1. Missionaries of Provence
  2. Missionary Oblates of Saint Charles
  3. Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate
  4. Spiritual interpretation of the name

When Eugene de Mazenod founded his society he foresaw the formation of only one community of secular priests dedicated to the evangelization of Provence by preaching parish missions. “At this period, similar societies sprang up in other dioceses, e.g., Besançon, Toulouse, Lyon, Tours, Poitiers, etc. […] Regional or diocesan, these societies were restricted to one part of the kingdom, while the Society of the Missions of France, founded by Rauzan and Janson, and the Society of the Fathers of the Faith, established at Laval, had the entire national territory as their field of action. In Provence, the Ancien Regime had seen the same dualism for, while the Lazarists who were located in Marseilles, were called the Society of the Missions of France, the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, founded by Bishop d’Authier de Sisgaud, in the seventeenth century and in the same city, took the name The Society of theMissions of Provence. By resuming the work of his meridional predecessors at Aix, Father de Mazenod was renewing a tradition of his section of France.”[1]

Missionaries of Provence

It would appear that, at the time, the name he was to bestow on his society was not of great concern to the Founder. His request for authorization from the Vicars General of Aix gives no name; nor for that matter does the subsequent approbation;[2] the only issue is that of missions and missionaries for Provence. This, however, did not prevent Father Donat Levasseur in his Histoire des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée from drawing the simple conclusion that “the Society of the Missionaries of Provence, currently known under the title Mission of Provence […] was then given official recognition by the diocesan authorities”.[3]

This title was soon discarded. Indeed, after founding a house in Nîmes in Languedoc, a city outside the boundaries of Provence, the title no longer reflected the actual state of affairs.

Missionary Oblates of Saint Charles

Father Toussaint Rambert gives this explanation of the name change for the society: “As a result, the title Missionaries of Provence would no longer prove suitable; it had no foundation in reality, it was too exclusive, it restricted too severely the activity of a family manifestly called by God to grow, increase in numbers and to extend its sphere of influence. It could even have been an obstacle for the recruiting of vocations and put off candidates inspired by a call to be missionaries, candidates who would not find in them the formal will to dedicate themselves to the missions of Provence. Everyone in the small family had felt and understood this. That was the state of affairs when the Founder was on the point of leaving for Rome to seek the favor of no longer being restricted to the status of a diocesan congregation, but rather to become a genuine society of religious. There was a common resolve among them to choose another name. The name which first came to mind for the majority of them was Oblates of Saint Charles. Not only was Saint Charles a model for the clergy, he was also the venerated Founder’s patron. Moreover, Saint Charles had for centuries been the protector of the Mazenod family whose eldest male members handed on the name from father to son. It seemed fitting that the spiritual family of the one in whom the de Mazenod line would become extinct should possess in perpetuity the name of Saint Charles.”[4]

This does not explain why the choice was made of the name “Oblate” instead of some other, for example, simply “Missionaries of Saint Charles”. A letter the Founder wrote to his first companion, Father Henry Tempier, informs us that he drew inspiration from “the statutes […] of Saint Charles for the Oblates”[5] to draw up the rules for his own community. We also know how the Founder made use of the Redemptorist Rule of Alphonsus Liguori in order to draw up his own.[6] It seems that Saint Alphonsus, careful to avoid anything that would give the impression that he was founding a new order, used the words “oblation” and “oblates” for “profession” and “professed member” in order to circumvent the difficulties that might be raised against his Congregation by the royal government.[7] Was Father de Mazenod motivated by the same concern when he chose the name “Oblates”? Already in the original rule of the Missionaries of Provence he had adopted the terminology “oblation” and “oblate” for “profession” and “professed member”. The term “missionary” was used exclusively for the priests in active ministry. Those studying for the priesthood and the brothers were called “Oblates”. The introduction of brothers into a society of priests which had become a religious congregation tended to favor the adoption of the name “Oblates” for the entire membership. In any case, as we can see by the name “Oblates of the Virgin Mary”, a foundation contemporaneous with Father de Mazenod’s, it was a name that was being used in the Church at this time.

