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From a place for Mary in the Institute to a place with Mary in the Church



The Virgin Mary in the life of the Marist Brother

17/01/2011: General House

In 2010, the General House celebrated the feast of Saint Marcellin Champagnat on Saturday 5 June, since the 6th was a Sunday. The superiors invited the other members of the Marist Family, Fathers and Sisters, as well as all the staff of the house, and friends and neighbours of longstanding such as the Trappists, the Little Sisters of Charles de Foucauld, etc. We were on the point of starting Mass in the main chapel, and I was struck by the figure of Mary on the central altar-piece. The lighting made her beautiful and radiant. At her feet Champagnat kneeling, hands joined in prayer. With the feast, the mystery was palpable. We were in a chapel dedicated to Mary. She occupied the centre, seated, with her son protectively in her lap, as on a throne. Symbols indicated her maternity. The child Jesus, naked, seated, his head leaning on his mother’s heart, presided over the scene. Four strong stones, embedded in the angles of the walls, supported the dome, recording the four great privileges of Mary: Mother of God, Mediatrix, Immaculate and Assumed. On the left hand side of the choir screen, next to the organ, in a base relief of terracotta, was the angel messenger of the annunciation. In a similar position on the right, Mary was listening and welcoming the Word into her womb. Between the two, there was all the spiritual dynamic of the altar, on which the Word is proclaimed, celebrated and shared in a fraternal banquet. The Word, who became flesh in Mary’s womb, dwells among us.I thought that the annunciation to Mary had an artistic continuation in the central altar-piece of the chapel and this reminded me of certain chapters of the history of our origins. In his seminary years, Marcellin declared himself the “slave of Mary”. Mary was for him the model of fidelity to the Lord. And in his turn, Marcellin conceived in his heart through the working of the Holy Spirit the family of the Brothers. This personal experience of the founder seemed to me a clear reference to the Marial face of the Church. Marcellin’s interior life was guided by the concrete application of the Marial principle of the Church.The Marists of Champagnat, the Little Brothers of Mary, were conceived by Marcellin during the time of his seminary formation. This time of interior formation was a time of annunciation. The angel of the Lord announced to Marcellin, and he conceived the Brothers by the working of the Holy Spirit. This gestation was completed in a moment of interior emptying which generated a maternal womb of total availability to the will of God. The new cell of the Church made fertile by the Marist charism is the origin of his intuition: we need brothers. There all we Marists were engendered by the charism of Champagnat. Thus was born the Church made up of the Marist believers who chose to live their faith and consecration to God in a community of brothers.The Marist charism received with total openness in the heart of Marcellin produces a first ecclesial fruit: the beginning of a family of believers who come together as the little brothers of Mary. “This charism was a grace for Marcellin, a special gift of the Spirit, the fruit of his own discernment of what God was asking of him. Out of that process gradually came insights which clarified and unified what was most important to him, a growing sense of direction in his life, an identification with a special way of living his life in union with Christ. From this flowed his particular spirituality and spirit, and his orientation toward an apostolate centred in the Christian education of youth, and especially those most in need”(1). In a grouping of seminarists whose future projects were guided predominantly by the Church’s Petrine principle, Marcellin’s attitude stood out, for enlightened by an intuition guided by the Marian principle, he insisted on promoting the participation of lay faithful as an integral presence in the Society of Mary project to make it complete. Without the brothers, something essential would be missing in the project. His intuition was expressed in the phrase “we need brothers”. This existential attitude of Marcellin, which emphasized the need for basic believers in an ecclesial project founded and animated by clerics, makes manifest the depth with which he grasped the mystery of the Church. We can affirm that in his conception, the Marial principle prevailed over the Petrine principle. In an organization of priests, he thought that the brothers were indispensible. Marcellin did not elaborate theological theories about the Marial principle, nor did he know it as a theological given, but he put it into practice and made it live, promoting it prophetically for times to come. The logic of this annunciation, experienced during the time of seminary formation, had its complementary moment when Champagnat gave birth to his project in La Valla. Between the two time limits, the Nazareth of the seminary and the Bethlehem of La Valla acquire a perfect unity. The Nazareth of the seminary is full of the Word of annunciation. The angel of the Lord communicates with Marcellin through his professors, spiritual directors, confessors, and seminary companions. The Logos, the Word of God, takes flesh in his heart. This ecclesial origin of our Institute stamps the brothers with the fundamentals of their proper identity. We are born in the Church, of the Church and for the Church in the womb of a ‘yes’ which would adhere to a new incarnation of the Church in a world turned upside down by the French Revolution. If the first cell of the Church was Jesus become man by the yes of Mary, the fruitfulness of our life as Marists, who say yes to God, cannot exist without a new cell of the Church which introduces brotherhood amidst a world broken and alienated from God.For the brothers, this origin, directly related to the Marial principle of the Church, commits us to promoting, defending and loving a Church which lives in the vanguard of the gestation of faith, at the frontier posts of evangelization and catechesis. The Church mother has conceived, in her maternal womb, what nested in the heart of Marcellin, a new community of faith characterised by being little brothers of Mary. Born as a clear expression of the maternity of Mary in the life of Marcellin, the Institute is an emphatic feature of the Marial face of the Church. To be brother among brothers manifests a particular characteristic of the Church’s Marial face. To foster the fruitfulness of the Church by means of spreading fraternity among the men and women of today makes manifest what the Marist has to make the Marial face of the Church shine forth. To live in brotherhood whatever the race, language and nation is to show the Marial face of the Church of Jesus.The altar-piece of the main chapel of the General House feels to me, then, like an apoteosis of Mary’s annunciation to Marcellin. The Mother’s look places the Word in the joined, praying hands of Marcellin. Marcellin’s attitude, of kneeling, totally directed towards the Mother, his attitude of receptiveness and his gaze turned to the heights, is the concrete description of his total emptiness, his total availability, made a womb at once maternal and paternal, in which is born the new community of believers, called the little brothers of Mary. In the centre Jesus, the Lord, the Word made flesh in the womb of Mary, is what harmonises and gives meaning to everything that happens.Five angels proclaim the interior fiesta. Two of them are musicians and three singers. Angels guardians and messengers of the five Continents in which the sons of Champagnat are called to bear fruit. Five universal mouths which sing a Magnificat for the marvels God has worked in Mary and in Marcellin. Five angels who summon all the dioceses of the world where the fraternity born of the Marist charism is becoming evident. Five witnesses of the Marial features of the Church incarnated in the Marists._________AMEstaúnIn the sequence of previously published articles in 2010.

1. Charles Howard, Circulars V 29 (1990) p. 237-8.

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