Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Earliest Church Sole Model of the Society of Mary

February 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Justin Taylor

1. A Colinian theme
Many texts prove that the earliest Church or newborn Church (in French l’eglise naissante) is for: Jean-Claude Colin the model, even the sole model, of the Society of Mary.

Take FS 42,3. The year is 1841, and Fr. Colin is defending the preaching style of Fr. Etienne Seon, which some criticized as too simple and unsophisticated. This leads him to make some more general comments: ‘The apostles were not liked by the rich, or those with power: they turned to poor people like themselves. Then God raised up a Saint Paul, full of magnanimity and afraid of nothing, who turned his attention to everyone. They were right in saying that he was not lettered, that he did not speak well: it did not matter… He did not concern himself with what people said about him.’ Fr. Founder warms to his theme:

‘As for ourselves, we do not take any congregation for our model; we have no other model than the newborn Church. The Society began like the Church; we must be like the apostles and those who joined them and were already numerous: Cor unum et animo una. They loved each other like brothers. And then, ah! No one knows what devotion the apostles had for the blessed Virgin! What tenderness for this divine mother! How they had recourse to her! Let us imitate them: let us see God in everything.’

Notice how the reference to the Church of the beginnings changes in the course of the discussion: from ‘the apostles’ then ‘Saint Paul’, Colin arrives at last at the Church of Jerusalem. This is one face of the newborn Church that is the sole model of the Society; we shall see that there are others. Our Founder draws attention to two or three aspects of this primitive Church, which Marists are to imitate. First is the brotherly love that the apostles and their companions have for one another; this love is characterized by the Latin quotation from Acts 4:32, which is like a constant refrain on Colin’s lips: Cor unum et animo una. The second feature of the nascent Church that Marists are to imitate is more likely derived from Mary of Agreda than from Acts, namely the apostles’ devotion for Our Lady. Finally, ‘Let us see God in everything’; this is the only point about which  Colin says explicitly, ‘Let us imitate them’, but it is not a special feature of the earliest Church; instead, it recalls rather St Ignatius’ Contemplation to Gain Love.

At the end of the retreat of September 1846, Colin returns to the theme (FS 115,5): ‘My dear confreres, may the closest bonds of charity unite us always, may we truly be one in heart and soul. The Society of Mary must re-create the early days of the Church.’ There is a hint in this last sentence that, for Fr. Colin, the Society of Mary should itself be in some way the new-born Church begun again, a community in which, as in the Church of Acts, everybody is ‘one in heart and soul’. The group of seminarians who signed ‘a little act of commitment’ and renewed it solemnly at Fourviere numbered twelve (cf. OM 425,1, etc.; 294,1). Was this a simple coincidence, or was there a deliberate imitation of the original apostles?

Two days later, Colin is still eloquent on this subject, this time with more than a touch of mystery (FS 117,3): ‘As for us, Messieurs, we must re-create the faith of the first believers. That is precisely what was foretold in our earliest days [he uttered these words in a somewhat mysterious and uneasy manner]. It was foretold that the Society of Mary was to take as a model none of the congregations which preceded it; no, nothing of all that; but that our model, our only model, was to be and indeed was the early Church. And then the blessed Virgin, who did such great things then, will do even greater ones at the end of time, because the human race will be even more ill.’

What does that mean, ‘That is precisely what was foretold in our earliest days’? None of the four or five rather different versions of the ‘revelation of Le Puy’ states that the Society of Mary was to be modelled on the earliest Church. For Coste (‘Analysis’, FN 3/3, 1996, p. 250), ‘the order to take the church as model was given to Colin himself and in relation to his work on the rule… [Here] we have a later contribution which appeared at some time after the 1816 promise, at a time when the idea of a Society of Mary began to take shape in the Cerdon curate’s thinking as he attempted to “lay down the early foundations for a rule.” What is the model referred to? Is it that of the great orders of the Middle Ages, or of the Jesuits, or of more recent congregations? “No, nothing of all that. Our model, our only model, must be and is the early church.’” (cf. OM, doc. 631). That may well be so. All the same the conclusion of the passage just quoted from FS 117,3 – ‘And then the blessed Virgin, who did such great things then, will do even greater ones at the end of time’ – reads like a paraphrase of the ‘revelation of Le Puy’ as transmitted by Colin: ‘I was the support of the new-born Church; I shall be also at the end of time’. That might be a sign that Colin is in fact thinking of the period before 1816, when he says: ‘That is precisely what was foretold in our earliest days.’ If he is not thinking of Le Puy, he may be remembering the enthusiastic days at the Lyons Seminary. ‘That is precisely what was foretold’ is not the way you normally speak about an idea that has occurred to you, even if you regard it as a divine inspiration: I feel that somewhere there is a ‘prophecy’ in the charismatic sense.

