Jet lagged and bleary-eyed, Sarah and I stepped off the train at Aix-en-Provence. Trains, planes and automobiles, although not in that order, we had been on them all. My 20 year old daughter, accompanying me as my traveling companion, and I were on the final leg of the long distance journey. We started in Western Canada: Edmonton to Toronto, Toronto to Paris, Paris to Marseilles, Marseilles to Aix. We traveled across several time zones, so that day was night and night was day and we weren’t sure what day it was, anyway. But we were here, in Aix, finally.
Together, we consulted the written instructions provided by the organizers and set out. We found our way to the Cours Mirabeau and began walking its length. Wide-eyed through our fatigue, we stumbled past the glistening fountains, glittering shop windows and bustling cafes, our wheeled suitcases clattering on the broad sidewalk. Weaving through the pedestrians, and looking ahead at the never-ending street, we were beginning to despair of ever reaching the its end. Sarah was only half joking when she asked, “Are we ever going to get there?” I was shrugging my ignorance when we were approached by a gentleman in a Roman collar. He asked if we were the people expected at the Oblate House. When we admitted we were, Assistant General Father Ryszard Szmydki, OMI, took the handles of our suitcases from our hands and introduced himself. Only then did I notice the Oblate cross around his neck.
Chatting easily, he escorted us up the remainder of the Cours, and making the slight turn at its top, brought us to a halt. We were facing the steps of the Mission Church and I gazed, wonderingly but rather dazed, at its lovely façade. I only gradually became aware of the surprisingly colored burgundy door set off to the right. We had arrived at Eugene’s house.
My journey to the birthplace of the Oblates and the historic work of the Congress really began months earlier, however. Its genesis was a simple phone call and the voice of the Provincial in my ear: “Would you like to go to France in May?” My heart skipped a beat before I was able to give a breathless, yet enthusiastic, response, “Yes, of course!” Explanations and discussions followed. My family was consulted, my work schedule adjusted and, sooner rather than later, plane tickets were booked. Sarah and I were off to Aix and I was a delegate at a ‘Congress.’ That was as much as I knew.
There were clues to the work of the Congress though. Once I was accepted as a delegate, the Roman correspondence began. As I have since come to know, the Oblate machinery for such events is well oiled and the General Administration knows quite well what it is doing. I received numerous Oblate texts and documents to read as background, several questionnaires to fill in and return, and agendas and itineraries to help with the planning.
In their wisdom, the organizing committee wanted to know a lot! ‘What was my connection to the Oblate charism? What did I think about recent Oblate texts on lay associates? What were my expectations for the Congress?’ They also asked for my description of the identity of a ‘lay associate.’ “Whew,” I thought as I struggled to answer; I had barely even heard of ‘lay associates’! I also conducted, presumably at their request, a survey of the Oblates in my province regarding their involvement with, ‘the laity.’ Heady stuff for a beginner, I thought. Little did I know that the accumulated responses of the participants were to be the starting point and meat for the Congress discussions.
I was nervous about being in an international setting and uncertain about the work, but Oblates are daring as we know, so it was in that spirit that I stepped out, Sarah by my side. As I gazed that sunny afternoon at the beautiful burgundy door, I didn’t know what was behind it nor what was coming, but I was eager for it to begin.
Sandra Prather, HOMI