The French Legacy

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is an old saying. No priest who has much contact with people can deny that much is beautiful in religion these days. The faith and witness of so very many people inspire us.

This uplifting assessment, however, cannot dilute the fact that religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, is under siege. Institutional religion is being battered in many ways, and this is a serious issue for the Roman Catholic Church that sees itself as the Mystical Body of Christ, with all the implications and challenges of that definition.

It is not the first time in history that religion, and catholicity precisely, have been under fire.

Recently, a friend told me that he was reducing the number of books he had. In the process, some were going the way of things earthly. Among them was a history of France. Knowing that I like history, he asked if I would like this book.

I received it with thanks and began to read. France in the 16th and 17th centuries had its problems. French catholicity had its problems. The Church, bound to the monarchy in a symbiotic relationship that in the last analysis resulted in few advantages for the Church, at least as it would be perceived in the light of the Gospel, very frankly, was in many ways adrift. It had more than its share of corruption.

The Protestant Reformation was in full swing in Northern Europe, and in France it was presenting itself in the Huguenot movement, an interpretation of Calvinism that denied some of the basic teachings of Catholicism: apostolic succession, the Eucharist, the other sacraments, and so on.

In a word, things were bad. That things were bad was the factor that made the emergence of a series of priests, now officially sainted, as all the more providential, and, in my mind, refreshingly reassuring for us in our day. These priests are worth consideration. Here follows thoughts about a few.

St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle was born in Rheims in 1651 into a prominent, wealthy family. His biography furnishes a good example of ecclesiastical corruption at the time. He was ordained in 1678.

From a privileged background, exceptionally educated for his time, cultured and refined, he would not have been anyone’s first choice for being a champion of the poor and the forgotten. Yet he precisely came to be a champion of the poor and the forgotten.

Being poor in those days usually was a dead-end street because the poor inevitably, almost always, had no chance at genuinely adequate incomes because they were unable to read, write or do any but the simplest arithmetic.

Education was a luxury, available only to the rich. Jean Baptiste de la Salle moved to make it available to poor boys, in an era when men were the bread-earners. It was a ministry. He gathered around him men to be teachers. They took religious vows and were the first of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, or Christian Brothers.

For care of the sick, and as teachers for poor girls, he founded the Sisters of the Child Jesus.

He died in 1719.

French explorers and speculators came early to North America. Soon following them were French priests, looking upon the indigenous people as human beings, as children of God, a status not always accorded native people in the Western Hemisphere and in Africa by European societies. It sounds all quite charming, until the blunt, indeed frightening, reality is realized.

These French priests left everything familiar and abandoned their own security, as well as comfort, just to bring the love and presence of the Lord to the people native to the American areas claimed for France by French explorers.

Most knew when they left France that they would never again see their homeland. More than a few were martyrs. For none was martyrdom quick or humane.

Eight of these priests are known as the North American Martyrs. All Jesuits, they are St. Isaac Jocques (1607-1646), St. Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), St. Noel Chabanel (1613-1649), St. Antoine Daniel (1601-1648), St. Charles Garnier (1606-1649), St. René Goupil (1608-1642), St. Jean de Lalande (?– 1646), and St. Gabriel Lalemant (1610-1649).

Youth always has its idols, and their choices are not always in their best interests. For many years, the idols of French youths were these brave — and holy — priests, so determined and so generous in their vocations.

Born the son of peasant farmers in 1581 was Vincent de Paul. Ordained in 1600, he received degrees in theology and canon law. In 1605, he was aboard a ship sailing to Castries from Marseille when Barbary pirates overtook the vessel and captured everyone. The pirates sold him as a slave. The priest’s new owner was himself a priest who had left the priesthood and converted to Islam to avoid being sold into slavery.

The pious example of Vincent de Paul brought the owner back to the Church. Vincent was able secretly to flee back to France.

This experience taught him the humiliation and helplessness that are the everyday experiences of the poor. As a pastor, he formed the Ladies of Charity, laywomen who took interest in, and cared for, the poor.

At the time, ships often were propelled by human power, by men pulling oars. Galley slaves, as they were called, were in their situation as punishment for crime or as prisoners of war. Being a galley slave was to know hell on earth.

In 1622, Vincent de Paul was named chaplain for the galley slaves. He spiritually ministered to them, but he also relentlessly worked to better their plight, on the grounds that each of them, regardless of his past or circumstance, was God’s beloved child.

He founded a religious community of men, the Congregation of the Mission, or Vincentians. The priests had as a special apostolate the strengthening of priestly vocations. Vincent de Paul also organized a community of women, the Daughters of Charity, whose specific work was the care of the poor.

The Daughters soon became to be a virtual symbol of compassionate, and highly efficient, nursing care. When Vincent de Paul himself died in 1660, he already was a legend.

No apostolate will be authentic, nor any Christian identification true, unless deep spiritual commitment is the basis.

St. Louis de Montfort was born in 1673, son of a devoutly Catholic French family. He entered the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris, where he studied under Jean Jacques Olier (1608-1657), founder of the Sulpicians and another remarkable priest of the era.

De Monfort was ordained in 1700. In time, he developed his own unique spirituality, “to Jesus through Mary.” His profoundly crafted pattern for drawing close to God has made him one of the great classic Catholic ascetical thinkers of all time.

An intrepid preacher, he traveled across France calling people to God. The Monfort Fathers and the Daughters of Wisdom continue his apostolate.

He died in 1716.

These priests, along with many others, changed life in France; indeed they changed the Church as it was known, and they made the Church magnificently relevant and forthcoming. What a legacy!

Their contribution is all the more spectacular because they thrived as priests in times of great uncertainty, and even decline, for the Church.

Coming from different backgrounds, at different times, and with different purposes to serve in their priestly efforts, they had in common an unshakable faith, not just in the fact that a divine being exists, but very precisely that God not only lives but loves.

Brilliantly perceptive, they saw that divine law is never restricted nor curtailed. They also knew that most compelling of the realizations of true faith, that God is everything.

Times now are bad? Perhaps they are. They have been bad in days gone by, and strong, creative priests have met the needs.

North American priestly martyrs, St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louis de Montfort, pray to the Father of mercy and life for your priestly brothers who seek today to serve the Lord! Give them hope, strength and insight as they consider your examples.

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.