1. The Thought and Teachings of Bishop de Mazenod concerning the Apostles
  2. The Apostles in the tradition of the Congregation
  3. Conclusion

Bishop de Mazenod refers to the Apostles more than fifty times in his writings. What is at the root of this interest? No doubt, it was his love for the Church founded upon the Apostles..

Upon his return to Aix in 1802, Eugene found that the Church in his country was in such a “deplorable situation” that he instinctively thought evangelization would have to start afresh just as it had at the beginning of Christianity. Thus, in the beginning of his 1818 Rule he poses to himself the question: “How, indeed, did our Lord Jesus Christ proceed? He chose a certain number of apostles and disciples whom he formed in piety, filling them with his spirit; and after having trained them in his school and in the practice of all virtues, he sent them to conquer the world which they soon brought under the rule of his holy laws. What must we do, in turn, to succeed in winning back for Jesus Christ so many souls who have cast off his yoke? Work seriously to become saints; walk courageously in the footsteps of so many apostles who have left us such beautiful examples in the exercise of a ministry to which we too are called; completely renounce ourselves […] and then, full of confidence in God to enter the lists and fight to the point of extermination for the greater glory of God” [1]. As a result, Father de Mazenod and his co-workers make their own the goal, like the Apostles: work to become saints and then to evangelize the poor.

We see here the combined influence of the French and the Sulpician school of spirituality. In his biography of M. Olier (1608-1657), M. Faillon wrote: “Adopting the view that the seminary was like the Cenacle where the Spirit of God would descend afresh to form apostolic men who would revitalize the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, it was M. Olier’s desire that all the clerics would take on the sentiments and attitudes of the holy Apostles and that they would become perpetual students of the Apostles’ virtues. He had them depicted […] in the chapel’s main painting so that the seminary would have recourse to them as to full flowing channels of apostolic grace whose first fruits they had received for future ages, and so that they should honor them with a special devotion as being, after Jesus Christ, the foundations of the Church […]” [2].

Saint John Baptist de la Salle (1651-1719), another important follower of the Berullian school of spirituality, considered Christian educators as successors of the Apostles in their ministry. He left his spiritual sons extensive spiritual texts in which he said over and over again: “Those who educate youth are cooperators with Jesus Christ in the work of saving souls […]; what Jesus Christ told his holy Apostles he tells you yourselves as well […]; you are the successors to the Apostles in their task of catechizing and instructing the poor […]; thank God for the grace he has granted you in your task of sharing in the ministry of the holy Apostles and of the leading bishops and pastors of the Church […]” [3].

To walk in the footsteps of the Apostles, to imitate them both in their virtues and in their ministry, there, as well, lie the key concepts of de Mazenodian spirituality [4]. Let us take a look at his teaching on this topic and what impact his exhortations had on the Congregation.

I. The Thought and Teachings of Bishop de Mazenod concerning the Apostles

1. “To walk in the footsteps of the Apostles”

This expression is one that flows frequently from the pen of the Founder. It almost always means to imitate their life of union with Christ and their mission. The first time we find this expression is in his first letter to Abbé Henry Tempier: We “have laid down the foundations of an establishment which will steadily furnish our countryside with fervent missionaries. These will ceaselessly engage in destroying the empire of the demon, while providing the example of a life worthy of the Church in the community which they will form […]. You will have four companions. If presently we are not more numerous, it means we wish to choose men who have the will and the courage to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles” [5].

The clearest expression of this idea is found in the text of the 1818 Rule which we have already cited. Father de Mazenod’s interpretation of this expression is subsequently developed in the paragraph entitled Other Observances: “It has already been stated that the missionaries should, as much as human weakness will allow, imitate in everything the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, the principal founder of the Society, and of his Apostles, our first fathers. In imitation of these great models, one part of their life will be devoted to prayer, interior recollection and contemplation in God’s house where they will lead life in common. The other will be entirely devoted to external works of the most active zeal such as missions, preaching and hearing confessions, teaching catechism, directing youth, visiting the sick and the prisoners, spiritual retreats and other exercises of that sort. But, whether on mission or within their house, their main occupation will be to make progress in the ways of ecclesiastical and religious perfection […]. [6]

In the letter that Father de Mazenod wrote to Abbé Joseph Augustin Viguier on January 6, 1819, he explains what he understands as the missionary vocation. “The missionary, being specifically called to the apostolic ministry, should aim at perfection. The Lord destines him to show forth anew, amongst those of his own time, the marvelous things that were done of old by the first preachers of the Gospel. He ought, then, to walk in their footsteps while being firmly persuaded that the miracles he must do are not the effect of his eloquence but of the grace of the Almighty who will communicate himself through him with all the more abundance if he is more virtuous, more humble, or, to say it all in one word, more holy. [7]” We have here an idea which was already expressed in the Rule and which the Founder ceaselessly repeated: the grace of God is conferred through the missionary all the more abundantly to the extent that he is “more virtuous, more humble, more holy”.

During his annual retreat toward the end of October 1831, Father de Mazenod reread the Rule. On November 4, he wrote to Father Hippolyte Courtès, superior of the house in Aix. He exhorted him and the fathers and brothers of his community to read the Rule attentively: “Perhaps they will have some surprises and make some fresh discoveries. As for myself, here is one of the meditations I entered in my retreat notes: ‘I said to myself while meditating on our Rules that we would never be able sufficiently to thank the divine bounty for having given them to us, for God alone indisputably is their author. […] I am no longer astonished at the saluberrimioperis [8] when I consider that the end of our Institute is the same as Our Lord proposed to himself when he came into the world. I come across I don’t know how many passages which are proof again and again of the perfection of our Institute and the excellence of the means it puts at our disposal to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. I could go on for ever on this subject’. [9]

On August 25, 1837, Bishop de Mazenod gave Father Jean-François Hermitte his obedience for Notre-Dame du Laus. He gave him the mission to “hear the confessions of both the pilgrims and the people of the place who may come to you”. He invites him to “be everything to everyone,” that is, to always be available like “the divine Master whom we serve and the holy Apostles in whose footsteps we follow” [10].

