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We are pilgrims

2:05 PM  Sep 3rd, 2007
by Michelle Tedford

We are pilgrims. Eyes hot from too little sleep. Bodies sore from too many foreign beds. And again, we pray. This time on the freeway at 100 kph, rushing past sand dunes made stationary by scrub grass where naked sheep graze.

Each day, a pilgrim leads the prayer. Today, as we head north to France after 16 hours in Zaragoza, Spain, Joe Saliba sways near the bus driver and speaks into the microphone.

“Some say Marianists are reformed Benedictines,” says the dean of engineering, pausing for our labored chuckles. “We really borrow a lot of their virtues and a lot of their habits. The difference is that they are in abbeys and we are in communities.”

He recites Pope John Paul II’s “Prayer to our Lady of Lourdes” — in preparation for the group’s next stop six hours over the Pyrenees mountains — in the style of the Benedictines. Saliba reads. Others share a word or phrase that resonates deeply. And the process repeats.

“It’s an awakening of the words of the scripture,” Saliba says.

One pilgrim offers: Teach us to build up the world.

And another: Glorious Mother.

Dawn of a new era.

Hope.

Paths of the World.

“This morning, for me it was ‘first of the disciples,'” he says.

 

For 10 days in June 2007, we UD pilgrims followed the paths of the Marianist founders through three countries, connecting with the places and spaces that have inspired more than two centuries of education and community action in the spirit of Mary. These pilgrims are Marianist Educational Associates, lay people committed to preserving the heritage and invigorating the spirit of Marianist education. They also may be the future of the University of Dayton.

Gone are the days of a brother in every classroom. Now, it’s hard even to find a priest for every blessing. But thanks to the Blessed Father William Joseph Chaminade, who began the Marianists with his sodality of everyday Christians, the lay and the religious are equal partners in building up society for the glory of God. The 31 vowed Marianists on campus are now complemented by 25 MEAs who have undergone formation training and public commitments. The trip, part of an education to connect them with the order’s founders, allowed them to walk in the footsteps of Chaminade, visit the mission of Mother Marie Thérèse de Lamourous and meet the women who keep the work of Mother Adèle de Batz de Trenquelléon alive.

To be sure, it is a costly endeavor for the Society of Mary, which is putting time and resources into people who are not bound to their commitment through anything other than dedication. It’s an investment the society is willing to make.

“The investment is really an investment for a deepening of the Marianist spirit,” said Father Paul Marshall, University rector, who joined eight MEAs, three spouses and this journalist on the trip. “It doesn’t live in ideas first. The forming of the mind, it’s not book knowledge. It’s going to the places, meeting the people. … The Marianist charism lives in people. “

 

 

Praying where Chaminade prayedIn Bordeaux, France, we walked in the footsteps of Father Chaminade and inadvertently left some of our own in the wet concrete of a city at once old and constantly reinventing itself. If a 300-year-old building needs water, simply rip up the sidewalk, insert the appropriate piping, and cover it over for another hundred years, Saliba pointed out. No fuss, no “wet cement” signs to warn spiritual sightseers.

Dogged pragmatism, a sense of making do while recognizing the future: These are familiar themes to those who know the Marianists. Simply being in the city gave the pilgrims a sense of the old Bordeaux that Chaminade called home from 1789, when the French Revolution drove him from the school where he was teaching, until his death in 1850.

Brother Tim Phillips, S.M., assistant rector of Marianist International Seminary Chaminade in Rome, turned stories once trapped in ink and pulp to flesh and wood as he led the MEAs on a walking tour of the old city. In the Chapel of the Madeleine, he showed pilgrims the door, 6-feet high and rubbed soft by centuries of hands, behind which the first Marianists took their vows in 1817.

“What we’re about is to learn and keep tradition alive,” said Steve Mueller, UD executive director of counseling and health services. “It also stirs some emotion — we’ve read the books, but it doesn’t feel like it does when you step into the Madeleine for the first time.”

