1. Eugene de Mazenod
  2. Joseph Fabre
  3. Louis Soullier
  4. Cassien Augier
  5. Augustin Dontenwill
  6. Theodore Labouré
  7. Leo Deschâtelets
  8. Fernand Jetté
  9. 1982 Constitutions and Rules
  10. Priests and brothers
  11. General Norms of Oblate Formation
  12. Marcello Zago

Eugene de Mazenod

One should not be surprised to find that de Mazenod, his successors, and the General Chapters rarely spoke explicitly of the priesthood in the Congregation. The explanation for this is quite simple – the priesthood is so much a part of the Congregation and its ministry as revealed in its Constitutions, living traditions, and life, that they saw no need to expressly state it. In similar fashion neither de Mazenod nor his successors thought it necessary to go out of their way to state that the members of the Congregation were Catholics, since it was implicitly affirmed by everything in their lives, ministry, etc.

If anything the problem was that the pressure of priestly work could easily occasion the neglect of the religious elements of their lives – spiritual exercises and observance. Consequently they often spoke of the requirements of religious life and observance as the absolutely necessary means if they were to be faithful to their vocation as missionary priests. It is here that are found the elements of priestly spirituality. For the Oblates, priesthood, missionary and religious life cannot be separated. Their lives were and are to be one whole, with different aspects.

All the first members of the Congregation were priests or aspirants to the priesthood. Most of those who joined later, if they were not already priests, joined to become priests, spent many years in the spiritual and intellectual formation required for ordination, and then worked the rest of their lives as priests.

It would seem that it was only after the 1966 General Chapter that some Oblates began to question the priestly nature of the Congregation [1]. Vatican II expanded the concept of “missionary” to include the non-ordained [2]. However, the essential element of being sent by a hierarchical superior to preach and exercise other apostolic work in order to bring persons to Jesus Christ and into full communion with the Church through the celebration of the sacraments remains intact. The role of the ministerial priesthood has not been diminished or downgraded, rather the role of the common priesthood of the faithful has been brought into its proper position. De Mazenod founded a society of priests to be missionaries and associated laymen in this priestly work.

An elimination of the primary role of the ministerial priesthood in the Congregation would substantially change and consequently destroy the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate as founded by Saint Eugene de Mazenod.

Eugene de Mazenod

As a young priest Eugene de Mazenod was pulled in opposite directions as to the future of his ministry. By nature he was not one to make quick decisions in important matters. In a letter of October 28, 1814 he confided his dilemma to his friend Forbin-Janson, who had first wanted to go to China as a missionary, but had helped found the Missionaries of France in response to the injunction of Pius VII:

“I still do not know what God wants of me but am so resolved to do His will as soon as it is known to me… I am hesitating between two plans: either to go off and bury myself in some well regulated community of an Order that I have always loved; or do in my diocese exactly what you have done successfully in Paris… The second plan, however, seems to me more useful, given the dreadful plight to which the people have been reduced” [3].

The following December, his annual retreat meditations on the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the standards, and apostolic service according to the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola affirmed the apostolic orientation of his ministry. By September 1815, the exact form of his ministry had become clear to him and he began the necessary steps to implement it.

“Since the Head of the Church is persuaded that, given the wretched state in which France finds herself, only missions can bring the people back to the Faith which they have practically abandoned, good priests (ecclésiastiques) from different dioceses are banding together in response to the views of our supreme Pastor. We likewise feel that it is utterly necessary to employ the same remedy in our regions and, full of confidence in the goodness of Providence, have laid the foundations of an establishment which will steadily furnish our countryside with fervent missionaries… One part of the year will be devoted to the conversions of souls, the other to seclusion, study and our individual sanctification” [4].

For a real understanding of de Mazenod’s intention, the religious situation of France at that moment must be kept in mind. All religious communities of men and women in the France had been suppressed during the Revolution (1789-1799), their houses and churches were destroyed or used for secular purposes, the secular clergy was persecuted – murdered, imprisoned, driven into exile and hiding – and all seminaries were closed for many years. The effects of this continued to be felt long after the end of overt persecution. Thus the number of active priests between 1809 and 1815 dropped from 31,870 to 25,874.