Towards the end of 1840, the Founder was considering establishing the novitiate at Notre-Dame de l’Osier. He gave Father Ambrose Vincens, the novice master designate, permission to accept the first postulant, Abbé Melchior Burfin. He cautions him, however, to check out thoroughly the attitudes of this cleric: “All we ask God is to send us priests after his own heart, who, filled with the holy desire for the joy of living in conformity with the divine Master’s counsels, wish to travel the same path the Apostles and the favoured disciples who followed them had trod. The person you mention in your letter to Father Tempier seems to be of this caliber […] I can only bless the Lord for inspiring him to associate himself to a Society of evangelical labourers whose number is not sufficient to reap the great harvest entrusted to it by the Father of the family” [11].

Around 1845, Bishop de Mazenod wrote some Recollections on the beginnings of the Congregation. This is an important work, the original text of which has been lost to us. In it we read as follows: “[…] My intention when I devoted myself to the ministry of the missions, working especially to teach and convert the most abandoned souls, had been to imitate the Apostles in their life of dedication and self-denial. I had reached the conviction that to obtain the same results in our preaching we had to walk in their footsteps and practice the same virtues in the measure possible for us. I, therefore, considered the evangelical counsels which they had followed with such fidelity essential for us to embrace […]” [12].

After the Oblates had been sent to the foreign missions, such reflections sometimes took on the force of rules of conduct or else an acknowledgment bathed in wonder and gratitude. On January 25, 1848, he wrote to Father Étienne Semeria in Ceylon: “Do not allow yourselves to be weakened by the heat of the climate. God must be served everywhere with fervour. If I could believe that you would degenerate in that land which you are to soak with the sweat of your brows to recall some to their duties, and to bring the light to others who do not know the true God, I would declare you unworthy of your great vocation and I would regret having chosen you in preference to so many others for your wonderful mission of making Jesus Christ known and extending his kingdom as you walk in the footsteps of the Apostles. But no, you will never cause me that pain. [13]

In 1848, he congratulates Father Eugene Dorey who has been appointed master of novices at Nancy: “What more beautiful ministry than that of forming in virtue, especially in the religious virtues, the chosen souls called by God to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles to spread the knowledge and the love of Jesus Christ!” [14]

In 1855, Abbé Jean-Louis Grandin entered the novitiate of Notre Dame de l’Osier with the intention of being reunited with his younger brother who had left a short time before for the Canadian Northwest. Accustomed to “the activity of serving in a parish,” he suffered from the overly tranquil life of the novice. Bishop de Mazenod invited him to make good use of this “momentary respite”. He specified: “You did not enter the Carthusians who make a novitiate in order to accustom themselves to a perpetual solitude. On the contrary, you have been admitted amongst those who in imitation of the Apostles, in whose footsteps they are called to walk, spend only a few months in retreat, and that to become more fitting for the very active life of a missionary, for the most varied ministry, fruitful in blessings that are truly miraculous” [15].

It would seem to be in a letter to Father Antoine Mouchette, moderator of the scholastics, that the Founder used the expression “To walk in the footsteps of the Apostles” for the last time. “The satisfying news which you give me of your community of Montolivet fill me with consolation. My eyes and my heart even more are always intent on these dear children who are the hope of our family. I am happy to see that they grasp the sublimity of their vocation and are courageously working to become holy religious. I am confident that they will honor their great ministry, and that they will all prove themselves worthy to have been chosen, some to fight the Lord’s battles among the degenerate Christians of Europe, the others to walk in the Apostle’s footsteps and become themselves true apostles to proclaim the good news to unbelieving nations in different parts of the globe” [16].

2. The Apostles, “our first fathers”

In the Rule of 1818 and in the comment he made on it during his annual retreat at the end of October 1831, Father de Mazenod characterized the Apostles as “our First Fathers” [17]. It is not often that he shared his thoughts on how he interpreted Apostles. Nevertheless, he uses this term to describe exclusively the Twelve Apostles [18] who were chosen and called by Jesus [19], who followed him and lived with him [20], and whom He subsequently sent throughout the world to continue his mission and to preach the Gospel [21].

The Oblates, just like the Apostles, are in turn called by Jesus, molded and sent by Him to announce the Good News.

a. Chosen and called by Jesus

The first condition to be an apostle in the strict sense is to be chosen by God. [22] This was a conviction Eugene already held shortly after his entrance into the seminary. On January 6, 1811, he wrote to his mother that “a sensual priest is in my eyes a deformed monstrosity”. He invited her to pray the Lord to “grant to his Church, not so much a larger number of priests, as a small but well chosen number. Twelve Apostles were enough to convert the world…” [23]. In the course of his years of preparing for the priesthood, Eugene often wrote his mother to speak to her of his vocation, this call from the Lord. In his case, it was a call that he could refuse to answer only at the risk of his own salvation [24]. Later on, in some letters to candidates for the Oblate life, Father de Mazenod stressed the importance of this call [25]. Caught in the crisis which struck in the wake of his departure with Father Tempier for Marseilles in 1823, the novice Hippolyte Guibert, like some of the others, was considering leaving the Congregation. The Founder writes to him: “[…] Persuaded as I am that the good God has given you to us in answer to our prayers, that he called you like the Apostles with the most evident signs of a truly divine vocation to follow him and to serve him in the ministry which resembles most that which he prescribed for his apostles, with whose work he willed to associate you” [26].

