The Oblate Seminary in Poland has got some treasures, apart from the seminarians of course. There is a small chapel where a part of the heart of Saint Eugene de Mazenod, our Founder, is kept. He was described as a man with the heart as big as the world. While visiting the seminarians I was asked to share with them about the Oblate ministry in Australia. Some of them expressed their interest to come to Oz as Oblate priests. We need to pray for them so that their hearts may remain open and big. I am sure that they will be warmly welcomed in our parishes and schools in Australia. So let’s pray for them.
Apart from the relict of st Eugene there is another priest buried in the church attached to the seminary. His name was Charles Antoniewicz. He was a Jesuit who contracted cholera while ministering to the locals. After more than a hundred years the memory of him is still alive. People still remember the good priest who could run away but chose to stay to share their fate. He died among the people whom he loved so much. For the Oblate seminarians in Obra he has been always an example to follow. Visiting the crypt with his grave we are reminded what it means to be a good priest.
After visiting the places where the Oblate Congregation was started I made my way to the place where I spent 6 years preparing myself to become a Catholic priest. The Oblate Seminary in Obra, Poland, brings back lots of memories. In late September 1996 I arrived there after completing the Novitiate and after taking the first vows. The next 6 years were to be the time grace. Some people think that in the seminary future priests learn how to do Mass. In a sense it is true but it happens during the final year. The most important aspect of the training that is call formation, isn’t simply limited to studying theology but it involves the gradual development of the whole person. That’s why the center, or better to say, the heart of the seminary is the chapel, there we spent many hours every day. Why? Because Jesus is there present in the Most Blessed Sacrament. A priest to be professional needs to have lots of skills but the greatest contribution he can make to the parish or another community is his profound relationship with Christ. I still remember one of our professors who was teaching us about the Holy Trinity. He would finish classes earlier in order to send us the chapel with the same instruction: “You have learnt about God. Now go to talk to Him so that your knowledge can develop into loving him more.” What I am most grateful for my time in Obra is that we breathed prayer. Our whole life was soaked with prayer.
If I could compare our praying to humidity in Sydney it would mean that what Sydneysiders need to deal with is a piece of cake. However we wouldn’t say that our prayers were killing us (I have heard many times people in Sydney saying that humidity is killing them) but that it was the testing field. If Jesus is calling somebody to be a priest he gives the man the desire to be closer to him. If a seminarian isn’t called he would suffer spending so many hours in the chapel but in this way he can discover that it isn’t his way of life.
Apart from praying we also had Oblate priests to help us to grow in our vocation. Each one of us had a spiritual director to whom we opened up our souls so that he could offer us advice, support or challenge. We also benefited from living in the community. When you live with some other people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week you come to know them through and through but they come to know you through and through as well. Then two things can happen you come to love them as your brothers or you can’t stand them and you leave the seminary. It is a great experience of appreciating the other for who he is. I always found it astonishing that people who never met before, who didn’t choose each other can grow to become more then best friends but they become brothers for each other. Of course it isn’t an easy process. It demands lots of humility and patience but the outcome is great. When our group joined the Oblates we a bunch of individuals. During the course of the seminary Jesus drew us together to himself, that’s why we became close to each other, not because we were perfect angels but because we learnt to forgive and support each other. The seminary was made of year groups that were our basic communities. After lunch and tea we would come together to our recreational room for some time of sharing and fun. However when somebody was sick his bedroom would become the recreational room. The healthy seminarians would take their tea and coffee and would occupy the floor of the sick guy’s room. In this way no one would be left out.
Of course the seminary is also a university course. We studied Philosophy and Theology. I must admit it was tough. Sometimes I wonder how we managed so many classes and exams. Every term we would sit ten or fifteen exams. But we handled that. If somebody struggled with a subject he could always rely of free tutoring from his classmates.
