1. Bishop
  2. Eugene de Mazenod and the episcopacy
  3. Oblate Bishops
  4. Oblates, men of the Bishops

In 1854, a fourteen-page publication appeared in Marseilles; its object was to make known the spirit and the works of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It was published anonymously, but it would be difficult for us to conceive that the Founder, Eugene de Mazenod, did not at least review it.

When the text endeavors to describe “the spirit of the Congregation”, it reads as follows: “The spirit which most especially characterizes the rules of the Oblates is that of a great loyalty to the authority of the Holy See and the episcopacy. They must consider themselves as being in a special way the men of the Pope and the bishops, that is, of the Church of Jesus Christ. They should make this spirit prevail to the extent their influence allows […]” [1]

If, according to Eugene de Mazenod, the Oblates are first and foremost men of Jesus Christ, their love of Christ cannot be dissociated from the love of the Church. They are also led to carry out their ministry in strict union with the Pope and the bishops and in constant cooperation with those others who labor for the Gospel. Article 6 of the 1982 Constitutions accurately and effectively communicating the thinking of the Founder stresses the communion of the Oblates with the leading pastors of God’s people, loyalty towards them, along with the spirit of cooperation and dialogue.


Respect for the bishops and making himself available to them were attitudes which developed early on in Eugene de Mazenod. In addition to the fact that respect for authority was drilled into him from his youth by a family and social milieu steeped in royalist sentiments, from the Sulpicians in the seminary in Paris he would imbibe as well a spirit of unconditional loyalty to the Pope and the cardinals confined in France by Napoleon and a spirit of respect for the bishops faithful to the successors of Peter. His natural generosity would lead him to render them every service it was in his power to offer.

After his ordination to the priesthood in 1811, Eugene was initially involved in the formation of seminarians at Saint Sulpice, then with the youth of Aix, and he strove to communicate the same spirit to them. Later on, he would write to the Bishop of Quimper: “[…] before I had the honor of being raised to this dignity after I had taken a path leading away from it, and was far from thinking that later on I would be obliged to accept this burden; I told my students while stressing the grandeur of bishops in the Church, that I would like to be their step-ladder to exalt them in the eyes of the faithful. My greatest preoccupation has always been to instill the greatest devotedness and filial affection towards the Prelates who would call them to work in their dioceses” [2].

Abbé de Mazenod himself was eminently qualified to be presented as a candidate for the episcopal office, but from his very first years in the priesthood he had made the resolution to accept no ecclesiastical dignity whatever in order to devote himself totally to parish missions. It was only later, when he was faced with the need for protection from a high level ecclesiastical source for his tiny society, that he set about seeking the appointment of his uncle Fortuné as Bishop of Marseilles and that he himself became successively his vicar general, his coadjutor and finally his successor.

When he actually became a bishop, Eugene became more fully aware of the responsibilities that were to be his. In exchanges with his intimate friends, he constantly spoke of the greatness and dignity of the episcopacy. Called by the Vicar of Jesus Christ to share the responsibility entrusted to the Apostles, the bishop receives the Holy Spirit to become a pastor who teaches, sanctifies and guides his people. From this flows his greatness and formidable responsibility. This would be the sentiment that would profoundly and continuously enliven Bishop de Mazenod’s spirit his whole life through. In the days which followed his consecration, he wrote to Father Henry Tempier: “All my life I had been filled with respect for the episcopate, I had always considered it in a great spirit of faith; it was, so to speak, an instinctive reflex of my soul. […] and now the Lord raises me to the summit of this greatness and what is more, he is making me understand that I still fell short in my estimate of this plenitude of the priesthood of Jesus Christ” [3]. And so, according to Bishop de Mazenod, in order to be faithful to his calling, the bishop must aspire to a higher level of sanctity. In particular, he must distinguish himself by his spirit of prayer, his zeal, his participation in the liturgy, his presence among the people, the simplicity of his tastes and the poverty lived in his personal life. Those were the characteristics he would later bring to the attention of his sons called to follow him in the episcopacy.


Indeed, the Church soon came calling to request that the Congregation provide a number of bishops. For the Founder the Holy See’s choice was flattering, [4]but in some ways he felt it was a loss for the Congregation still too few in number. He was being asked to give up some of his best subjects, talented and wise men, good administrators, whose loyalty to the society was beyond reproach. In the Founder’s lifetime, six Oblates were called to the episcopacy: Hippolyte Guibert (1842), Eugene Guigues (1848), Alexandre Taché (1851), Jean François Allard (1851), Etienne Semeria (1858) and Vital Grandin (1859).

