(Like a shooting star, Joan burst into French and Church history. Six hundred years later, her dedication to mission and commitment to celibacy can inspire us still.)
I will always remember one phone call I received at my office about four years ago from a priest thanking me for my book on St. Joan of Arc. I never learned his name and wouldn’t reveal it even if I did know it. The caller said he just had to tell someone how Joan had sustained him during his ordeal of being accused of a sexual crime.
This was not child molestation, rather an affair with a woman, but that makes no difference. It took about a year and a half until he was finally cleared of the charges. He admitted he was very close to suicide during the investigation. But when he prayed to Joan, she kept reassuring him that all would come out all right if the just kept the faith. He did, and all turned out well. Now he blows kisses at statues of St. Joan.
This year is the 600th anniversary of her birth. She was born in Domrémy, in Loraine, France, in January (perhaps on the 6th), 1412. She died on May 30, 1431, burned at the stake by the Church. She’s regarded as a national patron of France, which has planned many celebrations to honor her this year. These include theater productions, conferences and a national pilgrimage.
In January, French President Nicolas Sarkozy attended a Mass in Domrémy for her birthday. Sarkozy is a practicing Catholic, but this Mass was given extraordinary publicity in today’s secular France. According to Catholic News Service, he praised Joan for helping “forge the national conscience.” He said, “For the Church, Joan is a saint. For the public, she’s the incarnation of the finest French virtues, including a patriotism that consists of loving one’s homeland without resenting others.”
Joan’s involvement hastened the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) when the French were fighting the English, but her life and actions raised many questions, such as whether she actually heard voices.Regardless, her example has stayed strong in the hearts of ordinary French people. It was the devotion of French soldiers to her that boosted their spirits through the terrible trench warfare of World War I; they pressed her cause.
Joan teaches all of us many lessons, especially dedication to mission and the value of virginity and celibacy.
A Brief Life, Told Briefly
Domrémy-Greux, where Joan was born, sits along the winding Meuse River about 100 miles southeast of Paris. That borderland was among the more contested areas during the Hundred Years’ War.
Her father, Jacques, was fairly well-to-do — for a peasant. Joan was the youngest of his five children. When they had visitors, politics was often discussed at the dinner table and long into the night.
Joan was always a pious child, but she could not read and could barely sign her name. Her illiteracy worked against her in her trial by the Church.
When she was 12, she experienced the first of her visions. She described hearing a voice or voices accompanied by blazing light. Later, she identified the voices as belonging to St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. St. Michael is the militant archangel who threw Lucifer out of heaven. St. Catherine of Alexandria was the patron of young girls; her statue was in a church near Domrémy. St. Margaret of Antioch’s statue was in Joan’s home parish.
After the French forces were defeated at the 1429 Battle of the Herrings (fought over a shipment of fish bound for Orleans, then in English hands), Joan rallied the French to recapture the city. Next, she won a victory over the English at Troyes, which led to the Dauphin being crowned Charles VII of France at Reims.
From then on, it was all downhill for Joan. The French failed to take Paris, and she was captured in May 1430 near Compiegne where she got left outside the city walls — perhaps deliberately.
For six months she was held captive in Beaurevoir and sold to the British by John of Luxembourg. Then she was brought to trial on two charges: “lack of submission to the Church militant” and wearing men’s clothes, which she had adopted the better to fit in with the men she was leading and to protect her virginity while traveling with the army. Lots of other charges, such as witchcraft, were trotted out, but these two charges are the ones on which she was ultimately convicted.
The learned aligned against her. Especially her main prosecutor, Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, who taught at the University of Paris. He was convinced that Joan was a threat to the Church.
This illiterate peasant girl withstood four months of intense questioning. Then she recanted and began wearing women’s clothes again. After what most historians think was an attempted rape in prison, she resumed the wearing of men’s clothes. This flip-flop was perceived by her critics as a visible sign of her refusal to submit to the Church; she understood it as a return to what her voices had told her to do. (For this emphasis on primacy of conscience, she is sometimes referred to as the first Protestant.)
On May 31, 1431, Joan was led to a stake in the center of the Old Market in Rouen and burned alive. Her ashes were gathered and scattered in the Seine River so that no relics of hers could be used to rally the French troops.