Another aspect of our seminary formation was work. There is a farm providing fresh and yummy ingredients to the kitchen, but it means that we participated in producing the stuff. Even the city boys had to learn very quickly how to attend the farm animals and how to work in the field. At times there were more or less funny incidents, like when a classmate of mine was told to go to the veggie garden to pull out the weeds. He worked very hard but he removed the good stuff leaving the weeds happy with more space to grow. The Oblate who was in charge of the garden nearly collapsed when he saw my mate standing there tired but very proud. Well, as you can guess the student didn’t get a medal for his work but from the fury reaction of the Oblate he learnt a valuable lesson, if you do something for the first time ASK first. We also were responsible for keeping the whole building, and believe me it is a big building, clean. There is also a big park around where grass keeps growing and the leaves keeps falling, giving us plenty to do. However it was an important life lesson. We didn’t get spoilt and lazy preparing to become priests but we came to value and appreciate work. I didn’t feel much different from my mates from high school who as lay students had to study at University and work a couple of jobs at the same time. The only difference was that we weren’t paid for our work but we work for our Oblate family. We learnt to be responsible for the community.
It was such a fantastic time.
I am wandering which of the two person from today’s Gospel you like better: the Pharisee or the tax collector? I guess that we are fond of the tax collector. However to grasp the depth of the Gospel let me give you a story that you all know. Last year, here in Poland, there was a big shock with “Amber Gold”, a financial institution that misled many people promising big profits for the deposits entrusted to it. The promises were big but the bankruptcy was big too. You still remember the owner of the institution Marcin Plichta being taken into custody for the situation, don’t you? When his name comes out these days he is called crook, villain, thief etc. Why am I reminding you Marcin Plichta today? Because his reputation is exactly the same like tax collectors at the time of Jesus. All the descriptions that are used for Mr. Plichta were certainly used for tax collectors then. Tax collectors were known for overcharging people, for increasing taxes, they were responsible for people losing their properties. How would you feel if I said to you at this Mass that God is more pleased with prayers offered by Mr. Plichta then you. From your shock faces I can read that you would be hurt and scandalized. Similar feelings must have been in the audience of Jesus. However let me ask you one more question: Why did you come to like the tax collector and there is so much resistance toward Mr. Plichta? You came to like the tax collector because you looked at his life through the eyes of Jesus whereas your attitude to the owner of “Amber Gold” has been fed by TV, Newspapers etc. Only God can judge a person because only God can know what is in the depth of the heart. We can only press charges for one’s actions, we can also sentence somebody for his or her crimes but we cannot order God to hate the person. When God sees us sin he is heartbroken, he suffers. On the other hand when Satan sees us sin his is over the moon. It is something demoniac to take pleasure upon seeing people’s sins, their mistakes, their wrongdoings. You can distract yourself from your own sins by focusing on other people’s sins but remember, when you stand before God you won’t chat with him about the sins of others but about your own.
The Pharisee from today’s Gospel fell into what we can describe as spiritual and moral mire. He saw sins of the tax collector but he wasn’t able to see his own sins. That’s why he was sinking into his own sins because he didn’t beg God for help. Without God’s help nobody can get out of sins, the tax collector went home justified because he stretched his hands asking God for mercy and help and God didn’t reject his request. The Pharisee was using his hand to point to himself as the good person and God could do nothing for him.
As I have just said it is demoniac to delight in people’s sins and it leads to blindness to the good around us.