De Mazenod saw that the Church was not answering the needs of all the people. It was barely reaching out to those that remained faithful. It was not that the clergy lacked zeal, but their number was greatly reduced and they were getting old. The pastoral situation had changed; special methods were needed. With the abdication of Napoleon in 1815, there was throughout France a revival of a method of spiritual renewal that had a long and glorious history in that country – parish missions and de Mazenod played a key role in this pastoral renewal. In 1818, he wrote what later became the Preface of the Constitutions. It is there that he expressed clearly his intention as founder of a society of priests. Having mentioned the evils besetting the Church and the scarcity of those answering her call, he continued:

“The sight of these evils has so touched the hearts of certain priests, zealous for the glory of God, men with an urgent love of the Church, that they are willing to give their lives, if need be, for the salvation of souls.

They are convinced that if priests could be formed, afire with zeal for men’s salvation, priests not given to their own interests, solidly grounded in virtue – in a word, apostolic men deeply conscious of the need to reform themselves, who would continue to labour with all the resources at their command to convert others – then there would be ample reason to believe that in a short while people who had gone astray might be brought back to their long-unrecognized responsibilities…

How, indeed did our Lord Jesus Christ proceed when he undertook to convert the world? He chose a number of apostles and disciples whom he himself trained in piety, and filled them with his Spirit. These men he sent forth…

And how should men who want to follow in the footsteps of their divine Master Jesus Christ conduct themselves if they, in their turn, are to win back the many souls who have thrown off his yoke? They must strive to become saints… They must wholly renounce themselves, striving solely for the glory of God the good of the Church, and the growth and salvation of souls…

Such are the great works of salvation that can crown the efforts of priests whom God has inspired with the desire to form themselves into a Society in order to work more effectively for the salvation of souls and for their own sanctification.

… while pledging themselves to all the works of zeal which priestly charity can inspire – above all the work of the missions, which is the reason for their union these priests, joined together in a society, resolve to obey the following Constitutions and Rules..”.

The essential elements of the Preface are condensed as in a capsule in the first article of the Constitutions written by de Mazenod and approved by the Holy See in 1826:

“The end of his humble society of the Missionary Oblates of the Most Holy and Immaculate Virgin Mary… is that secular priests, living together as brothers in community may devote themselves principally to the preaching the Gospel to the poor by diligently striving to imitate the virtues and example of our Savior Jesus Christ”.

After a retreat in 1831 de Mazenod wrote a short commentary on the Constitutions in which he quoted this article and added:

“The means which we use to attain this end, partake of the excellence of the end itself. They are, unquestionably, the most perfect means, for they are the very means used by our divine Savior and by his Apostles and Disciples. And these means are – the exact observance of the evangelical counsels, preaching and prayer – a happy combination of the active and contemplative life. The example has been given us by Jesus Christ and his Apostles, and by that very fact, it is the summit of perfection, this way of life which, by God’s favor, we have embraced: and our Rules are but the development of it” [5].

An example of how it is developed in the Constitutions can be seen in part two, third chapter Other Principal Observances:

“It has already been said that, the missionaries ought, as far as human nature allows, to imitate in everything the example of Christ the Lord, the chief founder of the Society, and that of his Apostles, our first Fathers.

§ 1. Imitating these illustrious models, the missionaries will give one portion of their life to prayer, recollection and contemplation, while living together in the seclusion of God’s house.

§ 2. The other portion of their life they will zealously devote to the works of the ministry, such as namely, to missions, preaching, the hearing of confessions, teaching catechism, directing the young, visiting the sick and prisoners, giving spiritual retreats and other works of this kind.

§ 3. Whether out on the missions or at home, their chief concern will always be to make progress in the way of religious perfection. They will cultivate especially the virtues of humility, poverty, self-denial, interior mortification and faith, purity of intention, etc. In a word, they will try to become another Jesus Christ, spreading abroad the fragrance of his amiable virtues” [6].

Having after a long struggle achieved unity of priestly activity and contemplation in his own life, de Mazenod prescribed a similar unity of purpose and life for his Congregation – a society of missionaries, i.e. of priests dedicated to the imitation of Jesus Christ and walking in the traces of the Apostles by the practice of the same virtues and the preaching of the Gospel to the poor.

