The French School of Spirituality

By Fr. Dominique Bourmaud

To speak of the French school of spirituality is obviously to set things in a very definite, and, to use Etienne Gilson’s word, “individual” context. This best describes the fecund spirituality which was grounded on typically French personalities. Perhaps a Frenchman like the 20th-century philosopher Gilson is a good way to introduce this article. He makes an important point, touching on the broader theme of spirituality:

“The study of the spiritual life deals with the supernatural life of the Christian soul in society and in union of friendship with God. The poverty of the singular and of its history, is that it is not scientific. Yet, the singular is great in that it exists, and the eminent dignity of history, even if only as knowledge, is that it bears on the existing individual. And, the real spiritual lives are always things individual concretely existing, or, if we observe them through history, things individual which have existed concretely. Not only the object of such knowledge exists but it has an infinite price, and the problems it raises are vastly important.”

Called the “Berullian School” by some, French spirituality refers to the 17th-century French current which has left deep marks up to the middle of the 20th century. Before we delve into the thick of the matter (the key leaders and their spiritual tenets) it will be good to bring up some context to the spirituality of the 17th century called “le grand siècle.”

Historical and Spiritual Context

At the coming of the year 1600, France is enjoying a relative peace past the internal religious wars between Catholics and French Calvinists called Huguenots. Excepting the North Eastern France still afflicted with the Thirty Years War, the country is experiencing much peace, the prosperity and population not seen in other countries. An educated middle class—the bourgeoisie—along with the nobility, is eager to wrestle with intellectual issues. The High Clergy is usually too busy with keeping its social positions, the regular clergy is weighed down by large estates administration, whereas the country priests are mostly ignorant and rough. The situation offers ample room for improvement which will see the reformers work on all levels of both Christian clergy and layfolk to bring the Tridentine Reformation to full fruition.

Indeed, the Council of Trent (1554-1563) had promulgated decrees which brought about the Catholic Reformation, in opposition to the Protestant Revolution, the so-called “Reformation.” Although it will take 40 years for the Parliament to allow the implementation of the Tridentine decrees, France knows especially in the first 60 years a period of spiritual fecundity as rich as the glorious times of medieval Christendom. Growing parallel to the French School, the traditional orders are witnessing a marked renewal of fervor. The Capuchins as well as the Dominicans are rejuvenated. The writings and the Congregations of St. Francis de Sales popularize the spiritual practices. Other communities are flourishing, like the Jesuits.

Besides the historical and ecclesiastical context, we can identify the main sources of French spirituality from the influences at play in the previous century. The reading of the Bible has become a common practice, and the avid readers make a choice among them. If the disciples of Bérulle insist on St. Paul and St. John, the moralists concentrate on the Sapiential books. Yet, all are imbued with the spirit of the Psalms. Pseudo-Denys is much in demand among the spiritual masters but so are the Rhine mystics, like Tauler, Ruysbroeck, and Canfield. Likewise, the classic Imitation of Christ (by Kempis) is widely read.

Another major foreign influence is coming from Spain. Madame Acarie, known as Marie de l’Incarnation, who holds a “salon” frequented by the spirituals, including St. Francis de Sales and Olier. And, along with her cousin, Cardinal de Bérulle, she promotes the “baroque” Spanish Catholicism and establishes the Reformed Carmel in France, which owns her the name of “Mother of Carmel in France.” In this century centered on devotion to the Incarnate Word, the spirit of St. Teresa of Avila and of St. John of the Cross exert a major influence.

Besides the foreign input, minds are opening to the religious life. The social elite is attracted to the most diverse congregations, the Capuchins, the Carmel, the Visitation, which receive the patronage of queens and the higher nobility, and even impact the Parliament of Paris. Madame de Saint-Beuve founds the Ursulines dedicated to teaching girls. Dom Mabillon and Claude Martin, son of Madame Acarie, exert a marked influence from their Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The Cistercians of the Trappe appeal to Bossuet for his retreats.

Spiritual Centers and Other Spiritualities

Even if he belongs to the 17th century, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) presents an original movement distinct from the French School which falls prey to his charm. His spirituality is rather eclectic and pragmatic, and it is perhaps this broad and non-systematic spirituality which contributes to his lasting influence on the future generations. It is going to be felt throughout the century and much later, thanks to his writings as well as his founding the Visitation along with St. Jane de Chantal. The Introduction to Devout Life brings out to the layperson what used to be the privilege of the cloister. Likewise, its complement, the Treatise on the Love of God, pictures the spirituality and simplicity of prayer drawn from St. Teresa of Avila. The work on one’s conscience to do all for God’s pleasure shows his masterly role as a spiritual director, the first of a long series who have given the French spirituality its psychological and practical character.

Another important movement is headed by another personality of the early 17th century, St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), who has his entry in the inner council of Louis XIV. He incarnates the works of “charity” which, in the 17th century, are understood as the natural manifestation of faith. This charity is firstly exercised in the care of the sick and the poor, who are legion in the wake of the 30 years wars of religion which has ruined the Lorraine region and by ricochet, is pushing refugees to pour down on Paris. Multiple initiatives are created around him: foundation of the Daughters of Charity, daughters of Providence, Ladies of the Christian Union, etc. He also presides at the foundation of the Lazarists, priests dedicated to rural areas, by preaching missions to layfolk and comforting the parish priests. In Paris itself, he is also involved with the renovation of the clergy with his “Conférences du Mardi” which acts as the leaven to form an elite clergy.

