Due to unforeseen circumstances I will be away from San Antonio for a couple of weeks, so this daily reflection will be interrupted until my return.
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Frank Santucci OMI
Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas
The Marian sanctuary at Laus was the second Oblate community established in France, and became a successful center of mission for the pilgrims in the warm months, and as a base of missionary outreach to the villages in the cold months. Unfortunately the Bishop of the diocese of Gap and some of the priests found the Oblates to be too “liberal.” The diocese was strongly Jansenist and condemnatory in its pastoral approach, whereas the Oblates followed the moral theology of Alphonsus de Liguori, which stressed the mercy and compassion of God. This was to be a source of ongoing friction for the next decade.
The Bishop’s letter to Eugene of January 30 has not been found, but Father Simonin summarizes it in these words: “The Bishop sets out therein the accepted principles in his diocese for the administration of the sacraments, principles with which, according to the pastors, the missionaries were in disagreement. Matters cannot continue in this way and those who work in the diocese must commit themselves to follow our principles.” Missions OM1, 1897, p. 366
Realizing that cooperation with the local bishop was essential for their continued ministry in Laus, Eugene responded in a way that would not slam the door shut. In no way did he compromise Oblate principles, however, as the missionaries discretely continued with their pastoral approach in the conmfessional.
Your Lordship, I had intended to reply to the letter that you did me the honor of writing on January 30, when our Missionaries returned. When they left, I could not take pen in hand. I wanted to have a little time to reflect on the painful communication contained in your letter. I could not find it. Now I am almost fully at ease. When a person is deeply affected, it is difficult to avoid some expression which could be misinterpreted, and I would be inconsolable were I to offend when my intention is certainly only to register a complaint. I am very pleased that you got along well with our Fathers Mie and Touche, and dare to hope that you will get along as well with everyone else whom you are willing to deem fit to employ in your diocese. I will not send anyone whom you do not like, and if by chance someone may displease you, you would only have to notify me and he will definitely refrain from every external exercise of ministry in your diocese; but I am not overly concerned about that.
“I have seen many storms in my life. Most storms have caught me by surprise, so I had to learn very quickly to look further and understand that I am not capable of controlling the weather, to exercise the art of patience and to respect the fury of nature.” Paulo Coelho
“A pastor of the Fréjus diocese asked for a mission in his parish and Father de Mazenod upset his whole apostolic plan in order to respond to this good pastor. He wrote to the Bishop of Fréjus to ask for the necessary powers. There was not much time; the reply was long in coming and when it did arrive, it was overwhelming for Reverend Father de Mazenod. The Bishop had refused in very stern terms.” Yenveux V. 68
Fifteen years earlier, the young Father Eugene would have exploded and told the bishop his fortune. Now we come across a more mature Eugene who reacted differently.
I was deeply afflicted on receiving your letter; and God gave me the grace not to wait even a second to place all the bitterness of this outrage at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. I raise my objection to no one but yourself, for I am afraid of losing the merit of this ordeal. They know at Aix, at Gap, Nimes and Marseilles that a pastor from your diocese has called upon our Missionaries and that they were rejected by the Bishop.
Letter to Bishop C.A. de Richery of Fréjus, 26 January 1828, EO XIII, n 163
“Outside of the cross of Jesus Christ, there is no hope in this world. That cross and resurrection at the core of the Gospel is the only hope for humanity. Wherever you go, ask God for wisdom on how to get that Gospel in, even in the toughest situations of life.” Ravi Zacharias
Our Rule of Life describes the goal of the novitiate year for those preparing to become Oblates: “Novitiate formation ends with a free and faith-filled commitment in the Oblate Congregation. The novice, having experienced the Father’s love in Jesus, dedicates his life to making that love visible. He entrusts his fidelity to the One whose cross he shares, whose promises are his hope.” CC&RR, Constitution 59
Eugene then lists some of the qualities that the novices need to work on in order to achieve this goal
All our novices ought to be characterized by
the most ardent desire for perfection,
real joy at being placed in a position so favorable to achieve it,
devotion for the Church,
zeal for the salvation of souls and a great attachment to the Oblate family,;
love, esteem and fidelity for the Rules,
obedience, respect for superiors, etc., let us help each other to attain these results ….
Letter to Henri Tempier, 18 June 1828, EO VII n 302
What does my list of qualities look like to best achieve my Kingdom goals?
“Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles.” Jawaharlal Nehru
Our Rule of Life instructs us: “Our houses will welcome those who wish to ‘come and see’ and thus experience at first hand what Oblate life is like. In a brotherly way we will help them discern what the Lord expects of them and what special grace he offers them in his Church.” CC&RR, Constitution 53
The origin of this practice goes back to the earliest days of our Oblate house in Aix, which provided lodging for students, welcomed the members of the youth congregation, and also served as a kind of time of preparation for those considering the possibility of an Oblate vocation .