The travelers stepped into the dim chapel and inhaled cool, humid air. The 15th century building, which still holds Mass daily and supports a religious and lay Marianist community, seemed to vibrate with an intensity that pricked the skin like electricity. Its cool limestone walls contrasted with the gilded statues of Mary and the angel of the Annunciation purchased by Chaminade. A relic of Chaminade lies within an illuminated altar.

The MEAs felt that same intensity in the bright second-floor apartment where Chaminade worked and died and where Father Paul Marshall said Mass at the worm-worn table on which Chaminade said Mass during the revolution.

“A lot of the letters and documents we have from Father Chaminade would have been written, dictated, thought about in this room,” Phillips said. “You can imagine the conversations they must have had.”

The simplicity of the chapel and the room struck Sandra Yocum Mize, chair of the department of religious studies. The pine floors and blue front door belie the courage needed by the Marianists to re-Christianize French society after the chaos of the revolution. Being in this place underscored the connection UD has with that first Marianist mission to educate the laity and send them out to be forces for change in their own communities, she said.

“There are people who pass by L’Madeleine every day, ride by it on bikes, and have no idea what is going on inside,” she said. “Yet people in Dayton, Ohio, have a real connection to this place. There’s something real important in recognizing the value of the ordinary, in spreading the gospel and in being one contributor to a transformation in society. … What you need is a simple room with a table and people who are gathered together who are committed.”

The simplicity of the other historic locations — the oratory where Chaminade hid priests during the revolution, the Miséricorde where Marie Thérèse welcomed prostitutes and helped them learn trades, the storefront that once served as the first Marianist boarding school, the first house of the Society of Mary — reinforced the Marianist involvement in everyday life.

It also served for a bit of weary humor that sent the tired bunch into hysterics. On a day trip from Bordeaux into Périgueux, where Chaminade’s parents lived, Father Robert Witwicki, S.M., led the pilgrims down a narrow lane. He stopped before a nondescript green door next to another nondescript green door.

“And this is where Chaminade was born,” he said with a flourish.

Looking up, the pilgrims asked, “Which one? 18 or 20.”

“Ah, 18, 20, it doesn’t matter. We say it is here.”

 

 

Marianist Educational Associates“I’ve been looking for you.”

Father Matt Komescher, S.M., sitting on a couch in the admission office, greeted Kathy McEuen Harmon with this phrase as he began their daily chats about Flyer basketball, religion and the scholarship in his mother’s name.

One day he had a new topic of conversation: There’s this program, he said, that you’d be perfect for. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I’ve nominated you.

He knew of Harmon’s longstanding dedication to the University, which she joined in 1992. As associate director of student scholarships, she has daily contact with a special area of the Marianists’ mission: educating the whole person by stretching scarce resources.

The program was the Marianist Educational Associates, lay people educated and working in partnership with the vowed religious to perpetuate the heritage and invigorate the mission of the three Marianist universities: Dayton, St. Mary’s in San Antonio and Chaminade University in Honolulu.

Started in 2004, the MEA program has graduated three cohorts of faculty, staff and administrators from an intensive four-day initial formation program focused on the Marianist and Catholic history, Catholic higher education and the Marianist educational mission. MEAs also complete personal readings and reflections, discuss faith and campus mission in community, are invited to make a public commitment, and join the pilgrimage.  While it was the second year for the pilgrimage, it was the first attended by only those from UD.

The program recognizes both the importance of the laity to Marianist history (“The laity is as much Marianist as the religious,” said Brother Raymond Fitz, S.M.) and the reality the number of vowed Marianists in North America is diminishing.

“As we move into the future, the driving force (at the universities) will remain the Society of Mary, but there will not be such a cadre to animate and sustain the spirit throughout the institutions,” said Fitz who, with Brother Tom Giardino, S.M., teaches the intensive formation program.

Each university embraced the concept and formed it with a flavor unique to the institution’s character and needs. UD rector’s council, intent not to duplicate existing efforts or create an insiders’ club, discussed for a year the idea before taking nominations, like the one from Komescher, and then applications for those willing to accept the responsibility of being an MEA.

