The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Jean-Marie Robert de La Mennais

Venerable Jean-Marie Robert de La MennaisThe beatification of John Mary Robert de Lamennais – brother of the unfortunate Felicite – was introduced in 1911. Nature had bestowed great mental gifts on both. John Robert’s youth remained unsullied and he comprehended with all the ardor of his enthusiastic heart the beauty of the Faith. He was born of a distinguished family at Saint Malo in Brittany on 8 September 1780. His mother dying early, he went to the house of the bishop of Saint Malo and after the expulsion of the latter by the Revolution, to an abbe who took care of his education and his studies until his ordination to the priesthood. The first fruit of his zeal was the conversion of his brother Felicite, who was two years younger than he. Felicite had lost his faith when but twelve years old through the reading of bad books, and with his faith, the power to live a morally pure life. The zealous young priest was indeed happy to redeem his strayed brother from his erring course and to have him make his first communion, though Felicity was already twenty-two years of age.

John Robert had established at Saint Malo a school for the poor and an intermediate school for aspirants to the priesthood. But ill-health forced him to give up teaching. In 1807 he retired with his brother to the estate of La Chesnaye, near Dinan, to pray and study. While here the two brothers co-operated in publishing some writings in defense of the rights of the Church against Gallicanism. The elder brother exercised a healthful influence upon the impetuous character of the younger one, knowing how to guard him against extremes, against pride and pusillanimity. If Felicity had always been under the spiritual guidance of his brother hie might, perhaps, have been a saint instead of an apostate.

Some time after, the Abbe John Robert took up again his teaching at Saint Malo, and later became vicar-general of the bishop of Saint-Brieuc. He saw that it was necessary to educate the young in Christian principles to remedy the evils which unbelief had caused in France. In this respect the country people were the most neglected. So, in 1817, Lamennais established a society of teaching Brothers, Fratres de Instruction Chretienne, to give instruction to the country people, since the Brothers of Saint John Baptist de la Salle could not accept the direction of parish schools in the country because their rule demanded community life. The abbe’s Congregation grew rapidly and spread through all France, into the French Colonies, and even into British territory. In 1903 it numbered about twenty-five hundred and fifty mem- bers. In 1904, when a large number was gathered in the mother-house at Ploermel for the Spiritual Exercises they were violently expelled by the police. Their principal residence is now in England.

The activity of John Robert de Lamennais was not confined to the development and direction of this congregation of Brothers. He also founded a congregation of priests for the direction of a clerical seminary at Saint-Meen and for work on the missions. This was later amalgamated with the establishment of his brother at La Chesnaye. In 1822 the servant of God was appointed to the important office of vicar-general of the grand almoner of France. In this position it was his duty to propose the candidates for episcopal sees. After two years’ activity, however, he was removed from this office by the minister of public worship, on account of his outspoken zeal for the rights of the Church. After that time he lived for the most part at the novitiate in Ploermel, where he died on 26 December 1860. There the gratitude of Brittany erected a memorial in his honor.

His greatest affliction was the apostasy of his brother Felicite. “To pray and to weep/’ he wrote to a friend, “is now my only occupation.” But he also tried all natural means to bring the erring one to a change of mind. He wrote him letter after letter, each more affectionate than the last. Finally, after eight years, he received an answer. On the news of the dangerous illness of his unhappy brother he set out, although in great suffering himself, to see the dying man. Unfortunately he came too late.

– 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