Fr. Martin has spoken to me of two young men who faithfully attend our mission and whom he depicts to me as models of virtue, but do they have any talent? We cannot any longer accept anyone who is deprived of such for this is what our ministry demands. Let them forge ahead and finish the classes they have begun…
Letter to Jean Baptiste Honorat, 9 May 1828, EO VII n 300
“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” John Keats
The Oblates at the time of Eugene (and still today) were missionaries who wanted to spend all their time and energy evangelizing. None of them wanted to be in administration or formators of novices or scholastics. Father Guibert was a case in point. He did an excellent task of being novice master, but the sedentary life made him ill. When he was sent to recuperate by being involved in parish missions, his health returned. This pattern happened more than once.
Providence gave us in Fr. Guibert a master of novices who seemed to me quite apt to fill this very important post. He applied himself to the task with all his heart at the outset but his health, which had never been good, began to fluctuate. It became necessary to give him a change of air and free him entirely from this employment. However it is the most important task there is in the Society; without a novitiate, the Society is done for.
So, Eugene appointed Fr Honorat to be novice master. Just recently we saw some of the letters Eugene wrote to him to try to calm his missionary zeal. Now he was being asked to give up the missionary work that he loved and was so good at, for an essential ministry within the Oblates.
… So at this time the heart of our novitiate must be very sound and for this we need a master of novices. This master of novices is you,2 my dear Fr. Honorat, who combine an unshakeable loyalty to the Society with a love of order and regularity. I have thought this matter through. I would have wished to find someone else in order to leave you at Nimes where you are doing well but there is no one else in the Society and no one will take it amiss that I put this task above everything else, given that it is a question of training the members who are to save it from dying out.
Begin the day you receive my letter to converse with Fr. Guibert on this matter; ask him to communicate to you the result of the study that he had to do at the time in order to discharge his task well, discuss it at length with him and deeply. Read some books which are related to this new occupation.
Eugene invites Honorat to recognize the value of the self-sacrifice that is being asked of him for the good of the future of the Oblates.
I hope, my dear Father Honorat, that you have reflected yourself on the excellence of religious virtues so that you now find yourself totally detached as to whatever obedience may call for. The Lord usually blesses such a disposition by the most unexpected successes…
The good God will provide for the rest, for I do not hide from myself that the missions will suffer, but never mind – all must be sacrificed for the novitiate, because all the good that the Society will be able to do in future depends therefrom, and we ought to recognize that if this one or that one had made a good novitiate, they would be far less imperfect than they are..
Letter to Jean Baptiste Honorat, 4 May 1828, EO VII n 299
“In Christ we see a maturity of love that flowers in self-sacrifice and forgiveness; a maturity of power that never swerves from the ideal of service; a maturity of goodness that overcomes every temptation, and, of course, we see the ultimate victory of life over death itself.” Vincent Nichols
Eugene placed high importance on the period of novitiate formation of the young Oblates –it was an opportunity to make space for God and to learn and imbibe the values of Oblate religious life. The spirit of a “novitiate” period is not only for future Oblates. All who are serious about wanting to grow spiritually need to make space so as to focus on God’s presence and work in their lives.
Beginning at the end of the school year, that is to say by the month of July, there will be no more studies at the novitiate. Study can scarcely be associated with deep recollection and with the heavenly and supernatural thoughts on which the novices ought to dwell continually. Our experience has been that study absorbs too considerable a part of the time of which there is hardly enough for the task of acquiring so many virtues and for imbuing oneself with the spirit of the Society. Study at such a time is, so to speak, a hole through which runs out some of the substance one is pouring into the mould.
Letter to Jean Baptiste Honorat, 4 May 1828, EO VII n 299
Today in our Rule of Life we read:
“The novice, led by the Spirit living within him, develops his personal relationship with Jesus and gradually enters into the mystery of Salvation through liturgy and prayer. He becomes accustomed to listen to the Lord in Scripture, to meet him in the Eucharist and to recognize him in other persons and in events. He comes also to contemplate God at work in the life and mission of the Founder, as well as in the Congregation’s history and traditions. Opportunities for pastoral experience in an Oblate setting help him realize the demands of a missionary vocation and the unity of apostolic religious life.” CC&RR Constitution 56
“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every person which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” Blaise Pascal
When someone wanted to join the Oblates, the first step was a time of postulancy followed by a time of intense formation, called a novitiate. It was the crucial period of the formation process of the future Oblate.
We have a very strict novitiate. If men are judged unfit for religious virtues, they are simply sent away. Thus it is an established fact that the small number who persevere are really called.
Letter to Bishop Miollis of Digne, 10 March 1828, EO XIII n 65
The aim of the novitiate was to help the person to be transformed into a true missionary.
A novitiate which is truly a novitiate, where the subjects are fashioned with a master’s hand, where care is taken to coach in them all that goes to form a true missionary, from which they will emerge full of virtue, accustomed to obedience and filled with attachment and respect for the Rules and all they prescribe.
