What a ravishing ceremony for Christians, how the heart was bursting, what joy as one joined with the whole Church of heaven and earth to celebrate the glorious Resurrection of Our Saviour.
 After journeying with him through the sad event of his Passion, after weeping over the torments that our sins made him endure, how consoling it is to see him rise triumphant over death and hell, and what gratitude must fill our hearts at the thought that this good Master has really willed to make us sharers in his resurrection, destroying the sin that is in us and giving us a new life.
That day we spent a good twelve hours in Church, I would not have wanted it to be a minute less. It was like being in heaven; so what are the joy and happiness we experience in that blessed homeland going to be like?

Letter to his mother, 4 April 1809, EO XIV n 50

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Can I forget the bitter tears that the sight of the cross brought streaming from my eyes one Good Friday?

“Can I forget … the sight of the cross?” asks Eugene, and the peace that flowed into his life as a result.

Never was my soul more satisfied, never did it feel such happiness; for in the midst of this flood of tears, despite my grief, or rather through my grief, my soul took wings for its last end, towards God its only good whose loss it felt so keenly.

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

In 2014 Pope Francis gave a homily at the Easter Vigil ceremony concentrating on the message of the Risen Christ to the first witnesses of the Resurrection: “Go back to Galilee.” Galilee is the place where it all began for the disciples, and now after the death and resurrection of Jesus, they are asked to return there, but with new eyes. Pope Francis puts it this way: “To return to Galilee means to re-read everything on the basis of the cross and its victory.” It describes the Good Friday realization of Eugene that the only focus for making sense of his life had to be the cross and its victory.

Pope Francis then reminded us that each of us has our own personal Galilee and, in this way for me, captures the meaning of Eugene’s conversion experience, and the invitation this holds for each member of the Mazenodian family:

“In the life of every Christian, after baptism there is also a more existential Galilee: the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission. In this sense, returning to Galilee means treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy and asked me to follow him. It means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me.”

For Eugene, Good Friday was the culmination of a labored conversion journey – the moment of realization that from the cross Jesus was gazing at him with mercy and asking him to follow him. It was the moment when the eyes of the Savior met the eyes of Eugene, the moment when he made Eugene understand that he loved him. From that moment onwards, and until his eyes opened to eternal life in 1861, their eyes and love never parted. It is because of this that we understand why the Oblate cross became the focal point of Eugene’s life and mission and why it is the only focal point that makes sense to the Oblates and to all who live the charism of Eugene.

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… we pronounced our vows with an indescribable joy. We savoured our happiness throughout this beautiful night, in the presence of Our Lord, at the foot of the magnificent throne where we had placed Him for the Mass of the Pre-sanctified the following day.. 

Rambert I, p. 187

Reading Eugene’s description of the Holy Thursday night of their vows one is able to sense the beauty of the gesture of oblation and its importance for him. As he speaks of the joy and the hours spent savoring the depth of the moment, it is an experience of intimacy with Jesus in his Eucharistic presence that he refers to in other writings. In 1830 for example he wrote to Henri Tempier:

This morning, before communion, I dared to speak to this good Master with the same freedom that I would have had if I had had the happiness to live when he walked on earth, and if I had found myself in the same predicament. I said Mass in a particular chapel, I was not impeded by anyone’s presence. I exposed to him our needs, asked his light and his assistance, and then I surrendered myself entirely to him, wishing absolutely nothing else than his holy will. I took communion in this disposition. As soon as I had taken the precious blood, it was impossible for me to withstand such an abundance of interior consolations…

Letter to Henri Tempier, 23 August 1830, O.W. VII n. 359

Meditating on the first Holy Thursday celebration of the Missionaries makes me think of the prayer of Jesus at the last supper where he invited the apostles to communion with his Father: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26) In the spirit of Jesus’ promise on the first Holy Thursday in Jerusalem: “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (John 16:24) – we can understand something of the fullness of joy experienced on Holy Thursday 1816 in Aix en Provence, which can be ours today.

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Briefly put. Father Tempier and I felt that we should not delay any longer, and on Holy Thursday (April 11, 1816), when both of us had taken our place under the structure of the beautiful repository we had erected over the main altar of the Mission church, in the night of that holy day, we pronounced our vows with an indescribable joy. We enjoyed our happiness throughout this beautiful night, in the presence of Our Lord, at the foot of the magnificent throne where we had placed Him for the Mass of the Pre-sanctified the following day.

