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The beginning of the missions in Oceania and the pontifical approval of the Society of Mary were by themselves two unrelated events. They could have taken place independently of each other. But, in actual fact, the two processes were closely intertwined. How the Marist missions in Oceania began cannot be told without the story of the approval of the Society, and the latter not without the former. This creates a special bond between the Society of Mary and the Church in Oceania.

Foreign missions were not what the originator of the Society of Mary, Jean-Claude Courveille, or the other members of the founding group in 1816, including Jean-Claude Colin, had foremost in mind. There is no mention of them in the Fourvière promise of 1816.[1] Only six years later, in the letter addressed to Pius VII from Cerdon, foreign missions were explicitly mentioned: they would go wherever the Holy See would send them, to whatever distant shore (in quavis mundi plaga), and to non-christians (sive ad infideles).[2] This wording is a quote taken from Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, which does not make it a mere rhetorical phrase.

Jean-Claude Colin did not take the initiative to involve the Society of Mary in the new mission fields of the South-West Pacific. The one who took that crucial step was Jean Cholleton. He saw the possibility of linking the acceptance of the mission with the pontifical approbation of the Society that the Marists were still waiting for. On purpose, he did not involve Colin. He had good reasons to fear that Colin might let the opportunity slip by. Nothing indicates that Colin resented Cholleton having acted the way he had. It was the hand of Providence. Colin was convinced anyhow that Cholleton was the right man to lead the Society.[3]
When in August 1835 Pompallier suggested that the approval of the Society was his primary objective, and the mission rather a means to that end, Colin ignored it as an unworthy remark. Nothing can be more important than the salvation of souls, he rebutted, which, with the sanctification of its members, is what the Society is founded for.[4] If Oceania is one place where Providence wants the Society to pursue her goals, then Colin accepts it wholeheartedly. To Cardinal Fransoni he can truthfully write that the Marists ‘gladly take this favourable opportunity to fulfill one of the goals they have set themselves’. And if in that way the Society gets pontifical approval, so much the better.

All the time Jean-Claude Colin was in an ambiguous position. The two bishops in whose dioceses Marist priests worked, knew very well that he had – unofficially – been elected the central superior. Bishop Devie in Belley more or less acknowledged his position, Archbishop de Pins in Lyon mostly ignored him. His own men usually deferred to him, but also went their own way if it suited them. Nowhere do we see a sign of hurt feelings when other people bypassed him or ignored his position as superior. Mostly he let things happen. Even his own acceptance of the mission he let depend on whether the Marists volunteered. His pronounced supernaturalism and his determination to respect episcopal authority made him see the hand of Providence in what people around him did, but that did therefore not lead him to take responsibility for things he could not agree with (such as the promotion of Pompallier). On one point he was quite adamant: no missionaries were to leave until the Society of Mary was freed of the bishops’ authority and governed by a central superior of its own. The good of the mission and of the Society demanded it.

Even when the missions of Western Oceania were entrusted to the Society, and the Society was officially withdrawn from episcopal jurisdiction, he did not mind the archbishop and his vicar general together with Pompallier arranging things connected with the first departure. Colin’s presence was unobtrusive but real enough. His discreet style of leadership assured a smooth and gradual shifting of authority without losing the support of any of them. His main concern was the spiritual readiness of his men.

The main objective of the Holy See was to get missionaries for the Western Pacific. The opening words of the decree of approbation, Omnium gentium salus (the salvation of all peoples) are a reminder that among all the possible ministries and apostolates the Society may undertake, and that all get due recognition in this founding document, it was its universal missionary commitment that obtained for the Society the official status it holds within the Catholic Church.


  1. OM I, doc. 50.
  2. OM I, doc. 69 [3].
  3. Colin already thought so in 1824. Cf. OM I, 100 [9]. Further indications, cf. OM IV, p. 594: SH 367.5.
  4. It goes a bit far to say, as does M. Filippucci (Missionaries by Charism or by Convenience, FN, vol. 2.1, p. 81) that ‘they accepted it on the promise of juridical recognition’. Kerr, op. cit. p. 314 f suggests the same where he writes: ‘When, with the quest for missionaries for Oceania, the possibility of a breakthrough emerged, he acted decisively, committing his tiny group to a mission encompassing an enormous swathe of the globe’. Roach, Venerable Jean Claude Colin and the Mission in New Zealand, 1838 – 1848, p. 6, quoted in the same sense by Jaspers (op. cit. p. 187, n.7), goes even further by saying of Colin: ‘To accept the mission on condition of approval of the Society, that was the plan’. Larracy makes it worse when he says (Saint-Making. The case of Pierre Chanel of Futuna, FN, vol. 5.4, p. 447): ‘…when the Vatican (sic!) offered the Marists the islands of the Western Pacific as a field of operation, Colin readily agreed in order to expedite approbation of his society’. These descriptions fit Jean Cholleton. They fail to do justice to Colin`s restrained approach that always gave priority to the mission itself, and that saw the approval of the Society as a welcome, even necessary adjunct.

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