As told by Brother Devin Watkins, OMI
(Brother Watkins is currently a 25 year-old, 1st Year theology student from the United States Province of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate studying at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.)
“Every story is told for a purpose, and I would be remiss to proceed to tell you my story without at least letting you know on what I intend to focus my attention. As we all know, of primary importance in conversion is acceptance of God’s unconditional love and mercy; St. Eugene’s Good Friday experience bears witness to this. Now, let me proceed to share how God’s radical gift of healing has given me ‘a new heart, a new spirit, a new mission’.
Much of my conversion story centers on an event that occurred when I was 14 years old. On February 5, 1999, my mother (SueAnn), her parents, and two of my little sisters (Julie and Kristin) died tragically as the small airplane in which they were flying crashed. This left my father (Richard), my sister (Allison), and I to carry on and grieve our loss. Prior to that event we had been a happy, Catholic family living on a cotton farm in West Texas. Normal, busy days with plenty of love mixed in characterized our lives together. However, after that day it seemed that any semblance of a normal life was shattered forever. Shock reined the next couple of days, and as we knelt praying the rosary with the community at the wake service, I stared at the five caskets in front of me and almost wished that I was in one of them. Suddenly, through the darkness and pain that clouded my mind, I felt a ray of God’s peace burst through the mist. I vaguely perceived that Jesus had given me his own Mother, Mary, to be with me as my new Mother, and I knew that someday this gaping hole in my heart would be filled. That was my first real connection with Mary.
As the events of that week passed and life began to resume its normal pace, I forgot that sense of peace and hope. In high school I gradually began to fill that hole in my heart with partying, drinking, and dating. College was similar but even wilder; I had nothing and no one to limit my excesses and I drifted from one hazy night to the next. Sundays were the worst. I would go to Mass on most Sundays, but afterwards I would feel the depression, loneliness, and emptiness that inevitably crept up when no one was around to distract me from who I was becoming. Occasionally when I was feeling very low I would reach for the rosary that hung mostly unused on my doorknob and say a couple decades. Solace and comfort would envelop me for a moment but I would then go on my way like a man who looks in a mirror and promptly forget what he looks like. My first three years at Texas A&M University were thus, but God started a process that would start to open my eyes to His mercy waiting to fill me.
During the spring of my junior year, I attended a weekend retreat in the style of Cursillo called Aggie Awakening. A month after this I was invited to a conference given by a prominent Catholic preacher. Then, that next summer while at home, my sister Allison gave me a book called True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort. As I read I felt inspired to go through the process of consecration to Jesus through Mary by renewing my baptismal promises and dedicating the whole of my life to God. However, I wrongly assessed that I was unworthy and that I should work to be a better person before attempting something of this magnitude. This lack of acceptance of my finitude led me to even worse extremes, and I slid deeper into darkness. Now, when I had finished reading the book the first time I promised myself that I would read it again that fall. Luckily I kept my promise and after reading the book again I saw that perfection through surrender was what was required and not perfection through lack of blemish. Thereafter, I began the 33 days of preparation for my personal consecration by reciting the rosary and daily uniting myself to Jesus through Mary. During that time, I found that my deeply ingrained inclination toward grievous sin was diminished considerably. The opportunities were still present, but my attraction to them was not. In the beginning of the process I felt light and happy, but as the days advanced things got harder and I began to understand the weight and gravity of what I was freely choosing: the Cross of Christ. During this process a question kept sticking in my mind: Was God calling me to be a priest? This thought manifested itself one day at daily Mass during the words of consecration. ‘Do this in memory of me’ echoed in the depths of my being, and it was as if Jesus was asking to say these words through me. Yet, I was still hesitant; was I just making this up?
Then on day of my consecration, December 8, 2006, I went to Confession and Mass and recited my prayer of consecration. From that moment I perceived that a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I went to a chapel for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and spent nearly three hours praying with great fervor. As I knelt and prayed my rosary, just as I had so many years before, I knew with every fiber of my being that Mom, Julie, and Kristin were right beside me praying with me. At that moment I felt the same ray of peaceful, penetrating light from God that I had experienced the night of the wake service. Joy infiltrated my senses, and I knew that I would never again walk alone. The pain and misery that for years I had known was gone and the hole in my heart had been filled with unconditional love and mercy. Besides this, I also knew with certainty that I was truly called to be a priest; how else could I respond to such generosity shown me by God?
