Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – Saint Clement de Nantes

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultSuch a vocation with such unusual methods was to remain for a long time a dream, which did not fit the realities of the century or ecclesiastical usage. Father Leschassier had confided Louis Grignion to Father Leveque, the superior of the community of Saint Clement, a pupil of Father Olier and an old friend of Saint Sulpice. The priests of Saint Clement had to give retreats and missions in the outskirts of Nantes. Some months after his arrival the new guest of Father Leveque wrote to his director:

“I have not found here what I expected and the reason why I left, much against my will, such a holy house as the seminary of Saint Sulpice. It was my idea, as it was also yours, to be trained for missions, and especially to teach the poor, to whom I am much drawn; but there is not much opportunity for that here, for there are few on the staff and nobody of experience save Father Leveque, who is too old to do missioners’ work.”

This community, under its old and mild superior, was a “pleasing land of Drowsihead.” Each kept what pleased him of the rule. For some it was a sort of rest cure; for others, a place of call where a little recollection could be put in each year. Or it was a boarding-house which enabled you to go on with the study of theology or philosophy. There was a good deal of discussion at recreation, and Grignion soon found that the Jansenist spirit was at the base of many a controversy. Father de la Noe-Mesnard, another Quesnel, led the debates with much brilliance. Grignion lived in a perpetual state of suspense. He was shocked, and then he in his turn shocked them and was suspected by them. He was not given faculties for confession or preaching. Father Leveque was very upright, very pious, very orthodox, but old age made him hesitate, and certainly the opinions of those around him influenced him.

The tall Breton beat against the bars of his cage. He dreamed of higher flights and he confided his dreams, poor fellow, to the man least likely to understand them – to his director in Paris. Still, the future is already sketched in this letter of December, 1700.

“When I consider the needs of the Church, I cannot but sigh and ask constantly for a small and poor company of good priests, who, under the banner and protection of the Blessed Virgin, should go from parish to parish teaching the poor peasants and depending on Providence alone.”

He must leave Saint Clement at all costs, and this he soon did. But, strangely enough, it was to shut himself up in another prison, a hospital. He was the first to be astonished at it, but he was quite passive about it, fearing to disobey God and certain of discovering, after many wanderings, the final issue.

On May 4 Louis-Marie wrote to Father Leschassier as follows:

“I have received a letter from my sister at Fontevrault, written at the order of Mme de Montespan, and summoning me to come at once to Fontevrault to be present at her investiture which is to be on the following Tuesday.”

The Marquise had been in touch with the Grignion family for some years. The tutor of her children, Father Girard, had once recommended to her one of the sisters of Louis, “at the request of the Bishop of Quebec.” Saint Sulpice had always taken a large share in evangelising and colonising Canada. On his way through Paris, where Grignion was then a seminarian, the Bishop of Quebec had taken a fancy to our unusual saint. He had questioned him about his family. And it was through him and the interest of Father Girard that Sylvie Grignion had been admitted at Fontevrault where the sister of Mme de Montespan was Abbess.

Louis-Marie, travelling on foot, reached the abbey twenty-four hours too late. But they took him in for two days and he had the honor of several private interviews with the great and powerful Abbess. “She asked me what I wanted to be. In reply I simply told her how much I felt drawn towards working for the salvation of the poor, my brothers. She told me that she greatly approved my plan, the more that she knew by experience that instruction was much neglected amongst the poor. She would arrange for me to have a canonry in her gift if I liked. I thanked her humbly and promptly, but told her that I should never exchange divine Providence for a canonry or a living.”

Mme de Montespan was very kind about it, but what are you to do for an oddity who tells you his plans and refuses your help? It seemed best to send him to someone else. “At least, go and see the Bishop of Poitiers!”

This bishop was the Most Rev. Antoine Girard, the former tutor of the legitimatised princes. Grignion obediently went the seventy-five miles, but Bishop Girard was away. He waited for him, spending his hours in prayer either in a little room or in the chapel of the General Hospital. He made a virtue of loving poverty and suffering. The maimed, the lame, the sore, the tramps, sheltered there, gazed with a sympathetic curiosity at this priest, as ill-dressed and shod as themselves, and radiant with kindness, piety, and supernatural content. He seemed one of them, but he was a priest with a halo that the attentive eye perhaps discerned – Jesus Christ himself in the person of a poor man. “That’s the sort of chaplain we want,” they thought.

“They made a collection for him” – we know this delightful story from a letter of Grignion’s to Father Les- chassier. The bishop on his return was at first less cordial than these poor fellows at the hospital. His distrust for this wandering priest is comprehensible. At the second interview he was more expansive, for he had received from the hands of his own brother a petition from the inmates of the hospital that they might keep with them this holy man with his wonderful prayers and touching words. Bishop Girard then wrote to Father Leschassier:

“There has arrived here from Brittany a priest of the diocese of Saint Malo, I think Grignion by name, who says you know him and have directed him. . . . From Mme de Montespan he has some assistance for one of his sisters whom I remember indeed to have recommended to that lady. . . . His manners seemed to me very strange. I told him to tell you quite simply what has happened to him here . . . will you tell me what you think of him and whether you think him adapted to the instruction and guidance of a general hospital or to some other function of our holy priesthood.”

We already know the Sulpician’s answer. It informed the bishop as to the family, character, virtues and “lack of experience” of Louis-Marie Grignion De Montfort. “I do not know whether he would do at this hospital, which wants him,” concluded the prudent director. He had answered his penitent very ungraciously. Louis-Marie had told him scrupulously and at length the interviews at Fontevrault and at Poitiers, had stated his difficulties and opened his heart. His director’s answer ran: “You do not tell me upon what conditions you are to be at the hospital: who the committee are. … At any rate, it will be difficult for me to advise you. … I am not sufficiently enlightened for people whose conduct is unusual.” The postscript showed that he was weary and worried. “As regards confession, I can only tell you what I wrote before. Get someone capable of judging to examine your capacity. Take care when you write that your letter is not read in spite of the seal.”

In short, no decision was taken in this month of May, 1701. The young priest came back to Nantes. He frankly told the superior of Saint Clement all about the Poitiers affair. And as the human heart is fickle, the people of Nantes began to appreciate Grignion just when they were to lose him. After an exchange of letters between Father Leveque and the heads of Saint Sulpice, the care of evangelising the parish of Grandchamp was entrusted to the man whose lips had been pitilessly sealed for a year. “Father Leveque, in company with Father des Joncheres, has sent me to a much-neglected country parish. For ten days I catechised the children twice a day and preached three sermons. The good God and the Blessed Virgin gave their blessing.” This was the first mission of the great preacher of the West.

He preached another mission at Pellerin, and the ardor and effect of his words became known. This man was evidently born to convert great numbers. But he would never be able to do himself justice as long as he was the delegate of a community whose teaching was indefinite and its outlook limited. He felt the weight of his chains constantly. An appeal from Bishop Girard was enough to make him lay them down:

“Our poor continue to ask for you.” And as a result the Bishop of Poitiers invited him to get the necessary faculties for leaving the diocese of Nantes.

“The hope of being able, as time went on, to extend his labors in town and country for the advantage of the greater number,” this, according to Father Grignion’s definite statement, was the real motive of his choice. Clearly, he looked upon the hospital as a transition. The bishopric of Poitiers needed laborers more than that of Nantes; this he had realised three months earlier. The offer from Poitiers made it possible for him to end his relations with Saint Clement in a satisfactory manner. His first mission now would be to the very poor in the spirit of charity, humility and penance, till the day which Grignion was certain should come, when he could give himself up to his specialty, catechising and preaching.