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Marist Bulletin - Number 102

 

Br. François, first superior general of the marist brothers
13.11.2003

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1934, November 14: The Cause of Brother François was introduced in Rome


Gabriel Rivat (1808 – 1881)
BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF BROTHER FRANÇOIS,
FIRST SUPERIOR GENERAL OF THE MARIST BROTHERS


Br. Manuel Herrero Montes

Br. Manuel Herrero Montes is 77 years old and hails from Campos, Palencia, Spain. Since 1981 he has been managing director of the GRAM Publishing House in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Based on several literary sources, including “A humble hero” by Br. Gabriel Michel, “Brother François” by Guy Chastel, and “The life of Marcellin Champagnat” by Br. John Baptist, Manuel has authored this brief biography to help celebrate the Year of Brother François. We are happy to make it available to our subscribers.


CHILDHOOD YEARS
Gabriel Rivat, who would become Brother François in the Marist Congregation, was born in France in 1808 – in the tiny village of “Maisonnettes” near the town of La Valla, not very far from the city of Lyon.
“Maisonnettes” was a little mountain hamlet with about 40 inhabitants. They lived in four or five homes surrounded by meadows, with huge pine forests further up the mountain.
Gabriel’s parents, John Baptist and Françoise, worked on a small farm, growing the food they needed for themselves and their four sons and three daughters. The family owned five or six cows, and a few goats, pigs, and hens.
During the winter months the family was able to earn a living by manufacturing nails for companies in nearby cities and towns.
Christian to the core, they gathered for prayer each morning and evening, prayed the rosary, and said grace before meals with great devotion. The Rivats were considered especially rich in integrity and religious fervor, raising their children with dignity and a love for work. The sons and daughters were carefully trained. Their mother, Françoise, instilled in them that their daily lives were filled with religious meaning under the guidance of Divine Providence.
Gabriel was the youngest of the boys, and while still a child his mother consecrated him to the Blessed Virgin at the shrine in Valfleury. Later she gave him over to the care of Father Marcellin Champagnat soon after he took up his duties at the parish in La Valla. She asked the priest to educate him: “Bring out the best in him, he belongs to our Blessed Mother; I’ve been offering him and consecrating him to her endlessly.”

Father Marcellin lost no time in taking up his pastoral work in the parish. First with the children, inviting them to catechism classes – and that’s where Gabriel turned up when he was eight years old. At the age of 10, Marcellin let him receive his First Holy Communion, taking into account his piety and excellent qualities at such an early age. Normally in those days, children were twelve or thirteen when they received this Sacrament.
To his sorrow, Marcellin soon realized the lack of schooling and an especially troubling ignorance of religion among the children, young people, and even the adults in his parish due to the absence of competent teachers and the presence of anti-Christian ideas circulated during the French Revolution.
His plans to found a Congregation of religious educators who would dedicate themselves to running schools began to occupy his thoughts as early as his days in the seminary. He received the support of his fellow priests who had consecrated themselves to Our Lady of Fourvière at the shrine in Lyon and would later form “The Society of Mary” dedicated to preaching and missionary work.
Taking up his post as parish priest in La Valla in August 1816, he launched his project by inviting two young men to live as religious consecrated to Mary, and placed them in a plain little house near the parish church. The date was January 2, 1817, thus starting up the Congregation of “The Little Brothers of Mary” known today as The Marist Brothers.

VOCATION – EARLY SIGNS OF GIFTEDNESS
It wasn’t long before that group of young men who were working and studying with Father Champagnat, looking forward to the day they would become religious teachers, caught the attention of Gabriel Rivat. He wanted to join up and study with them. Father Champagnat accepted him and he became the sixth member of the group. The others were older, but that didn’t matter, since Marcellin was concerned in a special way for Gabriel’s intellectual development.
He gave all of them a basic teacher-training course sufficient to make them well qualified among the scarce number of classroom teachers in the area. On the other hand, when it came to their spiritual growth and development, he was very demanding.
Starting in 1818, the young aspirants made formal promises preparing them for the possibility of consecrating their lives totally to the Lord, especially by means of unquestioning obedience, keeping all their goods in common, and agreeing to teach for free all the students that the parish priest considered to be very poor.
Gabriel decided to become a Little Brother of Mary, prepared himself for this commitment, and on September 8th, the feast of Mary’s birth, made the promises of the Little Brothers of Mary. He was eleven years old. That day he began to wear the habit that distinguished them and took a new name: Brother François, in honor of his mother Françoise. He performed this ceremony with a tender awareness and great sense of responsibility.

