An Apostolic Missionary
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the death of St. Louis de Montfort, one of those saints that God sends every now and then to his Church to awaken the faithful from the clumsiness and laziness into which their Christian lives have sunk and whose sanctity presents, for the same reason, an appearance of extravagance or madness. In fact, many of his fellow citizens and even fellow students judged him as extravagant or mad, as we ourselves feel inclined to judge him once we decide to read the story of his life.
St. Louis Mary Grignion (1673-1716) was born in the village of Montfort-la-Cane, the eldest of a family that would have 18 children. His life was spent under the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and under the mentality of the times, in transition between the “Great Century” on the downhill and the beginning of the “Age of Enlightenment.” From a doctrinal viewpoint, Protestantism enjoyed a strong influence in certain regions. Jansenism continued infecting the thought of many Christians, priests and bishops, and Gallicanism was at its height. Our saint would have much to suffer from people contaminated by these doctrines; but, thank God, he was preserved from these deleterious influences by the protection of the Blessed Virgin.
At the age of 12, Louis Mary began studying humanities at the Jesuit College in the nearby city of Rennes. He was a highly gifted student, who quickly went to the head of his class which was not fewer than 400. He finished his study of theology at the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. From the Jesuits and the Sulpicians, St. Louis Mary received those beneficent influences that countered the spirit of the times.
It is undeniable that the Society of Jesus exerted a profound and lasting influence on his saintly formation, and even in the general orientation of his thought. For his entire life, he had a Jesuit priest as his spiritual director. And it was the Society of Jesus that at every moment offered him understanding and support in the midst of the gravest tribulations. The Company of Mary, founded by St. Louis Mary, obviously reminds one of the Society of Jesus founded by St. Ignatius. The 30 days of preparation for the Consecration to Our Lady, divided into four stages, seem to be traced from the thirty days of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, divided likewise into four weeks.
The Seminary of St. Sulpice also exerted a profound influence on St. Louis Mary. The personality and spirituality of Fr. Olier, the founder of St. Sulpice, deeply impressed our seminarian and young missionary, encouraging him to walk the same way of Marian sanctity. The Sulpician, Fr. Leschassier, was his spiritual director for several years after his priestly ordination, and he invariably sought advice and direction from him.
Louis Mary was ordained a priest in June, 1700. His apostolic zeal, having increased, led him to desire to become a foreign missionary, either in Canada, India or Japan. But the director of his conscience advised him to give missions, catechism classes to poor country folk and to arouse devotion to the Blessed Virgin in sinners. Then he came in contact with the bishop of Poitiers, who gave him the delicate job of attending the poor in the general hospital, where he remained for intervals until 1705, devoting himself at the same time to preaching missions in Poitiers and the surrounding area, with marvelous success. The activity of the fiery missionary could not but awaken opposition and enmities, especially on the part of priests tainted by Jansenism. Until the storm abided, Louis Mary decided to walk to Rome in 1706. Pope Clement XI received the young priest most paternally, and entrusted him with the mission of practicing his zeal as an “apostolic missionary,” not in far-away lands, but in France.
From 1706 to 1708 he worked in Brittany itself, preaching missions in Rennes, Dinan, Saint-Brieuc, and in his home town of Montfort. From 1711 to 1715 he preached in the future military Vendée, in La Rochelle, Luçon and the surrounding area. In the summer of 1714 he traveled to Normandy for the purpose of a foundation of his masculine congregation, the Company of Mary. On the way he preached his final missions in the current Vendée, and went on a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Saumur with the object of imploring priests for his Company. In April, 1716, being already in Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre, he caught a serious pleurisy, from which he died a few days later, on the 28th of that same month, as only saints know how to die.
Character of a Saint
One wonders why Louis de Montfort stirred up malicious opposition and violent contradictions at the same time as he gained the veneration and deep affection of upright, truly Christian people. Without a doubt, what characterized St. Louis Mary was his desire to live the total Gospel against all odds—the literal Gospel without diminution or circumspection. This is the key to what has been designated as the “Montfort enigma.”
