- Deceased Oblates
- Eugene de Mazenod's Writings
- Constitutions and Rules
- General Chapters
- Superiors General
- The Church's Tradition
- Relevance of the Founder's teaching
From its origin, the Oblate Congregation has been mindful of its departed members. Its concern for the dead, most evident in the writings of our Founder, also appears lucidly in our Constitutions and Rules, in the Acts of General Chapters, and in the Circular Letters of our Superiors General. Keeping the memory of our deceased alive, and remembering them fondly in prayer, is an integral part of our Oblate heritage. It is a legacy Eugene de Mazenod transmits to us from the Church’s own tradition, a message which is still relevant today. This article focuses briefly on each of the above elements.
EUGENE De Mazenod’s Writings
In the pages of his correspondence, our Founder repeatedly refers to the grief that he experiences at the death of an Oblate. “What shall I say to you, my dear child”, he wrote to Father André Sumien at Aix, “about the misfortune which has brought consternation to us all? I am dumbfounded and can scarcely believe it” . On another occasion, hearing of the accidental death of one of his younger priests, he wrote to Father Hippolyte Guibert, at Ajaccio: “I have just offered the Holy Sacrifice for this good priest whose death you announced in your last letter. I will weep for him all my life, as for those who have preceded him into eternity; their loss leaves me inconsolable […] I share your grief […] A blow of this kind flattens me; my soul is sunk in sorrow” . Even towards the end of his own life, death still afflicted the Founder keenly, as he revealed to Bishop Étienne Semeria in Jaffna: “How bitter death is when it takes away from us those whom we have so many reasons to regret. Do you imagine I have accustomed myself to the thought that I have, for example, lost our Father Aubert who was so good, so kind, so admirable? I groan several times a day over this irreparable loss. The void he leaves around me is an abyss nothing can bridge. He is a loss to my heart, he is a daily loss to the service of the Congregation, he is a loss to all those whom he edified, whom he helped, whom he encouraged and whom he carried with him by his advice and most of all by his example. It is something one cannot console oneself about, however subject one is to the impenetrable will of God”. 
Bishop de Mazenod, nonetheless, did not reproach himself for being downcast at the death of Oblates. On the contrary – in 1831, for instance, he wrote to Father Henry Tempier: “Jesus Christ, our only model, does not give us this example. I adore his trembling and tears before the tomb of Lazarus just as much as I disdain and abhor the stoicism, the insensibility and the egoism of all those who would wish, so it seems, to surpass this prototype of all perfection”. 
It is thus not surprising that the death of his Oblate companions tested the Founder’s faith vigorously . Manpower in the Congregation was habitually in short supply, and urgent needs could seldom be met. At times the way the Congregation was being tested seemed mysterious to him. “The better a subject is, the more uneasy I am, for death is choosing its victims among the elite”, he exclaimed to Father Hippolyte Courtès . Often, all the Founder could do was submit to God’s designs: “There is nothing to do but prostrate oneself and, as always, adore the holy will of God”. 
But Bishop de Mazenod knew how to console himself. The deceased, he reflected, were no longer exiles. Having died in the bosom of the Congregation was a veritable mark of predestination. The departed, therefore, were now in possession of God, the final end of all their hopes. They were our community up above, linked with the one on earth by the bonds of charity. Their petitions and love would draw the rest of their family to heaven with them . “Their holy death is a great ratification of the Rule, a new seal of its approval by God” . In consequence, the Founder concluded that their memory must be preserved in writing for the edification of the whole Congregation . The following passage, from a letter to Father Courtès, captures many of the foregoing sentiments: “Now four of them in heaven; this is already a nice community. They are the first stones, the foundation stones of the edifice that is to be built in the celestial Jerusalem; they are before God with the sign, the kind of character proper to our Society, the vows common to all her members, the practice of the same virtues. We are attached to them by the bonds of a particular charity, they are still our brothers, and we are theirs; they dwell in our motherhouse, our headquarters; their prayers, the love they keep for us will draw us one day to them so as to dwell with them in the place of our rest. […] I see them at the side of Mary Immaculate and, consequently, close to our Lord Jesus Christ […]; we will receive our part of this fullness if we render ourselves worthy of them by our fidelity in practising constantly this Rule which has helped them to arrive where they are”. 
