NURTURED BY AN OPPRESSIVE YEAR OF GLOOMY MONOTONY

In January 1798, the 16 year-old Eugene and his father and uncles arrived in Naples.

My stay in Naples was for me an oppressive year of very gloomy monotony. I did not have my good friends the Zinellis any more, I no longer had a fixed task, relationships suited to my tastes and inclination. I can say I wasted my time there.
What a sad existence for a young man of sixteen, to have nothing to do, no idea what to fill his time with, know no one, be unable to see anything, except the church, where I went to serve my uncle’s Mass! The explanation lies in the sad situation to which so many years of emigration had brought us. The money my mother’s diamonds had furnished us with had to be eked out. Hence, no teacher. I was too young to be left alone in a town like Naples, and my father and uncles had so little curiosity that they left Naples, after a stay of a year, without having seen anything or visited any of its environs.

Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI

This begging letter from the former President de Mazenod (who, a few years before, had had 12 servants in his house in Aix) shows Eugene’s changed situation:

“Your past kindnesses embolden me to expose my situation to you frankly. I have foresworn my country forever. I own nothing… My family is made up of four people, that is, my two brothers… my son and myself. By collecting all we own and by means of the strictest, most rigid frugality, all I have left is enough to provide meager nourishment from now until the end of July. Beyond this into the month of August, we will be faced with nothing and be without any resources whatever. Misery and the most abject destitution are our only prospect.”     Letter of Eugene’s father to the Count d’Antraigues, 9 January 1798, Méjanes Library

Another building brick in the edifice of Eugene’s spirituality: first-hand experience that contributed to his outreach to the poor and to immigrants in later life.

Is my spirituality formed by life experience, or by theories in books?

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“The very greatest things – great thoughts, discoveries, inventions – have usually been nurtured in hardship, often pondered over in sorrow, and at length established with difficulty.”   Samuel Smiles

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I AM NO LONGER A CHILD

The de Mazenod men were forced to abandon Venice in November 1897 and flee to Naples. All that Eugene had learnt from the Zinellis was to be put aside for some years as he discovered other attractions and lifestyles in Naples and Palermo. The foundation laid by Don Bartolo was solid, however, and would form the basis of Eugene’s life once again when he would come to his senses around 10 years later in Aix.

Father Pielorz (The Spiritual Life… p.73) tells us that in Venice “by their example, the teachers imbued their student with a desire to follow them in the vocation to the priesthood…. Unfortunately, this budding vocation was not able to contend with the crisis of youth. It began to fade away in Naples and disappeared during the years 1800-1805 to give way to ambition and the search for worldly glory. Don Bartolo tried to arrest the crisis through his letters, reminding Eugene of his “dispositions” while in Venice and suggesting that he follow him by entering the Society of the Faith. But, in vain! Eugene in his last letter to Don Bartolo, dated November 4, 1801, responded defiantly to his former master:

“I am no longer a child; I have grown to be a man!”

(REY I, p. 44)

When this “man” really grew up, he would change and recognize and rediscover the treasure in his life that Bartolo Zinelli had given him. It was to be the grace of his conversion experience.

So I had looked for happiness outside of God, and outside him I found only disorder and disappointment.

Retreat Journal, December 1814, O.W. XV n.130

Surely the story of each of us on our ongoing conversion struggles.

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“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” -Mark Twain

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HUMAN, CHRISTIAN, SAINT: FROM EXPERIENCE TO CONVICTION AND A WAY OF LIFE

Can I ever thank God sufficiently for getting for me, out of his infinite goodness, help such as this precisely at the most difficult time of life, a decisive time for me, in which were planted by a man of God, in my soul prepared by his skillful hand and the grace of the Holy Spirit whose instrument he was, the fundamentals of religion and piety on which the mercy of God has built the structure of my spiritual life?

Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI

Looking back on the nearly four years that Eugene spent in Venice under the guidance of Don Bartolo, we can recognize many foundations of what would become the spirituality of Eugene de Mazenod – and eventually the foundations of the spirituality of the wider Mazenodian family.

Bartolo Zinelli entered into the situation of Eugene, teaching him that by being close to people and creating a loving environment, people can be transformed. As a companion and guide to this adolescent, he was instrumental in his HUMAN development. In doing so he gave Eugene a model on how to evangelize by entering into the human situation of people and walking with them.

