At a 200th anniversary celebration Oct. 21 in Saskatoon, Rev. Ken Thorson, OMI, shared the founding story of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, before inviting Oblate priests, brothers and associates to come forward to add their signatures to a copy of the document signed by founder St. Eugene de Mazenod and his six companions, requesting creation of the order in 1816 France. (Tim Yaworski photo)
SASKATOON — The 200th anniversary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate was marked Oct. 21 in Saskatoon with celebration of the eucharist and a reception at St. Francis Xavier Parish.
Oblate priests, brothers and associates gathered with colleagues and friends from across the diocese for the celebration marking the establishment of the missionary order in 1816 by St. Eugene de Mazenod. Archbishop Donald Bolen presided at mass, with Rev. Ken Thorson, OMI, giving the homily.
“It is not the Oblate community and the work we’ve done over 200 years or even St. Eugene himself that we celebrate tonight — it is the fidelity of God who keeps his covenant, who continues to love us,” said Thorson.
Beginning with a reflection on the Gospel from Luke 4 in which Jesus unrolls the scroll in the synagogue and reads the words from the prophet Isaiah — “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” — telling his listeners that the Scripture is being fulfilled in their presence. “These are not words of prediction, these are words of inauguration,” said Thorson, describing Jesus asking his home town to recognize the burning bush that sits before them. “He is asking them to see that God keeps God’s promise. He is asking them to see that the Spirit of the Lord is right here, right now, among them.”
Thorson noted that this was a special Scripture passage for St. Eugene de Mazenod, often referenced, with the conviction born of his own experience of God’s mercy.
In a famous sermon in 1813 de Mazenod said to the poorest of the poor gathered for early morning mass: “Come now and learn what you are in the eyes of faith, poor in Jesus Christ, afflicted, wretched, suffering, all of you whom misery oppresses. My brothers, my dear brothers, respected brothers, listen to me. You are God’s children . . . lift your eyes, see for once beneath the rags that cover you, there is within you an immortal soul made in the image of God whom it is destined to possess one day, a soul ransomed at the price of the blood of Jesus Christ, . . . Christians, know your dignity.”
Burning with a call to awaken people to their dignity and encourage them to embrace it as Christians, St. Eugene and his first companions wrote a letter in 1816 asking that their little community be recognized and freed to do the work to further that vocation.
A copy of the document that St. Eugene de Mazenod and his five companions signed was on display, and Thorson invited Oblates and associates to come forward to add their signature to the letter as a sign of their ongoing commitment to the Oblate mission.
Of the six men who signed that letter in 1816 — Icard, Tempier, Maunier, Mie, Deblieu and de Mazenod — three would later leave the order, Thorson noted.
“But God would use that fragile, impermanent little community in southern France in 1816 as a foundation for a great work, and he has been doing so ever since, using fragile, impermanent, sinful people.”
Today there are some 4,000 men serving as Oblates of Mary Immaculate in some 70 countries, including France, Canada, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Senegal, Philippines, Peru, Australia and China, as well as “from Battleford to Beauval . . . from Macklin to Fox Valley, from Regina to Saskatoon,” listed Thorson.
“And in recent decades the Oblates have been blessed, deeply blessed, by all their Associates — the men and women, married and single, who, not called to religious life, still share our charism, and live it in profound and enriching ways together . . . to preach and proclaim the gospel, close to the people, to participate in the mission Jesus inaugurated that day at Nazareth.”
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate continue to live as people seeking conversion, Thorson said. “As we celebrate 200 years we are aware of the wheat that has been gathered, but we are also aware of the weeds that have been a part of our history and continue to be, and so we seek conversion.”
He pointed to the words of Pope Francis at a general chapter meeting, in which he described how the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were “born from an experience of mercy, lived by the young Eugene one Good Friday in the presence of Jesus crucified.”
“We Oblates are aware of sin, frailty, and our ongoing need for conversion, and we commit to that,” said Thorson. “We commit to a continued reconciliation — and it needs to be said in a particular way, reconciliation with indigenous people. Too often in our quest to bring the gospel, what indigenous peoples held most dear — language, spirituality, myth, ritual, the practices of raising the young and their relationship to the earth itself — in short, their culture, was all too often belittled and disregarded, and most horrible of all was the physical and sexual abuse of children. We Oblates played too significant a role in all of this, too often. And today we seek not to move on and forget, but to walk with, to listen and to learn.”
In looking back, aware of both grace and brokenness, the anniversary celebration is also a time to give thanks, Thorson said, “for all those people with whom we have had the privilege to walk with and minister to over the years.”
He acknowledged the many communities of religious women that the Oblates have worked with over two centuries, and the parishioners, bishops and priests who have become friends of the Oblate community. “I think of the great benefactors whose prayer and generosity has helped us carry out the ministry given to us by God. I think of the people to whom we were sent as ministers and leaders, and whom we failed, and hurt in one way or another, and who forgave us. And I think about families who sacrificed much but continued to encourage and sustain us. For all of this I am grateful.”
At the conclusion of the celebration Archbishop Donald Bolen thanked the Oblates for their service, humility and sincerity in living the gospel: “Many of us here today have been deeply shaped by the Oblates, educated by them, nourished by them, befriended by them, rescued and healed by them.”