CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 24, 2004 ( John Paul II said that the religious life must serve as a sign of hope for secularized and non-Christian societies.

"Witnesses of Hope" is the theme of the general chapter of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Holy Father met with the participants on Friday in the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

"Your presence, animated by genuine religious and missionary fervor, must be a sign and seed of hope for those who are with you, whether in secularized environments or in contexts of first proclamation," the Holy Father said.

The Pope gave the Oblates two counsels in particular. First, he invited them to live "a renewed fraternal union" so that the congregation will be "a family, whose members form only one heart and soul."

The Oblates confirmed Father Wilhelm Steckling, 57, as general superior. With 4,440 Oblates of Mary Immaculate (580 in formation) spread in 67 countries worldwide, the Pope acknowledged that they face a "compromising challenge," but "extremely important for humanity, called to journey the path of solidarity in diversity."

Second, the Bishop of Rome encouraged the religious to continue their reflection at this time when the center of gravity of the congregation "is moving towards the poorest areas of the world."

"Make clear choices in virtue of the priorities of your mission. Among the priority exigencies is, certainly, permanent attention to the spiritual life in order to live an ever renewed fidelity to the original charism," he recommended.

"It is God, who with the action of his Holy Spirit, allows religious families to respond adequately to the new experiences, by taking recourse to the specific gift that has been entrusted to them," the Pontiff reminded them.

The atmosphere at the meeting was characterized by familiarity, which led the Pope to express the devotion he feels for Saint Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861) the founder of the Oblates. Saint Eugene was the Bishop of Marseilles, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

John Paul II also expressed the esteem he feels for the congregation, characterized by two adjectives -- “at once Marian and missionary” -- which have played an important part in the Pope’s life.

For additional information see visit the Oblate’s Web Page.