A TEACHER AT TWELVE
His obedience would soon be tested. Father Champagnat needed a third Brother for the school in Marlhes and he decided to send Brother François. One January day in the midst of a snowstorm, two Brothers set out for Marlhes. There came a time during the journey when little Brother François couldn’t take another step, no doubt because of a blister on his foot. Brother Laurence, who was walking by his side, who would soon be 30 years old, had to put him on his shoulders and carry him until they reached their house.
Notwithstanding his youthfulness, Brother François was a capable teacher. Afternoons, he would spend his time helping children having the most difficulty in school, teaching them how to read, pray, and learn their catechism lessons. Those were the days when children attended school for only a few months, in the middle of winter. However, when they saw the enthusiasm of the Brothers and what a great job they were doing, even strapping young lads of fourteen and fifteen, anxious to learn to read and write, saw this as an opportunity not to be missed. It wasn’t easy for Brother François to deal with those teenagers. The story is told that he used to keep a stone under his desk to make himself look a little taller. A challenging time in his life, for sure!

TAKING ON MORE RESPONSIBILITIES
After this first taste of life in the world came times spent with Father Champagnat. Going on from his introduction to teaching as a 12-year-old in Marlhes, at 17 he became principal at another school. At 19, he was named director of the motherhouse and novitiate at the “Hermitage” and right-hand man of the Founder, whom he used to replace during his times away and his trips to Paris to gain government recognition for the Institute.
As the one in charge of the novitiate classes at the Hermitage, he was an eyewitness to all the happenings marking the history of that house from the time it was built. He called it the “great reliquary of Father Champagnat”.
In 1839, at the age of 31, his fellow Brothers elected him Director General – stand-in for the venerated Father Marcellin Champagnat, whose life was soon to end, overwhelmed by illness, intense work, and responsibilities that grew with each passing day.
From the time he was young Brother François wasn’t one to waste time. He took advantage of opportunities to master grammar and mathematics, as well as other subjects like surveying, chemistry, and literature. Pharmacy was an area he never tired of exploring. He learned to develop medicines, enabling him to work as a nurse for a good part of his life. An 850-page volume of his is preserved in which he listed the names of many illnesses, their diagnosis and treatment: an impressive collection providing researchers insight into some of the medicines and practical cures that were dispensed in those days. The nurse improved his talents as time went by. He developed ointments and even a drink made from nine herbs mixed with brandy. This composition would lead another Brother to create the formula for what would later be the artful production of a famous liqueur, known as “Arquebuse” in France, then as “Alpestre” in Italy, with numerous aromatic herbs having medicinal qualities.
From his youth Brother François was frail. For this reason, in his role as Superior General he constantly received considerable assistance from Brothers Louis Marie and John Baptist in governing the Institute. They were his councilors. The three of them formed an authoritative like-minded team, in such a way that they were admired and respected, and referred to as the “threesome.”

