In this present period of the beginning of the Third Millennium we wish to turn in a special way to her (Mary) the one who in the night of the Advent expectation began to shine like a true Morning Star, for just as this star, together with the dawn precedes the rising of the sun, so Mary from the time of her Immaculate Conception preceded the coming of the Saviour Her presence in the midst of Israel a presence so discreet as to pass almost unnoticed by the eyes of her contemporaries shone very clearly before the Eternal One who had associated the hidden daughter of Zion with the plan of salvation embracing the whole history of humanity. [Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Mater No. 3]
From the outset Colin’s projects were capable of implementation only by a plurality of branches and an association of lay people with no further boundaries than the mercy and compassion of Mary extends the field of vision to the very limits of the Church itself. “the Society of Mary” accepts to forget itself, to regard itself as the catalyst of a Christian community whose direction is not in its hands and to bind its fate entirely to that of a people of God still in the course of gestation with all the risks and hopes which were present in the Cenacle on that Pentecost morn. [J. Coste, “Allocution to XXIV General Chapter of SM”, 1977 (2nd last paragraph)].
Whenever a Marist abandons the stronghold of one who owns the truth and becomes instead defenseless as one who knows he (or she) must disappear in order to allow God to take over then he understands how Mary is present in Colins vision of the Church and its mission. Thanks to her, something stirs in the heart of the apostle, a certain image of the Church emerges which prefigures the Church of the last days. In a sense, yes, the Church begins again, the Church which from its birth at Pentecost is less concerned with lasting forever than with starting again each morning humbly, around the Lords supper with Peter and the Apostles awaiting the coming of the Spirit persevering in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and the women. [J. Coste, Lecture at Saint Louis de France Castre, 7 February 1984 (concluding words)].
Historical Committees of the Marist Fathers and Marist Sisters eds, Correspondence of Mother Saint Joseph, Foundress of the Marist
Coste, J. ed., A Founder Speaks, Spiritual Talks of Jean-Claude Colin. (Rome 1975)
Girard, C. ed., Lay Marists: Anthology of Historical Sources. (Rome 1993)
Coste, J. and Lessard, G. eds., Origines Maristes 4 Volumes. (Rome 1960-1967)
Let us begin with two true stories of Marist laity in action. One day, after visiting a very ill friend with Jenny (an Anglican lay Marist), we were stuck in a hospital lift with an unknown man. Suddenly he spoke up and said, I have nothing to live for! I am thinking of killing myself! Jenny began to speak to him very gently, in a tender and loving way. She shared his darkness, his great sadness, and made herself one with him. Then, as he became more peaceful, she spoke of Christ, of his suffering on the Cross to redeem us all because of his immense love for us, and she ended with a note of hope.
Suddenly the lift started up again. The man said goodbye and thanked us. But when we went into the cafeteria for a cup of coffee, he came back. You have helped me so much, he said. I now have the courage to go on. Then he disappeared.
Jenny turned to me and said, Weve just met Jesus. I was struck to my very depths at her faith, her understanding of how that man was the wounded, desolate Christ crying out, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me!
Somehow Jenny had become Marys hidden presence at Calvary, giving birth to the Church in pain, as Colin said in a letter from Rome to Jeanne-Marie
Be courageous in the midst of your difficulties; we must give birth to the Society in pain, just as our Blessed Mother gave birth at the foot of the Cross to us, her adopted children.
The second story is about a hard-working lay Marist family living in the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Dad worked on a wharf on Sydney Harbour, Mum was a housewife with three sons and a daughter to care for. The youngest son, Joseph, was severely handicapped. They had opened their home and their hearts to begin the first core group in Sydney of Faith and Light (Jean Vanier groups supporting the intellectually disabled, their families and friends). Here the little ecumenical group of lay Marists, a Marist brother and a Marist sister, a diocesan priest and people of other Christian denominations met to pray, support one another and plan for the monthly fiesta celebrations, but also to dream of forming a LArche community in Merrylands which did come into being later. Every month they celebrated the Eucharist at the Czechoslovakian church, St Raphaels, because it had easy wheelchair access.
On this particular evening, Josephs mother said to me, I am in despair. I want to give up. They have moved our chaplain for the handicapped to another post. What hope have we? Because of Josephs handicaps, a priest had told her, He will never be able to receive Holy Communion! (He had been baptised and confirmed). A priest they did not know said the Mass that evening the one and only time he said it there and when it came to Communion, he said, Remain in your places, I will bring you Communion. (Normally, we assisted the handicapped and those in wheelchairs to go up to the priest.) Joseph, sitting at the end of the pew, put out his tongue when the priest reached him, and Father gave him Holy Communion. Joseph swallowed the Host no trouble. The congregation gasped! The priest had no idea what had happened, but went on. Previously I had noticed Josephs longing eyes as he watched everyone going up to receive.
Anyway, after Mass, when we explained what had happened, Father said, As far as I am concerned, Joseph can receive any time. He really understands. His mothers joy and ours knew no bounds. We felt it was a miracle, a sign that God was with us in Faith and Light and our hopes for a LArche community.
The aftermath? The next Sunday Joseph went to the parish church and, when Communion time came, with his mother, he went up, limping, (he has spasticity in his limbs) and received Communion. He never has any problem swallowing the Host, despite great difficulty eating and drinking at all other times! Joseph is now 40 and a full-time member of the LArche community in his suburb!! This is another example of Marys new Church going out as true instruments of Divine mercy to the handicapped, often the most forgotten and hidden people and their families. The lay Marists disappear into the parish and wider ministries, into the Church, and are open to all, excluding none.
Now I will take the three key documents expressing Colins vision, place them in context, and attempt to write a reflective commentary on each by relating them, where possible, to the present and the future. I will conclude with another true story of lay Marists in action. Hopefully, this will also exemplify the four principles for action which Frank McKay SM speaks of in The Marist Laity Finding the Way Envisaged by Father Colin (Maristica 4, Chapter 3) and will throw some light on the spreading of Marys spirit throughout the world according to the Founders Marian Vision of Church. The four principles are:
The Marist laity are a manifestation of the intrinsic dynamism of the Society and co-extensive with it.
The Marist laity are seen primarily as evangelising. Today this evangelising should be directed to the inactive in their faith and to unbelievers. The “just” will be evangelisers.
The scope of the Marist laity is as wide as the world, so a truly evangelising movement must be ecumenical. (I would add, open to and in dialogue with non-Christian religions and so-called unbelievers agnostics, atheists, etc).
Marist laity are to be seen as an initiative of the whole Marist family. 1 Colin. Letters to Chavoin, 14 December 1833, CMJ, doc. 9, 4.