The irony is that, within two decades, the English were totally driven out of a France inspired and motivated by her memory.
Joan was 19 when she died. Hers was a short, glorious life. In 1456, another trial was held, citing procedural flaws in the original trial and reversing its decision. After that it took a mere 450 years for the Church to declare her a saint.
Steadfast in Mission
Joan’s primary virtue was her single-mindedness in pursuit of her mission. She allowed nothing to distract or deter her. Joan didn’t let her ignorance of military strategies stop her. She gathered experts and listened to them, although she apparently occasionally offered her own ideas. Her role was to serve as a rallying point and keeper of the mission.
This might be seen as a model of how a pastor can work with a parish council. Most pastors are not financial wizards. Many haven’t a clue how to organize groups for social action. And, nowadays, they can’t possibly attend every parish meeting. But those who recognize that their parishioners have knowledge and competence can accomplish great things. They also can realize that their parishioners mostly need encouragement.
Value of Virginity and Celibacy
Joan was a plain, but not unattractive, young woman. Her father had promised her to another farmer, but she refused the marriage. The disappointed suitor sued Joan for breach of promise. Since there was no proof she had ever given any consent to this marriage, she won.
Joan realized that her strength came from her virginity. When she began to be surrounded by military men, her father feared that she was going to turn into a camp follower and was surprised when that didn’t happen.
In a recent novel about Joan called The Maid (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), a scene imagined by author Kimberly Cutter shows Joan being tempted by one of her escorts enroute to the Dauphin. While sleeping next to Jean Metz (one of Robert de Baudricourt’s knights and one of her first supporters), Joan senses his erection and tells him, “If you go further, it will be the end of everything. Do you hear me?” Metz takes his time but then responds, “I hear you,” and moves away from her.
The novel shows that, although Joan’s escorts had started out sneering and being disrespectful, they change their opinion when they see her praying ferociously on the riverbank and crying (she had just been told by St. Michael that she will die in two years). Her intensity, humanness and prayerfulness impresses them.
Julian de Honnecourt begs her forgiveness: “Please forgive me for doubting you, holy Virgin. Forgive me, please, I beg you.” Joan replies that, yes, she forgives him, “but you are an idiot.”
According to Cutter, “The men were different with her after that. The Honnecourts did not mock her anymore. Metz stopped looking at her with lustful eyes. The day by the river frightened him, she saw. Killed his desire. But in its place came awe. Awe and tenderness.”
They realized that she had been sent by God to save France. She had successfully transferred her mission to these men. For Joan, it was love that had changed, “shed its enchantment, its perfume. It stood naked before her now in a bright cold light, showing all of its ugliness, its cruelty. The terrible sacrifice it would require. The blood.”
Freed for Mission
The sacrifice that virginity and celibacy require has not changed, although few nowadays lose their life to preserve them. Joan’s virginity freed her for mission, which is one reason why priests and religious vow celibacy; their commitment and dedication to God necessarily inspires others.
What has changed, though, is the respect people have for the vowed life. Our current obsession with sex leads many people to believe that those who try to live without it are unbalanced. If what fills the void is only concern for self, then celibacy is worthless. But if people see celibate men and women filled with the love of God and chaste love for others, then celibacy has great value and meaning. Celibacy, one of Catholicism’s most countercultural values, hints at the different order of things in the kingdom of heaven.
Clinging to the Cross
Somehow Joan rallied the dispirited French and led them to victory. In the years since her death, she has inspired many people who faced great opposition, even from the Church.
How could she do this? I think it was her example of clinging to Jesus even when her voices deserted her in the last days of her life. As the wood surrounding her was catching fire, Joan asked for a cross to hold. As she died, she was heard saying, “Jesus.”
Persistence and endurance are Joan’s final lesson to us. She never lived to see a free France. But, because of her, it came into existence.
Opposition and hardship make for greatness, although that may be difficult to believe at the time we’re encountering them. Joan’s belief that God is guiding everything can still inspire. TP
BARBARA BECKWITH is the retired managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine and author of the book, Joan of Arc: God's Warrior: a Seven-Day Retreat">Joan of Arc: God’s Warrior: A Seven-day Retreat (St. Anthony Messenger Press).