Rambert I, p. 187

Eugene and Henri Tempier, being like –minded on the necessity for a formal commitment to God and to each other for the sake of mission, made private vows. Eugene does not tell us the precise content of these vows but it seems, from the context and from later events, that they were focused on obedience to God and to each other in the pursuit of living everyday life in communion with God.

Eugene’s description of the context is important. It is Holy Thursday and the time of prayer at the “Altar of Repose” (where the Eucharist is kept for distribution at the Good Friday service, which was known as the “Mass of the Pre-sanctified” at that time). This time of reflection recalled the time Jesus spent in the Garden of Gethsemane at prayer while struggling to live the events taking place in full communion with the Father at that moment. The “not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36) of Jesus to the Father became the commitment to the “not what I want, but what you want” of Eugene and Henri Tempier to the Father – and consequently the key to understanding the meaning of oblation.

During this Holy Week, may each of us be able to say in a deeper way: “not what I want, but what You want.”

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As we look with shock and sadness at the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, we give thanks for the generosity of so many who have come forward with generous pledges of cash to rebuild and restore this heritage site, and to put into focus all that this building signifies.

Would it not be an even more wonderful gesture if for every Euro pledged, an equal amount could be given for the welfare of the living “temples of God” – the poor and most abandoned?

We recall the words of Saint Eugene de Mazenod in his first recorded sermon to the poor of Aix en Provence:

let your eyes see for once beneath the rags that cover you, there is within you an immortal soul made in the image of God whom it is destined to possess one day, a soul ransomed at the price of the blood of Jesus Christ, more precious in the eyes of God than all earth’s riches, than all the kingdoms of the earth, a soul of which he is more jealous than of the government of the entire universe.

Notes for the first instruction in the Church of the Madeleine  EO XV n. 114

How powerful it could be if the restoration of this priceless treasure could become a monument not only to its religious, historic and artistic significance, but also a monument to the generosity of millions who have given an equal amount to renovate the dignity and livelihood of the poor and abandoned – created in the image and likeness of God and in whom we are invited to bring to life the Gospel promise: “Whatsoever you do to one of the least of these, you do it to me.”

A foolish naive dream? Or is there someone out there capable of making this happen?

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After his unhappy experience of the Holy Thursday liturgy at the Royal Palace he wrote to his community that he was united with them

when, for consolation, I took myself in spirit to that room that truly resembles the Cenacle where the disciples, prepared by the lessons they constantly receive in the Society, imbued with the spirit of the Savior who lives in them,
gather in the name of their Master to represent the apostles of whom Jesus Christ could say vos mundi estis [ed John 13,10 ”and you are clean”],
and wait silently and devoutly for the representative of the Master amongst them, at the word of commandment of the Lord, mandatum [ed. the command to love one another], to kneel at their feet,
washing and touching these feet blessed and commanded several thousand years previously by the prophet so as to be feet of evangelizers of good [ed. Isaiah 52,7 “How beautiful are the feet of the messenger who brings good news”], of preachers of peace,
touching, I say, respectfully his lips to these feet whereupon flames dart from his heart and envelope it as from a fount of living water which refreshes and spurts forth wherever eyes are turned.
What emotion! What sentiments! What fervor!

Letter to Hippolyte Courtès, 27 March 1823, EO VI n 98

In this poetic way Eugene describes once again the model of Jesus in the midst of his disciples to form them, to teach them in word and action, and then fill them with zeal to go out and be his missionaries. During this Holy Week, we are invited to the Upper Room of our lives to be formed in a special way through our participation in the Paschal Mystery.

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Eugene had made his first communion on Holy Thursday at the College of Nobles in Turin. It was always an important moment for him to recall the joy of this important event.

Antoine Ricard, who had been a diocesan seminarian in Marseille, showed this:

One Holy Thursday – as I personally recall – we were in the Cathedral of Marseille. The bishop (Eugene de Mazenod) was officiating with the gentle dignity and recollection that made him renowned among all the bishops, his contemporaries. Unexpectedly we saw him cry and, while trying, he could not conceal it. The seminarians who surrounded the bishop’s throne, struck by the emotion of the Bishop, were moved as they looked at him. He noticed this, and turning to one of them, the author of these lines, whose short-sightedness made his staring more obvious:
Young man,” he said with that simplicity that made him win hearts, “do not be startled like that – today is the anniversary of my first communion.”

