Eugene of Mazenod was born in Aix-en-Provence in France in 1782. He was the son of a nobleman father and an uneducated but wealthy mother. During the French Revolution, his family fled in Italian exile. The marriage of his parents then fell apart, ending in divorce. Eugene, now was the child of a broken family and this caused him great pain. When he was able to return to France, in his 20’s, his primary desire was to marry a wealthy wife, so as to restore his family fortunes. But the girl he chose died of consumption before they could wed. He was not the extraordinary man that he had imagined himself to be. Certainly, he had some good qualities, a strong character and a generous heart. He was moved by the distressing condition of the clergy and the tremendous religious ignorance of the people found everywhere. Endowed with a lively and imperious character and filled with noble intentions, Eugene resolved to play a part in meeting the urgent needs of the Church.
Eugene’s spiritual journey and personality were influenced by his family values and struggles. During his time in exile in Venice, a holy priest, Don Bartolo Zinelli, introduced him to the spirituality of the Company of Jesus, how to pray and how to practice mortification. Don Bartolo also initiated him to a devotion to the Virgin Mary. “It was there,” Eugene would later write, “that my vocation to the priesthood was born.”
Two interior graces transformed Eugene in his 20’s. The first was a grace of “conversion.” During adoration on Good Friday in 1807, he had a special experience of the love and goodness of Christ which culminated in the shedding of his blood to obtain the forgiveness of all sins. Simultaneously conscious of his own sins and filled with a sense of profound confidence in Divine Mercy, Eugene decided to make amends through the total gift of his life to Jesus his Savior. A second moment of grace, which he described as “an impulse from without” from the Spirit, led him to a decision for the priesthood and in 1808 he would enter the Seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris and be ordained a priest at Amiens, on December 21st, 1811. His dream… to be “the servant and priest of the poor.”
A Missionary Community Is Born
Three years spent at the Seminary of St. Sulpice converted him into a zealous churchman, devoted to the pope and to the care of the poor and youth. He gradually worked into a fruitful career of preaching parish missions. In September 1815, he experienced another “impulse from without” that set him firmly on the path of apostolic action. He gave himself body and soul to the realization of his plans to establish a society of missionaries. On January 25th, 1816, the society of the Missionaries of Provence was born. To assist him, he established a community of priests and invited them “to live together as brothers” and “to imitate the virtues and examples of our Savior Jesus Christ, above all through the preaching of the Word of God to the poor.” He urged them to commit themselves unreservedly to the work of the missions, binding themselves by religious vows. Because of their small number, they initially limited their zeal to the neighboring countryside. Their fondest wish, however, was “to embrace the vast expanse of the whole earth.”
On February 17th, 1826, Pope Leo XII formally approved the newly founded Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Its motto: “He has sent me to evangelize the poor” expressed both its charism and way of life.
Struggles and Spiritual Growth
During his first years as a priest, he continually struggled to find a balance between prayer and service to others in his life. After initial successes, there was a period of deep and painful purification. From 1827 to 1836, Eugene was tested time and time again: conflicts, defections, bereavements, temporary loss of his French citizenship, even suspicion from the Holy See. Along with making him seriously ill, these events led to moments of discouragement and depression. Eugene discovered, first hand, the cost of discipleship and service of the Church. He came out of this experience bruised and humbled, more understanding towards others and much stronger in his love and faith.
After a period as Vicar General of the Diocese of Marseille, Eugene was named Bishop of Marseille in 1837. At that time, he was not only a pastor of a Church undergoing a time of significant growth but also simultaneously the Superior of a fledgling group of missionaries. Bishop Eugene de Mazenod truly had to be “all things to all people.” As Bishop, he greatly increased the number of parishes and religious associations in the diocese.
The construction of a new cathedral, the Shrine of Notre Dame was initiated. He continued to direct the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, even after the 1840s, when they expanded into the Americas, Africa and Asia. He also accepted the headship of the Holy Family Sisters of Bordeaux. These responsibilities brought him into contact with the British Isles, with the Oxford Movement, and early ecumenical trends. In 1854, he journeyed to Rome to participate in the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th.
End of life and Canonization of Eugene de Mazenod as a Saint
Towards the end of his life, Eugene had become very free. Faced with the prospect of the cardinalate which had been promised and which slipped away from him because of political considerations, he had this to say: “After all, it is all the same whether one is buried in a red cassock or a purple one; the main thing is that the bishop gets to heaven”.
Shortly before his death on May 21, 1861, in keeping with his temperament, the elderly and seriously ill bishop said to those around him: “Should I happen to doze off, or if I appear to be getting worse, please wake me up! I want to die knowing that I am dying”
His last words to the Oblates were a testament that summed up his life: “Practice well among yourselves charity, charity, charity, and outside, zeal for the salvation of souls”. Saint Eugene died on Pentecost Sunday to the prayer of the Salve Regina, It was his final salute on earth to the one he considered as the “Mother of the Mission”.
Pope John Paul II reflection on Saint Eugene de Mazenod Canonization Celebration – December 3, 1995 – Rome, Italy
On December 3rd, 1995, Pope John Paul II canonized Saint Eugene de Mazenod. He was the first French bishop to be declared a saint since 1588. He is considered a patron saint for families in difficulty.
In the ceremony, he declared…
“We are living in the second Advent of the world’s history. Eugene de Mazenod was a man of Advent, a man of the Coming. He not only looked forward to that Coming, he dedicated his whole life to preparing for it, one of those apostles who prepared the modern age, our age. His every action was inspired by a conviction he expressed in these words: “To love Church is to love Jesus Christ, and vice versa”. His influence is not limited to the age in which he lived but continues its effect on our time. What Saint Eugene wanted to achieve was that, in Christ, each individual could become a fully complete person, an authentic Christian, a credible saint The Church gives us this great Bishop and Founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate as an example of heroic faith, hope and charity.”