Bugey is the general name for all the area between the Ain river and Gex, near to the border of Geneva. The area is mountainous and under snow for a good part of the winter. The Marist missioners could do their work only in these winter months because it was the only time of the year when they could bring the country people together.
The Bugey was a neglected area: priests didn’t want to go there, and many of those who did were not up to the task. Many of the churches had been abandoned and uncared for since the Revolution: buildings and steeples that had been knocked down during the troubles had not been rebuilt. Marriages entered into unlawfully had not been rectified.
The Marists in the Bugey were seen by the Church as missioners, but in general preferred to call themselves catechists.
The “missions” usually lasted three to four weeks. On arrival at a village where they were to preach, the first thing the Marists did was to visit the church; then they visited the Parish Priest; then they heard the children’s confessions.
The first instruction to the people was a friendly invitation to come to the mission. The sermons in the first week were on the mercy of God, and other subjects calculated to win the confidence of the faithful.
Later, they preached on the commandments, and when most of the confessions were over they preached on sin.
It was the goodness of the priest, Colin claimed, not the fear he engendered, that brought people to Christ. So he insisted that there should be no diatribes against those who were failing in their obligations or refusingto come to the mission. “Speak with esteem and respect of those who have not made the mission,”he said. “Excuse them by attributing their absence to the pressure of business or other responsibilities.”
The guiding principle of the missioners was: “We must win souls by submitting to them.”
There were many stories told of those hard times in the Bugey missions. Most of the travelling was done on foot through snow and mud.
The living conditions were extremely difficult.
Often the Marists had to sleep in the local inn, and this brought its own problems of vermin and poor food and limited accommodation. Sometimes the three priests had to be content with two small beds.
On one occasion, the only bedroom belonged to the land lady, and the shy priests discovered that she planned to share it with them!
Colin spent five years in this terribly difficult work, but he looked back on those years with great affection and nostalgia.
“Never were we so happy. Never did we laugh with such good heart. I have always been nostalgic fort hose days. They were good times…. Often we had to get our own meals.
Once, we arrived in a parish where there had been no priest since the Revolution. The presbytery was uninhabited. We set to to sweep it, as best we could, laughing all the time. There were no windows, the ceiling was open, the cracks were stuffed with hay. We went to bed. We were really cold, but we laughed about it.”
For Colin, the time in the Bugey had been a fourfold experience of:
- the mercy of God,
- a team ministry,
- the extreme poverty of their resources,
- the immense power of God at work in them.
He saw this period of time as representing a key feature of Marist life, that the “place” where Marists should find themselves most at home,
- among the abandoned
- those on the margins
- those in danger of being left aside.
While Oceania represents the call to Marists to be at the very margins of the world, the missions of the Bugey represent their call to seek out and gather those in their own country who find themselves for whatever reason at the margins and beyond the margins of the Church; those who find themselves alienated from the practice of the faith; those who may be searching for the face of God, but cannot see that face in the Church as they perceive it.