Blessed William Joseph Chaminade:
His Vision and the Role of Schools
William Joseph Chaminade (1761-1850), priest of the Diocese of Bordeaux, France, lived during the years of the French Revolution. In his ministry following the upheavals of the Revolution, he encountered an ignorance of religious faith, indifference, abandonment of Christian life and the structural ruin of the Church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he realized that new institutions and new methods were necessary to revive the religious spirit in his native France.
Father Chaminade always sought inspiration in Mary, at whose sanctuary of Our Lady of the Pillar in Saragossa, Spain, he prayed while in exile during the Revolution. He saw Mary as the one who received the word of the Lord and pondered it in her heart. Mary was the woman who gave Christ to the world and the Mother who cooperates with the Holy Spirit in the formation of believers. Mary embodied all the attitudes of the gospel. He committed himself to assisting Mary in the mission of bringing persons to become more like her son, Jesus. With this vision of Mary’s role, he sought to re-Christianize France.
Central to his means was the development of community life in the spirit of the gospel and the practice of the early church. Such a community could be a witness of a people of saints showing that the gospel still could be lived in all times and places. A Christian community could attract others to follow Christ. Thus he founded communities of lay men and women as a means of re-Christianizing France.
Eventually, within these lay Christian communities, some expressed the desire to follow Christ as vowed religious. Thus, in 1816 Father Chaminade, in collaboration with Adele de Batz de Trenquelleon, founded the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters). In 1817, he founded the Society of Mary (Marianist brothers and priests). He saw in these two religious orders the means to maintain, inspire, and extend the network of communities and works founded through his inspiration.
Father Chaminade continued to work on developing lay Christian communities. Simultaneously, he directed the Marianist religious into schools so that they might become Christian communities of learning. During his lifetime he founded over 40 schools, including three teacher-training institutions. Chaminade perceived these schools as having the mission of inculturation of an essentially religious worldview. The essential purpose of his schools was to form persons in religious faith. The teacher worked towards moral development of the students even when teaching secular subjects. In contrast to the “teaching practitioner” of his age, Chaminade desired his educators to give a “Christian lesson by every word, by every gesture, by every look.” He counseled them to form the heart and not reject as bad what is not absolutely good in a student. It sufficed for every person to be as God wills him or her to be.
From these origins in France, Marianist education spread to Switzerland (1839), Austria (1857), Spain (1888), Italy (1888). A year before Father Chaminade’s death, Marianists came to the United States in 1849. Today, the Society of Mary serves in 30 countries on five continents. They minister in over 100 schools in the world, including 24 secondary and middle schools and three universities (the University of Dayton, St. Mary’s University and Chaminade Univeristy) in the United States. They also conduct parishes, retreat centers and works in developing nations.
As with the first ministry of Father Chaminade, lay Christian communities, Marianists assist in animating approximately 300 lay groups with over 8,000 lay Marianists throughout the world. In all of these works Marianists continue the vision of Father Chaminade by carrying out Mary’s mission of bringing persons to Christ, her son. This ministry serves a world similar in many ways to the de-Christianized culture of Father Chaminade’s time, yet with people yearning for a fuller meaning of the purpose of life.