Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – The Jesuits of Rennes

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultIn 1686, Jean Baptiste, with high hopes of his son’s good intelligence, told him that he was to have a complete course of study at the school of Saint Thomas. This was a model of secondary teaching managed by the Jesuits: four thousand pupils attended it, lodging in the town and taking its classes of Latin, Greek, rhetoric and logic. The curriculum closed with lessons in theology.

The new arrival was lodged with his uncle, a priest in charge of the parish of Saint-Sauveur. Then in 1690 the whole Grignion family came to live in Rennes. The lawyer father, whose clients were few and far between, thought it would be an economy to make his home where his children would have their education.

The Breton capital became the second home of our saint. The town has a proud and solemn air, with its priests, its magistrates, its nobles, its lordly mansions, its ancient houses, its churches and its convents with, at its centre, that fine House of the Parliament of Brittany which Salomon de Brosse built. Louis, who loved the country, was to suffer from living among walls; to detect under an austere and somewhat frowning exterior much pride, and a spirit of caste, formalism, cavilling and jobbery, which were in complete opposition to his devout soul. But his devotion was to find the churches of Saint- Germain, Saint-Etienne, Saint-Sauveur, of Our Lady of Peace, of Miracles and of the Annunciation. From his childhood he had shown skill in modelling and painting, and this artistic turn was indulged here; we find him asking the advice of a master of modelling.

But what he was to owe especially to Rennes and to the Jesuits, his teachers, was a liberal humanistic education. Father De Montfort, the people’s preacher, the apostle of the peasants of the West, was brought up on Cicero and Virgil as well as on the Holy Scriptures. He had written Latin verse before he composed those artless hymns of which we shall speak later on, and which in their turn show a rare fund of words, and a thorough knowledge of the rules of French poetry. In prose, he was often to be worthy of the great classics: at times the provincial is revealed by a certain wordiness, a colloquialism; his imagination is not always free from dross. It was like a lava in which Biblical reminiscences, quotations from the sacred texts, and vivid personal experience were seething. But the whole was influenced by the power and majesty of the seventeenth century. His language is rich, his sentences balanced. We feel that the author had been accustomed all his youth to the study of style, to oratorical jousts, that he was a grammarian, a rhetorician, a logician, who was afterwards to go on to theology.

Two influences seem to have been predominant: that of Father Gilbert and that of Father Descartes, and they were both religious and intellectual. Father Descartes, the nephew of the philosopher and the grandson of Joachim Descartes, parliamentary advocate at Rennes, was Louis Grignion’s director. He was a psychologist and a mystic. In his old age he wrote a little treatise entitled The Palace of the Divine Love, and he had, says Cloriviere, “the grace of guiding souls to the utmost perfection.”

While he was a notable professor of rhetoric, Father Gilbert aspired to apostleship and to martyrdom. As to the latter, a fair number of his pupils gave him a foretaste of it. The good Father was not a disciplinarian. The hum of voices rose and fell, there was whispering, books were dropped, and exclamations, laughter, and impertinence were the means by which the unruly ones showed their kind master that he could not “master” them. Father Gilbert took refuge in heroic patience; his lesson went on, punctuated by noise, which yet left it what it was, a fine thing. He would mingle pious exhortations with his comments upon the profane writers. Louis missed nothing. This master who longed to be a missionary, and who, his prayer heard at last, was rapidly to exhaust his strength in distant lands, doubtless roused in his attentive pupil the vocation of apostleship. Montfort always remained faithful to his Jesuit teachers. And the Jesuits never repudiated him, even at a time when the French clergy showed him hostility and persecution; they welcomed him to their houses, supported him by their advice, helped him in his missions. His manners, his methods were very different from theirs; it would have seemed to them a strange and impossible thing to enroll him among their number. But they venerated his sanctity; they recognised in his teaching the Gospel itself, freed from all worldly and political alloy – eternal Catholicism, with all the wealth of its dogma, all the armory of its practice and its discipline.

But it was not in the sumptuous chapel, which with its reredos and its pulpit, its memories, its emblems and mottoes of the Society of Jesus, is now the parish church of All Saints, that Louis kept his piety. A chaplain of the general hospital, Father Bellier, used to gather weekly in his house a group of students for religious discussion. Louis Grignion belonged to this gathering. On holidays, Father Bellier would send these young fellows to the hospital or to that of the incurables, there to wait upon the sick and the old, to read to them during meals and question them afterwards. And so there were planted in this pure chivalrous heart the seeds of that eager love of poverty, even in its most revolting forms.

To comfort human distress, to announce the kingdom of God, these were to be his two ambitions. When he could not preach, he devoted himself entirely to the poor. He was never to neglect the poor in the most difficult and most wonderful hours of his apostleship.

To preach the Gospel to the poor: in that short phrase we have the mission of a Vincent de Paul, a Jean Baptiste de la Salle, a Louis-Marie De Montfort. They came first to the humble and the poor as their Master Christ had done. They came first to the people, who for all the glorious reign had been left in the darkness of ignorance and distress. Hospitals, schools, the training of really pastoral priests, missions in the country districts – all such charitable work was theirs.

De Montfort tells us that he first realised his vocation during the year of his studies in philosophy, one day when he was praying in the chapel of the Carmelites. A miraculous statue of Our Blessed Lady was venerated there. And it was there he felt her presence; he would be a priest and teach men the power of their divine Mother. He might have prepared himself for the priesthood in Brittany and taken his place among the disciples and followers of Father Maunoir; at different times, Father Bellier had been one of them when travelling over the diocese of Saint Brieuc in company with Father Leuduger. The Breton people, who half a century before had recovered their faith in all its fullness, listened to the word of God. Father Leuduger, and the preachers whom he gathered round him, kept up this Christian fervor. One day, Father Grignion too would play his part in his native province. But he was called to a higher destiny. He was to be numbered among the great mystics of the French School. He wished to be the herald of devotion to Mary. Seven years were not to be too long to think out all the obligations and responsibilities which that would mean. They would not be too long for a thorough and prudent theological training, a minute asceticism, under those upon whose shoulders had fallen the mantle of Cardinal Berulle and Father de Condren, the sons of Father Olier, the Saint-Sulpicians.