When foreign missions had been accepted, Bishop de Mazenod marveled at the thought that his sons, like the Apostles, were announcing the Good News of salvation to those who had never heard it. He reminds them that they are “chosen” [27] and “called by God” [28], that their vocation is “apostolic” [29].

b. Formed by the Lord

The second condition for being an Apostle was to have “seen the Lord” (1 John 1:1-3), to have lived with him and listened to his teaching, etc. In his Nota bene of the 1818 Rule, Father de Mazenod wrote: “How, indeed, did our Lord Jesus Christ proceed? He chose a number of apostles and disciples whom he himself trained in piety, and he filled them with his spirit; and after having trained them in his school and in the practice of all virtues, he sent them to conquer the world […]” [30]

In half of the texts in which he mentions the Apostles, the Founder focused on their life of intimacy with Jesus during which He instructed them, sharing with them his virtues and his holiness. The Founder understood that, in order to proclaim adequately the Good News of salvation like the Apostles did, he and his followers should, first of all, seek the Lord’s company, then be attentive to what He told them through prayer and study, and finally to allow themselves to be formed by Him through their imitation of Him and their practice of the evangelical counsels. Moreover, one can say that the Founder’s frequent urging of people to observe regularity [31] had no other end in view than to live in intimate union with Christ in prayer, in meditation on the Gospel and the virtues of our Lord, in mortification, etc. It was to this end that he often spoke of the necessity of employing the same means as the Apostles to obtain similar results [32].

During his stay in Paris in 1817 to obtain governmental approval for his Institute, he often wrote to Father Tempier who at the time was responsible for the formation of the novices and the scholastics. He stated that they should give a good example at the major seminary in Aix where they were taking their courses: “[…] All their actions ought to be done with the dispositions which guided the Apostles when they were in the Cenacle waiting for the Holy Spirit to come and inflame them with his love and give them the signal to go forth swiftly and conquer the world, etc.” [33].

It was evidently in the Rule that the Founder best explained how he understood the meaning of imitating the virtues of the Apostles. The longest paragraph of the Nota bene of the Rule of 1818 is devoted to this theme: “What must we do […]? Work seriously to become saints; walk courageously in the footsteps of so many apostles who have left us such beautiful examples in the exercise of a ministry to which we too are called; completely renounce ourselves […]; ceaselessly renew ourselves in the spirit of our vocation; live in a habitual state of self-denial and in a constant will of arriving at perfection […]”.

At the beginning of the paragraph on the Other Principal Observances, he explains once again how the Oblates should imitate in all things the example of our Lord Jesus Christ and “the holy Apostles our first fathers”. He specifies, “following in their footsteps, the Missionaries will give one portion of their life to prayer, recollection, and contemplation in the secrecy of God’s house, in which they dwell together”.

In a note dating from the years 1818-1821 and preceding the introduction to the vow of poverty in the Rule, he wrote: “It is believed that the holy Apostles made a vow of poverty and that following their example the first faithful did likewise. Selling their property, they brought the proceeds to the Apostles so that everything might be held in common” [34].

Before accepting the direction of the sanctuary Notre-Dame du Laus in 1819, when he was presenting his missionaries to M. Arbaud, Vicar General for the diocese of Digne, he did not hide the fact that they were religious who practiced the evangelical counsels: “We need men who are detached, zealous for the glory of God and for the salvation of souls, in a word, intent on following and practicing the evangelical counsels. Without this, little or no good can be expected of them. The missions are the apostolic work par excellence. If we wish to achieve the same results as the Apostles and the first followers of the Gospel, we must use the same means as they…” [35]

To imitate Christ and the Apostles also meant to share in their sufferings. During the mission of Rognac in November of 1819, the fathers encountered many difficulties. Father de Mazenod wrote to Father Tempier: “God be praised, my dear friends and true apostles! My heart is afflicted by your situation, but rejoices at the same time to see you sharing the fate of our first fathers, disciples of the Cross” [36].

In 1823, he stressed one particular aspect of intimate union of the Apostles and of the Oblates with Jesus. In Paris where he was with his uncle who had been appointed Bishop of Marseilles, he was not edified by the Holy Thursday celebration at the Tuileries. He wrote Father Tempier to tell him that he would have much preferred being with his own community in Aix. “I betook myself in spirit to that room that truly resembles the Cenacle where the disciples, prepared by the lessons they constantly receive in the Society, imbued with the spirit of the Saviour who lives in them, gather in the name of their Master and represent the Apostles of whom Jesus Christ could say vosmundi estis (John 13:10), waiting silently and devoutly for the representative of the Master amongst them, who after hearing the Lord’s commandment, mandatum, kneels at their feet, washing and touching these feet that were blessed and mandated several thousand years previously by the prophet because they are the feet of evangelizers of good, of preachers of peace…” [37]

After 1823, it was the young Father Courtès who was in charge of the novices and scholastics in Aix. The Founder enjoined upon him to hide nothing from the postulants, to let them know “all that we demand in the way of perfection from those who wish to be enrolled in our militia which can only fight the demon and vanquish him with the arms of Faith in the manner of the Apostles” [38].

