In the first article of the Rules of 1818 and those of 1825-1826, Father de Mazenod had written that “the end of the Institute of the Missionaries known as of Provence is first of all to establish a group of secular priests who will live together and who will strive to imitate the virtues and examples of our Saviour Jesus Christ, mainly by dedicating themselves to preaching the word of God to the poor.”
In article two, he specifies that the parish missions, retreats, catechetical instructions and other spiritual exercises are the means of attaining this main end. In order to strongly stress the importance of this end, the second chapter explained in detail the method and the exercises of a parish mission. The third chapter set forth other means of evangelization which are associated with missions: confessions, direction of youth, care of prisoners and of the dying, public exercises in the church of the Mission, etc.
The Founder did not exclude other ends, but he himself at the beginnings of the Congregation and subsequently the Oblates, for a whole century, gave these endeavors pride of place. From 1816 to 1823, Father de Mazenod and the first priests preached about fifty parish missions in Provence. After his appointment as vicar general of Marseilles, he withdrew from this ministry but, especially in France, the Oblates remained faithful to his methods. Nineteen of the twenty-four houses founded in France during the lifetime of the Founder had parish missions as the main focus of their ministry. From 1816 to 1861 the Oblates preached about 3000 missions and retreats in France. This continued with more or less intensity and success right up until Vatican II, not only in France but also in the other countries of Europe, in Canada and the United States, in Sri Lanka, etc.
In a July 20, 1889 report on the house of Notre-Dame de l’Osier, Father Jean Garnier wrote: “I hasten to come to the work which more and more leads all the others, the work of parish missions. Its defining element and final goal, according to the thinking of our holy Rules, is the spiritual benefit of souls, their eternal happiness. There is its defining element, there lies its sublime end, the carrying out and the prolongation of the same mission of our divine Redeemer, Our Lord Jesus Christ.” On the occasion of the centenary of the approbation of the rules in 1926, Father Louis LeJeune of Canada likewise observed: “Parish missions was the originating idea which gave birth to the project of founding the Institute and it is in virtue of this idea that the Congregation grew, developed, prospered so well and bore so much fruit for salvation in thousands of souls.”
The Missionary Method and the Directories
Father de Mazenod, in the second chapter of the Rule, set forth the way he conducted parish missions: departure of the missionaries, the trips, length of the mission, main ceremonies, etc. He subsequently demanded that his sons stick to this methodology. For example, he often rebuked Father Eugène Guigues, the superior of Notre-Dame de l’Osier from 1834 to 1844 for permitting himself too much latitude in this regard. In his April 12, 1846 diary entry, he noted with pleasure that, after a retreat given by the Jesuits at Viviers, Bishop Hippolyte Guibert, o.m.i., was “convinced that the method followed by our priests works better than that used by the Jesuits.”
With the expansion of the Congregation in France and in various other countries, it was difficult to follow the customs in use in Provence. The Founder and the Chapters General took note of the abandoning of certain traditions and asked that a directory be prepared. This wish was expressed in the General Chapters of 1856, 1861, 1867, 1873, 1879, etc. This directory was finally drawn up by Father Alexandre Audruger in 1881: Directoire pour les missions à l’usage de Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée, Tours, 1881, pp. 286. Previous to Father Audruger’s work, Father Léon Delpeuch had published in 1876 Essai sur les missions dans les pays catholiques in which he dealt in particular with the manner of varying and treating topics according to the milieux and the circumstances of the missions. Subsequently, Father Melchior Burfin, who was for a long time superior of the missionaries in the diocese of Limoges wrote his memoirs which bore the title: “Le Testament d’un missionnaire des campagnes” published in Missions O.M.I., 32 (1894), P. 79-139.
The apostolate the Oblates exercised through missions under its various aspects was studied by congresses on “Home Missions” in 1955 and “Oblates and evangelization in 1983.” This form of apostolate has diminished a great deal today.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.