Letter to Henri Tempier, 26 November 1825, EO VI n. 208
Today our Rule of Life continues to stress its importance: “The novitiate is the candidate’s time of initiation into Oblate religious life and leads to his public commitment in the Congregation.… Under the guidance of the Novice Master, the novice comes to grasp the meaning of religious consecration. He can thus discern the Lord’s call and, in prayer, make himself ready to respond.” CCRR, Constitution 55
A novitiate,. in the broader sense of the word, applies to all of us in an ongoing way. To be disciples is not a static state of life, but a dynamic following of Jesus. All of us need to constantly discern the Lord’s call and, in prayer, make ourselves ready to respond on a daily basis.
“Always do your best. What you plant now, you will harvest later.” Og Mandino
In response to reading one of Eugene’s many calls to his zealous Oblates to look after their health, a lay associate wrote, 200 year later: “When I take care of myself then I will also be able to care for others. And like those earlier Oblates I need to be reminded of this over and over again.” Eugene’s zeal for the salvation of souls was contagious, but he had to remind the young Oblates constantly to be reasonable or else they would burn themselves out and become useless for ministry.
Your zeal is not compatible with reason:
Scarcely returned from Sabran, here you are off for Condoulet. Why so, my dear friend? This zeal is not compatible with reason. You are all young and need rest after a mission. Fifteen days would not have been excessive. I do not permit you to put less of an interval between that of Condoulet and that you plan to do at Fourquet.
I finish by begging you to spare your companions and to spare yourself.
Letter to Jean Baptiste Honorat, 29 January 1828, EO VII n 292
You do not know how to be moderate:
God forbid that I consent that you omit taking some rest before you return to the field. That is a thing you must never ask. One may not always feel fatigue, but it is no less necessary to rest, especially when one is young as are our dear Fathers Martin and Sumien and as for you, although a little older, you have more need than the others because you do not know how to be moderate.
Letter to Jean Baptiste Honorat, 19 February 1828, EO VII n 294
Never undertake to do more than you can:
In the first place and above everything: rest, rest, rest. Your first duty is to ensure it for your collaborators. So, whatever arrangements you make, as long as you are young, you will put fifteen days interval between one mission and another. Never undertake to do more than you can. If you have committed an impudence of this kind, revoke any promise that has been too lightly given.
Letter to Jean Baptiste Honorat, 21 February 1828, EO VII n 295
In spite of all that you do, convince yourself that there will always remain much for you to do:
You will see from the preceding that I never change my mind on the question of rest. You feel the need more than when you took it in your head to leave so quickly for Condoulet. In spite of all that you do, convince yourself that there will always remain much for you to do; so it is useless to ruin yourselves, I cannot conceive that by doing yourselves in, you will succeed in doing all there is to be done.
Letter to Jean Baptiste Honorat, 4 March 1828, EO VII n 296
No matter how much good we desire to do, we certainly need to be reminded of working within our limitations over and over again.
“To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” Buddha
25 January 1816 marked the first day of community life for the Missionaries, with the arrival of the first three members. Eugene had bought some of the Carmelite Convent, with an arrangement that the seller, Madame Gontier, could continue using the greater part of the building for her boarding school for girls. In his Memoires, Eugene tells us that she had
… left us narrowly confined to the rooms she had conceded to us. To reach the top-floor apartment, which now serves as a library, we had to use the small staircase leading from the outside of the house; we had great difficulty squeezing into these quarters. Thus, two of our group slept in the room that has now become the library, while I myself slept in the narrow passageway leading to it.
As we had very little furniture in those first days, we set a lamp on the threshold of the connecting door and it served the three of us at bedtime.
The refectory, supposedly temporary, remained poorly furnished for a long time. Our improvised table was merely a plank placed over two barrels which served as legs. The fireplace, where we did our cooking, smoked so badly that it blotted the daylight out of the fox-hole where we ate with great relish the meager portions set before us. This suited the dispositions God had put into our hearts far more than the leisurely meals my mother would have been glad to serve us at her home. We had lost none of our gaiety; on the contrary, since this way of life was such a striking contrast to the one we had just given up, it often provided us with many a hearty laugh.”
Memoires, cited by Rambert, La vie de Monseigneur Charles-Joseph-Eugène de Mazenod, Tome I, p. 177
Here at Oblate School of Theology, in San Antonio, Texas, we are beginning an intense year of preparation for the bicentennial of our Congregation. This year will be an opportunity to look back on our history and achievements with gratitude, and to allow our history of living the charism and spirit of St Eugene to impel us to be even more creative and courageous in being bearers of Gospel light and hope to those who are most in need.
As we recall 25 January 1816, may every member of the Mazenodian family throughout the world re-kindle more deeply that spark that impelled Eugene to transformative action