Harmon, who is Protestant, appreciates how welcoming the Marianists are to those of all faiths, employees and students alike. So, when she was selected for the second cohort, she drew from Komescher’s faith in her and years in service to the Marianists to answer: “In the spirit of Chaminade, ‘yes.’ In the spirit of Mary, ‘yes.'”

Since the concept of partnership between religious and lay is key, it’s as important to include an admissions counselor as a dean.

“The charism should infuse every aspect of the University, who we are and what we do,” said Father Marshall. “It embraces all areas of academics and growth — nothing is outside the kingdom of God.”

 

 

Vactican City with Michael McAwardThe bones of St. Peter are not in the box.

Brother Michael John McAward, S.M., secretary general of the Marianists at their Rome headquarters, kept the jet-lagged pilgrims moving on the first day of the pilgrimage through St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City with the story of St. Peter, rock of the church, in seven parts. It began with history beneath the colonnade, continued with intrigue at the tomb of St. Peter (the bones are actually 4 feet to the right of the tomb, which bears the inscription that identifies his resting place), and concluded outside with humor (the archeologist who took the bones home in a shoebox for safe keeping).

Michelangelo’s Pietá and the sunlight streaming down on the marble floors provided a striking contrast to the simplicity of the Marianist sites they would see in Bordeaux. But, more than anything, Rome provided a first lesson in the people who inhabit the spaces and places that punctuate an itinerary.

McAward waved his arms as he gave running commentary around the Colosseum, through St. Peter’s and on to the baptistery at St. John Lateran, knowledge that sprang from his love of sharing history, religion and culture. Sister Marie Luce Balliet, F.M.I., who poured sugar in her wine at lunch at the Daughters general administration, told stories of joining the men in the Bordeaux grape harvest as a teenager and of preparing for South American missions at age 70.

“It’s not the places that are interesting, it’s the people,” said Brother Phillips who, with stories rooted in centuries, endeared himself to the MEAs. “It’s at these places you meet the people.”

In Zaragoza, Spain, it was Father Eduardo Benlloch, S.M., who bustled the pilgrims across town for a brief presentation on Our Lady of the Pillar, before which Chaminade prayed while in exile. In Feugarolles, France, it was Patrice and Ghislaine de Bentzmann, who welcomed the MEAs into the historic family home of very great auntie Adèle, founder of the Daughters of Mary.

In Bordeaux, it included Jean Pierre Roumaillac, whose mobile phone rang the theme to Pink Panther. He was the MEAs’ intrepid companion, offering interpretations of history based on his own experience as a lay Marianist.

At OUr Lady of the Pillar in ZaragozaAs he sped past vineyards on the way to Mussidan — where Chaminade and his brother ran a school — Roumaillac announced to the MEAs in his car that it was 3 o’clock, time for the traditional Marianist prayer. Switching from English back to French, he then recited the doxology from memory.

“I found it very touching and felt this connection, this sense that he knew we knew what he was talking about,” Sandra Yocum Mize said. “He said it in French, we say it in English but, in that simple offering of the prayer, we felt a larger connection to the Marianists.”

 

 

The strong, curved, 4-foot-5 frame of Sister Marie Agnes shook with excitement. She rattled on in French, filling the cramped room with words about the ministry of Marie Therese and giving her interpreter no pauses to explain the stories to the American visitors.

“And the story doesn’t end there,” she said after a forced interruption before launching into a story about the secret room where Marie Thèrése and her followers said Mass during the French Revolution. Here, she said, is a small window to the courtyard, so the gardener could signal if the soldiers appeared.

Sisters Marie Agnes and Marie Veronique, both aged more than 80 and more than a century removed from Marie Thèrése, were ecstatic to entertain these visitors from America who traveled so far to hear their stories. While the MEAs were there to learn history — see the shepherd’s cottage original to Marie Thèrése’s family, the embroidery made for her by the repentant women she helped  — they learned that the jubilant spirit that seems so familiar at UD animates people and missions around the world.

At the Hermitage in Le Pian, outside Bordeaux, the sisters run a boarding school for socially disturbed youth. They require love and attention, Marie Veronique said, much the way Marie Thèrése cared for the prostitutes who were seeking reform and reintegration to society. One of her favorite stories is of a Polish order that wrote asking Marie Thèrése to send women to establish a similar ministry in their country. Her reply: send your women here, learn from us, and take a piece of that back with you.