Don Bartolo was “able to rescue this rudderless young boy from Provence from the worldly Venetian milieu with its very low ideals… Eugene found the peaceful atmosphere necessary for his studies and a serious religious and moral formation.” (Pielorz , The Spiritual Life… p.64). Through this, Eugene developed as a CHRISTIAN, and would dedicate his life to awakening or re-awakening people to their dignity as Christians.

By being a spiritual director, Don Bartolo awakened in Eugene a desire to be heroic and to be generous in his relationship with God. He helped Eugene to aim to be a SAINT, and taught him the means to do so.

In his youth ministry in Aix, several years later, Eugene aimed to be another Bartolo Zinelli to the young people. What he had received in his adolescence he wished to communicate to them. In a wider way, the seeds planted and nurtured by Don Bartolo were to bloom in the program and method that Eugene adopted for himself and gave to us in our Rule of Life:

We must lead men to act like human beings, first of all, and then like Christians,
and, finally, we must help them to become saints.

1818 Rule, Part One, Chapter One, §3. Nota Bene.

Here we find the dominant and recurring theme of Mazenodian spirituality: the method to be used to see and respond to the world through the eyes of Christ the Savior.

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“It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”   Muhammad Ali

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INSPIRED BY A MISSIONARY WHO FOUND GOD IN ALL THINGS

I was only twelve years old when God aroused in my heart the first and very efficacious desires to dedicate myself to the mission, to work for the salvation of souls.

Letter to Ambroise Tamburini, EO XI n 1292.

Bishop Jeancard wrote: “While he was still in Venice, shortly after his First Holy Communion, he used to read with avidity Les lettres édifiantes sur les missions de la Chine et du Japon [ed Edifying Letters on the Missions in China and Japan]. . He had a great desire of devoting himself one day to the conversion of the unbelievers.”   (Melanges p.11)

These letters were written by missionaries who were Jesuits, whom Bartolo Zoinelli dreamt of joining. The Jesuits had been disbanded in Europe at this time, and Bartolo and his brother were waiting for the Society to be re-established so as to join them. Inspired by Ignatius of Loyola, they would have communicated his spirit of “finding God in all things” to the impressionable young Eugene. Eugene became a life-long admirer of Ignatius and his methods. It was a heritage he would communicate to his Oblate family.

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“God is not remote from us. God is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle — and my heart and my thoughts”   Teilhard de Chardin S.J.

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FROM ROUTINE TO A WAY OF LIFE

Throughout his life, Eugene’s retreat notes and diaries are filled with programs and timetables for a disciplined spiritual routine. He produced spiritual programs for himself as a priest, missionary and bishop. He produced programs for the youth congregation and for the Missionary Oblates. It was a habit of spiritual routine that he acquired from Don Bartolo Zinelli in Venice.

It was in the school of this holy priest that I learnt to despise worldly vanities, to taste the things of God: far removed from all dissipation, from every contact with young people of my age, I did not even give a thought to what constitutes the object of their desires. I went to confession every Saturday, to communion every Sunday. The reading of good books and prayer were the only distractions I allowed from the careful pursuit of my studies. I heard and served Mass every day, and every day too I recited the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I had derived from my pious reading a certain attraction for mortification, and child as I still was, I made it a rule to fast every Friday, and in Lent on three days in the week; my parents did not notice. I often placed planks under my blankets, and on Saturdays, so as to be more sure of waking early so as to spend more time in church, I slept quite simply on the ground on a simple blanket. My health came to no harm at all from it, and I persevered with this regime for as long as I lived in Venice.

Looking back on this period of his life, he recognized the beginning of his vocation to the priesthood and religious life.

If I have related these facts, it is only to highlight the graces I was blessed with from my earliest childhood, and how deeply I must humble myself for not having derived greater benefit from them. It is from then that I date my vocation to the clerical state, and perhaps to a more perfect state, and certainly if we had stayed only one year more in Venice, I would have followed my saintly director and his brother, now a priest, into the religious Congregation they chose, and in which they both died in the exercise of an heroic zeal.

Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI

It was a desire that vanished when he left Venice, and that the sight of the Cross one Good Friday, nearly a decade later, would re-awaken in him. Similarly, the routine taught to him by Don Bartolo, would be at the basis of his spiritual timetable in later life. “Regularity” is a word we constantly come across in Eugene’s Oblate writings.

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“Routines are normal, natural, healthy things. Most of us take a shower and brush our teeth every day. That is a good routine. Spiritual disciplines are routines. That is a good thing. But once routines become routine you need to change your routine.”   Mark Batterson

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A DOOR OPENING INTO THE FUTURE

On the journey to accompany his mother and sister as they left for France, the diary of the exile narrates two incidents in the 13 year-old Eugene’s life that indicated a future direction.

