GENERAL'S NEWS XI
As I sit down to write this eleventh edition of the General's News, the Congregation's annual celebration of Founders' Day is only about a month away. Founders' Day provides us with an opportunity each year to remember all those Oblates who pioneered a particular province, region or apostolate. It also permits us to celebrate, in a special manner, Father Brisson and his first companions. Of course, the memory of the Congregation's "Inspiration," Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, can never be separated from that of the Founder. Nor can Father Brisson ever be separated from Blessed Frances de Sales Aviat. This great-hearted woman's heroic "self-forgetfulness" in uniting her will to God's will for her and in a life of loving service on behalf of young working girls has already placed her among the heroes and saints of the new millennium.
Recently, I have been re-reading literature associated with our beginnings. Those readings have served to remind me that neither Oblate Congregation emerged within an historical vacuum. Again and again, I have been struck by how our Founders, perceiving a pastoral need in their time and place, met that need head on, in a creative and persevering manner.
At the time of Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, Father Louis Brisson and LÈonie Aviat, the Catholic faith in France was confronting a grave danger. Tens of thousands of poor young people, in their search for work, were flocking to France's new industrial centers such as Troyes. Uprooted from their small villages and, thus, from the strong traditions of family and faith, these young people were increasingly vulnerable to the allures of a new social order as well as to the aggressive evangelization efforts of the Protestant churches. To meet these challenges and to keep France's youth within the faith, the Association of St. Francis de Sales was founded in Paris. Soon diocesan chapters of the Association were established throughout France. St. Francis de Sales was chosen as the Association's Patron because of his great pastoral zeal and missionary success in the Chablais under circumstances similar to those now occurring in France.
Father Brisson was appointed by his bishop to establish and coordinate the work of the Association in the Diocese of Troyes. Its formal establishment occurred on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1858, in the Chapel of the Visitation, with the Good Mother serving as its treasurer. From the beginning, it was a collaborative effort. Clergy, religious and laity joined forces to insure its success. Even the young girls at the Visitation academy did their part in furthering the aims of the Association.
Catholic boarding homes and clubs already existed for the young working boys of Troyes. Therefore, Father Brisson concentrated his efforts in providing similar structures for working girls. From the beginning, devoted lay women served as surrogate mothers for these girls. But, as their own life situation changed due to marriage or the birth of children, many of these lay women had to leave. Their departures caused the young women to feel abandoned and placed in jeopardy a beneficial continuity within these "Works for Working Girls." Father Brisson became convinced that only a religious community of apostolic women would be able to provide both continuity to these projects as well as a comforting maternal presence to his girls. Therefore, he invited the young LÈonie Aviat, who had already been cooperating with him as a lay woman in these Works, to join him in the foundation of a new community of religious women. These religious would have the same Salesian spirit as the Visitation, but would be apostolic in character. Thus were the Oblate Sisters founded!
In all of these developments, Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis saw the hand of Providence at work. For decades, she had been convinced that God was about to flood the world with a wonderful new outpouring of the effects of Redemption. In the foundation of the Oblate Sisters -- and with our own foundation just a few years later-- she saw the dawning of this new age of grace. Nourished upon the spirit and doctrine of de Sales, especially through a faithful practice of his Spiritual Directory, she was convinced that the Oblates of both Congregations were destined to become the channels of the Redeemer's refreshing grace to a world which greatly thirsted for it. They would be those channels by bringing to the world the gospel spirit of Jesus as lived and taught by St. Francis de Sales.
In this letter I would like to share with you, my confrËres, something of the religious spirit of our Founder, especially a few reflections on his large-hearted charity, robust faith and quiet prayer. I do this with the hope that we will continue that spirit in our own lives with one another in community and in our various ministries and apostolic works. What follows, with slight modification, is a portion of a paper entitled, "Father Louis Brisson: Model of Oblate Leadership," which was delivered at the meeting of major superiors this past July, 1998.
"I love them with all my heart!"
In his many spiritual chapters to the members of his double Congregation, Father Brisson commented frequently on the various articles of the Spiritual Directory. A frequent topic of these conferences was its first wish: "We have no bond but the bond of love which is the bond of perfection." He assures us that the practice of charity "constitutes the beauty and splendor of [our] religious life as well as its joy and happiness." "Because charity is our particular bond, our special and essential virtue, we Oblates ought to practice fraternal charity in a special manner." Father Brisson not only urged us to practice charity in words; he also modeled it for us in action. Indeed, charity was a central virtue of his own person, life and ministry.
