Thursday, May 23, 2024

Outlining a Marist Project

February 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Spirituality for Today

The task before us in this first talk centers on delineating a Marist project. What is the Society of Mary about? What are its goals? How does it plan to fulfil them? The second and third talks will focus on working out some implications for assessing candidates and for formation.

In delineating the a Marist project, we do not seek to arrive at an exhaustive and definitive
description but simply to indicate the lines along which such a project can begin to take shape in our minds. In asking ourselves the question, what is the Marist project? there are, it seems, three worlds of experience we would do well to keep in mind.

The first is what the Society of Mary is actually doing right now in the various provinces. How is being a Marist experienced now, both by Marists themselves and by those who know them? How Marists are being perceived now will, of course, be an important factor in determining not only who will be attracted to them but also what models young Marists will have before them. What the Society of Mary is now will always be the starting point in any reflection on its future. What the Society will be will always be determined partly by what it is.

What the Society of Mary is now, however, does not exhaust what can be said about the Marist project. Not everything in the present lived reality of the Society is of equal value. When I ask what is the Marist project, there is a second world of experience I must take into account if I am going to introduce judgement into my description of the Marist project. This is the world of the beginnings. What the Marist project is now must be judged in relation to what it was meant to be. Indeed where Marists stand with regard to their origins is an important element of present Marist reality and will have repercussions on assessment and formation. In the eyes of candidates and of young Marists, a Society that has betrayed the intent of its founders is very different from one which has committed itself to renewal by a return to the spirit of its foundation.

Fidelity to the founders is not the only criterion whereby we attribute value to this or that element of present Marist experience. Few people would want to dedicate their lives to preserving alive in the church a Marist project whose only virtue would lie in its fidelity to its beginnings. Such a project belongs to the museum of Religious Antiquities. The third world of experience we want to keep in mind as we delineate the Marist project is that of the church-in-the-making in the world-in-the-making. Ultimately, the value of a Marist project lies in what it can contribute to the coming of the kingdom. How candidates and young Marists view the Marist project in that light will also be a crucial factor in their decision to join it or to stay away from it.

While it will be important always to have present in mind all three worlds of experience, the more convenient starting point will be the initial Marist project. We have at our disposal a reliable body of research which enables us to articulate the main lines of the Marist project in a way that is both firmly structured and open to development. I propose first to take a global view of that basic structure and then to take a closer look at each of its four components, each time asking three questions: a) how is that component part of what is now lived by Marists; b) what is its value for the church-in-the-making; c) how will that component be expressed in terms that will mean something at the levels of assessment and of formation?

1. A global view of the initial Marist project
Let us do as Colin did, namely place before our minds the words of Mary, “I upheld the church at its birth, I shall do so again at the end of time”. Let us remember what these words of Mary represented for the founding Marists: in Colin’s words, they “served us as a foundation and an encouragement. They were always before us. We worked in that direction, so to speak” (FS, doc.152). The way Colin refers to those words of Mary tells us what the name Mary meant for him and for the early Marists. To bear that name meant to be a part of the story where Mary told Courveille what she was in the early church and what she wants to be in the church of the end of time. The Marist project took shape as an embodiment of Mary ‘s will to be in the church now what she had been at the beginning. The Marist project can be described in terms of a relationship to Mary which also defines a relationship to the church.

In terms of the relationship to Mary, what is the Marist project? It can be defined by a tension between two poles, open-ended and opposite to each other, one being positive and the other negative. The positive pole can be characterized as the view that Mary, mother of mercy, takes of the world, while the negative pole is defined by reference to the concrete body of people who place themselves at the service of Mary’s design and who will thus become the instruments of the divine mercies.

The most important thing to be said about the positive pole is what a great mission it entails for the Society of Mary. What matters here is the cosmic dimension, in terms both of space and of time. We know Colin is referring to this dimension whenever we see him comparing the Society to an army fighting under the banner of Mary. This image is at the heart of Courveille’s inspiration at Le Puy and of the constitutions written by Colin. It evokes the special mission entrusted to the Society for this time. As Jeantin expresses it:

“In Father Founder’s mind, the Society of Mary is to play a considerable and important, albeit hidden, role for the glory of God and the salvation of souls in these last times” (Jeantin, NHRC).