On the other hand, the Founder urged the Oblates never to cease praying for their deceased brothers because of the bonds that unite them. On December 22, 1860, he wrote the following in his Diary: “This is how our little militant family on earth nourishes the already numerous community in heaven. May these dear Brothers whom God calls to himself one after the other, not lose sight of us once they have reached the summit of happiness; we greatly need help and increase so as to be adequate to the work that is waiting everywhere. We, on our part, do not forget them when they depart from us. Lest there be some obstacle to their immediate entry into heaven, we certainly accompany them with our sorrow, but especially with our suffrages. The entire Congregation engages itself with prayer and indulgences, good deeds and the holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered several times by each of us, which will open to them the gate of heaven if -perchance their holy death in the bosom of the Congregation and the renewal of their profession before leaving this world were not sufficient to dissolve their debts toward God” . Bishop de Mazenod’s thinking, moreover, was that the prayers of the living would help those already glorified in heaven to be lifted “higher in glory”.  This unique way of seeing things says much about our Founder’s hope in God.
Constitutions and Rules
In drafting the Constitutions and Rules of the Congregation, the Founder incorporated some articles on the departed from the Redemptorists’ Statuti Capitolari, and others from unknown sources . The first approved edition in 1827 contained numerous provisions on behalf of deceased members. By and large these preions remained intact in the Constitutions and Rules until after the Second Vatican Council. Thereafter, the obsequies contained in earlier editions were gradually dispensed with, and in our most recent edition of the Constitutions and Rules in 1982, it was judged fitting to place the list of suffrages in an appendix to the text. A summary of stipulations contained in various editions may be of interest here for comparative purposes. Only the major pre-Vatican versions are noted as they may be less familiar to many. Noteworthy additions and changes to the 1827 edition are indicated according to the edition in which they first appeared.
1. “Whenever a member of the Institute dies, all houses are to be notified so that the suffrages of all might deliver his soul quickly from Purgatory” (Part I, Chapter 4, §4, Suffrages, art. 1).
The next six articles were entitled obsequies up till the 1928 edition when it was changed to exsequies.
2. “The Society’s deceased members are not to be buried within less than twenty-four hours, unless because of the smell or for some other reason, the Superior judges fit to anticipate the burial slightly” (1827).
Note: The 1928 edition simplified the text, merely indicating that burial could be advanced “for grave reasons”.
3. “The prefect of the sacristy according to the Superior’s directions, will deliver to the infirmarian the suitable garments for the deceased. They are not to be put on till several hours after death, when every doubt as to the fact of death has been removed” (1827).
4. “The deceased’s grave clothes will be such as belong to the ecclesiastical order of the deceased Oblate. The lay brothers will be vested in their usual dress” (1827).
5. “The deceased will have a cross placed in his hands, which will be left with him in the grave” (1827).
6. “This will not be the cross given to him on the day of his oblation; this will remain in the Society as a memorial of the virtues of him who bore it, and as a means of perpetuating his memory and good example he gave to his brothers” (1827).
7. “In every house of the Society, as a reminder of death, a cross will be placed in a conspicuous place. It will be put into the hands of the first to die and then buried with him” (1827).
The 1853 edition of the Constitutions and Rules added that this cross was to be a black wooden one. From 1827 onwards, the remaining articles on the deceased are entitled Des suffrages.
8. The Society, whose charity provides for all the needs, spiritual or temporal, of its members, will take care not to forget those who die in her bosom. Not only will they always share largely in all the merits of the Society, but their departed souls will be solaced immediately after their death by the offering of the holy Sacrifice of the Altar and by abundant suffrages” (1825).
9. “If the deceased was an oblate priest, each priest will celebrate five Masses for him; if the deceased was a simple oblate [i.e. a scholastic], each priest will celebrate three Masses for him. If he was a novice or lay brother, each priest will celebrate one Mass. If he was the Superior General, each priest will celebrate nine Masses” (1825).
The 1853 edition stipulated that the five Masses for a deceased priest, three for oblates, and one for novices would now be offered only by the priests of their own Province or Vicariate. It stated too that all other priests of the Congregation. would offer one Mass for a deceased oblate who was professed, and it reduced the number to be said for a deceased Superior General to five.
In 1894, the original article was divided into two: one article treated the suffrages for the Superior General (five Masses), the Assistants General and the Procurator to the Holy See (three Masses); the second treated of the other deceased members of the Congregation. These provisions remained in force right up until 1966. 
