Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Marist Presence 1: Background

Marist Presence 1: Background

At the heart of presence is spirituality. The word “spirituality” is used here in a very specific sense: living relationships. All human beings live in four sets of relationships:

· with the “Absolute” – however we name that
· with oneself
· with other human beings and
· with events and things

To speak of Marist presence and therefore spirituality, is to speak of a specific way of relating with God, self, other people and the world.

This Marist way of being present does not stand alone. It is a work of the Holy Spirit and has its roots in the Catholic tradition. It emerged in France during the 19th century and has developed through the experience of many people living it in different personal, historical and cultural situations. The prime mover in its development was the French diocesan priest, Jean Claude Colin (1790-1875).

The French Revolution – along with its Reign of Terror – made for a tumultuous and dangerous environment when Fr Colin was born. His mother died in 1795 when Colin was four years old. She impressed on her children, in her final illness, that the only mother they had now would be Mary, the mother of Jesus. Colin’s father died three weeks after his wife.

Colin went to the major seminary of Saint-Irénée in Lyon in 1813. All the evidence would suggest that he was an intelligent, shy young man, intent on staying out of the limelight. However, in 1814 an older student, Jean-Claude Courveille, entered the Seminary and gave a new direction to Colin’s life.

Courveille, a charismatic individual, claimed to have “heard” Mary say: ‘I was the support of the new-born Church; I shall be also at the end of time’. Whatever the credibility of Courveille’s claim, it sparked a powerful resonance in Colin. He took this as a call to be present in and for the Church emerging from the Revolution and struggling with its place in the post-Enlightenment world. This way of being present would be modelled on Mary’s presence at Nazareth and in the early Church.

A number of other seminarians were also moved by Courveille’s “vision”. Twelve of them, led by Courveille and including Colin and St Marcellin Champagnat (1789-1840), gathered at the Marian shrine of Fourvière in Lyon on 23 July 1816 and vowed to form a congregation committed to this special way of being present in the Church and the world.

Later, after Courveille had dropped out of the movement and Colin had emerged as the leader, the vision began to take on a clearer shape, of men and women, religious, lay and clerical members. The following are the major Marist branches and the years when they were approved by Rome:

· Marist Fathers (Society of Mary) – 1836
· Marist Laity (Third Order) – 1850
· Marist Brothers, founded by St Marcellin Champagnat – 1863
· Marist Sisters, founded by Jeanne Marie Chavoin – 1884
· Marist Missionary Sisters, founded by Francoise Perroton – 1931.

Each of these groups had already begun long before they were approved by Rome. A number of other religious congregations and movements have sprung from that seminal moment at Fourvière. For example, St Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868) was a Marist priest who founded the Blessed Sacrament Congregation in Paris in 1856.

Marists – women and men, laity and religious and clerical – may be found today in many different parts of the world. Fr Jean Claude Colin is regarded as the Founder of the Marist project. The Marist way of being present, pioneered by Fr Colin and the first Marists, was certainly prophetic. He seems to have anticipated the vision and mood of Pope Francis: “There is a Marian ‘style’ to the Church’s work of evangelization. Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.” (Evangelii Gaudium, #288.)

On Jul 22, 1816, several deacons of St Irenaeus seminary in Lyon were ordained priest. They included Colin, Courveille and a youthful Marcellin Champagnat. Next day, Jul 23, those three joined nine other seminarians at the shrine Fourvière in Lyon. Fourvière is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom is attributed the salvation of the city of Lyon from the bubonic plague, the Black Death, that swept Europe in 1643. Each year on 8 December, Lyon thanks the Virgin for saving the city by lighting candles throughout the city, in what is called the Fête des Lumières or the Festival of Lights. The Virgin is also credited with saving the city a number of other times, such as from a Cholera epidemic in 1832, and from Prussian invasion in 1870.

Here, for centuries, Catholics had sought the intercession of Mary for their future dreams. The youthful group solemnly pledged to establish the Society of Mary as soon as they could. Those who worked for the next twenty years to carry out this promise were convinced that they were responding to a wish of the Mother of Mercy, which found expression for them in the following words: “I supported the Church at its birth; I shall do so again at the end of time” (Constitutions of the Society of Mary, n. 2).

The following is an English translation of their pledge:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
All for the greater glory of God and the greater honour of Mary, Mother of the Lord Jesus.
We the undersigned, striving to work together for the greater glory of God and the honour of Mary, Mother of the Lord Jesus, assert and declare our sincere intention and firm will of consecrating ourselves at the first opportunity to founding the pious congregation of Marists. That is why by the present act and our signatures, in so far as we can, we irrevocably dedicate ourselves and all our goods, to the Society of the Blessed Virgin. We do this, not childishly or lightly or for some human motive or the hope of material benefit, but seriously, maturely, having taken advice, having weighed everything before God, solely for the greater glory of God and the honour of Mary, Mother of the Lord Jesus. We pledge ourselves to accept all sufferings, trials, inconveniences and, if needs be, torture, because we can do all things in Christ Jesus who strengthens us and to whom we hereby promise fidelity in the bosom of our holy mother the Roman Catholic Church, cleaving with all our strength to its supreme head the Roman pontiff and to our most reverend bishop, the ordinary, that we may be good ministers of Jesus Christ, nourished with the words of faith and of the wholesome teaching which by his grace we have received. We trust that, under the reign of our most Christian King, the friend of peace and religion, this institute will shortly come to light and we solemnly promise that we shall spend ourselves and all we have in saving souls in every way under the very august name of the Virgin Mary and with her help. All this is subject to the wiser judgement of our superiors. May the Holy and Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary be praised. Amen.

John Jago SM, as Superior General, in a letter of 24 September 1986 (“Mary Mother of our Hope”), writes:

The seminarians who climbed the hill of Fourvière were caught in a dream. They were convinced that Mary wanted something. She wanted to transform the Church into a Kingdom of mercy. In God’s providence she was to be the instrument to renew the Church into a servant and pilgrim people. She was to bring a new sensitivity and compassion. A compassion which saw in the skepticism of the time a desire of people to be authentic, to cast off all masks and illusions. A Church which would be gentle with unbelievers because it recognized in their disbelief the possibility of a deeper and sounder foundation for the faith. Despite their conservative and ultramontane leanings, the men of Fourvière burned with a vision. They were innovators and prophets. They wanted to create something new. For the sake of their vision they were willing to set aside all desire for personal power, for fame, for possessions. The invitation to go to Oceania had not yet been made, the question had not yet been asked, and yet one knew that the answer would be ‘Yes’. They were men available. They were men on fire, the men of Fourvière.