Editor’s Note: Today’s entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike continues his exploration of influences on DSW, today focusing on the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and our founders and patrons. Next week, three recent college graduates will begin a year of service, prayer, and community in Camden. Please keep these three men, and all who come for service retreats, in prayer in the coming year. The blog will highlight the work being done by these volunteers throughout the year. For more information on DSW, please visit http://www.oblates.org/dsw.
Each religious order in the Church has a focus and purpose that contributes to the overall mission of the Church. The particular Oblate charism is to live and spread the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. Since our founding in 1875, we have done that through every imaginable means. We have been missionaries, teachers, scholars, maintenance men, parish priests, parish team members, traveling retreat directors, artists, preachers, military chaplains, coaches, spiritual directors, counselors, hospital chaplains, and we have worked with prisoners and those recovering from addictions.
So what we do is less central to our existence then our commitment to be Salesian, committed to the wisdom of St. Francis de Sales’ approach to Catholicism. We know God to be in love with his creation, desiring good for us, while challenging us to the core of our being, but not burdened with anxiety or “sweating the small stuff.” We believe in the power of love, which practical Francis breaks down into do-able “little virtues:” gentleness, humility, fun, thoughtfulness, kindness, forgiveness, humor, honesty, loyalty, patience, tolerance, frankness, etc. Often Oblates are noted for being down to earth, easy to connect with.
To describe the Oblates this way is not to say that each of us, each moment, every day, or every year of our lives has effectively integrated Salesian values, or, for that matter, even Christian values. But these things always stand as sacred goals that direct our efforts.
It may seem odd to look at Oblates as one model for DSW since we sponsor the whole project. But, as with the other two models this series has explored, there are specific Oblate characteristics that seem particularly useful in our project in Camden.
Fr. Louis Brisson http://www.oblates.org/mainfiles/louis_brisson.htm founded the Oblates with a Visitation nun, Mother Mary De Sales Chappuis. They served in Troyes, France, addressing the circumstances of their time: social disruption because of the Industrial Revolution, anti-Church attitudes and public policies in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and Catholicism colored by negative Calvinistic/Jansenistic attitudes. Fr. Brisson did this as a teacher, founder, and builder. He was very interested in the emerging technology of his age, and, at the same time, he was convinced that the insight of our 17th century bishop had much to offer the circumstances of his world.
The Oblates were to be men of action and “interior men” continually aware of God, formed by Francis’ rule of life, the Spiritual Directory http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=oblate+spiritual+directory&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8. Fr. Brisson often held up medieval Cistercian and Carthusian monks as models for his new community. In classes and sermons, he highlighted how these sturdy men combined effective manual labor with dedication to prayer and study. They had vibrant interior lives and, at the same time, contributed to the vitality of the Church and society.
I have always experienced Oblates to be people who put in long hours, who get involved, who do not expect to be waited on. Often Oblates are the first to lend a hand with whatever task, whether helping someone move, preparing a meal, cleaning up after a meal, or carrying groceries. Oblates staying in a guest room, when leaving, naturally strip the bed, gather the used linens, turn off the ceiling fan, and empty the trash, not expecting someone to pick up after them. Oblates clean, cut grass, prepare class, do laundry, move furniture, paint.
This practical work ethic also connects with St. Francis de Sales who had a vision of church affirmed at Vatican II. In the Church there are different of roles and responsibilities, but we all have an equal dignity and call to holiness. So religious or priests are not somehow separate from the rest of the people of God in a way requiring deference and being waited on. As Jesus “came to serve, not to be served,” Oblates have a particular responsibility to act in solidarity with other people.
In addition, Salesian spirituality encourages us to offer the full range of human activity to God. In this view no clear line divides the ordinary and secular on one side and the sacred on another side. As De Sales puts it in the Spiritual Directory:
The Oblates who wish to thrive and advance in the way of Our Lord should, at the beginning of their actions, both exterior and interior, ask for His grace and offer to His divine goodness all the good they will do. In this way they will be prepared to bear with peace and serenity all the pain and suffering as coming from the fatherly hand of our good God and Savior. His most holy intention is to have them merit by such means in order to reward them afterwards out of the abundance of His love.
They should not neglect this practice in matters which are small and seemingly insignificant, nor even if they are engaged in those things which are agreeable and in complete conformity with their own will and needs, such as drinking, eating, resting, recreating, and similar actions. By following the advice of the Apostle [see 1 Cor.10:31], everything they do will be done in God’s name to please Him alone.
Not Above the Fray
St. Francis highlights the virtue of humility as central to life. Humility is an honest assessment of ourselves: our abilities, liabilities, goodness, accomplishments and our inconsistencies and mistakes. Without a doubt, Oblate community and friends can work to make us humble in this sense. Sacraments and prayer work to form all of us as realistic, humble people. Catholics begin every Mass with a penitential rite, not because we are overly focused on guilt and sin, but because sin, mistakes, and bad judgment are part of each human life. We are asked, on one hand, not to pretend the negative does not exist, and, on the other hand, not to allow sin to be a reason to get discouraged. Faith asks us to put discouragement aside and face all things with humility and optimism.
People frequently comment that this attitude comes out in counseling and in the sacrament of reconciliation with Oblates. I notice it in our preaching. I don’t hear a lot of use of the second person, “you,” as in “you need to do this or that” or “the gospel challenges you to… .” It is much more characteristic for Oblate preaching to use first person plural. “We need to do this or that,” or “the gospel challenges us…” Typically Oblates do not tell congregations what to do, but listen together to what God calls us all to do and to be.
God of Abundance
Everything about Salesian spirituality rests on faith in God who is never nit-picky or petty, but is firmly in love with each woman or man he has created. God pulls for us to have a life that has the peace that comes from trusting in him fully. However, he in no way gives up on us when we focus on things that lead us away from that peace. I want to highlight two things that flow from an awareness of God’s abundance.
First is hospitality, a basic Salesian virtue, and one that people who know us may agree that we embrace wholeheartedly. We welcome people into our homes; our celebrations feature abundant food and drink. Time may be the most valuable thing modern people possess, and I have observed Oblates taking time to treat people with respect: a homeless woman the same as a wealthy parishioner, a guy who can’t read with the same attention as a PhD or a professional. There is a well-known Dorothy Day story that Harvard sociologist, Robert Coles, tells. He visited a Catholic Worker soup kitchen in Manhattan to interview Dorothy Day. When he arrived in the dining room, Dorothy was speaking to a homeless man, giving him her complete attention. After several minutes, with the professor standing waiting, she paused the conversation and asked the waiting Robert Coles if he was waiting to see one of them. Dorothy Day is not an Oblate, obviously, but the story illustrates hospitality in sharing time, not making judgments based on externals, and in being open to service and grace in unexpected places, in seemingly unpromising encounters.
Secondly, we meet the God of abundance in the full range of human activities. St. Francis is a huge promoter of spending time with Jesus in prayer. He encourages meditation on scenes from the gospels as a prime way to observe the Lord and to come to love him. Meditation is an obvious way to meet God, but all of life wants to teach us about God: everything from peaceful prayer to difficult trials to the least promising encounters. Thus, a healthy Christian aims to get the right balance of work, recreation, prayer, service and relationship. Problems arise when any one of these is out of balance, overtaking the others.
It is important to note that enjoyment of life-fun-has to be part of the balance. Often religion is made the enemy of lightness and fun. In reality this is just another setting to encounter God who loves us.
None of us gets this right all the time, but again, these values challenge and form us as we go to work each day. These are values that can help not only Oblates or DSW volunteers in our lives, but all of us as we attempt to thrive in our own particular Christian vocations.