1. Patrons of the congregation


A distinctly Oblate prayer is that of the litany of the saints invoked as protectors of the Congregation; they are described in our prayer manual, Oblate Prayer, as “saints, mostly preachers and missionaries, honored in the Congregation”. [1]

Father George Cosentino, [2] basing himself on the prayers prescribed for particular examen in 1816 and 1818, [3] states: “These litanies, drawn up by Oblates, were introduced among us from 1816 on”. Already on October 9, 1815, Abbé Eugene de Mazenod had communicated to Abbé Henry Tempier his intention of adopting a rule “for which we will draw the elements from the statutes of St. Ignatius, of St. Charles for his Oblates, of St. Philip Neri, of St. Vincent de Paul and of the Blessed Liguori”. [4] On November 17, 1817, in an attempt to convince his uncle Fortuné to accept being named to the see of Marseilles, he added: “We will take Saint Charles, Saint Francis de Sales for our patrons and models.” [5]

“Since the first text available to us is that of the first edition of the prayer manual of 1865, we have no knowledge of the original text of our litanies”. [6] And yet, the Founder considered them very important. On December 19, 1847, he wrote to the Master of Novices: “I also recommend that you insist that each one learn from memory and know well the ordinary prayers of our Society, but especially the litanies and the prayers that follow for all the members of the Society must say them during their travels as well as in our communities toward the middle of the day after the particular examen”. [7]

At a later date, July 9, 1853, he insisted on this point with the priest in charge of the scholastic brothers: “Everyone must know by heart the prayers recited in the Congregation, and especially those recited after particular examen as I strongly insist that we never leave them out wherever it may be we find ourselves, whether travelling or whatever. That form of prayer, including the litanies, is special to our Congregation, they are distinctive and like a bond, a unity between all members of the family.” [8]

Previous to the prayer manual of 1865, during the Founder’s lifetime and from 1854 on, there was a printed sheet which could be handed out to missionaries: “You will also receive a printed document which you will place in your breviaries in order that you will not run the risk of forgetting to recite each day the litanies and prayers which follow [and which] are particular to the Order. I am most concerned that they be said exactly as prescribed.” [9]

This insistence on Bishop de Mazenod’s part leads us to believe that the 1854 “small printed sheet” already provided an authentic list of the Protectors of the Congregation invoked from memory from the beginning. As such, it must have been inserted in the Manuel de prières et cérémonial which Father Joseph Fabre, Superior General, promulgated in the Congregation, on May 25, 1865, with the declaration that it was “binding from this day forth in our houses and residences. Members should see to it that they obtain it as soon as possible, follow it meticulously and change nothing either in the formulas given or the prescribed ceremonies.” [10]

This strictness would set the tone for all five of the subsequent editions of Manuel de prières et cérémonial until 1932. Until that point any effort to introduce new invocations in the litanies proper to the Congregation were rejected by the General Chapters. Timidly, the General Chapter of 1938 added the invocation “Queen of our Congregation”, an invocation which they had initially hoped to add for private usage in the litany of Loretto and the invocation of “Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus”, whom Bishop Ovide Charlebois had been instrumental in declaring “Patroness of Missions”. [11] Later on, the Vade mecum of 1958 added the invocation of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The 1986 Oblate Prayer removed the names of Saint Michael, the Archangel and Saints Fidelis of Sigmaringen and John Francis Regis. It added that of Blessed Eugene de Mazenod, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint John Leonard.

What are these litanies? Nothing more than “an abridged version of the litany of the saints”. [12] All the angels and all the saints are invoked as a group in the spirit of Eugene de Mazenod whose faith in the Communion of the Saints was as all-embracing and as noble as his apostolic aspirations. [13] It goes without saying that he turns first of all to “Holy Mary, conceived without sin”, the title under which the Virgin Mother of God is patroness of his religious family. They wanted to bring this out more strongly by invoking her as “Queen of our Congregation”. Saint Joseph’s role is clearly indicated. The 1865Manuel de prières already referred to him as “main patron and special protector of the Congregation.” It offered him more ornate [14] litanies than those in current usage.

Then come Saints Peter and Paul as representatives of the Apostles to walk in the footsteps of whom Eugene de Mazenod wanted to lead his followers. [15] But the real distinguishing mark of the “litanies proper to the Congregation” is a harking back to the holy founders of the ancient Orders, the existence and fervor of which Abbé de Mazenod wished to rekindle. [16]

In the litanies, recalling the founders of ancient Orders does not go beyond Saint Dominic (1170-1221), founder of the Dominicans, and two of his disciples: Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Vincent Ferrier (1350-1419). The only other representative of the Mendicant Orders is the Franciscan, Leonard of Port Maurice of a later date (1676-1751).

Other than the Mendicant Orders, attention is focused mainly on the founders of Clerical Orders and Religious Congregations. Heading the list are a line of truly exceptional bishops: Charles Borromeo (1528-1584), “a ground breaker for modern pastoral work”, [17] Francis de Sales (1567-1622), “perfection: something within everyone’s grasp”, Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), “reaching out to the most neglected poor”, Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861), “a man dedicated without reserve to the Church”.

Then, there is the outstanding Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) heading the group of patrons of the missions along with his companion, Francis Xavier (1506-1552). They are followed by Philip Neri (1515-1595), “the joyful saint”, Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), “father of the poor”, Joseph Calasanz (1556-1648) “the man of total availability”, and John Leonard (1541-1609), founder of the Regular Clerics of the Mother of God and co-founder of the Propagation of the Faith seminary in Rome. Normally, the next in line would be Father Joseph Gerard (1831-1914), “Father of the Church in Lesotho.”

Because of the association the Oblates had with the Carmelite convent in Aix-en-Provence and their association with difficult missions, the contemplative life is honored in the persons of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Therese of Lisieux.

The Oblate Prayer manual suggests: “If litanies are said, names of saints from the local Church and of our time might be added”. [18] This touches not only on the present renewal and liturgical calendar, but also corresponds to one of Eugene de Mazenod’s concerns: “For years I have never stopped asking for the names of the holy patrons of the places where missions have been given”. [19] His object was to obtain the saints’ names for the special litanies recited after the rosary. The problem was a sensitive one since the list of “holy patrons of places which had been evangelized” was growing with no end in sight. Its growth paralleled the expansion of the Congregation. No matter, thought the Founder, we will spread them throughout the twelve months of the year: “In this way you need not worry lest you may never recite the martyrologium”. [20]

There can be no doubt that the invocation of the saints is a value which stems from the very origins of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Even now, the fact that the “litanies proper to the Congregation” are included in the prayers for particular examen offers us a special occasion not only for “a full awareness of our ideal of religious and missionary perfection”, [21] but a way of expressing our devotion to the Congregation, to our Superior General so that he “guide the Congregation in the spirit of Saint Eugene and be a sign of unity among all Oblates.” [22]