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Marist Bulletin - Number 199


Marcellin believed in God and he relied on Mary

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Br. Seán Sammon

Marcellin Champagnat’s greatest problem was the fact that he believed in God. That’s right: belie-ved in God, lived his life as though God existed, was convinced that God loved and looked out for him.
Added to all that was the fact that he relied on Mary; spoke to her as though she were a sister and confidant; believed without a moment’s hesitation that our Institute was her work.
Finally, Marcellin was a simple and straightforward person who lived in a time of dramatic change. There was no guile in him. He called the shots as he saw them.
The presence of God, reliance on Mary and her protection, the uncomplicated virtue of simplicity: these are the three building blocks, if you will, that gave the founder’s life meaning, sustained him in times good and bad, brought him home to the Lord.
But there was something else again that fashioned and shaped this man, gave him the strength to take the risks that he did, urged him on in spite of the trials he faced. We call it his charism, what Paul VI referred to as an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Charism was at the heart of Marcellin Champagnat’s life and it must be at the heart of our lives as his brothers and all those lay Marists who have made his dream their own.
Now, throughout history the word charism has been defined in different ways. Some have used it to describe certain personalities, others to characterize particular movements. Still others have insisted that charism refers to specific works thought to be in keeping with a founding person’s inspiration. Unfortunately, none of these definitions is helpful for our purposes today.
Permit me, therefore, to define charism as a free gift of the Spirit, given for the good of the Church, and for the use of all. That’s right: a free gift of the Spirit, given for the good of the Church, and the use of all. We should not confuse it with grace. A charism is bestowed because of God’s love for the world, grace because of God’s gratuitous love for the person.
Saint Paul wrote at length about the subject of charisms. He was intrigued by their uniqueness and universal presence, and pointed out that one is given to this person, and another to that, but for the good of all. Paul put it this way, “To each person a distinct manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” 1 Cor. 12:7.

The Apostle to the Gentiles also pointed out that the charism that is part of the life of each one of us is an important element in the process of conversion in which we must be involved many times over. The presence of love was for Paul the best indicator that a change of heart had taken place, a love evident in actions rather than empty words. Writing to the Christian community in Corinth, he made the same point: Love is patient, kind, does not put on airs.
Unfortunately, most of us today hardly ever think of ourselves as having a personal gift of the Spi-rit. We need to understand better the many ways in which God chooses to be present in us for the good of everyone else.
When the word charism is applied to a religious Institute like our own, it takes on a different mea-ning than when used to refer solely to you or me. There are two reasons for the distinction: the Institute’s charism has endured over time, and has been shaped by many different people. The presence of those two factors, endured over time and shaped by many different people, moves a charism from the realm of the personal to that of the universal Church.
Paul VI identified several characteristics as signs of a charism’s presence: fidelity to the Lord, at-tention to the signs of the times, boldness in initiative, constancy in the giving of oneself, humility in bearing with adversities, and a willingness to be part of the Church.
And so the charism that entered our Church and world through our founder is much more than certain works thought to be faithful to Marcellin’s original vision, more than a style of prayer or a particular spirituality—as important as both might be—and more than a composite of the qualities that marked our founder.
If we are convinced about the existence of charism, we must believe that the Spirit that was so alive and active in Marcellin Champagnat longs to live and breathe in you and me today. Our cha-rism as an Institute is what gives us life, stretches us beyond the familiar, helps us to take the risks we must if the mission is to be carried out. When François prayed for the grace to become a “por-trait of the founder,” I cannot help but believe he was asking God to make evident in him and in his brothers the very same charism about which we speak today.
If Vatican II taught us anything, it taught us that you cannot contain the Holy Spirit. The charism of an Institute like our own must not only be lived and preserved by those of us who are members, it must also be deepened and constantly developed in union with the People of God, who are them-selves in a state of continual growth. Consequently, it supposes a particular spirituality with its own structures, customs, language, tradition, and mission.
Prior to Vatican II, conventional wisdom held otherwise. Most people thought that charisms were restricted to particular religious Institutes and their members. Ignatius’s charism appeared to resi-de with the Jesuits alone; Francis’s solely with Franciscans; Dominic’s inspiration available exclu-sively to members of his Order of Preachers.
Over time, we have come to realize that we cannot restrict God’s generosity. The charism that came into our world through Marcellin Champagnat is today touching the hearts and capturing the imagination of both brothers and laity alike.
Rome, June 4th 2005

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