On the feast of St. Francis de Sales, 1908, less than two weeks before his death, a number of Oblates were gathered around the Founder in his family's simple home in Plancy. Knowing that death was imminent, Father Deshairs, the Assistant General, asked Father Brisson for a final word which would serve as a special legacy to his double Congregation: "Father, give a brief word to the Oblate Sisters and to us Oblates, a word which will remain as a legacy [to us] and which will keep us always faithful to your desire for us." Thinking that Father Brisson had not heard Father Deshairs, whose voice was hoarse due to a cold, Father de Mayerhoffen repeated the request. In a voice which was described as unforgettably "ineffable" by those who were present, the dying Founder spoke these simple words in response to their request: "I love them with all my heart."
If there is ever a moment in life to utter a profound statement, it is surely at the moment of death. A founder's final words to his followers are not only a precious memory to be forever cherished. They are also a charter which sets the future course of the Congregation.
Here lay dying was an eminently practical man, a man of science. Whenever he encountered a concrete need, he addressed that need in a manner that was both practical and helpful. He had done that all his life, especially in meeting the faith and social needs of young working girls, as we just noted above. Here was a man who could build an astronomical and tidal clock which still marvels those who study it today and for which he won a silver medal during the 1860 Science Exposition which was held that year in Troyes. Here was a man who invented a thermos system to keep hot the food that was prepared in a central kitchen while it made its way each day to his many apostolic establishments in and around Troyes.
What does this eminently practical and wondrously gifted man leave as legacy to his double Congregation? The simple words, "I love them with all my heart."
But in those words he has left us everything.
Love, of which the Founder speaks here, is a matter of the heart. It relishes the basic goodness in each confrËre and every person, and does all in its power to actualize that goodness. It works on behalf of each person's betterment. It never sees itself as superior to those with whom it lives or those whom it serves. Nor does it act in a manner which suggests such an attitude. It is both servant and friend to all.
Love is rooted in respect. Respect, in turn, is rooted in the fact of our faith that each person is created in God's image and is destined for God's friendship in this life and for lasting union with him in the next.
Every other competency --speaking, teaching, and writing skills, an ability in administration, personnel and finances, a commanding presence and great learning, and so forth --must be considered secondary to the simple fact of a genuine and sincere love for others. Consider the example of Jesus. Remember the example of Francis de Sales. Most of all, learn from the Founder whose parting words to us are these: "I love them with all my heart!"
A KIND DEED
There is a very telling but little known incident in the life of Father Brisson which illustrates for me the simple but profound quality of his kindness and charity towards others.
As we all know, Father Brisson engaged the assistance of Father Claude Perrot of the Benedictine Monastery in Einsideln, Switzerland, to write our Constitutions. Their collaboration lasted for many years. While in Rome on a recent visit, I read their exchange of letters. Those letters are beautifully housed in our newly renovated archives. In a letter dated February 15, 1868, Father Perrot thanks Father Brisson for a little act of kindness. Father Perrot's eyesight was very poor and worsened over the years. Knowing this, Father Brisson had personally re-copied one of the Good Mother's letters to Father Perrot before forwarding it to him. He wrote it in large letters so that it could be more easily read. In his letter to Father Brisson, Father Perrot says: "I was touched --almost to the point of tears- when I realized that you had taken the trouble to copy the letter of the Reverend Mother so that I could read it more easily." I suspect that this was just one of many such instances in which Father Brisson took the time from his incredibly busy life to make the life of another person just a little bit easier.
This act speaks volumes to each of us. All of us are concerned about many important matters associated with our various apostolates of education, parish life, missionary work, and so many others. But in the midst of all these, we ought to imitate our Founder and take the time to do little acts of kindness for those with whom we live in community and those on behalf of whom we minister in our many apostolates.
Made to God's holy image, the individual in the Salesian tradition is irreplaceably unique and is to be reverenced and served with great care, dignity and respect. In this spirit, send a little note to someone who is in pain or who has lost a loved one. Congratulate one of the confrËres who has succeeded in some project. Let them know that you rejoice in their success! When you are with people, speak of their families, of their concerns, of their well-being. Lift the encounter from the purely formal or business level to the level of Christian fraternity and friendship.
