The Oblates and Youth

On the 200th Anniversary of the Youth Association of Aix - written by Fr. Luis Ignacio Rois Alonso, OMI as published in Oblatio I/2012 - 3.

On April 25, 1813, Eugene de Mazenod established the Association of Christian Youth in Aix. In just three years, it would reach about 300 members. So important was it for the Founder that in the Rules of 1826, he requested that there be a Youth Association in each house of the Institute. What was its secret? Why did it succeed and why did it decline? What can we learn from it? What is the situation of the Oblates’ mission with youth on the 200th anniversary of this event?

For Saint Eugene, it was a question of fighting the “enemy” with his own weapons. If Napoleon wanted to educate young people on “the values of the Empire”, Eugene would devote himself body and soul to training young people in virtue and the law of Christ, promoting among them a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A rule book of more than 500 articles was meant to regulate their daily lives. Weekly meetings and other opportunities for gathering, whether for prayer, for study or for leisure, were key pieces for achieving the goal. In the Association, the youth themselves had specific responsibilities.

Its success seems to lie in the strong personal magnetism of Eugene. He was the founder and soul of the Association, the friend and the father of all. He knows how to balance his more demanding side with one that is more flexible and friendly. He always presents himself as close and generous. Eugene plays with the youth but also instructs them; he prays with them and invites them to live the sacraments. He spends time with them, listens to their problems, proposes new goals and accompanies them. We could trace his missionary strategy to his own experience as a young teenager in exile. He found gospel-like models in people like Don Bartolo Zinelli or the Duchess of Cannizaro who knew how to be with him and direct his steps toward virtue. The youth understand the love and devotion of Eugene and they repay him in kind.

To understand the appeal of the Association, just imagine their living together with the Missionaries of Provence in the Mission House in Aix. Not all missionary communities could accept sharing such a small space with about 300 youth. Certainly not all of them would be present in the house at the same time, but surely, besides the weekly meetings, there would be a constant trickle of youth seeking comfort, advice or simply support in every sort of situation. So impressed was Fortuné de Mazenod that he asked to be a member of the Association. Without the presence of the Founder, the Association began to lose its energy, but Eugene would continue to be in contact with many former members, some becoming Oblates and others, exemplary citizens and parents.

The mission of St. Eugene with youth is not limited to the Association of Aix. In the preaching of missions, he gave great importance to the instruction of young people, and wherever they could, associations were created, male and female, to maintain the fruits of the mission. As Bishop, in Marseille, he was always attentive to creating institutions to assist disadvantaged youth. He did not hesitate to call upon other religious congregations or to assist in the founding of new institutes to meet each particular need. Meriting special mention is the help he gave to the priest, Timon David, whom he encouraged, first of all, to start an association for young workers, and later, whom he encouraged to found a religious congregation to give continuity to his work.

While awaiting a more detailed study on the evolution of the mission with youth in the Church from the time of Founder to today, we can say that: (1) It does not seem clear that the mandate of the Rules to establish a Youth Association in all our houses has been fulfilled; (2) The Oblates have worked with youth in their ministries: in their ordinary activities, whether in parishes or in preaching missions; creating schools, universities and other educational institutions; accompanying specific youth associations; implementing the educational triad proposed by St. Eugene: help them to be fully human, Christians and saints.

Coinciding with the beatification of the Founder, there arose in some Units youth groups seeking participation in the Oblate charism. After the canonization, there was a sudden increase of such groups. While there is great diversity, they share the feeling of being part of the Oblate family and they ask that the Oblates accompany them and allow them to be part of their life and mission.

Every two or three years, the Pope convenes the world’s youth to participate in WYD. Since 2000, Oblates and youth gather during the previous week to take part in an Oblate program. With the presence of Fr. General in recent gatherings, the number of participants has increased, both Oblates and youth. It is a time of celebration, reflection, prayer, commitment and meeting. It is a time when many young people make decisions about their lives. Besides the General Chapter, it is the international meeting that brings together the most Oblates who come in the company of more than 1,000 young people from over 30 countries.

As a Congregation, three significant steps have been taken in the last 10 years. (1) The General Chapter of 2004 amended Rule 7b to reintroduce the mission with youth as one of our traditional ministries. (2) The 2004 Chapter document proposes concrete actions for the mission with youth. In the letter published by the Chapter members, we find important and inspiring elements. (3) The International Oblate Congress on the Mission with Youth (Australia, 2008). This was the first to address this issue specifically and exclusively. It brought together delegates from most Oblate Units with two young lay persons from each region.

In these three steps, we can recognize the experience of St. Eugene. To celebrate our charism is to commit to living it with new energy. It urges us to act. We should deepen the understanding of the concept “Mission with youth” proposed as a new paradigm. Among other things, it implies not only going beyond ordinary activities and reaching out to youth wherever they might be, traveling and inventing new ways, but also creating a missionary plan in which youth are not passive objects, but are invited to be the protagonists of missionary activities along with other members of the Oblate family, cooperating in the single mission of Jesus Christ. We can say that where these points are being implemented, it is producing a new missionary spring.

(Source: Oblatio I/2012 – 3, OMI Communications, www.omiworld.org)

Eugene de Mazenod

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