This Sunday as we conclude the Mission Week let me let you of a missionary I admire very much, Bishop Eugene Juretzko OMI from the diocese of Yokadouma in Cameroon. He left for Cameroon in 1970 and in 1991 was appointed the first bishop of the new created diocese that is covered mainly by rainforest. He started his work from scratch with a few priests and three wooden churches. In spite of great difficulties he has established a vital and active Catholic community there. Somebody said that they’ve got now 100 seminarians. Last week I met the bishop during my visit to the Oblate Seminary of the Polish Province in Obra. The bishop was brought to Poland a couple weeks ago as he was nearly dying. At the moment he is slowly recovering, he is still very weak but when I asked him about his plans he answered straight away: “I am going back to Cameroon. No one can stop me from returning to my diocese.” However what always strikes me is his ability to see good things everywhere. So many times he was attacked. Even a few years when in Poland he was robbed at a railway station in Warsaw. But he doesn’t talk about that. On the other hand he can talk for hours about good things that happened to him, about good things he saw in other people. He told me: “TV and Newspapers take delight in talking about sins and scandals. Somebody needs to see and talk about god stuff. That’s my job as a missionary.” When I was listening to this elderly and ill bishop from the bush in Cameroon I thought about God creating the world. Each day God was seeing that it was good what he did. As we finish the Mission Week let’s be inspired by the Missionary Bishop to look at the world and people around us in order to pick up good things in them. In this way even the biggest sinners will be encouraged to repent and to change their sinful life.
Let me finish with an event from the life of St Therese of the Child Jesus who is one of two patrons of Catholic Foreign Missions. When she was little there was a case of a Pranzini who murdered three women. Everybody was shocked because of the crime. He didn’t show any sign of remorse and repentance. He was arrogant event to the priest who came to prepare him for death. Thereselater wrote: “Everything led to the belief that he would die impenitent. I wanted at all costs to keep him from falling into hell, and to succeed I employed all means imaginable, feeling that of myself I could do nothing. I offered to God all the infinite merits of Our Lord.
As Pranzini’s fate approached, Therese increased her prayers until he was brought before the guillotine on August 31. The next day, Therese read what happened in the paper and recorded how when he was about to put his head into the device, “he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him, and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance!”
Therese was convinced that he was saved from eternal condemnation and she would talk of him as “her first child” whom she saved by her prayers.
Focusing on other’s sins is easy, tempting but demoniac. May today’s Gospel opens our eyes to see others through the eyes of God, like we looked at the tax collector a few minutes ago and became fond of him. Looking at our neighbors in this way we will be not only fond of them but we will come to love them profoundly. It will be love raising them to God.
On becoming Bishop of Marseille, Saint Eugene knew that he had to take care of all interests of his diocese, both spiritual and temporal.
During his leadership, Bishop de Mazenod lived in the midst of his people. He, who loved the quiet of the study and the library, gave himself to the public life of his diocese. He was there in the churches of Marseilles at all the solemn functions of the Church. In the streets of Marseilles, and particularly in the poorer streets, he became as familiar a sight in his comings and goings as any priest on the rounds of his parish duties. High on the fifth floor of some quayside tenement a child is dying, and through the winter night and the darkened streets the Bishop comes to baptize the child. Through lanes of hovels and cabins the Bishop makes his way to the bedside of an aged woman who has asked to receive the Last Sacraments from his hands. At Easter, in a busy parish to which a new pastor has yet to be appointed, the Bishop comes to undertake the distribution of Communion to the sick. During the many epidemics of cholera which swept 19th century Marseilles, Bishop Eugene was to be found in hospital and fever ward, by the bedside of the dying. And when he was asked to look after himself and to leave such active work to other and younger men, he had a ready answer: “I find my happiness in pastoral work. It is for this that I am a bishop, and not to write books, still less to pay court to the great, or to waste my time amongst the rich. It is true,” he added with a smile, “that this is not the way to become a Cardinal; but if one could become a saint, would it not be better still?”
His attentiveness to the needs of his people was shown in many associations and organizations he started in order to empower the workers and the poor to stand up for the rights and to protect them from exploitation by the rich. For instance, when passing by he heard from the fishers that others were benefiting from their hard works Saint Eugene help them to establish kind of corporation so that they could get better deals appearing as a group.
