Do you want Eugene to come alive for you?
Make the trek through the narrow, winding streets of Aix and kneel in the Church of the Madeleine. Listen to his famous Lenten sermon as it is proclaimed from the pulpit: “You know who you are in the eyes of the world but do you know who you are in the eyes of Christ?” he asks. Imagine the dark, empty pews filled with the artisans, farmworkers, and servants, huddled together in the early morning before they head off to their back-breaking jobs. “There will be plenty of Lenten sermons for the rich and the powerful,” Eugene points out to them, “but let me speak to you, beloved ones of Christ.”
Back out onto the streets, this time to find the Aix Cathedral, the most likely scene of Eugene’s Good Friday conversion experience. Marvel at its massive size, the ancient Roman baptistry area and the irreplaceable icons. Try to place yourself in the shoes of the desolate young man who finds himself in tears before the crucifix, lost but now found. Amidst his sorrow at his sins, there is the exultation of knowing he is saved.
Travel to Marseilles, the coach bus more comfortable than anything Eugene would have known, and get off in the parking lot below the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de la Garde. Climb and climb some more, then enter the chilly stone interior. Wend your way to the darkened Marian grotto, search your pockets for a coin, purchase a taper and add your tiny light to the hundreds already flickering there. Pause to place your hand gently on the foot or finger of the baby Jesus being held aloft by his Mother, noting that the golden paint on the statue has been rubbed off by countless petitioners before you.
Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de la Garde
Exit on the upper level, cross the terrace and gaze out over the outspread city of Marseilles, red-tiled roofs glowing in the bright sunshine, the sea glittering in the distance. Recall the first Oblates, celebrating a final farewell Mass together before setting out from the harbor to missionary lands. Their eyes are fixed on the twenty-metre high golden Madonna which crowns the Sanctuaire as they sing Salve Regina, the statue slowly sinking from their sight over the horizon.
The Marseilles Cathedral
Back down into the city: stand speechless before the magnificent edifice of the Marseilles cathedral. Traverse its side-altars, follow the aisle and find your way to the back chapel where Eugene’s white tomb sits in splendid silence. Listen to a commentary on Eugene, given by the redoubtable Father Rene Motte, and pause for silent prayer to the saint who called you here. End the visit joining with other Oblates and Associates in a solemn, celebratory Eucharist.
St. Eugene’s Tomb
“And on the fourth day we rested.” Well, in true Oblate style, truth be told, we celebrated; our day was spent visiting and praying at various significant sites of Eugene’s life. With everything we had been though together, and in this sacred place, our hearts were full of the Founder and this day, Monday, May 21, was his Feast Day. It was also the close of the de Mazenod Year, a date deliberately chosen, we were told, by the General Council for the closing of Congress as a sign of its importance in the congregation.
And so we went, pilgrims one and all: Mission Church, the Church of the Madeleine, Aix Cathedral, Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de la Garde and Marseilles Cathedral. We listening to the stories of Saint Eugene and the early Oblates as told by Father-General Zago and Father Rene Motte, and we prayed in gratitude for all that had been and all that would be. Immersed in Eugene’s spirit, we closed our day with a final feast in the dining hall of the Mission House.
As I looked around that final night, I realized that this diverse group of Oblates and laity had arrived four short days ago as strangers and we were leaving as companions. We were men and women who had discovered a common spirit and shared hearts and now it was time to ‘set forth’ to share the Good News we had experienced.
Sandra Prather, HOMI