The refounding

   - of the Society of Mary

   - through the rediscovery

   - of our mission

By Father John Thornhill sm

“as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length' (Mk 6:34)

The papal brief which established the Society of Mary a hundred and fifty years ago was a call to mission, a call to share in the Saviour's concern for God's people in their need. Surely there can be no better way of celebrating this occasion than by owning again the mission to which the first Marists understood themselves to be called.

One of the remarkable things that are taking place in Christian awareness today is the way in which we are being forced to look beyond familiar categories and to own again the elemental realities of Christian faith and life. One of the things that we are rediscovering is the importance of celebration, as an essential element of our human and Christian existence. When we celebrate an event or an occasion, we enter together into the deeper reality of our life: to know its wonder, its joy, its inspiration, and its challenges: Because it is a meet-ing with the deeper realities of life, a celebration always has an undercurrent of profound seriousness, even a margin of pathos. I am profoundly conscious of this as I try to find words appropriate to this Marist celebration.

What is the reality we are owning together as we celebrate the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Society of Mary? As I try to find an answer to this question, there comes to mind the contrast between this moment and that of our first Provincial Assembly ten years ago. I vividly remember the anxious faces that made up the audience on that occasion. We knew that we were experiencing the beginnings of a period of crisis and transformation in the Church at large and in the Society of Mary. There was no turning back; but we were uncertain of the way forward, and even found it hard to be trusting of each other as we faced the important decisions which lay ahead. Today, the atmosphere of the province is very different. We would be foolish if we did not recognize the seriousness of the challenges which we face; but we face the future as a group which is much more trusting of each other and which has real grounds for that hope without which we can have no future.

This is not something confined to our own province. In reporting on the recent General Chapter, I noted that it evidenced a similar development in other parts of the Society. As I said then, I believe that the key to this development is the rediscovery of the Society's particular mission. I believe that many of the Society's problems and shortcomings were associated with a loss of that clear sense of mission in the mid-nineteenth century. Today we are in a position as never before to appreciate what has taken place in the history of our Society, and in particular to understand the way in which our perception of our mission has changed in the course of that history.

The beginnings of our Society during the generalate of Jean-Claude Colin were truly astounding. When he was elected Superior General, in 1836, the Society of Mary numbered twenty religious; when he resigned eighteen years later it numbered two hundred and fifty eight. During that time he founded twenty seven houses, including four houses of formation, twelve residences for missioners, six colleges, three seminaries (in addition to the one already estab-lished at Belley). On top of this, Cohn sent the best of his men to Oceania: fif-teen successive groups left during his generalate, seventy four priests, twenty six Marist Brothers and seventeen Coadjutor Brothers.

We shall not understand this amazing vitality if we do not appreciate the zeal for the mission of the Society of Mary which inspired Colin and which he communicated to those who joined the new foundation, many of them priests al-ready established in the ranks of the diocesan clergy. These men did not join the Marists because they were attracted to its spirituality, as something which could exist independently of the apostolate in which they were to become engaged. They were infected by a zeal which had its origins in the vision of the youthful seminarians who planned the foundation of the Society concerned to come to the assistance of God's people, neglected during the upheaval of the Revolution and now in urgent need of an effective pastoral presence. The challenge of the times called for a bold new venture. The Church's old ways would not meet the real needs of the people. They wanted to bring God and his mercy to these people, the Good News of Jesus Christ in all its simplicity and power. It was in the soil of this pastoral concern that the Marist charism was engendered: if it was to be done under Mary's name gradually they understood that it must be done in her way.

In my novitiate days, when I first read the text of Gregory XVI's brief, Omnium gentium sales, its insistent and several times repeated call to a mission to the ends of the earth seemed little more than appropriate rhetoric for a papal document. Today I recognize far more clearly the way in which the first Marists must have received that document as a providential response to their aspirations To undertake a great mission for the renewal and extension of God’s church.

My earlier blind spot was symptomatic of something very important which I want to explore further.

It is well known that institutions pass through distinct phases of develop-ment. They have their beginnings in a moment of creativity and enthusiasm. Having found a way to respond to real needs, they draw generous spirits to throw in their lot with them and the project grows rapidly. The amazing growth of the Society under the leadership of Jean-Claude Colin belongs to such a mo-ment. But, by a strange irony, success brings its own peculiar hazards. As the achievement of the group becomes concrete and assumes institutional forms, there is a real danger that more and more energy will be absorbed in maintain-ing the institution itself: the original vision fades and may well be lost. The group easily becomes so dazzled by its success that it gives more and more of its efforts to building up and maintaining the 'empire' it has created.

