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St. Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861)

Hello and welcome to INSPIRING LIVES, a series on the lives of Saints in the catholic church from around the world. In this series we bring you those saints who are canonized by Pope John Paul II. Saints are holy people who lived ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. Each saint the Church honors responded to God's invitation to use his or her unique gifts. These saints are examples of great holiness and virtue, and they invite us to follow their paths to holiness. Their unique stories inspire us to be rooted in our faith. God calls each one of us to be a saint.
Today we listen to the heroic life of Saint Eugene de Mazenod, Bishop of Marseille, founder of the Congregation of the Missionaries, Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He was canonized on 3rd December 1995. His life and deeds remain for all a window unto God Himself even today.
Listen: RealAudioMP3
Charles Joseph Eugene De Mazenod came into a world that was destined to change very quickly. Born in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France on August 1, 1782, he seemed assured of position and wealth from his family, who were of the minor nobility. However, the French Revolution changed all that forever. When Eugene was just eight years old his family fled France, leaving their possessions behind, and started a long and difficult eleven year exile in Italy.
The Mazenod family, now political refugees, trailed through a number of cities in Italy. His father, who had been President of the Court of Accounts, Aids and Finances in France, was forced to try his hand at trade to support his family. He proved to be a poor businessman, and as the years went on the family came close to destitution. Eugene studied briefly at the College of Nobles in Turin, but a move to Venice meant the end to his formal schooling.
A sympathetic priest, Don Bartolo Zinelli, living nearby, undertook to educate the young French migrant. Don Bartolo gave Eugene a fundamental education, but with a lasting sense of God and a regimen of piety which was to stay with him. A further move to Naples, because of financial problems, led to a time of boredom and helplessness. The family moved again, this time to Palermo where, thanks to the kindness of the Duke and Duchess of Cannizzaro, Eugene had his first taste of noble living and found it very much to his liking. He took to himself the title of "Count" de Mazenod, did all the courtly things, and dreamed of a bright future.
In 1802, at the age of 20, Eugene was able to return to his homeland - and all his dreams were quickly shattered. He was just plain "Citizen" de Mazenod. France was a changed world, his parents had separated, his mother was fighting to get back the family possessions. She was also intent on marrying off Eugene to the richest possible heiress. He sank into depression, seeing little future for himself. But his natural qualities of concern for others, together with the faith fostered in Venice began to assert themselves.
Eugene was deeply affected by the disastrous situation of the French Church, which had been ridiculed, attacked and decimated by the Revolution. A calling to the priesthood began to manifest itself, and Eugene answered that call. Despite opposition from his mother, he entered the seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris, and on 21 December 1811, he was ordained a priest in Amiens.
Returning to Aix-en-Provence, Eugene started to exercise his priesthood in the care of the truly spiritually needy-prisoners, youth, servants, and villagers. Often in the face of opposition from the local clergy, Eugene pursued his course. Soon he sought out other zealous priests who were prepared to step outside the old structures. Eugene and his men preached in the language of the common people. From village to village they went, instructing people, spending amazingly long hours in the confessional. In between these parish missions the group joined in an intense community life of prayer, study and fellowship. They called themselves "Missionaries of Provence".
To ensure continuity in the work, Eugene took the bold step of going directly to the Pope and asking that his group be recognized officially as a Religious Congregation of pontifical right. His faith and his persistence paid off, and on February 17, 1826, Pope Leo XII approved the new Congregation, the "Oblates of Mary Immaculate". Eugene was elected Superior General, and continued to inspire and guide his men for 35 years, until his death.
Together with their growing apostolic endeavours - preaching, youth work, care of shrines, prison chaplaincy, confessors, direction of seminaries, parishes - Eugene insisted on deep spiritual formation and a close community life. He was a man who loved Christ with passion and was always ready to take on any apostolate if he saw it answering the needs of the Church. The "glory of God, the good of the Church and the sanctification of souls" were impelling forces for him.
The Diocese of Marseilles, France, had been suppressed after the 1802 Concordat, and when it was re-established, Eugene's aged uncle, Canon Fortune de Mazenod, was named Bishop. He appointed Eugene Vicar General immediately, and most of the difficult work of re-building the Diocese fell to him. Within a few years, in 1832, Eugene himself was named auxiliary bishop. His Episcopal ordination took place in Rome, in defiance of the pretensions of the French Government that it had the right to sanction all such appointments. This caused a bitter diplomatic battle, and Eugene was caught in the middle. Though battered, Eugene steered ahead resolutely, and finally the impasse was broken. Five years later, he was appointed to the See of Marseilles as its Bishop, when Bishop Fortune retired.
Though Eugene had founded the Oblates of Mary Immaculate primarily to serve the spiritually needy and deprived of the French countryside, his zeal for the Kingdom of God and his devotion to the Church moved the Oblates to the edge of the apostolate. His men ventured into Switzerland, England, and Ireland. Because of his zeal, Eugene had been called ‘a second Paul’, and bishops came to him asking for Oblates for their expanding mission fields. Eugene responded willingly and sent his men out to Canada, the United States, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Lesotho.
As missionaries, the Oblates fanned out preaching, baptizing, and caring. They frequently opened up previously uncharted lands, established and manned many new dioceses. In a multitude of ways they continued to try and advance the Kingdom of Christ, so that today the impulse of Eugene de Mazenod is alive in his men in 68 countries.
Eugene was an outstanding pastor of the Church of Marseilles-ensuring the best seminary training for his priests, establishing new parishes, building the city's cathedral and the spectacular Shrine of Notre Dame de la Garde above the city, encouraging his priests to lives of holiness, introducing many Religious Congregations to work in the diocese, leading his fellow Bishops in support of the rights of the Pope. He grew into a towering figure in the French Church. In 1856, Napoleon III appointed him a Senator, and at his death at the age of 79, in 1861 he was the senior bishop of France.
When Eugene de Mazenod returned to his God, he left behind several achievements, many of them born in suffering. For his religious family and for his diocese, he was a founding and life-giving source: for God and for the Church, he was a faithful and generous son. As he was approaching his final moment, he left his Oblates a final testament, "Among yourselves - charity, charity, charity: in the world - zeal for souls."
The Church in declaring Eugene a saint on 3 December 1995, crowns two pivots of his living - love and zeal. His life and his deeds remain for all a window unto God Himself. And that is the greatest gift that Eugene de Mazenod offers us today.
You have been listening to INSPIRING LIVES, a weekly series based on the lives of Catholic Saints from around the world, brought to you by Vatican Radio’s English Service for South Asia.
By P.J. Joseph SJ


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