The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Father Paul Ginhac

Father Paul GinhacHow readily God gives His support to a will that strives with consistent fervor and unwearying energy is shown in the example of the servant of God, Paul Ginhac, S.J. 68 Even during his lifetime documents were being gathered that might contribute toward his canonization. The unanimous opinion of his contemporaries was that Father Ginhac deserved to be declared a saint if ever any one did.

Nature, however, had not made it easy for Ginhac to surrender himself fully to the loving guidance of grace. For a long time it seemed as if the desires of the world would take his young heart captive.

Paul Ginhac was born of a very religious family at the farm of Le Mazel in the parish of Serverette, Department of Lozere, in southern France. At the age of twelve he went to the neighboring town of Mende to attend the academy there; and the example of frivolous schoolmates did not fail to exercise a charm upon him. When he was sixteen his watchful parents sent our student to the boys’ seminary at Chirac. But Paul complainted bitterly of this restriction of his liberty, spoke only of servitude and slavery in the institution, was disgusted with everything, and stormed his parents with petitions to let him go back to Mende. They indulged him so far as to permit him to study at Mende, but he was to lodge at the boys’ seminary there and not with a private family. This little pleased the liberty-loving student. He became still more ill-humored and he submitted only in as far as external form compelled him. He feigned sickness and so managed to leave the institution for a time at least and was sent home.

The time of his classical training was at length accomplished and Paul rejoiced that he might now enjoy liberty and the pleasures of life. The priesthood was as far from his thoughts as it could be. His family feared the worst for the development of Paul’s character, for the more pains they took to correct his levity the more was he confirmed in it. He desired at any cost to go to Paris, but the energetic refusal of his father stood in the way. This difference caused many disagreeable scenes in the family. “Paul, at least save your soul,” often repeated his deeply afflicted mother.

All who had intimate dealings with him during this period of his life, however, bear witness that he was never corrupt in heart and that he always kept himself from what was low and wicked. It often happens in those of his age that an unreasonable desire for liberty awakens in their breasts and their inexperienced youth would have the satisfaction of heaven on earth. In all necessary matters Paul fulfilled his religious duties, but beyond this he did not care to go. With the least measure of religious fervor he imagined himself strong enough to withstand the allurements of the great city – a presumption that caused thousands every year to perish miserably by their own fault.

His elder sister, who had consecrated herself to God in the Order of the Visitation, succeeded in persuading the worldly young man to visit a friendly and experienced priest of noble family, who lived near by, and to ask his advice. Meanwhile, in union with her sisters, she implored Heaven for a change of mind in her brother. The priest invited his guest to accompany him in attending a mission which some Jesuits were giving at Mende. Politeness forbade refusal and Paul consoled himself with the thought that the sermons of the Jesuits would afford matter for amusement to his circle of gay companions.

But it turned out quite differently. On the last day a solemn procession was arranged. At a street corner Ginhac met some young people carrying a large crucifix. Paul’s attention was at once fixed upon it. It seemed to him that bright rays streamed forth from the image of the crucified Lord and shone into the very depths of his soul. There he read in clear characters what God desired of him. This heavenly light filled him with consolation and gave him a clear insight into the grandeur and beauty of his vocation. All objection was broken down, his whole soul was moved, what God demanded opened to him a rapturous vision of the boundless realms of happiness; and this knowledge was so clear that there could not be the least doubt of its reality.

As on the road to Damascus grace had come so suddenly to his great namesake Saint Paul that it permitted no turning back or wavering, so it happened to Ginhac. On the moment he made the saying of the Apostle of the Gentiles his own: “Mihi vivere Christus est” – “For to me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). And we shall see him working for fifty-two years with all the strength of his will to reproduce in himself trait for trait the character of Christ.

The Ginhac family was not a little surprised when Paul came home so changed and announced that he was resolved to enter the Society of Jesus. Vincent, an older brother, already a priest, wrote: “If I had become an unbeliever, I would have believed again, so impressed I was to see a young man who was so haughty and proud that he lorded it over everybody and would be counseled by no one, resolved upon a course that must have been so hard for him.”

On 4 January 1843, Paul Ginhac entered the novitiate at Avignon. He certainly had still to overcome many lesser faults, but his was now “the path of heroism” as the general of the Order, Father Martin, appropriately characterized his life. Before the two years of his noviceship were completed, he was obliged to go to Algiers to act as teacher and prefect in the orphanage of Ben Aknoun. The poverty of the place and the hot climate limited his life of sacrifice, but these were days of triumphant joy for Ginhac’s magnanimous soul. He became a master in self-control, and until the end of his life there burned in him an ardent zeal for the missionary life.

