St. Eugene de Mazenod

(1782-1861)

Charles Joseph Eugene de Mazenod lived in times as stormy as the present, and set an example of survival that we can find helpful today.

Born at Aix-en-Provence, in southern France, he was the son of a nobleman father and an uncultured but wealthy mother. During the French Revolution his family, being aristocrats, fled into Italian exile. The marriage of his parents then shattered, ending in divorce. Eugene thus became the child of a broken family, which caused him great pain.

When he was able to return to France, now in his late teens, his primary impulse was to marry a rich wife, so as to restore his family fortunes. But the first girl he chose died of consumption before they could wed, and the next candidate that appealed to him proved to be impoverished.

This turn of events prompted the young man to rethink his direction in life. Always basically devout, in 1808 he decided to enter the priesthood. 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.

After his ordination in 1811, Abbe Mazenod gradually worked into a fruitful career of preaching parish missions. To assist him, he established a community of priests that later became the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

In 1823, his priest-uncle Fortune de Mazenod was installed as bishop of Marseilles. The new bishop appointed Eugene as his vicar general. Having been promoted to auxiliary bishop in 1837, the nephew was named to succeed the uncle on the decease of the latter in 1837. Bishop Eugene de Mazenod’s career as bishop of Marseilles, which continued until his death on May 21, 1861, was that of a wonderfully active apostolic leader.

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.

But it was in his own diocese that Bishop Eugene became a most influential figure. Marseilles was stricken with many spiritual and material ailments as the result of the French Revolution and later political turmoil. Mazenod reorganized the diocese well, giving it permanent stability. Sensitive to the needs of the poor, he established various religious and social organizations planned to help them help themselves. He remained to the end an excellent and influential preacher, and he preached standards of behavior that were common sense rather than rigoristic. Although a nobleman in status (named in 1856 a senator in France’s Second Empire), this lively (and sometimes stormy) prelate felt most at home when joshing with the admiring fishwives in their own Provencal dialect. Even in imperial France he remained a democratic figure.

Pope John Paul II canonized this shrewd apostolic man on December 3, 1995. He was the first French bishop to be declared a saint since 1588. The Holy Father must have seen in him the sort of bishop needed by the Church as it enters the third millennium.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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