The 1894 edition also added three Masses for a deceased Assistant General and the Procurator. Their counterparts in office, as well as the Superior General, were in turn to say three Masses for every deceased member of the Society in perpetual vows (this latter obligation was dropped in the 1910 edition). This edition of 1894 likewise stated that the one Mass offered by all priests in the Congregation for non-dignitaries was to be for every deceased Oblate in vows, whether priest or not. Oblates in temporary vows, and novices who had taken vows in danger of death but whose vows had not elapsed, were to receive one Mass from each priest in their Province or Vicariate. Conversely those novices who had taken vows under ordinary circumstances were to have one Mass offered for the repose-of their soul only by the priests of their own house. The 1910 edition of the Constitutions and Rules included the Bursar General in the three Masses to be offered for deceased dignitaries, and specified that the Procurator mentioned in the 1894 edition was the Procurator to the Holy See. It likewise simplified the previous edition by indicating that the one Mass every priest in the Congregation was to offer for a deceased Oblate pertained to those in perpetual vows. Then, in 1928, in conformity with the new Code of Canon Law, the new edition of the Constitutions and Rules simply laid down the following provisions: 1o For each deceased in the Congregation, the Superior General, his Assistants, the Bursar General and the Procurator to the Holy See will celebrate one Mass. 2o In every Province, each priest will likewise offer one Mass for each deceased member of the Province. 3o Finally, each of our deceased will be remembered for a full year after his death in the two Masses a month that all priests will say for our deceased (Rule of 1828, art. 363).
10. “Oblates and novices will offer as many holy communions for the deceased as the priests are to celebrate Masses”. “Lay brothers will offer five decades of the rosary for the deceased for a week, as well as offering as many holy communions as the oblates and novices” (1827).
The 1894 edition restricted the communions to be offered by oblates and novices (lay brothers were no longer required to offer their communions) to the number of Masses that the priests of their own house were required to offer. Lay brothers were to offer five decades of the rosary over a week only for the deceased of their own house. The 1928 edition specified that Oblates and novices who were not priests were to offer as many holy communions for the deceased as the priests of their own house had to offer Masses.
11. “Besides the Mass to be said by each priest, there will be a service in each house after the Office of the Dead, which will be recited in its entirety in the house where the deceased resided; in other houses only one nocturn and lauds will be recited” (1827).
The 1853 edition restricted the service and office to each house of the Province or Vicariate in which the deceased lived, and made clear that the service in other houses should be held after the one nocturn and lauds. Subsequently, the 1928 version inserted a sung Mass and the absolution in place of the service, and brought out more sharply that all the provisions applied only to the house or houses of the Province or Vicariate to which the dead person had belonged.
12. “In all houses of the Society, all prayers, Communions, penances and good works will be offered for each deceased member for eight days. He will also be mentioned in the evening prayer (1827).
The 1853 edition limited the above suffrages to each house of the Province or Vicariate to which the deceased belonged. The same applied to the mention of the person at evening prayers. The 1928 version dropped any reference to houses of a Vicariate.
13. “In the case of a deceased Superior General, the above-mentioned suffrages, funeral service and complete Office of the Dead will take place in all houses of the Congregation The same applies throughout the Congregation for Assistants General and the Procurator, except that for the latter the funeral service will only be held in the General House and in the residence of a Provincial or Vicar of Missions (1894).
This new article was first introduced in the 1894 edition. The 1910 version added the General Bursar to the list, and the 1928 edition changed the funeral service to a solemn Mass with the Absolution. It also stated that neither the solemn Mass nor the Office of the Dead had to be said for the Assistants, etc., except in the General House and in their own Provincial or Vicarial house.
14. “Those who are not attached to a particular Province but live under the direct authority of the Superior General, have the same obligations and the same rights in the matter of suffrages as the members of that Province In whose territory they reside” (1928).
This article was introduced for the first time into the 1928 edition of the Constitutions and Rules.
15. “On the death of the Sovereign Pontiff, a solemn Mass of the Dead will be recited for him in all houses of the Congregation. For the Cardinal Protector a solemn Mass will be offered in the General House, and in the Provincial houses. We will do likewise for the diocesan Bishop in our churches (1928, n° 369).
This article is also a new one, first introduced in the 1928 Constitutions and Rules.
16. “When the father or mother of one of our members dies, the same suffrages will be observed as in the preceding article (which was number 12 above). “The son of a deceased parent may offer five Masses for either parent, and three for a deceased brother or sister” (1827).
The 1928 edition combined the above two-part article into one and added “or a notable benefactor”. It also observed that the superior should see that the same suffrages be applied for members of the Society who were not priests.
17. “On the anniversary of the death of a member of the Society a service will be held in the house in which he died or to which he belonged, which the whole community will attend” (1827).
The 1853 edition of the Constitutions and Rules specified that this service should be a sung Mass. The 1928 version simply dropped the reference to the house in which the deceased had died. 
What is most striking about the preceding articles, and the rulings of the General Chapters which follow, is the great amount of time and concern that were expended on them by the Founder and so many other Oblates. These detailed provisions testify to the importance attributed to the deceased in our Oblate history and spirituality.