Several days later again, still in September 1846, Colin is commenting on the other Latin phrase that he constantly repeats (Tanquam ignoti et occulti); he has this to say (FS 119,9): ‘It was the approach that the Church followed, and you know that we must have no other model than the early Church.’ ‘We must have no other model’: this is a duty binding on Marists.

At the conclusion of the next annual retreat, in August 1847, Fr. Colin applies the motto Cor unum et anima una specially to recommend a union that is psychological and affective to those who do not live together (FS 143,2): ‘Yes, Messieurs, cor unum et anima una: we shall not be united in body, in the same place, since Mary does not wish it, but very much so in heart and mind.’

Our last quotation is especially interesting. It dates from September 1848 (FS 159): ‘Let those who are leaving for Oceania imitate the apostles; let those who are staying in Europe imitate the early Church. At the end of time the Church will be as it was in the time of the apostles.’ In a footnote Fr. Coste notes that ‘Father Colin is here distinguishing between the apostles whose voyages are recounted in Acts and the local Jerusalem community, of which Acts twice gives us a miniature ideal picture (Ac 2:42­47; 4:32-35).’ I think it is possible to go even further. Fr. Colin wants to apply the paradigm of the Acts narrative also to the missionaries of Oceania and not only to the Marists who remain in Europe. By the same token, it rather seems that the newborn Church is not for Colin a symbol of mission. For that, he has recourse to other New Testament references.

In any case, there is no doubt that for Colin the earliest. Church is the only legitimate model for the Society of Mary. So it is all the more surprising that this major Colinian theme does not occur in our Constitutions, which set out to place in our legislation the great ideas of our Founder. On the other hand, the new Constitutions, like those of 1872, adopt the Cor unum et anima una (cf. n. 3) This phrase – to quote Fr. Coste (‘Analysis’, FN 3/3, 1996, pp. 229-230) – expresses ‘the best in that church to which Colin was referring his Marists.’

2. Three Faces of the Earliest Church
When we think of the earliest Church, the newborn Church, we generally think of the Church of Acts. Most of what I have to say about the earliest Church as sole model of

the Society of Mary does refer particularly to the Church after the Ascension of Christ. However, it is good to remember that, when Fr Colin speaks of ‘l’eglise naissante’, he may sometimes have another reference in mind. In other words, the newborn Church has three faces.

One of these faces, or, if you prefer, places where we find the earliest Church is Nazareth. Nazareth is a familiar image for Jean-Claude Colin, as it is for the whole French spiritual tradition to which he belongs. It is a rich image, with several facets. Coste wrote a long article on ‘Nazareth in the Thought of Fr. Colin’ (ActaSM 31,6 (1961) 297-400). But it is enough to look up Nazareth in FS, where you will see that the reference is mostly to the hidden life of the Holy Family, especially to the thirty years spent there by Jesus before his public ministry. Often there is a particular application to the Brothers (8 §1), or to Marists during their formation (e.g. 49 §l); but the life of obscurity and work at Nazareth is an abiding reference for all Marists (e.g. 44 §3). There is, however, one passage in FS (10) that explicitly refers to Nazareth as the cradle of the Church. The Founder is marvelling at the fact that the Society of Mary has come to birth in the remote, little provincial town of Belley. Someone remarks: ‘No order has ever begun like this in a small town.’ ‘Yes, there was one,’ replies Colin, ‘but only one: the order of the Church. Nazareth was its cradle. Jesus, Mary and Joseph: there you have the Church coming into being. It began there.’ That should make us cautious about contrasting Nazareth with the newborn Church as key-images for Marists, with the one symbolizing the interior life and the other mission. In fact, Coste shows that, at least in the period before 1850, Fr. Colin’s thought passes easily between Nazareth and the Church after the Ascension as references for the earliest Church (p. 328, where, however, he points out that Colin never uses Nazareth in reference to the external activities of the Society). After 1850, it is true, Nazareth tends to refer rather to the ‘hidden life’.