During his 1825-1826 stay in Rome, he learned that the novice Nicolas Riccardi returned home because he was too attached to his mother. On February 17, 1826, he wrote him a long letter to invite him to rejoin the Oblate community where “some of the members were preparing themselves by the practice of the most excellent virtues to become worthy ministers of the mercy of God to the people […]”. And he adds, “There would surely have been no Apostle who could have followed Jesus Christ in such a manner. Since Christianity began, how many disciples, and later how many religious, who sanctified themselves in the practice of the evangelical counsels would have been lost for ever with their mothers?” [39]

During the October 1826 retreat, Father de Mazenod examined himself on his obligation to tend toward perfection and exclaimed, “For what holiness does not come from within the apostolic vocation, that vocation which dedicates me to work unremittingly for the sanctification of souls with the means employed by the Apostles!” [40]

In the course of his October 1831 retreat, he meditated on the Rule. After having talked about the aim of the Congregation, he wrote: “The means that we employ to attain this end share in the excellence of this end. They are unquestionably the most perfect since they are precisely those same means used by our divine Saviour, his Apostles and his first disciples: the strict practice of the evangelical counsels, preaching and prayer; a happy blend of the active and contemplative life of which Jesus Christ and the Apostles have given us an example […]” [41].

In the month of August 1838, the Bishop of Marseilles rejoiced at having received a letter from Bishop P. T. E. d’Astros, Archbishop of Toulouse, who looked with a jaundiced eye on the setting up of teams of diocesan priests to preach missions. He suggested as a better course of action to provide vocations to the congregations founded for this purpose “who have the mission and consequently the grace to carry out this difficult ministry which can be carried out worthily only by men specially consecrated to God and following the example of the Apostles in the evangelical counsels” [42].

c. Sent to proclaim the Good News.

As Jesus was sent by the Father, and the Twelve sent in turn, so also in their wake the Oblates are sent by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel to the poor (John 20:21; 2 Corinthians 5:20).

– Greatness of this mission.

After accepting foreign missions in 1841, Bishop de Mazenod saw especially the loftiness of the mission of the Apostles and the Oblates. From the beginnings of the Congregation, he did indeed consider parish missions as an “apostolic” and “evangelical” ministry. He was even in awe as he became aware of the good they were working for souls. For example, in 1819, he wrote to Father Viguier that the Lord destines the missionary “to show forth anew, amongst those of his own time, the marvelous things that were done of old by the first preachers of the Gospel” [43]. In 1823, for example, he reminded the novice Hippolyte Guibert who was ambivalent about his vocation that God had called him to “serve him in the ministry which resembles most that which he prescribed for his Apostles” [44]. The same idea is contained in the letter he wrote the deacon Nicolas Riccardi in 1826. How can one hesitate in his vocation when he sees some of his confreres “reproduce the marvels operated by the preaching of the first disciples of the Gospel” [45]. During the season of Lent of 1844, the Bishop of Marseilles issued a pastoral letter on parish missions. In this letter, we read: “For some months now, this holy word has been resounding in our diocese with the most admirable results. It has been heard in the towns and countryside as well as in our episcopal city and its impact showed that, handed on by Jesus Christ to his Apostles and their successors through the course of the centuries, it has lost none of its power” [46].

But the acceptance of foreign missions brings about a change of emphasis in his letters. It was the same missionary vocation that the Oblates carried out in the footsteps of the Apostles: “to reawaken sinners” in the countries where Christianity has been long established, and in the case of unbelievers, “to proclaim and to make Jesus Christ known” [47]. However, in his opinion, the foreign missions brought about this common goal of making Jesus Christ known and loved in a stronger and fuller sense [48]. Bishop de Mazenod spoke with much enthusiasm about the loftiness of the missionary vocation. Let us just give some extracts from his letters. On the occasion of Father Pascal Ricard’s departure for Oregon in 1847 in response to the request of Bishop Magloire Blanchet, Bishop of Walla Walla, the Founder wrote: “I say nothing of how magnificent in the eyes of Faith is the ministry you are going to fulfill. One must go back to the birth of Christianity to find anything comparable. It is an apostle with whom you are associated and the same marvels that were wrought by the first disciples of Jesus Christ will be renewed in our days by you, my dear children, whom Providence has chosen amongst so many others to announce the Good News to so many slaves of the demon who huddle in the darkness of idolatry and who know not God. This is verily the real apostolate which is renewed in our times. Let us thank the Lord for our having been deemed worthy to be participants therein in so active a manner” [49].

In 1851, in a letter to this same priest, he gives an even clearer exposition of his thought: “Foreign missions compared to our missions in Europe have a special character of a higher kind because this is the true apostolate of announcing the Good News to nations which have not yet been called to knowledge of the true God and his son Jesus Christ… This is the mission of the Apostles: Euntes, docete omnes gentes! This teaching of the truth must penetrate to the most backward nations so that they may be regenerated in the waters of baptism. You are among those to whom Jesus Christ has addressed these words, giving you your mission as he gave the mission to the Apostles who were sent to convert our fathers. From this point of view, which is a true one, there is nothing higher than your ministry” [50].

