We have been following the saga of the Provencal bishops nearly destroying Eugene’s Missionaries. We have seen how Eugene managed to calm the storm with the Archbishop of Aix and among the Missionaries within the Society itself. His next step was to calm the waters with the Bishop of Fréjus who had started it all by recalling three Missionaries back to his diocese (Fathers Deblieu and Maunier, and scholastic Jeancard).
Fully reassured by all the kindness you have always shown to me and by the protection you have deigned to grant to our Society when I asked your blessing on it and on myself at Paris, I kept silence when your Council in a grave decision detached three members of a group which has constantly been employed in the service of your diocese.
The respect that I profess for your sacred person as well as the concern of displeasing you hindered me from giving you some explanations which if they had arrived on time, would probably have changed the Council’s mind from crudely pronouncing the nullity of certain commitments voluntarily taken, with the permission of legitimate power at that time, for the greater good of the individuals and to the benefit of the respective dioceses they had been charged with evangelizing.
These explanations would have proved to you, my Lord, that priests who make profession of the most absolute devotedness to their chief pastors, and who in everything act only in their name and under their orders, take care not to withdraw themselves from their jurisdiction.
On this point, I would only have had to acquaint you with one of the basic articles of our Rules which is couched in these terms:
“The members of this Congregation will, under the authority of the Bishops on whom they always depend, make every effort to provide spiritual aid for the poor people scattered over the countryside and for the inhabitants of rural villages, who have the greatest need of this spiritual assistance.”
Letter to Bishop C.A. de Richery of Fréjus. 12 November 1823, EO XIII n. 44
What is important about this letter is that it touches on a question that continues to be relevant today: how does a Missionary Oblate fit into a diocese? Eugene is unequivocal that when the Oblates are invited by Bishops into their diocese, it is the Bishops who are responsible for the evangelization of their diocese and the Oblates “in everything act only in their name and under their orders.”
BUT Eugene clarifies this by quoting one of the articles of his Rule to the Bishop. The Oblates do not go into a diocese to become diocesan priests and lose their identity in a generic parish ministry. A Bishop accepts them to work in his diocese because of their specific charism which they put at the service of the diocese in a way that is particular to their spirit.
In the Provence of 1823 it was “to provide spiritual aid for the poor people scattered over the countryside and for the inhabitants of rural villages.” Their outreach in any diocese was to provide parish missions and permanent missions from their communities or shrines to those “who have the greatest need of this spiritual assistance.”
Later, as the Oblates grew and spread into new situations in new countries, the characteristic response of the Oblates had to respond to different circumstances, and we see how Eugene always insisted on the specific nature of our charism when he accepted the invitations of bishops, and when he withdrew his Oblates from a diocese or work because the bishop did not respect this in practice.
Our God-given charism sends all associated with this charism, as laity, religious and priests, to focus primarily on those who are the most abandoned by the structures of the diocese – in communion with the Bishop, but never at the price of the loss of our identity.
“It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, ‘allotting his gifts to everyone according as he wills’ (1 Cor 12:11), he distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church” (LG 12). This is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Therefore, the People of God’s sharing in the messianic mission is not obtained only through the Church’s ministerial structure and sacramental life. It also occurs in another way, that of the spiritual gifts or charisms.
Pope John Paul II, General audience 24 June 1992