On the eve of engaging myself in a great commitment for the rest of my days, I enter into myself…

Thus begins Eugene’s journal for the day prayer in preparation for the oblation for life he was to make as a religious with vows.

As he enters into self-evaluation he touches on the constant theme of his retreats during these past years: his lack of focus as a result of being over-extended in his commitments and activities.

On the eve of engaging myself in a great commitment for the rest of my days, I enter into myself to humble myself before God for the small progress I have made in the ways of perfection, bitterly to lament the difficulty I am experiencing in getting out of the habitual state of being lukewarm that I have fallen into since my duty has obliged me to focus my attention on others and I have been almost entirely forgetful of myself.

Day’s Retreat, during th community retreat, 30 October 1818,
EO XV n. 148

He finds himself lukewarm in the light of the fiery ideals expressed at the previous highpoints of his life – always linked with the grace to want to be totally centered on God.

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The annual retreat of the whole group lasted several days more after the General Chapter meeting, and became a preparation for the step of making their oblation on 1 November 1818.

The retreat conferences, given by the Superior-General himself, completed this rapprochement of minds and hearts. His appeals for total self-sacrifice were stirring and effective. He begged the retreatants to make the same decisions they would favor were they at the hour of death and about to appear before the Supreme Judge. Maunier and Mie then decided to follow the majority and pronounce their perpetual vows. Aubert asked to be allowed to take only temporary vows; Deblieu no longer refused outright but requested a year’s grace to give himself time to reflect; in 1819, he, too, made his religious profession like the others…

This clever apportioning of positions meant at one and the same time approving Eugene de Mazenod’s firm determination to make his plan for the religious life prevail and proving to those who had opposed it that they still enjoyed everyone’s esteem. Certainly they must have been deeply affected by such delicate thoughtfulness.

Leflon 2, p. 168 – 169

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Basing himself on the official Acts of the Chapter and on the Memoires of Mariusz Suzanne, Rey describes the events:

On Monday 26 October was held a second session of the First General Chapter of the Society of Missionaries of Provence.

“Having gathered the priests of the community, the Founder suggested they proceed with the election of office bearers in the manner prescribed by the Statutes approved by them and to admit to this end the three in formation who had already taken part in their deliberations and who wished to engage themselves in that which they had been a part of drawing up. This was agreed upon and, after invoking the illumination of the Holy Spirit and calling on the protection of the Blessed Virgin, all the members present proceeded to vote for the appointment of those who were to be in charge of the Society.

There were seven priests present: the V. Rev. Fr. de Mazenod, Founder and Superior; Rev. Fr. Tempier, the first disciple and companion of Father de Mazenod, the Fathers Deblieu, Mie, Maunier, Marius Aubert and Moreau; plus the three novice students, Brothers Courtès, Suzanne and Dupuy.

All the members making up this assembly unanimously begged Father de Mazenod to kindly continue to hold office as Superior General of the Society. Then to manifest to Fr. Deblieu the affection that all had for him, despite his refusal to commit themselves by the vows, he was appointed, almost unanimously, as First Assistant and Admonitor to the Superior General. Fr. Maunier was appointed Second Assistant and Secretary General, Fr. Tempier, Third Assistant, Fr. Mie, Fourth Assistant and Fr. Courtès, Procurator General of the Society.”

Rey 1, p. 233

Our Rule of Life today reflects these beginnings:

United as brothers in one apostolic community, we are all equal before God our Father who distributes charisms and ministries so that we can serve his Church and its mission. Our organizational structures, accordingly, are set up in function of that mission.

Following the guidelines of the Constitutions and Rules, those in authority will make sure that the structures are flexible enough to evolve with our lived experience.

CC&RR Constitution 72

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In all justice to Eugene, we would do him a disservice if we saw his action of bringing the scholastics to vote as a devious ploy to get his own way. The decision that was made with their help proved to be the correct one, and all the Missionaries were to appreciate and accept this way of thinking.

What Eugene had done was to set the ideal for the future and the condition for all future entries: to become a Missionary one became a religious in vows. For his companions who had not joined with that idea, he gave them the freedom to continue as they were if they so wished. He did not force them to change. Leflon continues his reflection:

This debatable intervention could easily have caused the Fathers who had been put into a minority to adopt a cool attitude toward the Founder who had instigated that intervention in order to assure success and toward the simple acolytes who had reversed the situation in the Founder’s favor. The truth of the matter is that everything was arranged for the best. The elections to the positions prescribed by the statutes gave instant proof that in spite of the momentary dissension, unity and charity still prevailed. Acting as a constituted society, gathered in General Chapter according to the terms of the Rule which had just been accepted…

Leflon 2, p. 168

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This was the only time in the history of the Missionary Oblates when men who were not in life-long commitment (perpetual vows) participated fully in a General Chapter, with the right to vote.

Just how proper was the procedure on that occasion? The Acts of the first general Chapter which Suzanne drew up eight years later in 1826, admit that this session of the Chapter was “the only one at which unordained members were present.” However, as it was noted in the Acts, the Constitutions had not as yet come into force. Furthermore, it was declared only just that the three scholastic brothers, who were full-fledged members of the Institute should have the right to express their opinion at a moment when a decision of the greatest importance was being made, since it affected not only the future of the whole Society, but their individual futures as well.

The fact still remains, nonetheless, that on this occasion they had played a deciding role, and that their opinion won out over that of the Fathers.

Leflon 2, p. 167 – 168

Today we continue to be defined by this decision:

We come together in apostolic communities of priests and Brothers, united to God by the vows of religion. Cooperating with the Saviour and imitating his example, we commit ourselves principally to evangelizing the poor.

