Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Society of Mary as an Apostolic Community

February 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Jean Coste

We arrive finally at the last talk, “An Apostolic Community,” or if you prefer, “The Implications of Colin’s Vision at the Level of our Activity.”

You remember the vision, we saw in the first days the workshop: the Society of Mary as an instrument of the mercy of God and Mary, and an anticipation of a new people of God after the Mother of the Early Church. For Colin, that vision had two great consequences for our type of activity, our work.

The first point is that Marists are sent to sinners, therefore we should be able to move from place to place and not be tied to fixed ministries. And the second is that since we are supposed to act after the Mother of the early Church, Marists must bear witness as a community. I will also add a third point: I will try to tell you how I myself would approach the question of the choice of ministries without giving you fixed criteria.

Now, let us take the first point: “Being sent to sinners, Marists should be able to move from place to place and not be tied to fixed ministries.”

There is a little sentence found in the Summarium, number 42. It appears exactly the same in the Epitome, number 4, and also in the Constitutions of 1842, Text “a” n. 3. After that, it has always been in the Constitutions, and it’s still there now. “Our vocation is to move from place to place.”

When we have a text that appears in the Summarium and in the subsequent texts and is never touched, it is practically a sign that it comes from the Cerdon Rule. We may say with all certitude that from the beginning, we have it in our Rule, and that it is one of the elements that have never changed: “Our vocation is to move from place to place.”

This idea was expressed by Colin in a few earlier texts during the period of the origins, for example document 264 among others. This document is a letter from Colin to the Archbishop Administrator of Lyons, Bishop de Pins, in which he explains how the Society differs from the Jesuits, etc. He says:

“Finally, my Lord, the children of Mary must be poor like her whom they take as their model. And, like the apostles, as free as possible from all temporal administration, except that of schools, so that they will be ever ready to bring spiritual help wherever it is needed, and they will always be numerous enough in each house, otherwise, being isolated or overworked, they will not be able to observe the Rule, and will lose their zest.”

That’s the point of community that we will take on. It’s very interesting to see that both point coming together exactly at the same time: to be very moveable so as to bring spiritual help wherever it is needed, but also, this idea that we are supposed to be always numerous enough to be living as a community. Here, you really have a principle for the apostolate, very well expressed by Colin in this letter to his Bishop in 1833.

This idea of Colin’s leads us inevitably to the problem of parishes. For Colin, parishes were an occasion to express many thoughts about ministries. Sometimes people have felt that these thoughts were just personal to Colin, simply Colin himself. I don’t think that’s true.

Consider the text of a letter from Champagnat to the Vicar General, Father Cholleton (doc.321). Cholleton had been the director of the Major Seminary and he had helped the first Marists. Now he was Vicar General and as such Champagnat is addressing him.

“Reverend Vicar General, considering only the glory of God in what my letter is about, whatever will be its success, I will adore his desires. The position of my confreres at Valbenoite is not beneficial. (COSTE: Valbenoite was a small parish on the outskirts of St. Etienne. And when we say in French, suburb or outskirts, it does not mean, as here, the rich part. It means, on the contrary, the poorer part. But in any case, it was a parish whose parish priests had made a kind of contrast with the Marist aspirants). “If you promise to give me curates all my life I will give you the property of the former abbey.” (COSTE: It was a Benedictine abbey and had many buildings).

The Marists in the diocese of Lyons were already less under the influence of Colin and were doing parish ministry as curates. Champagnat, if you like, was provincial of Lyons and more directly responsible for them and he sees all the difficulties of their position.

“The disposition of my confreres at Valbenoite is not beneficial. The parish and this vicarage cannot suit the Society, especially at the point in which its priests find themselves. The administration of the parish occupies them all, and would occupy more of them. The best subjects lost their vocations there. Those who feel some attraction for religious life do not dare to present themselves for fear of being used as curates. Those who are there want to get out, saying that they cannot train themselves or prepare a sermon. In a word, nothing which could serve a missionary.”

Champagnat has always been the founder of the Marist Brothers but he has never been involved in any type of mission, not once in his life. But for him it’s clear that Marists are missionaries and in their post as curates in this parish, they cannot prepare their work, it is not a position that suits a missionary:

“Here, I will not speak of the recollection which is almost always lost in the disagreements which one is forced to have with this one or that one, and very often, with one’s own colleagues.” (COSTE: Parish life does not allow for the deep recollection which is necessary for religious”). “In what a sorry position they place themselves by buying the pastor’s stall fees, a new source of bickering, whether with Father Rouchon, or with his parishioners. How will he be able to avoid blaming recollection or the alleged severity that appears to be being used? The parish will quickly be against them.”

And in a second document (doc. 323) he says:

“I see beyond any question of a doubt that the work of priests will flounder completely at Valbenoite, because it is in a false position.”

That’s the moment that he proposes that a house be given him, a very rich property, to place the various Marist priests so that they may lead a real religious life. He said:

“You know better than I that a fish cannot live long out of water. Withdrawal and the pondering of the great truths are the only things that can maintain the religious spirit.”

