1. A look at our history
  2. Emergence of the laity
  3. Laity in the Constitutions and Rules and General Chapters
  4. Models of laity sharing the Oblate charism
  5. Criteria for promoting lay association to the Oblates
  6. International congress of lay associates

The association of lay people is a new form of belonging to the Congregation. Not only do some of them want to collaborate in the ministry of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate or support their missions, but they also want to share their charism. This desire to participate took shape during the 1980s. It developed simultaneously and often to a greater degree in other religious institutes.

A look at our history

The Founder never established any association, third order or movement to support the Oblate mission or vocations, or even to spread the spirituality which animates the Oblates. [1] Before founding the Oblates however, he had set up the Association for Christian Youth in Aix. [2] Later on, in the course of parish missions, he felt the need to organize associations, clubrooms, confraternities, to ensure the perseverance of the converted and the fruits of the mission itself. [3] In 1825 and 1856, he even petitioned Rome to obtain privileges, favors and indulgences in an effort to attract members, to strengthen their bonds of association and to express the deep communion which united them among themselves and with the Oblates. [4]

Even if the Oblate charism was the product of religious missionaries, organized in the form of the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, it enjoyed an astonishing diffusion. It took on various forms such as the founding of congregations and many and varied institutes, [5] and the formation of local associations which, from 1905 on, joined together to form the Association of Mary Immaculate. [6]

The work of the Oblates in developing the laity was much broader in scope. For example, they fostered the organization of Catholic Action [7] and the training of catechists in mission territories. They did not limit themselves to evangelization, but they strove to develop the Church and to establish living Christian communities according to the dictates of circumstances and needs.

Emergence of the laity

Today’s Church is characterized by the emergence of the laity through various forms of associations and commitments. It is further distinguished by a renewed awareness of its identity. The Second Vatican Council deepened the study of the mystery of the Church. The 1987 Synod on the vocation and mission of the laity drew the logical conclusions that flowed from it. [8] The laity define themselves in function of their insertion in Christ and thus in the Church, and not in relation to the clergy or the religious. They are fully a part of the Church; they are called to the holiness of the disciples of Christ and are protagonists of the mission which is entrusted to the People of God.

Alongside the multitude of associations created during the recent decades, there developed a variety of forms of ecclesial communities and many Catholic movements such as the “Charismatics”, “Focolare”, “l’Arche”, and the family movements. Third orders have taken on new structures and a renewed dynamism. Contemporary charisms have a tendency of expressing themselves through the various states of life of the People of God and to become movements. Moreover, the powerful spirituality of certain saints has always had a tendency of influencing various milieus and creating movements in the Church. This influence is more evident and the movements are better organized.

Laity in the Constitutions and Rules and General Chapters

The 1982 Constitutions and Rules mention the laity in three articles: one speaks of the laity in general (R 6) [R 7f in CCRR 2000] and the other two treat of the laity in relation to the Oblates. The first of these two latter references states: “In various places lay people feel called to participate directly in the Oblate mission, ministry and community” (R 27) [R 41b in CCRR 2000]. The second speaks of the Missionary Association and of “lay groups which seek to share in Oblate spirituality and apostolate” (R 28) [R 41c in CCRR 2000]. It must be admitted that the area of common sharing for these two rules is not all that clear; the same holds true for the two forms of cooperation. Rule 27 [R 41b] makes use of terms such as “active” and “community”, terms not found in the following rule. However, it speaks of “spirituality”, which is a basic element in all forms of association. Rule 28 [R 41c] which speaks of the Missionary Association seems to be less demanding.

Subsequent Chapters returned to this theme. In its document, Missionaries in Today’s World, the 1986 Chapter stressed the development of the Catholic laity in all their forms. Placing it in the context of the life and theology of contemporary Church life, it compared the laity with various Oblate values such as service to the local church, close contact with the people and a commitment to service of the poor, with and through the poor themselves. [9]

The document indicates two important aims which merit respect: “[…] the primary, irreplaceable role of the baptized in all the circumstances of their daily lives [… and] their specific role in the ecclesial community, since evangelization is a duty of every baptized person”. [10] Some concrete recommendations follow: to search with them for new forms of evangelization, to give them an integral place in the decision-making structures of the Church, to promote the place and role of women, to support their participation in organizations involved in transforming society and their involvement in the media. It is stated that we are ready to put “our resources at the service of the laity whose missionary activity is exercised at the heart of the world” and that this sharing would be “a privileged occasion for mutual formation and evangelization”. [11] The 1987 Synod on the vocation and mission of the laity and the apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici, which followed it, confirmed this outlook and explored more in depth the directives given in the Chapter document. [12]

The 1986 Chapter once again brought what is specific to the vocation and mission of Christian laity to the fore. But the Chapter stressed certain characteristics of the Oblate charism such as commitment to serve the poor, with and through the poor themselves, and seeking new forms of evangelization adapted to the needs of today’s world. [13] It is to be hoped that the laity who cooperate with the Oblates will take our missionary charism as their model, a charism that has as its objective the evangelization of the poor.

