Thursday, May 23, 2024

A Certain Idea of the Society of Mary: Jean-Claude Colin

July 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles, Featured, Jean Coste

Having been invited to speak to you about Jean-Claude Colin on this celebration of the Bi-centenary of his birth, I could have prepared a carefully worked-out conference on one or other aspect of his life or attempted a synthesis of his personality, his contribution to the Church and to our religious families. In fact, I soon felt that on an occasion like this I could not limit myself to “treating a subject” with all the detachment of an historian. This man influenced my life far too much for me to think of him this evening as a mere theme for a conference.

Having entered novitiate without even, I believe, knowing his name, it was through contact with his writings and while standing before his tomb that, shortly afterwards, during the vigil ceremony of the 15th November, my conversion to the Lord and to religious life began; it was there that both my Marist and Colinian vocations were born, simultaneously so to speak. Since then, I think, I have never ceased being confronted by him, since I cannot separate the congregation I live in from the man who founded it and to the study of whom I ended up devoting a large part of my life. That Colin’s personality, certainly not an easy one, should have exercised such a seductive influence is not, it must be admitted, a common experience among Marists. Often Colin as a man seems to be more an obstacle than a help, and the spontaneous reaction is to try to “save” him, as it were, by extracting from his life, from his words, a “spirit” that would outlast him and have meaning for us.

I could have devoted myself this evening to celebrating once again the abiding values and the relevance of his thought for today. But in fact I believe we can do something more and better. Rather than trying to bring him closer to us, let us simply look at him, at the man himself, with his Colin head, as Yardin used to say. Make no mistake about it, in spite of his deep wisdom, this man is no Confucius or Pascal; in spite of his countless “spiritual conversations”, he could never compete with the great masters of spirituality, and much less can he be seen as an innovator of genius in the area of new apostolates. Basically he was one thing only, but he was that to the fullest extent possible: a founder. Not, as we all know, in the sense that he was the first to launch the idea of a project to which we all now belong, but in bringing alive the congregation of Marist Fathers who owe everything to him. This is the reality I would like to look at this evening, and right now I ask forgiveness of the Brothers and Sisters present if they do not find in my presentation an analysis of what Colin specifically means for their congregations. I believe that in general we all know what that is. Let us go to the essential. This man spent his life bringing into existence, enabling to grow, strengthening, and defending a well-defined religious body. Let us first of all ask what he intended, and afterwards it will be time enough to come to ourselves and to the role he might play in our future.


To put before you a picture of the Society Colin had in mind, I base myself on the research I have done in the past few years, aimed at identifying the precise points he held on to from the beginning to the end of his life. From all of these points taken together, some quite distinct features emerge to form a clear picture. It is a slow method, but, it seems to me, one that can lead us to the essential, much better than if we were to take as our starting point one or other statement or insight of genius considered rather arbitrarily as central. For the sake of brevity, I will use hardly any quotations, referring mentally to the volume already completed which will be available next year: it brings together texts concerning those points of rule and those practices for which Colin fought. Of course of all the points which go to make up the overall picture, many were practised for only a short time or only imperfectly, and indeed some were never put into practice at all. However, even if it is not the photograph of a reality, the image that emerges is nevertheless not a mere work of imagination, a utopian vision, the stuff of dreams. We are talking about an image for which Colin fought step by step, as a man who knew what it meant to lead others and bring about the cohesion of a group. My conscience would not be at peace if, before these features disappear perhaps forever, I did not put before you this image without which it is as difficult for us to speak of Colin the man as it is for us to define ourselves as Marists.

A) A first point needs to be noted if we are to understand the Society as Colin saw it: belonging to this society did not mean for him merely a further specification of belonging to religious life, simply adding to the religious consecration and the vows a certain number of features, a certain way of doing things. In fact for the Marist it is the basic fact of his history: he has been chosen to belong to a family bearing the name of Mary, and the remembrance of that fact dominates his behaviour. It is within this family that he will find the means for going to God, serving his neighbour, helping the Church. The role of the social body is therefore fundamental.

One of Colin’s greatest battles was the one he fought against the Vicars Apostolic of Oceania to ensure for the missionaries the help that comes from community life and their belonging to a religious family.

