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Living in the spirit's fire: Saint Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Saints are flesh-and-blood signposts pointing the way to heaven. Their lives are living witnesses to the power and imagination of God's grace in human history. Saints have an almost whimsical way of appearing at just the right time, when it is darkest all around and the light is seemingly unable to penetrate the encircling gloom. Saints are God's special gifts to the Church, and it is difficult to imagine the church without them. Their lives, always a bundle of puzzling contradictions, are a special benediction to every generation of the faithful, regardless of time or place, and an invitation to become members of the communion of saints, the goal and hope of all Christians.

Saint Eugene de Mazenod is no exception to the divine dispensation of saints among us. Indeed, he fits it quite beautifully. He once wrote: "The Gospel must be taught to all, and in an understandable way." This was his motto when he became a priest. It was simple and straightforward, yet radical for his times, and certainly novel for someone of his social standing. Compassion, charity, common sense, loyalty to the Church and a fierce love of God's people, no matter where he found them, drove him to turn his complacent world upside down. He challenged the ecclesiastical status quo and did great and lasting things for the kingdom of God here on earth, despite his "hair-trigger temper" and a personality that was by nature authoritarian, impulsive and imprudent.

Mazenod was no plaster saint, no sweet and sickly character dripping easy piety. He was all mortar and cement, yet very human in his many faults and foibles. Deeply flawed, especially in his emotions, he sought and found perfection and inner peace by submitting to the will of God and giving himself totally to the poor. In the classic Catholic tradition, he yearned for the transcendent and at the same time looked for Christ in every face he saw. His life as a priest, a religious and a bishop was ruled by humility and a willingness to forgive.

Political/social upheavals

Born in 1782, Mazenod was the son of Charles-Antoine de Mazenod, a nobleman in the town of Aix, and Marie-Rose Joannis, a member of a rich bourgeois family. Their marriage was a terrible mismatch and ended in divorce. It was only one of many disasters to befall Mazenod. He lived through the French Revolution, which wiped out his family's fortune; spent twelve years in exile in Turin, Venice, Naples, and Palermo; endured the anti-clerical regime of Napoleon; witnessed the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, the July Revolution of 1830, the Revolution of 1848, the reign of Napoleon III, and the beginnings of the industrial revolution in France.

Political chaos, urban poverty, social confusion, an enfeebled Church and the destruction of more than one generation at the altar of militarism formed the backdrop to his life. In religion, the implosive forces of Jansenism (moral rigorism) and Gallicanism (nationalism) had infiltrated nearly every corner of Church administration in France, while agnostic fatalism was the prevailing social theory.

But Mazenod rose above his times. He was able to transform his community and leave a lasting spiritual legacy in his native France as well as many far-flung parts of the world.

Mazenod was willing to open up his heart and mind to the call of God's grace at those very junctures in his life when matters appeared to be hopeless. In exile he was fortunate to have studied under Don Bartolo Zinelli, a wise and holy priest, and to have read The Jesuit Relations about missionaries going off to the New World. After his return to France and five years of living like a dandy--extravagant, venal and selfish to the core--he underwent an intense conversion experience, which lasted to the day he died, at a Good Friday service in 1807. The immediate result was his decision to become a priest. It was met by a litany of objections from his family and friends. It was as if he had betrayed his class, but he persisted in following his vocation. He studied theology and did works of charity at St. Sulpice in Paris and was ordained to the priesthood on 21 December 1811.

Mazenod felt his mission was to preach and administer the sacraments to the most abandoned people of Provence: artisans, servants and farmers, peasants, the urban poor, and especially the prisoners. All these people had been unchurched since the revolution. They were lost and living in ignorance of the Gospel.

Undaunted, Mazenod plunged into parochial life, but he quickly realized that he could not carry this enormous cross by himself. In five years' time, he had established his society, and in another two, he had written the first Rule. His little band swept out into the countryside, preaching missions and making home visits, a stroke of spiritual genius on Mazenod's part. The results were astonishing. Conversions abounded; people returned to the sacraments; parishes were revived. Mazenod introduced the moral theology of St. Alphonsus di Liguori to his confreres and instilled in them an authentic spiritual life for missionary work. The Missionaries of Provence became the Oblates of St. Charles and finally the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Against enormous odds, Pope Leo XII granted papal approval on 17 February 1826.

The period from 1826 to 1836 was a time of trial for Mazenod. Many novices did not persevere in their vocation. Training was erratic. There were fights with the diocesan clergy of Aix. To compound matters, Mazenod was chosen by his uncle the Bishop of Marseilles to succeed him, but the government was intent on suppressing the diocese altogether. Mazenod was ordained the Bishop of Icosia, in partibus infidelium, in 1832, but it took five years for him to gain control of Marseilles and prevail upon Paris not to suppress his See.

Mazenod was a gifted man. He took upon himself the management of a fledgling religious community (by 1841, the Oblates were already in Canada) and the spiritual and material restoration of an ancient French diocese. He succeeded brilliantly in both cases. By the time he died in 1861, he was something of a local legend. The women fishmongers at the market loved him; the rich respected him; the poor could count on his presence. He founded numerous societies; wrote pastoral letters on North Africa, the Oxford Movement, the Carlist Wars in Spain and the Irish famine; and was always ready to leave his palace and walk the back streets of the poorest neighbourhoods, often giving the Last Rites to some wretched soul.

Father Hubenig, the author and himself an Oblate, has written a spiritual biography of Mazenod. It is a loving and careful portrait of a psychologically complex person, who although he was a product of late eighteenth century France and flourished in a world quite different from ours, still remains abundantly relevant to the contemporary Church. Hubenig is honest in his criticisms of Mazenod and sheds considerable light on the saint's spirituality. He makes excellent use of Mazenod's extensive correspondence and private journals, giving the reader many opportunities to hear him speak from the heart. His voice is wonderfully authentic.

There are problems with this biography, however, and the reader should be aware of them. The major one lies with Hubenig's conception of "spiritual" in spiritual biography and his letting it overtake the project. One gets used to the numerous theological asides that appear throughout the book and even sees the necessity of them. But, by the end, the book is more a theological treatise than a biography. What began as a promising story of a remarkable man loses its conceptual moorings midway and is finally swallowed up by a final chapter on the history and meaning of the Immaculate Conception! Hubenig simply lost his way. Consequently, many things are missing, such as a detailed examination of Mazenod's final years, including any mention of his exact date of death, a summary of his accomplishments and failures, and a look at the dynamism of the Oblates while the founder was still alive.

Also, the book lacks an index, which is inexcusable, and it has footnotes which do not match the entries in the bibliography. The author makes several apocryphal stories look like historical facts, and he is too anxious to prove that Mazenod was not a plaster saint.

Even with all this in mind, any reader could still profit handsomely from Hubenig's biography. Thoroughly researched and generally well written, it opens many windows, big and small, on the life and times of a truly great saint.
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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