Saint Eugene de Mazenod
Bishop of Marseilles
Founder of the Congregation of the
Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate
SERVANT AND PRIEST OF THE POOR
Charles Joseph Eugene de Mazenod was born in France, at Aix-en-Provence, on August 1, 1782 to a family of noble jurists and merchant bourgeoisie. During the French Revolution, he and his family were forced into exile in Italy, whereupon they experienced suffering from grave hardships. When he returned to his country at the age of twenty, he became acutely aware of the troubled situation in which the Church found herself, the distressing condition of the clergy and the tremendous religious ignorance of the people. Endowed with the lively and imperious character of the people of Provence and filled with noble intentions, Eugene resolved to play a part in meeting the urgent needs of the Church. In 1808, he entered the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris and was ordained a priest at Amiens, on December 21, 1811. His dream was to be “the servant and priest of the poor”.
Eugene began his ministry in Aix by reaching out to the poor people, to the youth, to those in prison. He soon experienced the overwhelming nature of the situation and realized that he needed to gather a group of zealous priests to work with him, primarily to awaken “a faith that had all but died in the hearts of so many”. Thus, on January 25, 1816, was born the society of the Missionaries of Provence.
Father de Mazenod invited his companions “to live together as brothers” and “to imitate the virtues and examples of our Saviour Jesus Christ, above all through the preaching of the Word of God to the poor”. He urged them to commit themselves unreservedly to the work of the missions, binding themselves by religious vows. Because of their small number and the many pressing needs of the people around them, they initially limited their zeal to the neighbouring countryside. Their fondest wish, however, was “to embrace the vast expanse of the whole earth”, as the founder wrote already in 1818.
The tiny Society received approval from Pope Leo XII on February 17, 1826, and from then on took the name of the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Its motto: “He has sent me to evangelize the poor” expressed both its charism and way of life.
In time, Eugene de Mazenod had to assume the responsibility for the Diocese of Marseilles along with the leadership of his missionary Society. This important See in Provence had been re-established in 1823, and Charles Fortuné de Mazenod, Eugene’s elderly uncle, was named its new Bishop. He reached out for help from his nephew by naming him his Vicar General. Eugene became a bishop in 1832, and eventually succeeded his uncle in 1837.
As pastor of a Church undergoing a time of significant growth, Bishop Eugene de Mazenod endeavoured to be “all things to all people”. He increased the number of parishes and the various associations and movements of the diocese. He welcomed religious institutes and encouraged the founding of several new ones. He sponsored public devotional celebrations and promoted support for various groups of the young, the workers, the immigrants and the needy. He undertook the construction of a new cathedral dose to the port and, overlooking the city, that of the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, the “Bonne Mère” so dear to the people of Marseilles. He was seriously involved in the major political and religious questions of his day. He kept frequent relations with the HoIy See, and maintained a total and uncompromising attachment to the Pope, particularly during the years of political uprisings in Italy. He participated with joy and enthusiasm in the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Rome on December 8, 1854.
All the while, Saint Eugene served as Superior General of the Oblate Congregation. By 1834, the missionaries had spread out from Provence into neighbouring Corsica and in 1841, this small Society began a period of great expansion. Saint Eugene received many requests from abroad. In spite of limited personnel, he responded in faith and sent Oblates to a number of countries: in 1841, to Canada where they ventured into the vast plains of the West and within a few years reached the Arctic Circle; in 1842, to England; in 1847, to the United States and Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka; in 1851, to South Africa, and in 1855, to Ireland. He corresponded faithfully with his missionaries, revealing himself as a caring pastor, involved in all aspects of their life and mission. Truly an apostolic man, he was able to encourage, advise, correct and support. He harboured a profound sense of spiritual paternity and lived in intense union with his sons as they shouldered the many heavy burdens of the missions. Although he never travelled beyond the borders of Europe, Saint Eugene nurtured in his heart a concern for all the churches.
Shortly before his death on May 21, 1861, in keeping with his temperament, the elderly and seriously ill bishop said to those around him: “Should I happen to doze off, or if I appear to be getting worse, please wake me up! I want to die knowing that I am dying”. To his Oblates he spoke these last words, a testament that summed up bis life: “Practice well among yourselves charity charity, charity and outside, zeal for the salvation of souls”. Saint Eugene died on Pentecost Sunday to the prayer of the Salve Regina, his final salute on earth to the one he considered as the “Mother of the Mission”.
His Spiritual Journey
The Christian formation of Eugene de Mazenod was shaped by very definite influences. First of all, during his time of exile in Venice (1794-1797), he was deeply affected by a holy priest, Don Bartolo Zinelli, who was imbued with the spirit of the Company of Jesus. From him the young boy learned how to pray and how to practice mortification. Don Bartolo also introduced him to devotion to the Virgin Mary “It was there”, Eugene wrote later, “that my vocation to the priesthood was born”.