Bishop Eugene was also attentive to the daily needs of his people. He love his diocese and wanted the best for it. Apart from many churches built during his time, the great Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde and the New Cathedral there are some other “monuments” that a visitor may be surprised as a fruit of the Bishop's activity. One of such “monuments” is the Saint Charles Railway Station in Marseille. Today it should be obvious that a city like Marseille which is the second city of France should benefit from such invention like railway. However it wasn’t so obvious to the French Government in 1840. In official planning, cities which were to benefit from having a railway were not to be very numerous and had to be chosen for their fidelity to the Government. Marseille was always considered as a rebel community by the Government. As a punishment for the lack of support from the city it was planned that the railway wouldn’t be built there. When Bishop Eugene learned that he wrote to the king straight away. The Bishop knew that in the developing world lack of such an efficient means of transport would turn the city into slums. His persistence, courage, wisdom and vision paid back. The King changed his mind. The railway line was to reach Marseille and the station was built in 1847. To honor the Bishop’s effort it was named after his favorite saint – Charles Borromeo. Bishop Eugene had joy to bless the railway station and the first train
engines. There was, however, he showed his Provencal temperament at the blessing when the train engines were passing in front of him to blessed with Holy Water. One of them was named Lucifer and of course Bishop Eugene got furious and refused to bless it.
Today crowds of people come through St Charles Railway Station, it also accommodates famous TGV, however I was wandering how many of them know that this door to the city the owe to the saintly Bishop from 19th century whose eyes fixed on Christ helped him to see the daily needs of his city.
When Eugene de Mazenod became Bishop of Marseille he found the old cathedral too small for the growing city. It took him 14 years to convince the civic authorities that a new bigger church was necessary. Finally the agreement was reached but the location of the new cathedral didn’t thrill Eugene. Bishop Eugene wanted the new cathedral closer to the city centre. The government insisted on the location opposite to the Bishop House, in the docks. This was to have a serious inconvenience: the building would be outside the city centre and away from the populated area. Besides, the new building would encroach on the old cathedral and part of that venerable building would have to be torn down to make way for the new cathedral. Unfortunately the protests of the Bishop were not to have any effect.
The foundation stone was blessed by Bishop Eugene in 1852. Work on the building was to last 40 ears. The colossal neo-Byzantine building was consecrated by Eugene’s third successor to the See of Marseille. It is 140 meters in length and the dome is 60 meters high inside. The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Mary Major.
Saint Eugene never saw the Cathedral but the building reminds of his care for the diocese still. After his death Bishop Eugene de Mazenod was buried in the old cathedral. On May 7, 1897, the remains of the bishops of Marseilles were transported into the funeral crypt of the new cathedral. When they drew from the Major’s ancient vault the over two meters long coffin of Bishop Eugène de Mazenod, the workers exclaimed, “Was he ever a tall man!” “They spoke more truth than they knew,” commented a witness of the ceremony, “The coffin their hands touched and their arms bore did, indeed, contain the mortal remains of one of the greatest bishops of this century and of all centuries. We hope that, in the future known to God, the God upon whom we trustingly wait, the holy prelate whose completely intact body has been resting for some days now before the altar in the funeral crypt of the bishops of Marseilles will be the object of a new translation.”
On the occasion of his beatification his body was moved to a chapel behind the main altar. Standing at his tomb I could appreciate a wonderful view of the whole church. It looks as if he still presides over the assembly from his place of
eternal rest. One of the graces I had during my few visits to Marseille was visiting this cathedral and the chapel with the Tomb of Our Saintly Founder. Simply I couldn’t resist visiting him every time I was coming to the city. The highlight of my time in Marseille was the Mass I celebrated on his Tomb. During his life he insisted that his Oblates would spend 30 minutes every evening together as a community before the Blessed Sacrament. The service called Orison is still practiced in Oblate Homes. For Eugene it was the way to connect with his spiritual sons. He would say: “At Orison, when we gather around the Lord we are close to each other too.” Celebrating the Mass at his Tomb I did feel the closeness he promised us.
Visiting the Cathedral we need to make our way to the left wing where a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary is. During the founder’s life it was in the old cathedral. Then, as nowadays, it was carried solemnly on the shoulders of men during the procession on August 15 through the streets of the city of Marseille. Eugene always presided at the celebration and was able to reach the bottom of the people’s hearts. His love for the Virgin was shared by the people of his seaside diocese.