In Witnessing as Apostolic Community, the 1992 Chapter returned to the theme of the laity and the new forms of association mentioned in Rule 27 [R 41b in CCRR 2000] and the document of the preceding Chapter (no. 76). [14] The text emphasizes the fact that the desire to share the charism often originates from the laity themselves (nos. 40, 44, § 3). Consequently, Oblates should be better prepared to welcome and support them (no. 44, § 3), to seek out structures of sharing (no. 41). These structures should not be too quickly institutionalized (no. 43) and an appropriate formation must be assured for these people (no. 44, § 6). We must recognize that “there are different modes of sharing the Oblate charism” (no. 43). In contrast to Rule 27 [41b], the text not only stresses the centrality of the missionary aspect, but focuses on the spiritual aspect (no. 44, § 2). This sharing has as its objective not only the mission and its ministries, but the charism as a whole which is mentioned several times (nos. 40, 44, § 2, 3 and 4). Instead of speaking of an active participation in community life as is done in Rule 27 [41b], the document adopts the terms communion and participation (nos. 41, 42, 44 § 7), communication and information (no. 44, 5), mutual enrichment (nos. 41, 42, 44, § 2). These forms of association are a sign of the times (no. 40); they delineate a priority for the future of the Congregation (no. 39), and already show some mutual benefits – in being sources of life for everyone and in affecting the quality of our witnessing (no. 41, 42).

To ensure that these directives of the Chapter were applied, the General Administration undertook a number of initiatives. [15] Among others, in 1992, it conducted a survey in the provinces and delegations of the Congregation. Thirty-six answers were received and twenty six did not answer. From those who did respond, eight stated that they did have a structure in place to associate the laity, and five of them were engaged in setting up structures. To these latter, we must add four other provinces that do have lay associations. Nonetheless, interest in these forms of sharing is growing. More information is being requested with regard to the forms of the existing associations, on the way of setting them up and on the animation material available.

Father Ernest Ruch made a summary of the responses to the General Administration’s survey. [16] I will add here (in parentheses) a few complementary observations:

“In spite of the different situations and the evident diversity of cultural milieus and of terminology that we must respect, the responses are similar:

1. There are laity who share a mission with Oblates (a ministry, a common work or life experience). What came out of it was a mutual knowledge and admiration. This gave the laity a desire to share even more in the spirituality and the charism that was the inspiration for the Oblates with whom they worked. Others had seen Oblates at work and conceived the desire to share their charism in order to be able to collaborate in their mission.
2. The need for flexibility in structures was often stressed to ensure that the laity could continue to work at their professions if they so wished. In fact, some people maintained that this was necessary so as to retain the lay character of their commitment.
3. A certain number mentioned that a communitarian expression of faith (prayer, retreats, etc.) was important or essential to be able to share the Oblate charism. Others spoke of the importance of a common strategy in mission and ministry.
4. All of them presupposed the existence of a period of formation and of discernment and seemed to take for granted a mutual commitment between Oblates and lay associates. The concrete form taken by these initiatives varied.”

Models of laity sharing the Oblate charism

1. There is a multiplicity of ways in which laity can be associated with the Oblates. Among these various forms of collaboration, an important distinction must be made.

a. Cooperation with the Oblates can take the form of working with them in a specific ministry as is the case for any other cooperator in the Church’s pastoral work, for example, in a parish, a school, a mission. In these ministries, the Oblates generally have a special style and the stress the values that express their charism. In this way, they pass something on to their co-workers. But above all, the Oblates are an expression of the Church, and the laity who commit themselves to working with them do so in virtue of their status as members of the local church community.

b. In other respects, the laity can support the work and the life of the Oblates and cooperate with them by being one with the Oblates and sharing in their particular charism. The extent of this sharing can vary considerably and can even take the form of a commitment based on the Oblate spirituality and mission in the world. It is in this context that we situate the two generally accepted forms of association, that is: membership in the Missionary Association of Mary Immaculate and lay associates. The distinction between the two categories has not been clearly defined in the sense that in certain places there exists only one organization with different degrees of belonging. However, the distinction could be expressed as follows: the members of MAMI support Oblate works from the outside; associates, in a manner of speaking, share the Oblate charism from the inside. I would like to treat this latter form of belonging in more in detail.

2. By its nature, a charism is open and capable of developing in harmony with the Church. It can be lived by a group of persons who choose religious consecration, as the case has been from the time of the foundation of the Oblates. The group that makes up the Oblate Congregation constitutes the core group and the main means through which the Oblate charism is transmitted.

