In 1816, the newly ordained Marcellin Champagnat, consecrated to Mary, felt a personal call by God to found a religious community of Brothers that would bring the message of Jesus' love to neglected young people. Today his passionate spirit, daring vision and persistent work are embodied in the mission of Marist Brothers living on five continents.
Joseph Benedict Marcellin Champagnat was born in Marlhes, France in 1789. At the end of the French Revolution, he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Lyon. Marcellin's concern for the education of children and young people was rooted in his own educational experience. Because of the French Revolution, Marcellin did not attend school until age 11, and that experience lasted only one day! Marcellin watched in horror as the school teacher beat a student who tried to answer a question that had been posed to Marcellin. He left school that day and did not return to formal education until he entered the seminary at age 16. Although gifted with natural intelligence, Marcellin's lack of formal education caused him to struggle as a student. With determination and perseverance, Marcellin managed to meet all his academic requirements. His memories of the school teacher who beat the student, and his own recollections of his academic struggles were the basis of his educational philosophy: "to educate children you must love them and love them all equally."
On October 28, 1816, three months after his ordination, Marcellin was called to the Montagne home where 16 year old Jean-Baptiste Montagne was dying. As Marcellin prepared to hear the confession of Jean-Baptiste, he realized that the young man had little religious or academic education. It occurred to Marcellin that Jean-Baptiste was one of many young people victimized by lack of education during and after the French Revolution.
Marcellin's own difficult school experience and his encounter with Jean-Baptiste Montagne convinced him that he had to do something to combat the illiteracy and spiritual poverty of the young people in rural France.
Six months after his ordination, Marcellin founded the religious community, "The Marist Brothers of the Schools" (also known as "The Little Brothers of Mary") to make known, through their lives and service, the love of Jesus and Mary - especially where access to love and support, education and catechism was remote.
For himself and his Brothers, Marcellin wished "goods which are more solid and real" than material possessions. He said of his community's mission that they were to "serve God with fervor, to fulfill faithfully all the duties of our state, to work every day to detach our heart from creatures in order to give it to Jesus and Mary, to open it to all the movements of grace." The Brothers would find their glory, Marcellin said, in their efforts "to imitate and follow Jesus Christ," guided and strengthened by the Spirit. In all their being and work among the young, they were "to make Jesus Christ known and loved."
A man of deep prayer, Marcellin was grounded in a loving community. His devotion to the love of God, Mary, and his Brothers inspired him to a universal mission. The Marist Brothers were known for their family spirit and simple Gospel way of being fully present to each other and all people. Their schools multiplied at a fast pace - almost a dozen a year, and by the turn of the century, the Marist Brothers had accepted invitations from many countries around the world.
Marcellin often proclaimed, "This is all God's work…this is all Mary's work." That remains true to the spirit of today's Marist Brothers and their lay colleagues as they respond in fresh, bold and creative ways to meet the needs of youth.
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