This unity of life can be seen further on in the chapter just quoted in the insistence that de Mazenod placed on humility and the reasons that he gave:

“… They will become well versed in the virtue of humility, a virtue that they will not cease to implore from God, since it is absolutely necessary for the perilous ministry in which they are engaged. So rich, indeed, are the fruits of this ministry, that it is to be feared that such marvelous achievements, due to grace alone and whose glory consequently belongs only to God, might prove a dangerous snare for an imperfect missionary, who has not sufficiently cultivated this fundamental and indispensable virtue” [7].

De Mazenod’s use of the word “missionary” presents a hermeneutical problem to the modern reader since it has a more restricted sense than our current meaning. This can be seen in the first part of the Constitutions where he consistently used the word “missionary”, in conformity with the usage begun by de Bérulle in 1613 and Vincent de Paul in 1617, to mean the priest members of the Congregation [8].It was only later that he also spoke of priests in the foreign missions as missionaries. Thus, when de Mazenod gave his society the name Missionaries of Provence and later Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he was saying that it was a society of missionary priests.

In a word, de Mazenod used the word “missionary” according to the meanings that had come into use during the preceding two centuries. Consequently in the first article of the section on the Brothers, he spoke of them as men who join the Congregation not as missionaries but to save their own souls. It was only with Vatican II and the theological development in understanding of the apostolate of the baptized members of the Church, that ecclesiastical documents began to speak of lay persons as missionaries.

The various ministries of the members of the Congregation were listed in the first part of the Constitutions – the Missions, preaching the Word of God, administration of the sacrament of penance, direction of youth, assisting the sick, dying, and those in prison, common recitation of divine office and the public exercises in the Congregation’s churches. All of these, with the exception of the Divine Office, were at that time ministries reserved to the clergy. Since the Office was in Latin, the brothers did not recite the Office. So, all the ministries enumerated were those of the clerics.

What about other apostolic works? The 1824 General Chapter agreed that the acceptance of seminaries for the formation of the secular clergy “would be contrary to the letter rather than the spirit of our Constitutions and unanimously requested the Superior General” to make such a change. This addition was not included in the Constitutions until the edition published in 1853.

“After the missions, the most important work of our Congregation is undoubtedly the direction of seminaries, in which clerics receive their own special training… In vain would the missionaries labor for the conversion of sinners, if the parochial clergy were not men filled with the Holy Spirit, earnestly following in the footsteps of the Divine Shepherd, and feeding with watchful and constant care the sheep that have returned to Him” [9].

The 1853 edition of the Constitutions modified the absolute prohibition to minister to religious women, to preach a course of Lenten sermons, and to take charge of parishes. Although the foreign missions had assumed from 1841 an important role in the life and ministry of the Congregation, it was not until the Constitutions published in 1910 that there was an explicit mention of them in an article. This lacuna was filled by de Mazenod’s Instruction on the foreign missions which was published as an appendix to the Constitutions in 1853 and in all subsequent editions through to 1910. It was only with the 1928 Constitutions that a whole section, which contained the main points of the 1853 Instruction, was included in the Constitutions.

The Instruction was clearly written for an institute of priests, whose ministry was to convert and bring people by preaching and catechizing to the sacraments of baptism penance, and eucharist and in this way to full communion in the Church. In a word, the foreign missionaries were, in so far as possible, to perform the same ministries that were prescribed by the Constitutions for France. The Brothers were mentioned only twice – as companions to the missionary priest and as teachers of the mechanical arts.

That de Mazenod considered the evangelization of the poor incomplete if it did not culminate in the reception of the sacraments of penance and the eucharist, and that consequently the ministerial priesthood is essential to missionary activity can be seen first of all in the section of the Constitutions on the administration of the sacrament of penance:

“§ 1 […] It is beyond all doubt that the hearing of confessions is to be preferred to preaching, when there is room for choice, because the private direction and admonition given in the tribunal of penance may in a measure supply the place of instruction and preaching, whereas preaching can never take the place of the sacrament of penance, which was instituted by Christ our Lord for restoring men to the friendship of God.

§ 2. A missionary will, therefore, never refuse the request of those who seek to go to confession, whether during the time of missions, or outside it” [10].

That he held that the sacramental ministry is necessary for evangelization is also revealed in an incident related by Bishop Grandin. Because of the customs of polygamy and divorce among the North American Indians, the missionaries were allowing only a few of the old converts to receive communion:

“I heard Archbishop Taché say that when he was with our Venerated Founder, the latter asked him this question: “Have you many communicants among your Christians?” “Monseigneur”, answered the young bishop (he was 28 at the time), “so far we have not dared to give Communion except to a few old people”. “What are you saying”, the Superior General of the Oblates retorted with astonishment, “you have not dared give Communion except to a few old people, and you think you can christianize those people! Don’t count on it without the Holy Eucharist…” [11].

