Charles Joseph Eugène de Mazenod was born in Aix-en-Provence in France in 1782, the son of a wealthy aristocratic parents. His father Charles Antoine de Mazenod, a member of the French nobility was the President of the Aix Parliament. His mother Marie-Rose Joannis, a member of the rapidly evolving bourgeois merchants embodied the practical and shrewd realism of this group.
This union of complementary social and cultural values assured young Eugene all the requisites for a successful and comfortable life. This idyllic world was swept away by the French Revolution in 1789. After his father opposed the revolution, the entire family was obliged to flee into exile in Italy. In 1790, a new painful period began for Eugene.
These were years of family instability, material scarcity and danger. The family was forced to flee successively to Turin, Venice, Naples and Palermo. Eugene’s adolescence was impoverished. Deprived of friends of his own age, unable to continue an orderly academic program, he was also separated from his mother who divorced her husband in order to return and reclaim family property in France.
Coming of age
Eugene was 20 years old when he returned from exile. Upon arrival in France, his overriding desire was to live fully, to make up for lost time. Young, handsome, with a well known family name he also had the inherited wealth recovered by his mother. Among his head-strong ambitions and pretensions: Marriage with a young rich heiress, a secure and prestigious position in society and access to the pleasures and amusements of the good life.
These dreams crumbled one by one starting with the unexpected death of the wealthy young woman. Eugene now 25 years old was forced to make a new balance of his life and person. He was not the extraordinary man that he had imagined himself to be. Certainly, he had some good qualities, a strong character and a generous heart. Yet it was also obvious that he had yet to accomplish anything truly important. Superficial friendships and the easy pleasures of high society living were found empty and wanting.
Little by little the social and moral havoc resulting from the French Revolution had profoundly impacted on Eugene. He was moved by the distressing condition of the clergy and the tremendous religious ignorance of the people found everywhere. Endowed with a lively and imperious character and filled with noble intentions, Eugene resolved to play a part in meeting the urgent needs of the Church.
Initial steps of a Spiritual Journey
Eugene de Mazenod’s spiritual journey and personality were profoundly influenced by his family’s values and struggles amidst the insecurity and ambiguity of the Italian exile. During his time of exile in Venice (1794-1797), a holy priest, Don Bartolo Zinelli, introduced him to the spirituality of the Company of Jesus. From him as a young boy, Eugene learned how to pray and how to practice mortification. Don Bartolo also initiated him to a devotion to the Virgin Mary “It was there”, Eugene would later write, “that my vocation to the priesthood was born”.
Two interior graces transformed Eugene in his twenties. The first was a grace of “conversion”. During the adoration of the cross on Good Friday in 1807, Eugene had a special experience of the love and goodness of Christ which culminated in the shedding of his blood to obtain the forgiveness of all sins. Simultaneously conscious of his own sins and filled with a sense of profound confidence in Divine Mercy, Eugene decided to make amends through the total gift of his life to Jesus his Savior.
A second moment of grace, which he describes as “an impulse from without” from the Spirit, led him to a decision for the priesthood. In 1808, he would enter the Seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris and be ordained a priest at Amiens, on December 21, 1811. His dream was to be “the servant and priest of the poor”.
From 1808 to 1812 as a member of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, Eugene de Mazenod was guided by Monsieur Emery and Monsieur Duclaux. These holy men encouraged Eugene to continue developing a spirit of fervor, regularity and industrious ness. Eugene, notwithstanding personal risk, committed himself to faithfully serve and assist the Pope who at this time was a prisoner of Napoleon at Fontainebleau.
Eugene’s desire to become a priest of the poor continued to develop. Direct contact with impoverished youth and prisoners of war strengthened Eugene’s desire to devote himself entirely to these forgotten people. Simultaneously he continued to harbor a desire to make atonement, both for his own sins and all Christians who had abandoned the Church. Thus he participates in the activities of the Marian Congregation and a missionary group established by his friend and confrere Charles de Forbin-Janson. Repeatedly he expressed the desire to cooperate with Christ in the salvation of the world, so that the shedding of the blood of Christ might be efficacious for others as it had been for him.