Then the truly hard part began: to which community or diocese was God calling me? This decision did not come so easily or dramatically. As I left for home at the Christmas break, my father told me that our bishop, Michael Pfiefer, OMI, was in a community with Mary in the title. Considering my newfound devotion to Mary, this sounded like a good place to start so I met with him, and he put me in contact with the vocation director, Fr. Charlie Banks, OMI. Fr. Charlie’s persistence in keeping contact was pivotal, and he introduced me through a pamphlet to St. Eugene de Mazenod. This man’s fiery temper reminded me of my own and his time in exile took me back to the years I had spent as an outcast from true happiness. But it was his love for the poor and most abandoned that eventually opened my heart to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Eventually I decided to enter, and with time I have found that the peace that I once felt only occasionally has now taken up a permanent residence in the depths of my being. Now I understand that Jesus allowed me to feel all those years the crushing weight of darkness in order to be able to sympathize with those who have lost their last strand of hope. “If we bear in our body the death of Jesus, it is with the hope that the life of Jesus, too, may be seen in our body.” “(OMI CC&RR 4)
WITH SAINT EUGENE TO CHRIST THE SAVIOR –
A SAINT WHO BRINGS US LIGHT
When the name Eugene de Mazenod is mentioned, people immediately think of the dynamic and faith-filled priest who founded the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and then became Bishop of Marseilles. At the basis of this saintly man and his very successful ministry was the secret of his life, which is not always recalled: he knew Christ the Saviour intimately. It was not a knowledge of ideas, but a familiarity and love which developed because he had experienced difficulties and sufferings in his life and was able to recognise that it was a sharing in the sufferings of his Saviour.
What is a saint? A good image is of the sun shining through a magnificent stained glass window in a cathedral. It is the light of God’s love shining through a person and filling us with a particular colour and aspect of God’s light. St. Eugene can be seen as this stained glass window who shows us the beauty of the love of God as Saviour. This is the invitation to which our devotion invites each of us: to see in Eugene the beauty of God’s love. In this way Eugene becomes for us a model of how to live in the Light, an intercessor who leads us to the Light, and a loving friend who accompanies us on the journey.
SAINT EUGENE IS A HUMAN WITH FAULTS WHO STRUGGLED TO BECOME A SAINT
Eugene’s life shows him to be anything but a plaster saint who floated through life in a cloud of holiness. The events of his life and the many sufferings from his childhood until his death show this to us. He was exiled from his country from the age of 9 until 20. He suffered many hardships during this time, but certainly the most painful blow during this time was that his mother and sister left him and returned to France to try to recover some of the family possessions that the Revolution had taken away from them. In order to recover their property, his mother had to undergo a civil divorce. Eugene considered this as a temporary legal necessity and for many years he longed for the day when his parents would be re-united. It was never to happen. What had begun as a separation for material reasons, developed into a divorce which never led to reconciliation. Eugene, who intensely loved both his parents, tried by all means to bring them together again, but to no avail.
He had a strong personality and he struggled with himself and his imperfections. He was a man who knew how much he needed to love people and to be loved by them, and yet he was also a figure who knew rejection and loneliness. He was a man who suffered because of the situations in which he found himself – but throughout his life we find a deep sense of peace and single-mindedness that never left him. Why? Because since he had met and accepted the Crucified Jesus as his Saviour, Eugene was able to see every event through the eyes of his Saviour. In each event he was able to discern and recognise the presence of his loving Saviour.
Here is the first reason why people are attracted to St. Eugene as a saint: he is very human and therefore becomes a MODEL for us. He teaches us how to recognise God’s love in every situation. Thousands of persons throughout the world have learnt of God’s love through the ministry of his sons.
SAINT EUGENE IS CLOSE TO GOD AND PRAYS FOR US
Not only does St. Eugene show us how to live in God’s love, how to turn to the Saviour in our brokenness, but he intercedes for us that we may do so. This is the meaning of his canonization: the Church recognizes that Eugene is part of the communion of saints and is close to God in the fullness of the Kingdom. Now he prays for us and INTERCEDES for us in our needs from that situation of closeness to God.
Throughout the world we constantly encounter people who testify to the power of his intercession. People turn to Eugene in prayer because he experienced the break-up of his family, he knew what it was to be an exiled immigrant, he experienced persecution, wealth and what it means to lose it all, loneliness, failure of plans and many other forms of suffering. People approach him because he knows and understands the difficulties of our human existence. More and more churches throughout the world are now being dedicated to him as people discover the power of his intercession.