St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716) is also an important player in the currents of spirituality which are converging in this century. Breton by birth, the future apostolic missionary of Poitou and Vendée, studies at the St. Sulpice of Jean-Jacques Olier, along with his confrère Claude Poulard des Places, the founder of the Holy Ghost Fathers. St. Louis also creates congregations. He is the founder of the Daughters of Wisdom and of the Montfort Fathers dedicated to preaching missions in the countryside. He is perhaps more known to us as the author of several Marian books which gained renown only in the 19th century.

The French School

What we commonly agree to name the “French School of Spirituality” refers to the movement of the Oratory of France created by Bérulle. It includes the “Four Greats,” namely, Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, Charles Condren, Jean-Jacques Olier and St. Jean Eudes. We must now speak of these and of their specific nuance they bring to the School, even if only summarily.

Guided by St. Francis de Sales who put him in contact with the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, and urged by the future Archbishop of Paris, Henri de Gondi, Bérulle (1575-1629) forms a small community of priests at Rue Saint-Jacques in downtown Paris near the Carmelites convent, of which he is made the spiritual director. With five companions who pronounce the vow of servitude to Jesus, he initiates the Oratory in 1615, the year in which the decrees of Trent are officially promulgated. The Oratorians give special attention to the liturgy and they are graciously called by the faithful the “Fathers who sing beautiful hymns.” The Oratory is going to be a key instrument in the Catholic Reformation, by fomenting the missions, the formation of schools and the creation of seminaries.

Berullism is a doctrine which centers on Christ as the Incarnate Word and rejects any spirituality which pretends to reach the divine essence outside Jesus Christ. Based on sound theology, his spirituality teaches that the union in Christ of Man and God is indissoluble: “As long as God is God, He will be man.” Here, God reveals Himself to us. The mystery of the Incarnation is Jesus who has come from God to us and our way to God is Jesus Christ. God has become man so that God may permeate every human aspect. To live a spirituality of the Incarnation is for us to be “une humanité de surcroît”—a prolongation of His humanity. We thus need to “adhere” to Christ, be conformed to Him in all “states”—this is a word cherished by Bérulle meaning the various states Christ had in life, death, glory and in the Blessed Sacrament. He concludes that we need to renounce ourselves in many things so as to, ultimately, reach the level of servitude.

Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) will spread to the masses this doctrine of Jesus Christ with his classic Elevations on the Mysteries; Meditations on the Gospel. And as to priests, the Oratory brings forth the high esteem for the hierarchy which will contribute powerfully to raise priestly sanctity, with the creation of the Sulpician and Eudist seminaries. To sum up, we can say that the French School or Berullism is characterized by an acute awareness of the grandeur of God, of the importance of the Incarnation, of the sense of the Church and of the need for apostolic work.

Along with Bérulle, Charles de Condren (1588-1641) adds to his master the mystique of annihilation. “Man is capable of all the crimes” without the help of grace. The soul which adheres to Christ adheres to His state of victimhood. He and Bérulle create schools for the elite whereas St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle will later open primary schools for the destitute.

In the same family of thought, we need to place Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657). He is less abstract and more realist than Condren and, by creating the Company of Saint-Sulpice, he becomes one of the best means of infusing a lofty priestly spirituality, providing the ideal of life and prayer. If all great Christian spiritualities are Christocentric, nevertheless, what is proper to the French School is to invite the soul, according to Olier, to keep “Jesus before the eyes, Jesus in the heart, Jesus in the hands.”

St. John Eudes (1601-1680), after 20 years spent at the Oratory left it in 1643. Like Bérulle, in order to help the Christian soul penetrate “inside the mysteries of Christ,” he reminds him of his vows of baptism and of the medieval devotions under a liturgical form: the Heart of Mary and the Heart of Jesus. For him, we need to let the Holy Spirit “form Jesus in us, continue His life on earth.” The liturgy of the Feast of the Sacred Heart instituted by him says: “While we are in the world, grant us to live in Thee…becoming other Jesus’s on earth.”


Doubtless, the previous century had seen books of prayer and meditation, but the 17th century witnesses an accrued incoming of methods of prayers, based on the life of Christ, in accordance with the spirit of St. Teresa of Avila and the Oratorians. In line with the Tridentine reform of the Mass and the Breviary, Bérulle and his friends develop powerfully the liturgical spirit. This bring about a renewed devotion to the Holy Eucharist, with the recent adoration of the Blessed Presence, a new practice fostered by the Company of the Blessed Sacrament. The devotion to the Sacred Heart is widely extended after the Apparitions to St. Margaret Mary at Paray-le-Monial along with the help of Jesuits like St. Claude de la Colombière and Lallemant. This is one of the best means to counteract the harsh and harmful influence of the Jansenists of Port-Royal.

In this devotion to the Sacred Heart, we find a summary of the Incarnation-centered spirituality: the insistence on the heart of flesh of Our Lord, on the sufferings which It reveals and imposes on His adorers, the need to repair for our sins, although not new, are powerfully promoted. If this is so, along with the lasting institutions for the clergy and the country missions, we are in our right to assert that the 17th-century French School of spirituality has made an indelible mark to this day on the spiritual life of Catholics, not only in France but also across Europe and the new world.