Eugene de Mazenod founded a Congregation of priests to be missionaries, i.e. to preach the Gospel in rural Provence to bring the poor and spiritually neglected people back to Jesus Christ and religious practice; he sent his missionaries to England, North America, Asia, and Africa for the same purpose and also to care for people without priests, to unite to the Church non-Catholic Christians and convert those who had never heard the Gospel. The Oblates according to de Mazenod were to be more than just ordinary priests; their vocation was to be missionaries. To be missionaries they had, however, to be priests. To live up to their missionary vocation they had to be exemplary priests. To be exemplary priests, they were religious. All three – priest, missionary, religious – are essential to the Congregation and to the individual Oblate, the non-ordained as well as the ordained.

Joseph Fabre

Joseph Fabre, de Mazenod’s immediate successor, saw that his main task was faithfulness to the Founder by demanding exact observance of the Constitutions. No doubt acting out of his own religious and pastoral experience, which was limited to formation and education in France, without in anyway denying the missionary dimension of Oblate life, he insisted emphatically on the “religious” element. The basis for this emphasis is seen in his circular of March 21, 1862:

“My dear Brothers, to what are we called? To become saints, in order to work efficaciously for the sanctification of the most neglected souls. That is our vocation. Let us not lose sight of it and let us first of all make the effort to really understand it. We must work actively, generously on our own sanctification, i.e. meditate every day seriously and with ever greater depth on the duties of our state of life, to know ever better the virtues that God requires of us, in order that by means of behavior that is always more religious, we practice our holy obligations. We are priests, we are religious; these two qualities impose obligations which we must never be mistaken about, and which we must never forget. Work for the sanctification of others by exterior ministry is a very beautiful mission, but is only a part of our holy vocation; it presupposes the first as its principle and as the source of fruitfulness. In fact, could we effectively and supernaturally correspond adequately to the grace of the ministry of souls, if we do not have a deep understanding of the necessity of our sanctification? [12]

Louis Soullier

On December 8, 1896 Louis Soullier, the third Superior General, sent a 127 page circular Studies of the Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate to “all the religious, priests or aspirants to the priesthood in the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate”. As Fabre, his predecessor, had addressed in depth the question of the religious life, Soullier directed his attention to the intellectual life of the Congregation. He explained the purpose of the letter in this way:

“As we wrote these pages, we were preoccupied by this thought, that holiness and learning are truly the two essential conditions, and, as it were, the two foundations of preaching, and also by the fear that, fully convinced of the necessity of holiness for apostolic ministry, you might not be so convinced of the necessity of learning. It was this thought and this fear that gave us the inspiration to expose for you the question of the learning and study which we believe to be the spirit of our vocation.

In order to know this spirit, it is necessary for us to contemplate ourselves under four aspects, that of religious, that of priests, that of apostles, and that of Oblates…

Together let us recollect ourselves and ask the Holy Spirit, who was given to us on the day of our oblation and of our priestly ordination, to better understand these three things: the necessity of study, the object of our studies, and the supernatural character that we must give to our studies” [13].

Cassien Augier

De Mazenod’s insistence on the importance of the Divine Office as a work of the Congregation in replacing the Orders suppressed by the French Revolution is too well known to need special consideration. At the same time, however, he did not hesitate to request from Leo XII a dispensation for the missionaries during the missions. Cassien Augier, de Mazenod’s third successor, upon receiving such a dispensation wrote:

“We do admit that it is not without hesitation that we have let the indult have its full extension. If we did not fear to be the occasion of scruples, we would have restricted the general dispensation which it permits us to grant. But we have full confidence that you will do spontaneously out of piety, that which we have not done with our authority. Without taking back the latitude which the indult grants, we cannot adequately exhort you not to dispense yourselves from the recitation of the Divine Office, except in the case when in conscience, before God and man, you will have serious motives.