Marseille was the second home of Saint Eugene who moved to the city in 1823 when his uncle Fortune de Mazenod, at the age of 73, was appointed Bishop. Eugene was asked to help him. It was a big job as the diocese didn’t have a bishop for 20 years. Saint Eugene lived in Marseille until his death in 1861. Although he lived permanently in the bishop’s house but he was all the time the Superior General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The house was the place where he spent the longest period of his life, 38 years. He administered the diocese from here but he also directed the Oblate Congregation from this place. The House of Bishops of Marseille saw Eugene praying, reflecting and making decision about the future of the Oblates. From here he was giving his Oblates appointments to various ministries and various mission countries.
We have a good description of the Bishop’s living quarters: “They were on the ground floor in the wing to the left of the entrance. They consisted of a narrow antechamber and then the room where he received visitors. The latter was quite large but very modest in appearance. There was also a living room, with low ceiling and badly decorated walls on which hung oil painting of Oblate Bishops. Finally, his bedroom was to the left of the antechamber. Its walls were covered with old and faded blue paper which few would tolerate in their own home. Because of the works being done in the house towards the end of is life, his bedroom was transferred to the upper floor of that same wing and it was there that he died.”
Eugene was absolutely insistent that the Bishop’s house should be open to all who wished to see him. It so happened that as Duke Mac Mahon waited in the room to see the Bishop he sat alongside an old beggar woman. On the First of August 1858 the municipal authorities came in full dress to wish the Bishop a Happy Birthday. No wonder the Mayor was astonished to see the room filled with “a swarm of fishwives and women from the market shouting at the top of their voices: “Long live Bishop! God bless you. Many happy returns!” They were
received by the Bishop first and meanwhile the gentlemen of the municipality continued to wait their turn.”
This house also witnessed the final moments of the saintly bishop. Bishop Jeancard who assisted Eugene at the death bed wrote: “On May 21, 1861, having blessed his dear Oblates for the last time, he made a final recommendation to them that they should practice charity among themselves and zeal for the salvation of souls. The aged bishop then breathed his last while those present were finishing the recitation of the Salve Regina. He had been in coma during the preceding days but had regained consciousness as the final hour approached. That had been his wish that was his prayer: “How I wish to be aware of dying so that I can accept the will of God.” Indeed, he had frequently given instructions as follows: “If I should happen to doze and my condition becomes worse I beg of you to awaken me. I want to know that I am dying when the moment of death arrives.” The old worrier wished to be conscious for that supreme moment.
Two days before his death, our dear Father said to me: “I do not weep because I am going to die. No indeed, but I weep because I am leaving people who are dear to me. You must be aware that the good God has given me a heart with immense capacity and that He has allowed me to love all of you immensely with that heart. When I am no longer with you, there will be somebody who will take my place in authority, someone who will appreciate you according to your merits, but who will never love you as I have loved you.”
For an Oblate this house reminds us of the Founder who God has given us. The man who wasn’t the chief commander or the boss but who has been always our father. When he was still alive he cared for the Oblates, he kept exchanging letters with them. He shared their joys and problems. We believe that the blessing he gave us from this house while on his deathbed was just a promise of his continuous intersession form heaven.
Unfortunately the house isn't owned by the Church any more. Not it is the office the Marseille Police headquarters. However police officers still say that they work in the bishop's house.
The Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde which is visited by millions each year who admire the building and the view over the city brings to us, Oblates, another memory.
Very soon after Eugene de Mazenod became a bishop he was begged by a Canadian bishop to send some of the Oblates to Canada. The Bishop of Montreal came to find missionaries to work in the vast mission fields of North America, amongst the Red Indian tribes in Canadian territory. By good fortune Bishop Bourget’s search brought him to Bishop de Mazenod. The Canadian Bishop explained his need to the French Bishop.
“Missionaries to work amongst the Indian population?” Bishop de Mazenod said. “But the foreign missions were not in our plans; and besides, I have so few priests whom I could send as Missionaries . . .”
