GOOD FRIDAY: “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?”

What was the moment when Jesus suffered the most and when he showed his greatest love for us?

It was when, hanging on the cross, he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the incarnation, Jesus became fully human and became one with us in all our experiences. On the cross, he entered into the extreme experience of human hopelessness: the sense of having been abandoned by God.

He became one with us in all those situations where we cry out in darkness and despair: “Where are you God, why are you absent?”

As we embrace Jesus Forsaken on this Good Friday, let us embrace the door that he opened through his suffering and death: his resurrection and ours.

As I read St. Eugene’s writings, I constantly hear echoes of his Good Friday experience of his fragility and his awareness of God’s healing love. It was a conviction that never left him and that was at the basis of all his ministry: to lead others to his same experience. St Eugene knew darkness and seeming-hopelessness many times in his life. Yet he recognized that in these dark moments, his Savior was present, and he attests to this in constantly in his writings. Just one example:

In the end, though with sadness, I go my way, placing my trust in God alone. Let us love him always more.

Letter to Father Forbin Janson, 12 September 1814

He encouraged others to do the same. In particular today I recall his words to Father Jacques Jourdan, aged 25, and the first Oblate to die. He was suffering from deep depression and darkness:

Courage, my dear friend. Very great saints have been tried like you, but they became saints in spite of these circumstances because they did not cease to obey; courage, once more, my dear friend, we are all down on the floor praying for you so that you will bear this hard trial like a valiant soldier of Jesus Christ. This so amiable Master, our model, did not yield to despair in the garden of Olives; into what an agony he was plunged nevertheless! Hold on to him and fear nothing, drink the cup of his bitterness since he allows to let you share in his passion, but do not doubt that he will soon fill you with his sweetest joys. Until then you must keep your peace and obey…

At the moment of communion, tell him lovingly about all your sorrows: “O Lord I am oppressed be my security!” [Is. 38, 14].Embrace his feet in spirit, protest that you will never separate yourself from him, that you wish to love him for ever, then take him into your heart and be not troubled about anything.

Letter to Jacques Antoine Jourdan, 30 March 1823

Victor Frankl, a survivor of the second world war concentration camps attests to this when he wrote:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

St. Eugene teaches us the choice of the attitude of recognizing Jesus in his forsakenness on the Cross in every moment of the darkness we experience in this present time of difficulty.

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HOLY THURSDAY: SAYING “YES” IN THE GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE

For Saint Eugene, Holy Thursday marked two important events: his first communion and his private vow of saying “yes” to God on this night when Christians keep watch with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and Jesus said “yes”.

I invite you to spend some quiet time with Jesus in his agony in the garden. With all that is happening around us, we too need to be strengthened.

This is how Eugene and his closest Oblate companion, Henri Tempier, spent that night in 1816:

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.

Rambert I, p. 187

This time of reflection recalled the time Jesus spent in the Garden of Gethsemane at prayer while struggling to live the events taking place 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 self-giving – which we know as “oblation.

”As we meet in the Garden of Gethsemane today, let us be united with one another, in the spirit of “oraison,” in giving each other strength as we struggle with so much darkness in our world.

The altar referred to today was originally in Aix, but is now in Rome.

“If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also have to realize that every person is worthy of our giving. Not for their physical appearance, their abilities, their language, their way of thinking, or for any satisfaction that we might receive, but rather because they are God’s handiwork, his creation. God created that person in his image, and he or she reflects something of God’s glory. Every human being is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives. Jesus offered his precious blood on the cross for that person. Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love. Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life. It is a wonderful thing to be God’s faithful people. We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 274

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HOLY WEEK: WE ARE NEVER FAR FROM THE CROSS

As we look at our troubled and suffering world, what an experience of the Cross it is, and what an invitation to see things in a new light!

From the Cross, our Savior reminds us that he is present every time we read the Scriptures, and every time we consciously live this promise with someone else: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am present among them” (Matthew 18,20). The persons taking this promise seriously, DO have the presence of Jesus among them – even if separated by many miles and even continents. Jesus has promised always to be present in this way if we remember to allow him to. This is one way of living the Cross with those who suffer today.