Mgr Antoine RICARD, “Monseigneur de Mazenod, évêque de Marseille, fondateur de la Congrégation des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée,” p. 12.

As we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, perhaps we could make this the opportunity to recall our own first communion with joy and thanksgiving.

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As the novices prepare for their first retreat, it is in the light of the Rule that their vocation has to be presented. The house superior was to be the retreat preacher.

What I want is that in retreat talks, especially in the novitiate, there should be frequent and textual citation of the words of our Rules, both to form the attitude of respect that each of us owes them and for there to be a clear understanding that that is the code that lays down our duties.
It is the first general retreat in which our new men have participated, it is important that it should make a big impression on them: make it your concern to achieve this happy result.

Letter to Hippolyte Courtès, 21 October 1834, EO VIII n 494

Eugene repeats this important prescription to the novice master too:

…I have written to Father Courtès that I want the one who gives the talks to base himself largely on the text of our Rules which he is to cite as the Code of the Congregation. This method builds up respect for these Rules and is a better way of inculcating the precepts contained in them.

Letter to Casimir Aubert, 21 October 1834, EO VIII n. 495

The Constitutions and Rules remain for all of us today the light which guides our Mazenodian vocation in whichever state of life we are called to live it.

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Being the one ultimately responsible for the spirit and mission of the Oblates and for the welfare of each one, Eugene, as Superior General,  had vetted two of the young men who wanted to enter the novitiate and become Oblates. He wrote to the novice master, Casimir Aubert, to give his impressions and warnings.

… I happened to be at Calvaire when the two Italians arrived there. After a long conversation with them, I came to the conclusion that the one lacked the capacity while the other was lacking in virtue. Father Albini, in whose hands I left them, is sending them on to you for you to make a definitive judgment. I don’t want you to have the wool pulled over your eyes, which is why I am writing again this evening. In the first place I see no possibility of admitting the one who is sub-standard in intelligence. He did very badly in school, he was sent away from the Jesuit college for the precise reason that he did not succeed in his studies. It is some teacher in the town who pushed him through his studies in double quick time. What is more he expresses himself with great difficulty. I don’t think he is cut out for us.
The other one has a bad appearance, a crooked smile, a fastidiousness about his grooming that makes one suppose he thinks he is an attractive young man. I don’t think he has the least idea about the religious virtues and it could well be has come for some ulterior motive…
In short, it seems to me it would take a miracle for him to acquire the religious virtues and it would worry me a lot to introduce to the novitiate a young man infected with vice, especially when he shows not the least sign of religious fervour, in case it should prove harmful to men who have a real need of good example.

After all these warnings, Eugene advised:

Even so, I am not making a definite pronouncement for his exclusion. If you think you have the courage to set about his conversion, trusting in a miracle, you are free to try, but be on your guard, don’t deceive yourself, and above all exclude any idea of admitting him [ed to become a novice] before he has had an intensive trial for one month.

Letter to Casimir Aubert, 2-3 October 1834, EO VIII n. 487

Nothing upsets me more than having to send anyone away after the ceremonies of entry into the novitiate. Why not give ourselves enough time to form a reasonable judgment on them? In this case it is clear that the young man in question cannot be admitted.

Letter to Hippolyte Courtès, 30 November 1834, EO VIII n 496

Thus Fr Aubert did not have to trust in miracles!

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The novitiate year, at that time the first step in the process of becoming an Oblate, had been transferred to the house of Aix. The newly-appointed novice master was the 24 year-old Casimir Aubert. In this regard, Eugene wrote to the superior of the house, Father Courtès, to give him advice:

I urge you to keep an eye on the novice-master’s health; being very young and consulting his zeal more than his strength, he could easily ruin his constitution, which is not strong.

He also reminded the superior  to never lose sight of the role of the novice master:

The master of novices must give himself fully to his task. Consequently, he must never be diverted from his usual occupations concerning the novices whom he must, so to speak, gather under his wings as the hen gathers her young under her wings.

Because of the importance of the novitiate process, Eugene has to be a part of the process:

No one will ever be admitted to the novitiate without prior notice to me. At least once a month I will receive a report on everything. In case of doubt on anything, I will be consulted.

Letter to Hippolyte Courtès, October 2 and 3, 1834, EO VIII n 486

Almost two centuries later the process continues, not only for those who want to be religious missionaries, but for many laity who wish to follow the charism and mission of St Eugene as Associate members of the Mazenodian family. A suitable time of discernment, formation and preparation is essential for all before a commitment is made.

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