When he came to Marseilles on June 20, 1841 he met the bishop with the heart of St Paul’s – Eugene de Mazenod. According to the chronicles it took Bishop Eugene de Mazenod and his Oblates thirty two hours to discern the request and to say yes to it. The support they gave to the new chapter in the history of the Oblate Congregation appears even more powerful as all of them volunteered to leave their homeland and go overseas knowing that most likely they would never be able to return home. Within three months six Oblates were ready to go. They left for Canada on September 28, 1841.
Today on the Fest-day of the Conversion of St Paul, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate contemplate the day 200 years ago when Fr Eugene de Mazenod and two other priests began living in community. Those three priests, who were to be joined within weeks by three more, had a strong desire to evangelize the countryside of Provence in the Southern France. By God’s grace the beginning of their evangelizing endeavors was marked by the day dedicated to the Great Apostle of the Nations – St Paul. Before they even went out to evangelize the poor they established in the midst of the Aix Diocese a community of missionaries passionate about evangelization. A few months earlier Eugene was writing: “Ah! If we could form a nucleus, there would soon cluster round it the most zealous elements in the diocese.” This dream came true on January 25, 1816 when the three first evangelizers formed such a nucleus, a community passionate about evangelization. What happened that day 200 years ago is a profound commentary to the Word of God which the Church proclaims on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. We read that Paul was travelling to Damascus to imprison the Christians there. Before he reached the city Jesus Christ appeared to him saying: “I am Jesus the Nazarene and you are persecuting me.” By those words Jesus showed Paul that by persecuting the Christians he was persecuting him. After that apparition Paul was left blind. Taken to the city of Damascus he had another visit, this time from a Christian man called Ananias who prayed for him and healed his blindness. It is a very profound dynamic captured in the Bible. The last person Paul saw before going blind was Jesus and the first person he saw after having his sight restored was a person from the local Church community. For the Apostle it was a lifelong lesson: Jesus and the Church are inseparable. We could summarize it in the saying: “Every time I think of Jesus I would like to think of the Church and every time I think of the Church I would like to think of Jesus.” What followed those events in Damascus was the life totally committed to evangelization. However what is overlooked is that St Paul after his conversion was a community person. He wasn’t a lonely ranger traveling the world and giving inspiring talks. On the contrary on his evangelizing travels we always meet him travelling with other Christians. Wherever he had arrived the people he spoke to could also experience first-hand what the Church is all about by observing Paul and his companions in their mutual support, fraternal love, humble cooperation and their shared passion for spreading of the Gospel.
The first day of the Oblate Congregation, which happened on the Feast day of St Paul’s Conversion, was more than a coincidence. It was a Divine plan for their spiritual formation and the formation of their followers. What St Eugene expressed as having a nucleus in their diocese. St Eugene did have the heart of St Paul because for him Jesus Christ and the Church went together. He didn’t simply want to educate the ignorant Catholic in the Southern France but he wanted to give them a taste of what the Church is all about by sending them always a community of missionaries, not a single missionary. In this way those who met the Oblates could also experience first-hand what the Church is all about by observing Eugene and his spiritual sons in their mutual support, fraternal love, humble cooperation and their shared passion for spreading of the Gospel.
In 1841 when they were discerning going to Canada they were only a small Congregation, as the person who sent Bishop Ignace Bourget noticed. There were only forty priests, six scholastics and eight brothers. Sending overseas six men from that small and already overworked group was a sign of their courage and passion for evangelization. That year they were celebrating Twenty-fifth Anniversary of their Congregation and still after 25 years their passion for evangelization was burning in their hearts strongly. The only mistake the person who sent Bishop Bourget to Marseilles made was that there was not a one man with the heart of St Paul. There were 54 hearts as big as the heart of St Paul, as big as the world they wanted to bring into the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.
Fifteen years after that providential day of January 25, 1816, when St Eugene de Mazenod and two other priests established the first community of missionaries, the nucleus Eugene was dreaming to give to the Church he loved so much, he wrote to the Novice Master, who was in charge if introducing the freshmen to the Oblate Congregation, regarding that memorable day. In this way St Eugene wanted to feed the hearts and minds of the young men who were beginning their journey to become Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate with the same sentiments which invigorated that first community established in 1816. He wrote it on the night of January 24, 1816:
Tomorrow I celebrate the anniversary of the day, I left my mother’s house to go and set up house at the Mission. Father Tempier had taken possession of it some days before. Our lodging had none of the splendour of the mansion at Billens, and whatever deprivations you may be subject to, ours were greater still. My camp-bed was placed in the small passageway which leads to the library: it was then a large room used as a bedroom for Father Tempier and for one other whose name we no longer mention amongst us. It was also our community room. One lamp was all our lighting and, when it was time for bed, it was placed in the doorway to give light to all three of us.
The table that adorned our refectory was one plank laid alongside another, on top of two old barrels. We have never enjoyed the blessing of such poverty since the time we took the vow. Without question, it was a foreshadowing of the state of perfection that we now live so imperfectly…. I assure you we lost none of our merriment; on the contrary, as this new way of life was in quite striking contrast with that we had just left, we often found ourselves having a hearty laugh over it. I owed this tribute to the memory of our first day of common life. How happy I would be to live it now with you!