The most arduous missions were those of the Canadian Northwest. There the missionary suffered loneliness, hunger and cold. It was especially those missionaries that Bishop de Mazenod felt the need to encourage, even if it usually took two years to get an answer to one’s letters. May 28, 1857, he congratulated Father Henry Joseph Faraud in the mission of the Nativity near Lake Athabaska. “What a reward you will have beyond this world, when one thinks of the wonders that have been brought about by the power of your ministry. One has to go back to the first preaching of Saint Peter to find anything similar. An apostle like him, sent to proclaim the Good News to those savage nations, the first man to speak to them of God, to bring them to a knowledge of Jesus the Saviour, to show them the way that leads to salvation, to give them rebirth in the holy waters of baptism – one can only prostrate oneself before you, so privileged are you among your brothers in the Church of God by reason of the choice that he has made of you to work these miracles. […] I know that you are offering all your sufferings to God for the salvation of those poor lost souls whom you are leading by grace to the knowledge of the truth, to the love of Jesus Christ, and to eternal salvation. It is this that consoles me most of all when I consider that you have been chosen as the first apostles to proclaim the good news to nations which, without you, would have never known God … It is wonderful, it is magnificent to be able to apply in so real a way the beautiful words of the Master, Elegivos ut eatis. What a vocation! If, as I do not doubt, you know how to respond to it, what will be your recompense?” [51]

To Alexandre Taché, Bishop of Saint Boniface, he wrote on July 16, 1860: “The Bishop of Satala [Bishop Vital Grandin] has told me of the great feats of our Fr. Grollier and of the success of his zealous efforts. He has really a cause for joy when he sees the good news reach in this way by the ministry of our men to the very ends of the earth. That is true apostolic work, and our men have been sent just as the Apostles were” [52].

– Nature of the mission of the Apostles.

The Apostles were sent to teach (Matthew 28:19-20), govern (Matthew 18:17-18) and sanctify people (Luke 12:19-20; John 20:21-23). In Bishop de Mazenod’s view, the Oblates followed in the footsteps of the Apostles because they strove for perfection by following the evangelical counsels, etc., but also because they carried on the Apostles’ mission of teaching and sanctification [53].

He presents this double mission through the use of a wide variety of expressions in most of the texts that treat the Apostles. Some texts speak of the mission in general. For example, “Twelve Apostles were enough to convert the world” [54]; scholastics should prepare themselves like the Apostles to “go forth swiftly to conquer the world” [55]; “What must we do […]? Filled with confidence in God, enter the lists and fight to the point of extermination for the greater glory of God […]; bring back into the fold so many strayed sheep, […] teach these degenerate Christians who Christ is, to wrest them from the slavery of the devil and show them the path to heaven […]” [56]; “bring back those who have gone astray by the splendor of our virtues” [57]; “to gain souls for Jesus Christ” [58]; “fight the demon and vanquish him” [59]; “so generous an advanced contingent that makes conquests for Jesus Christ by so many sacrifices […]” [60]; “extend the kingdom of Jesus Christ”, “to fight the Lord’s battles” [61].

The majority of the texts making reference to the Apostles deal with the mission of teaching. One expression comes back ceaselessly, that is, “to proclaim the Good News of salvation” [62], but we do find several others as well: “to lead to the knowledge of the true God and to the practice of virtue” [63], “to illuminate”, your “wonderful mission of making Jesus Christ known” [64], “to spread the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ” [65], to be “propagators of the teaching of Jesus Christ” [66], etc. Obviously, it is in the Rule that the Founder’s teaching is most complete on this subject. In the Nota bene at the beginning, after having asked: What must we do? he wrote: “The peoples wallowing in the crassest ignorance of everything concerning their salvation […]. It is therefore urgent […] to teach these degenerate Christians who Jesus Christ is […].” He then devotes a chapter of the Rule to preaching and sets forth in a powerful way what he understands good preaching to be: “We should have but one anxiety – to instruct the faithful, to consider who those are who form the majority of our hearers, and to assist them in their spiritual needs. We should not only break for them the bread of the Word of God, but (as it were) grind and chew it for them, making it our earnest endeavour to secure that those who hear us may not go away foolishly admiring what they have not understood, but may return to their homes instructed and well-disposed, and able to repeat in their families what they have learned from our lips.” Already in one of his Lenten instructions of 1813, he had told the faithful that, following the example of Saint Paul, he had not come to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in elevated discourse and with human wisdom, but “the simple Word of God stripped of every ornament, placed so far as in us lay within the grasp of the simplest” [67].

The expressions that deal with the mission of sanctification are fewer and less varied, but sufficiently clear. During his days at the seminary, Eugene often invited his sister and his grandmother to receive communion as frequently as possible. This, he wrote, was one of the means of sanctification practiced by the first Christians according to the mind of our Lord which “was handed down to them by the Apostles” [68]. In a Lenten instruction of 1813, he dealt with confession: “Every Christian knows that there is a sacrament of penance instituted by O.L.J.C. for the remission of sins committed after baptism. That approved priests are the only ministers of this sacrament in virtue of the power that was given them by the Lord […] How can I possibly fail to afford you the opportunity of seeing the constant tradition and the crowd of witnesses which demonstrates the uniformity and perpetuity of this teaching going back to the time of the Apostles?” [69]

After the founding of the Congregation, he speaks rather often about this mission of sanctification. For example, he states that our vocation consists in working “unremittingly for the sanctification of souls with the means employed by the Apostles” [70]; that the novices and the scholastics are preparing themselves to become “worthy ministers of the mercy of God to the people” [71], that “there is no doubt that you are buying souls at the price of your blood” [72]; that we are sent “to show them the way that leads to salvation, to give them rebirth in the holy waters of baptism […]” [73].

Several paragraphs of the Rule set forth in detail the various Oblate ministries which have to do with sanctification of the faithful: missions, confession, direction of the youth, apostolate for the prisoners and the dying, divine office, etc. Even when speaking to missionaries, the Founder rarely mentions baptism. That was due to the fact that he preferred to see them following the example of the Apostles as totally devoted “to prayer and to the service of the word” (Acts 6:4).