SAINT EUGENE IS A FATHER AND FRIEND WHO JOURNEYS WITH US
As a person, Eugene knew the meaning of friendship. He always needed to have close friendships. He treasured the people he was really close to and knew that he could not live without friends. For this reason he was able to understand how Jesus was calling him to a relationship of special friendship with Him. Eugene and his Saviour were deep friends, with Eugene wanting to live in intimacy with him and always in his presence. Eugene not only teaches us how to follow Jesus but he also accompanies us on the journey by offering us his friendship. As Founder of the Oblates and as Pastor of Marseilles Diocese Eugene understood himself and acted as a father. Particularly when he was older, he would often exclaim, “Never has a father loved his children as much as I do!” Today that continues to be true and we can hear those sentiments echoing in our hearts as he accompanies us on the journey of coming to know and love the Saviour in a deeper way.
Frank Santucci OMI
by Art King,OMI
In the Fall of this year we will be celebrating the 170th anniversary of the Episcopal Ordination of St Eugene de Mazenod. It is interesting to look back to see just how the Founder became a bishop.
On October 14 1832, Father Eugene de Mazenod was ordained the Titular Bishop of Icosia in the Church of Saint Sylvester in Rome. What is usually an openly glorious ceremony was celebrated for Eugene in the utmost secrecy and immersed in the most incredible political and diplomatic intrigue.
While Fr de Mazenod was certainly worthy to be a bishop, he had already refused the honor at least three times, it was not his worthiness that ultimately secured his appointment. It was, instead, his iron clad obedience to Pope Gregory XVI who ordered him to accept the appointment. Gregory was willing to make de Mazenod a pawn in the fierce contest between the Holy See and the Revolutionary French government over the appointment of bishops without secular interference.
The problems , however, started seven years earlier, before the Vatican was ever asked to consider Eugene’s appointment as a bishop. The principal and most vicious protagonist in the affair was Joseph-Antione-Thomas, Prefect of Bouches-du-Rhone. An ardent revolutionary, Thomas harbored an intense animosity toward the de Mazenod family. He was a supporter of the revolution and they were Nobility and supporters of the legitimate Monarchy. Thomas made it his crusade, his project to supply the government ministers with charges against the de Mazenods which were both false and damaging.. Thomas seems to have been a regular government informant on all sorts of matters in the south of France.
The Prefect of Bouches-du-Rhone was particularly obsessed with preventing Eugene de Mazenod from becoming a bishop. His accusations against the priest over many years ranged from Eugene doing stupid things, to funding a group of assassins to dispatch government ministers. He convinced the Minister of Cults that Eugene, even after he had become a bishop was, in complete disrepute with the people of Marseilles. For four years Thomas relentlessly persecuted Eugene and even after the government legitimized Bishop de Mazenod’s appointment he remained ad odds with him.
Bishop Fortune de Mazenod was the aged Ordinary of the Diocese of Marseilles and also Eugene’s uncle. In response to the request of Bishop Fortune in 1832, for a successor in his See, Pope Gregory XVI summoned Eugene to Rome. Eugene was appointed the titular bishop of Icosia with an non existent job as Apostolic Visitor to Tunisia. He was ordained and returned to France. All this happened without consulting the French government which claimed for itself the right of approval for all Episcopal appointments. Before leaving Rome for France, the Charge” d’Affairs for the Vatican, Bishop Frezza, warned Eugene of the personal risk he was taking
Within three months after his return Prefect Thomas alerted the government of the new bishop’s presence in Marseilles. He literally stalked the bishop and created all sorts of outrageous stories which he fed to the press. Like tabloids the press published Thomas’ fabrications. His influence with the government was strong enough to convince the French government to pass on the stories-made-fact to the Vatican. They used them as a ploy to demand the recall of the Bishop of Icosia. First they charged that he was a foreigner. Then they threatened legal prosecution against him. The prosecution in the hands of an anti-clerical government became persecution. It lasted for four years.
It was unfortunate that some in the Vatican gave some credence to the false allegation levied against the Founder. Eugene was summoned to Rome by Gregory XVI. Without delay Eugene presented himself to the Holy Father who lectured him on his attitude towards the France Government. The Pope was ready to pack Eugene off to Tunisia. Eugene enlightened the Holy Father of the Government’s intentions to suppress the See of Marseilles upon the death of his uncle Fortune and that was why they wanted him out of the way. Later Eugene was able to refute all the charges against him by the government with the Cardinal Bernetti the Secretary of State.