Saint Eugene recalled:

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

Eugene de Mazenod, Retreat Journal, December 1814, EO XV n.130

“How could we get deeper into this salvatorian spirituality of ours? Let me mention three ways.   First.  Someone inspired by St. Eugene will not be afraid of the cross. As true Oblates we will look openly into the face of the suffering and crucified Christ. This is done not so much by pictures and movies as by reading the Scriptures, experiencing Christ’s presence in the sacraments and looking into the face of the poorest of our brothers and sisters.

W. Steckling OMI, OMI Information n 462, Rome, February 2007.


“Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”

Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 270.

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HOLY WEEK: THE ZEAL TO GET CAUGHT UP BY THE MYSTERY OF THE SAVING CROSS AND TO PROCLAIM IT TO THOSE MOST IN NEED

Firstly, by spending time meditating on this reality myself and making it more alive in me as a life-giving focus in these times of fear and uncertainty.

Then it will overflow to those I reach out to wherever I can.

Detail of an icon written by Lauretta Agolli

St Eugene’s Good Friday experience of the Savior brought light and focus into his life:

What more glorious occupation than to act in everything and for everything only for God, to love him above all else, to love him all the more as one who has loved him too late

Eugene de Mazenod, Retreat Journal, December 1814, EO XV n.130

“The word ‘Oblates’ means people ready to give themselves for the love of God. God’s Spirit has granted St. Eugene and his sons and daughters the zeal to get caught up by the mystery of the saving cross and to proclaim it to those most in need. Our spirituality is therefore centered on the salvation given us by Christ; it can be called ‘salvatorian’. With such a spiritual orientation our Congregation was approved in 1826.

Our recognition by the Church, which we celebrate each February 17th calls us to delve deeper into the mystery of salvation, to make it even more the center of our lives, as it was the center around which Eugene’s life revolved.”

Steckling OMI, OMI Information n 462, Rome, February 2007.

Goodness always tends to spread. Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good. In this regard, several sayings of Saint Paul will not surprise us: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14); “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).   Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 9.

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HOLY WEEK: PEOPLE READY TO GIVE OURSELVES FOR THE LOVE OF GOD

(These reflections have been adapted from those published in 2021)

Former Superior General, Wilhelm Steckling OMI, wrote in 2007:

“It was probably in 1807, on Good Friday of that year, that Saint Eugene had a special encounter with the Crucified One that changed his life. It essentially made him an Oblate. What we can celebrate in 2007 is not an anniversary of the Congregation, but rather an anniversary of our charism, the spiritual gift that makes us live – an anniversary of our Oblate spirituality.

It was the cross displayed on Good Friday that made young Eugene – 24 at that time – aware of his life- style apart from God.

“I had looked for happiness outside of God and outside him I found but affliction and chagrin”, he writes a few years later (1814) during a retreat. In his emptiness he encounters someone who loves him without measure. His sins melt away amidst tears in the embrace of Christ, and this experience marks him for the rest of his life. “Can I forget the bitter tears that the sight of the cross brought streaming from my eyes one Good Friday?” “Blessed, a thousand times blessed, that he, this good Father, notwithstanding my unworthiness, lavished on me all the richness of his mercy.” The experience did not stay just inside of him. “Let me at least make up for lost time by redoubling my love for him.”

After a short time, St. Eugene wanted to share the mercy he experienced with others. Such zeal for souls finally led to the birth of the Oblates. The word “Oblates” means people ready to give themselves for the love of God.”

