August 15,1822; a day which was to leave a permanent impression on the history of our Oblate family.
Fr. Diego Saez, OMI (OMI Postulator General)
It was August 15, 1822, 200 years ago. The Congregation of the Missionaries of Provence (later known as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate) had been founded only six years earlier. However, it was already going through the first crisis of its short existence. Today we can be sure that if we are Oblates and members of the Oblate Family, it is thanks to this special experience that St. Eugene received.
Indeed, after the first months and years of their existence, the normal tensions of living together on a daily basis were already beginning. In the early days of the missionary society, everything was beautiful. In addition to the lofty ideal of life they had set for themselves, there was the novelty for all of them of a new way of living together. This novelty also brought its contribution of enthusiasm, energy and the desire to do things well.
Some experiences from our own life help us to understand this situation: for example, when we are sent on mission to a new country or to a new cultural or social context or when we have to open a new ministry, enthusiasm fills the heart of the missionary, because he wants to know everything, he wants to give himself to all people and to offer his best resources to begin this new work; the first years (three? five? eight?) of married life are years of enthusiasm for the new life that the couple is beginning: living together, with their new habits and schedules, the desire to build a future together, the changes in their jobs, the birth of their first children…
But, inevitably, once the first enthusiasm and the sense of novelty have passed, ordinary life arrives with its usual day-to-day tensions… And this is where the test of fidelity and true love begins: generosity in a mission that is no longer new and with people whose faults we already know well (and they know ours), the cohabitation of the spouses in which each day is very similar to the day before, etc. With ordinary life, the clear and obvious ideal of the beginnings easily begins to fade away and seems to be just a daydream.
But external factors also fueled these thoughts and trials of the missionaries: a number of dioceses had been re-established which, a few years earlier, as a result of the French Revolution, had been eliminated, and now the bishops of these new dioceses needed the return of the priests who had had to leave these territories, among them the priests who had decided to found the Missionaries of Provence. Which voice truly expressed the voice of God over each missionary, that of the bishop or that of the superior of the Missionaries, Eugene de Mazenod?
So, on the one hand, the internal tensions of the society of missionaries would grow, as the novelties of common life and missionary life were already disappearing. On the other hand, the external circumstances were putting the missionaries under strenuous pressure. Problems began to arise. In fact, these tensions would become clear a few months later when the Holy Father Pius VII elected St. Eugene’s uncle, Canon Fortunatus de Mazenod, as bishop of Marseilles and the latter made it a condition that his nephew, Eugene de Mazenod, and his closest collaborator, Henri Tempier, be his Vicars Generals. The tensions already latently present between the missionaries then turned into an open explosion of accusations and mutual reproaches.
But by God’s providence, the Blessed Immaculate Virgin had decided to prepare the heart of Saint Eugene, and through him also the hearts of the missionaries most faithful to the Oblate vocation, by means of the singular grace we are commemorating today. Indeed, in the face of all these trials and tensions of ordinary life that were already emerging, we can easily imagine the question that could arise in the heads and hearts of St. Eugene and the first Oblates:
- Were we not mistaken when we founded the Congregation?
- Could it be that founding this society was not really God’s will, but our human presumption?
Logically, the natural consequence of these questions would have been for St. Eugene to close the missionary house as soon as possible and for the missionaries to separate, each one returning to his own place of origin. This is the question that comes very easily to us too when we are faced with trials…
St. Eugene wrote on August 15, 1822:
“I believe I owe to her also a special experience that I felt today, I will not go so far as to say more than ever, but certainly more than usual. I cannot describe it too well because it comprised several things but all related, however, to a single object, our dear Society. It seemed to me that what I saw, what I could put my finger on, was that within her lies hidden the germ of very great virtues, and that she can achieve infinite good; I found her worthy, everything pleased me about her, I cherished her rules, her statutes; her ministry seemed sublime to me, as it is indeed. I found in her bosom sure means of salvation, even infallible, such is how they looked to me” (To Father Tempier, OW 6, No. 86).
In a certain sense, I believe that the Immaculate Virgin granted our Founder for a few moments to look at the Congregation with the same gaze of Jesus, which not only sees the present but also allows us to glimpse the future, as Jesus himself did with his disciples: “Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already receiving his payment and gathering crops for eternal life” (Jn 4:35-36) [bible.usccb.org].
And what did St. Eugene see when the Blessed Virgin allowed him to look like this? Eugene saw that, in spite of all the trials and difficulties, the Congregation he founded was going to have a future blessed by the grace of God, that our Society was going to bear much fruit and that it was going to endure. And so St. Eugene understood that our Congregation was truly the work of God. We can say that, in a way, Our Lady granted St. Eugene to see us, Oblates and Oblate Family in 2022. We are the confirmation of that vision that St. Eugene had and that encouraged him to go forward. To a greater or lesser extent, our countries, our cities and towns have been evangelised by the Oblates. In fact, there have been, and still are today, whole countries (or at least whole populations) where we Oblates have been the only presence of the Church. We have been evangelised by the Oblates we have known and we too have been called to collaborate in the evangelisation of others.
So, as we recall the experience of August 15, 1822, I believe that the Virgin Mary is telling all of us today, Oblates and members of the Oblate Family, that the Lord is still counting on us. The Lord already knows our weaknesses, our human and perhaps also our material poverty, our tensions in our common life, our weariness in the routine of daily life… These situations are but the confirmation that it is the Lord, and only He, not our intelligence or our missionary daring, who makes our life and our mission fruitful, and who has the power to continue to make our Family fruitful for at least another 200 years, or as many as the Lord wants to give us.
Faced with the difficulties of mission and of our state in life, discouragement and the question of whether it is worth the effort come spontaneously to our minds and hearts. St. Eugene’s experience 200 years ago invites us today to look not only at our world through the eyes of our Crucified Saviour (cf. C.4) but also at our own Congregation, to look higher and deeper at all the good that God has done and continues to do through us, despite our weaknesses, and to thank God for it all. Thus, this feast is an occasion to discover the value of our most specific vow as Oblates, that of perseverance (cf. C. 29), for by living our joys and sorrows in intimate union with our Mother (cf. C. 10), we will find the strength to persevere even in the midst of the difficulties and contradictions that are part of life.
May this celebration fill us with joy and hope, presenting all our needs before the Virgin Mary, and she, Mother of Mercy, Mother and Queen of the Oblates, will present them before her Son, our Lord.
Happy Feast of Our Mother!