IMPORTANT LEADERSHIP TASKS
From the very beginning, Brother François focused his attention on some very pressing issues, one of the most urgent being a merger with the Congregation of the Brothers of Christian Doctrine based in Valence. It concerned the complete union of the two Congregations – the main purpose of which was to secure an exemption from military service for the Marist Brothers. In those days, military duty lasted for six or seven years. Such a protracted period of time was looked upon as being hurtful and a threat to the Brothers’ vocation.
In those years the Marist Brothers did not have legal standing, whereas the previously named Congregation, less numerous, had obtained authorization during a more opportune time (in 1823), gaining the benefit of having its members exempted from military service. The complete merger was accomplished in 1842. In a neighboring department of the country, the Brothers of Christian Doctrine based in Viviers faced a similar problem, and they joined up in 1844. The result was the birth of two flourishing and prosperous “Marist Provinces” which went on to develop in extraordinary ways.
The Congregation grew rapidly: in 1844 it consisted of 370 Brothers, 126 Novices, and 75 Postulants; they worked in the center and north of France, and there were already nine Brothers serving as missionaries in Oceania.
Brother François felt he wasn’t learned enough to publish long dogmatic circulars. He would write very simply, from his heart, on devotion to Mary, prayer, education, and the teaching of catechism to children.

LEGAL RECOGNITION OF THE MARIST INSTITUTE
1848 brought earthshaking political developments in France. Charles Louis Bonaparte came to power and during his presidency steps were taken to bring about legal recognition of the Congregation. And, as Father Champagnat had predicted, with the most favorable terms possible. Negotiations were long and arduous, and Brother François needed to stay in Paris for months to keep abreast of developments, keeping an eye on those responsible for bringing the process to a satisfactory conclusion.
On June 20, 1851 the decree signed by the Prince-President of the State proved to be an outstanding victory for the Marist Brothers. The document recognized:
· The religious character of the Association.
· Its civil nature as a public entity.
· Its extension throughout France, with all the civil protections involved.
Brother François was fully aware that he had just received an exceptional gift from Divine Providence, and he wanted to display the greatest possible gratitude. For this reason he stipulated that numerous prayers of thanksgiving be offered by the entire Congregation. And as a lasting reminder of that event he bought a statue of Our Lady of Victories and had it placed in the gardens at the Hermitage, as a gesture and a constant invitation to all the Brothers down through the years to be grateful for this singular grace. For the same reason he placed a statue of St. Joseph nearby and often prayed to him, in that way staying close to Mary in thanksgiving.

THE MARIST INSTITUTE GROWS
At the time the Congregation was officially recognized there were 826 Brothers, and requests for opening new schools rose dramatically. It wasn’t possible to take care of all of them because new vocations required a longer and more solid formation.
That’s what Brother François felt and decided, for he wanted his Brothers to be well trained and to maintain their initial religious fervor. This meant they were to be “living images” of Father Champagnat, imitating him as much as possible and working with him.
In twelve years as head of the brothers, Brother François had overcome difficulties and seen the number of Brothers grow. Yet all Congregations needed to have General Chapters, a meeting of delegates to look back over what had been accomplished, see what wasn’t working and needed reform, and what required updating. For the Brothers, this General Chapter took place in three sessions: In 1852 the “Common Rules” were drawn up – they underwent only slight modifications for more than a century. In 1853, a second session of the Chapter focused on educational issues, leading to the publication of a book called Guide des Écoles, The Teachers Guide. During the third session in 1854, Brother François was given the title of Reverend Brother Superior General.
In 1858, the Brothers received a brief circular introducing the biography of Father Champagnat. “It’s nothing more than a detailed narration of the goodness and favors that Mary bestowed on him and his work.”
During this and the following year, Brothers François and Louis Marie dedicated themselves to the arduous task of securing official recognition of the Congregation by the Holy See in Rome, and to visiting the ever-growing numbers of communities.
Feeling his strength slipping away, Brother François convoked a new General Chapter and asked that Brother Louis Marie be given all the power and authority necessary to govern the Institute. The vote was favorable and his wish was granted. With that, Brother François said goodbye and retired to the Hermitage. “I had 20 years,” he said, “to prepare myself to be a superior and then 20 years on the job. Will I have another 20 years to make up for it all?” Indeed he did.