An anecdote demonstrates it to us very realistically. Toward the end of his short life—42 years—Louis Mary visited an old friend, Canon Blain. The priest reproached him sharply for what he judged to be eccentricity in the practice of virtue. Montfort found only one answer to those reproaches: the Gospel. “My life, you say, is totally made up of poverty, mortification and abandonment to Divine Providence; but, isn’t that walking in the footsteps of the apostles and of Jesus Christ himself? Isn’t that the plain teaching of the Gospel? Let others distinguish, if they wish, between precepts and advice, between the letter and the spirit.”
The literal Gospel… Therefore, together with Christ, he condemned, scorned and opposed the “world,” its spirit, wisdom, vanities, customs and maxims. And therefore he was also always seen as opposed, detested and persecuted by the mundane world.
The literal Gospel… Therefore, he was poor and loved poverty and the poor; not in theory and in word, but rather practically and in deed. He wasn’t over 20 years old when, saying good-bye to his family, he prostrated himself on the road and made the vow, for the rest of his life, not to possess any property and to live always on Divine Providence. He gave all the money he had to the first poor person he came across. And to the second one, he exchanged his clothes for this needy person’s rags.
As a man of the Gospel, Louis Mary de Montfort was of necessity a very humble person. He sincerely considered himself the biggest sinner in the world. He had a passion for humiliation; he knelt humbly, not only when an authority directed unmerited reproaches at him, as happened to him often in the major seminary. And when they insulted him stupidly or when rude people beat him, he begged forgiveness from everyone for the scandal and affliction that he might have caused them.
As a man of the Gospel, and according to Christ’s example, he became obedient, and obedient to the point of scruples. He sought obedience. He stood by his superiors, particularly by Fr. Leschassier, even when they no longer wanted to take charge of him. His obedience was blind, admirable, truly heroic, even when they treated him most harshly and unjustly.
An evangelical soul, Louis Mary de Montfort was of necessity a soul of prayer. The immense, crushing work he carried out did not harm his thirst for prayer at all. He could be seen kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, or in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or in his miserable cell, where at times they had to go to look for him for some spiritual practice. Then they discovered him raised above the ground in full contemplation, having lost all notions of time and place.
An evangelical soul, Montfort practiced the Master’s favorite precept, charity, to a heroic degree. It was not difficult for him when it meant providing for the spiritual or material needs of men, his brothers. He did not hesitate to risk his life in order to help them, for example, getting in the middle of a bloody fight among soldiers, or taking help to the victims of a serious flood in Nantes. In Poitiers and in Paris, he bandaged the wounds of the poor. He treated them with the delicacy of a mother for her children. One afternoon he found a poor beggar on the road, covered with wounds. He carried him on his shoulders and knocked at the missionaries’ residence, already closed, shouting, “Open the door! Open up to Jesus Christ!” And carrying the repulsive sick person to his own bed, he took care of him until the end.
A true man of the Gospel, he lived on Divine Providence, begging for shelter and food. Divine Providence, to be sure, watched over him. It is not difficult to understand that this life of voluntary poverty was very often an occasion for all kinds of privation and mortification for him.