Two interior graces transformed Eugene in his twenties. The first, a grace of “conversion” that included, during the adoration of the cross on Good Friday, probably in 1807, a special experience of the love of Christ and of the fact that Christ had shed his blood for his personal sins. He was filled with a sense of profound confidence in Divine Mercy and with the desire to make amends through the total gift of his life to Jesus his Saviour. He described the second moment of grace as “an impulse from without” that seemed to be a genuine movement of the Spirit leading him to a decision for the priesthood.
From 1808 to 1812, Eugene de Mazenod was guided by Monsieur Emery and Monsieur Duclaux, both faithful disciples of Monsieur Olier. The Seminary of Saint-Sulpice was marked by a spirit of fervour, regularity and industriousness. Devotion to the Pope, a prisoner of Napoleon at Fontainebleau, was easily acquired there. Eugene participated in the activities of the Marian Congregation and of a missionary group established by his friend and confrere Charles de Forbin-Janson. Thus, Eugene’s desire to become a priest, a priest of the poor, was clearly firmed up. In this perspective, he continued to harbour a desire to make atonement, both for his own sins and for those of the many Christians who had abandoned the Church. He especially had the will to cooperate with Christ in the salvation of the world, so that the shedding of the blood of Christ might be efficacious for all as it had been for him.
During his first years as a priest, Eugene continually sought a balance in his life between prayer and service to others. Special moments of grace, signs from God, would strengthen him. In September 1815, he experienced another “impulse from without” that set him firmly on the path of apostolic action. He gave himself body and soul to the realization of his plans to establish a society of missionaries. Later on, he would see his success in obtaining pontifical approval for his Congregation as a sign that God blessed his undertaking.
The Lord had more things in store for him. A time of deep and painful purification followed that joyous period of promise. From 1827 to 1836, Eugene was tested time and time again: conflicts, defections, bereavements, the loss of his French citizenship for a time, even suspicion from the Holy See. Along with making him seriously iii, these events led to moments of discouragement and depression. Eugene discovered, first hand, the cost of discipleship and service of the Church. He carne out of this bruised and humbled, more understanding towards others and much stronger in his love and faith.
His period of episcopacy in Marseilles saw Eugene de Mazenod at his full spiritual maturity An untiring pastor, filled with zeal, solidly anchored in the love of Christ and of the Church, he was no longer concerned about himself, but fully focused on those in his care and on the task of evangelization entrusted to him, both in Marseilles and beyond the limits of his diocese. During his entire ministry he remained a man of prayer. He found inspiration in the Eucharist and drew from it the support he needed for his life as a priest, one offered and sacrificed for the sake of the world. He insisted on celebrating Mass daily, sometimes at great inconvenience, particularly while travelling. He often spent long periods of time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, even when making pastoral visits to his people. The Eucharist, his privileged place of identification with Christ, also provided him a special place where he could meet with his friends and members of his religious family - it was in fact “their living centre of communication”. There he remembered his missionary sons, particularly those far away, and he asked them to do likewise. “While identifying ourselves with Jesus Christ, we shall be at one with him, and by him and in him we shall be at one among ourselves”.
Saint Eugene’s main spiritual synthesis is the book of the Constitutions and Rules of his Institute, a code of missionary action and of apostolic religious life. Coming out of his experience and perception of the needs of the day, he made use of the various spiritual resources available to him. He borrowed from his Sulpician and Jesuit mentors as well as from a number of outstanding missionaries he admired, like Charles Borromeo, Vincent de Paul, and Alphonsus de Liguori. He breathed new life into these elements, instilling in them a unique spirit distinguished by Gospel breathed and his own personal commitment. “The spirit of total devotion for the glory of God, the service of the Church and the salvation of souls is the spirit proper to our Congregation”, he wrote in 1817. He further stated, in 1830, that we must look upon ourselves “as the servants of the Father of a family commanded to succour, to aid, to bring back his children by working to the utmost, in the midst of tribulations, of persecutions of every kind, without claiming any reward other than that which the Lord has promised to faithful servants who have worthily fulfilled their mission”.
All his life, as a priest, a missionary and a bishop, Saint Eugene sought to teach the poor “who Jesus Christ is”. Paul VI said of him that he had been a pastor passionately committed to Jesus Christ and an unconditional servant of the Church. John Paul Il on the day of his canonization, December 3, 1995, declared Saint Eugene as an “Advent man”, one who opens the ways to the Lord whose new coming will be the fulfilment longed for by all humanity.