(Vatican Radio) Two-hundred years ago, on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul in 1816, a small group of men came together to create an apostolic community and do just what St. Paul himself sought to do: preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the poor and most abandoned.
That group of men is known today as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) one of the largest missionary religious orders of the Church, numbering nearly 4,000 priests and religious brothers.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were founded on February 25, 1816 in Aix-en-Provence in post-revolutionary southern France in response to the deplorable situation of the church in the countryside after the war.
Fr. Louis Lougen, OMI, is the Superior General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and a Permanent Member of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
Listen to the full interview:
Their story begins on 25 February 1816 in southern France when St. Eugene de Mazenod and four companions moved into a 'small dump' in the centre of Aix-en-Provence, an old Carmelite convent. "These men, especially St. Eugene de Mazenod, saw the devastation of the Church in France after the revolution. The Church had all but died, and he uses the word often 'deplorable state of the Church'."
"He wanted to have a community of priests who would preach missions. He had three aims: to evangelize young people, to work with prisoners, and to preach missions to the poor, especially in the rural areas. The community life would be a path of virtue; they would grow in virtue, and he always connects that to the effectiveness of preaching."
Missionaries to the poor and most abandoned
Fr. Lougen said, "The work is preaching the Gospel to the poor. I believe the charism also includes 'who are we' as missionaries."
The foundation for this charism, he said, "goes back to St. Eugene's experience of Christ on the Cross: having experienced God's love, God's salvation, as a gift that we don't deserve, as unconditional love, we are motivated, urged, thrown, into preaching the Gospel and especially to the poor."
Though St. Eugene began with preaching the Gospel to young people, prisoners, and the rural poor, the Oblates have adapted their mission to the countries in which they work. Fr. Louis said, "Today, we work with the poor in many different ways, directly preaching the Gospel, but also in places like Asia where we are a very small minority, we help Muslim and Hindu with education, with health, with getting their rights recognized, especially tribal people who are disrespected within their own land. Oblates are with them, helping them preserve their way of life, their dignity, and their humanity. We are faithful to the Founder's inspiration, but in a much broader way, responding to what the Church needs, wherever we go."
Among the different elements to the charism, Fr. Lougen said, is "closeness to the people, closeness to the poor. We [ask ourselves] 'what is the suffering, what is the situation of the poor', and we have always tried to respond to that. We go, of course, to implant or to begin the Church and to help it develop but, in doing that, we look at 'what are the human needs of the people'. It might be farming, food, electricity, and we try to help them do the things that will make their life more dignified."
"Today, in theology, you speak of the context, and the Oblates have, throughout our history, been sensitive to the context and that shapes our mission."
Preparation for bicentennial
When asked about the preparations being made for the 200th anniversary, Fr. Lougen recalled the Order's last General Chapter of 2010, in which he was elected Superior General. "We've stressed spiritual preparation. We had the Chapter of 2010, which was a call to a 'profound personal and community conversion to Jesus Christ."
Despite some initial skepticism, he said most Oblates have come around to the idea. "We began to see more deeply that conversion to Jesus Christ changes our lives and our witness becomes a genuine witness of the Gospel. Pope Francis has said this over and over: to live the joy of the Gospel, we have to meet Jesus. At the beginning of Evangelii Gaudium, he says 'every day, we should ask for a deeper experience of Jesus Christ in our lives', and he talks over and again about continual conversion."
With this in mind, Fr. Lougen and his council decided to organize a three-year preparation with a specific theme for each year and two pillars for reflection. "One [theme] is sharing our faith which is a way of deepening our communion as brothers; it creates spiritual intimacy among us and helps us live better a community life and to support each other in our faith."
"The other pillar is 'seeing concretely what can we do in our community life to show we are in a journey of conversion'. Concretely, it could mean a million different things. Maybe we will use the car less and take public transportation. It might be, in a community where they don't pray together, to begin to pray together once a day; that's a concrete sign of conversion."
Explaining the three themes of the past three years, Fr. Lougen said, "The first year was on our community life and the vow of chastity because they go together. Chastity is about 'do I communicate with you, do I respect you in community, beside all the other things we know. But often chastity is 'do I forgive, do I respect other people?'."
"[The second year] was about ongoing formation, that throughout our lives do we continue to grow: intellectual, spiritually, morally, as human beings, our pastoral skills, our missionary abilities, and the vow of poverty."
"The third year, which began December 8th, is on mission, 'how do we live mission,' and the vow of obedience."
Oblate Bicentennial in Jubilee Year of Mercy
When asked which spiritual or corporal work of mercy best embodies the Oblates' mission, Fr. Louis said "I keep thinking of the prisoners. Even from St. Eugene's time until today, we have Oblates who are full time in prison ministry. But almost everywhere, Oblates in their parish work or if they're in schools, they always seems to be a contact with prisoners. To visit the prisoner is one of the corporal works of mercy."
Not content with just one work, Fr. Lougen said, "We are involved in doing all of them. Burying the dead, for example, often it get very tense with people [and their relationship with the Church]. 'Do you go to Church?' The secretary often tells people, 'No, the priests are too busy' or 'You don't belong to this parish' and it's so sad at that time to not have anybody. The Oblates are available to bury the dead, to visit the prisoners, to visit the sick, so it's hard to pick one corporal or spiritual work of mercy that we [aren't involved in]. I think especially of the prisoners."
Returning to St. Eugene de Mazenod, Fr. Lougen concluded, saying "The Founder was the Apostle of Mercy. From his experience of the Cross, Christ's unconditional love, his ministry then became less severe, less rigid, less Jansenistic. He wanted to bring the love of the Saviour to people, and Oblates are close to people. So it's all out of that love, that warmth, of God that he becomes a minister of God's mercy. I think right at the heart of the charism is mercy."
(Devin Sean Watkins)