It’s an historic development: a new Province will take the charism and mission of the order into the next century
In the most significant change in the society’s 205-year-history, the Champagnat Marist mission is charting a new course in the Oceania Region.
Eleven Pacific nations including Australia and New Zealand have amalgamated to become the Star of the Sea Province, the largest and newest of the 25 internationally.
While geographically and culturally diverse, their communal response to the gospel with the same faith, hope and love that Mary had, remains.
Regarded as a “pilot” program, it is being watched by others within the movement worldwide and with a presence in 78 countries across five continents, is tipped to be the first of many new Provinces to be established due to a global decline in vocations and the aging religious landscape.
Officially instituted by Superior General Br Ernesto Sánchez-Barba FMS at a Mass on The Feast of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception at St Joseph’s Hunters Hill, the new Province takes in Australia, Cambodia, Fiji, Kiribati, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu.
In his fifth trip to Australia, Br Ernesto was joined by around 40 of the 270 brothers involved and who represent each of the 11 countries.
With the extinguishing of a candle at the Inauguration Mass, the Province of Australia and the District of the Pacific was dissolved, and with the lighting of another the Star of the Sea Province instituted.
Designed by Chris Marden, a lay Marist from the Southern Highlands of NSW, the new Star of the Sea Province candle featured four floral symbols found in the main regions including a silver fern (Aotearoa), hibiscus (Melanesia), frangipani (Pacific) and wattle (Australia).
A colourful new icon designed by Melbourne artist, Dr Ursula Betka featuring the sea – as there is more water than land in the new Province – was unveiled and blessed. Under the guidance of former Province of Australia leader Br Peter Carroll, Sydney will act as its unofficial headquarters, once known as the most Marist city in the world. There will also be offices in Auckland and Port Moresby.
Superior General Br Ernesto said the amalgamation was a way of looking to the future while retaining its rich history.
He said the restructure would ensure the viability and vitality of Marist life within Oceania with the help of the large lay community.
“As a movement, restructure has always been part of our history,” he said.
“When we were growing too much, things were divided.
“In Australia there were two provinces, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne due to the large numbers of brothers, however over the last 20 years we have seen those numbers diminish and so we have restructured again to accommodate that.
“I think that what is happening in Oceania will be happening in the North of Europe next year, reorganising the Canonical administration which we call Provinces.
“And I think here the interesting thing is uniting our presence in 11 countries which is the biggest for us so far in terms of distance.
“It’s a big area geographically and very diverse which makes it a huge challenge.
“I guess my biggest concern will be to ensure that every country and every community will be looked after and gets a voice.
“It’s also a great sign for vocations in the region, while there are none currently in Australia or New Zealand, there are quite large numbers of young men joining us in the Islands.
“So we see this as a way to consolidate vocations for more countries. The rest of the world no doubt will be looking at this new Province very closely and how it will work.
“We are looking to the future as did our founder Marcellin Champagnat who was able to look beyond in the difficult moments.
“What we are doing is giving a future to the Marist life in two ways, to better look after the current Brothers but also creating a structure where the laity will help us to give a future to the charism and mission.”
Founded in France in 1817 to educate young people and in particular the disadvantaged, today they also work with young people in parishes, religious retreats and spiritual accompaniment, at-risk youth settings, young adult ministry and overseas missions.
Structural change has been a constant theme throughout Oceania’s rich history.
The Marists of Champagnat first arrived in the region in 1837 when they comprised members of the first Marist missionaries who were sent from France.
In ensuing decades, they established themselves in their own right in various locations across the Pacific, devoting themselves to their mission of educating and evangelising young people and, in so doing, established schools wherever they went.
In fact, this year they celebrated the sesquicentenary of Catholic Education in Australia, and today proudly run 56 schools, educating 50,000 students across 19 dioceses in remote, rural, regional, and metropolitan areas.
The newest part of the Province is East Timor where the Marists of Champagnat arrived in 2000.
In 2010, it was decided the Provinces of Melbourne, New Zealand, Sydney and the District of Melanesia would be divided into two autonomous Districts (The Districts of the Pacific and Melanesia) and one Province (Australia), with the Province of New Zealand used to facilitate the change and ensure the dignity of all involved were sensitively addressed.
New provincial Br Peter Carroll said never in his wildest dreams could he believe he would one day be the provincial in the Society’s largest province.
“If you had of told me I would be the provincial of 11 nations I would have laughed, I thought coming to Sydney from Brisbane when I joined was a great adventure,” he smiled.
“I guess one of the key challenges will be how we build a real sense of brotherhood and community across such a huge area and with such diversity.
“I think that is part of the journey and something we will learn together.
“This is probably the biggest thing to happen within the Marist movement in our 205 years and something that will take time, maybe even years to filter through.
“I think the provincials and brothers of other provinces will be looking very closely at what happens here because it will be an example of what can be done.
“And if we can be a pilot for that then that might help them with their decisions about what is possible. I am very excited and proud of what we have achieved and what lays ahead, it’s very exciting.”