Through the course of history, this charism has given rise to other forms of consecrated life in religious institutes and, more recently, in secular institutes. In general, these institutes were founded by Oblates or with their assistance. More recently still, it emerged that the charism can be lived by laity both in groups and individually.

Some of the statements made in the 1992 Chapter document, Witnessing as Apostolic Community, are based on this historic reality. “There are different modes of sharing the Oblate charism” (no. 43). Precisely because “we are not the owners of our charism; it belongs to the Church” (no. 40), the different ways of “incarnating” the charism have been brought into harmony with the development of the life of the Church. In this regard, Eugene de Mazenod was not a precursor like Abbé Pierre-Bienvenu Noailles, Founder of the Holy Family movement.

3. The different groups share in the charism according to their status as religious or as laity. There is a complementary difference between religious life and the lay state. The former expresses in a special way the transcendance of the Kingdom, and the latter the immanence of the Kingdom – even though both of them constitute a seeking of evangelical perfection and bear witness to the same God. However, their mode of existence and action is different. Religious as well as laity can be called to live the same charism in common, while maintaining their independence because of the differences that mark their respective callings. Consequently, one must see diversity in the way of living the charism as being simultaneously dialectic and complementary and therefore mutually enriching without being limited to one point of view. [17]

4. A charism possesses various facets or dimensions. Fully in line with a long tradition, the 1975 Congress listed nine of them. [18] We can classify them in three groups according to how they deal with mission, spirituality or communion.

It is commonly accepted that religious and laity share spiritual values and missionary outlook. The aspect of “community life”, however, can be lived as a communion associated with certain exterior manifestations, rather than a sharing in the canonical sense of the term. Here is what Cristo Rey Garcia Paredes had to say on this subject: “We are speaking of associating the laity to our spirit and our mission. This association generally takes place on two levels: on the spiritual level and that of commitment to the apostolate. We do not see how it can be realized at the level of community life unless it happens on the level of everyday community activity. In any case, association would be characterized not by simple ‘assistance’ or subordination of the laity to the religious, but through a certain analogy. In this context, religious institutes tend to consider themselves as heirs and the main guardians of the charism […]. In order that it not be reduced to a simple cooperation in apostolic endeavors, an integral part of the association must be a permanent sharing in the spirituality of the charism as inspiration and foundation for everything. However, the spirituality of the charism needs to be reinterpreted in terms of the spirituality of lay persons. Of course, a missionary association requires that the laity maintain an extensive field of initiative and independence in all they do […]. On the level of community and the institution, the association is more complex. […] In religious institutions, it seems basic to intensify the possibility of ‘spiritual osmosis’: to have laity who participate in the spirit of the Institute […]. The cooperation should not be only on the level of activity but on the level of the spiritual as well.” [19]

Criteria for promoting lay association to the Oblates

In the document, Witnessing in Apostolic Community, the 1992 Chapter stated that “our relationship with lay persons is a priority for the future of our Congregation and our religious life” (no. 39). The “sharing of our life and mission is a source of life, dynamism, and fecundity for both Oblates and lay persons alike” (no. 41). “Where these forms of association already exist, they are a positive influence on the faithfulness of persons and communities to the Gospel. They therefore affect the quality of our witness and reveal a new facet of the Church” (no. 42). But how can one promote these forms of association in a concrete and life-giving way?

1. A common missionary outlook would have to be set forth, an outlook which would be in harmony with the Oblate charism and which would consequently have as its objective the evangelization of the most abandoned. The Preface and Constitutions 5, 7, 8 and 9 are the sources of inspiration. The idea of a new evangelization as set forth by John Paul II echoes the Oblate tradition. [20]The “common missionary outlook” [21] can, in certain cases, lead to common forms of mission, but in most cases it is limited to a common witness which finds its very origins in different activities. [22]

2. A common spirituality must be fostered which is the inspiration for a missionary Oblate commitment flowing from the same charism. [23] The essential elements of this spirituality are: to be centered on Christ the Savior (see C 2 and 4), to practice fraternal charity and zeal (see C 37) and, following the example of Mary (see C 10). Other aspects are complementary. [24] I believe that it is there that we find the aspect that must be stressed the most and which can bond the movement of associates to the Congregation in different circumstances. Depending on the Provinces, the ministry and the sharing could take different forms just as it does among the Oblates themselves.