From this point of view, to be a Marist, and not a Picpus religious, is not a simple matter of fact, something accidental and secondary, as for example the fact of belonging to the province of Paris rather than Lyon. In belonging to the Society, the religious finds all that henceforth his life is going to be, materially, psycho-logically, spiritually. He has no need to search elsewhere: it would be useless and imprudent. Hence the importance of all that expresses, reaffirms, preserves those realities which are at the root of this common belonging.

Heading the list among these things are the general retreats, to remind us of the aims pursued and the means accepted, to strengthen the bonds between scattered confreres and especially, through the consecration to Mary at the end, to celebrate the initiative of grace to which the Society owes its existence. The annual rhythm of these retreats, however, is not enough: it is day by day that the same realities are re-expressed and lived, thanks to the three Salve Regina’s which in the morning, after lunch, and in the evening punctuate the Marist day and bring the community once again into the presence of the one who is its foundress and superior. Meals are also privileged moments which, over and above sustenance,  quite substantial let it be said,  provide, thanks to reading, silence, and the improvised conversations of the Founder, a further occasion to deepen certain convictions. Thus they are genuine community exercises practised by Marists. “No outsiders at our table,” Colin would never cease to repeat, certainly not because of any mistrust of laity, but in order to ensure for the community a privileged moment in which to come together and be strengthened, in every sense of the word.

Besides, to continue our exploration, at the risk of being bewildered or lost, we need to remember both the depth and the extent, in Colin’s thinking, of the subject’s being taken over by the Society to which he gave himself completely. The Society takes care of him first of all materially with sustenance and help guaranteed until death, in return for the subject’s handing over completely the fruits of his work. But also, and especially, the Society’s spiritual care is extremely specific and effective. The Society offers to the subject a whole network of exercises to keep him in touch with God; it ensures that they are assiduously practised, thanks particularly to checking the rooms during morning meditation; it expects each one to help his brother’s weakness by informing the superior of the failures he notices; it expects each one to open up his heart to the one doing visitation, which, without encroaching on the area reserved to confession, ensures that each one is known by the one in authority with regard to essential points: state of conscience, interior fidelity to vocation, the reality of his prayer life. The Society also controls all relations with the outside world: letters, going out, visits, because it cannot allow a Marist to deny in his contact with others the values it intends to affirm and defend. By profession the subject makes his own the objectives of the social body through which he gives himself to God and he knows that he can be checked at any moment on the fidelity of his behaviour to these objectives. There is a certain logic here pushed as far as it can go: what is ultimately at stake, in fact, is too serious, both for the Society and for the individual, to risk compromising it by closing one’s eyes to what is going on.

We know that today’s changed mentality and indeed theology itself leads us to distance ourselves somewhat from such an outlook, and we shall have occasion to say this more clearly shortly. What we cannot accept, however, is that this image of the Society be purely and simply rejected as a carry-over from the age of obscurantism. To be sure, the community took over the individual completely, but no more than what happened in the early Church, when the ultimate punishment was meted out to Ananias and his wife for simply hiding from the apostles the exact price of a field which was undeniably their own property. To say this is not to say that we should introduce such things into our own changed world, but we can sincerely ask ourselves if there was ever a religious group capable of making a real impact on the surrounding world without the members accepting that the group control their fidelity, for the sake of the values recognised by all as essential.

It would go still further beyond all justice and historical truth to commiserate with the inhuman situation of the poor Marists of the last century, victims of this oppressive totalitarianism. There is the telling incident of Jean-Baptiste Sandre, who withdrew after spending a year in the scholasticate of La Capucinière in 1842. In his memoirs, which describe how he became a free thinker, he has heft a moving testimony of the time he spent with the Marists. What he experienced with them had a meaning for him: certainly everything was directed towards the maintenance of the virtues and of piety, but, he said, “we were like a family, living like brothers at peace”; during all the time he spent in the house, he remained faithful to his religious exercises and that, he explains, “in a natural manner, without constraint and without distaste” (FA, p. 149, note 1). If later he abandoned the faith, it was not because he had known people who took it seriously and accepted all its consequences for their own hives.