By contrast, let us remember that the second superior general of the Society

“did not share this view and had less lofty ideas and feelings about the destiny of the Society of Mary. He saw it as a congregation of pious priests who lived under a broad and easy rule, who gave missions, ran schools, undertook apostolic works within a limited scope and in very secondary fashion (ibid.).”

How one views the mission entrusted to the Society as part of God’s design to bring salvation to the whole world will immediately affect how one views the people who devote themselves to carrying out that mission. Father Favre saw Marists as living under a broad and easy rule. For Father Colin, on the contrary, the mission entrusted to Marists called for extraordinary sanctity. He carefully avoided describing this sanctity in terms of external practices of poverty or mortification, but the depths of detachment required of Marists were, in his eyes, in direct proportion to the mission entrusted to them. Indeed, the nature of this mission, as defined by the people to whom they were sent and the time in which they were to exercise it determined the nature of their sanctity. As Marists were sent to do Mary’s own work, so, were they to live Mary’s own life namely a life of humility, obedience, self denial. Such is what I call the negative pole of the Marist’s relationship to Mary.

By virtue of their name, therefore, Marists stand in a relationship to Mary which defines for them both a mission and a form of sanctity. That same relationship to Mary defines for them a way of being in the church which can also conveniently be defined by two opposite poles, one negative, the other positive.

The negative pole of Marists’ relationship to the church refers to a way of being in the church whereby Marists disappear within the church; they become hidden and unknown. The most conspicuous expression of this is how they relate to the local ordinary as the leader of the local church. Marists will act with him in such a way that he can consider the Society of Mary as his own. It is in the nature of religious congregations of pontifical right that they do not belong to the local bishop. For Colin, it is in the nature of the Society of Mary that, without ceasing to be a true religious congregation, it will inspire its members to act in such a way that the bishop will not know the difference between Marists and a diocesan congregation.

At the same time, however – and this is the positive pole of their relationship to the church -, the presence of Marists in a diocesan church will make a tremendous difference because it will do to that church what Mary’s presence did to the early church. Just as in Colin’s understanding, Mary’s presence was responsible for the early church forming one heart and one mind, in the same way Mary’s hidden presence in a local church through the Marists will enable that church to bring in all men and women under Mary’s mantle so as to form one heart and one mind. This is the special mission of the third order of Mary. And, as Colin concluded triumphantly before the 1872 chapter: “At the end of tine, there will be only one kingdom, the kingdom of the blessed Virgin” COM, doc. 896, 36),

We may enjoy castigating Colin for his lack of theological sophistication, but it may be more important for us to ask ourselves where we stand with regard to his understanding of the Society of Mary. In the mind of Colin and of the early Marists there was no doubt at all that Mary, a living person, had loved them in a special way and had chosen them to carry out an important and difficult mission which she had very much at heart. This had important consequences for the way they viewed the Society of Mary and themselves. First, they looked upon the Society as a gift from God, as an expression of God’s love for the world and for them, not as something they had invented or built on their own. Second, they saw their dedication to the work of the Society as their loving response to the loving choice which had singled them out to be members of Mary’s family. On the one hand they had no doubt that God wanted the Society; on the other there was no limit to what they were willing to do as members of the Society. To their sense of undeserved privilege there corresponded total dedication. Hence the impression we have, in seeing the early Marists, of joy-filled and enthusiastic people, linked by strong bonds to the Society and to each other, and at the same time keenly sensitive to the needs of their church in their time and totally available for its service.