The jubilation was present in Agen, France, where the Daughters of Mary welcomed the MEAs with sweet wine and cakes after a tour of the property, which included Adèle’s grave and a case containing a lock of her hair, a piece of her habit, the cross she wore on her neck.

It also was present at the Daughters of Mary in Rome when Superior General Marie Joëlle Bec, F.M.I., told the story of Adele who, at age 11 in 1801, insisted to the priest she must wait and prepare properly for First Communion. Adèle again insisted, this time in 1816, that Chaminade support her call to form a community of sisters. With great pride, Bec related how Adèle described Chaminade as “working in the masculine branch of our order.”

“Because a family must have a mother and a father,” Bec told her guests in conclusion. “Now, tell me about being an MEA.”

 

 

Dick Ferguson expected his presentation to crash. While he had managed to eliminate 100 photos from his pilgrimage PowerPoint slide show, it still contained 1,100 images. It would take two lunch meetings for him to show them all to his staff at the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community.

Many of his images captured everyday life of the Marianists we visited: simple table settings, beautiful flowers, sparse but comfortable sitting rooms, easy conversation.

Our Lady of Lourdes“There’s something in the simple lifestyle of the European Marianist communities that struck me, ” said Ferguson, Fitz Center executive director. “My life is filled with stuff, both my personal life and my professional life … not just with things, but with projects, presentations, activities. … I’m not sure if it’s a written reflection, a slide presentation or a note to myself, but there’s a lesson somewhere for me and my family, my community, and our university.”

Other MEAs are making plans to incorporate their new knowledge into their work. Beverly Jenkins, associate director of admission, said she can better answer prospective students and parents who ask exactly what her own father asked 30 years ago when she was a UD student: “What do the Marianists mean to you?” While she couldn’t answer her father, she can now articulate their influence to other fathers and mothers.

“I talk with families every day,” she said. “I try to intentionally talk a little more about the Marianists. Parents do want to know what it means to be a Catholic and Marianist university. I haven’t perfected it yet; each time I tell it, it has a little different tone, depending on the families.”

Steve Mueller hopes to share his knowledge with student development employees — who in turn touch all the students — thereby using the Marianist philosophy of learning and sharing to exponentially build understanding.

But just because this is UD doesn’t mean their task is easy. At dinner one night, they talked about the barriers to their work. These include people who see the Marianist influence as nothing more than a friendly hello or a door held open. Others on campus would prefer religion stay in the chapel.

Associate professor Shirley Wright found the MEA formation and pilgrimage personally rewarding and as having tangible benefits to the classroom.

“I see great opportunity for science to be enriched by the Marianist traditions,” she said. “It was an incredible, magnificent experience.”

The MEAs are already making an impact on the University’s path. This year, they joined the vowed Marianists in interviewing candidates for vice president for student development, asking questions related to the University’s mission to find a candidate compatible with the Marianist philosophy of education.

The MEAs have created a strong personal community that has allowed them to probe the role of faith in campus life. This community has also supported each other through illness, professional struggles and uncertainty.

“If this is going to succeed,” Brother Fitz said, “it’s going to be an action of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit has had in mind a lot of surprises.”

One of those has been the MEAs’ willingness to live a life that embodies the Marianist spirit. “There is an amazing depth of commitment and amount of energy people are willing to put into their work,” he said.

And the need for the commitment will only increase. The MEAs will be asked to offer suggestions about how changes in general education could enliven the Marianist goals and contribute to transformational leadership.

They also will be asked to take on additional responsibilities as the number of vowed Marianists decreases.

“There are not going to be clerics to do these things — bless your house, give the opening prayer,” said Joan McGuiness Wagner, director of Marianist strategies in the rector’s office. “If we want those things, we’re going to have to step up.

“Most will say the Marianist part of UD is what they like and what makes us distinctive. If it’s something important, what is each one of us willing to do to keep it going?”

The journey continues, and so pilgrims we remain.

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