Yes indeed, the Society of Mary was then a truly fraternal community and the rule itself, of which one might be tempted to say that it ignored the most sacred of personal rights, in fact guaranteed them much more than might be thought: for Colin all Marists were eligible to chapters and it was his successor Favre, so concerned about modernity, who arranged things in such a way as to ensure control of those elections by the central power; for Colin there were no differences between priests and brothers except those arising from ordination and it was after him that, to his indignation, the practice arose of giving coffee to the priests and not to the brothers. Everybody, Colin says, no matter what his dignity, should work periodically in the kitchen. Typical also was that rule of poverty according to which “nobody is allowed to have in his room what others cannot have,” a demanding principle aimed against introducing into community life those inequalities which soon make it intolerable and which the canonical casuistry of permissions soon legalises.

What has to be underlined is the internal balance which characterised Colin’s idea of the Society: on the one hand the individual gives himself unreservedly to the Society, which takes him over completely, but the Society is not left behind: it offers the individual what he deeply seeks: a life for God and the creation of a fraternal community. We all know how much the attainment of these two objectives, inseparably united since Jesus Christ, is slowed down by our personal demands. It would be well worth while to tone these down somewhat if by that means we could go further in the direction we seek. Of course there is something utopian in this, but in the strong sense of utopian, that sense of which the New Testament is full, and if Colin believed in it, he deserves at least our respect.

A word about authority will enable us to rediscover, both in all its power and in its remarkable balance, the idea Colin had of the Society. Here again there is no concession to the ideas most in fashion: “The Society, Messieurs, will not be a republic; there will not be two chambers. There will be a system of authority and obedience” (FS, doc. 174, § 27). Government in the Society will be even stricter than among the Jesuits (FS, doc. 68). And that was not empty boasting! Whatever the sociological, psychological, or theological conditioning that might have given him this attitude of mind, Colin had a descending conception of authority: authority comes from God, the superior holds the place of Christ and of Mary and he is the channel through which we can learn God’s will from on high. Nothing very new in that, but beyond these ideas, current in his time, Colin had an almost sacral notion of the superior, especially of the superior general, placed by his very position in a special relationship with heaven, high priest between God and his people, expected to head them in the Lord’s pastures.

An inevitable consequence of such a point of view, we imagine, will be the creation around the sacred personage of an aura of prestige and of almost unlimited rights. In fact in no way is that the case. There are few questions about which Colin spoke more explicitly or more forcefully: a Marist superior can call on no special dignity, no privilege, no facility which does not derive directly from his specific and temporary role. For example, he may have two rooms, since he has a mass of documents to keep, and sufficient chairs to receive strangers who come to do business with him, but for the rest he should not stand out except for his greater poverty; the major superior, unless he is also the local superior, should not preside at table, a measure Favre would later change, he was so concerned to preserve for authority “the honour which is its due.” Besides, nobody more than Colin insisted on the fact that the superior at the end of his term of office should return to the ranks; the practical establishment of a class of superiors succeeding each other in all the important positions was, on the contrary, one of the sad features of the administration which came after him. Even the famous practice of genuflecting before the superior, we know, was not a recognition of any special dignity of the superior, but, in Colin’s mind, was intended simply to bring the two men into that spirit of faith which should prevail in their interview.

One is badly mistaken then in tracing back to Colin tendencies that appeared in the Society at certain times, of confusing the unquestionable force of authority with the personal prestige of those who exercised it. Colin may have sacralised the function, but he left the office-holder no possibility of presenting himself as a sacred cow. Indeed, on this question of authority perhaps more than on any other, mentalities have changed between Colin’s time and ours. This needs to be noted, but it would be profoundly unjust to point one-sidedly to traces of an outmoded authoritarianism in the Founder, while omitting to mention those elements which provided a counterbalance. Admittedly, his conception of authority was different from ours, but it was a consistent whole: it was a passionate and more than respectable attempt to give the Society a strong orientation in the direction of its supernatural mission, by hounding as rigorously as possible the corruption which power brings into the heart of those who exercise it.

B) From consideration of the Society ad intra, in the consistency of its structures and rules, let us move now to what for Colin was its second essential dimension: its mission. The Society of Mary does not exist for itself, nor in order to add another pearl to the crown of the Queen of Heaven. It exists to help the Mother of Mercy meet and assemble all her children. By maintaining its identity with all the force already mentioned, it becomes the instrument of the divine mercies for sinners: it is directed to others.

That the Society of Mary, in the Founder’s vision, should have this missionary dimension is no longer a new discovery for anyone and I don’t plan to spend time on themes that have been well developed in recent years. From the more specific point of view we have taken this evening, I would prefer to show that the Founder not only thought about and expressed in his conversations and letters this basic dimension, but that he entrusted it in the structure of the social body he founded.

