What we cease to celebrate we will soon cease to cherish. This year, 2016, marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the religious congregation to which I belong, The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. We have a proud history, 200 years now, of ministering to the poor around the world. This merits celebrating.
As a writer, I don’t normally highlight the fact that I am a professed religious, just as I don’t usually highlight the fact that I’m a Roman Catholic priest, because I fear that labels such as “Catholic priest,” “Father,” or “Oblate of Mary Immaculate” attached to an author’s name serve more to limit readership than to increase it. Jesus, too, was pretty negative on religious labels. Mostly, though, I avoid writing under a specific religious label because I want to speak more through the wider prism of my humanity and my baptism than through the more specific prism of my priesthood and vowed religious commitment. It’s a choice I’ve made, respecting the choice of others.
With that being said, I want to break my own rules here and speak more specifically through the prism of my identity as vowed religious. So I write this particular column as Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, proud member of The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Let me begin with a little history. Our congregation was founded in Southern France in 1816 by Eugene de Mazenod, declared a saint by the church in 1995. Eugene was a diocesan priest who immediately upon entering the ministry saw that the Gospel wasn’t reaching many of the poor, and so he began to focus his own ministry very much on reaching out to the poor.
It takes a village to raise and child and, soon enough, he realized that it takes more than one person to bring about effective change. It takes a community to make compassion effective: What we dream alone remains a dream, what we dream with others can become a reality. So he sought out other like-minded men, diocesan priests like himself, and called them together around this mission and eventually they began to live together and formed a new religious congregation dedicated to serving the poor.
That was 200 years ago and the Oblates (as we’re commonly called) have had a proud, if not always comfortable, history since. Today we are ministering in 68 countries on every continent on earth and our mission is still the same. We serve the poor. That’s why you’ll find us ministering mainly on the margins of society, where mainstream society prefers not to cast its glance, on the borders with migrants, on First Nations reserves, in immigrant areas of our cities, in tough inner-city places where the police are reluctant to go, and in developing countries where access to food, health, and education are still scarce commodities. Our mission is not to the privileged, though we try to bring them onside with our mission, and our members themselves are often drawn from among the poor and our message to the young men entering our ranks is: If you join us, consider what’s not in it for you!
And we’re missionaries, meaning that we understand our task to be that of establishing communities and churches, helping them to become self-sufficient, and then moving on to do this over and over again. That may be a noble task, but it’s also a formula for heartache. It isn’t easy on the heart to be forever building something only to give it over to someone else and move on. You don’t ever get to have a permanent home, but there’s a compensation: as a missionary, after a while every place is home.
We aren’t a large congregation, with only about 4,000 members scattered in some 68 countries, humble in comparison to the likes of the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans. Indeed in an early version of the famous French Larousse Dictionary, we were described as “a kind of mini-Jesuit found mostly in rural areas.” We are flattered by this description. Our call is not to be in the limelight, but to be at the edges. No accident that it’s there, at the edges, in a rural area, where I met the Oblates.
We also pride ourselves on being robust, practical, earthy, and close to those we serve, and our dress often betrays this. Our families and close friends are forever buying us clothing to try to upgrade our less-than-stellar wardrobes. It’s not that we deliberately cultivate an image of being somewhat unkempt; it’s more that we tend to draw men to our ranks who have other priorities.
And our founder? He wasn’t an easy man, obsessed as he was, as sometimes saints are, by a single-mindedness that doesn’t easily tolerate weaknesses among those around him. He could exhibit blessed rage sometimes. I’m secretly glad I never met him in person, fearing his judgment on my own weaknesses; but I’m wonderfully glad for his charism and for that motley group of men, often over-casually dressed, who continue his mission.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.