2. The relevance of the Marist project
Such was the initial Marist project. How does it fare today? What can it contribute to the church-in-the-making? How will the answer to those questions affect the way we shall welcome believers to participate in it? Let us look at each of the four components of the Marist project in the light of those questions.

a) The cosmic dimension of the Marist project
To what degree can we say that Marists today are imbued with a sense that they have been entrusted with a special mission in the church which they alone can fulfill and which is of particular relevance to the church at this time? Of all aspects of Colin’s teaching, that seems to be the one most foreign to us. Indeed, we cringe when we hear Colin speak about the end of time, and certainly we are realistic enough to be aware that the church could do without us without suffering appreciable harm. Apart from two references (in numbers 4 and 6) to Colin’s phrase, “Mary said, ‘I upheld the church at its birth; I shall do so again at the end of time”‘, the 1977 constitutional text cannot be said to make much room for the notion that Marists see themselves as called to fulfill a special mission for the service of the church at the end of time.

Does this mean that we must scrap the whole segment of Colin’s thought which refers to Mary, mother of mercy, wanting to gather all her children under her mantle and in these last times raising her society to fight off the hell-unleashed against the church? It might be a mistake to do so precipitately. Not only because we have more reason than Colin ever had to find our times even more cataclysmic than he did his, but, more humbly and practically, because the part of Colin’s teaching that I would tag as “Mary, mother of mercy, wants to save all her children in these last times” is of particular relevance to the church now in the making. If we look at it a little closely, we see how Colin’s sense of Mary’s concern inspired and guided his own concern for her children. Because Mary is mother, her concern is urgent and refuses to be hampered by rules. I suggest that the more Marists will commit themselves to the theme of Mary, mother of mercy, calling them to share in her work (to fight under her banner), the more they will bring to the church a pastoral quality that it needs now and which comprises, among other ingredients, a sense that time is running out, an eye for those who are left out by the ordinary ministries, a willingness to take all the trouble necessary to prevent the rules from stifling the pastoral work, while recognizing that in the long run there can be no real pastoral work outside the rules. A view of ministry inspired by Mary, mother of mercy, is particularly well suited to the church-in-the-making because that church is working so hard to break out of the hardened moulds in which she grew over the centuries, both in terms of the people it can reach and of the way it reaches them.

The implications of such an option for assessment and formation are easy to spell out. In inviting Christians to participate in the work entrusted to the Society, Marists will look not only for people who can learn to minister, but for people who have the potential for being missionaries, for opening new ground for the gospel and the church. Nor will they look only for the generosity and the zeal which characterize the missionary, but they will look for the special missionary qualities – or potential qualities – which characterize the Marist missionary and which can be evoked by the adjectives compassionate, prudent, disinterested. But this already leads us into the second component of the Marist project, namely the high degree of holiness required of those who will bear Mary’s name.

b) Marists as instruments of the divine mercies
The scope of the mission entrusted to the Society of Mary is the measure of the unselfishness which will enable Marists to take part in this mission. Just as the mission itself is defined by the name Mary (as mother of mercy, she wants to gather all her children under her mantle), so is the self-abnegation required of Marists: on the one hand this abnegation is interior and therefore goes to the root of selfishness without being conspicuous; on the other hand it goes very deep; it is radical and uncompromising.

In asking where the Marist project stands in that regard in our various provinces, the question is not, “Are Marists humble and detached?” The question is rather. “Do Marists still perceive a link between the name Mary and the call to be humble and detached? Do they see humility and detachment as crucial to their mission in today’s church?” I use humility and detachment as code words to refer to Colin’s rich and complex understanding of the spirit of the Society. I am aware that the words sound foreign to the ears of many of our younger confreres. But granting all that, do we consider that the strength, the cutting power, the prophetic value of the Marist spirit lie in its radical opposition to reliance on human means, be they talent, power, or money? Do we see such opposition as linked to the name we bear on the one hand and to the mission entrusted to us on the other? When we present the Marist project to others, is this an important element in our presentation?