“And I have so many, both white and Indian, who are poor and destitute in soul and body; so many crying out to hear the word of God . . .”
It was the appeal which Eugene de Mazenod had never been able to resist. Once again, as in those days amidst the poor of Aix a quarter of a century before, the call had come to him from the forgotten men of the world; and once again he remembered his long-ago resolution to bring the Gospel to the poor.
That day he put Bishop Bourget’s request before his Oblates. Of the forty-five members of the congregation every one volunteered. But six only were chosen. They embarked on 22nd October, a group of four Fathers and two Brothers. The work which began in that October of 1841 with such few numbers soon began to assume larger proportions.
Four years later, the Oblates left for Western Canada and the diocese of Saint Boniface and immediately launched into their ministry to the Amerindians. In a few years they spread out over the entire expanse of the prairies and the polar region in search of tribes which were still nomadic. In 1847, two new foundations were undertaken: one in the United States on the Pacific Coast and the other in Jaffna in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. In 1848, a mission was established in Algeria, a mission for which the Founder had been offering his services since 1832. In 1851, the failure of the mission in Algeria made it possible to accept a mission in Natal. In the meantime, from 1849 on, the Oblates had forged on to the Mexican border and three years later established themselves in Texas. A simple listing of the foundations is totally inadequate to reflect the daring that was called for here when we take into consideration the difficulties presented in travel and cultural integration as well as the tasks rapidly assumed in ever more extensive territories.
At the death of the Founder in 1861, the Oblates would have over four hundred members; they would be found on various continents.
Saint Eugene was very proud of his Oblates going overseas to preach the Gospel however he suffered a lot when the time was coming to farewell them. He found the separation most painful. Every time when the missionaries embarked a ship Eugene would climb the hill of Notre Dame de la Garde to watch the departing vessel as long as possible. As the ship was sailing away Eugene would pray for his spiritual sons and he would keep blessing them from the distance. Today in front of the Basilica overlooking the port of Marseille there is a statue of Mary holding in her arms the lifeless body of her son. It was erected to acknowledge the missionaries of foreign land who went there from Marseille. As I was standing on the platform supporting the statue and looking at the magnificent view of the port and the sea I meditated how well this monument expresses the feeling of St Eugene de Mazenod. He suffered when his Oblates were leaving like Mary who suffered at the death of her Son. However Eugene embraced Mary’s belief that it was necessary for the salvation of people.
This Sunday is Mission Sunday, let us pray for the Missionaries as we are looking at the photos recalling such a turning point in the life of the Oblates. Let's also remember that 22 of October is the anniversary of the departure of the first group of the Oblates for the foreign missions.
A little girl needed 100 dollars to get a thing she was dreaming about. A few weeks before Christmas she was praying every day to get the money. When Christmas came she counted the money but she had only 5 dollars. He brother started laughing at her saying: “Looks like your Jesus didn’t listen to your prayers.” The little girls answered: “He has listened but he said No.”
Sisters and Brothers! What happened to the girls happens to us too. We ask and sometimes we don’t get from God what we asks for, because God like a good parent gives us what we need not what we want to. However this Sunday which in the Catholic Church is called Mission Sunday we a can find a cue what Jesus for sure will grant us in response to our prayer. Toda’s Gospel reveals to us what is important to Jesus, what makes him happy. The last sentence of the Gospel this Sunday, which is a question, is this: “When the Son on Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” We know that one day Jesus will return and thinking of the day Our Lord asks: “Will I find faith on earth when I come?” Look, this question tells us what is important to Jesus – finding faith in
people. Well, you may answer this question today saying: “In our town Jesus will find faith. We believe in him, we love him, we follow him. Our presence at this Eucharist is prove of that.”
My dear Catholics! Let me ask you another question then: “Can you rest on your laurels?” To make your life easier I will give you and answer: “You cannot do that!” Jesus wants to find faith not only in your town but in every city, town, village, settlement or dwelling, in the bush, on tiny islands, in the desert. Everywhere where people live Jesus desires to find faith. This Mission Sunday challenges us to move beyond the boundaries of towns in order to makes Jesus’ dream come true.