3. Other references to the Apostles in the writings of the Founder.

Bishop de Mazenod also drew his inspiration from the Apostles in other circumstances. In 1830, he had some dealings with Father J. A. Grassi, a Jesuit from Turin, about the possibility of establishing a foundation in the Sardinian states, that is, in Sardinia, in Piedmont or in Savoy. He offers a rebuttal to some anticipated objections: “Would someone want to oppose us as foreigners? The members of a Congregation recognized by the Church, whose Superior is named by the Pope, are Catholic before all else. Their lives are dedicated according to the spirit of their vocation to the service of souls without preference for persons or nations; their ministry is entirely spiritual; they belong to the country that adopts them, and live there under the protecting mantle of the law as faithful subjects, solely occupied with the purpose of their heavenly mission which strives to accomplish every duty, whether to God or to the Prince, God’s representative among men. The Apostles were foreigners in the countries to which Our Lord Jesus Christ assigned them to preach the Gospel” [74].

In 1837, Father Vincent Mille accompanied Archbishop J. Bernet of Aix on a pastoral visit of his diocese. The Archbishop’s predecessor had allowed foreign priests to preach missions in the diocese, but Father Mille told him that these preachers had already left after having stirred up a lot of talk and laid out elaborate plans. As a result, the Founder notes in his Diary: “That is the second installment of the Missionaries of France to which group some of these newcomers belong. Why should we wish to act other than our models, the Apostles, have done? It is written that they did not harvest in the fields planted by others. In addition, God has not blessed their works and we will have at least earned some merit for our resignation or for the support that I so highly recommended to our members in those difficult moments that we have to put up with” [75].

In his circular letter of December 1845 which prescribed that public prayers be said for the return of England to Catholic unity, the Bishop of Marseilles noted “upright and sincere souls” had perceived that a Church “would be false if she were not founded on the Prophets and the Apostles with Jesus Christ as cornerstone of the edifice […] These men of whom we speak have not wished to confuse the shepherd’s staff of the spiritual pastor with the scepter of a temporal king, the keys which open to souls the kingdom of heaven with the sword that safeguards their bodies. The powers of the world do not appear to them to have received from heaven the mission to feed the sheep and lambs of the Lord but only he to whom God expressly says: Feed my lambs and my sheep (John 21:16 &17) and also they who with him have been invested with the pastoral ministry: that is to say, the Pope, successor of St. Peter and centre of unity, together with the Bishops, successors of the other Apostles. To them it has been said: Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” [76].

Often enough Bishop de Mazenod used the word Apostle in the broader sense of a great missionary of the Gospel. A first usage is found in two places in the Nota bene of the 1818 Rule: “Since these causes are known, it becomes easier to apply the remedy. To do this, we must form apostles […].” “What must we do […]? To follow courageously in the footsteps of so many apostles who have left us such splendid examples […]” [77]. In 1819, in a letter to Father Tempier and his confreres preaching a mission at Rognac, he wrote: “God be praised, my dear friends and true apostles” or yet again at the beginning of 1826: “Recommend to our fathers who are preaching the jubilee that they conduct themselves like saints, like real apostles” [78]. In the month of February of 1848, he wrote to Father Louis Toussaint Dassy in Nancy giving him news of the fathers and brothers in Ceylon and Oregon. He ends his letter by saying, “Let none among us complain anymore of anything, for we have so generous an advanced contingent that makes conquests for Jesus Christ by so many sacrifices, and what merits do they not acquire in the eyes of the Lord and of the Church. Dear Brothers, how admirable they are! Let us pray much for them, and let us be proud to be one with such apostles of the Lord” [79]. The same thought is found in a letter to Father Charles Baret in 1852: “You will not find anywhere a group of wiser and more fervent youngsters [young fathers] … We have never had such a large number of them in the Congregation. We encompass the whole world with our apostles whose zeal and devotedness wring from me tears of joy and tenderness” [80].

The Founder rarely made use of the adjective “apostolic”. Only on a few occasions did he call the Oblates “apostolic men” [81] and spoke of their “apostolic vocation” [82]; or yet again characterized their mission as “apostolic work”, “apostolic ministry” [83].

4. Devotion to the Apostles, particularly to Peter, Paul and John, and an interest in their writings

In the first Directory of Novices and Scholastics, the authorship of which Oblate tradition attributes to Father Casimir Aubert who was a close collaborator and beloved disciple of the Founder, we find in the chapter on devotions that we should nurture intense personal devotion to the Apostles, especially Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint John [84]. Their names already appeared in the litanies of the saints special to the Congregation, recited during particular examen from the first days of the Institute.

Already in 1805, in an effort to confirm his friend Immanuel Gaultier de Claubry in his faith, Eugene sent him a series of Scripture texts and added: “It is by no means Eugene, it is Jesus Christ, it is Peter, Paul, John, etc., who send you this wholesome food which when received with that spirit of faith of which you are capable will certainly not be without effect” [85].

Eugene loved Saint Peter because Jesus entrusted to him the keys of his Church [86] and because, like himself, he was a special object of the mercy of the Lord. He took him as his “specially chosen patron” during the retreat when he was preparing for the priesthood in December of 1811 [87]. To his friend Abbé Charles de Forbin-Janson who was visiting Rome in 1814, he wrote: “I still have space to beg you to make an offering of my heart with yours to Saint Peter and all the other saints with whom the Holy City is filled” [88]. During his own stay in Rome (1825-1826), Father de Mazenod celebrated Mass on the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles on December 21, 1825, and in his letters and Diary he noted that there were memorials or relics of Saint Peter in a dozen churches [89].

“Inflamed with the zeal which burned in the Apostles”, according to the expression coined by Canon Cailhol [90], it was natural for Bishop de Mazenod to have a special devotion to Saint Paul, Apostle of the gentiles. Again during his stay in Rome, he went to pray at the tomb of this Apostle on January 29, 1826, and found memorials of him in some other churches [91].

