During the years I have been writing this column, I have rarely mentioned the fact that I belong to a religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. That omission is not an evasion, since being an Oblate of Mary Immaculate is something of which I am quite proud. However, I rarely flag the fact that I am a priest and a member of a religious order because I believe what I write here and elsewhere needs to ground itself on things beyond titles.
In this column, however, I want to speak about the founder of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, St. Eugéne de Mazenod, because what he had to say about Christian discipleship and spirituality is something of value and importance for everyone, like the legacies that have been left us by other great religious founders like Bernard, Francis, Dominic, Angela Merici, Ignatius of Loyola, Vincent de Paul, and others.
De Mazenod (1779-1861) was a French bishop of aristocratic origins who some popular myths identify as the bishop in “Les Miserables.” He was a man whose personality ran somewhat naturally in the direction of the stern, the introverted, the strongly inner-directed, the mystical, and the single-minded. He wasn’t the type of person most people would choose as their first choice for light dinner conversation, but he was the type of person who is often God’s first choice to found a religious order.
Soren Kierkegaard once stated that “to be a saint is to will the one thing.” De Mazenod clearly did that and, in his case, that one thing had a number of aspects which, taken together, form the basis of a very rich, balanced spirituality — one that emphasizes some salient aspects of Christian discipleship that are often neglected today.
What shaped the spirituality of de Mazenod and the charism he left behind?
First, he emphasized community. For him, a good life is not just one of individual achievement, fidelity, or even greatness; it is a life that links itself to the power inherent within community. He was a firm believer in the axiom: what we dream alone remains a dream, what we dream with others can become a reality.
In his view, compassion only becomes effective when it becomes collective, when it issues forth from a group rather than from just one individual. He believed that alone you can make a splash but not a difference. He founded a religious order because he deeply believed this.
In the face of all the issues confronting the world and the Church today, if someone were to ask him, “What’s the one single thing I might do to make a difference?” He would reply: Connect yourself with others of sincere will within community, around the person of Christ. Alone you cannot save the world. Together we can!
Second, he believed that a healthy spirituality makes a marriage between contemplation and justice. Judged in the light of our contemporary sensitivities, his exact expression of this is perhaps linguistically awkward today, but his key principle is perennially valid: only an action that issues forth from a life that is rooted in prayer and deep interiority will be truly prophetic and effective. Conversely, all true prayer and genuine interiority will burst forth in action, especially in action for justice and the poor.
Third, in his own life and in the spirituality he laid out for his religious community, he made a strong preferential option for the poor. He did this not because it was the politically correct thing to do, but because it was the correct thing to do; the Gospel demands this, and it is non-negotiable. His belief was simple and clear: as Christians, we are called to be with and work with those whom nobody else wants to be with and work with. For him, any teaching or action that is not good news for the poor cannot claim to be speaking for Jesus or for Scripture.
Fourth, he put all of this under the patronage of the mother of Jesus, Mary, whom he saw as an advocate for the poor. He recognized that the poor turn to her, for it is she who gives voice to the Magnificat.
Finally, in his own life and in the ideal he laid out, he brought together two seemingly contradictory tendencies: a deep love for the institutional Church and the capacity to prophetically challenge it at the same time. He loved the Church, believed that it was the noblest thing for which one might die; but at the same time, he wasn’t afraid to publicly point out the Church’s faults or to admit that the Church needs constant challenge and self-criticism … and he was willing to offer it!
His personality was very different from mine. I doubt that he and I would spontaneously like each other. But that’s incidental. I’m proud of his legacy, proud to be one of his sons, and convinced enough of his spirituality to give my life over for it.