The Church has been always sending missionaries to preach Jesus but their work isn’t limited to what they do, it is rather team work. What do I mean? To understand that let’s look at the first reading of this Mass. People of Israel are in trouble. They need to fight their enemies. It is more than a battle for life or death but it is a battle for faith. Losing the battle they paganism will be forced upon them. So the people go to fight but Moses goes on the top of a hill, puts his arms up toward the heaven and prays. Now we can see a mysterious thing happens. We see that when Moses’ arms are up, the people of Israel are winning but when his arms goes down the enemies starts winning. It shows a mysterious connection between Moses praying on the mountain and the people down there battling the enemy army. That’s team work. On this Mission Sunday we are reminded that our missionaries aren’t lone battlers but there is a mysterious connection between those men and woman who went to foreign lands to spread the Good News and you from this town. By your prayers and sacrifices you do contribute to spreading of the true faith. Ever since I left Poland I have had no doubts how much strength I got, how many graces went through my ministry because of those who pray for me. Some years ago I was touched by people from my hometown who said to me: “We’ve got a prayer system for you. When we watch TV and there is weather forecast for Australia it is a reminder for us to pray for you.” I am not surprised seeing so many miracles in my Oblate-priestly ministry because of the prayers of those people. As I said at the beginning it is a prayer that Jesus will always grant because he wants to find faith in the people.
To finish this homily I would like to tell you about a sacred place that is not far from your town. You know the big convent of the nuns. When I was leaving for Australia a sister who worked in the same parish where I was an assistant priest said to me: “Father Daniel I promise I will always pray for you and for the people you will serve in Australia.” A couple years later she died of cancer. She was 50. In the convent there is a cemetery where she is buried. It is my sacred place. It draws me like a magnet because I know that she kept praying for me and I believe that she still prays for me from heaven. Because of people such as those I always say that missions are team work. Today I would like to challenge you to get involved. Even if you never go to foreign countries to preach the Gospel, right from here, from your town you can establish a connection with our missionaries by praying for them. This town of yours can be like the mountain from the first reading where Moses prayed. Please, I beg you, pray for the missionaries and for the people whom they minister.
When Eugene de Mazenod was appointed bishop of Marseille he undertook a couple of significant building projects. The first was the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde. The first place of worship built on the top of the hill overlooking the city was built in 1214. Over centuries it became a shrine in honor of Our Lady whom the people of Marseille called “Good Mother” In 1830 the Oblates were asked to provide pastoral care for the pilgrims climbing the hill to pray to the Blessed Virgin. 10 years later Bishop Eugene de Mazenod appointed Fr Jean Bernard as chaplain. Soon he was known as “priest of the Good Mother” An affable and devoted man, a good preacher, often in demand in the parishes of the city, Father attracted pilgrims to Notre-Dame de la Garde, where he spent the morning for confessions and Mass. Full of initiative and daring, he worked at the same time for the material restoration of the chapel. Finally, Fr. Bernard conceived the project of a new church. This initiative pleased Bishop de Mazenod who supported it wholeheartedly. On September 11, 1853, the foundation stone was laid by Bishop de Mazenod in the presence of about a hundred thousand pilgrims. Unfortunately Bishop Eugene didn’t live to see the completion of the Basilica. The only part that he saw was the crypt he blest and where he celebrated Mass. Four years after Eugene’s death the Basilica was completed and blessed by Eugene’s successor to the See of Marseille.
Saint Eugene who loved the Virgin Mary so much was dreaming that the church dedicated to her was to be a not-to-miss-point of the city. Today we can
appreciate his dream. The Basilica with a huge statue of Mary with the Child is not only the most recognizable feature of Marseille but it keeps reminding the citizens and the visitors of Mary who is offering her Son Jesus Christ to us all. In 1854, Eugene declared: “I would have been really happy if after my death my heart were placed in the sanctuary of Notre-Dame de la Garde at the feet of our good Mother whose temple I have had the happiness of rebuilding...”
