Since 25 January we have been celebrating two hundred years of our existence with gratitude and renewed hope.
Today we recall how, ten years later, we received Church approbation of what had happened on that day in 1816. The 17 February 1826 marks the day when we received this confirmation, and it is a day that is commemorated throughout the world by the Mazenodian family.
How stultifying when this day turns into a moment of backward-looking commemoration, instead of it being a moment of gratitude and “propulsion” with confidence into new stratospheres of mission and possibilities of new life! “Jet propulsion” is a weak word to use for the significance of this day: it lends itself more to vocabulary like a “breaking the sound barrier,” ”Mach,” “supersonic” moment. Am I exaggerating? No! We are not talking about some Vatican officials giving us bureaucratic approval to continue existing – we are talking about God. In 1826 Pope Leo XII, after a period of discernment, recognized that the Congregation had come into existence because it was a creation of God. Eugene understood the
steady determination of the Holy Father, whom nothing has been able to prevent from the first thought with which the Holy Spirit inspired him on the first day that I knelt at his feet and presented to him the plan of this enterprise which now we can call divine…
Letter to all the Oblates, 18 February 1826, EO VII, n. 226
The Pope recognized that it is a charism of the Holy Spirit. So we are dealing with something immeasurably superior to any supersonic happening. We are dealing with AN ACT OF GOD – a Super-supersonic event that broke the sound-barrier between heaven and earth. It is an act of God that we celebrate!
What was the significance of it for Eugene? Eleven years before he had acknowledged that
I am making a decision of the utmost importance as a result of a strong impulse that comes from outside of me. When I reflect on it, I am convinced that is how God wants to put an end to my indecisiveness.
Letter to Forbin Janson, 23 October 1815, EO VI n.5
Our foundation was the result. The papal approbation of 17 February 1826 was an act of discernment of the Church, recognizing that the inspiration that Eugene had received had indeed come from God – that it had been a “supersonic” experience. For ten years this small group of men had survived by their founding vision, surviving hardships, persecution, defections and near-extermination, and yet never giving up. They believed that their vocation came from God, that their ideal was God-inspired and that their mission to the most-abandoned was God-given. The discernment of the Church confirmed this and injected new life and vigor into them. It was not meant to degenerate into a moment of back-slapping backward-looking community festivity. It was an injection of divine life that propelled the Oblates.
Once Eugene returned to France in 1826, he and the Congregation faced a decade of difficult years. Yet, the propulsion of 17 February kept them going and kept them dreaming: visions of “breaking the sound barrier” of the borders of their important, yet routine, ministry on the continent of France. They were impelled to offer themselves for mission in Algeria, in Corsica, and eventually the leap of faith of 1841 in sending Missionaries to Canada, England and Ireland – and then to Asia, Africa and the US.
Where did this craziness come from? From the assurance that they had received on 17 February.
The conclusion to be drawn from this, my dear friends and good brothers, is: we must work, with renewed ardor and still more total devotedness, to bring to God all the glory that stems from our efforts and, to the needy souls of our neighbors, salvation in all possible ways; we must attach ourselves heart and soul to our Rules and practice more exactly what they prescribe to us… In the name of God, let us be saints.
Letter of Eugene to all the Oblates, 18 February 1826, EO VII, n. 226
Some aspects of our present Oblate situation seem to mirror elements of the years of 1827 onwards. We have achieved incredible things in the past – and we have wonderful people involved in mission at present, but our numbers are going down, our people are ageing and we seem slow to break out of “maintenance-mode.”
May this 17 February be a God-given moment of grace to rediscover the value of our God-given life as calling us into courageous new horizons and expressions of this centuries-old gift of consecrated life (which is getting a bit tired in some of its expressions).
May it be a grace-filled moment to re-value, at our local levels, a Mazenodian family that is essentially larger than a group of priests (and brothers and sisters) with limited participation of the laity.
Is it not an invitation to break out and model our community life on the example of some of the recent Spirit-given trends in the Church – where every way of life receives and is equally important in belonging and cooperating in the mission inspired by the same vision and charism of Eugene?
Is this not the true meaning of 17 February: that it is an invitation to the whole Mazenodian Family to re-inject itself with the propulsion fuel given to Eugene by the Holy Spirit? That the charisms of each member and category of the Mazenodian Family be united in mutual recognition, respect and living together the God-given charism of Eugene – and break the sound barrier of our missionary oblation for the most abandoned in fresh life-giving community expressions?
I also recommend to you the beautiful letter of our Superior General, Father Louis Lougen, for this occasion: http://www.omiworld.org/en/content/news/3519/letter-of-the-superior-general-to-the-congregation-for-february-17-2016/