Saint John, the beloved disciple, received the homage of the Founder’s veneration especially because of his intimate union with the Lord. Upon the occasion of the death of Dauphin, one of his servants, Bishop de Mazenod poured forth his sorrow in his Diary and felt the need to explain: “I have every reason to thank God for having endowed me with a soul capable of understanding better the soul of Jesus Christ, our master, who formed, enlivened and inspired mine, than all those cold, selfish intellectuals who seem to think the heart resides in the head and who do not know how to love anyone because, in the final analysis, they love only themselves. And it is in the wake of the teaching of Jesus Christ, and after the example of Saint Peter and the teaching of Saint John, that they come to pawn off on us a kind of perfection more worthy of the Stoics than of authentic Christians!” [92]

The Founder knew well the writings of these three Apostles. Often in his letters and more frequently still in his circular letters, he quoted passages from their letters and the Gospel of Saint John. We find in his writings about fifty quotes from Saint Peter, a few hundred from Saint John, and more still from Saint Paul [93].

II. The Apostles in the tradition of the Congregation

The Oblates who were the Founder’s contemporaries did not seem to have shared to any great extent his interest in and devotion to the Apostles, but they were energized by the same zeal. Of course, one would have to have perused all their writings to make an objective judgment on this point, but the little that we do know through biographies and their necrological notices allows us, it would seem, to make this statement. Indeed, in the published writings of the main collaborators of Bishop de Mazenod, Fathers Tempier and Casimir Aubert, the Apostles are practically never mentioned. In response to Abbé de Mazenod’s first letter, Abbé Tempier used the same terminology: “I see what your are looking for most in choosing your collaborators: you want priests […] who are ready to follow in the footsteps of the Apostles […]” [94].

Father Casimir Aubert also made a single mention of them. On Holy Thursday 1833, Bishop de Mazenod extended to him the invitation to serve as deacon at the cathedral. He wrote in his retreat notes: “It is no longer in a church that on celebrating the wonderful institution of the Eucharist; you enjoy the blessing of being with the Apostles in the great hall where our beloved Jesus will give the most outstanding proof of his love for men” [95]. We also know that Father Dominic Albini, as a gesture in imitation of the Apostles, strove to go on foot to all the places where he would preach [96].

In a letter written in 1863 to Father Joseph Fabre, Bishop Jean-François Allard spoke about the Basotho having ideas which presupposed on their part a good grasp of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles: “The Basotho find the celibacy of the Catholic missionaries very proper. We know, some among them have told us, that the Apostles left everything and that several were not married. Besides, when we saw our Protestant ministers, we asked ourselves where the successors of the Apostles were who had renounced everything and lived a life of poverty? But when we saw the Catholic missionaries coming, we said among ourselves: These are more likely to be the true successors of the Apostles, because they walk more closely in their footsteps” [97].

In 1868, Father Mark de L’Hermite said that Father Tempier had been the beloved disciple of the Founder like Saint John had been the beloved disciple of Jesus. Father Joseph Fabre makes the same comparison in 1870 in Father Tempiers necrological notice [98], but in his many circular letters, he mentions the Apostles only once in speaking of obedience [99]. In the circular letter of March 21, 1863, he reminds his readers that the goal of the Congregation is to evangelize. However, as examples he does not point to the Apostles, but rather to Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Francis Régis [100].

Father Louis Souiller mentioned the Apostles more frequently. From his very first circular letter of May 24, 1893, he said that he was elected by the Chapter which he compared to the Cenacle “to which the Apostles had retired when they came down from the hill of the Ascension. In silence and recollection, closely united in the bonds of charity and united in prayer with Mary, the Mother of God, they awaited with confidence the fulfillment to the divine promises and a marvelous transformation took place […]” [101].

In his important circular letters on Preaching and on Studies, Father Soullier mentioned the Apostles several times in the same way the Founder did. He published his letter on Preaching in February of 1895. After holding forth at length on the dignity and the fruitfulness of preaching, he added: “The Apostles, sent by Jesus Christ, held the sublimity of preaching in high regard. When they were forced to choose, they entrusted the work of charity to subordinates and reserved for themselves the task of preaching […]” [102].

About ten times in his December 8, 1896 letter on Studies , he mentioned the Apostles who did not baptize, but reserved for themselves the ministry of the word (p.32). He stated that “the best means for regenerating the world was to come back to the method of the Apostles”, and went on to explain (pp. 45 and 46) what this method entailed. In chapter V treating of study and the Oblate in the foreign missions, he said: “You find yourselves in the same situation as the Apostles who had the whole world to win over to the faith […]; your role is, in a sense, more difficult than that of the Apostles’ ” because “you have to face paganism before you, you have heresy at your elbow […]” (pp. 58-59). In several places he spoke of the “apostolic man” who is the “propagator and defender of the faith” (pp. 64, 106) [103].

When the Oblates were expelled from France in 1903, Father Cassian Augier wrote: “Should we not, like the Apostles, rejoice for having been judged worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ?” (Acts 5:14) [104].

Once in his circular letters, Bishop Augustine Dontenwill quoted the well-known text from the Founder’s Memoirs concerning the beginnings of the Congregation: “My intention in devoting myself to the ministry of the missions […] had been to imitate the example of the Apostles in their life of dedication and self-denial […]” [105].