In addressing you this urgent exhortation, we believe that we are responding to the mind of the Church. She holds that the public and official prayer of her priests as one of the principal elements of sanctification of their souls and a condition of fruitfulness for their ministry…

We believe that we are faithful to the spirit of our Venerable Founder. You know the devotion that he had for the divine Office and the importance that he attached to its recitation…

Finally, think of the interest of our souls. Let us fear that by diminishing too easily prayer, to diminish the graces that we need so much…” [14].

Augustin Dontenwill

After visiting the Oblates and their missions in Southern Africa in 1922, Archbishop Dontenwill addressed a circular to the whole Congregation:

“Yes, one is proud to be an Oblate – when one can touch with our own finger, as we have done, so many proofs of the continuation of the apostolic spirit among our men; when one has seen them united as brothers, joyful and active, working happily – in poverty and privations, in self-denial and with no thought of themselves, and doing honor to their obligations as Oblates (insofar as their isolation permits).

And when the people evangelized by them repeatedly in many ways spoke their appreciation for ‘their Fathers’, our heart swelled with legitimate pride and thanked the Lord for having kept them so faithful to their holy vocation. These words of the Preface of our Constitutions came to mind: ‘Such are the great works of salvation that can crown the efforts of priests whom God has inspired with the desire to form themselves into a Society… if they carry out their duty worthily, faithfully, fulfilling their splendid vocation’ [15]“.

Théodore Labouré

Although de Mazenod had accepted seven parishes, including five in France, the question of administering parishes in non-mission countries has been the frequent subject of controversy among Oblates. No Superior General spoke more strongly about the foreign missions than Théodore Labouré, yet he did not hesitate to praise and approve the pastoral work of the Oblates in England. To commemorate the centenary of the foundation of the Congregation, in the British Isles in 1941 he addressed a circular to the Anglo-Irish province:

“…The city parishes such as Liverpool, Leeds, Leith, London, etc., have progressed and their number has grown specially during the past twenty years… In establishing a Congregation of missioners, Mgr. de Mazenod had in mind the poor of Jesus Christ. In his burning zeal for souls it was in the evangelizing of the poorest and most abandoned that he sought to spend himself and be spent. “Evangelizare pauperibus misit me”. Does it not then seem providential that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were in the end to establish lasting foundations in populous cities rather than those rural districts where they first began their missionary efforts? In Liverpool, Leeds, London and Leith, the work of the Fathers was, especially in the pioneer days of these missions, to minister in the crowded districts of dire poverty. I need not recall to you, my dear Fathers and Brothers, the heroic labours of the Oblates in the slum quarters of your many parishes. You know how generously the Fathers devoted themselves to alleviating the spiritual and material distress of their flocks. Urged on by the charity of Christ they loved and laboured for the poor, realizing to the letter the words of our Divine Lord, “Pauperes evangelizantur”. The poor are still with you and you continue this noble ministry of priestly zeal among them. It is an apostolate of which your Province may be proud” [16].

Placing his letter in the context of the horrors of World War II, Labouré concluded his circular by exhorting the members of the province to greater heights by following the inspirations of de Mazenod:

“And then looking to the future should we not turn to the Almighty in these days of anxiety and sorrow begging for still greater strength. No doubt you accept with humble resignation the privations, dangers and misfortunes that may come upon your houses, your churches. The important thing is to implore from God not so much a miraculous saving of our material possessions but rather the preservation and deepening of what matters far more, our religious spirit, in constant fidelity to our Rule and in the cultivation with greater intensity of those virtues which our Venerated Founder always wishes to find in all his Oblates. The salvation of those souls confided to your care and their advancement in Christian virtues will ever be the subject of your petitions. Then finally as a helpful means of realising that end, the preservation of the establishments you have built up. Pray often and ask the prayers of your flocks in your churches and missions, but especially in your own spiritual life ever strive after that ideal of priestly and religious perfection so beautifully portrayed in the Preface and on every page of our Holy Rule” [17].