There is another place where the Church comes to birth, and that is Calvary. It is true that Calvary is not a typically Colinian symbol: there is no reference to it in FS. On the other hand, it is deeply Marist, for it belongs to the ‘revelation of Le Puy’ as remembered by Jean-Claude Courveille towards the end of his life. As he recounts his own experience, he ‘heard’ our Lady say: ‘I have always imitated my Divine Son in everything. 1 followed Him to Calvary itself, standing at the foot of the Cross when He gave His life for man’s salvation. Now in heaven, sharing His glory, I follow His path still, in the work he does for His church on earth. Of this Church, I am the Protectress…’ (OM 718, 5; Keel, 1). Note how this text has a similar structure to the more familiar ‘I was the support of the new-born Church; I shall be also at the end of time’; we find also a similar declaration by Mary: ‘Of this Church, I am the Protectress.’ As remembered by … Courveille, the reference to the end of time comes a few sentences later: ‘… in this last age of impiety and unbelief …’ Where Colin’s version has ‘the new-born Church’; Courveille’s speaks of Calvary and Christ’s death on the Cross. The two apparently different images come together in the traditional belief that the Church was born on Calvary from the pierced side of Christ (thus Augustine, Tractate in John 120:5; John Chrysostom, Catechesis 3, 13-19). For a magnificent reflection on these themes I refer you to Peter Allen’s article in FN 6/1, 2003, pp. 61-79.

3. The primitive Church in Acts
The most familiar face of the earliest Church, which the Marists are to take as their model, is, of course, that of the Church after the Ascension as portrayed by Luke in the first chapters of the Book of Acts. In fact, Fr Colin is far from being the only one to take the church of Acts as a model; it is also central to the Rule of St Augustine and is a reference for many founders and reformers. But what was this Church really like?

A careful reading of Acts leads to the conclusion that the emergence of Christianity in the New Testament came about only gradually. The first two chapters form a synthesis that can be summed up in two phases. First, after the Ascension, the initial reflex of the apostles is to wait passively for the return of Jesus Messiah, who will come to establish his kingdom and restore the rights of all. An outlook such as that is certainly not directed towards any sort of mission. Second phase, the Holy Spirit comes on them; that opens the prospect of a universal mission of conversion – necessarily a long-term programme.

Notwithstanding this missionary prospect, the reader of Acts is – or should be –struck by the stability of the community of disciples in Jerusalem. The Risen Lord had given them this commission: ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and right to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).’ However, they don’t show any haste to begin missionary activity, even among their fellow-Jews. In fact growth in numbers seems to have been slight; instead of counting the ‘thousands’ of 2:41 and 4:4, it might be better to take seriously the comment in 5:13: ‘no one dared to join them, but the people praised them.’ The Book of Acts suggests the picture of a little community, following its own way of life and occupied exclusively with its own affairs. Even more surprising: the event of Pentecost doesn’t change things, at least not immediately. Instead of leaving on mission under the impulse of the Spirit, the apostles stay – with Mary – in the heart of the Jerusalem community.

According to 8:1, a violent persecution broke out after Stephen’s martyrdom and caused many believers (but not the apostles) to flee Jerusalem. This was the origin of different missions, although no strategy was established in advance. Here we have both facts and a thesis. The thesis is quickly stated and recurs throughout Acts, namely that the mission makes progress only thanks to persecutions. The first case, directed against Jesus, allowed Scripture to be fulfilled, thanks to Judas and the Jewish and Roman authorities, who did not know what they were doing. The second case brought about an exile from Jerusalem that turned into a mission to Jews and to Samaritans, then to the Gentiles as far as Rome.