It was under the title of “Missionary Oblates of Saint Charles” that the petition was made for approval of the Rules and the Congregation. However, this petition contains a final paragraph which requests a change of title: “At the same time, we beg that in the brief of approbation requested by the missionaries his Holiness bestow upon them the title Oblates of the Most Holy and Immaculate Virgin Mary instead of that of Oblates of Saint Charles to avoid all confusion of this name with other congregations of similar name. […]”[8] This paragraph, written in an ink of lighter color, clearly appears to have been written as an afterthought when the idea occurred to the Founder to take on this new name.

Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate

The circumstances surrounding the introduction of this new name have often been studied. The reason is clearly stated in the text of the petition: the change is requested “to avoid all confusion of this name with other Congregations of similar name”. It has sometimes been stated that it was only in Rome that the Founder learned of the existence of other societies that bore the same name.[9] That is not totally accurate since already in his letter of October 9, 1815 to Father Tempier, quoted above, he mentions “the statutes of Saint Charles for the Oblates” as one of the sources he intends to use in drawing up his Rule.

We cannot doubt the reason he cites for the name change since all the official documents make explicit mention of it.[10] It could have been made in order to justify the request for the second change, although the latter could have been motivated by a deeper source. Initially we know that the Founder – as he was later to admit – felt a certain uneasiness in choosing his own personal patron, Saint Charles, as patron for the whole Congregation, even in the face of his deep devotion to that saint.[11]

No doubt it was when he was in Rome and while they were celebrating the octave of the Immaculate Conception that he was inspired to adopt the name Oblates of Mary Immaculate. But, one may ask, might not the visit he made in Turin to Father Brunone Lanteri, the founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, and the project of unifying the two societies have been sufficient to give rise to this inspiration? The documentation is silent on this point.[12]

The fact remains that “without consulting his confreres”[13] – as it was impossible under the circumstances – he immediately inserted into the petition a request for a change of name and did the same thing orally during his papal audience of December 20, 1825. To the request for a change of name the Pope replied “neither in the affirmative, nor in the negative”. Cardinal Pallotta who was given the task of examining the Rule did raise some difficulties, but the February 17, 1826 decree of approbation calls us for the very first time by the official title “Missionarii sub titulo sanctissimae Virginis Mariae Imaculatae”. In the course of the years, we find some twenty different formulations of the same name in official documents, which, according to Father Cosentino are generally “synonyms or abbreviations”.[14]

We find a variety of usages in the beginning, even among the Founder and his first companions. The word “Missionary” is often omitted to give simply “Oblate of Mary Immaculate” and sometimes simply “Oblate of Mary”, as found for example in the oblation formula of some of the first priests,[15] or yet again in the book published in Marseilles in 1826: “Recueil de cantiques et de prières à l’usage des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie, dits de Provence. The title commonly accepted and used within the Congregation as well as outside remains: “Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate”.

Spiritual interpretation of the name

It is worthy of note that only one word, the word “Missionary”, remained common to the three titles the Congregation has borne. In it, the Founder saw embodied an expression of the Oblate charism: Evangelizare pauperibus misit me. In the thinking of the Founder, the Congregation was to relive the apostolic experience of the Savior and the first Apostles. This was his original dream, the one that he described in the letter in which he sought to convince Abbé Tempier to become his first companion: “We wish to choose men who have the will and the courage to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles”.[16]

The text of the original rule would express this ideal in an ingenuous, powerful manner: “Their founder is Jesus Christ, himself, the Son of God; their first fathers are the Apostles”.[17] The Rule in force until its most recent recasting retained this wording and made of it the principle of all Oblate spiritual life: “It has been already said that the Missionaries ought, as far as human nature allows, to imitate in everything the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ, the chief Founder of our congregation, and by the holy Apostles, our first Fathers”. “Following in their footsteps the Missionaries will give one portion of their life to prayer […]” “The other portion they will zealously devote to the works of the ministry”.[18]

The present Rule invokes the same ideal: “The community of the Apostles with Jesus is the model of our life. […] 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” (C 3). “We are a missionary Congregation” (C 5).