On the other hand, just as in his own case, the issue was one of the advancement of the Church and the Congregation. In any case, for the father of the family, it was enough that the Pope had spoken for him to accept to go along with it. Later on, he would admit that in certain cases these appointments were providential in assuring the survival of the missions entrusted to these bishops. In 1847, he wrote to Father Guigues whose appointment he had hesitated to approve: “I see in your promotion a benevolent disposition of Providence towards our Congregation […] I thank the good God for having arranged your promotion in His all powerful wisdom” [5]. With reference to the appointment of Bishop Taché when the Founder was on the point of withdrawing the Oblates from Red River, he wrote: “Since the Vicar of Jesus Christ has chosen one of our members to guide this Church which is being born we will not abandon it” [6].

The first feeling experienced by those chosen was their unworthiness. The Bishop of Marseilles would have none of this. He called them to obedience, confidence and simplicity. To Bishop Allard, he wrote: “You must humbly submit to what God has decided through the voice of his Vicar and reply with confidence and simplicity: Ecce adsum […] It is a consolation to walk thus in the way of obedience” [7]. To Father Semeria, he wrote: “It is not your personal merit that makes you suitable for this burdensome dignity: it is simply the position in which the Congregation, or I, if you wish, have placed you. If you were a religious without virtues, without resources, I would not have trusted you with a mission of such importance […] I am not helping this project along, or rather pressing it to a conclusion, for any other reason than the greater good of your mission, and for the honour and greater independence of the Congregation.” [8]Finally, to Father Grandin, he wrote: “I can see you from here prostrating yourself, your face to the ground, tears pouring from your eyes, humbly refusing the pontifical crown that is to be placed on your head. Be reassured that it is being imposed on you by obedience […]” [9]

The bishops who had been named protested that above all they wanted to remain Oblates. The Founder’s reply was unanswerable. To Bishop Taché he wrote: “No one is more a bishop than I am, and rest assured that no one is more an Oblate than I am. Am I ignorant, then, of the spirit that I wanted to instill in my Congregation? You will be a bishop; I will it. Do not force me to write to the Pope about this, and you will even be more an Oblate because of it […]” [10]. “It is not being a bishop which prevents anyone from being a genuine Oblate. I do believe I am an Oblate, more than anyone else, and I believe that my duty of being a bishop has in no way suffered from it. Like me, you will be a genuine Oblate, and I hope, a worthy bishop.” [11]

In his memoirs, Bishop Taché clearly expressed the sentiments of bishops as members of the Oblate family: “One does not cease being an Oblate by the simple fact of being a bishop. The Founder of the Congregation told this to all of those whom he ordered to accept the episcopacy […] Oblates elevated to the episcopacy were not chosen because they were considered rebels in the Congregation. Quite the contrary is true, their loyalty and their devotion to the religious family that adopted them permitted them to accept the episcopacy only on the condition that this dear mother of theirs would continue to lavish on them her tenderness and trust […] Bishop though I am, I am ever an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, an Oblate by right, an Oblate in my heart, an Oblate in actual fact.” [12]

To emphasize their link to the Congregation the Founder enjoined his sons who became bishops to clearly identify themselves as Oblates in their coat of arms and when they signed their names.

The principles which guided Bishop de Mazenod when he accepted to have his Oblates consecrated bishops were adopted by the General Chapter of 1879 and set forth as norms for future conduct: “The needs of our missions” and ultimately “the will of the Holy Father”. In all other circumstances, declared Father Joseph Fabre, “we wish to remain within the humble confines of our vocation.” [13]

From the outset and for many years, a number of Oblate bishops were simultaneously ecclesiastical as well as religious superiors. Among other things, it was a way of reminding them of their membership in the Congregation. Nonetheless, this two-fold authority was not always well defined. It often led to conflict of interest and consequently to painful situations when it came to persons or property, for example, in Canada and in South Africa. Such conflicts were sometimes the cause of special canonical visits. This also led to contracts between dioceses and the Congregation for the safeguarding of reciprocal rights and for the maintaining of good relations. In general, these agreements guaranteed the respect, good order and harmonious functioning of apostolic activity. Following the spirit of Bishop de Mazenod, they always acknowledge the bishop as the holder of primary responsibility for the mission; they express the availability of Oblates to serve the local Church in specific tasks approved by the bishop. On the other hand, by accepting the Oblates into his jurisdiction, the bishop recognizes the Congregation with its specific character and commits himself to respect, encourage and protect it. He assists in making its charism known and fosters the recruiting of vocations for it.

Based on An Instruction concerning the Foreign Missions added as an appendix to the 1853 Rule, and from refinements added by the Chapters of 1873, 1898 and 1907, a provisional Statutum pro missionibus was arrived at. It was drawn up at the request of the Holy See and approved by the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda in 1912. This Statutum would remain in force until 1934 when, as a result of a careful revision it was definitively approved January 30 of that same year and promulgated by the Superior General, Father Theodore Labouré by his letter of January 6, 1935. Certain administrative difficulties were subsequently the object of special contracts with nine apostolic vicariates which were approved by the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda on April 12, 1940. Later on, the Chapters of 1947 and 1959 reminded the Congregation of the importance of a faithful observance of the Statutum.