During this journey, Eugene demonstrated what grace had worked in him. First he provided himself with a large crucifix which he hung around his neck as a sign of his faith and of the public profession of it that he was prepared to make, if needs must be. The occasion presented itself at the first inn where they stopped. Although the crucifix was fastened under Eugene’s waistcoat, it was big enough to be seen; it became a subject of malicious pleasantries on the part of the inn’s servants, but Eugene, far from blushing, replied to these insolent people with a truly Christian courage, something these impious people were not expecting from a child of thirteen.
On arriving at Livorno, the family stopped a few days in that town. When Eugene observed that the house domestic where they resided was extremely ignorant in religious matters, his chief occupation was to explain this woman the catechism, which he did in so interesting a manner that the mistress of the house was pleased to join in and, from what she said, to her great profit. Zeal was one of the distinctive traits of Eugene’s piety, and foreshadowed the ministry he was one day to exercise towards the most abandoned souls.

Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI

Seeds that pointed to an awareness of the Cross and to sharing its Good News with others – on which God was to build a missionary vocation. Each of us is invited to recognize the seeds of our spirituality and life direction in reflecting on some of our spontaneous actions in our youth.

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“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”   Graham Greene

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FROM A BROKEN FAMILY A DEEP APPRECIATION FOR THE IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY

In 1795, Eugene had the opportunity to take a short journey into Tuscany to accompany his mother, whom family interests were summoning back to France. Already the Marchioness de Dons, her sister, had returned with her son; Eugene’s mother would have lost all her rights of inheritance from her father, if she had prolonged her stay abroad. So this sad parting had to take place, she took her daughter with her…
On being separated from his mother and sister, he returned with his father to Venice to go on with his studies and tasks with the Zinellis, with whom he stayed until the time of his family’s departure for Naples.

Eugene’s mother’s family pressurized her to return to France and continued to interfere negatively in her relationship with her husband. In 1802 she legally divorced him.

Eugene’s father was fully, and unsuccessfully, occupied in trying to earn a living in Venice and did not have much time to look after his son. The break-up of Eugene’s family life led him to benefit from the loving environment in the Zinelli family

Four years passed by in this way: the affection of everyone in this very worthy family which had adopted me grew in proportion to the attachment I experienced myself in its regard…
How could I fail to make progress in such a good school? The family in whose bosom I lived was outstandingly Christian, and Don Bartolo, who was chiefly responsible for me, was really canonizable as a saint…

Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI

This event in Eugene’s life was to give an imprint to his life: “losing” his family as an adolescent made him appreciate and value family life for the rest of his adult life: the importance of his relationship with his own family, his desire to create a sense of family among his youth congregation, and his image of the Oblates as being a family. It was one of the seeds that was to influence the development and expression of his spirituality – and ours.

As I reflect on this, I find myself spending time thinking with gratitude of the people who have provided a support system at various moments of loss in my life.

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“And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”   Khalil Gibran

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SPIRITUALITY: MAKING GOD’S DREAM A REALITY

Looking back on his time in Venice, Eugene traced the hand of God constructing his life-direction through others:

Can I ever thank God sufficiently for getting for me, out of his infinite goodness, help such as this precisely at the most difficult time of life, a decisive time for me, in which were planted by a man of God, in my soul prepared by his skillful hand and the grace of the Holy Spirit whose instrument he was, the fundamentals of religion and piety on which the mercy of God has built the structure of my spiritual life?

The method used by Don Bartolo was simple: to provide a loving environment.

From this time on, every day over a period of four years, I went after Mass to be with these most benevolent teachers who put me to work until midday. After lunch, D. Bartolo, whose health required a lot of attention, would come to find me at home to go for a walk, which had in view a visit of some church where were would stop to pray. On our return, I got back to work, which lasted until evening. Some priests got together at that time to say the office in common. Then we would come down to the drawing room, where some family friends entered into some wholesome recreation. We had coffee and went away, except for myself who already in a way formed part of the family, and stayed for supper and to say the rosary and pray with them following the holy custom of that country, that was at that time so good.

Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI

It was in this loving family community that the young adolescent grew and developed. In later years, Father Eugene used this same method of providing a loving community as the environment for the growth of the members of his Aix Youth Congregation. Later it was the spirit he wanted for the Oblate communities.

Reflecting on the experience of the young Eugene, I am led to reflect on some of the events, places and people who contributed to my development. Who and what helped me to discover a dream and to make it a reality?