It was only for a few months in 1825 that the Congregation bore the name of the Missionary Oblates of Saint Charles. It is no surprise, then, that we find hardly any commentaries on this title in contemporary documents. The situation was different when the Church gave its approval to the definitive title of the Congregation: “Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate”. As we previously pointed out, this title still contains the term “Missionaries”. But it also includes the designation “Oblates”, a word adopted in the course of the first change. That was no doubt due to the fact that the Founder and his first companions had perceived in that term a rich expression of the Congregation’s very being.

In this regard, Father Joseph Morabito directs our attention to the taking of the vow of obedience by Fathers de Mazenod and Tempier as told to us by the Founder himself in his Memoires: ” When both of us had taken our place under the structure of the beautiful repository […] of the Mission church, in the night of that holy day (Holy Thursday), […] we prayed the divine Master […] to lead our present companions and those who would be associated with us in the future, to appreciate the full value of this oblation of one’s entire self to God, when one wanted to serve him unreservedly and to consecrate one’s life to the spread of his holy Gospel and the conversion of souls”.[19]

Father Morabito commented: “It is this idea of oblation which, after it was born from the ardent soul of the Servant of God, after it was hallowed in the Rules, after having designated by name the vows taken by Father de Mazenod and his companions, ended up permeating everything by not only characterizing the vows, but also by bestowing its name on the entire Congregation as well as if to stamp its character not only on one act of their lives but on their very persons, their entire lives and their mission in the Church”.[20] Throughout the history of the Congregation, we find this idea of oblation expressed and commented on.[21] However, it was only recently that some theological essays on oblation appeared associating the oblation of Christ in the Eucharist with the heart of the spirituality of the Congregation.[22]

The title of Missionary Oblates would take on its full meaning when the Pope approved the Congregation under its new name of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Someone has christened this event: “Our Marian baptism”.[23] Now it is a question of dealing here with the connection between the name and the vocation according to the old saying: nomen est omen.[24] The Founder was enthused by what he considered an intervention of Divine Providence as if it were a new birth of the Congregation: “May we understand well what we are!”[25]

Father Marcel Bélanger wrote: “For the Founder, it was not only a name, but a Marian mode of existence and a plan of action”.[26] This was indeed how the companions of the Founder received the news: “I do not know what we felt in us that indicated to us that we were changed men”, the Founder wrote to Father Tempier March 9, 1826.[27]

Subsequently, they wanted to have a concrete sign which would witness to this new mode of being. That is why the General Chapter of 1837 adopted the following resolution by unanimous vote: “On oblation day, along with the Oblate cross, they will receive the scapular of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Holy Virgin Mary which they shall wear constantly beneath their outer garments”.[28] The Founder explained: “It will serve as the uniform which distinguishes us from the simple servants of Mary and which constitutes us exteriorly as her elite troops”.[29]

In his commentary on this General Chapter decree, Father Marcel Bélanger wrote: “This parenthetical comment related to our crucifix speaks volumes. […] Mary Immaculate is inseparable from the Savior in Oblate spirituality and […] with the cross standing as the most fundamental sign of our mission, above all else the Oblate is distinguished by the image of the Savior in such a way that its Marian dimension is entirely focused on nourishing and bringing to full realization one’s commitment to the Savior”.[30] The Church’s decision to bestow upon us the name Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate entails for us a configuring of ourselves with Mary Immaculate, Mother of Mercy, and makes of us apostles of mercy at the very heart of the present economy of salvation.

In a letter to his first companions, the Founder wrote: “Does it not seem to you that it is a sign of predestination to bear the name of Oblates of Mary, that is, consecrated to God under the patronage of Mary, a name the Congregation bears as a family name held in common with the most holy and immaculate Mother of God? It is enough to make others jealous; but it is the Church who has given us this beautiful name, we receive it with respect, love and gratitude, proud of our dignity and of the rights that it gives us to the protection of her who is All Powerful in God’s presence. Let us tarry no longer in taking to ourselves this beautiful name.”[31]