Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – A Missioner to Poitiers

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultFreed from any obligations towards the hospital, Father Grignion could work out his true destiny, could realise all the tasks he had been meditating since the days of Saint Sulpice and Nantes. He was to be the typical missioner, the disciple of Christ, preceding and preparing the way for his Master in every town and village, the tireless laborer for an immense harvest; one who should bring peace, cure sick souls, sometimes the physically ill, while accepting such hospitality as might be offered him and making uncompromising war upon that pride through which Lucifer once fell from Heaven. … By his means the “babes” would be taught those things which God has hidden from “the wise and prudent.” From Poitiers to the sea, from Aunis to Normandy, it was as if a series of scenes from the Gospels were displayed to the eyes of all.

At first this apostleship was limited to the diocese to which Louis-Marie had been attached since 1701. He presented himself to Bishop de la Poype and explained his plan of missions. He would go preaching from parish to parish; especially he would make himself the catechist of the ignorant, no matter what their age; he would feed the poor, reconcile sinners, see to it that divine worship was properly celebrated with piety and dignity in churches that should be properly kept. He would himself contribute to urgent repairs, to decoration, to the setting up of sacred statues.

“But what will you do all this with?” asked the bishop.

“Providence will see to that. I need no backing, and do not mean to accept any remuneration. I do not care where I lodge. The bread of the poor and mine will be given by the charitable. And as regards restoring churches, I shall get the help of the workmen themselves.”

“It sounds like Saint Francis of Assisi. Is he not rather out of date?”

“I do not think he belongs to any particular century. There will always be a small number of Christians to follow in his steps. And God will be on our side.”

The bishop agreed. He gave Grignion as his headquarters the chapel and house of the Penitentes. And there it was that the new Saint Francis soon met the first companion of his wanderings. Mathurin Rangeard, an honest village lad of Bouille Saint Paul, was praying one day with much fervor in the chapel. Father Grignion asked him what his plans for the future were. Rangeard was thinking of going as a lay brother to the Capuchins.

“Follow me,” said the priest, and the words of Christ spoken by this man of the penetrating eye and vibrant voice were enough to convince Mathurin. He followed Montfort. Later on he was to serve his successors until 1759 when he died an old man in the house of Saint Laurent sur Sevre.

At the request of Bishop de la Poype, Father De Montfort preached a mission in the Monbernage quarter, a suburb without a church and where the people were primitive and ignorant. He spoke in the streets and squares until he had turned an old barn into a chapel. This, “La Bergerie,” became the shrine of Mary Queen of Our Hearts, with a statue of the Blessed Virgin which the people of Poitiers still venerate.

Wherever he went, faith blossomed forth, consciences were purified and made more sensitive. During the Revolution, Monbernage was to be a home of prayer and Catholic devotion. In another part of the town, Saint Saturnin, there were the same sermons and the same changes. A garden in a place called “La Gorreterie” was the scene of much licence. Father De Montfort watched there in nights of prayer and penance; he took a procession of his retreat- ants there and finally set up, in a grotto close by, a rough- and-ready shelter for a few sick whom pious women would nurse. Forty-two years later a hospital for incurables was to be built upon this spot. From 1778 onwards it was managed by the Sisters of Wisdom.

The parishes of Saint Radegonde, Saint Catherine, the Resurrection, the little town of Saint Savin, all remember hearing the man of God. And the church of Calvary was the witness of one of his greatest successes and one of his bitterest humiliations.

He loved the thoroughly monastic spirit of these Benedictines of Calvary, a branch of Fontevrault, planted in new ground, in surroundings of Franciscan poverty and simplicity by the famous Father Joseph, “L’Eminence grise,” and his ally, Mme Antoinette d’Orleans-Longueville. Nowhere could he better preach the Cross; there were many and important conversions. Nowhere could he himself be more ready for one of those public crucifixions, in which his heart and his pride as a man suffered torture, but in which he found the surest resources of redemption for his hearers, his penitents, his friends and his enemies. But here once more he was to be the victim both of his Breton boldness and of what may be best called Jansenist cant. He had persuaded a number of people to hand over to him licentious pictures and books which even before the Regency had been plentiful in French libraries. There were about five hundred of these and he piled them up like an auto-da-fe in a square near the church, announcing that he would set fire to it at the close of his sermon. In his absence the pile was maliciously topped by a figure of a woman or devil, wearing sausages as earrings. The vicar-general of the diocese, Father de Villeroi, who for the moment was replacing the bishop, was informed. The feelings of this great and dignified ecclesiastic can be imagined; this was just like Father Grignion. His ridiculous ideas brought the clergy and even religion into ridicule. He went at once to the Calvary, but Grignion was still preaching. The vicar-general put him to silence and forbade him to burn the books or to set up the crosses as he had planned after the auto-da-fe. The holy man took this blow upon his knees, and when Father de Villeroi had gone, he said: “My brethren, we were going to set up a cross at the door of the church, but it is not the will of God. Our superiors are against it; let us plant it in our hearts, for it will be better there than anywhere else.”

And in this touching way the interrupted sermon closed. The congregation admired the missioner’s attitude too much to realise that he had been humiliated, and the results of the mission were all the more wonderful as a consequence. But the books and pictures, what happened to them? The crowd and the school children seized them with shouts and laughter. “The devil had a big part to play that day,” wrote good Father Grandet. The Villeroi family were not exactly lucky.

But the vicar-general continued to be hard upon the man whom he had so haughtily reprimanded. He made common cause with Montfort’s enemies: Jansenists who disliked his teaching, men of the world, so-called Christians, who were upset and also exposed by his apostolic ardor; even the sincerely devout, and blameless priests who did not like his unusual ways. They got round Bishop de la Poype. They persuaded him not to censure canonically any word or action of Louis-Marie Grignion, but, as a measure of prudent administration and such a one as the occasion demanded, to refuse to him henceforward the use of any pulpit in the diocese. It was a pitiless proceeding. To condemn Father De Montfort to silence was to take from him his right to live, to reduce him once more to the condition of an exile. But this did not stop his enemies, and the bishop advised the Breton priest to leave the diocese as soon as possible.