Animation of the Oblate charism is the primary ministry of the recently constituted Oblate International community of Aix. The De Mazenod Experience (DMX) is at the heart of this community and its ministry. In this presentation I intend to speak of the DMX program at the service of the Oblate Charism.
1. The De Mazenod Experience (DMX)
The DMX is one of the General Administration’ services entrusted to the Oblate International Community of Aix for its animation. A recent work-session between the community of Aix and the General Administration defined the De Mazenod Experience as “a time of spiritual renewal, lived in Aix, the ‘Holy Land’ of the Oblates.”
The DMX is a renewal program which aims, especially, at enabling the participants to look back over their experience of the Oblate charism in the everyday life of their mission and ministry. They do so in an atmosphere of prayer, reflection and fraternal sharing.
The DMX is above all an “Experience” rather than a course, participants are invited to make an experience of the Oblate charism as opposed to studying it. The Experience takes place in Aix, in the house where it all began; making pilgrimages in the places of historic Oblate interest, walking in the footsteps and breathing the same air as our Founder and his first companions.
The DMX is one of the recommended ongoing formation programs for the Oblates. Its program serves as a response to the call of article no.47 of our Constitutions and Rules which states that “Formation is a process which aims at the integral growth of a person and lasts a lifetime… It involves us in an ever-renewed conversion to the Gospel.”[i]
2. Historical Background
The DMX program has its origins in the decision of the General Chapter of 1953 which introduced to the Congregation the Second Novitiate, which, a year later, was to be renamed the De Mazenod Retreat. The first De Mazenod Retreat, given in French, was held in Rome. Subsequently, more retreats followed fairly regularly, in French or English, and were held in Rome, France, Canada, and the United States.[ii]
The General Chapter of 1972 ended the organization of the Retreat at the Congregational level and recommended that Regions should establish their own sessions for spiritual and pastoral renewal. Finally, the 1986 Chapter launched the program called the De Mazenod Experience and chose Aix as a home for such an Experience.[iii] The eligible participants for the program are Oblates of the entire Congregation with at least 10 years in perpetual vows.
Today, over forty De Mazenod Experiences have been held at Aix, and almost 580 Oblates have participated in the program. The last three Experiences were held in 2014, in Spanish and in English, respectively, and the last one in 2015, was in English.
Recently, the De Mazenod Experience has been rethought in the light of the call to conversion of the last General Chapter.
3. Essential elements of the De Mazenod Experience: The Program
The following are the essential elements of the DMX which were clearly defined at a work-session between the General Administration and the Oblate International community of Aix at the beginning of 2015. The essential elements are grouped into phases which together form a two months DMX program.
Phase I: Progressive Integration, sharing, community prayer, pilgrimage in Aix – in the footsteps of Saint Eugene. Fundamental question: How does the Founder’s life inspire my own?
Phase II: History of the Congregation and the first Oblate community. Fundamental question: How does the life and experience of the first Oblates inspire my own mission?
Phase III: Oblate charism. Fundamental question: What is my personal experience of the charism?
Phase IV: Concerning the present missionary outlook of the Congregation, with the presence of a member of the General Administration. Fundamental question: What are the challenges of the Congregation’s mission and how do they align with the challenges of my own mission?
Phase V: Reintegration, Renewal of Vows and Re-commissioning.
A 15 days retreat based on Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, as well as pilgrimages in Aix, Marseille and to the First Missions preached by the Missionaries of Provence, form an integral part of the program.
4. DMX Objectives
From the above elements the following is deduced as the main objectives of the Experience:
I. Reflection on personal experience
The DMX aims at helping the participants to reflect on their personal experience. The idea is to help the participants to remember the history of their journey of faith with God, to be more aware how God has always been present on their journey. Integration in an international community through reflection, prayer, sharing and pilgrimages in Aix, in the footsteps of Saint Eugene, is essential to achieve this objective.
