OTTAWA (CCN) — The Superior General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Rev. Louis Lougen found himself drawn by the love of God the Father to become a missionary.
Lougen, who was in Ottawa March 15 to receive an honorary doctorate from Saint Paul University, said one of his first inklings of that love occurred when he was three or four years old, and walked into his father’s room to kiss him goodnight.
He found his father, “a big, strong policeman who had been a Marine in World War II,” kneeling at his bedside, saying his prayers. “That image touched me,” he said. “It spoke to me of God, something about God in my life as a father.”
Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1953, Lougen was one of five boys in a family of six children. His mother worked as a cook. Even though she was extremely busy working and raising her children, the “rosary was always in her hands.”
But Lougen’s vocation did not crystalize until he was in a high school run by the Oblates.
In May of 1969, at a school mass, an Oblate priest who had gone off to do a mission trip to Pennsylvania among the coal miners in Appalachia gave a homily in which he said, “These families need priests or brothers to walk with them, to remind them of God’s love for them in their poverty and to help them have a better life.”
After that homily Lougen realized, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be a priest for the poor. That’s how I want to give my life.”
The desire was reinforced when he heard other Oblates’ stories of the mission field in Brazil and Japan, he said. He also found himself attracted to the Oblates brotherly and family spirit.
Though he struggled with the usual adolescent “misgivings, and growing pains” and a lack of a good self-image, that “homily was the lightbulb went on from God that is what I want you do.”
In 1970, at age, 17, he entered the juniorate to start his college studies. In November of that year he had a profound experience he described as “a little supernatural.”
It was a First Friday, and he had gone to the chapel to say his prayers. “There I had a very deep, personal experience of God’s love for me, even though sometimes I didn’t feel adequate, or I could do this.” Even though he struggled with “feelings of insecurity,” the experience of God’s love made him realize “what was important in life, not so much what I can or can’t do, or what I know or don’t know but knowing God’s love and being able to share that with other people. That was what being a missionary was all about.” That powerful experience during the novitiate prompted him to develop a life of prayer and a relationship with God.
He then entered the novitiate in 1972, what he termed the “boot camp of religious life.” He described it as “a wonderful year; a hard year.”
During that time, they studied the documents of the Second Vatican Council. He recalled the hope and joy they reflected, especially in the universal call to holiness, and the hopes of the church to bring justice to the world.
Lougen then went on to study at the Oblate College of the Northeast in Washington, D.C., where he took two years of philosophy and four years of theology. At this time, however, people were beginning to leave religious life. By the time he finished his studies, the cohort he had started with had been reduced to four men. “People were not entering anymore but people were leaving,” he said.
In 1976, in preparation for his final vows, he asked God for “the grace to be a missionary.” After he was ordained a deacon in 1978, he had his first experience in the mission field, in the favelas of Brazil.
The culture shock he experienced had nothing to do with the food or the people he met. “It was the church that was so different,” he said. He went to his first mass, which was celebrated in Portuguese. Right afterward, the people moved all the chairs into a circle. Some of the men were smoking in the church and talking about arranging a workers’ strike. “I’m at this first mass and I’m shocked! What’s going on here?” he said.
But he came to realize the church represented the only place where people were free to talk about Brazil’s military dictatorship and how to change it.
“Little by little I began to see this wonderful church welcoming the poor, and supporting the poor on a journey looking for freedom for the people of the country,” he said.
He was in Sao Paulo, a city of 18 million, where the poor lived on the margins, in favelas where there were no roads only dirt paths, no sewerage or running water. People were organizing to try to get better housing, electric lights and generally improve their lives, he said.
At the time the price of rice and beans was skyrocketing so a group of mostly women organized a demonstration, taking their empty pots and spoons to the plaza by the cathedral, with plans to beat the pots at a prearranged time. This crowd of mostly women, with some men, encountered tanks, police with shields and hundreds of police dogs, he said. As the people entered the plaza, the police started throwing gas bombs into the crowd. The cathedral was normally closed at that time, but its doors were flung open and tens of thousands of people squeezed inside for protection from the police.
The first words that came from the cardinal were “The kingdom of God is our only hope,” Lougen said.
“The church was an ark of salvation quite literally,” he said. That image reinforced in his mind the notion that “the church is a church of the poor, with the poor, for the poor,” he said.
Lougen returned to Washington, D.C., to be ordained a priest, and then returned to Brazil as a missionary in the Sao Paulo Oblate province.
He found himself inspired by the faith he discovered among the poor, even those with terribly broken lives.
Not long after his return to Brazil, police murdered 12 young men in the favela, but the families were too afraid to bury them, for fear the police would target them, too, he said. So a woman called Maria Baixinha, “Little Maria,” went door to door collecting what little she could, and eventually was able to buy the coffins for the men so Lougen could celebrate their funeral. It was an act of courage on her part and on the peoples’ part to attend this funeral, he said.
I asked her, ‘How do you keep going?” considering she was living in dire poverty, with problems in her family, living surrounded by violence. “It’s the Holy Spirit, don’t you know!” she replied.
The people in the favelas “looked after us,” he said. When he had problems with his back, they took over the house, cooking and cleaning. There were beautiful relationships among the people, even if by most standards they would not be considered good Catholics, not married in the church and so on. But there was something holy, and good in a human way about them, and in the way they helped each other in poverty, he said.
Every Sunday night, a group would gather to pray the rosary, and they would hear gun shots and screaming in the distance.
Pope Francis’ image of the field hospital is apt, he said. It forces one to ask what the priorities are among people whose lives have been shattered, who are hurt, and wounded profoundly.
Yet at the same time, they have a faith that is “so deep and surprising,” he said.
Lougen spent 17 years as a missionary priest in Brazil. In 2010, he was elected the 13th Superior General of the Congregation and is now based in Rome.
As for the future of the Oblates, Lougen said the days of armies of men marching out in their cassocks, carrying crosses are over. Instead, he has images of yeast, or the Spirit working through small groups, similar to that of Jesus and the 12 disciples, or Oblates founder Eugene de Mazenod’s initial group of four.
“God has to keep it alive,” he said. “I’m just working for him.”
During the General Chapter that elected him in 2010, there was much talk about the call to personal conversion to Jesus Christ. “Now six years later there are signs of the Spirit popping up all over,” he said.
In Ephesians, St. Paul writes “The Spirit working in us can do infinitely more than we ask or imagine,” he said. “I don’t think we believe it!”
Though there are fewer people, Lougen said it is important to stay hopeful, and express the joy of the Spirit. It might be a time of “letting go of the big numbers and the big institutions,” he said. “But God is working in a different way.”