CC&RR, Constitution 1

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The future of the Missionaries hung in the balance. Eugene was convinced that the direction for the growth of the Society could only be via the route of religious life and professing the evangelical counsels by making vows. Four of the seven priests did not agree with him on this radical step. It is here that Eugene resorted to consulting the three young men in formation, the direction of whose lives would be affected by this decision. Leflon describes the scene:

It was at that crucial moment that the Founder went into action. Having failed to win over the opposition with arguments and entreaties, he now resorted to more forceful measures. Under guise of explaining the Constitutions to the three scholastics in minor orders, who were full-fledged members of the Society, he summoned Brothers Dupuy, Courtès and Suzanne to the Council, knowing that they wholeheartedly favored his plan to change over to the religious state. None of the three failed him.

After “hearing the Rule read, they unanimously agreed to accept it and assured the Founder, as they had already done privately that they approved the proposed vows.” So states the official record. [ed. Actes du premier Chapitre général, octobre 24, 1818. A.G.R. Registre des Délibérations des Chapitres généraux de la Société des Missionnaires de Provence]

If, as Suzanne assures us, Father de Mazenod wanted to prove by this maneuver that these commitments were not frightening to the other members of the community, and that he hoped thereby to bring about a general adhesion, the experiment must have failed, for, in order to reverse the majority, he had to go still further by giving each of the three scholastics a deliberative vote. Thanks to these added votes, the contested articles were passed by the thin margin of 6 to 4.

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Eugene used the annual retreat of the Missionaries as the opportunity to present to them the Rule that he had compiled. The retreat extended from October 23 to 31, 1818. As the events of this retreat, and of our first General Chapter, are an important step in the development of the identity of the Oblates, I will present them in some detail, and let some of the biographers of this period tell us the story.

All members of the small Society being assembled, Fr. de Mazenod, communicated the proposed Rules and Constitutions to them. He made this reading coincide with the exercises of the annual retreat which usually began on October 23. Every day he read the six priests of the Institute a part of his manuscript and commenting and explaining it article by article

Rey I, p 233. quoting the “Diary” of Marius Suzanne

Leflon continues the story:

The six priests, Fathers Tempier, Mye, Moreau, Deblieu, Maunier and Aubert, accepted the first part on the aims of the Society. When it came to the part on the vows, there was a resistance that gave every indication of being insuperable. Only Tempier and Moreau approved the Superior-General’s proposals; the others formed a block to reject them. In spite of the guarded language of the official records, of eye-witnesses and of Oblate historians, one gathers that the reaction was rather spirited.

On coming to live at the former Carmelite monastery, the members had no intention of embracing the religious life or of vowing themselves for life to the Society. On the contrary, they had come with the understanding that they were completely free “to remain or withdraw” whenever it would please them.

Furthermore, it was agreed when they entered that the Society would not be anything more than a simple association of secular priests living in common for the purpose of devoting themselves to the missions. Now everything was being changed and doubts began to arise concerning the Founder’s good faith.

The situation then became extremely serious. If the four dissidents remained adamant, not only would the Superior be obliged to renounce the foundation at Laus and cancel the arrangements made with Bishop Miollis, but the Society he wanted to reinforce would very likely disintegrate.

His personal authority which, until then, had kept the embattled and fragile Society together would be given a stinging and devastating rebuff. Everything would fall apart from the one blow.

Leflon 2, p. 166 – 167

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In the cold winter months, when pilgrims no longer came to the shrine, then the Missionaries would go out to the surrounding villages to preach the Gospel in prolonged parish missions.

From there, after having preached repentance to these good and faithful people and after having shown them the grandeur and glory of Mary, we will spread throughout the mountains to proclaim the Word of God to these simple souls, better disposed to receive this divine seed than those who live around us, corrupted as they are.

Letter to Pierre Mie, October 1818, EO VI n.31

Mary “ received Christ in order to share him with all the world, whose hope he is. In her, we recognize the model of the Church’s faith and of our own.” (OMI CC&RR, Constitution 10)

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Until now the Missionaries had gone out to preach missions, but here the pilgrims came to them and so the sanctuary became a place of permanent mission with the people coming to them.

More than 20 000 souls flock there every year to renew themselves in spiritual fervour in the shelter of this truly impressive shrine and which inspires one with something indefinable but which marvellously draws one up to God.

Letter to Pierre Mie, October 1818, EO VI n.31

The aim of the sanctuary was the same as that of the parish missions: to bring the most abandoned to conversion and to a life of fullness in God.

Apart from the pilgrims, the sanctuary church acted also as the local parish for the hamlet of Laus. It is important to note that Eugene did not want his Missionaries in France to be pastors of parishes as such. They accepted this charge if it was primarily a part of a missionary center of pilgrimage and doubled as the local parish.

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After visiting Notre Dame du Laus, Eugene wrote this description of the place and of the evangelization that the Missionaries would undertake from there:

We have formed an establishment at Notre Dame du Laus thus bringing ourselves into direct relations with the dioceses of Gap, Digne, Embrun and Sisteron.
We have become the guardians of one of the most celebrated shrines of the Blessed Virgin where the good God is pleased to manifest the power that he has granted to this dear Mother of the Mission.

Letter to Pierre Mie, October 1818, EO VI n.31

At this moment the Missionaries did not have a specifically Marian identity, but working at Laus this started to be expressed as they came to understand that Marian shrines did form a part of their missionary outreach.

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