Fittingly, in this month of Mary, we celebrate on this May 21st Saint Eugène de Mazenod (+1861), the 19th century founder of the Missionaries Oblate of Mary Immaculate, whose idyllic childhood in France – he was born in 1782 – was interrupted by the upheavals of the Revolution of 1789, thus spending his formative years in exile abroad. He grew up mainly is Sicily, as his family moved from pillar to post, trying to regain what little of their fortune they had left behind.
Nonetheless, the handsome and noble Eugene received an excellent education, a priest, Father Bartolo Zinelli, taking him under his tutelage, with the young lad spending hours in the vast private libraries of the noble houses in which they were given refuge.
Eugène and was looking forward to a bright and successful future, a good marriage with some fortunate beautiful young woman with a substantial dowry, when, pondering the transitoriness of it all, and praying before Christ’s outstretched arms on the Cross, he underwent a deep conversion on Good Friday, 1807:
Can I forget the bitter tears that the sight of the cross brought streaming from my eyes one Good Friday? Indeed they welled up from the heart, there was no checking them, they were too abundant for me to be able to hide them from those who like myself were assisting at that moving ceremony. I was in a state of mortal sin and it was precisely this that made me grieve…Blessed, a thousand times blessed, that he, this good Father, notwithstanding my unworthiness, lavished on me all the richness of his mercy
After that Paul-like metanoia, Eugène resolved to dedicate his life to God, to serve all the poor and abandoned souls in evangelizing work within his native country. In 1811 he was ordained a priest, and on January 25, 1816 founded the Order to which his name now belongs, a community of priests ‘offered’ (oblatus) to God through Mary, who have done remarkable missionary work in the past two centuries, especially in Canada. Eugène stayed in France, overseeing the Order he – or, rather, God through him – had founded; in 1837 he was consecrated bishop of Marseilles, which he shepherded faithfully, building parishes, schools, developing catechetical programs, healing, consoling, preaching and doing all a bishop was meant to do, until his death on this day in 1861.
There are now over four thousand Oblates labouring in the Lord’s vineyard throughout the world. Alas, like many such Orders, they have in the modern era had their good and not-so-good fruit, but I have known some very admirable Oblates, and many attest to their indefatigable work in the north and other far-off places. Pope Pius IX called them the ‘specialists of the difficult missions’. And in these remote locales, their innumerable saints worked for souls, hidden and indefatigable, quiet and unassuming, but all the more effective for it.
May all those offered to Christ through Mary, like that most humble handmaid, strive to be all that they are meant to be. As the Council exhorted all such communities, to return to the spirit and example of their founders.
Saint Eugène was beatified by Pope Saint Paul VI in 1975, and canonized by Saint John Paul II on December 3rd, 1995, the First Sunday of Advent. The Pope described him as a ‘man of Advent’: Eugène de Mazenod was one of those apostles who prepared the modern age, our age.
Prepared for what? The coming of the Lord, for which we should all make ourselves ready, for it will arrive at an hour, and even in a way, we will not expect…
Saint Eugène de Mazenod, ora pro nobis!