Father Leo Deschâtelets spoke of the Founder in the majority of his circular letters and mentioned the Apostles several times. In circular no. 191 on our vocation, he called them “our first fathers” [106]; in his 1968 letter on the Spirit of renewal, he quoted the Preface with regard to the way our Lord chose and formed his Apostles; he stressed the “ascesis which finds its source in the teachings of the Gospel and the holy Apostles”; he then invited the Oblates to “follow in the footsteps of Christ and the Apostles” and added that “the saints, the Apostles, our first fathers, always considered that they were never doing enough to follow in the footsteps of Christ” [107].

In the letters during the last years of his superiorship, the period between 1969 and 1972, in addition to the traditional expressions of “apostolic men” and of “apostolic life” , Father Deschâtelets coined new ones such as: “apostolic commitment”, “apostolic community life”, “apostolic community” [108].

We find once the expression “apostolic community” in the few circular letters of Father Richard Hanley [109], whereas Father Fernand Jetté often spoke of “apostolic men” [110] of “apostolic works” [111], of “commitment” and of an “apostolic body” [112], of “periods of apostolic activity for the novices” [113], and, together with his Council, spoke of “the Apostles, our first fathers”, and that “Oblates endeavor to follow in the Apostles’ footsteps” [114].

The Constitutions of 1982, drawn up and approved under the superiorship of Father Jetté, mentioned the Apostles in three articles. The third, In Apostolic Community, presents an idea which is not explicitly found in the writings of the Founder: “The community of the Apostles with Jesus is the model of our life. Our Lord grouped the Twelve around him to be his companions and to be sent out as his messengers (cf. Mk 3:14). The call and the presence of the Lord among us today bind us together in charity and obedience to create anew in our own lives the Apostles’ unity with him and their common mission in his Spirit.” Father Jetté came back to this thought in circular letter no. 299, the letter of convocation for the 1986 Chapter: “The Chapter is, therefore, first of all, a family gathering around Christ, like that of the Apostles gathering on the evening of Easter […]” [115].

Article 6 of the Constitutions, “In the Church”, draws its inspiration from the Founder’s thought, a mindset very devoted to the Church and to the Pope and which wanted to see the Oblates at the service of the bishops [116]. The article reads as follows: “Our love for the Church inspires us to fulfill our mission in communion with the pastors whom the Lord has given to his people; we accept loyally, with an enlightened faith, the guidance and teachings of the successors of Peter and the Apostles”.

Article 45 on formation which is evangelical on spirit takes up again the expressions that one often found flowing from the pen of the Founder: “Jesus personally formed the disciples he had chosen, initiating them into “the mystery of the Kingdom of God” (Mk 4:11). As a preparation for their mission he had them share in his ministry; to confirm their zeal he sent them his Spirit. This same Spirit forms Christ in those who endeavour to follow in the Apostles’ footsteps. As they enter more deeply into the mystery of the Saviour and his Church, he moves them to dedicate themselves to the evangelization of the poor.”

Father Marcello Zago, like Father Jetté, occasionally mentions the Apostles. [117] He also uses the traditional expression “apostolic men” [118] and above all, those more recent expressions “apostolic spirituality” [119], “apostolic priorities” and then very often “apostolic communities” [120].


In his circular letter of February 28, 1848, the Bishop of Marseilles wrote: “The apostle is more perfect than the monk. The virtues of those who preach the truth, says Pope Saint Gregory, are heaven’s adornment. It can happen that the apostle under the inspiration of a lofty charity may forget himself on occasion and wholly renounce everything that is his to dedicate himself entirely to the task of saving his brothers. Like Saint Paul, he would choose to become anathema for their sake […]. [121]

After his return to Aix in 1802 and his conversion between 1805 and 1808, grace enkindled in the heart of Eugene de Mazenod the flame of zeal. He then devoted his life to the salvation of souls and shared in the solicitude for all the churches [122]. The reaction of Bishop L. Berteaud, Bishop of Tulle in 1850 was not lacking in justification when, after coming from a meeting with Bishop de Mazenod, he expressed himself in these words: “I have met Paul” [123].

The Oblates have always been animated by the ardent zeal that burned in the heart of the Apostles and of Bishop de Mazenod. The latter often rejoiced at their dedication and their apostolic successes. The secretary of the 1837 Chapter tells us that in the report of the first session the Founder spoke to the capitulants in fatherly fashion. “In his address, he could not, at first, contain his deep-felt emotion which was shared by all, as he saw gathered around him his children whom he had seen born before his very eyes, had formed with his own hands, and now saw as apostles, conquerors, men of miracles, since by an outstanding protection shown by the Lord, wonders appeared as they passed by […]” [124].

Upon his return from a trip to America in 1895, Superior General Father Louis Souiller issued a circular letter in which he wrote: “Yes, our missionaries have walked in the footsteps of the Apostles; with the cross and the divine Word, they have converted entire nations and through the Mother of Mercy have brought them to Jesus, the Son of God” [125].

The Superiors General and the Popes have often made the same observations. The Oblates have courageously proclaimed the Good News to the poor and shaped Christianity in several countries. In 1932, Pope Pius XI expressed his admiration in these words: “Once again we have seen how you have held to your beautiful, glorious and holy characteristic which is that of dedicating your energies and your talents and your lives to the souls of the most abandoned in the most difficult missions […]” [126] At the General Chapter of 1986, Pope John Paul II invited them to remain faithful to their heritage: “Sons of Eugene de Mazenod, whose zeal to proclaim the Gospel has been compared to the Mistral wind, heirs of a lineage nearly two centuries old of Oblates impassioned for Jesus Christ, let yourselves be drawn more than ever by the vast and poor masses of Third World regions, also by the Fourth World of the West, stagnating in misery and in the ignorance of God” [127].

Yvon Beaudoin