One of Colin’s great contributions to the church is his deep and practical understanding of the link between Mary’s spirit and the needs of his time. For him it was not simply a matter of practicing poverty and humility because those are Christian virtues. Much more pointedly Marists would be able to do Mary’s work of reaching sinners in so far as, by striving to be like Mary, they would empty themselves of the pride and the love of money which had alienated so many from the church because they either encountered it in their priests or they were full of it themselves. When Marists look at the mission entrusted to them in today’s church, do they see any relationship between the specific needs of this time, the specific obstacles standing in the way of proclaiming the good news to the poor, and the special kind of detachment which bearing Mary’s name invites them to practice? Indeed, are Marists willing to commit themselves to certain radical forms of detachment inherited from their tradition, knowing that such detachment will enable them to be of special use in today’s church? One example: would extreme care to dissociate their ministry from any appearance of attachment to money enable Marists to preach the good news in otherwise unreachable milieux? Would Marists’ ability to leave behind the amenities of middle-class living free them to serve people in poorer countries, or the poor in their own country?

Whether or not such options have been taken will usually be considered in the assessment candidates make of the Society of Mary. But when such options have been taken, they will have implications for the assessment the Society makes of candidates and for its formation program. As it will look for certain qualities of zeal suited to its mission, so also it will look for certain qualities of detachment required for that mission. Of course, this will mean looking for people willing to pay the price of commitment, but more specifically it will mean looking for an ability to give up the comfort and security of money and the rewards of ambition to place themselves entirely at the service of the Marist project, which is not the advancement of the Society of Mary but the advancement of the glory of God and of the honour of Mary.

c) Mary present in the local church
“Mary said, ‘I upheld the church at its birth; I shall do so again at the end of time”‘. These founding words establish for Marists a special relationship with Mary. But this relationship with Mary is such that it defines the place of Marists within the church: they will be Mary present in the church now as she was then. As the special relationship to Mary was defined by two poles, so the presence of Marists in the church is defined by the tension between two opposite poles. The first of these, the negative one, can be described as hidden and unknown. Marists will be present in the church like Mary if they succeed in hiding their presence. For Colin this meant being present in the local church in such a way that the bishop will feel he is dealing with a congregation that belongs to him: tanquam suam.

How aware are Marists today that this is one of the characteristic features of their congregation? To what degree do they perceive that as being at the heart of the special contribution they can make to the church as people missioned by Mary? Much of our work has been and is the running of schools. How many bishops feel that these schools are in any real way a part of the diocesan apostolate and not institutions the Marists run without any significant reference to diocesan interests but independently and for the service of Marist interests? Apart from education, our main work now is in parishes. There seems to be little doubt that these we have identified fully with the diocesan clergy and that only difficult bishops could fault the Marists for not being part of the diocesan apostolate. But now the problem seems to be the reverse. To what degree do bishops – the local church – perceive the Marists working in parishes as bringing something different to the diocese, something that only Marists can contribute to the local church?

If Marists truly chose to define their mode of presence in the local church by reference to Mary’s presence in the early church, this would affect how they deal with the bishop, with the clergy and the laity of the diocese. Colin expressed himself on that topic mostly in terms of respect for authority, but what he was referring to was far more closely connected to bearing Mary’s name. In the local church Marists disappear in the sense that, while they are a very effective presence by their zeal and their spirit of faith, they are particularly skillful at avoiding whatever might make the local church feel threatened by their presence. Not only that, but they feel committed to promoting, fostering, enhancing the unity of the local church. This is part of bearing Mary’s name. Mary’s presence in the early church dissolved the conflict between the disciples of Jesus and his blood relatives. The presence of Marists in a local church must help that church overcome the divisions that eat away at its unity.

It is enough to describe that dimension of the Marist calling to realize its permanent relevance for the church. What could be closer to the church-in-the-making? Vatican II gave fresh relief to the local church and to the role of religious within it and this renders even more crucial the contribution that Marist tradition can bring to building it.