Inspired by the teachings of Marcello Zago which states that,
“Each Oblate draws from the Founder the spirit which animates him, he finds in the Founder a life model. We must never be tired or bored of developing a personal relationship, a more intimate bond, with Eugene… Eugene still remains a living person with whom we have a personal relationship, as a saint to imitate, a founder to follow, a teacher to heed, an intercessor to invoke and above all as a father to love…”[iv]
Therefore the Founder’s life and experience becomes the point of departure, hence the pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Eugene in Aix, Marseille and in The First Missions preached by Missionaries of Provence; allowing the participants to seek inspiration in the Founder’s life and experience.
II. Deeper understanding of the History of the Congregation
To understand and appreciate our identity it is important that we go back to the past and reflect on the origins and history of our Oblate family. Allowing ourselves to be inspired by our forefathers by their life and experience as affirmed by Pope Francis in his letter to the Consecrated,
“Recounting our history is essential for preserving our identity, for strengthening our unity as a family and our common sense of belonging. It calls for following in the footsteps of past generations in order to grasp the high ideals, and the vision and values which inspired them. In this way we come to see how the charism has been lived over the years, the creativity it has sparked, the difficulties it encountered and the concrete ways those difficulties were surmounted.”[v]
The DMX aims at helping the participants to appreciate our oblate family by deepening their understanding of its history and origins.
III. Reflection on a lived experience of the Oblate charism
The Oblate charism is something alive and dynamic and every generation expresses it in a new way. The DMX provides the participants with a conducive atmosphere to reflect and share with each other their personal experience of the charism, in that way the charism is deepened in one’s life.
Our charism is not a statement, it is a story to be told. “To tell our story is to praise God and thank him for his gifts.”[vi] Grateful remembrance of the past and retelling their story leads the participants to implement ever more fully and deepen the essential aspects of the charism in their lives and mission.
IV. Personal Conversion
The General Chapter of 2010 called the entire Congregation to, a profound personal and communal conversion to Jesus Christ. The Chapter theme reads: “Centered on the person of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves to a profound personal and communal conversion for the sake of our Oblate Mission.”[vii] Fr. Louis Lougen, in his Letter of 8th December writes,
“What could be more essential, more fundamental, and more life-filled for our consecrated missionary lives than this call? …by affirming the call to conversion, has made the option for the rebirth of the Congregation. We are called to say no to death and stagnation, and, through the Spirit who makes all things new, we are to be revitalized in the Oblate charism.”[viii]
The DMX seeks to provide the participants with an environment to help them hear again this fundamental call to conversion and a change of heart. The entire program is meant to help participants to live together, harmoniously, in an international community, to be more consistent in prayer and reflection, and then cross the cultural boundaries, in this way participants are led to a realization of a need for personal conversion, that their whole life style as missionaries has to change if they are to continue to witness to Jesus Christ to the most abandoned in more creative and effective ways. For “Conversion starts in our hearts and among ourselves, and once it has started, we will clearly see that the whole world is in need of conversion.” [ix]
V. Congregation’s Missionary outlook
It is vital for the participants of the DMX to reflect on the Congregation’s mission, simply, because “we are a missionary congregation”.[x] Mission, in its specific sense, makes up our very identity![xi] The De Mazenod Experience allows the participants to examine their fidelity to the mission entrusted to them with an aim to enkindle in their heart the spirit of missionary availability, daring and zeal.
Since the DMX is one of the General Administration’ services, one of the crucial moments of the DMX is the presence of a member of the General Administration (for a specific period of time) during the DMX program. This presence exposes the participants to a missionary outlook and the current reality of the Congregation. Participants are given an opportunity to reflect together with the whole Congregation on the missionary needs of the Church and on how we as Oblates see these needs and respond to them.
Participants are familiarized with the priorities of the whole Congregation. By becoming aware of the Congregations global mission and reality, participants are called to align their particular mission to that of the whole Congregation.
