Marcellin Champagnat, a Saint

Paul Sester


The canonization of Marcellin Champagnat seems to me to provide the chance of reflecting on what sanctity really is, thus giving to the event a sense beyond the superficial. In our language, we use the word “saint” so loosely and in many different connotations that we are no longer clear what is really meant when the Church, in some official way, designates someone as “saint”. We speak of “a holy man” which can have a wide range of meanings, for example we refer to the Pope as the “Holy Father. But when we want to treat of “a saint in heaven”, we know that we are speaking of “saint” in a special way, speaking of a person who can work miracles and who, during her/his life on earth, has lived the virtues to an heroic degree, shunning evil and devoting one’s life to doing good; someone who has concentrated on seeking perfection.

The presupposition behind this is that the human person is imperfect, situated in adverse conditions which he must overcome in order to live a flourishing spiritual life. A presupposition that, behind the title now placed before his name, in the depths of his personality, something is at work which gives a fullness to his being, and a response to the question of the meaning of life, which perplexes so many.

Why are we here, on earth? The first question of my catechism, and the reply: to serve God as the way to reach heaven. An answer sufficiently vague to content a docile mind, lacking a critical sense, but inadequate when challenged by deeper reflection. If we lift it from a setting that aims only to edify, what meaning can we give “to serve God”, who, being almighty, has no need of any service? “God has no need of you, nor of me, in order to bring about what He wants in His Church”states Father Alphonse Rodriguez1 who nonetheless insists that our one aim, here below, is to please God.

If it is true that in our condition of dependence here on earth where each entity seems to call for some Superior Being from which it emanates, we need Him to dialogue with us, this does not offer much of a path of reflection on our reality. The one solution which remains is to begin with ourselves, setting out to explore the unknowns of our nature. In the present case, this has us completely reversing the perspective – coming to understand sanctity not from the point of view of God, but from that of the human person, the being most directly affected.
“It is for you to take your salvation to heart;
it is your affair; you alone are involved there”
says Rodriguez, faithful to the thought of St. Thomas2.

It is not that – as can be judged by my quotations – I look down on the spiritual writers. Alongside statements that stem from the feelings, sometimes quite gratuitously, logical reasoning and pure common sense have their rightful place, despite the disdain that these authors have for philosophical reflection, looked down upon as being pagan. Yet they do not hesitate to make use of findings of psychology, preferring to speak of the “tendency towards perfection” rather than “sanctity” properly so-called, dealing with the road rather than the destination towards which it leads.

In my first section, I shall rely on the writings of Father Rodriguez, which I have already quoted from. There are two reasons for this –
* because this is one of the books that Father Champagnat
recommended to his Brothers to read;
* it coincides, in several places, mutatis mutandis, with my own ideas of

Rodriguez Today

Alphonse Rodriguez saw the light of day in 1526 at Valladolid, Spain, and 20 years later, in 1546, he entered the Company of Jesus. By 1549 he was professor of Moral Theology, then Master of Novices at Mantille in 1561… for 33 years he had the task of “giving talks on spirituality, which were part of the weekly routine in all the houses of the Company” (p. III) He spent some time in Rome, in 1594, for the General Council of his Order, then lived for 12 years in Cordova, acting as spiritual director for his Province. In 1606 he was named Master of Novices at Seville, where ten years later, after a retirement of two years, he died, 21 February 161, aged 90.

It was near the end of his 12 years at Mantille “that gathering up all that he had put together on the subject, he wrote the work entitled “The Exercise of Christian and Religious Perfection.” (p. IV), but he did not publish it until 1615, near the end of his life. Taking into account the tasks he carried out, this book is truly his life’s work, in the dual sense that he poured into it all that he had learned, and that in it he preaches only what he himself had practiced. In 3 volumes, 1,634 pages, he develops in minute detail the path to perfection for a person who wishes to live life as fully as possible. The knowledge that he has of the complexity of human nature embodies what we know as modern psychoanalysis, if one knows how to gather together the insights scattered throughout the various striking examples and quotations that he gives. This is what I set out to do here, following a plan that modern anthropology suggests.