A flurry of letters flew between Rome and Paris. In substance the French Government charged that the Bishop of Icosia was illegal in France, he could not be bishop there because he had not been approved by the king. Furthermore he was considered seditious and dangerous to the government. The Vatican exposed the fraud of Thomas and declared that there was no reason to detain the bishop longer. The French Ambassador however, delayed Eugene’s visa. Eventually the Founder was able to return to Marseilles just before Christmas 183 3.
Prefect Thomas spared no effort with the Government. In May 1833 the Attorney General decided that the Bishop of Icosia was guilty of treason for plotting counter revolution against the July Government. Eugene was branded very dangerous. In August 1834 the Government stripped Eugene of his citizenship and his right to vote. He had already been deprived of his salary as Vicar general in October. The contest waged between the Holy See and the French government. Finally in December 1834 Eugene was served with a warrant forbidding him the exercise of any ecclesiastical function in the country under penalty of being deported. The Government again demanded Eugene’s recall. The Vatican again refused. Stalemate !
Through all of this contention Eugene was ordered by the Vatican to remain silent and to do nothing in his own defense. Not the slightest consideration was given to what effect all of this must have had on the very sensitive man who sat in the midst of this tug of war. Privately the Founder complained about the affront that was being perpetrated against his honor and the dignity of the office of a bishop in the church albeit against the rights of the Holy See. But he suffered the silence and the inactivity obediently. What is astounding about the affair is that neither the Founder nor the Vatican ever considered that indeed his very life was in danger.
It was Father Guibert, the Superior of the seminary in Ajaccio who was called upon by Bishop Fortune to broker the settlement and put and end to the affair. While changing circumstances in France created a less hostile climate for his efforts, Guibert’s influence and ability undoubtedly made for success, The proof of his competence was his later appointment to the See of Paris and then Cardinal. The king wanted an end to the religious strife in the kingdom. The revolutionary faction had lost some of its support. It not unlikely either that the name de Mazenod still had some standing at the Court of Versailles.
Through Guibert’s efforts Eugene’s citizenship and right to vote was restored. His Episcopal position as Titular of Icosia was recognized and His right to succeed his Uncle Fortune in the See of Marseilles was granted.
St Eugene de Mazenod became Bishop of Marseilles in April 1837. He served in that Diocese until his death in 1861 , a year shy of a quarter of a century. He lived to be the oldest bishop in France in his day, the Dean of the French Episcopate. On October 5 1855 he was awarded the Cross of an Officer in the Legion of Honor France’s highest decoration. On June 24 1856 he was appointed by the Emperor Senator of the Empire.. Had he lived he would have been appointed Cardinal by Pope Pius IX.
By Arthur King, OMI
Eugene de Mazenod met Emmanuel Gaultier de Claubry in the coach on his way from Paris to Lyon in September 1805. They were both 23 years old, although Emmanuel seemed younger. Emmanuel was a surgeon in the Italian Army and was returning to duty. Eugene was returning to Aix after a trip to Paris with his Aunt Gabrielle, the Marquise de Pierrefeu.
It must have been an interesting journey. Besides the two young men and the marquise, there was another soldier in the coach who was apparently bored or turned off by the conversation which passed between Eugene and Emmanuel. If the letters which later passed between them are any indication of what the conversation was like, it was no wonder. Emmanuel was described as anything but military. He was rather fair and polished and lacked the usual machismo associated with a soldier. He obviously came from a high-born family and it’s anybody’s guess what he was doing in the Italian Army. By todays’ standards he was also rather young to be a surgeon.
One might imagine that Madame slept through the whole thing. One might also believe that Eugene, curious and uninhibited creature that he was, initiated the conversation. Within the few hours journey the two men became fast friends and apparently hit it off so well that they told each other their life’s story. Apparently the conversation centered very much on religion – a most unlikely topic for strangers. No question, they liked each other instantly. Eugene seems to have found in Emmanuel the ami du coeur for which he longed for so long. Emmanuel was absolutely taken by this charming, warm-hearted and candid Nobleman from Aix.
It was remarkable that so deep a friendship could have welded in so short a time and remained for so long. Eugene and Emmanuel remained close friends for more than fifty years. Emmanuel preceded Eugene in death in 1855. Eugene described it in a letter of 1807: “… that journey which seemed to me so short, and which, in bringing us together each for his own reason, led us to part from one another perhaps forever; from that Eugene whom, in a word, you found to your hearts liking and whom you love as he still loves you.”