W. Steckling OMI, OMI Information n 462, Rome, February 2007

“Jesus on the cross feels the whole weight of the evil, and with the force of God’s love he conquers it; he defeats it with his resurrection. This is the good that Jesus does for us on the throne of the cross. Christ’s cross, embraced with love, never leads to sadness, but to joy, to the joy of having been saved and of doing a little of what he did on the day of his death.”   Pope Francis

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CHARITY EMBRACES EVERYTHING; AND FOR NEW NEEDS, IT INVENTS, WHEN NECESSARY, NEW MEANS

Two years later, Bishop Eugene wrote a Pastoral Letter to his diocese about the works of mercy that were active in his diocese. It shows an amazing grasp of the human needs of the second largest city of France, and of this Missionary Oblate’s response:

Marvel at how these good works are multiplying. So many new institutions with a previously unknown objectives! Childhood, old age, sickness, poverty, the worker who toils all day long, innocence in danger, the repugnant vice that inspires remorse, the imprisoned youth already initiated in the habits that make criminals, the great culprit seasoned in crime, even the rich man often so destitute before God on his deathbed.
 
Charity embraces everything; and for new needs, it invents, when necessary, new means: spiritual help, bodily help, bread for the soul, bread for the body; instruction for ignorance; advice, guidance, support for weakness; asylum for virtue or for penance; pious sentiments, sweet consolations, supernatural strength for the dying;

All kinds of good works are being generated in the name of Jesus Christ

Without speaking of the zeal and generosity of those pious associations of ladies who support our charitable establishments in our city of Marseilles, where they are distinguished by such a perfect spirit and by all the virtues of the Christian woman…
 

Bishop Eugene de Mazenod,  Pastoral Letter of 7 February 1847, Marseille

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GOD IS HELPING THIS GOOD FATHER TO MAKE HIM SUCCEED IN SOME UNDERTAKINGS WHERE THE MOST SKILLFUL WOULD FAIL

To respond to the needs of the poor domestic servants, Bishop Eugene had been instrumental in the founding of the Sisters of Compassion in collaboration with Fr. Jean François Barthès, S.J.

I visited the establishment of the new Dames de la Compassion [Sisters of Compassion]. Evidently, the good God is helping this good Father Barthès to make him succeed in some undertakings where the most skilful would fail.

In his diocese he wanted the laity to be fully involved in the various works of mercy, and tried to provide religious to support them, where possible. The founding of the Sisters of Compassion aimed at supporting the ministry to domestics.

Even so, I recommended to him that l’Oeuvre des Domestiques [the Work of the Domestics] be not neglected. It is essentially for this work that I have adopted this new Order or, to say it better, that I have let it develop under my auspices and my authority.

Eugene de Mazenod’s Diary, 29 June 1845, EO XXI

“Arriving in Marseilles in 1843, Jean-François Barthès encountered a community of Sisters of the Holy Family from Bordeaux who had been called to the city by Eugene de Mazenod, Bishop of Marseilles, to care for the sick in their homes and to open a house for young women who had left the country to work as domestic servants. Bishop de Mazenod then thought of creating an autonomous congregation, entirely dedicated to the work of domestic servants, and entrusted the task to Barthès. Barthès created the congregation on June 25, 1843 in Marseilles; it was erected as an institute of diocesan right on June 16, 1845, the same day the first twelve postulants received the religious habit from the bishop.” https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sœurs_de_Notre-Dame_de_la_Compassion_de_Marseille

A picture of Fr. Barthès on the left, and of the first Sisters on the right

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WORKS OF CHARITY: THIS WOULD NOT BE THE LAST

“Seeing the world through the eyes of the Crucified Christ” as a Missionary Oblate, Eugene was always close to the people of his diocese and aware of their needs. He responded by establishing various Works of Charity to meet the material and spiritual needs of the various groups of people.

 In explaining what this work of charity was, I am not afraid of proclaiming, in order to reply to those who could be surprised that someone was proposing a new work to them, that this would not be the last.

Eugene de Mazenod’s Diary, 31 January 1845, EO XXI

This short sentence is significant because it presents three distinguishing marks of Eugene’s episcopal reaching out to the needs of his people.

 1/ Firstly, his practical response to the needs of specific groups of people was always to create a work of charity. In this case it was the “Oeuvre des Domestiques” – the Work of the Domestic Servants. He makes it clear that he would continue this process of reaching out for the rest of his life.

2/ Secondly, on the day of this diary entry, he had been to the Chapel of the Mission of France, which he had turned into a meeting center for all the works of charity that did not have a special place to gather. He thus provided for the structure and administration of all the groups he established and involved as many people as possible to be the ones to care for that particular need.