A number of the Congregation’s General Chapters addressed the topic of the deceased, and spoke of the suffrages that were to be offered on their behalf. Some comments by General Chapters are given here under the same numbers adopted in the preceding section, as a cross-reference to that particular article or articles of the Constitutions and Rules.
1. The 1867 Chapter prescribed that the deceased’s Provincial, Vicar of Mission, or local Superior should notify the Superior General immediately, and send him whatever edifying information he could as soon as possible. Information was requested on the dead person’s illness, virtues and life. The Superior General would then notify all the houses, asking them to perform the designated suffrages. Later he would publish whatever information he had received at greater length. On this same point the 1887 Chapter required that the Superior of every house in which the deceased had lived forward any documents he had or could collect to the Secretary General. These were to be sent in within three months so that a death notice could afterwards be sent out for the edification of all. Other members of the Congregation who knew the deceased well were strongly urged to do likewise. In 1898 the Chapter ruled that Provincials should keep a register containing all the information the individual had given on himself, as well as the person’s changes of residence. Each year the Provincial send a copy of same to the General House. These measures were designed to facilitate the composition of the death notices. 
2. to 5. With regard to obsequies, the Chapter of 1893 directed that they should be observed according to regional customs, yet always in a modest, humble and poor manner. 
6. Besides the Oblate cross, the Chapter of 1837 recommended that another memorial of the deceased be kept, i.e. a simple necrology which would give a few details on the deceased person’s life and virtues, and be read in the refectory on the vigil of the anniversary of the person’s death. 
9. The 1926 Chapter at first wanted to retain the principle of a Mass by each priest in the Province. It became a special obligation on the General Administration, and it prescribed two monthly Masses to be said by each one for all of the deceased. 
11. Funerals should be conducted according to the usage of the country, the 1893 Chapter ordered, but further charged that everything should be carried out after the manner of the poor. It also conceded that the recitation of the Office of the Dead might be more easily neglected than other suffrages. 
13. Each year on May 21, the anniversary of the death of our Founder, the Chapter of 1867 asserted that a Mass was to be celebrated for him in perpetuity at the General House. This Chapter also stipulated that a Mass would also be celebrated at the General House, annually and in perpetuity, for his Holiness Pope Leo XII for all that he had done for the Congregation.  In 1873 the capitulants decided that a sung funeral service for Father Tempier should be held at that Chapter as a sign of its affection and gratitude to him for the important role he had played in the founding of the Congregation. It was further indicated by the General Chapter of 1898 that whenever a General Chapter convened to elect a new Superior General, a funeral service would be sung before its closure for the repose of the soul of the last deceased Superior General. 
16. The 1893 Chapter affirmed that permission would be readily granted to attend the funerals of one’s parents, but it would not be easily given for other relatives, unless the funerals were held in the vicinity.  Much earlier, the 1867 Chapter had observed that anyone entitled to suffrages for a relative ought to request them himself from the Superiors of his Province. It also had stated that as a sign of appreciation for our benefactors, a sixth decade of the rosary should be recited for them with an accompanying De Profundis. This was in addition to the mention of their names at night prayer. To this the 1887 Chapter added that in addition to the prayers normally said in each house or Province for particular benefactors, a Mass should be said for all of them once a month at the General House. The 1893 Chapter contented itself with urging that Oblates exactly observe everything our holy Rules prescribed in the way of suffrages for the deceased. 
17. The 1898 Chapter elaborated that the anniversary celebration should be announced on the vigil in the refectory, and that the suffrages should be performed at night prayer. The De Profundis was to be recited with several accompanying prayers. 
In 1873 Father Joseph Fabre wrote as follows: “In this period (since the last Chapter) we have had the misfortune of losing fifty-two Fathers or Brothers. The Lord has called them to himself. I cannot tell you the names of all these dear deceased. But there is one whose name is already on your lips: that of Father Tempier. This is the first Chapter that this venerable companion of the best of Fathers does not attend; we had lovingly hoped to keep this faithful witness of the first days of our Family among us, (but) the Lord has decided otherwise. We had the consolation of being at his side when he drew his last breath; the Lord wanted to recompense his good servant and spare his […] heart the poignant anguish he would have felt seeing the Holy Father held prisoner at Rome and our enemies entering Paris victorious! Alongside this ever venerable name permit me to also mention that of Bishop Semeria, of such gentle and holy memory, so quickly and unexpectedly snatched from our warmhearted fellowship. Fifty other names follow these two cherished ones; the funeral list is very long! All our Fathers died in the peace of the Lord, they leave us a rich heritage of virtues to imitate and examples to follow; they are now before God with our beloved Father. They loved their religious family on earth; they love it in heaven where they pray for us who remain in exile. May their prayers draw down the most abundant blessings on this Chapter and on all the Family”. 