Nonetheless, because of numerous developments in the Church as a result of Vatican II, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in its February 24, 1969 directive requested a careful revision of the relations between local ordinaries and missionary institutes. This study culminated in the 1972 and 1973 directives drawn up by the General Administration [14]. Finally, in a much broader context, the document Mutuae relationes was published in 1978 conjointly by the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes and the Congregation for Bishops. The document treated of the mutual relationships between bishops and religious in the Church.

Oblates as “men of the bishops” or “at the service of the bishops” were expressions often found in the Founder’s letters to the heads of dioceses where he was preparing to
send Oblates and in the letters to the missionaries themselves. “They are essentially men of the bishops. It is with this in view that I have founded them and, thanks to God, they are all imbued with this spirit that belongs to their institute”
[15]. “Our missionaries are priests who are most devoted to the bishops” [16]. “Our Oblates have been founded especially for the service of the bishops […].” [17]

Herein we find concrete expressions of devotion to the Church which must characterize Oblates. The Founder’s unconditional attachment to the Pope and to the Holy See, as well as the very lively sense he possessed of the dignity and authority of the bishops, drove him to desire that his sons should be “men of the Pope as they are men of the bishops, that is, men of the Church, men of God” [18]. Towards the end of his life, he declared once again that God had inspired him to found the Congregation “for the sole purpose of serving the bishops at a time when they were in such great need of collaborators in their dioceses bereft of assistance” [19]. This concern, often repeated by the successors of the Founder and illustrated by so many of his sons throughout our history remains a precious element of our Oblate heritage.

As the primary pastors of their people, the bishops are constituted as heads and fathers of the Gospel workers who come to assist them. The Oblates recognize in the bishops those who give them their mission: “We exist only through them and for them […] to alleviate their preoccupations by all our zealous efforts”. [20]

It was Eugene de Mazenod’s understanding, then, that his Oblates recognize the authority of the bishops as the rule of their apostolate. They would like to receive from the pastor of the diocese the inspiration for their ministry and to act only according to his views and his will, to go to him in their difficulties. “[…] They know the value of obedience to the one who represents God in the diocese…” [21]

But above and beyond what obedience and service require, the relations between the bishop and the missionaries were to be cordial, like the relationship between fathers and sons. “We consider the bishops as our fathers from the moment they adopt us; their diocese becomes our family, and I can state that these children of adoption witness to it before anyone by their affection and attachment” [22]. When he was on the point of sending the first Oblates to the Americas, Eugene de Mazenod assured the Bishop of Montreal that he would be the object of this affectionate cordiality: “We are all entirely for you. The ties of charity which unite us could not be more binding. Hence it is with complete trust that I confide our beloved missionaries to you. They set forth full of ardour, disposed to work with all their might in support of your pastoral solicitude. Be mindful that you have adopted them as your children. You will not have priests more obedient and more devoted” [23]. The Bishop of Marseilles considered the Bishop of Montreal as “the affectionate father who takes to his own heart the interests of the Congregation”. [24]

The idea of episcopal fatherhood seems basic and simultaneously rules the attitude of the bishops and that of the missionaries. If the former are genuinely pastors and fathers, the latter are expected to bear toward them the sentiments of devoted sons, to be their executive assistants [25], instruments in their hands [26], defenders of their authority [27].

Article 1 of the 1982 Constitutions states that God’s call is heard through men’s needs for salvation, but the response of the Oblates should draw its inspiration from the directions set by the Pope and bishops. The Congregation’s tradition is distinguished by its love for the Church and collaboration with the pastors of the Church. But, if Bishop de Mazenod wrote to Father John Viala telling him that “one must never forget the deference due a Bishop even when one has a complaint about him” [28], he also reminded Father Pascal Ricard that it “does not mean that you should renounce your legitimate rights, nor that you should abstain from saying what you judge suitable”. [29]

The 1986 Chapter document, Missionaries in Today’s World, makes the observation that faced with “the call we have received to respond creatively to new needs” (87) , the Oblates sometimes experience tensions in their relations with the heads of local churches. In certain cases, these tensions find their source in a different understanding of the Church itself, of the perception one has of pastoral needs; other tensions have their origin in the concrete circumstances of persons and places.

The publication of Mutuae relationes in 1978 offered the Oblates an opportunity to evaluate their relationships with their local churches. At the time, the Superior General, Father Fernand Jetté, invited them to do just that by suggesting that they should ask themselves up to what point they were integrated into the overall pastoral plan of dioceses and to what extent they were “a sort of constant reminder in favour of the most neglected groups” [30]. Always, as for the Founder and the first Oblates who wanted to be cooperators with the Savior and the consolation and hope of a Church in distress, the mission is mediated by the humble and generous service of the bishops, pastors of the people of God.