Léo Deschâtelets

The practice of writing circular letters by the Superior General that were veritable encyclicals was restored by Léo Deschâtelets. On August 15, 1951, he sent to the Congregation Our Vocation and Our Life of Intimate Union with Mary Immaculate. This 92 page letter was meant to be a basic document of Oblate spiritual life. He state that the “type of spiritual and apostolic man described by the Rule” comprises eight characteristics or elements and continues:

“First and foremost, we are priests. ‘Art. 1. The end of this humble Congregation… is that priests, living together … in community’… Priests among countless other priests, but priests with a special inspiration which gives a particular outline to the priesthood of an Oblate. We are made priests that we may restore to the priesthood all its glory, and all its prestige, and, by the example of our lives, carry along with us all those who, like ourselves, are signed with the sacred character of Holy Orders. In laying the foundations of his Institute, our Founder did indeed plan to work for the conversion of the masses, but he also had in mind the reform and sanctification of the clergy. It was for this reason that, from the very beginning, he demanded that, his disciples follow so high, so perfect a standard of priestly life…

Can we have any doubt that, from the beginning of our Institute, it was a characteristic note of the Oblate priest that he be outstanding in his fervour and zeal for the conversion of souls, but especially the souls of priests? In our judgement, it is undeniable that this point is established in our very foundation…

The Oblate may not be as other priests, he must be the model priest. The grace of his special vocation sweeps him upward to the very heights; it calls on him to set the standard and to assist in the formation of a worthy priesthood…

Let us remark, in passing, that this shows that the Preface is indeed a synthesis of the Rule. Moreover, it reminds us in terms which admit no ambiguity, of our obligation to priestly holiness, verbo et exemplo, so that wherever and whenever the priesthood falls into a feeble state, we may be able to restore it…

Priestly charity! This phrase did not flow casually from Father de Mazenod’s pen, it was first stamped upon his zealous heart; it was used deliberately, for upon it is the résumé of all that he desired. As we are his followers, priestly charity should saturate our lives, it should be the motive of all our actions; it should be the very air we breathe. It is true we are religious as well as priests, but even our religious mentality itself is conditioned by priestly charity to such an extent that the Oblate who would subordinate sacerdotal grade to the grace of his religious vocation would falsify his Oblate life. The Oblate is, and ought to remain both priest and religious. Neither status can be separated from the other if he wishes to remain a true Oblate of Mary Immaculate. (Note) Let us remark in passing, that this shows that our Oblate Lay Brothers must live in very intimate union with the Oblate priestly life. Here is a mystique, a spirituality which will vitalize the religious and missionary life of our Brothers” [18].

Fernand Jetté

Fernand Jetté encouraged the vocation of the Brothers in the Congregation; he insisted that their varied services – whether technical, professional or pastoral, whether within our houses or without – be respected. He also sought to promote their human and spiritual formation, but he always reaffirmed the priestly or clerical nature of the Congregation.

As Vicar General in his November 14 report to the 1974 General Chapter, Jetté pointed out the evolution taking place within the Congregation:

“… Major elements are changing little by little in an imperceptible way, without our taking the time necessary to take a hard look at them and to consider them under all aspects.

I will mention two points to illustrate my meaning: the priestly character of the Institute, which tends to disappear under pressure from the missionary character, and the role of the Brothers in the Institute, which tends to change substantially, impelled by the tendency to promote the human status of the Brother.

Perhaps we should go along in that direction? But then we should face up squarely to the questions, bearing in mind all considerations, particularly the mind of the Founder…” [19].

The following year, in a conference on the Oblate charism, he called to mind the intention of the Founder:

“An important point should be noted: an Institute’s charism cannot simply be reduced to its spirit or mission. It also includes its way of life in its essential elements. Priests – who can be joined by Brothers – Missionaries, Religious, that is how the Founder finally wanted the Oblates to be” [20].

During the International Congress of Brothers, on August 27, 1985, he again took up this question and placed it in its proper theological context:

“In some places during the 60’s and 70’s, there was a tendency to remove the sacerdotal character from the definition of the Oblate. Some wanted to define the Oblate as ‘a religious missionary’ and no more. There was also a tendency to give priority to secular and professional training in the formation of future Oblates, even of priests.

I remember, the remark of Fr. Deschâtelets, who was then Superior General, during a visit to Montreal: ‘If somebody wants to change the nature of the Congregation he can ask the Holy See for permission to do so, but let it not be said that this is what the Founder wanted’.