3. It is necessary that the lay character of the life situation be respected both in the mission and in the spirituality. The Chapter directives tell us that we should “foster and develop the various forms of association that already exist and that we encourage new forms which are adapting to different local settings, always safeguarding the essential elements of the Oblate charism and respecting the specific vocation of the laity”. [25] The golden rule to be followed is that of the double principle of safeguarding the essentials of the Oblate charism and of respecting the specific vocation of the laity. Even if the laity can be associated to certain forms of Oblate ministry, their main role is to promote the Kingdom of God in society. [26] The possibilities and the range of service are enormous. [27] For example, they could play a determining and complementary role in the field of promoting justice in conjunction with the activity of Oblates. [28]

4. While respecting their mutual autonomy, communion between Oblates and lay associates must be fostered. It is not a case of aspiring to a life in community, but rather “in a spirit of creativity and concerted action […] to explore structures for communion that are at the service of the mission”, [29] to “establish means to exchange information and share experiences”, [30] precisely because we are “aware that the time is more than ripe for communion and sharing”. [31] The 1992 Chapter document differs from Rule 27 [41b] by not speaking of laity sharing in an active way in the community life of the Oblates – and rightly so.

There are two forms of communion to be promoted: regular meetings of Oblates and lay associates and regular meetings of the lay associates themselves in order that they form living groups similar in character to base communities. These forms of communion will bear the kind of testimony that will evangelize.

5. Structures must remain flexible. A movement based on the charism needs structures and rules, even if they have to remain flexible and adaptable. The Chapter’s concern was concentrated on a single body of centralized structures in preference to provincial structures. [32] Lay people request something visible, organized, and capable of giving them support and inspiration. Oblates should see that this formation is received, so that they can become involved in the charism in all its aspects. [33]

6. On the provincial, regional and general level, the Congregation must move forward courageously, doing what is necessary to respond to the aspirations of lay people and taking the initiative in this. We must “be attentive to the aspirations of lay persons; these aspirations are often more comprehensive than our response. Let us call, invite, and challenge laity to share the Oblate charism and welcome those who express the desire to do so”. [34] Even though certain experiences remind us that we have to exercise prudence and discernment, the time has arrived to take action. The Chapter drew up some norms of action to guide provincial and general administrations. [35]

International Congress of Lay Associates

The first international congress for associates was held in Aix-en-Provence from May 18 to 21, 1996. There were 43 participants: 32 lay persons and 11 Oblates. The laity came from 13 countries, representing each of the Oblate regions: 11 from Europe, 8 from Canada, 5 from the United States, 4 from Latin America, 2 from Asia-Oceania and 2 from Africa-Madagascar.

The congress set as its objectives: to share experiences among the associates themselves, to clarify what it means to be Oblate associates, and to map out a direction for the future. In the course of the congress, two conferences: Father Motte’s “Eugene de Mazenod, a saint for our times” and that of Father Marcello Zago: “Lay associates in the ecclesial context” established the points of reference. The final document, “Impassioned for Christ, the Church and the Mission”, was worked out and voted on at the end of the third day.

Part one of the document treats of the identity of lay associates. Here is the text:

“In response to a call from Christ, Lay Associates live their baptism, enlightened as they are by the charism of Eugene de Mazenod. Animated by a family spirit, they share among themselves and with Oblates the same spirituality and missionary outlook”.

“Lay Associates are impassioned for Jesus Christ. They are disciples of his in the footsteps of the Apostles. They give living witness to Christ the Saviour in the midst of the world. They deepen their relationship with Christ through their frequent contact with the Word of God, meditation, prayer and liturgy. The Eucharist and the Gospel are wellspring and center of their whole life. Their model is Mary who gives Christ to the world”.

“Lay Associates are impassioned for Mission. Impassioned for humanity, they have faith in the dignity of every person before God. They see the reality of the world through the eyes of Christ the Saviour and Evangelizer. Fully involved in secular realities, they make the family one of the priorities of their mission. They live this mission with daring, initiative, creativity and perseverance. They give value to proximity, to attention for and listening to persons. They reach out to them. They make a privileged option for the poor with many faces. They name, denounce and fight injustices, all the while making certain to take an active part in the history of their people.”

“Like the Founder, they love the Church, the Body of Christ, the People of God – sign and instrument of Jesus Christ in today’s world and its new calls. They wish to build as Church, to answer to the challenges of today’s world and to new calls”.

“Lay Associates have a living link with the Oblates, normally with a community. This link may vary in form according to situations, but it is essential”.

“Oblates and Lay Associates acknowledge their need for each other. Theirs is a living relationship of reciprocity in openness, trust and respect for every person’s vocation. All deepen Eugene de Mazenod’s charism according to their own specific vocation and enrich others with their discoveries and experiences. Oblates and Lay Associates live and complement one another in mutual growth.”

“Lay Associates and Oblates come together to renew their lives and their commitments in the world – in the light of the Word of God and of the Founder’s charism. The identity of Associates, however, is realized as well through their associating among themselves.”

“To be Associates supposes a simple life-style, marked by togetherness, characterized by charity, fraternity and openness to others. They are persons of prayer. Conscious of their poverty before God and before others, they live in solidarity with the people of their area.”

“Various modes of formal or informal commitment are possible, according to Regions and the will of the Lay Associates themselves.”