Obviously, nothing would have happened without the events’ surrounding the death of Stephen. In this sense Paul was already helping the primitive community to develop even before his conversion. The facts thus interpreted by Acts were certainly less clear in reality, even may be less significant: a repression of Messianic agitation in Jerusalem, perhaps noteworthy at the time, but difficult to date, probably on the occasion of a pilgrimage. Without these events, however, the Church might still be in Jerusalem waiting for the return of Messiah Jesus.

4. Cor unum et anima una
The feature of the earliest Church in Jerusalem that is most emphasized in the first chapters of Acts is the quality .of its community life. This life is summed up in Acts 2:42 under four headings: the preaching of the Apostles, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers. ‘Fellowship’ is not just a good feeling of togetherness: the apostles and their companions have a common life and share their material goods (cf. 2:44-45 and 4:32-35). The first believers practised, perhaps following more than one detailed model, a real sharing of material goods and a kind of social welfare system. Luke sees them as fulfilling in this way the demands of the Covenant, that there should be no needy people among them (cf. Acts 4:34, referring to Deut 15:4); at the same time they were fulfilling the duties of friendship as conceived by the Greeks – ‘among friends all is common.’ The community of goods would not have been the least attractive feature of the primitive Church for its contemporaries (cf: Brian J. Capper, ‘The Church as the New Covenant of Effective Economics: The Social Origins of Mutually Supportive Christian Community’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 2 (2002) 83-102.)

The quality of common life of the first believers is expressed in the phrase that we read in Acts 4:32: ‘one heart and one soul’. This phrase comes frequently to the lips of Jean-Claude Colin, generally in its Latin form: cor unum et anima una. We have already seen some examples. Luke in Acts makes it clear that this unity is not simply wishful thinking or vague sentiment. Nor does it exist automatically. It doesn’t just happen. On the contrary, unity has to be constructed, sometimes painfully. Furthermore, the unity of which Luke writes is not simply uniformity. Finally, the unity of the first believers is constructed around and even by Mary.

All this is implied by the way Luke describes the scene in the upper room immediately after the Ascension, in 1:12-14. After naming the Eleven disciples (Judas, of course, is missing and has not yet been replaced by Matthias), he continues: ‘All these persevered unanimously in prayer, together with some women and Mary the Mother of Jesus and his brothers.’

Notice that Mary is not situated ‘in the midst of the apostles’, as is so often said­ –nor is this the scene of Pentecost, which does not occur for a page or so of text. Rather, Mary is ‘in the midst of the community’, of which the Eleven disciples form part, and if she is ‘in the midst’ of any particular group it is that of the women. Luke, it seems, in composing this scene, is not simply portraying the apostles awaiting the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. He intends to depict the earliest Church itself as a community. Further, this community is complex, made up of several groups and tendencies, and it finds its centre of unity in Mary.

Let’s look at the scene more closely. Observe the twofold ‘and’ before and after the mention of Mary. The first ‘and’ links her with the disciples and the women (these will be the women who accompanied the apostolic group, ct: Luke 8:1-3); the second ‘and’ links her with the brothers of Jesus (these are his ‘folk’, his clan, led by James called ‘the Lord’s brother’, who is not named here). Now these two extremes – disciples and believing women on the one hand, and Jesus’ brothers on the other – are far from being unanimous in the gospels, even if Luke does not emphasize their opposition as strongly as do Mark (3:21) and John (7:5). In our passage from Acts, the very structure of the sentence (1:14) gives Mary a mediating role between these extremes. The third gospel has already prepared the ground for this mediating role. There, it is clear, Mary belongs to both groups. By blood, of course, she belongs to Jesus’ natural family, along with his ‘brothers’. By faith, she belongs to his new family consisting of those who hear God’s word and put it into practice (Luke 8:19-21; cf. Mark 3:31-35).