A year later, on December 4, 1974, Pope Paul VI gave a similar reminder to the Jesuits: ‘You are religious… You are also apostles… Besides, you are priests: there you have one of the essential characteristics of the Company. We must not, of course, forget the ancient and legitimate tradition of those worthy Brothers, who were not in sacred orders, and who have always played an effective and honored role in the Company. But ‘priesthood’ was formally required by the Founder for all (solemnly) professed religious, and with very good reason, because priesthood is necessary to the Order he founded with the principal aim of sanctifying one by work and sacrament. The priestly character is effectively required because you consecrate your energies to the apostolic life, pleno sensu I repeat: from the charism of the Order of priesthood, which conforms us to Christ as sent by the Father, is born mainly the apostolicity of the mission on which, as Jesuits, you are sent’ [21].

What these words amounted to was: the apostolic purpose pleno sensu of your Institute – ‘the sanctification of men by word and sacrament’ – requires the ministerial priesthood. This is equally true for us Oblates and this is the reason why, before approving the Constitutions and Rules, in 1982, the Congregation for Religious asked that the text say so explicitly by adding a sentence to Article 1: “We are a clerical Congregation of pontifical right”. It is a requirement which is inherent in our purpose as expressed, for example in Article 7 of our Constitutions” [22].

1982 Constitutions and rules

Paul VI in the “Motu Proprio” Ecclesiae Sanctae on August 6, 1966 issued special norms for the implementation of the decisions of Vatican II and set the ground rules for the renewal of the constitutions of religious institutes:

“13. A combination of both elements, the spiritual and the juridical, is necessary, so as to ensure that the principal codes of each institute will have a solid foundation and be permeated by a spirit which is authentic and a law which is alive. Care must be taken not to-produce a text either purely juridical or merely hortatory” [23].

The first article of the Constitutions of a religious institute is of particular importance because of the practice of its stating the nature of the institute both as to its end or purpose and its juridical position in, the Church.

Consequently the first article of the Constitutions written by de Mazenod and approved by Leo XII in 1826 stated that the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were “sacerdotes saeculares”, secular priests. This is, of course, to be understood in light of the canon law of that time which considered members of congregations with simple vows to be seculars and not religious.

The Constitutions published in 1853 added the expression “Religionis votis obligati”, bound by religious vows, to the words “sacerdotes saeculares”. Following the 1917 Code of Canon Law which recognized members of religious institutes with simple vows to be religious, the 1928 Constitutions dropped the word “saeculares”. These were the last Constitutions to be submitted to the Holy See for approval prior to those prepared by the 1980 General Chapter.

A religious institute approved by the Church is either of pontifical right or of diocesan right – depending on whether it was approved by the Holy See or by a diocesan bishop. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate became a religious congregation and one of pontifical right with the approval by Leo XII. This latter was not stated in the Constitutions, but it was clear from the various papal documents of approval of the Constitutions and of subsequent changes in them.

Every Oblate is familiar with the exuberant joy that de Mazenod expressed in his letter to Tempier on February 18, 1826. [24] This same joy was expressed again in a letter addressed to all Oblates on March 25 of that year:

“Rejoice with me and congratulate yourselves, my beloved for it has pleased the Lord to grant us great favors; our Holy Father the Pope, Leo XII, gloriously reigning from the chair of St. Peter, has sanctioned with his apostolic approbation, on March 21 of this current year, our Institute, our Constitutions and Rules. See then to our little flock, the Father of the family has kindly wished to open wide the field of the holy Church, given a place in the hierarchic order, associated with the venerable Congregations which have spread throughout the Church…” [25].

The Congregation of Religious and Secular Institutes insisted that the first article of the Constitutions submitted for approval contain the expression “clerical Congregation of pontifical right” Although this canonical terminology was not found in the previous Constitutions, the concept is nothing new and was implicitly contained in all previously approved Constitutions – since the first article of all previous texts spoke of the Oblates as a community of priests and the various papal briefs of approval were contained in all the printed editions of the Constitutions thus indicating that Congregation was of pontifical right.

De Mazenod founded a congregation of priests to do priestly ministry as missionaries. Because of this priestly or sacerdotal purpose of the Congregation it is, to use canonical terminology, a clerical institute:

“Can. 588, §2. A clerical institute is one, which by reason of the end or purpose intended by the founder, or by reason of lawful tradition… presupposes the exercise of sacred orders, and is recognized as such by ecclesiastical authority”.

