It is tempting to think that Saint Marcellin Champagnat would be astonished at the growth of the Institute he founded as the Little Brothers of Mary in 1817. But that is unlikely to be true, given his reply to a bishop seeking Brothers for his diocese. To the bishop, Marcellin said simply, “All the dioceses of the world figure in our plans”. These are extraordinary words, given how modest the scale of the Institute was when he spoke them. Words like that signal either megalomaniac delusion or genuinely prophetic foresight. In Champagnat’s case, I would favour the latter. Marcellin’s was a grand vision of possibility because it was born of a vision, indeed an experience of divine grace – the grace that lies at the heart of the great feast of the Immaculate Conception we celebrate today.
In contemplating the figure of the Immaculate Mother, Marcellin came to understand what grace is and what grace does. Grace touched Mary from the first moment of her life in the womb, keeping her free from the sin which is endemic to the human race. The one to be born of her, the Son of God, was the sinless one, and a sinless womb was needed for the sinless one to be born into a sinful world. In preparing that sinless womb, God made it clear that sin, however endemic it may seem, is not native to the human being; we weren’t created for sin. So too in the Assumption, God made it clear that death, the seeming triumph of sin, isn’t native to the human being. We all die; but we weren’t created for death. In the figure of Mary, “first superior” and “ordinary resource” of the Institute, we see the truth of the human being, a truth we see in its fullness only when the sinless one rises from the dead. But in Mary we see as well that God’s grace can do things which, by any ordinary reckoning, are simply
impossible. It was that vision of grace which brought to birth Marcellin’s grand vision of possibility and enabled him to say in those early days, “All the dioceses of the world figure in our plans”, even the dioceses of this distant land. Champagnat knew the truth of Gabriel’s words to Mary: “Nothing is impossible to God”.
Who but Marcellin would have thought, when the first Brothers arrived on these shores first in 1838 and then more permanently in 1872, that their growth here would be so remarkable? Australia was to be a base for the Pacific missions which were so much part of the great surge of Gospel energy into Oceania that came from France through the nineteenth century. But Australia became more than a base from which to depart for mission elsewhere. Here the Brothers flourished in the most unlikely way and Australia became one of the great centres of the Institute’s life. This was signalled most clearly perhaps by the election of Brother Charles Howard as Superior General, born in Melbourne, died in Sydney: may that great man rest in peace and rise in glory.
Such was the growth of the Institute on these shores that Australia became a province in 1917 and two provinces in 1948 until this day in 2012. The timing of the Brothers’ arrival and growth was perfect, because these were the years following the decision of the Bishops of Australia to establish their own Catholic schools, whatever the cost. That was a brave – some said foolhardy – decision; yet what a triumph it has been. If it has yielded such fruit, it is because of Institutes like the Marist Brothers who went far and wide, establishing schools of every kind and teaching the young in every way. Were it not for their contribution, not only the Church in this land but Australian society more generally would look very different than it does today. On this historic day, we look back upon that story and we give thanks, because it has been above all a story of God’s grace.
In more recent years, we have seen tumultuous change in the Church and society, and the Institute has not been exempt from this. The number of Brothers has dropped; the ministries of Religious have diversified; the character of Catholic education has changed; and the running of large institutions has become more complex. These and other factors have led to what is undoubtedly an institutional diminishment far from the glory days when we went from one institutional triumph to another in what seemed an unstoppable progress. The decision to form one province out of the two can look like an inevitable response to an irreversible decline. It can look like the kind of planning that is really palliative care. Yet if it is only that, then a celebration such as this becomes cosmetic, a kind of whistling in the dark; and if it is only that, then it is a betrayal of Champagnat and his vision of divine grace.
This is a moment of grace for the Institute or it is nothing. Real planning for the future in the Church is always a response, first, to the facts on the ground, and these have changed and are changing quite dramatically in Australia. Often we find ourselves with structures and strategies which are a response to the facts on the ground fifty or a hundred years ago. They may have worked brilliantly in those earlier times, but not now when the facts on the ground are different. Yet planning for the future in the Church must be not only a response to the facts on the ground, but also be a response to grace of the moment. The question therefore becomes: What is the grace, even the unexpected and inconvenient grace of this time? That question can be harder to answer than it seems, but unless we move to an answer, it is unlikely that our structures and strategies will be a response to the grace of the moment. They will end up looking more like palliative care.
The brave and complex decision to unite the provinces of Australia is surely intended to stir new energies and to create new possibilities for mission. In a time of institutional decline we can be tempted to turn inwards, to close ranks in a supposedly self-protective manoeuvre. But that would be a fatal mistake at this time and ultimately a refusal of grace. Now is the time for a new missionary audacity, the kind of boldness we hear in Champagnat’s words, “All the dioceses of the world figure in our plans”. Without that boldness, all our talk of a new evangelisation runs the risk of being little more than a vapid mantra. We do need at this time a new surge of Gospel energy – even against the tide – such as we see in Marcellin at a time when the Church in France was reduced to almost nothing by the devastations of the Revolution. Grace always comes out of the blue. No-one saw the Marist movement or Marcellin Champagnat coming. He came as a bolt from the blue. Why should these surprises of grace cease now? What is God preparing as he leads you to this point of unification? Where and how will the new surprises of grace come? These are surely the questions.
In grappling with them, you will, as Marist Brothers have always done, turn to your “first superior” and “ordinary resource”, the woman of grace, the Immaculate Mother; and you will turn to the earthy and haunting figure of your saintly Founder who points now as then to the crib, the cross and the altar. Contemplating those two figures, you will understand the great mystery of grace; and understanding that mystery, you will find the right path into the future which God is now preparing. Amen.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane
Delivered at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney
December 8, 2012