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The Whole World Marist
Marist laity and Fr. Colin's prescient thinking on the subject
BY Fr. Al DiIanni, SM

The WHole World MaristThe year 2014 marks the 180th anniversary of the founding of the Third Order of Mary, otherwise known as The Marist Laity.

In August 1834, somewhat by surprise, Rome granted several indulgences to the Third Order, whose official name was the Confraternity of Blessed Mary for the Conversion of Sinners and the Perseverance of the Just. This means that the approval of the Third Order preceded by two years the official approbation of the Marist Fathers and Brothers in 1836.

It was a surprise because in 1833 when Fr. Jean-Claude Colin went to Rome to present to Cardinal Castracane his ideas for a multi-branched Society of Mary, the Cardinal was especially dismissive of the lay branch. The idea of a worldwide organization existing in many dioceses but under the sole jurisdiction of the Superior General of a religious congregation seemed abhorrent to him. He even wondered what the "princes of Europe" would think. Would they not be suspicious? And yet in 1834 through an act of divine providence, the Third Order of Mary was suddenly approved and granted indulgences and today is flourishing in many parts of the world.

But who are the Marist Laity? Are they a pale replica of religious life lived in the world? A small band of the elite who were to act as a leaven among lesser members of the laity? Not for Fr. Colin, the founder of the Society of Mary. For Fr. Colin the lay branch was precisely the vehicle for effecting the universal mission of mercy of the Society of Mary. Fr. Colin said: "The Society of Mary has several branches because Mary wants to cover the whole world with her mantle." For him the lay branch itself was spawned by Mary's compassion. He said: "Mary is the Mother of Mercy. Her congregation will have several branches. It will be open to all kinds of people." So the lay branch of the Society was to have a broad sweep. It was not to be primarily a support group for the priests and brothers in the Society. In Fr. Colin's mind it should not revolve around the priests and brothers of the Society "like a planet around the sun, but should shine out into the Church." It should be a missionary instrument on its own, led by lay people who are guided mainly by diocesan priests. It should strive to live out the Marist spirituality in the world and become an instrument of mercy to sinners and those in need.

It is legitimate, I believe, to compare Fr. Colin's conception of the Marist Laity to the lay ecclesial movements that have sprung up in the Church in recent years. The Italian Focolari movement comes to mind, as well as the Sant'Egidio community in Rome and the Neo-catechumenal Way, which began in Spain. Today these lay Catholic movements are worldwide and have great spiritual energy. I sense a similar energy among the diverse groups of Marist Laity in the world. We can see it in their efforts to connect with Marist laity in other countries and to set up international conventions. And at home they are eager to enlist others to take up the challenge to be Mary's presence in the world.

"The Society of Mary has several branches because Mary wants to cover the whole world with her mantle."

For several years now, Fr. Edwin Keel, SM and I have acted as mentors to the Marist Laity in various parts of the United States. A Marist Laity website has been set up and is run very effectively by Christine Colomban, a dedicated Marist woman from France presently residing in Texas. The website contains detailed information about the location of Marist Laity groups in the U.S. as well as talks on Marist spirituality, facts of Marist history, and other valuable resources. The address of this website is

The question often arises as to how we might inspire more people to become lay Marists. Today, people are bombarded with invitations from all sides. On the other hand, we also have far better means of communication than ever before. The Internet is a great motor for disseminating information and it is certainly under-utilized by religious groups.

Over the years I have received many requests for information about joining the Marist Laity. Many of these requests have come from people living in areas distant from an existing Marist Laity group. My response to them has been that they should strive to set up a new group going in their own locality. This begins by inviting like-minded friends to read over some basic Marist literature that can be obtained from the Marist Laity website or by contacting Fr. Edwin Keel or me. I have often wondered whether our Marist websites should not feature a post entitled: How to Begin a Marist Laity Group. This post would give practical advice concerning the steps needed for setting up a group and information for contacting a person who might provide guidance and supplies.

It should strive to live out the Marist spirituality in the world and become an instrument of mercy to sinners and those in need.

For groups that already exist, a strong and enthusiastic leadership is necessary. Marist Laity leaders must encourage their members to think creatively. For instance, many groups have succeeded in recruiting new members by writing up a short invitation and asking the local pastor to publish it in his parish bulletin. Each member of a group should be urged not to be afraid to invite a friend or other interested party to attend a number of meetings – to come and see - so as to better decide if he or she would like to join. This takes a bit of courage, but like Mary, we must not be afraid. And let us not forget to imitate Mary in prayer, which more than our own efforts will move peoples' hearts.

Fr. Colin's view of the Marist Laity was that of a great affiliation of people from all walks of life, a Marian people of mercy. It was to be eventually the whole Church, but this Church transformed into a humble, modest, and compassionate people quietly aiding Mary in doing the work of her Son. Fr. Colin and the early Marists were fond of repeating: "The whole world Marist." This was not a throwaway line, a bumper-sticker, a slogan. It was the expression of a Marian vision offered to the world - a vision still in search of a strategy. It will be up to us to provide that strategy. In 1838 Fr. Colin said to his Marist confreres: "Gentlemen, please ask God to send someone to spread the Third Order all over the world... I need someone with an apostolic enthusiasm, someone who can preach like an apostle... Ah gentlemen, let's come alive; our undertaking is a bold one; we want to invade everywhere. When will the time come?"