Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – Painful Preparation for His Task, Prologue and Setting

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultOn June 5, 1700, during the Ember days of Pentecost, Louis-Marie Grignion was ordained a priest by the Most Rev. Jean-Hervieu Bazan de Flamanville, his former companion of the catechism lessons at Saint Sulpice, now Bishop of Perpignan, and furnished for the occasion with a special faculty by the Archbishop of Paris. He said his first Mass at the altar of Our Lady in that chapel which he had decked with so much love, and Father Blain said his face was that of an angel.

But he had to come down to earth. What was his career going to be? For the moment he had accepted a very modest living that he might be able to pay part of his board in the Rue Ferou. He did not intend to keep it nor to take others, for his vow was to live on the grace of God. Henceforward he thought of missions; he wanted to join Father Leuduger of Saint Brieuc, a great missioner and a man of wide experience. Then the poor attracted him; and he thought of going to Rennes to the hospital and Father Bellier. But he would decide nothing on his own. The divine will must be shown through the oracle of Father Leschassier. The young priest was to belong for two years more to this director, whom he worried with so much innocence and good-will.

It was now that the Sulpicians thought it might be well to keep him under their eye. They would not say anything definite but determined to “try” Grignion in a community at Nantes which was in close touch with Saint Sulpice.

His special gift and real vocation would thus be made clear. This seemed the best thing to do.

But as a matter of fact, our hero was already glimpsing his true destiny. The names of Father Leuduger and Father Bellier, in his letter, are significant. But the paths by which he was to be led to his goal were still hidden. He was to seek them for six years, amid hindrances and trials. The different stages were to seem as inconsequent as they were painful. There is nothing of the classical tragedy in the life of Father De Montfort; rather is it a medieval mystery, with a thousand characters, and no unity of place, time or action. At first, we have temporary settings, disconnected scenes, more or less simultaneous; at Nantes, at Poitiers, at Paris, at the hospital and the convent, among the solitaries, in churches and in public squares. There are rapid episodes through which sweep majestic figures, such as that of Mme de Montespan and Cardinal de Noailles. The chorus is made up of beggars, sick folk, the poorer townsmen. Around a cross is gathered a strange and touching battalion of the lame and the deformed, and she who leads them is blind. A young nun, dressed in gray serge, the only one of a new community, comes suddenly upon the stage to tell us that ten years hence her part will be played. Prophecies, miracles and pictures of the Golden Legend float through the action of the drama, the excitement of the play. A shadow falls upon the theatre: the heavy wings of Satan hover between God and the saint. The devil here is a reality very close to us; when he is not actually tormenting our Job, he stirs up against him tiresome friends and implacable enemies. Night falls: the hero seems conquered, abandoned. He has been silenced, exiled. But he does not admit defeat; he sends a message of hope to his faithful ones, and he goes forth to meet the dawn. When he comes back there will be light. After his pilgrimage to Italy we shall have the explanation of this somewhat confused prologue; we shall understand that all the themes of a perfect symphony were suggested and prepared in it. No undertaking dies, no effort is useless, and uncertainty gives place to definite purpose. The dash to victory will be all the more rapid for these slow beginnings. The victory is difficult and costly but decisive. Death, far from interrupting it, seals it. At thirty-three, Montfort, unknown, opposed, tossed hither and thither, was only on the threshold of his task. When he died ten years later, he had evangelised the provinces of the West, had written his mystical treatises, the rule of his religious foundations, and left to a few chosen souls, indeed to the whole world, an inheritance whose wealth as we grow to its knowledge remains inexhaustible. Is it necessary, after so many other chronicles, to follow the exact course and detail of events? We would only note the essential features, and first the dates between which the apostolate of Father De Montfort lay, 1700-1716. It was the period of the revival of Jansenism. In 1701 everyone was reading the pamphlet of a “Case of Conscience”: Can a confessor absolve an ecclesiastic who declares his condemnation of the famous “five proposals,” but who, as regards the responsibility of Jansenius for them, thinks a “respectful silence” sufficient? The crucial question which had roused opinions in 1654 was once more to the fore. Pope Clement XI censured the “Case of Conscience” in February, 1703. In the following May the Royal Government seized the papers of Father Quesnel, a Jansenist Oratorian. The bull “Vineam Domini,” condemning the “respectful silence,” followed in July, 1705; the decree dissolving the monastery of Port Royal des Champs in February, 1707. In 1710, the very year which saw the total destruction of the Jansenist sanctuary, the Bishop of La Rochelle, the Most Rev. Etienne de Champflour, and the Bishop of Lu^on, the Most Rev. Francois de Lescure, in company with Fenelon, formally attacked Quesnel. A conflict arose between them and the Archbishop of Paris, Noailles, who took the side of the Oratorian; and the Duke of Burgundy was appointed arbiter. At last in September, 1713, appeared the bull “Unigenitus Dei Filius” as the result of a request made by Louis XIV to Innocent XII. One hundred and one proposals taken from the Reflexions Morales of Father Quesnel were condemned. But the Jansenists appealed to a Council. They found support in the Gallican party, who were anxious to maintain in despite of Rome “the liberties” of the French Church and kingdom. They did not go as far as formal schism, but their heresy was declared and open; still, for a century or so this subtle poison was in French Catholic blood. It weakened souls strangely. The sacramental food was only rarely obtainable for many, and after roundabout proceedings. Others, weary of theological strife, turned their backs on dogma, and contented themselves with the morality of Christianity; but of this same morality they put aside anything which conflicted at all violently with human passions: such men were ready for the teaching of the “philosophers.”