A Missionary Community is born
Eugene began his ministry by rejecting a prestigious diocesan position to reach out to the poor , the workers, the youth, the sick and the imprisoned of Aix Overwhelmed by the demands and possibilities of this ministry, he soon realized that he needed to gather a group of zealous priests to work with him. The goal: to awaken “a faith that had all but died in the hearts of so many”.
In September 1815, he experienced another “impulse from without” that set him firmly on the path of apostolic action. He gave himself body and soul to the realization of his plans to establish a society of missionaries. On January 25, 1816, the society of the Missionaries of Provence was born.
Father de Mazenod invited his companions “to live together as brothers” and “to imitate the virtues and examples of our Saviour Jesus Christ, above all through the preaching of the Word of God to the poor”. He urged them to commit themselves unreservedly to the work of the missions, binding themselves by religious vows. Because of their small number, they initially limited their zeal to the neighboring countryside. Their fondest wish, however, was “to embrace the vast expanse of the whole earth”, as the founder had written in 1818.
Pope Leo XII on February 17, 1826 formally approved the newly founded Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Its motto: “He has sent me to evangelize the poor” expressed both its charism and way of life.
Eugene’s Spiritual Struggles and Growth
During his first years as a priest, Eugene continually struggled to find a balance in his life between prayer and service to others.
After a series of initial successes, there was a period of deep and painful purification. From 1827 to 1836, Eugene was tested time and time again: conflicts, defections, bereavements, temporary loss of his French citizenship, even suspicion from the Holy See. Along with making him seriously ill, these events led to moments of discouragement and depression. Eugene discovered, first hand, the cost of discipleship and service of the Church. He came out of this experience bruised and humbled, more understanding towards others and much stronger in his love and faith.
Bishop of Marseille
The Diocese of Marseille had been re-established in 1823. After a period as Vicar General of this diocese, in 1837, Eugene was named Bishop of Marseille.As pastor of a Church undergoing a time of significant growth and simultaneously Superior of a fledgling group of missionaries, Bishop Eugene de Mazenod truly had to be “all things to all people”. As Bishop, Eugene greatly increased the number of parishes and religious associations in the diocese. He not only welcome the return of Religious institutes such as the Jesuits, but also personally encouraged the founding of several new religious families.
Special programs were undertaken for youth, workers, immigrants and the needy in rapidly developing port city of Marseille. The construction of a new cathedral, the shrine of Notre Dame was initiated. Simultaneously he played a prominent role in the in the major political and religious questions of the day such as religious education and the rights of the papacy. In 1854, he journeyed to Rome to participate enthusiastically in the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.
The mature apostolic man
As bishop in Marseilles, Eugene de Mazenod was at his full spiritual maturity. An untiring and zealous pastor, solidly anchored in the love of Christ and of the Church. Forgetful of self, he focused all his energies on the task of evangelization entrusted to him, both in Marseilles and beyond. During this time of intense ministry he remained a man of prayer.
The Eucharist was his source of inspiration and renewal. He insisted on celebrating Mass daily, sometimes at great inconvenience, particularly while traveling. The Eucharist, his privileged place of identification with Christ was also the space for gathering together friends and members of his religious family. As he himself said, the Eucharist was in fact “their living center of communication”. There he remembered his missionary sons, particularly those far away, and he asked them to do likewise. “While identifying ourselves with Jesus Christ, we shall be at one with him, and by him and in him we shall be at one among ourselves”.
Superior General and Missionary
All the while, Eugene continued to serve as Superior General of the Oblates. After accepting a mission in neighboring Corsica en 1834, starting in 1841, the small Society began a period of great expansion. Eugene received many requests from abroad. In spite of limited personnel, he responded in faith. In 1841 the first Oblates arrived in Canada . Soon they ventured into the vast plains of the West and within a few years had reached the Arctic Circle. Other countries followed: England in 1842; the United States and Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) in 1847, South Africa in 1851 and Ireland in 1855.