It Marists will make that contribution, they will need to be people equipped with certain specific skills. We can take a closer look at them tomorrow, but basically they are skills that have to do with the ability to accept reality with its limitations, to live in an imperfect world. They are also skills associated with dealing with authority, with fostering harmony and unity among people. Having a clear sense of this dimension of the Marist project should sharpen our eyes when we examine candidates and should also provide direction in our formation programs.

d) At the end as at the beginning: one heart and one in mind
Marists are keenly aware that the only church that exists is the one they meet in their daily experience. It is a limited, imperfect, limping church, but the only one we have. At the same time, Colin and the Marists have their eye on what that church is called to be. Because of Mary’s words to Courveille at Le Puy, they see the existing local church against a splendid background made of the superimposed images of the golden age of the church at the beginning as depicted in the Acts of the Apostles and of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Apoc. 21:2).

Keeping in mind this dimension of the Marist vision opens Marists to various aspects of their work in the church, among them the desire for a renewed church, an increased awareness of the role of the laity, efforts to transcend whatever tends to limit the openness of the church to everyone. All of that, and much more, inspired by a vision of the church which goes beyond what we can see in the past or in the present, by a sense that the church need not be limited by what has been and what is. An eschatological view of the church of the end of time frees us from thinking that what exists is all that is possible. Can we say that this dimension is actively present in the preoccupations of Marists today? Do we have a strong sense that Mary calls us to play a crucial role in the church in these last times? If such were the case, would we not be spending our energies very differently from what we are now?

Of all the dimensions of the Marist project I am trying to delineate, it seems at first sight that the most likely candidate for the museum of Religious Antiquities is the notion of the Society of Mary having a special role to play in making the church of the end of time one in heart and mind as it was at the beginning.  Still, a case can be made for the proposition that this notion has never been more relevant.  This is a time when the understanding of the church is again open to questioning.  The church as it was at its birth is a basic point of reference in this questioning.  The place of ministries in the church, the relationship between clergy and laity, the founding of new churches, these and other topics are actively explored by theologians.  I believe that Marist tradition could contribute immensely not so much to the theological discussion as to the spiritual and pastoral foundations for the embodiment of this renewed understanding of the church.  The way Marists relate to the church by virtue of their relationship to Mary places them in a position where this renewed understanding of the church is precisely what they were after all along.  As Colin put it,  “We must begin a new church.” (FS. doc. 120:1)

If we choose to give that dimension of Marist reality the importance it had for Colin, that will have immediate repercussions on the assessment and training of candidates to the Society. A group that sees itself as working for the renewal of the church with a strong emphasis on participation of the laity and on stretching the boundaries of the church to include all is very different from one that sees itself as participating, through its schools and parishes, to the every day work of an established church.  What shall we invite and expect future and young Marists to do?  To imagine, create, criticize, innovate, or to conform and to preserve what exists already?

The Marist project is far from being a fixed and closed reality. Whatever it will be and what it will be are matters of choice.  There are criteria which measure the value of these choices.  The initial Marist project is one of those criteria.  The way the church understands itself is another, while the present situation of the Society need not be a criterion, it is certainly a factor in determining what is possible.  Within these limitations however, a vast array of choices are open before us.  The quality of those choices will determine the quality of the assessment and the formation of candidates to the Society.  But we first need to look at these choices themselves.  Where do we stand with regard to the Marist project?  What is our understanding of Colin’s view, as distinct from that of Favre?  How do we view the Society as it exists today in relation to the initial project of the first Marists?  What is our understanding of the church and how do we view the Society of  Mary in relation to it?  Our answers may be tentative, incomplete, provisional.  Formulating them will at least enable us to criticize them.

My own answer would run somewhat like this: yes, I embrace Colin’s view of the Marist project, and that means that I cannot embrace Favre’s.  I believe the Society today is much closer to Favre’s conception of it than Colin’s, and I would love to see us move toward greater fidelity to Colin.  However, I also want to guard against becoming a curator of the Marist museum, and I want to keep a very watchful eye on the church, its present understanding of itself and its options for the future.  My preference for Colin’s understanding of the Marist project is based entirely on the belief that it can contribute to the renewed life of the church.

To what degree are such options and such understandings shared by others?  It may be helpful to devote some time to exploring where we stand in that regard.  The more articulate we shall be with regard to the Marist project, the better chance we stand of being articulate with regard to assessment and formation.

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