The Society of Mary was unfortunate is this regard. Before we had reached an achievement which could really be called dazzling, Father Julien Favre suc-ceeded Father Colin as Superior General. A practical man, and eager to tidy up the institutional details of the Society to facilitate his dealings with Church authorities, he pushed us very early into this second phase. The anguish of the Founder, as he recognized the way in which the Society's essential mission and spirit was being compromised, is well known. In the Chapter of 1866, he called the Society back to its original inspiration. Favre's Constitutions were with-drawn and Colin's Constitutions, adopted in 1872, gave expression once more to the true ideals of the Society. But the trend was never effectively reversed. The Society of later decades never recovered the real sense of mission which had been the source of its abounding vitality. We did not see ourselves as having been called into existence to make a peculiar contribution to the Church's life; rather we saw ourselves as doing what many others were doing, being helped by our Marist way to do it more effectively.

There is a subtle difference here, but it is of capital importance in the his-tory we have shared. It was this loss of a conviction that Marists have a distinctive mission in the Church, called to make their own contribution to the life of the whole Church, that prevented the Society of Mary during its subsequent development from fulfilling the immense promise of its beginnings.

Today we are recovering that sense of mission. This is a quite recent development, which began to make itself felt between the last two Chapters and is still going on. When one compares the Constitutions texts prepared by these two Chapters one recognizes this recovery of a sense of mission.

Many Marists found inspiration in the statement of Marist identity set out in the first numbers of the draft Constitutions prepared by the 1977 Chapter. I know that text well, since I helped to draft it. Today I would recognize that it has a serious defect. It is too 'contemplative.' It does not issue with a proper urgency the Society's call to take up that mission which was essential to the creative moment of grace in which it has its origins.

The text of the 1985 Chapter, on the other hand, echoes a new sense of mission which is being awakened in Marists throughout the world. Let me quote from the early numbers of that text: 'Contemplating Mary in the mysteries of Nazareth and Pentecost and her role at the end of time, they come to share her zeal for her Son's mission in his struggle against evil, and to respond with promptness to the most urgent needs of God's people' (n. 8); '... they will help to renew the Church in her [Mary's] image, a servant and pilgrim Church' (n. 10); 'Attentive solely to the Lord, and aided by the prayer and example of Mary, they strive to become, in their Founder's words, ever more effective 'in-struments of divine mercy'' (n. 11); 'Their call is to be truly missionary... Marists are called to establish the Church where it does not exist and to renew existing communities... The Society is no longer true to its calling when it be-comes so caught up in particular works as to cease to be available for more urgent needs to which it may be called by its mission' (nn. 12 and 14).

This new awareness was voiced in the discussions of the recent Chapter in words which became a unifying theme for the Chapter's work, 'One Society with one mission: to renew the Church in the image of Mary.' Everything undertaken by our Society, whatever work the Church needs of us, must be carried out within the context of this one mission for which God has called us together.

Once we have recovered this conviction that the Society is being called to a united mission, once we have recognized the distinctive contribution we must make to the life of God's people, all the familiar elements of our Marist tradi-tion take on a new and inspiring depth of meaning. Brian Murray and I had the privilege of living with Jean Coste at the International Scholasticate, at the time when he was pioneering the recovery of our original Marist inspirations: ignoti et quasi occulti, the Nazareth ideal, and so forth. They were exciting days; but looking back, I realize that, without a sense of the Society's one mission that I am speaking of, I did not place these insights into their proper framework. I saw them as elements of a remarkable spirituality which would assist us in making our contribution to the Church's common apostolate. In those days, seminarians, diocesan and religious alike, found inspiration in Dom Chautard's work, The Soul of the Apostolate, with its emphasis upon the interior spirit and prayer that is essential to the carrying on of a genuine apostolic life. We easily fitted our new understanding of the Marist spirit into that framework.

What a new depth the themes of our Marist heritage display, when we recognize that, for Jean-Claude Colin and the first Marists, these themes only have meaning as aspects of that special mission to which the Society is called.

Each of us is a member of the Society because of Mary's 'gracious choice'; the Society exists because Mary wills it. This initiative of Mary is much more than a call to form a privileged brotherhood sharing in her spirit and outlook; it is the expression of that zeal for the coming of the Kingdom in which she is one with her Son, of her active presence in the struggles of the pilgrim Church as it ministers to the needs of humanity on the way to that King-dom.