Let us begin with what is a good indicator of the orientations of a religious community: the place it gives to a particular reality in its prayer. From the beginning of the Society, prayer for sinners holds a central place in Marist intentions: every Wednesday the whole day is offered for them; parishioners during missions, students in the colleges, the Christian Virgins of Lyon, the Marist Sisters were all associated with this intention. Every day, during the visit to the chapel after lunch, immediately after the Salve Regina, and before any other invocation, five appeals were addressed to Our Blessed Lady, St. Michael, to the angels, the apostles, to St. Francis Xavier, all with the same insistent requests: “Pray for the conversion of sinners and unbelievers.” Favre, the perfect theologian, was to change all that. If a visit is made to the chapel, the Tantum ergo must be recited before the Salve Regina, then, not to be too long, the invocations were reduced to three with the banal formula: “pray for us.” To pray for oneself is fine, to be sure, but it is not the same as praying for the conversion of the world. It was in vain that Colin asked for a return to the first formula, and a postulatum from Jeantin barely succeeded in adding at least the timid “pray for our missionaries” which still concludes the exercise.

That the change was not a mere accident is confirmed by one of the clearest characteristics of the post-Colin period: not the loss of apostolic zeal, still less the loss of devotion to Mary, but the dissolving of the bond between the two, of that intimate bond to which the Society, since the 1816 project, owed its fruitful tension. Henceforth, on the one hand Mary was celebrated, and on the other ministries were exercised, but there was hardly any reference to the idea that it is the very fact of bearing Mary’s name that determines the Society’s apostolic choices: to go everywhere seeking out sinners, to give them all one’s time, leaving others to care for souls who are doing well, to undertake what others will not do, to refuse parishes, where one is bound to people who are already Christian, and chaplaincies, which limit the soul’s horizon. “Something else is needed for a Society of apostles,” Colin used to say. Between the little directories for all tasks which flourished after 1854 and what the Founder called “the love of souls,” there was a great chasm, a chasm in which there quietly disappeared what had enthused the Marist aspirants in the major seminary when they simultaneously called themselves “Mary’s first children” and looked out on “the great needs of people.” All that Colin said about the Marist apostolic style, “hidden and unknown”, “taking souls by submitting to them” echoed the passion of a mother who cannot bear to see her children perish. In one of his last declarations, after the 1872 chapter, the Founder recalled “our very own mission, to work for the salvation of souls,” and he added, not without sadness, “Not one Father stood up in the chapter to support my idea.”

Thus, whether we look at it in its vocation or in its mission, in its internal life or in its reaching out to others, to the world to be converted, the Society intended by Colin is a social body totally structured by the ends that are proper to it and which it received from on high. It all holds together with a surprising force and coherence which only a historical effort enables us to rediscover. This image which we have just called up, can we still call it our own, can we still make it our own? There is the question we must now address.


When at the outset I explained the method followed in the preparation of this talk, I said that it was based on identifying a large number of particular points which, when taken together, brought out certain fairly clear features from which a picture eventually emerged. If we now take up this metaphor, we have no alternative but to note that the changes that intervened between Colin’s time and our own affect not only some isolated points. Those called in question are so numerous that the features which resulted from them as a whole are substantially jumbled, and the picture itself becomes unrecognisable. It is better to be aware of this rather than live with illusions. The problem is not whether we can modify some of Colin’s rules, but whether the Society we live in is still the Society that Colin intended.

A) Before attempting an answer, let us briefly recall at least the cultural and theological presuppositions that have changed so profoundly that it is difficult for us today to see anything whatever through Colin’s eyes.

1) We have underlined how fundamental for him was the notion of belonging to the Society, the function of the social body mediating between God and us. Whoever died in the Society was assured of his salvation and we know the importance that was ascribed to having one’s name written on a ribbon placed in a heart, or for tertiaries, to be inscribed in the association’s register. In our day, when the oldest of all institutions, marriage, is profoundly questioned, when few are prepared to bind themselves either with marriage vows or religious profession, can we expect belonging to a congregation to carry the same meaning it did in the last century? To be sure, our contemporaries have a very strong sense of community, of a group in which the individual’s possibilities may be realised. This group however is the expression of what the members want and are searching for today; it does not claim to last forever, or if it does, it soon becomes suspect. Of course it is possible to meet even today a certain pride in belonging to the Society of Mary, as people are proud of their country, their home town, or their football team. To belong to something provides an identity and people are happy to have one. But that one’s belonging to whatever it may be should give global meaning to one’s life and determine its direction even in eternity, that is something our contemporaries are not prepared to accept. One of the clearest presuppositions of Colin’s conception of the Society thus disappears at a stroke, and certainly not without leaving profound psychological and spiritual consequences.