A true man of the Gospel, Montfort had to face heavy, bitter crosses. He suffered like Jesus in his body and his soul. He scourged himself until he drew blood several times a week, especially before each time he preached. He also suffered in his heart and his reputation. The most heartfelt cross of his whole life was undergone by reason of his Calvary at Pont-Château. He had preached a mission in that town, discovering the occasion to carry out the great dream of his life: to build an imposing Calvary which, sensibly and overwhelmingly would reminded the faithful of the Passion of Jesus and other mysteries, as well as those of His mother. The undertaking was colossal, but Louis Mary de Montfort was not a man to back down. He electrified the inhabitants from that place and other counties, obtaining donations and labor for the work of art, so that fourteen months later the task was completed and ready to be blessed and inaugurated. Everything was ready; the preachers were designated; the inhabitants were notified. Then, due to agitation from the saint’s adversaries, prohibition to bless the work of art suddenly arrived from the bishop of Nantes. This time Louis Mary could not contain his tears. As if that weren’t enough, a few days later a writ from the Court arrived, ordering the destruction of the Calvary. Upon seeing his very disinterested attitude after such a blow, the Bishop of Nantes declared: “Either Monsieur Grignion is a great saint or he is the most notable of all hypocrites!”
Devotion to the Virgin Mary
In his very special holiness, the role cannot be silenced of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of whom St. Louis Mary emerged as the great apostle, and as the providential promoter and propagator in modern times, especially with his Treatise on True Devotion.
Since St. Louis Mary wanted to live the Gospel literally, the devotion to the Virgin Mary that he preached is presented to us as based on the purest Gospel, giving it the consistency and solidity to make it indestructible and valid for all times.
Why know, love and serve Mary? Because the three divine persons have done so, and being the unchangeable God, one cannot believe that they would change their conduct. They will continue doing for Mary the same as they have done for Mary, that is, the incarnation of Divine Wisdom. God the Father wants her to be the mother of the mystical body of his Son. Through her the Holy Ghost exercises his fertility to produce Jesus in souls.
Why know, love and serve Mary? Because Jesus Christ, the incarnate Wisdom, did so, giving more glory to His Father through submission to Mary during the thirty years of his hidden life, than if he had begun the miracles and preaching of his public life then. We cannot have Jesus Christ as our brother, or God as our Father, if we do not have Mary as our mother.
How can we love and serve Mary? By following the example that our divine Master has left us, exemplified in the story of Jacob and Rebecca! That is, by becoming Mary’s children, by loving her filially and tenderly, recurring to her at all times, living in intimacy with her, serving her generously and delivering ourselves into her hands in abandonment.
Why love and serve Mary? Through her to give ourselves more perfectly to Jesus, the incarnate Wisdom, by using the same way to go to Jesus that Jesus took to come to us; and to establish, through devotion to Mary, the reign of the Blessed Virgin, the true preparation for the reign of Jesus Christ. It is a prophetic anticipation of the message of Fatima: the triumph of the Heart of Mary prepares the final triumph of the Heart of Jesus.
A new Elijah
By way of conclusion, a comparison comes to mind spontaneously, which summarizes the thousand marvels of St. Louis Mary de Montfort’s personality: his similarity to the prophet Elijah.
1. The same as Elijah, St. Louis Mary was a paradoxical personality that confounded and appealed at the same time. Elijah confounded due to his most austere life, his uncontested authority, the power with which he closed and opened the heavens; but he appealed due to his saintliness and his solicitude to garner God’s blessings for his people. St. Louis Mary confounded by his strong, fiery and even violent temperament; his life of absolute poverty, his “quite unpolished” evangelical reactions, and the practice of a cross and of mortification so very far beyond our strength; but undoubtedly he appealed through his heart full of goodness, charity and tenderness, which, as we have pointed out, won simple people’s hearts to him, whom he easily led to sorrow for their sins, the love of Jesus Christ and of his cross, devotion to the Virgin Mary and through them to reforming their very lives.
2. The same as Elijah, “full of zeal for the Lord of hosts,” St. Louis Mary was a fiery personality, which burned with zeal for the glory of the eternal, incarnate Wisdom, Our Lord Jesus Christ; for the crucified Wisdom, “knowing nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” He burned as well with zeal for the salvation of souls. His “Fiery Prayer” is the best proof of this vehement zeal, of this interior fire that burned in the breast of St. Louis Mary. My dear reader, read this prayer, in which our Saint describes himself without intending to do so, and you yourself will realize what we are saying here!