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A Mother's Heart...
Eugene de Mazenod's Gift to the Oblate Congragation

Henriette Kelker
1 March, 1999

We have, therefore, a very certain hope and complete confidence that this most blessed Virgin will effect by her most powerful patronage that all difficulties be removed and all errors dissipated, so that our holy Mother the Catholic church may flourish daily more and more throughout all the nations and countries, and may reign "from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth,"1 and may enjoy genuine peace, tranquility, and liberty.2

A recent conversation partner, a friend of many missionaries, characterised the Missionary Oblates accurately, I think, when he said, "the Oblates live Christ before they speak, and they speak very little."  Nevertheless, in our conversations with Oblate missionaries we have spoken about Oblate Charism, the Charism of the Founder, the vocation of the missionary, culture, civilization, solitude, loneliness and travelling to be with the poor.  What has puzzled me is that few have spoken of the place of Mary Immaculate in the life of the Missionary Oblates.  As the lives of today's Missionary Oblates reflect the modus operandus of their founder, it is no surprise to find in the Founder's writing a focus on action rather than on reflection.  Yet the choice of the Immaculate Conception as a patroness for the congregation has been a very deliberate - albeit sudden - one.  In revisiting some of the writings about the founder and conversations with Oblates today I have tried to form an image of the meaning of this dedication for the congregation in the past and presently.

As one of his first pastoral activities Eugene de Mazenod founded the Sodality for Christian Youth, which he placed under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception.  Maurice Giroux, in his article on Our Founder's Devotion to Mary Immaculate noted:

If we read over the chapter on Marian devotion in the Statutes of the Christian Youth, go through the abridgement of the rule of life of the Congregationists, or study the minutes of the meetings and councils, we shall not find there the slightest indication of a special devotion to the Immaculate Conception.3

Evidence, however, of the practice of Marian devotion abounds. The young people of the sodality distribute pictures of Mary Immaculate bearing the inscription: "Thou art all fair, my beloved, and there is no stain in thee."  All public gatherings in the church in Aix closed with the singing, in Provencal, of the words "Praised eternally be Jesus Christ and praised also be Mary ever Immaculate."  The young priest de Mazenod offered to the youth the presence of Mary as mother, feminine, encouraging, and free of sin  - an appropriate ingredient to install the right virtues into their troubled lives.  However, these notes refer to the 1810s.  The congregation, made up of young adult men, received its final name in 1826.  Did the Immaculate Conception have the same significance in the life of the Founder then as it had ten years earlier? My conclusion is that it did not, and that as De Mazenod's thoughts and the political world around him developed his understanding of and relation to the Immaculate Conception developed in subtle and nuanced ways.

There are four important influences in de Mazenod's early life4: the French revolution and its repercussions for social, political and personal life, his early education under Bartolo, his sojourn at the court of the Duke and Duchess di Cannizzaro in Palermo, and his schooling as a Sulpician.

Eugene de Mazenod, born a count in 1782, remained a royalist all his life.  His struggles as an aristocrat during the French revolution and the subsequent strife between the church and the French government became a - if not the - determining force behind the course of events which charted de Mazenod's path.  When the family fled the unrest and settled in Venice the 10 year old boy came under the influence of Don Bartolo Zinelli, a priest of the Society of the Faith of Jesus, whose aim was to re-instate the Jesuits.  A strong Papal affinity was thus installed early in de Mazenod's life.  When Eugene fell later into a life of inactivity and high adventure in courtly circles in Palermo, Don Bartolo kept writing and prodding him to not abandon his studies.  Despite intellectual inactivity, these years instilled in him an appreciation of St.  Alphonsus Liguori, upon whose rules he would later model the rules for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  Through observing the work of the Duchess di Cannizzaro in Palermo his concern for the life of the poor was sharpened.  After her death in 1802 (Eugene was 20) he was deeply torn and sailed to Marseilles - back to France where he was now "Citizen Mazenod , junior".

In 1808, at age 26, after an intensive struggle and several consultations with - as a true aristocrat - top men in the ecclesia and scholarly world, Eugene de Mazenod entered the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris.  The teaching in the seminary, founded by Jean Jeaques Olier, followed the "French School of Spirituality", inspired by Bérulle.  A brief foray into the thought of The French School and the renewal of French spirituality is helpful in understanding some of the traditions which emerged among its students in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Hubenig observes that

At the heart of this renewal ... was one very essential intuition: one's personal experience of Jesus Christ.  Since the scientific and humanist spirit would not concede that  the idea of God could be the subject of experimentation, one had to deal, first and foremost, with Jesus as a person.5

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