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« Mary at the heart of the Church »



195th anniversary of the « Promise of Fourvière »

23/07/2011: Brazil

195 years ago on 23 July 1816, twelve new priests of the archdiocese of Lyon, among them Jean-Claude Courveille, Marcellin Champagnat and Jean-Claude Colin, consecrated themselves to the Virgin Mary, in the chapel of Fourvière, the most loved sanctuary of the  people of Lyon. In their hearts they carried a desire which their lips translated into a promise:

« We, the undersigned… affirm and publicly declare that it is our sincere intention and firm purpose to dedicate ourselves… to the foundation of the pious Congregation of the  Marists… We solemnly promise to give ourselves… for the salvation of souls in every possible way, working in the name of the Virgin Mary and under her auspices… »

This episode recalls and makes concrete a preceding episode, in 1809, when, also in front of an altar of Mary, the Black Virgin of le Puy, Jean-Claude Courveille heard in his heart the Mother of the Lord asking him for the foundation of a society bearing her name. When, on the altar, these twelve young priests signed the Promise, they began to make this desire of Our Lady a reality. By this intrepid act of faith and deep confidence in Providence, they cast the seeds of what would become a tree of dense foliage in the Church, whose branches would extend around the whole world:the Society of Mary.

To celebrate so memorable an eventfor the Religious Institutes which compose the great  Marist Family, Danilo Ferreira Silva, postulant of the Province of « Brasil Centro-Norte », has thought up the canvas which illustrates this text, which he has entitled « Mary at the heart of the Church ». It is also a way of recalling that the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Society is approaching and that the quality of this celebration will be the greater as its preparation is the more intense.


The Holy Spiritopens the scene. The « soul of the Church », He hovers above the collection of images. His presence evokes Pentecost, when He came from heaven like a mighty sound, like an impetuous wind which filled the house where the apostles were gathered (cf. Acts 2:2).

Mary is at the centre of the painting and draws irresistibly towards her the eyes of all who contemplate her. The iconography is that of the gilded image of Notre-Dame, situated on the tower of the ancient chapel of  Fourvière, looking down on the city of Lyon.

A flame originating in her breast is projected on the heads of the Founders and Foundresses. It is another sign of the Holy Spirit which, in the Cenacle, appeared under the form of tongues of fire which separated out and came to rest on the heads of those who were present (cf. Acts 2:3). Mary, like any other creature, is a temple of the Spirit of God (cf. I Cor. 6:19). Her relationship with the divine « Ruah », the breath of life which made her fruitful, is intimate and conjugal.

The tongues of fire on the Founders, gathered around her, bring the Pentecost of Jerusalem and the experience of Fourvière symbolically together: the Holy Spirit continues to endow the Church with the special and necessary charisms for its renewal. So the Marist Family can reclaim for itself what the angel promised to Mary: « the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most high will overshadow you » (Lk 1:35). With Mary and through her, the Marists are inserted into the mystery of Christ and the Church, and their mission in the service of the people of God is sustained by the same Spirit who at Pentecost transformed a community still living in fear into the bold witnesses of the Risen One.

The way in which the arms of Mary are arranged suggests different interpretations: welcome, protection and sending out. Her serene and penetrating look inspires in her Marists a deep confidence in her maternal presence. Mary seems to say to them today what she said at the beginnings of the Marist adventure to the founders of the Society: « I was the support of the Church at its birth; I will be so also at the end of time. »

The Founders and Foundresses. From left to right : Françoise Perroton, Marcellin Champagnat, Jeanne-Marie Chavoin and Jean-Claude Colin, founding figures, respectively, of the four Institutes of the Marist Family; Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary, Marist Brothers, Marist Sisters and Marist Fathers. These « labourers of the first hour » turn their eyes towards their disciples and challenge them: « you are the ones continuing our work! » And they remind them of the words of the Church: « You have not only to remember and tell yourselves of a glorious history, but you have to construct a great history! » (Vita Consecrata, 110).