Letters passed between them which can only be called passionate in a truly holy sense. Keeping in mind that they were both laymen and still in their early twenties, the spiritual content is extraordinary given that they lived in an age of decadence. Emmanuel’s letters were unabashedly candid. By our standards they might appear to be a bit “gushy”. But it is clear how much he was invested in Eugene and depended on him as a mentor and for spiritual support. He was obviously a troubled and lonely young man and much out of place where he was.
“I ask you for your fervent prayer, O Eugene, do not abandon your friend in his need,” Emmanuel wrote to Eugene in October, 1805. At the Officer’s Mess he apparently took a raking over the coals, “the sarcasms, mockery, jests, slurs… about my appearance, my manner, expression, which you know is not very military,” he complained to his friend. It seems to have been a somewhat vicious persecution which followed him wherever he was billeted. He would complain of it again. Eugene replied in November “… your letter, my dear friend, fills my heart with sorrow. I have very much resented the insults which tested you during that horrible meal.” But Eugene does not coddle Emmanuel. “… it is when they discover that you are a Christian that they will inundate you with sarcasm, insults and contempt,” Eugene tells his friend, “you will have to summon all the power that you received with holy regeneration and the laying on of hands.” Though Eugene wanted to encourage and support him, he says to him “Eugene is not the point, it is Jesus Christ, it is Peter, Paul, John who send the salutary nourishment which received with spiritual faith of which you are capable, will certainly not be without effect.” Eugene then sent him a long list of Scripture passages to contemplate.
This is very revealing. No doubt that Eugene considered Emmanuel a beloved friend, but he seems to have readily sensed Emmanuel’s dependence and a certain weakness in him. The emotionally distraught friend really had no one. Eugene proved to be a good friend and a wise counselor by making his friend turn to his own inner resources to find the strength to cope. Eugene is up front with him. He says he must be careful what he says to him “to draw from a pure source… where all our needs are foreseen and the remedies prepared.” It is eminently Christocentric.
A year passed before Emmanuel wrote again. He had been seriously ill and had a long convalescence. Emmanuel speaks of a change, “… the soldiers I live with are not like you… I have had to endure humiliations… because I defy human respect.” Now Emmanuel openly prays grace at the table and makes no secret of how he thinks and feels, especially in a moral sense. Emmanuel found his courage to be himself, no matter what, and he conquered his internal foe. “I have seen the end,” he says “I am tranquil.” Evidently Eugene’s counsel proved salutary. Emmanuel was profoundly grateful. “O my friend, how many times I have blessed God for having so kindly willed to associate me with you as a fellow traveler. My heart is devoted to you and I will never cease to love you. I pray for you always, not because you need my prayers, but so that God bestow more and more of his gifts on a man who is so worthy.”
Just before Christmas, 1807, Eugene wrote a very long letter to Emmanuel. “I shared your sufferings, my dear friend, but I also blessed the God of your victory as I pray that he will preserve you in these sentiments which are the source of your glory, mind and the whole Church’s.” This is a firm pat on the back but was immediately followed by a sober admonition – “Do not be disturbed by the persecutions which come to you, for you know that we are destined to these… for the Master has told us: ‘you will be persecuted for my sake.'”
Eugene then told Emmanuel something which must have shocked him. “Now, shall I speak about myself to you? Yes, but it will be for me to recommend myself to your prayers, to expressly charge you to ask God with perseverance that he will accomplish in me his adorable designs that I foil the effect of by my infidelities.” Emmanuel could hardly have ever thought this of his friend. Eugene continued, “… that he will strike, shape, subdue me, so that I will not fail to will what he wills; that he will eradicate the number of obstacles with which I oppose him; that I arrive at a more perfect state to which I am firmly convinced that I am being called.”
The force of this language, the candor of this revelation must have been amazing to Emmanuel. He knew Eugene was sincere. It must have been difficult to picture the friend to whom he looked with such esteem, albeit reverence, in this way. But was this more than just a confession? It is in fact an early hint of the rebirth of Eugene’s lost vocation. It was certainly a sign of his newborn conversion.
The exchanges between these two remarkable young laymen gives us a clear insight into their very souls. It reveals to us as well the depth of the Founder’s spirituality, even as a layman. It underlines the depth of a fraternal love which he would later lavish upon his Oblate sons. At the end of his life, St. Eugene spoke to his sons about his successor, “perhaps he will be a better superior than I was… but will he ever love you as I have loved you… never!” And that was his farewell to us.