Saint of the Day – 21 May – St Eugene de Mazenod O.M.I. (1782-1861) Priest, Bishop, Founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Evangeliser, Missionary Preacher, Apostle of the poor and marginalised – born Charles-Joseph-Eugène de Mazenod on 1 August 1782 at Aix-en-Provence, southern France and died on 21 May 1861 at Marseille, France of cancer. When his body was exhumed in 1936 it was found to be incorrupt. Patronages – refugees, missionaries, families.
Eugene de Mazenod was born into an aristocratic family, on 1 August 1782 and baptised the following day in the Église de la Madeleine in Aix-en-Provence. His father, Charles Antoine de Mazenod, was one of the Presidents of the Court of Finances and his mother was Marie Rose Joannis. Eugene began his schooling at the College Bourbon but this was interrupted by the events of the French Revolution. With the approach of the French revolutionary forces, the family was forced to flee to Italy.
He became a boarder at the College of Nobles in Turin but a move to Venice meant the end to formal schooling. With their money running out, Eugene’s father was forced to seek various employments, none of which were successful. His mother and sister returned to France – eventually seeking a divorce so as to be able to regain their property that had been seized. Eugene was fortunate to be welcomed by the Zinelli family in Venice. This is how it happened:
One day when Eugene was playing at the window of his house, Fr Bartolo Zinelli (1766-1803) appeared on the other side of the street and asked him, “Are you not afraid of wasting your time?” “Alas, responded Eugene, it is really awful, but what can I do? I am a foreigner here without any books available to me.” “Well, then”, replied Don Bartolo, “I am right in my library at the moment and here I have many books in Latin, Italian and French.” Having said this, he took up the stick that was used to bar the shutters and put a book on it and passed it over the narrow, approximately one and one half meter street.
After having read the book, Eugene, following the advice of his father, went to Don Bartolo’s house to thank him for this kind gesture. “Well,” said Don Bartolo, “do you see this lovely library? All of these books are available to you as well.” Then, Don Bartolo showed Eugene his study where he and his brother Don Pietro used to study and told him, “You can take the place here of my younger brother who has died.” Eugene could not contain his joy. “Well, then, you can begin tomorrow already.”
Fr Bartolo Zinelli took special care of Eugene and saw to his education in the well-provided family library where the young adolescent spent many hours each day and was a major influence in the human, academic and spiritual development of Eugene.
Once again the French army chased the émigrés from Venice, forcing Eugene and his father and two uncles to seek refuge in Naples for less than a year and, finally, to flee to Palermo in Sicily. Here Eugene was invited to become part of the household of the Duke and Duchess of Cannizaro as a companion to their two sons. Being part of the high society of Sicily became the opportunity for Eugene to rediscover his noble origins and to live a lavish style of life. He took to himself the title of ‘Comte’ (“Count”) de Mazenod, did all the courtly things and dreamed of a bright future.
Spiritual journey of conversion
At the age of twenty, Eugene returned to France and lived with his mother in Aix en Provence. Initially he enjoyed all the pleasures of Aix as a rich young nobleman, intent on the pursuit of pleasure and money – and a rich girl who would bring a good dowry. Gradually he became aware of how empty his life was and began to search for meaning in more regular church involvement, reading and personal study and charitable work among prisoners. His journey came to a climax on Good Friday, 1807 when he was 25 years old. Looking at the sight of the Cross, he had a religious experience. The sight of the oblation of Jesus on the Cross, with his arms outstretched in love, led Eugene to respond in love: “What more glorious occupation than to act in everything and for everything only for God, to love Him above all else, to love Him all the more as one who has loved Him too late.”
In 1808, he expressed his desire for dedication to Jesus the Saviour by beginning his studies for the priesthood at the Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris and was ordained a priest at Amiens (Picardy), on 21 December 1811. Since Napoleon had expelled the Sulpician priest from the seminary, Eugene stayed on as a formator for a semester. As a member of the Seminary, notwithstanding personal risk, Eugene committed himself to serve and assist Pope Pius VII, who at this time was a prisoner of emperor Napoleon I at Fontainebleau. In this way, he experienced at firsthand, the suffering of the post-Revolutionary Church.
On his return to Aix, Father de Mazenod asked not to be assigned to a parish but to dedicate himself fully to evangelising those who were not being touched by the structures of the local church: the poor who spoke only the Provençal language, prisoners, youth, the inhabitants of poor villages who were ignorant of their faith. His constant message was, to invite people to enter into the same experience of Jesus, that he had at his conversion. Looking at everyone and every situation through the eyes of the Saviour, he showed the poor the human and spiritual dignity that was theirs and taught them how to live in relationship with the Saviour. The goal of his priestly preaching and ministry was always to lead others to develop themselves fully as humans, then as Christians and finally to become saints.
Oblates of Mary Immaculate
On 25 January 1816, “impelled by a strong impulse from outside of himself” he invited other priests to join him in his life of total oblation to God and to the most abandoned of Provence. Initially called “Missionaries of Provence,” they dedicated themselves to evangelization through preaching parish missions in the poor villages, youth and prison ministry. In 181, a second community was established, at the Marian shrine of Notre Dame du Laus. This became the occasion for the missionaries to become a religious congregation, united through vows and the evangelical counsels. Changing their name to Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the group received papal approbation on 17 February 1826.
In 1841, Bishop Bourget of Montreal invited the Oblates to Canada. At the same time there was an outreach to the British Isles. This was the beginning of an inspiring history of missionary outreach to the most abandoned peoples in Canada, United States, Mexico, England and Ireland, Algeria, Southern Africa and Ceylon during the Founder’s lifetime. In 200 years this zeal spread and took root in the establishment of the Oblates in nearly 70 countries.
From 1837 to 1861, he was the Bishop of Marseille, in Provence (south-eastern France). During his episcopacy, he commissioned Notre-Dame de la Garde, an ornate Neo-Byzantine basilica on the south side of the old port of Marseille . He inspired local priest Joseph-Marie Timon-David to found the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Marseille in 1852.
Towards the end of his life, Eugene had become very free. Faced with the prospect of the Cardinalate which had been promised and which slipped away from him because of political considerations, he had this to say: “After all, it is all the same whether one is buried in a red cassock or a purple one; the main thing is that the bishop gets to heaven”.
Shortly before his death on May 21, 1861, in keeping with his temperament, the elderly and seriously ill bishop said to those around him: “Should I happen to doze off, or if I appear to be getting worse, please wake me up! I want to die knowing that I am dying”.
His last words to the Oblates were a testament that summed up his life: “Practice well among yourselves charity, charity, charity and outside, zeal for the salvation of souls”. Saint Eugene died on Pentecost Sunday, to the prayer of the Salve Regina. It was his final salute on earth to the one he considered as the “Mother of the Mission”.
St Eugene was Beatified on 19 October 1975 by Blessed Pope Paul VI and Canonised on 3 December 1995 by Sr Pope John Paul II.
21 May 2017 – more info from Vatican Resources on St Eugene: https://anastpaul.wordpress.com/2017/05/21/saint-of-the-day-21-may-st-eugene-de-mazenod-o-m-i/