VI. Renewal and Re-commissioning
Spiritual renewal, achieved through reflection in an atmosphere of prayer and fraternal sharing, is at the heart of the DMX program. The participants are not in Aix to stay; they have come that they might return home with a renewed zeal for mission and community life; that they might yet again leave nothing undared!
Article 9 of our Constitution and rules remind us that as Oblates “We are members of the prophetic Church… We will hear and make heard the clamour of the voiceless, which is a cry to God….”[xii] After two months of prayer, reflection, sharing and pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Eugene, it is expected that those who participate in the program arrive at a certain level of spiritual and vocation renewal, that they would hear afresh the call of Christ and generously respond so to be sent out as Prophets “to wake up the world.”[xiii]
A special liturgical celebration is prepared at the end of the Experience. During this celebration participants renew their Vows, they receive anew their Oblate Crosses and are sent out to mission.
5. The De Mazenod Experience at the service of the charism
The charism remains a gift to be welcomed and made to bear fruit. It is a grace to be asked. Like the Apostles after Christ’s Ascension, the DMX participants are called to gather in the Upper Room ‘together with Mary the Mother of Jesus’ in order to pray for the Spirit and to gain strength and courage to carry out the missionary mandate. We all, like the Apostles, need to be transformed and guided by the Spirit. In this prayer of invocation to the Spirit are united to us the Oblates in heaven and especially Eugene de Mazenod, whom with the whole Church we venerate as saint and our intercessor.
The DMX program is at the service of the charism in a sense that it provides a framework within which the Oblate charism can be lived and experienced by the participants, at the cradle of the Congregation, where it all began. The DMX program opens to the participants the source and origin of the charism. Consequently, the participants are able to experience the charism in a new way as being alive today; as a result, they are exhorted to find new and creative ways to express and retell the story of our charism in their own particular contexts.
I. Participants Testimonies
From the final evaluations of the program by the participants and from their testimonies, the DMX can be said to be a success in many levels. The following are the extracts from some of the participants’ testimonies of the charism lived in the context of DMX:
“The time that I have spent in Aix, has been for me a time of profound life-giving sharing, personal reflection, and a serious evaluation of my life as a Person, a Christian and more over as an Oblate. This has been for me a time to celebrate who I am as a person and as an Oblate, time of self-affirmation, self- appreciation and self-acceptance. But also this time has been a moment of a deep call to conversion and renewal. In moments of prolonged silence prayer and reflection, I have been able to look back and realized how the Lord has been present in my life and how He has faithfully journeyed with me…I feel renewed and called to holiness. I feel grounded in virtue, in touch with the Founder and ready to share with the world the Mercy and Tenderness of God. Through this experience, I have come to understand St. Eugene de Mazenod, I have once again fallen in Love with him, his charism and his spirit, I am really on fire, burning with love for Christ, thanks to the De Mazenod Experince!”
“I am blessed that I participated in the de Mazenod Experience… It was really a graceful moment in my life as a Missionary Oblate and priest. After being a priest for 19 years, I felt that my energy was slowly decreasing… there was a dryness and some feelings of boredom and emptiness in my life… I knew that I needed a break. I needed a new inspiration in my heart, I longed for my earlier motivations when I was a younger Oblate and Priest.
I thank God that I was given the opportunity, just in time, to participate in the De Mazenod Experience. Through the Experience I became more aware that I was in a transition period from “human doing” to “human being.” I realized that since my first assignment as a priest, I have somehow lost my identity as a Missionary Oblate… Thanks to the De Mazenod Experience, today, I’ve come to realize and embrace the fact that I am only a human being, with many limitations and weaknesses. And yet God loves me so much, He asks me to witness to His love through my daily life. I am very grateful to have participated in the De Mazenod Experience that I could be reminded that I am still loved by God!”