In his commentary on the first article of the 1982 Constitutions, Fr. Jetté wrote: “After recalling the Congregation’s clerical and universal character (‘of pontifical right’), the second paragraph states that the Congregation is made up of priests and brothers who live in apostolic communities, who bind themselves to God by the vows of religion and share in the same mission: ‘cooperating with the Saviour and imitating his example, we commit ourselves principally to evangelizing the poor’. This tells us that all Oblates, the brothers as well as the priests, are equally religious and evangelizers of the poor. Because some have been ordained to the ministerial priesthood, however, the evangelization activities are complementary and in part different: this will be spelled out in article 7 and in Rule 3 [R 7c in the CCRR 2000].”

“A brief historical review can help us to understand better this distinction in the Oblate life. In the beginning, Eugene de Mazenod wanted to establish a Society of priests who would dedicate their lives to evangelizing the poor, especially by the preaching of missions and the celebration of the sacraments (Reconciliation and the Eucharist). These men were called ‘missionaries’ or ‘apostolic men’. Lay persons soon came to join them: they wanted to consecrate themselves to God in the Oblate religious life and to cooperate, according to their preparation and talents, with the missionary activity of these ‘apostolic men’. The Founder welcomed them with joy and asked that they be looked upon ‘not as domestic servants’, but rather ‘as brothers’ who share our life and work (cf. Selected Texts…, nos. 10, 17, 18, 190.)”

“Since then until today our terminology has changed: the terms ‘missionary’ and ‘apostolic men’ are now equally applied to the brothers and to the priests.” [26]

Priests and Brothers

Membership of laymen or brothers in clerical religious institutes is an ancient tradition in the Church and poses, of itself, no anomaly. However, the question does arise as to the relationship of the non-ordained to the priestly element in the Oblate vocation, spirituality, and vocation. How do the brothers share in this essential element of the Congregation?

In preparing for the 1966 General Chapter the brothers of Bolivia meeting in a congress responded in this way:

“The brothers are unanimous in saying that they joined the Congregation of the O.M.I.’s because they saw the possibility of working directly with the Oblate priests to replace the priest in temporal tasks, so that he could be one hundred percent pastor of souls; to be a real companion, a support, a confidant of the Oblate priest. Because of this close relationship with the priesthood, the Oblate brother has truly a priestly vocation, which the teaching and nursing brothers do not have.” [27]


The General Norms of Oblate Formation published in 1984 by the General Administration responded to this question in a positive way by indicating that priesthood is not a divisive element in the life of the Congregation, but through complementarity, a source of apostolic and fraternal unity of the priests and brothers in the common priestly mission of the Congregation:

“In fidelity to the Founder’s charism, the priesthood remains an essential element of the Congregation, since the principal goal of its mission is full evangelization: witness, proclamation of God’s Word, implanting and building up of the Church, celebration of the sacraments, especially of Reconciliation and of the Eucharist. As priests and Brothers, Oblates have complementary responsibilities and roles in evangelizing – cf. C 7 and RR 3 and 7 [RR 7c and 7ein the CCRR 2000]. The Oblate religious missionary life and the mission of both priests and Brothers are inseparably linked to the ministerial priesthood (nos. 7-8). [28]

They [the Brothers] also share, by reason of belonging to a Congregation whose identity is marked by priestly ministry, in a particular relationship to the ordained priesthood.

With the riches proper to their vocation, the Oblate Brothers share actively in the community life and works of the Province. Their vocation does not separate them from their fellow Oblates either in their living or working situations. The tasks assumed by the Brothers in service of the mission depend on the life and options taken by each Province; the range of these tasks is very broad and should always remain open” (no. 72). [29]


On January 25, 1992 in preparing for the XXXII General Chapter, Father Marcello Zago, wrote the Oblates in first formation a letter on “The Priestly Character of the Congregation.” In this letter, he wrote: “The Oblate charism is a gift which the Spirit communicated to us through a concrete individual, Eugene de Mazenod. The Lord prepared this gift through the personal experience of the Founder who bore the stamp of the priestly vocation. […] The mission of the Church takes on a great multiplicity of forms and ways as John Paul II’s missionary encyclical reminds us [30]. All Christians share the responsibility of the mission and make their contribution according to the state in life and charism proper to each one. [31] The missionary priority entrusted to our Congregation is priestly, specifically because it is focused on the proclamation of the Good News and on the establishing of Christian communities. The Oblates’ specific contribution – their first, though not their exclusive priority – to the Church’s mission is “principally […] evangelizing the poor” (C 1). [32]