Always a prolific writer, Eugene corresponded unceasingly with his missionaries. In his voluminous correspondence he reveals himself as a caring pastor, involved in all aspects of their life and mission. Always an apostolic man, he was able to encourage, advise, correct and support. He harbored a profound sense of spiritual paternity and lived in intense union with his sons as they shouldered the many heavy burdens in distant missions. Although he never traveled beyond the borders of Europe, with the exception of a short trip to Algeria, Saint Eugene nurtured in his heart a concern for all the churches. A visiting bishop remarked after meeting Saint Eugene: “I have met the apostle Paul”
His Spiritual Horizons
De Mazenod’s most basic attitude before humanity is one of trust and faith. Two very solid convictions explain this attitude. First: everything which occurs on earth, on the personal as well as the civil and social level, depends on Divine Providence. Second: God wants all to be saved, and all, both rich and poor, have been purchased by the blood of Christ.
In his pastoral letters, he emphasizes the following points:
• All are called to salvation and holiness. He proposes to the Oblates: “We must strive first of all to lead people to act like human beings, and then like Christians, and finally, we must help them to become saints.
• To remain on the road to sanctity and make progress, Christians should look upon themselves with the eyes of faith. No matter how poor or destitute they might be, in the eyes of faith all are “children of God” “brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ” and “heirs of His eternal kingdom.”
• Holiness consists in conversion of heart, fidelity to the law of God and to the inspiration of his grace, in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. To love the Jesus Christ is to love the Church.
• The journey to holiness demands a constant ongoing conversion
Oblate Constitutions and Rule
Saint Eugene’s spiritual synthesis is found most clearly in the Rules and Constitutions of his Institute. These reflect both his own personal experience and the perception of the needs of the day.When writing the Oblate Constitutions, Saint Eugene borrowed copiously from Sulpician and Jesuit mentors as well as missionaries he admired such as Charles Borromeo, Vincent de Paul, and Alphonsus de Liguori.
The Constitutions reflect his unique personality and Gospel rootedness. “The spirit of total devotion for the glory of God, the service of the Church and the salvation of souls is the spirit proper to our Congregation”, he wrote in 1817. He further stated, in 1830, that we must look upon ourselves “as the servants of the Father of a family commanded to succor, to aid, to bring back his children by working to the utmost, in the midst of tribulations, of persecutions of every kind, without claiming any reward other than that which the Lord has promised to faithful servants who have worthily fulfilled their mission”.
Final Words to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate
Towards the end of his life, Eugene had become very free. Faced with the prospect of the cardinalate which had been promised and which slipped away from him because of political considerations, he had this to say: “After all, it is all the same whether one is buried in a red cassock or a purple one; the main thing is that the bishop gets to heaven”.
Shortly before his death on May 21, 1861, in keeping with his temperament, the elderly and seriously ill bishop said to those around him: “Should I happen to doze off, or if I appear to be getting worse, please wake me up! I want to die knowing that I am dying”.
His last words to the Oblates were a testament that summed up his life: “Practice well among yourselves charity, charity, charity, and outside, zeal for the salvation of souls”. Saint Eugene died on Tuesday after Pentecost Sunday to the prayer of the Salve Regina, It was his final salute on earth to the one he considered as the “Mother of the Mission”.
Pope John Paul II reflects on Saint Eugene de Mazenod
Canonization Celebration – December 3, 1995 – Rome, Italy
“We are living in the second Advent of the world’s history. Eugene de Mazenod was a man of Advent, a man of the Coming. He not only looked forward to that Coming, he dedicated his whole life to preparing for it, one of those apostles who prepared the modern age, our age.
Eugene de Mazenod knew that Christ wanted to unite the whole human race to himself. This is why throughout his life he devoted particular attention to the evangeli- ization of the poor, wherever they were found.
By patiently working on himself, he learned to discipline a difficult character and to govern with enlightened wisdom and steadfast goodness.. His every action was inspired by a conviction he expressed in these words: “To love Church is to love Jesus Christ, and vice versa”. His influence is not limited to the age in which he lived. But continues its effect on our time.
His apostolate consisted in the transformation of the world by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What Saint Eugene wanted to achieve was that, in Christ, each individual could become a fully complete person, an authentic Christian, a credible saint.
The Church gives us this great Bishop and Founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate as an example of heroic faith, hope and charity.”