During the years that I have written this column, I have rarely referred to the fact that I belong to a religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. That omission is not, I hope, an unconscious evasion since being an Oblate is, I assure you, 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 my belief is that what I say here and elsewhere should have to ground itself on other things.
In this column, however, I want to speak about the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, not, first of all, because I am one, but because what the founder of the Oblates had to say about Christian life and spirituality is, like the legacy that has been left us by Bernard, Francis, Dominic, Angel Merici, Ignatius of Loyola, Vincent de Paul and other great religious founders, something that has value and challenge for the entire community. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, more commonly referred to simply as the Oblates, were founded in France by Eugene de Mazenod (1779- 1861). A French bishop of aristocratic origins (whom some popular myths identify with the bishop in Les Miserables), de Mazenod 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 who would be most people’s first choice for light dinner conversation, but he was the type of person who is often God’s first choice to found religious orders.
Soren Kierkegaard once stated that “to be a saint is to will the one thing.” De Mazenod clearly did that and, in his case, the one thing had a number of aspects to it that taken together form the basis of a very rich and balanced spirituality… one which, to my mind, rightly emphasizes some aspects of Christian discipleship which are much needed today.
De Mazenod’s first emphasis was community. For him, a good life is not just one of individual greatness; it is a life that evokes 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 becomes effective when it becomes collective, when it issues forth from a group rather than just from an individual. Alone, we can make a splash but not a difference! He founded a religious order because he deeply believed this.
If someone, in the face of all the issues confronting the world and the church today, were to ask de Mazenod: “What’s the one single thing I might do to help 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 any healthy spirituality makes a deep marriage between contemplation and justice. His own exact expression of this, judged in the light of all our contemporary sensitivities, is perhaps flawed and in need of re-articulation, 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 action for justice and the poor.
Third, de Mazenod, in his own life and in the spirituality he laid out for the Oblates, made the preferential option for the poor. He did this not because (as is so often the case today) it is the politically correct thing to do, but because it is the correct thing to do (period).
His belief was simple and clear—as Christians, we are called to be with and work with those that nobody else wants to be with and work with!
Finally, in his life and in the ideal he laid out, de Mazenod 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 in it and suggested that it was the noblest thing for which one might die.
At the same time though, he wasn’t afraid to publicly speak of the church’s faults or to admit that, this side of the parousia, 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 are two persons who would spontaneously like each other. But that is incidental. I am proud of his legacy… and enough convinced of his spirituality to give my life to it.