2) We have also seen Colin’s model of authority, and we stressed those aspects of it which prevented the sacralising of office-holders and the creation of personal privileges. But even with these safeguards, the idea of a descending power, of a leader who, before being accountable to those who elected him, knows that he is responsible for a work of which neither he nor his companions are the masters, this is what meets with insurmountable resistance on the part of people today. And it would be easy to show how even canon law itself, through its procedures and safeguards, is careful not to identify too easily the will of heaven and human authority.

3) Finally, the other basic characteristic of the Society intended by Colin, namely the awareness of having to work for the conversion of sinners, a way of planning everything in terms of salvation, is this not the expression of an ecclesiology which Vatican II has profoundly renewed? Missionary activity, which presents the good news of God’s love to humanity, has been broadened to include the most diverse kinds of witness. For the profound motives of missionary dynamism and its various modalities, it is to the council text Ad Gentes or to other documents presenting the reflections of today’s church that we turn. We recalled above the mental construct peculiar to Colin: the connection between bearing Mary’s name and the consciousness of having to run after her children being lost; the link between this responsibility and the choice of certain ministries and the special way of exercising each one of them. Nothing of all this has passed into the Declaration on Mission, otherwise so solid and balanced, voted by the last general chapter. This comment is in no way a criticism. It is simply to point out an undeniable fact. At the very moment when they want to refound and reawaken their missionary spirit, Marists are no longer helped by the accents, the points of view of the Founder. Here again the cultural and theological upheaval which has taken place obliges us to rebuild completely, to rethink the whole thing.

Whether we like it or not, it is the entire image Colin had of the Society which has been modified, and the fact that this image was so very powerful and coherent only makes it all the more difficult to refer to one or other theme of the Founder, because, outside of the total context which provides its meaning, such a theme risks being looked upon, in a totally arbitrary way, as an echo of our own ideas.

B) Let us not try then to cling at all costs to an image in relation to which, like everything else in this world, we need to keep a critical stance. But let us be clear-sighted enough to apply the same critical stance to ourselves and to what may lie behind our concern to keep our distance from the past.

1) The debate, in fact, needs to be broadened well beyond the case of Colin and the Marists. Behind the reservations we have with regard to a too stringent social body, to a descending and too sacral authority, of a too mystical and affective notion of mission, are there not the difficulties created for us and for our contemporaries by a certain image of the Church, and let us admit it, a certain image of God? A tremendous effort is being made by believers at present to purify their faith and to find ways of expressing it that will not do violence to their conscience as human beings. I have really no competence to describe, situate, and judge a step we all feel to be so indispensable. But at least there is one thing that can be said without fear: the effort in question would disqualify itself if it were to end up emptying or destroying that which it sets out to test, namely faith itself; faith is not the property of thinkers or of theologians; it is there prior to their work; it has to do with God and man and the relationship established between the two in Jesus Christ and in the community of salvation he intended. It is inseparable from a history which we have not created and which we cannot change. Faith begins with the admission that somebody exists before us, higher than us, totally other; it is kept alive when it allows that Other to enter into our life, to bite into it, to convert and change us. It is simple honesty to keep asking ourselves if the difficulties posed by faith come only from its imperfect expressions, or whether they do not come from our reluctance to admit the ascendancy over our lives of God who created us, of Jesus Christ, and of the Spirit which animates his body the Church. Behind even the most valid questioning may lurk the most secret resistances, and it is certainly not superfluous to examine our consciences on this point.