He began his studies in the autumn of 1848 at Vals, near Le Puy, and received Holy Orders on 18 December 1852. Superiors had him ordained somewhat sooner than the rest of his fellow-students so that while completing his studies he might assist the novice-master in the direction of the novices, for at the time the novitiate of the Toulouse Province was also in Vals. After completing his studies Father Ginhac occupied for a while the chair of a professor of theology. But before the end of 1855 he was entrusted with the responsible post of master of novices. Except during the interval of the so-called third year of probation he regained in the office until 1869. After 1861 he was also rector in Toulouse, to which place the novitiate had been moved. From 1869 until his death on January 10, 1895, Father Ginhac was instructor of the fathers who were making their third probation.

Thus the servant of God was continually engaged in the spiritual training of the young members of the Society of Jesus. It would be hard to find one better fitted. In the first place, the example of his personal holiness lighted the path for every one. The sharp observations of the novices soon found how truly mortified, humble and immersed in God their superior was and each year corroborated with fresh proofs their exalted opinion of him. Not only the hundreds of Religious who passed through Ginhac’s training, but all externs, too, who had anything to do with him, were completely captivated by the overmastering charm of his personality. And yet he was as simple in his manners, as unassuming and unaffected as could be. He was wanting in rhetorical talent, it is said, and possessed no gift of vivid representation, nor was he distinguished by any novelty or originality of thought, but scarcely any one could produce so deep an impression by the Exercises or so easily inspire souls to the closest following of Christ as he. What he taught he had himself practised – it was his own life proceeding from a heart in which the love of God flamed mightily. It was noticeable in every sentence how earnest was his intention, how repeatedly the speaker had proved his truths in himself. It was a genuine and lasting zeal for their vocation that he awakened in his pupils.

The latter reposed the greatest possible confidence in him. In the beginning there undoubtedly lingered in Ginhac’s character, as a consequence of his unceasing struggles for self-conquest, somewhat of the disagreeable, harsh, and unkindly. But they did not fail to call his attention to this, and it is most astonishing to note how perfectly he overcame these faults. In fact, it was just his friendly and kindly dealing with others that opened the way to their hearts. “To himself he was a torturer, to others a tender mother,” says one who had been under him. He was ingenious in making others feel happy. Nothing escaped his tender solicitude. Yet this goodness of heart did not mean any effeminacy in his manner of training nor was it at the expense of the religious spirit. His pedagogic skill enabled him to inspire others through the law of love with a lifelong zeal for perfection.

He was reputed to be in every respect the ideal of a superior. His edifying example of zeal for duty, his devotion, mortification, humility, and love of vocation did even more than his winning words. He was altogether a spiritual man and only the principles of faith governed his judgments and intentions. Hence he was never short sighted, narrow-minded, or pusillanimous. He allowed his subjects much freedom in their conduct of apostolic work and encouraged their spirit of enterprise. He carried the practice of mortification to a degree that would make the ordinary mortal shudder. We can not but marvel that his body bore it and could endure so much labor. But his loftiest heroism was reached in the constant denial of his own will. His heart rejoiced when he had an opportunity of practising acts of self-abnegation for his suffering Saviour. Once he ended an instruction on mortification with the words: “Rest assured, my fathers, that if a man has once tasted the delight hidden in suffering and mortification, he will desire the cross and voluntary penance with greater longing than that which the sensual man has for his forbidden pleasures.” They say that he always began to smile and to speak with greater warmth when he entered upon this topic. A soul so mortified to the world and to sense naturally found its chief delight in intercourse with God. Still, trials of aridity and desolation were not spared to Father Ginhac.

The source from which his fervor ever drew new vitality was, after prayer and the Holy Eucharist, the Spiritual Exercises. His position brought with it the duty of giving the Exercises of thirty days every year. Besides, he was director of the Exercises in many other religious houses. The asceticism of the Book of Exercises of Saint Ignatius he had made entirely his own and daily put into practice. “Father Ginhac,” writes one of his pupils, “lived the Exercises, and they were embodied in him. Should he one day be declared a saint, in him will the Exercises be canonized in a new and especial manner. Just the Exercises, without addition, without missions, preaching or suggestion of high contemplation – in a word, the Exercises a saint so frequently gave and the spirit of which he so perfectly exemplified in his own life.”

“Holiness does not consist in the working of miracles, but in a man’s doing what he ought and as he ought,” was a saying of Father Ginhac. It was literally verified in himself. He worked no miracles during his lifetime, but this norm of duty reproduced in him the magnanimity of the world-redeeming Lover of mankind.

There is no doubt of the extraordinary holiness of this man and, since after his death he has in so many cases proved to be a powerful intercessor, we may hope that the Church will soon present him to our effeminate and characterless world as a splendid example of self-renunciation and steadfastness of character.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916