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Marist Bulletin - Number 84

 

Brother Manuel Mesonero, new Doctor in Theology
24.07.2003

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THE SPIRITUALITY OF SAINT MARCELLIN

Br. Lluís Serra

Br Manuel Mesonero, 43 years of age, was born in Peñaranda de Bracamonte, Salamanca, Spain. He belongs to the Province of Madrid. On the 16th of May he presented his doctoral thesis entitled “Spirituality of Saint Marcellin: Based on a Critical Study of the Biography” at the Teresianum in Rome. The thesis was directed by Carmelite Father François-Marie Lethel, and obtained the highest possible grade. His study, with minor modifications, has now been published in Spanish with a first run of some thousand copies.

What could be the novelty of such an old topic?
There are some topics which merit our attention because of their importance. The novelty of muy thesis lies in the perspective from which I approach it.

And what do you claim to demonstrate in your thesis?
Early in my studies I was struck by the noticeable difference whih exists between the Founder’s letters and writings, and Brother Jean Baptiste’s presentation of him in the Biography. My thesis, through the discovery of about 800 quotations from different spiritual authors of the time, demonstrates that the Founder did not leave his Institute a body of doctrine which underpins its charism, but rather that it was his biographer who performed this function for the Institute, by borrowing doctrine from these authors.

If we cannot speak of a body of doctrine, how can we define its spirit?
Well, it is certain that, rather than a doctrine, what Marcellin left his Institute and the Church, was a spirit characterized by simplicity. This fact should not surprise us too much, because there have already been outstanding Church figures (such as Saint Francis of Assisi and—more recently—Mother Teresa of Calcutta) who have not left a doctrine to their followers, but rather a spirit, a way of living the following of Jesus.

Simplicity: is this a psychological quality, or rather a religious virtue?
I study simplicity in Saint Marcellin mainly as a virtue of faith whose principal characteristic is an immediate relationship with God by means of a prayer both reflexive and spontaneous. It is precisely this virtue which ensures that our personal self will relate easily to other men—as the fruit of grace and not just as an innate characterological quality. From this we see the necessity of personal struggle if this virtue is to be acquired.

You interpret in a different way some of our classic expressions, such as: “All to Jesus through Mary...”, “the three first places”, “Mary, our Ordinary Resource”, “the presence of God”, “good Christians and worthy citizens”... How should we understand these in the light of your study?
It is certain that discovering the authorial sources does give us solid proofs about the way in which the biographer composed his “Life.” Thus, doctrine which we used to think came directly from Marcellin, are indeed ideas of the biographer, taken from contemporary authors.
Another example would be the motto which up until today we thought to be original to the Saint: “All to Jesus through Mary; All to Mary for Jesus” is an exact quotation from Aubriot in his 1808 book. In actual fact this sentence does not appear once in the Saint’s writings. Indeed it is too contrived a formula for a man of his simplicity. A motto demands a well considered formula and one which habitually used in the most solemn of moments and documents. Una divisa exige una fórmula bien pensada y usada en los momentos y documentos más solemnes. So we must look at the already familiar motto of the time: “All for the greater glory of God, and the honour of the August Mother Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
The same could be said of the appelation: “Ordinary Resource” which our biographer characterises as the Founder’s “favourite expression”. In reality not only did Champagnat never use this expression in his writings, but I have found the formula in Aubriot, and also in a booklet commonly used in Lavalla for the Month of May, 1818. The title most naturally employed by the Founder in his writings is “la Bonne Mère” [The Good Mother]”. This expression is totally consistent with the filial relationship which Marcellin established with Mary.
Jean Baptiste also presents us with the “the three first places”—crib, cross and altar—thus emphasising the “special devotion” which the Founder had for the Child Jesus. He we have an item which has no historical basis. Indeed the various Christmas letters which have been preserved from Saint Marcellin’s hand, make not the slightest mention to this devotion, nor is there any reference of it in the Founder’s Rule of 1837.
With regard to “the Presence of God”, there is no doubt that this theme is of great importance for our Marist spirituality, even if Br Jean-Baptiste has not proved equally accurate in relation to some other themes in the Biography. In our day it is difficult to transmit this doctrine in quite the ay he expounds it. Thus the formula “Dieu me voit” [God sees me] is inadequate by reason of the moralism and rigidity upon which it grounds the practice. Champagnat’s access to God’s presence was quite spontaneous: very often utilising the untutored intimacy of an expression like: “You know it, O God”, a direct and personal way of addressing God.
Finally, the educational dictum: “good Christians and worthy citizens” turns out to be a borrowing by Br Jean-Baptiste of the De La Salle Brothers’ formula “good Christians and good citizens”, which he slightly modifies in order to create a properly ‘Marist’ motto. Champagnat himself, on the other hand, is content to quote exactly the original FSC formula, accepting it quite unproblematically on behalf of his own Institute.

What then would be the three fundamental axes of Saint Marcellin’s Spirituality?
The following of Jesus Christ, our “divine model” as He teaches the children, would have to be the first axis of Saint Marcellin’s spirituality. Imitation and following of Christ is the foundation of his spirituality, confirmed in quite radical expressions such as: “May Jesus and Mary always be your sole treasure”; “May Jesus and Mary be always your only everything”.
The second axis of this spirituality is his love for Mary. Champagnat had the characteristic of always uniting her name to that of Jesus, explaining this by means of a very illuminating expression: “Without Mary we are nothing, and with Mary we have everything, because Mary always holds her adorable Son in her arms or in her heart.” This expression may be considered the foundational formula upon which Saint Marcellin’s cult of Mary came to be based.
The third axis is his confidence in, and total abandonment to God, as expressed in the “Nisi Dominus” (Ps 127). This prayer formula of abandonment states what most characterized our Founder. Champagnat, especially from 1826 onwards, managed to remain continually in a state of holy indifference, and to will only what God willed, as can be seen in the repeated expressions of his letters: “Blessed be God”, “May His will be done”. Saint Marcellin, given his highly active character and his intense apostolic zeal, he suffers painful tension between his pastoral projects on the one hand and abandonment to the Divine Will on the other. He finds the solution to his dilemma in this equilibrium: he does as much as he possibly can, and when he can do no more, he abandons himself to God: “I shall rest in the Lord and in His Most Holy Mother”.

To what degree might this spirituality be of use only to the Brothers? Or may it also be valuable also for laymen and laywomen?
Let’s say we my view the figure of Marcellin from two levels. As their Founder, the Brothers a great richness in the charism of religious life which he raised up in the Church. And the Church herself, presenting him as “Saint” in 1999, ratified his particular manner of following Christ as a valid way for Christians in general to live with greater lucidity his “following of Jesus”, and to do it principally through simplicity.

According to the conclusions of your thesis, is there anything which we would have to change in the Marist Institute in order to be more faithful to its founding charism?
My study is centred on Saint Marcellin and in the charism which he left us up until his death in 1840. I’ve not made any reflection on what might be an adequate realization of this. Certainly, after such a study, questions are bound to arise, such as the following: “How can we live simplicity today by means of a poor life, and through ‘holding everything in common’, as our first Brothers did?” “How can we approach religious obedience today so that it may retain its Ignatian elements, together with those which the Founder imbued it?”

What new horizons open up as a consequence of your research?
This thesis demonstrates that much of the doctrine which the biographer attributes to Saint Marcellin has its origin in sources which are actually the authors of the time. It is necessary to confer on the Saint’s own writings the priority which they deserve, since if we use these authors’ expressions, we are not speaking of our Founder, but of others.

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