Archbishop Augustin Dontenwill dealt with the question of suffrages in his 1908 Circular. “Our General Chapters have dealt with the question of suffrages for our deceased at several sessions. Should we maintain those of the Chapter of 1850, presided over by our Venerated Founder, or, seeing how the Congregation has expanded, should they be revised so as to ease the burden of less-endowed Provinces and Vicariates, yet without prejudice to the deceased?” He went on to point out that the Chapter of 1908 had consented to modify three of the articles, and that this decision had been ratified by the Sacred Congregation of Religious Institutes in December of 1908. He concluded his address by saying: “The spirit which animated this revision always remains the spirit of charity which our Venerable Founder had for the deceased. And I hasten to take this opportunity, not only to remind you that it is a duty of justice for all of us to acquit punctually the prescribed suffrages for our dead, but also to urge you still further to pray much for our deceased – a fruitful apostolate which mitigates the intensity of the flames of Purgatory and draws down on ourselves the most abundant graces from the Heart of Jesus”. 
Again, in 1927, the Superior General brought up the topic of suffrages in light of the revisions of the Constitutions and Rules at the 1926 Chapter. These had been undertaken to conform them to the new Code of Canon Law, issued in 1926. In closing, the Archbishop observed: “[The Founder’s] image presided over all our sessions, and his spirit guided all our thoughts […] We have reason to believe that he approved our work and that he is happy with us. Shouldn’t we see his special intervention, moreover, in the following incident. On July 2, the very day that the Decree approving the changes to our Holy Rules was signed at Rome, the Diocesan inquiry into a striking miracle at the intercession of Bishop de Mazenod took place at Notre-Dame de Lumières. The miracle is said to have taken place last June not far from the Sanctuary he loved so much. 
The Church’s Tradition
For the most part, Eugene De Mazenod’s outlook on death and the afterlife were rooted solidly in the Church’s teachings. Without question death troubled him deeply, and he had to struggle hard to accept it. He was able to overcome its sting, however, by his belief in the life to come, an uncomplicated and deep-seated faith in Christ’s victory over the grave. Eternal life and Purgatory, as well as the Communion of Saints, were vivid realities for him. He accepted them wholeheartedly on the testimony of Scripture and Tradition. One can hardly doubt, moreover, that his views on predestination fell well within the range of orthodoxy, though further study of them would be helpful both to clarify his position and to contextualize them historically. The Founder likewise believed, in keeping with the Church’s practice and teaching, that prayers for the dead were wholesome and holy, helping to free their souls from Purgatory. Yet he was also of the opinion that prayers and good works by the living could obtain a higher place for the deceased in heaven. How the Founder came to this conclusion, and the reasons he had for holding it, are unclear. For some, it goes beyond accepted teaching: that with death merit is no longer possible. Certainly, his stance is surprising and warrants further investigation.
Relevance of the Founder’s Teaching
Preoccupation with community is a characteristic of our age. Nowadays people are increasingly conscious of their political and economic interdependence. Technology, travel and the media are drawing countries into a global community. They are raising expectations of a world harmony, one of well-being and togetherness.
Yet improvements in communication have exposed us to the breadth and depth of human miseries. We learn of countless social ills everywhere, varying only in kind or degree. There is tragedy and despair, oppression and hunger and alienation. People search for meaning and value whereby they can make sense of it all.
As Oblates we are called to address peoples’ aspirations and anxieties, guided by Eugene de Mazenod’s spirit. That spirit still sheds light on the hopes and fears of our time. It is Christ’s spirit of compassion and trust, a spirit of faith and equity, and a spirit of family solidarity. Our Founder was sustained strongly by his Oblate community, living and dead, and by the wider Communion of Saints. His vision included the here and hereafter; it encompassed both miseries and mercy. It took account of human longing as well as the loving plan of God. It continues to offer our world meaning and value, a foretaste of the life to come.
Bishop de Mazenod’s convictions, regarding the truths that death evokes, are relevant for his followers, and for the peoples we serve. They show compassion for human suffering, hopefulness in the face of tragedy, cooperation in attaining lasting values, and awareness of belonging to a community which transcends the limits of space and time. They situate Christ squarely at the center of history. They challenge us to live in mystery while becoming our definitive selves. They teach that by dying we come to life, that our best yearnings are not in vain. They give us the certainty that justice will one day be done, and that tears will cease forever. They stress that each of us has dignity and importance, and that our destinies are interlocked, horizontally and vertically.
THOMAS A. LASCELLES