The Society of Mary began in the Chapel of Our Lady at Fourvire in Lyon, France, on 23 July 1816 where twelve seminarians, aged between 20 and 34, climbed the steep steps to the top of the Fourvire hill, and dedicated themselves to Mary.
They promised to begin a new religious order in the Church; a group called “Mary-ists” whose work in the Church would resemble that of the Jesuits, but whose approach or style would be unlike anything that existed in the Church at that time.
John-Claude Colin was born at the time of the French Revolution – a time of turmoil and a split between the Church and French Society. The Revolution also divided the Church, some priests being faithful to Rome, while others pledged allegiance to the French constitution.
Jean-Claude’s parents supported those loyal to Rome; his father openly supporting the parish priest. Consequently an order of arrest was issued against his father, Jacques, who had to hide for a year in fear of his life. His house was boarded up and all his goods were sold. With all this suffering Jean-Claude’s mother, Marie died aged 37. Jacques died only three weeks later.
Jean-Claude was looked after by Marie Echallier, a person for whom religion and guilt tended to go hand in hand. Jean-Claude developed scruples.
Strongly influenced by these events, Jean-Claude Colin believed that the best way to help people was to be a source of compassion, a gentle presence, hidden in the world but not hidden from the world, just as Mary had been for the early church.
Although he was a reluctant leader Jean-Claude Colin was called to develop the vision of the Society of Mary.
Very little is said of Mary in the Scriptures, however one thing we do know – she is always there. This is particularly evident at the two most important moments in the Church’s history, namely, the Incarnation; when the Word became Flesh, the Crucifixion; when Jesus died, and at Pentecost; when the Church of the Spirit came into being. Fr Colin’s idea of the Mission of Marists is summed up in this statement attributed to Mary: “I was the mainstay of the Church at the beginning, and shall be at the end.”
The way Mary lived her life and went about her work inspires Marists to do the same. At the heart of Mary’s work is a compassion and an openness to all people. In a culture of achievement, productivity and competition, compassion might seem to be a bit of a non-starter. However in all their works, Marists are to be wholly compassionate and understanding towards human frailty.” (Society of Mary Constitution 137.)
A special way of Marist living is to be as it were, “hidden and unknown”. This is part of the fabric of what it means to be a Marist, it gives inspiration to Marists and is a type of motto. For Marists, being “hidden and unknown” in the world, is a call to simple, modest and humble action, with the focus on the task rather than who is doing it.
An example may help further explain. Once when Arturo Toscanini was preparing his orchestra to play one of Beethoven’s symphonies, he said, “Gentlemen, I am nothing; you are nothing; Beethoven is everything.” He knew his main task was to sink himself, and his orchestra, and let the music of Beethoven flow through.
The Marists were the first Missionaries to arrive on the boat with Bishop Pompallier. The mission to New Zealand and the South Pacific was the reason the Holy Father gave Fr Colin the approval to form Society of Mary. Marists are called to establish the Church where it does not exist and to renew existing communities rather than to participate in activities and places where the Church is already established with sufficient resources.
Since arriving in New Zealand, Marists have been involved in many works, Parish Missions, ministering among the Māori people, training Priests and Religious, Education – including establishing New Zealand’s oldest Catholic Boys’ Secondary school, operating retreat centres, pastoring in many parishes.
Craig Larkin, ‘A Certain Way‘ – an exploration of Marist Spirituality