The presence of Jesus’ brothers in the upper room tells us that they have learnt to believe in him (the same is implied by the apparition of the risen Jesus to James, cf. 1 Cor 15:7). But, even though they are now believers, they have not become his disciples: when Peter, freed from Herod’s prison, rejoins the community that is praying for him, James and the brothers are not there (cf. Acts 12: 17). If Jesus’ disciples and his brothers are found together after the Ascension – at least as Luke paints the scene – they still remain two distinct groups. The way that Mary is mentioned between them suggests that it is she who has brought them together. Luke seems to imply that, if their potential rivalry has been settled peacefully, it is thanks to Mary, who occupied the middle ground between both parties and knew how to use it in order to keep the peace.

We are entitled to infer that, for Luke, Mary has, even more generally, a role that is central and mediating in the new-born Church, a body that he knew was made up of several blocks that were different and liable to disagree, even violently. That is, of course, the literal meaning of the Greek word ekklesia that we translate as ‘Church’: it is literally an ‘assembly’, which brings together distinct groups or parties. By exercising this role of mediation or even reconciliation, Mary ‘supports’ the newborn Church.

5. What sort of model?
So what sort of model does the newborn Church – taken by itself – offer the Society of Mary? It seems to me that it is the model of a community that possesses an intense life of prayer and brotherhood, but which is not precisely ‘missionary’ in the sense of existing for the sake of mission. It is a community that does not refuse opportunities to ‘witness’, or to proclaim its faith to those among whom it lives; but it does not seek to ‘go on mission’, or at least not very far. It is a community that has a definite influence on its surroundings, even a community from which members go out for the salvation of souls and to which they return. Such activity does, of course, come within the theological understanding of ‘mission’, but the accent is not there.

This is perhaps the model lived at Cerdon and Belley at the time of the missions in the Bugey, the model of the Hermitage in the early days of Champagnat and Courveille. It is also the model reflected in the ‘primitive rule’ and in certain numbers of the 1872 Constitutions in which Colin ‘returned to his earliest ideas’, such as n. 217 (see Coste and Lessard, Autour de la Regie, I, doc. 22,7 I). This number, which is partly inspired by Mary of Agreda, evokes the example of the blessed Virgin Mary, who ‘left her solitude briefly only at God’s command or for the service of her neighbour’, and prescribes that Marists are not to ‘leave the community house except out of obedience’ in precise circumstances or for precise reasons, including the ‘duties of the sacred ministry.’ As Jan Hulshof observes (Constitutions, New and Old, p. 72), ‘Colin’s constitutions do not draw a picture of a missionary community… “Mission” is not the key word which determines the life of a Marist community.’ The emphasis is on the internal life of the community – which has, of course, an effect beyond its four walls. It is a model that seems to attract young people, if you look at the new communities that have arisen in the Church in the last thirty years or so: with many variations you find the same style everywhere, bringing together believers – often of every category, married, celibate, priests, those with vows – in a life of prayer and sharing that ‘overflows’ in ministries of service or evangelisation. Perhaps the first Marists would recognise certain features of the Society of Mary of their dreams. It is a model that might still serve to renew the Society.

6. A Tension
In any case, it is easy to see that the earliest Church is not the most obvious model for a missionary. Congregation precisely as missionary – no more than Nazareth for that matter. We have seen (FS 159) that, when speaking of those sent on mission, Fr. Colin refers to the ‘apostles’, whose journeys are recorded in Acts, precisely in contrast to the ‘first Church’, which is the model for those who remain in France. No doubt that’s the reason why he sometimes has recourse to the image of Mary, who – in imitation of Jesus in Matt 28: 19 – sends the Marist on mission, while promising to remain with him. Thus FS 143, 2 (1847): ‘Yes, Messieurs, cor unum et anima una: we shall not be united in body, in the same place, since Mary does not wish it, but very much so in heart and mind.’ This is precisely the point also of the contrast between Acts 2:44, which states that ‘all the believers were together’, and Acts 4:32, which says that ‘the whole community of believers was one heart and mind’. Fr Colin continues: ‘It seems to me that we must shut ourselves up in the castle of our soul. And what is that castle? Is it not the heart of our good Mother? I like what was just said (by the retreat preacher). Yes, it is Mary who gives each one his mission, his task, the position he must fill. Just as her divine Son once entrusted a mission to his apostles, calling them his friends, telling them Euntes docete omnes gentes and to go their separate ways, just so does this divine mother, at the end of time, say to us, “Go, proclaim my divine Son to the world. I am with you. Go, we shall still be united.’”

