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March 21, 2007|
Passing of our Father Saint Benedict
The future Mother Mary of the Passion, Helene de Chappotin, was born on May 21, 1839. Around her cradle were four brothers and sisters as well as six cousins, for an uncle and aunt lived with the Chappotins in a cramped apartment near the cathedral in Nantes, France. Most of the year, however, was spent on the family's immense property, «the Fort,» a few kilometers outside the city. Helene was a gifted and willful child, boisterous and a leader of other children. She was stirred by the conversations she heard around her, full of memories of the Revolution and the Catholic counter-revolt of the Vendée.
Her heart was broken by love
But this same year began for Helene a painful time, marked by several deaths. «Before me the emptiness was growing ever larger,» Helene would write. «Who was worth the effort of being loved? This mystery from my childhood was growing ever more terrible.» In April 1856, she attended the annual retreat for the Children of Mary in Nantes. At the beginning of the retreat, the preacher prophesized: «In this chapel there is a soul that God is seeking, wants, claims. We will all pray for this soul during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.» Without hesitation, Helene said to herself, «I'm this soul, they're going to pray for me.» She would later add, however, «With this conviction, I was more childish, more of a cut-up, than ever, I distracted the others. Nothing for God up to the last sermon, nothing... But when the final Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament began, it seems I must have had some of the grace of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. I kneeled down, still cold. The thought came to me: 'I am He Who will always love you more than you love Him, He Whose Beauty is without spot, without disappointment, for I am the Infinite, God.' I had heard nothing, it was a moment's thought, but it made another creature out of me.» Helene's life changed completely. Gone were the boredom, the nonchalance from then on, her life was transformed by the love of God. And one day, a new inspiration came to her: «What do you owe Me for having taken hold of you in this way?» Jesus asked her. Religious life appeared before her. «Only the complete gift of myself could repay Him Who gave Himself completely to me,» she replied. And just as the Beauty of God had forced itself on her love, so did religious life force itself on her conscience, and even on her desires.
Helene deepened her spiritual life: long hours of prayer, mortifications... Her family soon noticed the change in her, but the young woman did not speak of her vocation; she knew her mother would be fiercely opposed. At the end of 1858, Father Lavigne, her confessor, asked her to make a discernment retreat with the Dames du Cénacle in Paris. Helene told her parents, and they agreed to it. But shortly before Helene was to leave, Madame de Chappotin was struck down by a stroke that carried her off in a week. Helene stayed home with her father.
A new name
In 1864, she learned of the existence of the Society of Marie Réparatrice, consecrated to the adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in reparation for the sins of the world, with Mary at the foot of the cross, and following the rule of Saint Ignatius. She joined their novitiate in Toulouse. She took the habit on the following August 15, and was given the name Sister Mary of the Passion. At the beginning of 1865, she was chosen to go to the mission in Madurai, in southern India. In 1859, at the request of the Jesuit fathers, the Society of Marie Réparatrice had sent a first group of Sisters to Madurai to take care of the many young widows and girls of the country. In a geographical, cultural, and religious context that was unfamiliar to them, they had to adapt the forms of their religious life. On May 3, 1866, Mary of the Passion took her first religious vows and was almost immediately named superior of the house in Tuticorin. Her work there was highly praised and, in January 1867, she was named provincial superior for the three houses in Madurai.
Mother Mary of the Passion had many good qualities for her position, but her extreme sensitivity caused her great pain. Her delicate health was tested by the climate: violent stomachaches and headaches, heart ailments... It was necessary to respond to the material and spiritual needs of families: catechism, retreats, school activities, dispensaries, women's shelters... Her work included the care of the thirty-some Sisters spread across three communities. With great flexibility, she blended prayer, Eucharistic adoration, and apostolate. The atmosphere of charity that she established in the communities aroused the admiration of visitors. «When one enters your community,» a bishop told the sisters, «one is struck, one feels something special... It is the charity that reigns throughout.»
A difficult decision
While in Rome, the Sisters, who were staying in poor accommodations, suffered from hunger and cold, but soon the authorities decided in their favoron January 5, 1877, authorization was given to establish the Institute of the Missionaries of Mary, exclusively devoted to mission. Mary of the Passion drafted a rule of life to submit to Bishop Bardou. At the heart of the rule she put the total offering of self, without reservation, for the Church and the salvation of the world, and then the imitation of Mary, following Jesus all the way to Calvary. She had developed certain convictions that missionaries need a specific kind of preparation, and a better understanding of the cultural landscape of the mission country.