Children of diverse races and cultures. The Marist mission in the Church is an extension of the one initiated at Pentecost when, animated by the Spirit, the disciples announced the Gospel in the languages of the various groups of foreigners present in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 2: 6). They made themselves understood by so many different peoples because they spoke the universal language: love. In the Church, the Marists form an international family inspired to evangelize the cultures, in constant dialogue with the men and women of the present time. They must, then, be convinced that this family will be the more catholic (= universal) the more capable it is of entering into dialogue and rapport with different peoples and  cultures, so as to communicate the new life springing from the open side of the Risen Lord.

The globe. A large map of the world, with all the continents visible, is illustrated in the central part of the painting. The world is a great gift of God to mankind; it is also the common home of all living beings, who are also the work of his hands. It is the place where life is promoted, blessed, recreated, violated… The symbol also reminds the observer of the priestly prayer in which Jesus prayed to his Father: « As you have sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world » (Jn 17: 18). Mary setting out in haste to the home of her cousin Elisabeth completes the symbolic inspiration: you are Marists for the world! Sanctify yourselves! Sanctify yourselves in the world!  Marists, as Fr Colin wished, have to, after their Mother’s example, live and act « as hidden and unknown in the world », like leaven in the mass, transforming it from within!

Chapel of Fourvière. The little sanctuary has been represented as it was known to the Founders in the XIX century. It is at the base of the painting and appears to support the great globe at the centre of the scene. This is another way of recalling the deep conviction of the initiators of the Marist project: « Mary was the support of the Church at its birth, and she will be so also at the end of time. » It was in this little chapel, at the feet of the Virgin Mary, that the Marist Family first saw the day, born from the Church for the Church, and today spread over all the continents, composed of thousands of persons: men and women, priests, religious sisters and brothers, and lay people, conscious of having received the call to be the presence of Mary in the world. From the fact of having been the site of the  « Promise of Fourvière », it is also the « mother house » of all the Marists.

Abbreviations. In the lower left hand corner, the names of the Marist religious institutes appear in abbreviated form, each followed by two dates. The meaning is as follows:

  • SM-1816/1836:Society of Mary: Marist Fathers and Brothers, who recognize as their date of foundation the year 1816, with the « Promise of Fourvière ». In 1836 they received papal approbation from Pope Gregory XVI, with the mission of  Polynesia (Oceania) being confided to them the same year.

·         FMS-1817/1825:Marist Brothers of the Schools. The years 1817 and 1825 correspond to the foundation of the Institute and the transfer of the general house from La Valla to the Hermitage, in the Gier valley, built by Fr Champagnat himself and his first Brothers. This event is considered an important step for the branch of the Brothers, already in full expansion.

·         (S)SM-1817/1825 :Marist Sisters. The year 1817 corresponds to the foundation of the feminine branch, when Jeanne-Marie Chavoin and Marie Jotillon arrived to stay with Fr Colin and his brother Pierre at Cerdon. The year 1825 corresponds to the move of the pioneers, then more numerous, to Bon Repos (Belley), where the  Institute consolidated itself and began its missionary expansion.

·         SMSM-1845/1931: Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary. It is the « last flower » of the Marist tree. In 1845, Françoise Perroton, a member of the Marist Third Order, responding to the appeals of the women of the island of Wallis, became a missionary in Oceania at the age of 49. The movement resulting from her pastoral experience was officially recognized by the Church as a religious Institute in 1931.

Island. At the lower right hand corner an island is represented, bearing the identification « Oceania – 1836 ». The aim was to reproduce a typical landscape of the islands of the South Pacific. The detail is a reminder of a fundamental experience of the Marist origins, when the pioneers, responding to the missionary call of the Church, took charge of the  evangelization of the regions of Western Oceania (Polynesia). It was in 1836 that a group of Marist missionaries, four Fathers and three Brothers, left for those lands.

 ‘Oceania’ and ‘1836’ should not be for the Marists today simply a definite ‘place’ or  ‘date’, statistics, past… Their meaning must be, on the contrary, timeless and perpetually symbolic. The boldness of the pioneers, when they claimed that « all the dioceses of the world enter into our views » (Champagnat), must always lead us back to the mandate of Jesus: « go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every living creature » (cf. Mk 16:15) so that they « may have life in abundance » (cf. Jn 10: 10). Perhaps what the Marist Family can do best for the men and women of the present time, within the specific field of each Institute, is to keep the spirit of Mary alive in the heart of the church and of the world!

Br  Rafael Ferreira Júnior, FMS

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