Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – Mission Work in the Towns

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultWe have made a point of grouping all the sites and memories which belong particularly to La Vendee, and to Father De Montfort. His masterpiece, and what will last longest, was the work he did in the country districts. But he did not limit himself to that. He had sufficient learning, eloquence and prestige to be able to attack the towns. He won over men of the world as he had won the soldier and the peasant, Protestants as he had won Catholics. To be sure he had less influence at La Rochelle or Fontenay than at La Seguiniere or at La Garnache, and he has left less mark behind him there. But in the towns, the population changes more and its soul with it.

After leaving Nantes in 1711 he went to Lugon. The Jesuits and the Capuchins made themselves responsible for him to Bishop de Lescure. And on the fifth Sunday after Easter, taking his text from the Gospel of the day, he preached a magnificent sermon in the cathedral upon prayer and more particularly upon the Rosary, that perfect prayer of which he had made himself the apostle.

At La Rochelle, he met his Jesuit friends again; it was one of them, Father Collusson, who introduced him to Bishop de Champflour. The missions and retreats which he gave in the old fortress of Protestantism were numerous from 1711 to 1715. The bishop at once entrusted him with the organising of four series of sermons: to the inmates of the Saint Louis Hospital, to men, to women, and to soldiers.

In July, 1712, Father De Montfort preached a retreat to the nuns of the hospital whose chapel was for certain sermons open to the public. La Rochelle then became his residence; his followers had bought him a little house in the outskirts of Saint Eloi.

In August, 1713, he had another great mission with the help of two Jesuits. Then towards the end of the year, “preparatory exercises for death,” a number of meditations with an appropriate setting for the inmates of the hospital. In November after a long journey he came back to La Rochelle; in the following February he preached again in the Dominican church: whilst he was speaking of the Blessed Virgin on Candlemas Day, the congregation saw his face transfigured; a supernatural glow lit up his ascetic face and surrounded it with a halo of glory.

It was the precursor of his approaching beatitude. The general excitement was great. For the four last years his reputation in the town as a saint had been established. God had transfigured his messenger. A whole chorus of converts proved how rapid and definite had been De Montfort’s success. There was Mme de Mailly, a lady of rank and a Protestant, very zealous and very obstinate. She had had a personal interview with the Saint, and as its result had abjured her heresy and given up her life to good works. For thirty-eight years she was daily to recite the Rosary with the certainty of thus finding deliverance from all anxiety and the full light of faith.

Then there was Mile Benigne Page, the daughter of a commissioner of finance. She was a Catholic but very given to the fashionable scepticism. She went to hear Father De Montfort because it was the thing to do, and arrived as if for an entertainment, in the company of some fashionable young women with officers as their escorts. The mission was in the chapel of the hospital where they made quite a sensation with their fine clothes.

Mlle Page installed herself in front of the pulpit. The preacher noticed her at once and, turning towards the altar, implored Our Lord to give him this soul. His sermon moved the congregation to tears, as indeed often happened. The year before in the Dominican church the sighs had been so audible that they disturbed the preacher. “My dear children, do not weep. Your weeping hinders me. If I did not control myself, I should weep too. But it is not enough to touch your hearts. I must enlighten your minds.” On that day in 1712, Benigne Page felt God in her heart while she realised the vanity of human thoughts. Her ironical smile disappeared – her gaze faltered. She fell upon her knees and remained there to the great embarassment of her companions. They soon left her, and Mile Page asked an audience of the missioner. Two hours later she went home, to spend the night in preparing for a decisive step, for next day she went to the Poor Clares, if not herself to be one of them, to be at least under the wing of poverty.

It would seem as if De Montfort was particularly happy about this, for he wrote a long hymn upon it. Two of the verses will suffice to give an idea of his mystical joy and the form which it took.

Blessed be God!
The world has lost you, dear Benigne,
Blessed be God!
For all its glittering show.
This is indeed a wondrous grace And one not given to all.
Blessed be God!

And how much strife
To win this victory!
How much strife
‘Twixt grace and your own charms!
You only know, and God alone
Receives of it the glory.
Blessed be God!

Father De Montfort, with all his austerity and singularity, did not shock people of rank. He had his intellect and, if he thought it necessary, could adapt himself to their milieu. This was a pleasant surprise for those who had been too ready to believe all the rumors about him. Such was the case with Mme d’Oriou, the young chatelaine of Villiers-en-Plaine. She was twenty-five at the time of the mission of 1715. Gay and amusing and not at all devout, she had made up her mind to laugh at the people’s preacher. But she was amazed by the substance, wisdom and depth of his sermons. She received the missioner more than once at her residence, and wrote later on that he was both amusing and edifying, so that his conversation was at once instructive and delightful. She herself was very frank with him with a touch of malice. She put on a frivolous air on purpose and hummed light songs, but he took it all not too seriously, never lost his temper and never seemed shocked. He smiled and spoke to her with great gentleness of what a chatelaine should be.

Such accounts show that at least during the latter part of his career, Louis-Marie Grignion, absolute master of himself, could come down out of his ecstasies to walk in the light of common day. He had the love of the people, the sympathy of a portion of the world, the support of the bishops and the admiration and veneration of very many, and the work of God prospered.

At La Rochelle, as well as at Lugon, episcopal support did not fail him, though attempts had been made at first to bring this about. The effort made at Lucon was a very childish one. When speaking of the Rosary and Saint Dominic, Montfort had inveighed against the Albigeois. Now Bishop de Lescure came from Albi, and people called the missioner very tactless. When Montfort heard this, he thought it his duty to apologise. Franqois de Lescure good- naturedly answered: “Father, good branches sometimes sprout from a decayed stump.” And the incident was closed.

Grignion’s enemies had as little success with Bishop de Champflour. They made insinuations against his orthodoxy, and the bishop ordered three canons to look into the matter. Their report was entirely favorable.

But there was no question of his leaving these dioceses where he had found refuge, for elsewhere he was hindered and balked at every turn. In March, 1714, Saint Louis yielded to the requests of the parish priest of Vanneau and in company with Father des Bastieres gave a mission in that parish of the diocese of Saintes. On the eighteenth day, a letter arrived from the bishop’s palace, depriving the missioners of the faculties for preaching, hearing confessions and saying Mass. And it was the eve of the Corporate Communion. The dismay can be pictured. The priest went without delay to Saintes, and succeeded in getting these restrictions delayed for a few days.