On December 3rd, 1995, Pope John Paul II formally declared Eugene de Mazenod, the former bishop of Marseilles, France, a saint of the church. For myself, this was not just another canonization. Eugene de Mazenod is the founder of Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order of priests and brothers to which I belong.
Thus, as an Oblate, this was a pretty significant event for me. However, when someone is declared a saint, he or she becomes then a saint for the whole church, the property, so to speak, of everyone, and not just of those who have a special or a vested interest in his or her life. That is the case with Eugene. He now belongs to everyone, not just to us, the Oblates.
So what should we know about him? Who was he? Why was he important? What might he model for us?
The chronology of his life can be easily given: He was born into an aristocratic French family, at Aix-en-Provence, in 1782. The French revolution forced his family into exile when Eugene was eight years old and he spent his youth shuttling among a variety of cities in Italy – bored, often melancholy, reading whatever books he could find, and struggling internally, torn between the pull of God and the lure of the world. At age 20 he was able to return to Aix. Although he had always been religious and had never, as he put it, given himself over to the pleasures of this world, at age 25, attending a Good Friday service, he had a profound religious conversion. His life was never the same.
He entered a seminary and became a diocesan priest. As a young priest, he was appalled by the condition of the church in Southern France at the time. The poor and those who lived in rural areas were, by and large, neglected. Feeling called to do something about this situation, he gathered around him a small group of idealistic young priests, set up community with them in a house he himself purchased, and formed a preaching team. This little missionary band then began to preach missions in the rural areas and among the poor.
Eventually, from this small band, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were founded. Eugene himself, besides founding and directing until his death this band of missionaries, eventually became the Bishop of the Diocese of Marseilles and a towering figure in the French Church. Napoleon III appointed him a Senator, and when he died was the senior bishop of France.
Beyond that simple chronology, who really was he? One of the caption descriptions about him, that runs like a leitmotif through many of his biographies, reads: He had a heart as big as the world. That he had and had in a time when provincialism, narrow loyalty to one’s own, sectarianism of the worst kind, and pettiness and self- interest characterized most of what was around him. He was a universalist, like Socrates, whose first identity was with humanity as a whole, not with his own tribe and kind.
But Eugene’s heart was big in another sense, it contained more than its share of flesh, blood, fiery passion, and pathological complexity. He was no China doll. As his biographies put it, he was a human saint, a man given over to anger and love, grandiosity and greatness, rage and forgiveness. His path to holiness was not a simple one. Eugene was too human. For this reason, his canonization process was never fast-tracked. The devil’s advocate always had lots of ammunition: Could someone so human be a saint?
But that complexity and humanity, in the end, was what made him a saint. Virtue did not come easily for him. Yet it came and, eventually, in extraordinary measure. His complexity tormented him, haunting any cheap peace or compromise he would try to make with comfort, wealth, or privilege. It left him no peace outside of God, depth, and real commitment. And his humanity, so often his downfall especially when he was given to fits of anger), was also his saviour. He was too human, too weak (so to speak), to ever look at another human being who was suffering and turn away. He was too human to be indifferent. His sensitive heart, which so often got him into trouble, in the end, because of its softness, was also the place where God and the poor could enter and stay.
A human saint! That’s not an oxymoron. It’s a key, a secret, a wisdom. Humanity is the path, not the blockage, to holiness. Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, helps show us that path. He can be a patron for those of us who struggle with the pathological complexity and pull of our own humanity.