We are to be 'instruments of divine mercy.' By truly identifying with God's concern for his people, 'harrassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd,' the Society of Mary recognizes the urgency of its mission to contribute to the Church's true renewal in the Gospel.

We are to be inspired by Mary's words, 'I supported the Church at its birth; I shall do so again at the end of time.' Called together under Mary's name, and inspired by her zeal, Marists are united in the task of 'building a new Church,' in which people may have what God really wants for them, and the clutter of human selfishness and folly will be cleared away.

We are to learn from her to be 'unknown and hidden in this world.' In the example and spirit of Mary Marists find a concrete expression of that simplicity which removes the need for display and self-importance which so easily renders a ministry ineffectual, and which is so contrary to Mary's spirit.

We are to place ourselves at Nazareth. There we can learn a complete availability to the Lord's desires for his people and become more responsive to the mysterious moments of God's grace and calling.

Marists are called to be 'one in mind and heart,' with Mary as 'first and perpetual Superior.' Like the first Christian community's, our life together must have its unity in the Gospel in all its purity, reproducing the qualities which radiated from the Church described in the Acts of the Apostles. United in this way in Mary's presence, our apostolic communities will 'do great things for God,' bringing renewal and life to those among whom they serve, as much by a sharing and modelling of unity and fellowship in the Gospel, as by what they do.

Our aim should be that the whole world become Marist. Our work will not be completed until we have shared with the whole Church the divinely simple way to renewal and life which Mary has shown us and which it is her desire to share with the Church, since the Church is called by God to model itself on her.

Early in the recent General Chapter, Bernard Ryan, the retiring Superior General, described the task of the Chapter and the Society at large in this moment of renewal, as one of 'refounding the Society of Mary.' It was a call which won a warm response from the Chapter. If the interpretation that has just been made of our history is sound, we can be grateful that God's providence makes it possible to own the full reality of that original foundation in a way which has not been possible since the Society passed out of its original creative phase. The key to this reappropriation, I am convinced, is the recognition that we are called to a single mission in the midst of the Church. That will be our unity and our strength. If we can own our heritage anew, there is no doubt that the Society will find a new beginning, and have a significant future in the Church of the coming age.

We will only find the fulness of this sense of mission, of course, if we are alive to the real needs of God's people today. This is not easy. The whole Church is in the midst of a crisis of reappraisal concerning these needs and the way they can be ministered to. The old ways are no longer enough. New ways of religious and priestly presence must be found, which will be effective in the distinctive new culture which has emerged in our day and caught the Church more or less unprepared. Our present situation has much in common with the situation of the French Church in which our Society made such a brave begin-ning, when the needs of God's people were great and the old ways could not meet those needs. It is not difficult to recognize how well attuned our Marist mission is to the most deeply felt needs of the men and the women we are called to serve in today's Church. Our age is in even greater need of what Marists have to give than early nineteenth century France. But this also presents new challenges. Numbers will be comparatively fewer, but the quality of our mission will be deepened by a clearer understanding of what our contribution must be, and by a true sharing of what we have with the rest of the Church, particularly the laity.

We are on the way. Some of you will have read the letter published recent-ly in the Melbourne Advocate, by a visitor to the formation community, who was impressed by the 'warmth, friendliness and peaceful approach,' the 'modesty and devotion to God' he found in sharing our hospitality and our Eucharist. 'The special qualities of these people,' he wrote, 'are precious yet easy to tap.' I mention it, not so much because I am proud of the Marist life of our community and the way it was so clearly recognized, as I certainly am, but because I see it as an example which I am sure has many parallels in the life and work of the province.

The community of the province and the world-wide Society must be 'one in mind and heart' in the conviction that we have something precious to share with the Church which is emerging in our times: 'One Society with one mission: to renew the Church in the image of Mary.'

The 'refounding of the Society' is a project in which we must all share, in the spirit of the appeal made to the members of the Society by the General Chapter in the final words of its Mission Statement : “The chapter makes a special appeal to our older confreres: The Society needs, more than ever, your constant fidelity and your hope. It appeals also to our younger confreres and those who are still fully active: The Society has confidence in the courageous initiatives you are taking in the service of God and of the men and women of our time. Be resourceful in bringing about adaptation and change.'

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19 May 2024

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