With a sense of reverence and affection for the Missionaries of Provence, our first fathers, we commemorate our beginnings exactly two hundred years ago in this very place. We stand on the shoulders of these men: Fathers De Mazenod, Deblieu, Tempier, Mie and Icard who left their homes and gathered here, to form a community for the work of the missions.
The beginning was small, tenuous and fragile. Many uncertainties strike us: would the Vicars General of the Archdiocese of Aix support this project; where a suitable residence might be found; how the project would be sustained financially; and especially, the question of personnel: who would be brought together, the qualities desired in those to be called and whether permission for the selected priests to join the new community would be granted. Oblate hearts are stirred whenever we recall how the community began on this date in 1816 in makeshift quarters and with a certain poverty that did not discourage these first missionaries, but even evoked good humor and happiness.
Along with these tenuous beginnings we also identify the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit in the audacious vision and courage which so strongly impelled these priests to come together. Eugene writes that it seemed to be “an impulse from outside himself” that finally pushed him to go ahead with the project of a missionary community. He believed it was the hand of God. Although he witnessed an enormous expansion of this little society before he died, he could never have imagined the thousands and thousands of men who would become members, the vastness of our mission and the outstanding work we have accomplished in the Church. It certainly was the impulse of the Spirit that enabled him to overcome his own personal hesitations so that he took the initiative to act and had the strength to face the subsequent challenges of working out all the details of the vison that burned within himself.
The project of community life for missionary work was the heart of our foundation as the Missionaries of Provence. De Mazenod and his companions intentionally chose to form a community committed to a strong spiritual life and were dedicated to study, contemplate, live and preach the Word of God. Their love for the Church, which was in a deplorable state, led them to find a suitable approach for rekindling the faith which had all but disappeared. This community would minister to the young people, prisoners and all those neglected by the ordinary structures of the parishes, especially the poor in rural areas.
We gather to joyfully praise and thank God for the subtle yet forceful movement of the Spirit in these beginnings and throughout our history. We give thanks for Eugene and his companions who caught the Spirit’s inspiration and went forth in the midst of so many ambiguities. Giving thanks is good and necessary, but much more is expected of us. We aren’t here simply to admire and celebrate the beginnings of our charism in the way of life begun by the Missionaries of Provence; we are responsible for living it with faithfulness and vitality today. Our CC&RR exhort every Oblate to follow the Spirit so that we live “in creative fidelity to the legacy bequeathed by Saint Eugene de Mazenod”(C#168). We are accountable for how we live and care for the precious legacy we have received.
Some Oblates ask me: Do we have a future? Is our charism still useful in the Church? Have we finished the mission and done our job so that we may now rest in peace? I am convinced we do have a future as a Congregation. Our charism is not only useful, but needed in the Church. God’s mission continues and as long as there are the poor, we have work to do. Our charism gives us a special place in the Church because we are connected to the poor and we reveal God’s compassionate face to them.
Pope Francis has shown the Oblate charism in his gestures: washing the feet of prisoners; rejoicing with youth; listening to refugees; meeting fraternally and humbly with leaders of other religious traditions; standing with the unemployed; calling two synods to support family life; opening the Holy Door in the midst of a displaced people, impoverished by violence and terrorism in the Central African Republic; and embracing those most rejected by society.
Our celebration today, and in fact, the Oblate Triennium, is a commitment focused on our future as a missionary congregation in the Church. We have received a heritage from our first fathers who started a way of life in this house 200 years ago. The Founder’s Preface, our Constitutions and Rules and the documents from our General Chapters guide us in living the charism today in many different contexts around the globe. We must always return to these “Oblate Scriptures” in apostolic communities to evaluate, review and be challenged on our faithfulness to the charism for which we are responsible.
The Word of God on this feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul also gives us two fundamental insights so that we live in creative fidelity to the legacy we have received from the Missionaries of Provence. First of all, our relationship to Jesus Christ has to be the motivation for our missionary lives. This is revealed in Paul’s encounter with Jesus and is the core of his missionary life: to know Jesus Christ. We know that for Eugene also, passion for Christ the Savior was his primary motivation and the cross was central to his mission.
Secondly, the Gospel reminds us that we have received a mandate to preach the Gospel. It is a reminder to us that mission comes from the Trinity and does not belong to us. We are sent as cooperators of the Savior, but we are not the saviors. God’s mission is taking place deep within the heart of the world through the Spirit’s creative action. We are called to contribute something, yes, and it is important that we do the best we can. Ultimately the mission of the Trinity does not depend on us and this fills us with humility, freedom and joy.
The 2010 General Chapter called us to a profound personal and community conversion to Jesus Christ. This call has been embraced by the Congregation and this is certainly a sign of our desire to be faithful to the heritage handed on to us by these men who formed a missionary community on January 25 1816. The Spirit is guiding us and we are responding to the Spirit’s call, sometimes very well and sometimes more slowly and with some resistance. I believe in God’s Word to us that “The Spirit at work among us will do infinitely more than we can hope for or imagine” (Eph. 3:20)! Let us make haste to respond with new hearts, new spirits and give ourselves for a new mission!
Happy anniversary to all of you!