If you really want to found a religious body, you have to give them the possibility of being in their water, the water of recollection, prayer, deep preparation, and not the life of a parish. You have this sense that the parish ministry was not in line with the true religious, missionary vocation of the Society. This idea was not only Colin’s then, someone who had started his life as a missioner. It was also an idea of Champagnat’s, Champagnat who had never, I repeat, never given any mission, not even once in his life.

Another sign that it was not just a personal idea of Colin’s is the decision of the Chapter of 1842 which was practically the first General Chapter of the Society. At this Chapter the question was put:

“Is it to be preferred that we do not undertake duties which can tie some of us down outside the Society and even that we do not accept parishes.” (And the reply that the capitulants gave was:) “It was thought preferable to accept neither.”

The position taken was not to tie down anyone in the Society. It’s clear that the question of parishes is put in the context of being tied down somewhere. Therefore the decision was “No,” it is preferable not to accept either.

The Society at that moment already had the parish of Verdelais, but it was a kind of necessity in order to have the shrine that was there. The Society had to accept the parish to justify their presence at the shrine. They had to take care of the parish as a kind of appendix to having the shrine.

Let us also read a few other texts of Colin, all published in the study on the parishes.

Father Colin once refused a parish that many Marists would now like us to have, the parish of Cognac, the very interesting town in France known all over the world for its delightful product. The parish of Cognac would have been so beneficial to the Society but it was refused by Colin on these grounds:

“We are not supposed to be parish priests. Our Rule says that. We have to be priests who are free, auxiliary priests. When the Rule says that, it is being very sensible. I could give lots of reasons for that.”

It is true that Colin gave lots of reasons against parishes. Many of those reasons are really outdated, we may even say rather invalid. For instance, he mentions the difficulties of reconciling religious life and parish life. These difficulties are true, but in the history of the Church, there always have been religious who have been parish priests. Therefore, it’s not a decisive difficulty, it’s not a decisive objection. Besides, it is not because something is difficult that you are not to do it. Also, when Colin says that it brings difficulties with the parish council and the town council, you have to fight, you are not completely in peace. Yes, but if we refuse a ministry because we have to fight, because we have some difficulties, it is not serious in a certain sense. It’s not because a ministry is difficult that we do not do it.

Colin also referred to situations that were of his time. One of his great points was that we have enough secular priests to be parish priests and so, we do not take their place. Yes, but in many historical cases the bishops were very short of parish priests, they did not have enough people to staff parishes. In that sense, the motive given by Colin disappears. That was certainly the situation in New England at the end of the last century.

A lot of the motivations given by Colin were very personal. There was the idea of the wealth of the parishes: if we take a parish we will be accused of wanting to become rich. It could be still true today for many parishes, but for many others we have, it’s certainly not a question of becoming rich, because in various parts of the Society, for example in southern Italy, in France, and in many other places we have very poor parishes.

So, many of Colin’s motivations are not really serious or lasting. But that should not be an excuse for us not to look at the motivations that are not outdated and that were certainly the more basic ones for Colin. In the study on parishes I summed things up:

“When you take on parishes, you tie yourselves down to a fixed sort of ministry, and so you lose the freedom and mobility which are characteristic of the missionary. In particular, you make yourselves liable to be dealing all the time with the same people, people quite safe in the fold already. And, thus, you waste the time which you should be using for converting sinners.”

That’s the great reason which all the post-Tridentine founders gave for refusing parishes, founders from St. Ignatius to Bishop de Mazenot, a contemporary of Colin, plus the founders of the Passionists and the Redemptorists. You always find that.

I’ll read to you a line of St. Alphonsus Liguori, saying that the Redemptorists should not take up parishes:

“…so that mission work would not be given up and members lose sight of the end of their vocation, which is to bring help to the most abandoned soul.”

That’s the great perspective. In the Tridentine Church you have the regular clergy that is now very well organized with the bishops and a whole network covering the diocese, taking care of the ordinary administration of the Church. The orders would go to the most abandoned souls, to the new needs, to do what appears unexpectedly, what the secular clergy cannot take care of. You need auxiliary troops who will go here and there taking care of these new needs. For that, they have to be movable. That’s the great idea of all of these founders and it is also Colin’s idea.

This I think, is the first real good motive of Colin’s which has not disappeared. There is also a second one:

“If you accept charge of parishes, you run the risk of adopting the mental attitude of the secular clergy, especially the spirit of criticism directed against the administration. You are be likely to fall short in the standard of both virtue and learning expected in an apostolic religious by his very calling.”

Besides being movable, being able to go to the most abandoned soul, the religious clergy in the post-Tridentine Church was supposed to be a specialized, qualified minister. Not that the secular, diocesan clergy were ignorant or anything like that. Their training was in what they were supposed to do and they were supposed to administer a parish, keep the parish going, giving sacraments and instructions. Their training would prepare them for the administration of those things affecting the normal life of the people of God in the parish.

But religious would have another type of training, because they were supposed to take other jobs. They were supposed to be able to preach before any audience at any time, and be able to provide education because education was not in the hands of the local clergy. They would be able to have colleges and for that they needed learning. They would need a stronger training in both virtue and learning. If we accept parishes, we would end up lowering the level of our training.

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