In the ecclesiastical hierarchy, Jansenism had a strong footing which enabled her to check her enemies and take reprisals. The zeal of the priesthood grew cold and numb. The sect watched or condemned as dangerous innovations, as sacrilegious boldness, those devotions most likely to stir up the faith: the cult of the Sacred Heart, of the Sacred Heart of Mary, in short everything that stood for spontaneous love, filial trust, the growth of a liberty sure of itself and of divine grace. There was a danger of religion being reduced to Pharisaic formalism, once it had lost its marrow, its driving force, namely, charity.

It crept, like a rigid coating, into a society of watertight compartments, in which caste and inequality of rank estranged Christian souls. The King was aloof from his subjects; the nobles only admitted responsibilities in time of war; the army was one of mercenaries; the citizens, jealous of aristocratic privilege, ever gazing upward and longing to rise, neglected what lay below them, namely, the people, whom a long course of poverty had overwhelmed, and who, as they bent over their furrows, would straighten themselves with aching backs to sometimes contemplate the sky. The eighteenth century opens upon this spiritless lassitude. It was the exhaustion of a long reign, weighed down by costly glory, with the chill of old age and the sense of inevitable decline.

Between 1701 and 1714 came the War of the Spanish Succession, Europe against France, with one disaster after another, the terrible winter of 1709, followed by famine, foreign invasion, the kingdom on the verge of destruction, the prince humiliated. But it was also a time of repentance, penance, abnegation, heroism. Louis XIV had fallen upon evil days, and the dead lay around his throne. The old man said his mea culpa, but he did not despair of God or his country or himself. France was saved at Denain, and peace returned at Utrecht and Rastadt. It was a bitter peace, veiled with sadness. It left the King to the judgment of history while he prepared himself in solemn calm for the greater judgment of God.

The prophet’s hour had come, the hour for punishment and expiation.

Mme de Montespan, the patroness of Grignion De Montfort, was in her chateau at Oiron, weeping like a Magdalen for her sins. She busied herself with pious charities, and died after twenty-five years of mortification and merit in 1717. True, the number of libertines and hypocrites grew; and the faithful suffered from the errors of their leaders; Jansenism troubled the Church. Protestantism, which Louis XIV fondly hoped he had extirpated in his kingdom, was given a new lease on life and interest by persecution. Grignion’s opponents were to be uncompromising Protestants, or such as had been converted through fear to Catholicism, Jansenists, libertines, the worldly. But he was sent to the sinners, the lost sheep, and his victories grew with his difficulties: victories by the Cross in the midst of crosses, in groanings of the flesh, in darkness of spirit, in blows to pride, amid the “0 God, have mercy on me,” and the “Spare me, O Lord” of his tomorrows.

He did not come to the ninety and nine who needed no repentance. Nor did he come to a nation which had not the faith, which was ignorant, and in the shadow of death. Whether indifferent or guilty, all had had Christian teaching. They had a great heritage. They had shared in the Communion of Saints. Saint Louis De Montfort was the successor of those men, the youngest of those apostles who reconstructed religion in France in the seventeenth century, Jesuits, Capuchins, Oratorians, Sulpicians, Lazarists, Eudists, helped by the prayers of Carmel, of Calvary and many other monasteries with a strict rule, by the humble work of the Sisters of Charity and the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

As we said before, if Montfort was eccentric he was not a solitary. He revived a slumbering faith as he restored dilapidated churches. He utilised all the theology and mysticism of the early Fathers; his sermons, his hymns, his treatises, resume, clarify, explain and bring within the reach of laborers and soldiers, doctrines and devotions which had formed part of Catholicism, from Saint Bernard and Alain de la Roche down to Father de Berulle, Father Olier and Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. He knew excellently well how to adapt his themes; and in the simplest language could clothe the sublimest thoughts. His ardent convictions, his vivid imagination could transform timeworn matter, and what had been through his hands was his for always.

He was to hand on intact to the pious souls of his time, the legacy of the French saints of the seventeenth century. Works known to the few, which the learned were slowly unearthing from the dust of libraries, were given in substance by Father De Montfort in popular language, sometimes in songs. The summaries of his sermons were his only luggage, taken about on a donkey, and food for the malicious who compared him to a village quack with his advertisements, his posters and his stock-in-trade. The missioner himself speaks of his “shop.” Let us take it as it was meant. We have before us an amazing “country doctor” who to all the learning of the great masters adds the surest gift of diagnosis and the most successful healing power.