Marist writer Jean Coste summarised the Mission of the Society as: “The Society of Mary exists to help the Mother of Mercy meet and assemble all her children.”
The major emphasis in Coste’s words, falls on the “all.”
That one small word challenges the Society to look outwards.
It commits Marists to reaching out beyond the security blanket of those in the established Church.
The focus of the Society’s mission is primarily focused towards those we still have to meet, or for any reason have concerns about their faith.
Parishes then with their geographical bond and fixed structures did not fit well with the missionary vision of the founder of the Society of Mary, Fr Jean Claude Colin.
Yet, the Society staffs many parishes, and right from its earliest days in the Bugey, Marists not only were very involved in the establishment and renewal of parishes but also staffed existing parishes.
So how can it be that parish structures do not fit well with the origins of the Society?
Some could perceive this as being anti-parish, but it’s not.
The Society has always felt a bond with the local church, indeed in missionary territories one of the first things that the Society has done is build or renew the local community through the development of good parish structures.
At the same time however, it was the mind of Marist founder, Jean Claude Colin that it should not accept parishes as a matter of course.
Right from the start of the Society in the Bugey, France, the college at Belley and in the missions in Oceania and New Zealand, when the Society has chosen to be involved in parish ministry, it has done so in for the purposes of mission rather than providing stability. (Constitutions 1872, N 4, and Constitutions 1988 N 12.)
Despite the 1988 Constitutions no longer stating that parish work forms part of a Marist vocation, the reality has turned out to be more complicated than the ideal. In earlier days, even Fr Colin himself made exceptions.
The Society then is aware of Fr Colin’s objections to accepting parishes, but it also realises that today, perhaps even more so than in the Founder’s time, that parish ministry can offer precious opportunities for missionary outreach.
None-the-less, it is the Society’s global goal to reduce the percentage of those involved in parish ministry.
The Society is encouraging Marists currently involved in traditional parishes to embrace ministry in the likes of catechetical centres, missionary teams, clinics, prisons, schools, retreat centres, houses of prayer, social projects and the media. (Superior General’s Letter to all Marists, 1 December 2003.)
Key components for accepting parish ministry as identified by the New Zealand province combined with the Society of Mary’s General administration include:
- The parish be seen to have a missionary ministry.
- That Marists in parishes must always be an “apostole” in the dynamic sense of the word rather than a “pastor” in the stable sense of the word.
- That as followers of Marist pioneers, Marists prefer to serve in the less affluent, more disadvantaged places.
- That Marists minister in areas that for a range of reasons may be difficult to staff, or in places where the church is less established, or in places that have special characteristics such as places of pilgrimage or non-territorial shrine.