The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Venerable Marcellin Champagnat

Saint Marcellin Joseph Benoit ChampagnatA truly striking character was Colin’s companion, Venerable Marcellin Champagnat. In him it is also manifest that God chooses the weak and lowly to do things that are great. The clamor of rebellion against throne and altar had already broken out when Marcellin Champagnat was born on 20 May 1789. His parents were poor, but an aunt whom the Revolution had driven from her convent took care to give the boy a good training. Until he was sixteen Marcellin had to work at home and in the fields and his highest aspiration was to follow the calling of his father. But a priest came to the parish by order of the archbishop of Lyons to look for boys who might be trained for the clerical state. It was necessary that the great gaps opened in the ranks of the clergy by the dreadful events of the Revolution should be filled. Marcellin was pointed out to this priest for his modesty and virtue and was receved as a candidate. For trial they sent him to a Latin school, where an uncle of his essayed to instruct him. But the uncle found that his nephew had little talent and advised him against further study. In spite of this Marcellin entered the little seminary of Verrieres in the autumn of 1805; but here, too, they desired him to leave after the first year because of his poor talent. Difficulties steel the courage and confidence in God of the saints and bind them only the closer to God. So it was with our good student. He at once made a pilgrimage with his mother to the grave of Saint Francis Regis, and there implored the grace to be permitted to remain in the seminary. Then he had recourse to the Most Pure Mother, seat of wisdom, and to the fervent reception of the Sacraments that he might obtain the gift of understanding. His prayer was not in vain and by persevering diligence he overcame all obstacles and at length became a pattern for his fellow-students in every respect. Saint Francis Regis and Saint Aloysius were his favorite patrons during his whole life. The first year he suffered a great deal from his companions because, being older and a country boy, he was rather bashful and awkward, and besides was backward in his schooling. Marcellin bore these railleries with the humility and amiability of a saint.

While a student he practised on vacation days the apostleship of charity, especially so after he had taken up his higher studies. He visited the sick, gathered the children to instruct them in catechism, and on Sunday afternoons gave religious discourses to adults, who gathered in large numbers from surrounding districts. In 1816, being then twenty-seven years of age, Marcellin was ordained. The spirit that animated him is made clear by the fact that he was one of those who made the pilgrimage to Notre Dame de Fourviere to consecrate their lives wholly to the service of God under the protection of Mary. The saints always exercise a great influence on students. Champagnat in his office as chaplain of Lavalla had often to spend the whole day in the confessional. He was most energetic, however, in his denunciation of wickedness, bad books, dangerous dances, and the like. The young were his principal interest and they in turn soon became aware how well he understood them. The great ignorance of religion which Champagnat met everywhere, especially in die country districts, led him to establish a society for the purpose of instructing the young in religion. Two young students of Lavalla were the first to be won to this apostolic work. A little house was made to serve as a cloister and they lived in great poverty but extremely happy. Champagnat* s example and enheartening words dissipated all fears for the future. To extend their influence the little band had recourse to Mary and four other candidates joined them. This was the beginning of the “Little Brothers of Mary.” According to the rules given them by their founder, the members were not to become priests, so that the duties of the priesthood might not interfere with the performance of their work. The Society was to engage not only in teaching but in anything that would be of service to the young.

Champagnat understood clearly that the welfare of an Order depends on the spirit which animates the members. Hence he deemed no care too great in advancing the spiritual training of his Brothers. With a kindly simplicity and piety like that of Saint Francis of Assisi he showed extraordinary prudence in spiritual direction; and the charity, harmony, and great fervor of the “Little Brothers” justly claimed the admiration of all.

Great undertakings must always battle against opposition. The clergy of the neighboring country thought Champagnat’s plan eccentric; and they would have forced his community to disperse, but he sought no other defense, as the acts of his process tell us, than “patience, prayer, and confidence in Mary.” Meanwhile, so many candidates applied that a new house had to be built. No one would contribute to it. Trusting in Providence, Champagnat bade his Brothers to begin building, courageously helped in the labor himself, and to the amazement of those who opposed him, the house was finished in a short time. The archbishop of Lyons now became a warm friend of the enterprise and in 1826 the Brothers were able to take their first vows. When the time had come to elect a superior for the Society, Champagnat desired that a Brother should be clothed with this office. Another priest set on foot secret intrigues to secure this office and could not restrain his anger when in spite of a repeated ballot Champagnat was preferred to him. Champagnat retained the direction of the Brothers even after he had joined the Marists in 1836. He desired his Congregation of Brothers to be regarded as a little sister of the Marists. On this account it is often called the “Marist School Brothers.” They spread with great rapidity. In 1910 there were not less than 6000 “Little Brothers of Mary,” who according to the spirit of their venerable founder, zealously instruct the young in all quarters of the world.

Champagnat had naturally robust health. But his hard life and restless zeal, which knew no relaxation, prematurely consumed his strength. For his own well-being he had the least consideration. Yet he accomplished more for the glory of God and the salvation of souls than if he had saved his strength to reach old age. He died at the age of fifty-one in the novitiate of his Congregation at Vauban, 6 June 1840, but the seed he sowed grows apace and bears its fruit.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916