You may ask what these theological considerations have to do with our reflection on Colin. Personally I believe they are essential. I do not think, in fact, that we can truly relate to this man apart from the context of faith. Let us be clear. There is no question of calling on faith to have us accept Colin’s notion of the Society’s vocation or mission, to tie us to his way of seeing Mary’s role or the role of the superior, to bring us back, in fact, to an image which already belongs to the past. Faith intervenes in a totally different way: it continually reminds us that history is where God manifests himself; the secular reading we can and should do of the events of this history does not dispense us from seeking out the role they play in our dialogue with God. An alert psychologist may analyse the mechanisms at work in the behaviour of his parents and therefore relativise them, but he may not allow to develop within himself feelings of contempt or resentment without turning his back on God who expects him to love and honour them. Faith, yes, true faith, that which is not simply adherence to dogmas, accompanies the believer all through life, corrects his reactions without condescension, preserves the presence of God in a life through a thousand attitudes of detail which express its religious meaning.

It should not be necessary to remind ourselves that it is this same faith that is at the heart of our reactions to our congregation and to our Founder. We can and must be clear-sighted and critical about the words, the themes, the central images, the practices, the choices, the people who shaped our history. But if our critical instinct were to suppress our capacity for seeking signs of God’s action in that history, and would not recognise in what comes to us from our past any other value than what we ourselves attribute to it today, we would be missing a fundamental dimension of our life together, namely that which makes it religious and attentive to God. Because it is through the crooked lines of history that God writes straight, and if we expect to find in him the straight-line thinking of our theories, we may never find him.

2) That the Society of Mary was not promised eternal life, that it could itself disappear or lose all real meaning, Colin himself was only too well aware. Let us quote him for once:

Strictly speaking, there is only one body which must always continue in existence: the Church, which has Jesus Christ as its head. The others acknowledge men as their founders, and do not have to endure, but fall when the need for which God created them has been met. If they do endure afterwards, they no longer thrive with the dash and prosperity which blessed their early days. They fall back into the common run when their mission is ended. (FS, doc. 5)

It could hardly be better said, and Colin gives us there a key to unlock the enigma of the future of the Society of Mary.

The first consoling fact to notice: two centuries after the birth of the Founder, we are still in existence, without any schism or traumatic reform to cast doubt on our continuity with the Society whose unity Colin and Favre consecrated when they overcame their differences.

As for the need for which the Society came into being, we know what this was, even if there were differences in the way it was described. Our Society came into being shortly after the world, for the first time in its history, set about giving itself a basis independently of any theology or faith, beginning the process we now call secularisation. In face of this process, beyond the inevitable condemnations, Colin felt one could do more than simply claim rights and impose one’s will. He felt that the best response would be a hidden presence, like that of Mary. The direction nowadays taken by the Church’s statements about itself and about the hidden God would seem to indicate that the insight guiding the actions of the first Marists has not had its day yet.

Having come to where it is today without any rupture with its origins, and having being designed to respond to the most burning problem of our day, the Society has all it needs to continue in existence, and this not by “falling into the common run,” but by keeping the fullness of the blessing that accompanied its beginnings. The question now is: Do we really want this body to continue?

The response to this question is not as obvious as it might seem. To be sure, no Marist would like to see his congregation disappear. However, faced with the changes that have taken place over the last century that we have briefly recalled, faced with the difficulty of holding on to Colin’s image of the Society and with our decrease in personnel, there is the temptation to aim for the perennial endurance of a vision or a “spirit” rather than the more problematic continuity of the social body. The Founder’s broad vision of a people of God of the last days open to believers “of every age, sex, and condition” would seem to invite us to see our future in terms of a multiplicity of initiatives united less by fixed structures than by the same spiritual reference.

In fact, however, the more attractive the mirage, the more the desert traveller should mistrust it. Forgive me if I intervene here in a very personal way. I believe I had a role, generally recognised, in the rediscovery of certain of the Founder’s themes, but now I begin to ask myself if in all this I have not been playing the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Yes, it was time to realise that Colin was not merely the somewhat moralising preacher of the hidden virtues, that he knew how to encompass the present and the future in a powerful vision, in which the mystery of Mary threw light on the mystery of the Church and its future. It is fundamental for the understanding of a man to go back to the broad horizons of his thought, but that provides only a framework of interpretation, not a content. If we are happy to discern, in some of Colin’s insights, an anticipation of certain themes of Vatican II’s ecclesiology or of the theology of hope, it is clear that our real reflection in these directions will be nourished more by modern research than by what may have been felt at the beginning of the 19th century. Colin cannot compete with theologians who have considerably refined their instruments of thought. On the other hand, what neither Rahner nor Moltmann have done is to bring together a group of men to embody these insights, to train them patiently to give witness in a manner inspired after Marian humility, to oppose rather harshly the desire these men might have had to serve themselves in order to turn them little by little into instruments of the mercies of God.

