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St. Elizabeth of Schoenau
1900: the first Brothers leave for Bom Principio, Brazil

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Marist Bulletin - Number 280


Reflexion of the Superior General on the Institute’s Anniversary

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This reflexion was given by the Superior General, Br. Seán Sammon, on January 2nd, during the mass in the General House in commemoration of the 190th Institute’s anniversary.

During the early months of 1845 Adrian Durand faced a crisis of choice. Having begun his seminary studies at age 12 under the tutelage of Abbé Fayolle, in Privas, the town of his birth, this keen, quiet and methodical student had done well. He related easily with his classmates, and in time moved on to a junior seminary and eventually entered the major seminary at Viviers in 1843. There, as elsewhere, his biographers tell us he continued to work diligently and showed signs of genuine holiness.

A time comes in the life of any seminary student, however, when he must either make a serious commitment to his preparation for priesthood or find another direction for his life. A growing uneasiness with life as they find it is the initial experience of many who eventually make the second choice. When this type of uneasiness persists over time, it must be addressed with integrity. It was in exactly this situation that Adrian found himself when he returned to his family’s home for the holidays in 1844. And so, he was intent on making a decision about what direction in life to take.

Adrian’s mother thinking that the strength and intercession of Saint Francis Regis might light the way ahead for her son suggested a pilgrimage to his shrine at La Louvesc. Adrian readily agreed and mother and son set out quickly on foot to make this 40 kilometer journey. Thirty nine years earlier, almost to the day, during a critical moment in his own seminary studies, Marie Chirat Champagnat had set out with her son Marcellin on the very same journey.

Why tell this story about Adrian, later Brother Theophane, Durant and his struggle to find a direction in life. I tell it because it illustrates well what happens when God’s makes up his mind and decides that things must change. Everyone who knew Adrian realized that he would have made a fine priest. But God had other plans and so at age 21 on September 6th, 1845 he entered the novitiate of the Little Brothers of Mary at Notre Dame de l’Hermitage and began his formation.

Father Champagnat had been dead but five years and many of his earliest companions were still alive, some among them now developing a reputation for virtue. Numbered among that group was one by the name of Brother Bonaventure. His gentle spirit, inherent goodness, and evident humility and selflessness attracted young Adrien and helped teach him this important lesson: God does not call any of us to a life of mediocrity but rather uses the events of our lives and all else that happens to shape us for the mission that he has in mind.

And so, today, as we mark 190 years as an Institute we are celebrating more a sending than a beginning. We are bearing witness not to almost two centuries of fidelity and hard work on our part and that of so many of our lay partners but rather providing evidence as to what God can do with some very rough stones when he decides that the time is right.

Many here will remember that Theophane was Superior General from 1880 until 1903. Consequently, he had to face a number of hostile measures in France initiated by those in Freemasonry and aimed at religious congregations. These were actually already in place when he became Superior General in 1880, but by the turn of the century their intended effect—the sectarian destruction of Christian education—was evident. Despite that fact, religious congregations continued to grow in number and vigor until 1903 when action was taken to exterminate them once and for all.

Today’s gospel reading has a bearing on the anniversary we celebrate today and also on the life of this extraordinary man, Theophane Durant, who lead our Institute during one of its most challenging periods in its history. John the Baptizer understood his role very well. Throughout the interrogations of this son of Zackary and Elizabeth that appear in Scripture, he is quite clear: he is not the Messiah but rather one who helps us to recognize him in our midst. And by word and in deed, he did just that.

John’s words, and the events of his life, remind us that none of us can presume to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ, until we first do some important work on ourselves. For if we wish to make Jesus known and loved particularly among poor children and young people, our lives, and all that we do and say must bear witness in a radical way to the commitment that we made when we first set out on the journey of religious life.

Make no mistake about it: the conditions in which John the Baptist lived were not the best. The Jewish community in Palestine was oppressed at that time in history and lived in fear and intimidation. But here was a man who frightened those in power. Part of that small remnant about whom the some of the prophets wrote.

They were the faithful ones, the anawim, who counted for nothing on the stage of regional and world power, who had no station in life. They bore witness unequivocally to the fact that God’s ways are not ours. For it was into their midst that John was born and also Jesus, the long awaited Messiah. And they recognized him for the Suffering Servant that he was because they had no expectation that the Messiah would be a conquering king.

John preached penance, reform, sacrifice, a change of heart. These are not particularly popular words or notions in many parts of our world today, but it is necessary that each of them be very evident in our lives if we are ever to renew this way of life to which we have been called.

During the crisis of 1903, 118 professed brothers and a somewhat larger number of young brothers left the Institute. How did Theophane cope with the crisis? By first of all taking steps to strengthen the religious spirit of the group and those who remained. He did so by making bold moves. He established, for example, what we know today as the “second novitiate” and made available each year to an increasing number of brothers the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. And he also refused to surrender any of the religious programs which the brothers conducted in schools until faced with official instructions to do so. For example, he constantly refused to abandon catechism lessons even in the schools that had been stripped of their religious character.

We know well the story of our 900 brothers who left France in 1903 and others in subsequent years and who brought the Institute to so many new lands. We have been told less about those who remained in France. They were as bold and audacious as those who set out for new lands. For they refused to cooperate with the dismantling of the work of evangelization. And in the midst of them Theophane handled each development in the situation with decisiveness, strength, and creativity, and above all faith in God.

Today, as we mark 190 years of Marcellin’s Institute, let us remember the dream of this country priest and Marist Father. He began with so little but had so much: his faith, his relationship with Mary, and his understanding that it was up to God and her and not him to ensure that the Good News was preached to poor young people in desperate need of hearing it. Let us pray for Marcellin’s spirit, for the faith and willingness to sacrifice that marked the life of John the Baptizer, and also for the creativity, determination, and defiance of that young seminarian who faced a crossroad in life, Theophane Durant. God was clear with him what he had in mind for his life; let us pray for that same grace indeed.


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