Father Brisson could have simply passed on that letter to Father Perrot, without any thought as to how difficult it would be for him to read it. He did not do that. He took the letter in hand, re-copied it in large letters and sent it on. Were it not for someone reading that exchange of letters 120 years after they were written, no one but Father Perrot would ever have known of this small but not insignificant act of kindness. How many countless other such acts of charity lay hidden, except before God, in the life of this good and holy Founder? His is an example worthy of imitation!
"That Appearance was the Dominant Fact of my Life"
Faith was as essential as love in the Founder's life.
On December 20, 1890, Father Brisson celebrated one of the many moments of his diamond jubilee of ordination. This particular celebration was with his beloved Oblate Sisters. On that occasion, he distributed holy cards to them with the Nunc dimittis written out on the reverse side. The expression, "my eyes have seen your salvation," were highlighted because, as the Founder explained, "In that way, I affirm the appearance with which I was gifted by Our Lord. It was the dominant fact of my life...It was this appearance which told me what I must do" with my life.
We are all familiar with the story of the appearance. It is a key chapter in the history of the foundation of the Congregation. On February 24, 1845, Jesus appeared before a reluctant Founder in the upper parlor of the Troyes Visitation. Now, forty-five years later, on this solemn occasion of his diamond jubilee, and now a very old man who has less than eight years to live, he characterizes that event as "the dominant fact" of his life.
What does that remarkable event say to us about our Oblate life? Following the example of the Founder, we are to live our lives within the context of faith. And by faith, I do not mean, principally, the content of a creed or a catechism. What I mean is what the Founder experienced. He enjoyed a direct and very personal experience of Jesus. That experience colored each and every moment of the remainder of his extraordinary life and remarkable ministry.
That faith sustained him in the darkest days of his difficulties with Bishop Cortet as well as during those horrible years when many of those who were closest to him in both Congregations were exiled from France and when all of his projects and foundations in France were closed down by a hostile government. We know that he died in a house which had, just days earlier, escaped public auction. His funeral cortege passed the doors of his beloved St. Bernard's which also had been forcibly closed by an anti-clerical government. The few Oblate sisters who accompanied the funeral procession had to dress in lay clothes because of the dictates of that same government. His funeral cortege could only pause before the Monastery of the Visitation. It could not enter there. Its bells tolled for him while the sisters gathered in chapel to pray for their beloved chaplain and friend. Most of his priestly life had been associated with that Monastery and its hollowed walls. He had received spiritual nourishment there, as well as lasting friendship. There he and his holy colleague, Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, had struggled to know and then to accept God's designs for the Oblate Congregations. Shortly after her death, he had been forbidden by his bishop to continue there as their chaplain.
Through all these events, which were surely his darkest moments, Father Brisson exercised a quiet, dignified and effective ministry as priest, chaplain and Founder. It was a ministry that was sustained by a faith which was rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus as both his Lord and his Friend. He knew, in both theory and through the hard light of experience, that followers of Jesus accompany a suffering and crucified Lord!
That is a lesson which each Christian must learn. And we Oblates are no exception. I do not need to remind you, for example, that life in community is frequently challenging. For that reason, St. Francis de Sales used to remind the early Visitandines that the faults and idiosyncrasies of those with whom we live in community are the "soul's friend" because of the many opportunities which they provide us for the practice of virtue. We know from our own experience the truth of this. Let us not forget, either, that we render a similar service to others!
I know that, at times, some of us have feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Honest with ourselves, we are fully aware of our own short-comings and failures. Frequently, others do not hesitate to point them out to us as well! There are, despite our best efforts, some failures and many disappointments. Occasionally, our motives are questioned and our plans challenged. Indeed, the road which we travel as religious is often a rocky one. But, like the Founder in similar situations, a deeply personal faith in Jesus will sustain us in those moments and through those challenges.
