ALL WHO HAVE EXERCISED THE SAME MINISTRY AS YOURSELF HAVE KNOWN THE SAME ANGUISH

Jean Baptiste Mille was 31 years old and had been ordained for 18 months – and here he was in Billens as superior of the scholasticate and novice master. Because of the political events in France, Eugene had had no choice but to entrust this responsibility on him. No wonder that he experiences anguish at the formation task that he must accomplish in the lives of those entrusted to him d=for such a brief time of formation.

Far from finding long the short period of time devoted to preparation, it must be confessed that it is not ample enough for the purpose of divesting oneself of what remains of the old man, of adorning one’s soul with the many virtues we lack and thus disposing ourselves to make to God an offering as little unworthy of him as possible.

Eugene gives him fatherly consolation and advice:

 So preach humility and distrust of self and inspire a great longing for perfection, cost what it may to our nature to achieve it. It is a work of patience and one all too often seasoned with sorrows that is imposed on you. That does not matter, you have obedience to facilitate a task that would be very burdensome if you were left to your own natural resources.
Overcome evil with good; never lose courage; all who have exercised the same ministry as yourself have known the same anguish.
Ask God to enlighten you, ponder carefully all that depends on you for success, and then entrust yourself with untroubled heart and without anxiety to divine providence which will not let those who rest their hope on it be abandoned.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 3 November 1831, EO VIII n 406

Beautiful words for all those who are entrusted with the development of the young: parents, teachers, formators, spiritual directors, pastors… “entrust yourself with untroubled heart and without anxiety to divine providence which will not let those who rest their hope on it be abandoned.”

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ROOM MUST BE MADE FOR THE LORD TO WORK IN

I am annoyed that Bernard is not more sensible of the value of the life and exercises of the novitiate. Lest he be deceived, it is there that is being laid the foundation of all the good he is being called to do.

Jean Bernard’s initial lack of cooperation as a novice soon changed and he did indeed lay the foundation of an outstanding missionary life. Or rather, he allowed God to buid the foundation according to theh process described by Eugene:

One must begin with self-renunciation; room must be made for the Lord to work in. Our clay is no good to serve as the building’s foundation. Abnegation, humility, and finally holy detachment as to all that God can ask of us, and which he makes known to us through superiors, here is the treasure hidden in the solitude of the novitiate. My God! how badly one knows oneself if one hopes to do anything without that! The most lively zeal will bring forth nothing but the vanity of pride.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 3 November 1831, EO VIII n 406

“Our clay is no good to serve as the building’s foundation” – we need to let go and let God do the building

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SHAKY BEGINNINGS TO A FRUITFUL MINISTRY

Father Mille, in charge of the formation of future Oblates in Switzerland, had written to Eugene complaining about one of his novices, Jean-Antoine Bernard. Eugene responded: 

I am annoyed that Bernard is not more sensible of the value of the life and exercises of the novitiate. Lest he be deceived, it is there that is being laid the foundation of all the good he is being called to do.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 3 November 1831, EO VIII n 406

A shaky beginning to the Oblate life of one who was to become a zealous missionary who brought countelss people to encounter the loving mercy of God and the maternal blessings of Mary in Marseilles. The Shrine of Notre Dame de la Garde (Our Lady who Protects), which dominates the skyline of Marseilles and the harbor, became the source of fruitful mission thanks to him. Yvon Beaudoin writes about him:

Father Bernard contributed a great deal to making of Notre-Dame de la Garde a pilgrimage site worthy of Marseilles, first of all by spiritual renewal. Bishop Jeancard wrote: “He was known throughout the city and throughout the diocese. Along with his confreres, he had evangelized all the suburban parishes and, everywhere he preached, by building up the people’s trust, he had contributed in a powerful way to instilling in them that religious spirit that for a long time characterized them in a remarkable way. As a result, he was strategically placed in the shrine where it seemed his strength redoubled in the measure that he dedicated himself more keenly to all the shrine concerns. Indeed, one would be at a loss to find words to describe with what untiring zeal he dedicated himself ever more to encouraging the growth of devotion to Notre-Dame de la Garde. Whether he exercised his ministry in the chapel where he preached from time to time or whether he came to the city several days a week to hear confessions, his thoughts always turned toward the holy hill. To save souls by devotion to the Good Mother was an instinct that never left him…” (https://www.omiworld.org/lemma/bernard-jean-antoine/ for more details)

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SOME GLIMPSES INTO THE BEAUTY OF OUR CALL

Eugene wrote: “But for us, our principal end, I would almost say our only end, is the self-same end that Jesus Christ proposed to himself on coming into the world, the self-same end that he gave to the Apostles, to whom, without any doubt, he taught the most perfect way… Let me delineate some of the features that emerge of the image of high perfection required of us by our Rules:” 

Priests … solidly grounded in virtue … deeply conscious of the need to reform themselves … striving seriously to be saints … seeking at all times to reach the very summit of perfection. They must walk courageously along the same paths trodden before them by so many apostolic laborers for the Gospel … who… handed on such splendid examples of virtue…
 
The missionaries will try to bring back to life in their own lives the piety and fervor of these holy religious orders; they will strive to replace the virtues [as well as the ministries], and the most holy customs of the regular life which were kept by them, such as the practice of the evangelical counsels, love of solitude, contempt for worldly honors, withdrawal from frivolities, abhorrence of riches, practice of mortification, the public recitation of the divine office. If anyone wishes to be one of us, he must have an ardent desire for his own perfection.
 
It has already been said that the missionaries ought, as far as human nature allows, to imitate in everything the example of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the chief founder of our Society, and that of his Apostles-our first fathers.
 
We will meditate on the virtues of our Lord Jesus Christ, for these should be exemplified in the life of our members. Every month they will choose one particular virtue that they will endeavor to practice with ever-increasing fidelity.
 
They will … spread abroad everywhere the fragrance of his lovable virtues.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 3 November 1831, EO VIII n 406

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THERE IS NOTHING ON EARTH HIGHER THAN OUR VOCATION

What an assertion for Eugene to make at the end of his retreat! Quite some trumpet-blowing! We are the best!

I re-read our Rule during my annual retreat, in a profound spirit of recollection, and I remained convinced that we are, of all men, the least worthy of heaven’s favors, if we are not penetrated with a gratitude that would inspire us to the point of heroism for the favor that God has done us. There is nothing on earth higher than our vocation. Amongst religious. some are called to one good work, others to another; some are destined, be it indirectly, to the same end as ourselves.

There is nothing swollen-headed about this, however, because our vocation is exactly the same as the vocation of Jesus when he began his public ministry:

But for us, our principal end, I would almost say our only end, is the self-same end that Jesus Christ proposed to himself on coming into the world, the self-same end that he gave to the Apostles, to whom, without any doubt, he taught the most perfect way. And so our humble society knows no other founder than Jesus Christ, who spoke through the mouth of his Vicar [ed. The Pope who gave approbation to the Oblates, and who recognized the God-given charism of their origins], and no other Fathers than the Apostles. It is stated unmistakably. Let me delineate some of the features that emerge of the image of high perfection required of us by our Rules.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 3 November 1831, EO VIII n 406

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OBLATES WHO ARE NOT IGNORANT OF THESE THINGS AND SEEM TO DESPISE THEM

 I leave my room to take myself to the cathedral for divine service. Gladly indeed would I prolong still further my period of solitude, but St. Peter too would very gladly have remained on Mount Tabor. He was told as we are that one must come down from the mountain. Rest is neither due nor granted to us this side of heaven.
Eugene portrayed his retreat of Rule-focused prayer as being on Mount Tabor – a transfiguration experience in the presence of his beloved Savior. We have seen how the more he meditated on the Rule, the more amazed and moved he became at the beauty of his Oblate vocation. In the midst of that awe, he was reminded of members of his Congregation who almost seemed to scorn the beauty of their vocation and see their missionary work as a career and not a call.

Happily your last letter reached me at a point during my retreat when by God’s grace I had reached the state of detachment one has to have if one is not to lose one’s peace of mind amidst the contradictions and difficulties of life, and yet it seems to me that my indignation has grown against men who, called to perfection and enriched by the divine bounty with the most efficacious means to achieve it, do not respond to their call.
I have nothing but compassion for poor sinners, for errant men who have never seen the light except from afar, who do not know God and in consequence have no idea of the delight and happiness that there is in his service, in loving him, in devotion to him, in consecrating one’s existence to him, but for those who are not ignorant of these things and seem to despise them, it is only by taking time to deliberate that I can bring myself to endure their ingratitude and folly.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 3 November 1831, EO VIII n 406

Harsh words! A wake -up call to us not to make of our ministry a job to be done, a career to accomplish, but to see the use of our talents as a call – and to rediscover our awe at the beauty of our vocation.

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IN JESUS CHRIST, OUR COMMON CENTRE WHERE ALL OUR HEARTS BECOME AS ONE

The practice of “oraison” that was important for Eugene is illustrated in this beautiful text:

We should often come together like this, in Jesus Christ, our common center where all our hearts become as one and our affections are brought to fulfilment.

Although physically separated from his Oblate brothers, Eugene always practiced the prayer of “oraison” – of being united with them in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus Christ. Each day when he prayed in his chapel, he was united with his brothers, wherever they were.

Dear friends, this is my bouquet for this beautiful feast day.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 1 November 1831, EO VIII n 406

What a beautiful tradition Eugene has left us! We can be present with our loved ones in the presence of Jesus who makes us one, despite geographical distance. This is the true meaning of Eugene’s “oraison.”

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OBLATION: LEAVING CHILDHOOD BEHIND FOR THE FULLNESS OF CHRIST

On the Feast of All Saints, Eugene’s thoughts were with Pierre Aubert, who was making his lifetime oblation to God through pronouncing vows for life.

This kiss of peace and all the graces of the communion of saints went forth far and wide and reached as far as yourselves. I have no doubt, as the sacrifice [ed. the Mass] from which they flow was offered for you as for those present.
My joyful thoughts reached all the way to Pierre, our Benjamin, the youngest member of our family, who must this day leave childhood behind and grow up to the measure of the perfect man.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 1 November 1831, EO VIII n 406 

When he says “the perfect man” Eugene refers to Ephesians 4:13 “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” This is the goal of the Oblate initial and ongoing formation process.

Pierre Aubert went on to live his oblation as a great missionary in Canada.

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PRESENT IN EACH OTHER’S THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

We have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the private retreat in which Eugene meditated on the Constitutions and Rules. Now it is back to everyday life for him – and his concerns as the superior for his religious family.

To give you tangible proof of my good will. I cannot bring my retreat to an end without writing you at least a few lines.
From this you see, my dear ones, that you are first in my thoughts on my descent from the holy mountain where, in conformity with the Rule and following the counsel of our divine Master. I have just “quiescere pusillum” [ed. Mark 6:31 “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place”.]
I must even admit that I have not waited for the end of my retreat to turn my thoughts in your direction. On many occasions you were in my thoughts and not by way of distraction.

Praying for the members of his religious family was always an integral part of his daily prayer. He wrote this letter on November 1, All Saints Day, the day in which the Oblates renewed their oblation – and on which new members of the family professed their first vows. Eugene gives thanks for the great gift of the Oblate vocation:

This morning as on others, in the deep silence of the pre-dawn celebration of the sacred mysteries in the seminary chapel, you were there in my thoughts to swell the number of the fervent disciples who had anticipated the break of day to give thanks to God for the great gift that has not been accorded to all.

Letter to Jean Baptiste Mille and to the Fathers and Brothers at Billens, 1 November 1831, EO VIII n 406

Today, all of us are invited to give thanks for the gift of our baptismal vocation and to remember that, as members of the Mazenodian Family, we are united in living and expressing our vocation.

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EUGENE AND THE RESURRECTION: DESIRING THAT THOSE IN WHOM HE CONTINUES TO SUFFER WILL KNOW ALSO THE POWER OF HIS RESURRECTION

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. Phil 3: 10).

CC&RR, Constitution 4

From his earliest preaching Eugene constantly invited the poor to understand the transforming invitation of the resurrection in their lives.

Come now and learn from us what you are in the eyes of faith.
Poor of Jesus Christ, afflicted, wretched, suffering, sick, covered with sores, etc., all you whom misery oppresses, my brothers, dear brothers, respected brothers, listen to me.
You are God’s children, the brothers of Jesus Christ, heirs to his eternal kingdom, chosen portion of his inheritance; you are, in the words of St. Peter, a holy nation, you are kings, you are priests, you are in some way gods, You are gods, children of the Most High.
So lift up your spirits, that your defeated souls may breathe, grovel no longer on the ground: You are gods, children of the Most High. (Ps. 81:6).
Lift yourselves towards heaven where your minds should be set, our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), 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.
Christians, know then your dignity, with St. Leo I will call you sharers in the divine nature,

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

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