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21 June

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Patron of Youth

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Seán D. Sammon, FMS



Homily, June 10th, 2006

12/06/2006: General House - Photo gallery

By early evening January 2nd, 1817, Marcellin Champagnat had laid the groundwork for a revolution. Like so many of these movements, this one began modestly: a small house, two recruits, not much in the way of money. But the founder had youth on his side: for Marcellin was but 27 years and some months old when he established his Little Brothers of Mary.

Between that day and his death 23 years later on June 6th, 1840 the founder was to have more than his share of discouraging moments and times of true doubt and faith tested. But this son of France’s first republic, this priest and later vowed member of the Society of Mary, this saint of our Church had what sustains any true revolutionary: a dream as well as the necessary zeal and passion to see it through. He also had the conviction that what he had in mind was God’s will also.

Now, my hunch is that the founder would be perplexed to find himself described as a revolutionary. He would no doubt admit to living during a tumultuous period of history—one marked by religious and political upheaval and economic and cultural change. But a revolutionary? “Isn’t the word,” he might ask, “usually associated with armed struggle, wars of independence, violent change?”

And we would have to admit that, at times, revolutionary means all of those things. However, the word is also used to describe someone who introduces a radically new way of looking at life and brings about fundamental change, a person who inspires us by word and deed to take up fresh ways of thinking and behaving, an individual who is open to the Spirit of God, who challenges the status quo, is visionary, innovative, daring, and bold. Yes, the word revolutionary fits quite well when used to describe something of the character of a person like Marcellin Champagnat.

And so, as we celebrate his feast this evening, we cannot help but look at three ways in which the founder was a revolutionary and what each means for us today.

First of all, some of Marcellin’s troubles began when he allowed himself to become involved with the Holy Spirit. Now, taking God seriously is never easy and in their respective relationships with Him Jacob wrestled, Moses bargained, Mary questioned, Peter denied, and Thomas doubted. So we all realize that a relationship with God can be fraught with danger and that depending upon what the Almighty has in mind, it can change our lives.

But the founder was not satisfied with a relationship alone. No, he gave God free reign. In time, the indwelling of God’s Spirit became his charism, and he began to do things that surprised everyone. For example, he moved out of the presbytery and into the house of our early brothers. By changing locations, at the very least, he took a step down in his standard of living. For those young men did not have much in terms of material comforts: a roof over their heads, a place to sleep, something to eat but not much else.

Next, the founder took to doing construction work. Some of his fellow clergy, considering such labor to be beneath their station in life, struggled to make sense of his behavior; they speculated that he was going mad. And for many it seemed there was some evidence to support this point of view. After all, the founder was putting up what many considered to be an enormous building in light of the number of recruits he had on hand and his lack of money to pay for it. But people who become involved with the Holy Spirit act this way.

Today, however, many of us certainly don’t. No, we who have publicly professed our firm resolve to live radically the gospel message as the aim and purpose of our lives cite prudence, counsel caution, discretion, good sense, we call attention to economic realities, and we worry about retirement. One must wonder: who has gone mad! And so, we need to ask ourselves this evening: Do we really believe that the Spirit of God so active in the life of Marcellin Champagnat longs to live and breathe in you and me today? And if we do believe it, are we willing to give God’s Spirit free reign?

Second, Marcellin founded his Little Brothers to make Jesus known and loved among poor children and young people in particular. Having experienced first hand the love of Jesus and Mary, the founder wanted to give that gift to all whom he met but especially those beginning the journey of life.

Marcellin was a man of practical vision, an innovator. And so for him, education was more than a process used to pass along some facts and figures or even points about our faith. Rather, he understood it as a powerful means for forming and transforming the minds and hearts of children and young people. Education was a means for evangelizing, not an end in itself.

And his approach to education was revolutionary. Wanting his early brothers to make a significant difference in the lives of the young people entrusted to them, he encouraged them to form a type of relationship with those in their care that was uncommon in early 19th century France. “Love your students,” he said, “pray for them, and work to earn their respect.” In a country where one historian of the period was moved to describe most who entered the teaching profession as, “irreligious drunkards, immoral and the dregs of the human race,” what Marcellin was preaching to his first brothers was revolutionary indeed.

This evening, these same challenges go out to all of us associated with the Institute, brothers and lay partners alike. And so, we must ask ourselves: are the institutions and other works in which we serve committed to helping young men and women to make Jesus the center and passion of their lives. And to do so to such an extent that they can do little else but take his gospel message seriously? We can only achieve this end if we are in the midst of young people, willing to give them our time without counting the cost, and doing it in Mary’s way: with simplicity.

Finally, the founder set about establishing a religious Institute. He understood that our way of life was not part of the hierarchical structure of the Church but charismatic in nature. It was never meant to be domesticated For at its best, our way of life is the Church’s living memory of what it longs to be, can be, and must be. This is religious life’s prophetic role.

But let us be honest, you and I cannot give what you do not have. And in recent years, some of us in the Institute have become more mirrors of the best and worst values of our respective cultures than the fire upon this earth that we were meant to be.

Edward Sorin, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and a group of his Brothers immigrated from France to the US in the early 19th century with this dream in mind: to build a great university in honor of Our Lady. Through hard work and a great deal of sacrifice they accomplished their task and very quickly Notre Dame University began to flourish.

On the morning of April 23rd, 1879, however, a devastating fire broke out and within a short period had burned the university’s main building to the ground. Many that day thought that the flames had consumed not only the physical plant but the dream of Sorin and his confreres as well.

Not so. After surveying the ruins and sensing the devastation felt by the entire school community, the now 65 year old priest asked everyone to enter the Church where he addressed them. “I came here as a young man,” he said, “with the dream of building a great university in honor of Our Lady. But I built it too small, and she had to burn it to the ground to make the point. So, tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever.”

Could anyone but the Holy Spirit be responsible for words such as these, and for the events that followed? Three hundred laborers joined Sorin the following morning and working sixteen hours a day had the building reconstructed in time for the opening of the next school term.

Some of the best elements of apostolic religious life are illustrated in this tale: zeal, a spirit of faith, endurance, and the absolute audacity to take on great challenges. These qualities were surely evident in the life of Marcellin Champagnat and they need to be visible in each of us today: brother and lay partner alike.

For the last 40 years, we have used one human means after another in our attempts to renew our way of life. But facilitation, pastoral plans and feasibility studies are but means to an end. For it is a profound revolution of the heart and faith alone that is needed to get the job done. Religious life was never meant to be balanced, professional, with regular hours, clear job descriptions, and all sorts of guarantees. Rather it was meant to entail enough sacrifice to be worth the gift of our lives.

And so today as we mark the feast of our founder, let us pray that the Spirit of God lights in us the fire of renewal. Let us pray, too, for the courage to be as bold, as daring, and as in love with God as was simple country pastor and son of Mary. May we, like him, be fire upon this earth making Jesus known and loved among poor children and young people.

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