These priests realized that people’s knowledge of God and of the Christian faith had been confused and often even destroyed. They saw people searching for ideals and for meaning in their lives, and who were not receiving help from the parish structures of the local church.
Essentially these abandoned people were from the poorer classes of society and had little possibility to improve themselves. The response of this group of priests marked the beginning of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Fr. Eugene de Mazenod, who brought this group together, also had his life changed by the Revolution. As a nine-year old his family was forced to flee France because they were members of the noble class hunted by the revolutionaries. When de Mazenod returned to France 11 years later, his comfortable lifestyle brought him little sense of meaning and direction.
His life changed one Good Friday as he looked at the Cross and saw a God with arms wide open as if to hug him in forgiving mercy. At age 25 he found the happiness and meaning that would last for the rest of his life.
He became aware of the people around him who had no sense of direction — particularly the poor who were as unfocussed and as lost as he had been.
He became a priest in 1811 and dedicated the first four years of his ministry to workers who did not speak French, prisoners forgotten in unhealthy jails, youth with no sense of direction — anyone who was not being touched by the Church structures. The Missionaries who joined him, in January 1816, dedicated themselves to the most abandoned by instructing them in their faith and leading them to develop a relationship with their Saviour. They preached parish missions in the poor villages of Provence. Wherever the Oblates established a community, it became a centre of permanent mission where they supported local pastors in ministering to those on the fringes: the youth, the prisoners, the sick — anyone who was at the margins.
In 1841, Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal asked de Mazenod to send some Oblates to Lower Canada. Despite there being only 45 Oblates in France, de Mazenod responded generously by sending six missionaries to Montreal.
Soon they were spreading to other regions. From east to west and north to south, nothing was too dangerous for the Oblates if it concerned the salvation of abandoned people.
Today this outreach continues in 70 nations around the world to all classes and groups which are abandoned and in need of the Saviour’s love. It is expressed in our Rule: “Our principal service in the Church is to proclaim Christ and His Kingdom to the most abandoned. We preach the Gospel among people who have not yet received it and help them see their own values in its light. Where the Church is already established, our commitment is to those groups it touches least.”
Eugene de Mazenod, priest, religious, founder, Bishop of Marseilles and canonized saint, did exactly what Mary did: he received Christ in order to share Him with all the world. In this 200th year of celebration of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Oblates continue to live their founder’s inspiration and serve as the Saviour’s co-workers in bringing the hope of salvation to the most abandoned.
In St. Eugene de Mazenod’s words: “We must spare no effort to extend the Saviour’s empire. We must lead people to act like human beings, first of all, and then like Christians, and, finally, we must help them to become saints.”
It is a daunting challenge for the next 200 years.
(Fr. Santucci is a theology professor at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.)