During the chaos of the French Revolution, when Catholicism was under attack, a resourceful priest named Father William Joseph Chaminade found a clever way to bring Mass to the people. Disguised as a tinker, he would go with his wares, search out Catholic families, and secretly offer the Eucharist for them. Stories abound of his narrow escapes from the gendarmes, through means such as hiding at the end of Mass in water barrels and narrow closets. Eventually, Chaminade was forced from his homeland into exile in Spain. But even then, he refused to give up hope for his Church.
During Blessed Chaminade’s exile, while he was praying before the statue of Our Lady of the Pillar in Saragossa, Mary inspired him with a plan to rebuild the Church of France. Just as Mary birthed Jesus in faith and deep hope in God’s promise, Blessed Chaminade was assured that new life would be born for the Church of France, and also, eventually, for the entire Church. Upon his return from exile, Chaminade set about establishing a network of lay and Religious communities that would sizzle with all the fire of the revolutionary movement from whose ashes it was born.
In the collapse of the nation and the Church in France, Chaminade witnessed misdirected passion and senseless violence. He must have wondered if France’s passion for new forms of governance and social interaction could be redirected toward goodness, faith, and charity. In partnership with two women, Adèle de Batz de Trenquelléon and Marie Thérèse de Lamourous, Chaminade began to fashion the communities based in faith and on the power of community to engender, bear, and transform faith. Adèle would become the foundress of the Marianist Sisters, the Daughters of Mary Immaculate; Marie Thérèse, a laywoman, would spend her life ministering to the poor in Bordeaux. Community by community, a decimated Church in France was rebuilt — and continues to be rebuilt worldwide by Marianist communities today. These communities, known collectively as the Marianist Family, include Marianist Lay Communities, a Vatican-approved lay movement; the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, a Religious Congregation of women; and the Society of Mary, a Religious Congregation of Brothers and priests.
One source of Chaminade’s inspiration came from prayerful reflection on the Church community presented in the Acts of the Apostles. How did the fearful little community of the Upper Room, through the Holy Spirit, become the vibrant missionary Church of the later chapters of Acts? Blessed Chaminade noted three key elements in the Church of Acts: the centrality of Mary, the need for inclusiveness, and the urgency to foster faith and a deep sense of missionary activity.
Long enamored in his prayer with the power of the Incarnation, Blessed Chaminade saw this as a central mystery of the Catholic faith. As Jesus had been born of the Spirit and Mary to proclaim the mission of the Father, now again through Mary, the power of the risen Christ could be born in communities dedicated to her and her mission of bearing Christ to the world.
In post-revolutionary France, Chaminade witnessed the collapse of a society of hierarchy and privilege. His new communities needed to include all ages and strata of society. He and the other founders would adapt the faith life and the mission of their communities to the circumstances of age, experience, and state of life of the people who gathered.
In Marianist communities, faith was to be taught, nurtured, and sustained. But that was only half the new plan. If these communities were to be the birthing places for the new life of Christ in the Church and the world, their members must form other communities with the same passion, energy, and new language that characterized the community of Jerusalem in Acts. To use an expression from a later age, the community gathered in order to be sent.
This grand project would only work, Chaminade understood, if his followers were holy. Then, people would be drawn to Marianist community as they witnessed the “spectacle of a people of saints.” Chaminade understood holiness to be the continual and gradual transformation from the old person who sins into the new person who embodies the virtues and very life of Christ. This effort to be holy is the touchstone of Marianist spirituality and prayer. Chaminade felt that the community’s support, prayer, and nurturing of faith would be especially effective and sustaining in this spiritual transformation.
Because our communities are dedicated to Mary, the spirituality of Marianist communities is most fundamentally about Mary forming us to be Christ for our world today.
Being formed by Mary to be Christ is, for one, about the quality of our presence: While Gospel work is the mission of our communities, the quality of our presence to that work is more important than the work itself. For example, teaching is instruction. But the loving and caring presence of the teacher to her students is education.
Being formed by Mary to be Christ is about acting toward people the way Jesus would. It also means that our efforts at personal transformation become virtues only when they are expressed in service. For example, students at Marianist schools are taught that the faith they learn in the classroom must shape how they relate to the least of their sisters and brothers, and become the faith that changes systems of injustice and marginalization.
The prayer of Marianist communities flows from this understanding of being formed by Mary to be Christ. Marianist prayer attempts to make God’s word the energy and conviction that guides our feelings and choices. We ponder the mysteries of Jesus’ life as presented in the Scriptures; we are moved by an insight or feeling; we express that insight or feeling in a personal prayer of gratitude, conviction, or petition; we examine in our conversation with God how our day-to-day behavior reflects (or does not reflect) the attitude of Jesus about which we are praying. And finally, we offer thanks to God for this treasured time of prayer and commend our lives to God and Mary. Sounds simple, but it takes a lifetime!
This is the Marianist way: holy women and men, lay and Religious, living and praying in communities, convinced that through Mary, Christ can be born into each age through our holiness and our Gospel service. To embrace Marianist community, as a lay or Religious member, is to open oneself or one’s family to the adventure of real Gospel living. We allow Mary to change how we pray and how we relate to each other. Perhaps most importantly, through our prayer and community, we allow Mary to help us see with new eyes the critical, unmet human needs around us and to give us the courage to respond. Consequently, just like our wonderful Marianist ancestors, in small and incremental ways, we will transform the world for Christ in our families, on our blocks, and in our neighborhoods.
The Marianist Family
FOUNDED: 1800 in France by Blessed William Joseph Chaminade
LEADERSHIP: Father Martin Solma, SM, provincial of the Marianist Province of the United States; Manuel Cortés, SM, Superior General
MEMBERSHIP: The Society of Mary (approximately 1,234 Brothers and priests worldwide, 348 in the U.S.); the Marianist Sisters (357 worldwide, 16 in the U.S.), and lay Marianists (approximately 7,000 worldwide; 1,300 in the U.S.)
The Three O’Clock Prayer
we gather in spirit at the foot of the Cross
with your mother
and the disciple whom you loved.
We ask your pardon for our sins,
which are the cause of your death.
We thank you for remembering us
in that hour of salvation
and for giving us Mary as our mother.
Holy Virgin, take us under your protection
and open us to the action of the Holy Spirit.
St. John, obtain for us the grace
of taking Mary into our lives, as you did
and of assisting her in her mission. Amen.
To learn more about the Marianists, explore A Manual of Marianist Spirituality by Quentin Hakenewerth, SM (available from nacms.org).