“The Experience helped me to situate my own vocation in relationship to that of St. Eugene… I have gained some understanding of how God has worked in my life to make me the priest and religious that I am today. I was specially moved to walk in the footsteps of St. Eugene, to gather with fellow Oblates in the room where it all began, to celebrate Mass with the chalice from which St. Eugene himself drank and to share fellowship with men from around the world who call themselves the sons of De Mazenod…”
II. My personal experience
I am grateful to have participated twice in the DMX, in 2014 as a preparation and formation for my ministry in Aix and in 2015 as an animator. These have been very important and powerful moments of grace in my life as an Oblate where I have witnessed the Oblate charism being shared, celebrated and learned in a profound way.
St. Eugene was never an important figure in my life. I didn’t know much about him and most of what I knew about him was rather negative. I always thought of myself as not an ideal Oblate according to St. Eugene’s standards, that had he been around he would have kicked me out long time ago. Through the DMX, a totally different side of St. Eugene has been opened to me. I have come to discover him and to identify with him in many aspects of his life. A passion for him grows within me with every session that I get to animate. There is a desire within me to grow in a relationship with him and to make him known.
During the DMX the Founder and his vision becomes alive. Based on my experience, I have, through DMX, encountered St. Eugene, a young man, lively and impetuous, with impassioned desires. The DMX has laid bare the heart of St. Eugene before me, a generous heart with ‘an immense capacity to love’, a heart that knew no limits when comes to loving, and I have personally fallen in love with his heart, my desire is to lead others deep into the heart of our Beloved Founder. In St. Eugene I’ve encountered a broken young man in search of meaning, love and friendship, whose encounter with the Crucified Christ brings healing and meaning and changes his entire life. In short, in St. Eugene I have encountered a human being fully alive.[xiv]
His passionate love for Jesus Christ and the Church inspires me to work hard in deepening my personal relationship with Christ. The way he embraced the Cross, in its different forms, allowing himself to be formed by it, gives me courage to faithfully carry mine. His thirst for holiness and to do all things for the glory of God and the salvation of souls has given me a new purpose in my life.
Through the DMX I have witnessed all aspects of our charism come alive. I have had an opportunity to meet and live with some extraordinary men from different backgrounds who come together to build a life-giving community with one heart and one soul, centred on charity. I have witnessed them being attentive to the person of Jesus Christ at the centre of their mission. I’ve listened to the stories regarding their closeness to the poor and the most abandoned. These are simple men who love the Church and who daily give of themselves, generously, in spreading the Good News. I have witnessed the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the DMX participants. The unity of the congregation and its mission is strengthened by the cross-border friendships created during the DMX.
A number of these men arrive in Aix often tired and worn out after years in ministry, it is a fulfilling experience to send them out, after a successful program, renewed, full of life and hope, joyful, burning with zeal and on fire with love for Jesus and His Church!
The DMX has enkindled my hope as a young Oblate, I have come to value our charism and our beloved Founder. I am convinced that our charism is still valid, alive and needed more than ever before in our world today. I uphold what Fr. Louis tells us in his December 8th letter, “I do not accept the ‘death theory’ that proposes in certain places that we have done our work, that we are no longer needed in the Church and so we can die in peace. The Church needs consecrated men living the Oblate charism, because the poor and most abandoned continue to be with us and need to hear the Gospel.”[xv]
Thanks to the DMX, today I feel challenged to make our charism known by living it more authentically in my own life! I feel passionate and inspired by our charism, I am on fire with love for our beloved Founder and our oblate family and I affirm that there is indeed something unique about us as Oblates, something to be celebrated and appreciated.
I concur with Richard McAlear, who animated the DMX in the past, that “the DMX has made a great contribution to the life of the congregation and has the potential to continue to have an impact.”[xvi] It is my wish that more and more Oblates could have an opportunity in the future to participate in the DMX program for their renewal and the renewal of the entire oblate family.
Bonga Majola OMI
June 22, 2015