The Church's missionary activity «derives its reason from the will of God, who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:45), neither is there salvation in any other (Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church's preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. ... Though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. And hence missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity» (Second Vatican Council, Decree Ad Gentes, no. 7).
A blessing and a grace
Everything seemed to be going well. But in November 1882, the favor the new congregation was enjoying in Rome revived the suspicions that had hovered over its foundation since its separation from the Society of Marie Réparatrice. Malicious voices attributed the foundress's intentions to personal ambition. On March 16, 1883, Mary of the Passion was deposed from her office of Superior General and was forbidden from writing to her Daughters. Soon after, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith resolved a financial dispute with the Society of Marie Réparatrice against the Missionaries of Mary, a decision that was humanly disastrous for the latter.
The great missionary
In August 1885, the Institute was officially placed under the direction of the Franciscan Minister General, beginning a period of magnificent missionary expansion. In 1886, four foundations were establishedtwo in Ceylon, and one each in China and Paris. The separations produced by the departures caused Mary of the Passion to suffer greatly, as she personally loved each of her Daughters. But nothing lessened the maternal and fraternal love the foundress poured out in the vast correspondence she constantly maintained with the Congregation. From 1886 on, requests for foundations poured in continuously, every week, then almost every day. The foundations in Europe were not only training grounds for the mission countriesthey met the need for evangelization in the slums of big cities. To meet the considerable material needs, Mary of the Passion relied on work: «Whatever the cost, we must work, and find enough work to live.» So the Sisters devoted themselves to drawing, painting, sewing, lithography, printing, weaving, and so forth. Mother Mary of the Passion also organized her Sisters' missionary formation. She wrote a «Novice Mistress' Rulebook,» a veritable treatise on spiritual formation, as well as other spiritual writings.
In 1890, the Institute received pontifical approval; at the time it numbered 17 houses and 495 Sisters. Mary of the Passion gave all the credit to God. Yet, in the depths of her soul, a work of purification was underway. On the one hand, she passionately wanted God, His love, and His glory, and she drowned herself in the silence of adoration; on the other hand, she did not know what the Lord thought of her and even doubted her eternal salvation. Father Bernardin, who experienced similar spiritual sufferings, told her, «Don't worry, be done with it once and for all, make the perpetual offering of your soul, your being, and your eternity to God.»
«Walk in the footsteps of Jesus!»
In her activity with the poor, especially in big cities, Mary of the Passion concerned herself with the social question. The state of women was an issue especially close to her heart. She encouraged the creation of professional schools and workshops where women could learn a trade and receive a fair salary. «In Christianity», said Pope Paul VI, «more than in any other religion, woman has had from the beginning a special dignity, the numerous and outstanding aspects of which are reflected in the New Testament... It is clear that woman is called to participate in the life and operation of Christianity in such an important way, that perhaps all the potentialities have yet to be discovered» (December 6, 1976).
In 1900, the grace of martyrdom was given to Sisters of the Institute in China: in Tai Yuan Fu, the Boxer Rebellion resulted in the massacre of the entire mission, notably of seven Sisters who had arrived the year before. In the midst of her tears, the foundress exclaimed, «Now I can say I have seven real Franciscan missionaries of Mary! Their martyrdom speaks for itself. Through their vocation, they offered themselves for the Church and for souls. They have been a holocaust to the end...» These martyred nuns were canonized on October 1, 2000.
Worn out by the strains of her constant travels and of daily work, Mary of the Passion died in San Remo, Italy, on November 15, 1904, leaving about three thousand religious spread across eighty-six foundations on all the continents.
During the beatification of Mother Mary of the Passion, Pope John Paul II said: «The primary service we can give to the mission is the sincere and constant quest for holiness. We cannot witness to the Gospel genuinely, if first of all we do not live it faithfully.» These words echo the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: «All Christians, wherever they live, are bound to show forth, by the example of their lives and by the witness of the word, that new man put on at baptism and that power of the Holy Spirit by which they have been strengthened at Confirmation. Thus other men, observing their good works, can glorify the Father (cf. Mt 5:16) and can perceive more fully the real meaning of human life and the universal bond of the community of mankind» (Ad Gentes, no. 11).
Let us ask Blessed Mary of the Passion to obtain for us the grace to live according to the Gospel, with an ardent zeal for the salvation of souls.