He was named director of the Hermitage Community. He tended medicinal herbs in the garden. He devoted a lot of time to reading and to writing his memoirs about the house. He prayed a lot and edified everyone with his good example.
When the Constitutions were approved by Rome in 1863, the ordinary General Chapter was required to elect a Superior General to bring to an end the provisional situation created by the vote in 1860. Brother Louis Marie was again chosen to be Superior General. Officially Brother François once more became a Brother among his Brothers, desiring no other titles than that of Little Brother of Mary and “grandpa.”
He declared his resolve to “consecrate myself to the good of the Institute just like the rest of my Brothers, for as long as I live.”

A DOWN-TO-EARTH UNASSUMING LIFE
Before leaving the Chapter and returning to the Hermitage, Brother François blessed Brother Louis Marie with this beautiful blessing: “May the Lord give you the authority of a father, the tenderness of a mother, and grant you the grace to lead us to heaven.”
Brother François felt that from then on his vocation was to be an especially contemplative one.
From his thoughts and teachings we summarize those referring to prayer in the life of religious. “Essentially a religious ought to be a man of prayer. His constant practice of praying should turn into his everyday profession, become the bedrock of his existence, his breathing, his food.”
On May 6, 1872, the River Gier overflowed, and this would give Brother François an opportunity to show his spirit of faith. He placed his two scapulars on the windowsill in his room, and his rosary on another sill. At that very moment, so they say, the rain stopped, the river receded, the skies cleared, and the feeling of alarm vanished. More than thirty feet of the novitiate wall was ruined, but the building itself remained structurally sound.
A few years later, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. The outlook was grim. The Lord and many prayers took away the danger; he recovered and lived for five more years.
Having been a model as a Little Brother, teacher, principal, Superior General, and nurse, he would now become a model of the sick, by his patience, sweetness, regular attendance at all his community’s activities, and his prayers for sinners and those who died.
One by one his companions from the early days of the Congregation were dying during those years, Brothers Stanislaus, Louis, Lawrence, and John Baptist. Also Brother Bartholomew. He alone remained, awaiting the Lord’s call.
That call came on January 22, 1881. At noon the brothers noticed his absence during the community’s visit to the Blessed Sacrament. They went to his room to see how he was and found him unconscious, on his knees, by the side of his bed. They administered the Sacrament of the Sick and Dying, and at about 6 p.m. he delivered his soul to God.
A wake was held in the reception room of the house. His body lay on a bed adorned with roses, enabling large crowds to assemble at the Hermitage and venerate him when they learned of his death. Many men and women touched his remains with devotional objects as a sign of reverence.
A large throng attended the funeral in spite of the fact that it was held on a bitter cold day with a heavy blanket of snow on the ground.
At Brother François’ death, just as at Father Champagnat’s, people throughout the whole region were saying, “We’ve lost a saint.” Those who knew him were mainly the people who used to consult with him as a learned herbalist who knew many remedies derived from plants. Still, even though relatively few people were familiar with him, that didn’t keep them from admiring him and feeling his mysterious influence. Visitors to the Hermitage maintained that “when he received Communion his body shone brightly, and when he returned to his place his face seemed to be transfigured.”
Naturally his grave was placed alongside that of Father Champagnat. Today only a commemorative plaque marks the spot, since in 1984, due to the introduction of his cause for Beatification, his remains were exhumed and transferred to the chapel where they are venerated today.
Pope Paul VI declared Brother François Venerable in 1968. This means the Church recognizes that he practiced all the virtues in a heroic way, especially faith, hope and love.

We must pray to Brother François. He’d be perfect as the patron saint of ecologists or nurses, but above all of souls that work to sanctify themselves in whatever situations come their way.


PRAYER TO BROTHER FRANÇOIS

Venerable Brother François,
God called you to follow Him
From your earliest days
And serve Him with a truly holy life.
Help us to know how to live in the presence of
“Jesus through Mary” as you did -
With a pure heart and childlike enthusiasm.
May your intercession,
Together with Mary’s,
Obtain for us the favor we ask of you now...
And the grace to praise God
For always answering our prayers
In ways we see and don’t see.
Amen.

Venerable Brother François,
Pray for us.

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