And as we age we often feel a bit overwhelmed by the diminishments of health, mind, and perhaps spirit as well. At those times, let us think of the aging and frail Founder who remained virtually alone in France with all of his projects closed and most of the Oblates of both Congregations scattered. Yet, he knew that Jesus remained with him. Therefore, even in the midst of those trials which took place after a life-time of many other difficulties, his faith permitted him to see the bright side of things. As he reminded Mother Aviat at this moment, "We would have remained too concentrated here [in Troyes and in France]. The good God is disseminating us upon the winds!" Those seeds continue to fall and take root throughout the world today! Faith permitted the Founder to see that, and to salute it from afar. Let us Oblates be worthy of him.
WORKERS AND VISITANDINES
In recounting the route which Father Brisson's funeral cortege took on February 6th, the day of his burial, Father Dufour describes the scene in the suburb of Croncels: "At this moment [it] was filled with working men and women who left their factories to salute the remains of the friend and benefactor of the humble. " Next he recounts its solemn and poignant pause before the Visitation Monastery whose bells tolled solemnly while its sisters prayed silently within.
Working men and women and Visitandines! Their presence at this sad moment of passing is a powerful reminder of a two-fold focus in this great man's life: his apostolic heart and its prayerful center. This two-fold focus is a special mark of the Oblate vocation.
We are an apostolic Congregation. The Oblate Sisters were founded to address the faith and spiritual needs of poor working girls. Several years later, we Oblates were established to engage in educating young minds and hearts for life in the modern world, and to participate in the ministry of the Church by bringing Jesus and his gospel to "society just as it is" (see Constitution 12). And just as our Founder exercised his incredibly effective ministry among the humble and poor from the center of contemplative prayer, so must we.
When we speak of Oblates, then, we must speak of men who consciously link their busy apostolic lives with the inner quiet of a prayerful center. Additionally, we must speak of men who teach those they serve to do the same. Keep in mind that, from the very beginning, Father Brisson envisioned the members of his new Congregations as being apostolic men and women who are deeply imbued with the prayerful spirit of the Visitation. He saw such a vision as being in continuity with the desire of both St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. Indeed, Father Brisson saw our Congregation as the "second half " of Francis's own work, that is, as the apostolic complement of the contemplative ministry of the Visitation.
Father Roger Balducelli used to write of the contemplative core which is at the center of an Oblate's active apostolic life. That tradition stems from the Founder's own life and conviction. It is, therefore, an essential ingredient in our Oblate life.
Thus, in imitation of the Founder himself, we Oblates are expected to be, first and foremost, men of daily mental prayer, men who go forth from those quiet moments of prayer into busy lives of apostolic service on behalf of others. Such prayer insures that we bring to others, not just the competence of intelligent and gifted men, but also the hearts and hands of men of faith, of hope, and of love. In this context, the Founder's encouragement to us "take your student to prayer" ought to characterize each Oblate and every Oblate ministry. For us Oblates, such prayer is truly apostolic!
Our Founder was an incredibly resourceful apostolic man. He was also a man of remarkable charity, deep faith, and persevering prayer. In all this, he left us a life worthy of both praise and imitation.
THE YEAR 2000
During the meeting of major superiors this past July we discussed ways of celebrating the 125th anniversary of the death of the Good Mother and of the foundation of the Congregation in the year 2000. An idea which is still being explored would bring together representatives of Oblates in formation from throughout the world to Annecy and Troyes just prior to the General Chapter of that year. Delegates to the Chapter would be invited to join them in Troyes for a Mass and celebration of these events. Afterwards, both the men in formation and the chapter delegates would proceed to Fockenfeld for the General Chapter where the confrËres in formation would lead the chapter delegates in a day of recollection. They would then be invited to remain as observers of the Chapter's proceedings.
From September 20th until October 16th, I will be in France (including BÈnin) and Switzerland for the canonical visitations of those Provinces. Please pray for the success of these visitations. While I am in BÈnin, our novices there will make their first profession. What an encouragement this event will be, not only for the French Province, but for the entire Congregation as well!
The General Council will meet in early January in Monte Carlo. I will preach the annual retreat and make a visitation of the South American Region in late January and early February. The visitation of the Toledo-Detroit Province is scheduled for April-May. The Preparatory Commission will meet in Allentown in July and the visitation of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province will follow for several months beginning in September.
I know that I can count on your fraternal prayers and support through these busy months ahead. I do count on them. Please know that you are daily in my thoughts and prayers as well!
Fraternally yours in our saintly Patron and holy Founders,
Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS