
Why do you want to oblige me to recall such a valuable man whom you have praised to me on every occasion? Why deprive him of a climate that is very good for his precarious health? Why force me to deprive the young men that he is instructing in the ways of perfection of the priceless benefits of his good direction?
I deny the calumnies of those who say that he is displeasing to your clergy. The one who slandered him could have discovered the opposite this very year itself during the clergy retreat at N.-D. du Laus. Out of 22 priests, twenty chose him for director. No, Your Lordship, Father Guibert is not well enough known. This excellent priest is not only mentally gifted, but eminently virtuous and, because of that, should be precious to a Bishop like yourself.
I hope that you will render him your good graces which he has done nothing to lose. If my letter weren’t so long, I would quote you an example which would show you the uprightness and simplicity of his soul …

Letter to Bishop Arbaud of Gap, 20 February 1833, EO XIII n 81

This letter is the beginning of a conflict that would simmer and lead to the Oblates being expelled from the shrine some years later. Under them the shrine had flourished, pilgrims were coming in large numbers, and it was financially viable. The Bishop now wanted this thriving ministry returned to him and also to use the refurbished house as a retirement home for his priests.

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IF I KNEW THAT ONE OF OUR MEN WAS IN THE WRONG I WOULD NOT HAVE WORDS STRONG ENOUGH TO CONDEMN HIM

We have seen the newly-consecrated Bishop Eugene’s understanding of the dignity of the episcopacy as successors of the apostles – which gave a particular relationship between priests and bishops, and between bishops themselves. He refers to this in his response to Bishop Arbaud’s complaints about the Oblates at ND du Laus.

Will it be said that two Bishops do not agree when it is a matter of the Church’s interests, the honor of the priesthood and the rights of justice and fairness? If I knew that one of our men was in the wrong, I don’t say in the respect and submission that is your due, but even in the esteem only that your dignity and virtues require, I would not have words strong enough to condemn him, and I would be ready to demand that he make all the amends that you would require.

The Oblates had not been disrespectful of the Bishop, and their conduct had been irreproachable.

Thanks be to God, however, there is no question of that, and in the annoyance that your correspondence gives me, I have the consolation of finding in it the assurance that you are satisfied with everyone’s conduct.

The problem was that someone had complained that the Oblates were too lenient with penitents in the confessional

It all comes down to a few vague allegations, evidently exaggerated, that some secret enemy communicated to you.

Letter to Bishop Arbaud of Gap, 20 February 1833, EO XIII n 81

A diplomatic way of getting his point across while calming the waters!

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