I found the place very homely and prayerful. Probably that nothing extraordinary as we Oblates have a strong attachment to Mary. Each place dedicated to her becomes like our home. If she is our Mother and we are her children can it be different?
In 1903 the Oblates shared the same fate of all the other Religious Orders in France as they were expelled from the country. Then they had to leave the shrine built by their Founder and where they served for many years. They have never returned to look after the Basilica. Before they had to leave they placed a little plaque in the Shrine. It says: "To Our Good Mother, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Marseille. The Guardians of the Shrine of Notre Dame de la Garde 1831-1903" This simple plaque tells a lot about their broken hearts as they were forced to leave this church. Even if we are not the guardian of the building but our hearts guard the love we have for the Virgin Mary.
Visiting the Basilica I lit a candle for all the people who have asked me for prayer and who are close to my heart. The big candle is for you
The church of the Accoules brings back lots of memories that we Oblates treasure as they take us to the beginnings of our Missionary Congregation. That’s why the church building isn’t simply a monument of the past but it reminds us of the faith journey of those first Oblates and the people of Marseille who were reason for the Oblates to set out on that journey. I have already mentioned that the church of the Accoules is a unique shrine as it was founded as the fruit of the Mission activities done by the Oblates in 1820. The sermons, talks, Catechism lessons and various services helped the people to rediscover who Jesus is. They kept coming to this place there the Mission cross was erected to revitalize what they experienced during the Mission. However to feel the spirit of those early days of the Oblate Order one needs to see more than just the church complex there. It is most crucial to walk the narrow streets of the area that surrounds the church – the Panier suburb. In this area we find the first Oblates. It is a living area where races intervene and communicate with each other, an area where people are more important than monument. It is here that Saint Eugene de Mazenod opens his heart to us and reveals his passionate love for humanity, where he was fascinated by the image of God I men and women.
This part of Marseille was built on the cliff of the mills and is the one of the oldest parts of Marseille. Here we find some of the remains of the ancient city. At the time of St Eugene it was inhabited by people who had very little. They also spoke Provencal dialect that limited their opportunities.
I was moved walking the narrow streets that always descend or ascend as I remembered that the same streets were walked by our first Oblates who served faithfully the people here. The laundry hanging from the windows isn’t different to what those Oblates saw. I reflected on Fr Mye with his old torn soutane and the pockets filled with lollies for the street children whom he met. There was also Fr Albini who worked with the Italian migrants who later died in Corsica, there was Fr Suzanne who was very close to St Eugene. Fr Suzanne’s commitment to Christ was as evident as his hard working. He didn’t spare himself that led to his death at the age of 30. Even extremely exhausted he was still available to the people of the Panier area. Fr Albini and Suzanne were regarded by the poor here as saints. St Eugene himself was seen here very often, as a priest and later as a bishop. The poor he considered his family and was always walking the narrow streets and visiting those who struggled to meet ends here.
Maybe the area doesn't look magnificent but I did feel like stepping into a holy temple as it was marked by the ministry of our First Fathers and it was also marked by the presence of the Lord who was brining hope and faith into the people of the Panier area of Marseille. I felt so unworthy to walk this Holy Ground of the Oblate beginnings.
Some photos of the Panier area where our First Oblates ministered to the poor
One of the ministries dear to the Oblates here was the old “Charite”. Today it is the museum of Oriental antiquities. In the time of St Eugene it was the city hospital. It was the biggest in France at that time. However it wasn’t a private clinic but the building was intended to receive all the homeless of the city and surroundings. When the Oblates came to Marseille they became chaplains to the hospital and they encouraged the lay people to be involved as well in the works of charity. St Eugene was seen here very often administering the Last Rites to the dying or coming as a bishop to give the sacrament of Confirmation to the poor being treated here.
Fr Daniel OMI
An Oblate Priest