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“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”    Walt Disney

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THE CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN

Wordsworth’s expression that “the child is father of the man” is the guiding principle of this section of our study of Mazenodian spirituality. In order to understand the spirituality that has come to us through Saint Eugene, it is necessary to understand its seeds in his early development.

After his time at the College of Nobles in Turin, the 11 year-old Eugene and his family had to flee to Venice, losing many of their possessions in the process. The three and a half years he spent in Venice were to produce significant formative moments in his growth and spiritual development.

The pastor of the parish, realizing that the family could not afford to send Eugene to school, and aware of the dangers that boredom could lead to in the energetic adolescent, arranged a “chance meeting” with a young priest who lived opposite the de Mazenod’s. Father (”Don” in Italian) Bartolo Zinelli. Eugene tells us the story:

One day I was amusing myself at the window that gave on to the house of the Zinelli family opposite. Don Bartolo appeared on his side, and addressing me said: “Master Eugene, aren’t you afraid of wasting your time in idleness in this way at the window?” – “Alas, sir, I replied, it is indeed a pity, but what can I do? You know I am a foreigner, and I haven’t any books at my disposition.” That was the opening he wanted: “That’s no problem, my dear child, you see me here actually in my library, where there are many books in Latin, Italian, French even, if you want them.”
“There is nothing I would like better”, I answered. Immediately D. Bartolo undid the bar that held the shutters of the window, and placing on it a book, passed it over to me across the little street that separated us. The book was soon read, for I was always an avid reader, and next day my father advised me to go and take it back and thank D. Bartolo. This was all planned.Bartolo received me with the greatest kindness; he gave me the run of his library, and from there I had access to the study where he studied around a large table with his brother, D. Pietro, who was still only a deacon. “All our books are at your disposition”, D. Bartolo told me. Then he added: “This is where my brother and I study: you see over there the place that was occupied by one of my brothers whom God in his goodness has called to himself. If you would like to take his place, you have only to say the word, it will be a real pleasure for us to have you continue with your studies, which clearly you have not yet finished.” You can imagine my surprise and joy. “I shall be overjoyed, sir, and my father will happily give his consent.” – “Very well, come from tomorrow, and we will make a beginning.” … From this time on, every day over a period of four years, I went after Mass to be with these most benevolent teachers

Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI

Father Bartolo was to be one of the most important formators in Eugene’s life.

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As we look at Eugene, it is not with the eye of a storyteller, but with the question of how God worked through the events and people in his life – and to allow ourselves to be questioned by this in our own lives. For me the invitation is to recall some of the significant moments with people who made a difference in my early life – and to reflect on how God acted through them for me, and to give thanks.

 

“Just as the child is father to the man, so the impressions of one’s youth remain the most vivid in manhood.”   Gustav Stresemann

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SPIRITUALITY IS OUR CHRISTIAN LIVING AS GUIDED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT

Continuing the narrative of his time at school in Turin, Eugene speaks about receiving the sacrament of confirmation.

The treatment was prolonged, so much so that the time for the general confirmation having arrived, there was a fear that Eugene would not be able to take part. His Eminence Cardinal Archbishop Costa, Archbishop of Turin, had the goodness to suggest confirming him in private. But it proved unnecessary to have resort to this kindness, and the child was confirmed with all the others on Trinity Sunday 1792, in the tiny church adjacent to the Archbishop’s palace.
Eugene’s attraction to piety sustained him throughout the time he spent in the college. It showed itself in the pleasure he always showed for religious ceremonies.

Diary of the Exile in Italy, EO XVI p. 30

Again, the brief narrative hides the richness behind this event. After his episcopal ordination Bishop Eugene constantly celebrated the sacrament of confirmation and regularly reflected on his experience and its meaning. One example:

What need has one of tongues of fire to see, in some way, the presence of the Holy Spirit? On these occasions, his presence for me is palpable and I am so imbued with the Spirit that I cannot hide my emotion. I have to do violence to myself not to shed tears of joy, and, in spite of my efforts, often tears I cannot withhold betray the sentiment which animates me and fills me to overflowing in the full sense of the word!

Diary, 18 February 1844, EO XXI (not yet published in English)

What fruits has my confirmation produced in my life?

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“My spirituality is my Christian living as guided by the Holy Spirit….Each [spirituality] is a living out of the Christian life under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, through the gifts the indwelling spirit produces in us for our own personal sanctification and our contribution to the life of the community.”   Walter Burghardt, S.J

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