3/Thirdly, he was creative in his responses and wanted as many people involved as possible. To support the work of the laity, he aimed to bring to the diocese religious congregations who focused on specific groups of needy people. When none were available, he became instrumental in the foundation of new religious congregations in his diocese. It was to this that today’s diary entry refers.

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LET HOLY CHARITY CONSUME ALL OUR DISAGREEMENTS IN THE MELTING-POT OF RELIGION

I fell from the clouds, my dear Father Martin, on receiving your letter. I was hundreds of miles removed from suspecting your dislike for the position I have placed you in.

Eugene had given Father Martin a change of community to Aix en Provence, and was surprised to receive a response that was not positive about the move. Seemingly Father Martin and Father Courtès had had a misunderstanding when he had previously worked in Aix.

It wasn’t too long ago that you showed feelings to the contrary and, as I remember, I was edified that I even made some comment about it. I therefore had every reason to be certain that what had happened such a long time ago had been entirely forgotten, as in effect it should have been.

As Superior General, Eugene had experience of some of the Oblates having difficulties with one another. His attitude was to urge them all to work for the common good.

Where would we all be if such grudges were perpetual? Soon we would all have to live alone, for the grievances you believe you hold against Father Courtès, others claim to hold against you, and there would be no end to it. Let holy charity consume all our disagreements in the melting-pot of religion.

For my part, I am quite determined not to suppose that we can be otherwise than duty requires. I urge you, for love of God, not to manifest either at Aix or elsewhere, any aversion to what I am obliged to prescribe for you. Peace and the common good depend on it. You have too deep a sense of your state in life not to understand this.

Letter to Fr. Joseph A. Martin, 10 January 1845, EO X n 865

“Peace and the common good” are good pointers for us to remember in times of interpersonal challenges.

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I HOPE TO INVEST FOR THE FUTURE THIS SUM OF CONFIDENCE IN MARY

“When Bishop Hippolyte Guibert arrived in the diocese of Viviers in 1842, the Abbé Deschanels, chaplain at the shrine, was asking for help. Furthermore, the Jesuits of the house of Lalouvesc were no longer able to respond to all the requests for parish missions. Bishop Guibert was very attached to his own religious family and thus he decided to ask the Oblates to serve the shrine and to preach missions in a sector of his diocese. The General Council readily acceded to this request, for it corresponded so well with the ends of the Congregation. In the minutes of the January 14, 1845 Council meeting we read: ‘This is a shrine to Mary, our holy Mother and Patroness, which needs to be developed and our Congregation is called to do the same in other pilgrimage places that have been entrusted to us… By its location on the borders of the dioceses of Viviers, Nïmes and Mende, this house presents us with a vast field that is worthy of the zeal of those among us who will be its personnel’…” (https://www.omiworld.org/lemma/notre-dame-de-bon-secours-1845-1994)

Not only would this shrine further the aspects of the Oblate charism concerning the preaching of parish missions and permanent mission center of a Marian shrine, but it would also provide new vocations to the Oblates to send to Canada as missionaries. Writing to the Bishop of Montreal, Eugene narrated:

Believe me, dear Monseigneur, I have made sacrifices to further the plans of God for the sanctification of our dear Canadians and of the Indigenous who dwell in these northern lands. I must not deprive myself in Europe of the means to build up the family with good members.

To obtain vocations we must become known in dioceses other than those which have supplied us up to now and which are emptied. It is now several years that the service has been proposed to me of a shrine of the Holy Virgin from where the missionaries could spread in the diocese by organizing the preaching of missions as they already do in the dioceses of Aix, Marseilles, Fréjus, Avignon, Valence, Grenoble, Digne and Ajaccio.

I have just accepted this undertaking as much to renew devotion to the Holy Virgin as to recruit if possible some good members. But I need personnel for this establishment. I hope to invest for the future this sum of confidence in Mary.

Letter to Bishop Bourget of Montreal, 6 February 1845, EO I n 51

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