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23 November

Saints Clement I and Columbanus

Marist Calendar - November

Feast of Saint Marcellin Champagnat



Message of Br. Seán Sammon

06/06/2008: General House

Let’s imagine this morning that Marcellin Champagnat was born in Le Rosey, France in May of 1980 and not 1789. That’s right, May 1980. That would make him 28 years of age today and if my memory serves me well, I believe that he was about that old when he founded our Institute. For the sake of our example, let’s imagine further that he is a parish priest in a small town in France. The area is economically depressed but the people are hard-working, family-oriented, and a bit suspicious about all that’s happening in places like Paris, Lyons, London, and surely New York!

This modern day Marcellin would have been born a little over a decade after a series of events in France that came in time to be known as May 1968. Student protests and a general strike that year had shaken up the country, challenged conventional morality, and contributed to the eventual collapse of the de Gaulle government. More importantly, a way of looking at the world began to change; old forms gave way to new understandings. Some welcomed the change, others were frightened by it, still others condemned it.

Looking back on the short life of our modern day Marcellin Champagnat we would also have to admit that he struggled with schoolwork. Not because he lacked an ability for studies but rather because his opportunities for primary education had been so limited. Early in life, however, I wonder if at times he questioned whether he would have been admitted to seminary at all or allowed to stay had there not been a vocation crisis.

Marcellin learned one day about a young parishioner who was dying. The name didn’t ring a bell but, then again, the children and young people of more than a few of the families on the parish rolls were infrequent visitors to the parish Church. So alarming was the situation in some places that the previous Pope, John Paul II, had called for a re-evangelization of Europe.

With all these points in mind he set out for the young man’s house. What he found there stunned him. The 17-year-old knew next to nothing about his faith, and what he had managed to pick up was proving to be of precious little consolation in light of the situation he faced.

Marcellin spent some time with the boy, consoling him, instructing him, and helping him to die. But inside the priest, the last pieces of a dream were rapidly falling into place. He had wanted for quite a while now to do something that would make a difference in the lives of poor children and young people, something that would help them understand just how much Jesus Christ loved them.

Now you might be saying to yourself, “Yes, yes, get to the point. Tell us that he founded his Little Brothers of Mary and we all lived happily ever after.” But let’s not be so hasty about ending the story. My hunch is that Marcellin would have thought long and hard about what was best for the poor children and young people of his day, and in the case of our example: today.

So, the question before us is this one: Would the Founder have founded us, had he been born in 1980 and not 1789? And if he did, what would we look like? What work would he have us doing? How would he inspire us, challenge, us, give us hope during the early years of this new foundation? That is, if we had the good sense to join him.

Let me say that my hunch is that he would founded us. Yes, he would have founded us simply because faith has to do with a relationship of such absolute wonder that if I risk giving my heart to it, I cannot help but be transformed. And that is what Marcellin wanted us to be for young people, sacraments of an encounter with Jesus Christ. Not necessarily teachers, or administrators, or youth workers, or whatever, but simply brothers to Jesus and to the young with a unique capacity to introduce one to the other. The means are important and I do not wish in any way to detract from them. But those we have at our disposal--schools, catechetical centers, programs, retreats or movements of one sort of another--are but means if you and I are not men and women in love with God, men and women on fire with the Spirit, men and women of passion because we have met the Lord Jesus Christ and fallen in love with him.

And, in the midst of all of this speculation about a modern day Marcellin Champagnat, what about religious life? Were he born in 1980 and not 1789, would the founder push us toward some new form of Church life or might he invite us to think about living what has been known traditionally as religious life but in a renewed way, a way appropriate for today?

I believe that he would advise the latter but also make these three points. First of all, he would tell us to live our religious life in a way that would intrigue and attract the young;. Make it worth the gift of your life, he would insist. Take risks when necessary, be bold in your initiatives, say “yes” without hesitation, calculation, or excessive concern about your personal needs. For religious life was never meant to be domesticated; at its best it has always been a bit wild.

And at all costs, he would tell us, avoid those styles of living our way of life that masquerade as being religious. Professional, balanced, politically and psychologically correct, how terribly dull and bloodless they are. Where is the joy, he would ask, the sacrifice, the experience of transcending oneself, the adventure of setting out in response to God’s initiative, God’s call, God’s will and not solely according to my own lights. Above all, he would tell us, let Jesus be the center and passion of your life.

Second, Marcellin would remind us in no uncertain terms that our way of life was never meant to be drawn into the Church’s parochial structures, but rather while in communion with the local Church it should also stand apart and remind the Church about its true nature. For when Marcellin Champagnat mounted a scaffold to build the Hermitage, he was reminding the clergy of his day—many of whom were eager to restore the Third Estate—that the answers to the questions of their age lay in the future and not the past. And when the early members of the Society of Mary decided that the Church at the margins was their proper place, they were reminding our Church and all the rest of us that numbered among our brothers and sisters are those in whom few have taken any interest and to whom even fewer attended.

Finally, he would challenge us to take on both the heart of a missionary and a heart for the poor. Step out of your narrow and predictable worlds, he would challenge, and come to understand the many faces of God. So also, no matter where you find yourself, carry within you a heart for the poor. Make every effort also to be among those children and young people who have the least. Yes, every child is important, and every child deserves the right to mature in an environment of love and safety, he would say, but you need to be with those who have no one to look out for them, to speak for them, to love them, to help them to find their voice. In all things, let Mary be your model, for she was a remarkable woman of faith who made this journey of life before you. Let her be both a mother and a sister in faith to you.

“To love God,” Marcellin often said, “yes, to love God and to make God known and loved, that is what a brother’s life should be.” Good advice no matter whether he was born in 1980 or 1879. May God give us the courage today to take on the spirit of our young founder, to make his dream our own once again. What good news that would be for our Church, for our world, and for the poor children and young people whom we have been called to serve.

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