Yes, let us not hesitate to repeat it, what Colin did was to found a society, to give it a rule, to give life to a body that would incarnate his insights. The most insidious temptation for us today would be to become indifferent to the body in order to concentrate on the spirit. The separation of body and spirit has a name; it is called death. Is that what we really want for Colin’s heritage? Even the most characteristic and encouraging phenomenon of our time, namely the interest the laity show in this Marist heritage could likewise be misleading. I believe that, more than any vision or spirit seen in isolation, what really attracts them to Marists is the contact they have with Marist communities. If there were no body there to make the spirit visible, if Colin’s ideas were merely those of an isolated thinker of genius, the laity would find in them no point of reference.

C) I am therefore convinced, and it is this conviction most of all that I wish to share with you this evening, that we cannot speak of fidelity to Colin if we do not seek above all to keep alive the body he founded. A body animated, of course, by a spirit, without which it would be only a biological survival, but a body which accepts that it is a body and consequently is concerned not to decompose, concerned about what preserves its structures and nourishes it. It is difficult to see how this can be without a basic reference to the way in which Colin himself structured this body, to the image he had of it. Of course this image on many counts, as we have seen, is far removed from us. But what the Acts of the Apostles tell us of the early Church helps us to understand how an original image, although it cannot be carried over as such into another time, nevertheless remains throughout the centuries a permanent model and a periodic call to renewal. Let us learn then to look afresh at the Society whose growth and maintenance Colin secured, and this, no longer concerned to emphasise the differences, but to ensure as far as humanly possible a continuity we know to be vital.

Two steps seem needed there: on the one hand, to make visible and tangible the identity between today’s body and that of the origins; and on the other hand, through the creation of new forms, to prove that life has not left the body.

1) With regard to the first point, I think it is extremely important that there continue to exist in our Society today some gestures, rites, practices that come directly from the Founder, maintaining a visible continuity between him and ourselves. It can always be said that these are details, that faithfulness to a gesture is not everything, that the essential is elsewhere, etc., etc. To be sure, the bouquet of flowers and the anniversary gift are not love, but what kind of love is it that is never expressed? Of the rites dating from our beginning, I think that many could have been preserved twenty years ago, without compromising the purity of our renewal. They are no longer there today and there is no point in crying over spilt milk. Others survive, here and there, and in order to get away from generalities, I would hike to delay on one of those practices that has three advantages: it is something Colin was very attached to; in the house which has welcomed us this evening, this practice has not only been preserved, but rejuvenated, which makes it easier to speak of it here; besides, this will give me the opportunity to tell two stories, which will not be too much in a conference that has been rather dense until now.

What I am referring to is the visit to the chapel after the meal. We have already mentioned this exercise twice in the first part and this was not by chance, but because it comes at the meeting-point of two of Colin’s major concerns: on the one hand, to have Marists salute three times a day the one who is their foundress and superior; on the other hand, to reaffirm the missionary character of the Society by praying publicly for the conversion of sinners. There are few things then which express so well the vocation and the mission of the Society, and if the narrow “pray for us” of Favre were to be replaced by the original formula this would be even clearer. Of course this exercise does not have the force of dogma or of sacrament; there may be reasons for not maintaining it, but one can find reasons for everything and this is the point of my two stories.

The first incident took place in this very house at the time of the Council. The superior general at the time used to entertain a lot, and once we had Jean Guitton as guest. An author of renown, member of the French Academy, the first lay person invited to the Council, personal friend of Paul VI, he was an important person, one of those on whom our little congregational practices would not be imposed. So, after the midday meal, when the superior had announced in his celebrated formula: “Coffee and liqueurs in the parlour “, he guided his guest in that direction. But Guitton, who had lived close to the Fathers in 104’, was a tertiary and a Marist at heart, took him by the arm and said: “Do you no longer visit the chapel after the meal in the Society of Mary?”