There is a noticeable tension here between the ideal of the cor unum and the missionary impulsion. This may very well be the origin of the problem of the missions in Oceania in Colin’s time, that is to say a conflict between the needs of the mission – ­keenly felt by the Vicars Apostolic – and the demands of religious life in community, as perceived by the Founder. Perhaps we touch here a tension that is deeply rooted in Fr. Colin’s thought, a tension that is characteristic of him and distinguishes him from other founders of the time. In fact the Society of Mary, in Colin’s mind, is far from being just a copy of the Society of Jesus. The model of the earliest Church – which Colin liked to imagine in terms of the house of Mary – had to be married with that of the apostles sent on mission. The same Constitutions of 1872 that contain the text we saw a moment ago restricting the movements of Marist religious outside their community house also have texts such as n. 4, which says that ‘their vocation is to go from place to place for the greater service of God and to spend themselves working for the salvation of the neighbour… They must show themselves most ready… to undertake such works in any corner of the world where results can be expected and for as long as obedience requires.’ This number goes back also to the ‘primitive rule’.

This tension between community life and mission is obvious and uncomfortable; but eliminating or devaluing one of its elements is not the way to resolve it. Turning the Society of Mary into a quasi-monastic order is no solution (but let us not be too quick to reject as ‘monastic’ and therefore ‘not for us’ concrete practices of common life and prayer). On the other hand, emphasizing mission in a one-sided way that reduces community life to a minimum or even practically excludes it, results in a Society of Mary that is far from the Founder’s intentions. In particular – despite the impression that one might get from the title of ch. 3 of our Constitutions, ‘Forming a Communion for Mission’ – I do not think that a purely utilitarian view of community life is adequate. Here, if anywhere, we need ‘creative fidelity’ as we try to do justice – not simply in theory but in lived practice – to Fr. Colin’s insight of a Society that would imitate both the new-born Church of Jerusalem in its intense sharing of life and prayer and also the apostles going ‘from place to place’ to bring God’s salvation to all.

7. Renewal of Community Life Today
I believe that we Marists are being called very specially and urgently at this moment to renew – perhaps reform – our community life. The model of the earliest Church cor unum et anima una summons us to this task. Marists themselves see it as a priority.

I don’t know if you remember the report drawn up by a so-called ‘redaction committee’ in preparation for the General Chapter of 2001. This report brought together the responses of Marists all over the Society to a certain number of questions designed to reveal how we were feeling about our Society, its inner life and its mission. It really reflected a profound dissatisfaction among Marists all over the world concerning the quality of our community life. Clearly the realities we were experiencing disappointed what we considered to be our justifiable expectations. Put simply, Marist community life was not living up to its promises. I have a hunch – unprovable for lack of hard data – that this has been a major factor, in one way or another, in the decision of many confreres to leave our ranks. I have no reason to think that the situation has changed significantly since that report was drawn up, and confreres are still leaving us – something that should worry us and make us ask why.

The renewal of community life must surely be an important and urgent concern for us all. And it needs direct and focused attention. I don’t believe it is a problem that would fix itself if only we individual Marists were better Christians and religious. Because we have to admit that this deep and widespread dissatisfaction with community life is felt at a time when unprecedented numbers of individual religious have experienced spiritual and personal renewal – often more than once. I’m not for a moment calling into question the quality of this renewal or its positive results for the Marists concerned. But I’m convinced that renewal of individuals is not going automatically to bring about renewal of communities. For that we need targeted action. I mean, we have to pass beyond exhortations and statements of intent, to take concrete and measurable steps in order to bring about change, real, visible change in the way we live.

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