The second incident took place a long way from Monteverde, in Tonga. Working in the archives of that diocese, I was living in the college and I used to go to the bishop’s house each day, where I also stayed for the midday meal. The bishop, Patrick Finau, was alone at that time and we used to eat together. As the saying goes, two are not enough for a chapter meeting, and they are dispensed from community exercises; besides, a bishop, as we all know, has great latitude with regard to the rules of his congregation, and even more so with regard to minor practices; besides, let it be said, the heat was overwhelming, and if it is true that beyond a certain point on the thermometer the moral law no longer applies, how much more so in the case of a simple human law? Yes, there was an abundance of reasons for not going to the chapel, but as soon as the meal was finished, the bishop told me that we would go to the chapel, and he said the prayers in a tone of voice I have never forgotten. Think what you like, but it was one of the moments of my life when I most sincerely thanked God for being a Marist.

The moral of the two stories is quite simple: there are always a thousand excuses for not doing what one does not want to do, but there can also be reasons for doing it that reason does not know. To love the Society is perhaps still the surest means so that others around us will love it too and one day feel the desire to join us.

That was only an example and I would beg you not to give it more weight that it deserves, but I remain convinced that a direct continuity between the Founder and ourselves, even if only on a few points, has a considerable importance for the preservation of our identity and for our survival. To discover what these points might be is the work of all. Pity the poor congregation whose refoundation would be entrusted to historians, even if these may have their role to play in the formation of a collective consciousness.

2) Yes, to learn once more, after thirty years of liberation, to love afresh our Marist corporate body, to give it features and form, there is the task that awaits us, if we do not wish to disappear. The meaning of our past has its role to play, but even more so our own real creativity, the only authentic sign of life. Our way of praying together, gestures of sharing and fraternal help, all of this has to be re-invented. But we cannot stop there. The essential is still deeper. Our faith in God, in Christ, in the Church is empty if we accept from them no more than an approval of our own choices. It becomes real when, on the contrary, the word of God penetrates to our depths, “to where joints and marrow come together” (Heb 4, 12). Let us have the courage to say it: our Marist being will hardly be an expression of faith if it does not bite into our daily choices, if it is no more than a framework in which we have to exercise our freedom. Among the things to be re-invented there is all that will make real the responsibility the Society to which we have given ourselves has in our regard. Some forms of checking on meditation in the last century were rather police-like and childish, but if our prayer life becomes a strictly private domain which my Society has not to be concerned about, it is the very meaning of life in common for God which is called into question. Of course I expect that my superiors will respect my freedom and my conscience, but it remains to be proved that they are not respecting me when they ask me about what once upon a time, before them, I solemnly promised to observe. Since the dawn of religious life in the desert, centuries before St. Ignatius, opening one’s heart to the one in authority was the soul of the following of Christ. Any group which claims to represent certain values is concerned about the way its members live those values, and a religious life which demands nothing soon represents nothing. I believe therefore that we have to find once again symbols and rules which speak not only of sharing, but of dependence, and which will express with equal force both what I can expect from my Society and what it can expect from me.

Jean-Claude Colin, having been asked to speak of you on this bi-centenary, I have said precious little about your person. But did you really expect me to? Something tells me that speeches about Colin never pleased you very much. On the other hand, you spent your life fighting for a Society in whose future you believed. You traced it with features marked by your time. Forgive us if at times we are very far from it, but what you wanted we still want today. This body, which you passionately loved, we intend to bring alive. For this we will be helped by that profound vision which encouraged you: that of Mary support of the Church at the beginning and at the end of time. But our appointment with you is not at the end of time, it is today; today we need to reweave the web of a life in society which expresses not what we ourselves want, but what God and Mary wanted and want from you and from us. All during your life you had a certain idea of the Society of Mary. Help us, after so many changes, to remain in communion with it, to accept that God can speak to us through the poverty of your person and your work. Help us to understand that a word spoken yesterday may still resonate in hearts today, that a body born yesterday may find within itself the energies of a new youth. No, Colin, you are not dead. In keeping with your promise, come out of your tomb from time to time to tear up the papers we write about you and bring us back to the love of your Society. And, while you rest in that tomb, let us repeat the words written there by this Society: Pater, ora pro filiis. Father, pray for your children. Amen.

Source: Jean Coste, A CERTAIN IDEA OF THE SOCIETY OF MARY: Conference to the Marist Family for the Colin bi-centenary. Monteverde, Rome June 25 1990.A

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