The Becoming

“The true wisdom that we must long for,” says Rodriguez, on the first page of his book, “is Christian perfection, which consists in uniting ourselves to God by love …. this is the greatest, or to be more exact, the only task that we have; it is for this that we have been created.” And in chapter III of the second, dealing with the intention we bring to our actions, he quotes St. Ambrose reflecting on “the reason why, in creating the world, God after having created things and animals, immediately praises them …. but when He comes to create man, He seems to pass by without praising him, since it does not say immediately that he is good, as He has with all the rest of creation.” (op.cit. I, p. 99). Rodriguez replies, “This is because the goodness and perfection of man consists only in what is hidden within him,” “first, he must show the intimate side of his being” adds St. Ambrose. Erich Fromm, the German thinker, clarifies, “This means that animals and things find their fullness immediately they are created. But not so with man. Man can, himself, led by the word of God … can develop his intimate nature throughout the course of his life3”. As if to say that man is a being-becoming, as the existential philosophers maintain: “Become what you are”.

By this they mean that the human being is born endowed with all sorts of potentialities which characterise him, but which he has only as possibilities; he must bring them into play himself by the way he acts during his earthly existence in his social setting, in the historical and geographical environment he encounters, and to which his own life will make its contribution. Each human existence is graced by fate with the power of making oneself, of building in some way, one’s own personality on the bases that have been given, but on which one can build freely the spiritual structure, bring to blossom one’s own self, different from every other self.

If you want to see proofs justifying this theory, just look at what happens in nature around us. “Becoming” is everywhere about us, especially in the generation of living beings. A seed, right down to the very smallest, has enscribed in it the whole programme of the future development of the being throughout its whole life. Why should man be exempt from the all-embracing law of creation? The need that he has to be educated, of developing his intellect and, if he is a religious, of working for perfection, presumes that his personality, far from being complete, sees the need and the ways to develop, to become oneself.

The Longing

“To become oneself” states the goal that a person wishes to reach and, as well, the way by which to come to that goal. Beyond the wish to live that is found in every living being, human awareness experiences it as the yearning to take one’s own place in the world. The human psyche is not the calm waters of a lake mirroring the shores; it is rather the current that forces a foaming passage through the rocks. Whether serene or agitated, there is always the yearning within, so much so that Louis Lavelle could define man as “a yearning being”.

On this topic, Father Rodriguez has a passage that might need clarification. “We want things only according to how we value them. All the more so as the will is a blind force which can only follow what the understanding sets before it; the worth that it attaches to an object becomes of necessity the order of our desires; and, as the will is what commands all our other faculties, the inner and exterior faculties of the soul, we ordinarily seek things and strive to acquire them only to the extent that the will presents them to us as desirable.4

In the this kind of “voluntarist” spirituality, the will rules the desire. But in fact, it is quite the other way round – the desire comes first, in relation to the will, because you do not will something, which is not longed for beforehand. The worth which we may think of as ruling what we desire is nothing else than the desire itself attracted by the value. It follows that desire is not something superficial, but a constituent of the human psyche, its living energy, we may say.

The object aimed at is always seen by the awareness as something of value – the good, the beautiful, the useful, the pleasant. However, no tangible object is ever able to fully satisfy. As soon as we possess it, our desire shifts to something else, now seen as more desirable. Clearly then, the concrete value of an object never corresponds to what we imagined it would be. Proof also that our desire aims at an ideal which by definition can never be attained.

So arises the question whether it is possible to find something that would totally satisfy the desire that gnaws our heart. This would suppose that there was one value, with all the other particular values but different glimpses of the one. The philosopher, Louis Lavelle, in his study “My Powers”, finishes his analysis of Desire, which he considers at the same time as Awareness as a characteristic of our being, by saying that:

“Desire, like Awareness, would be able to find fulfilment only if the individual and the All succeeded in being united. ….Desire appears to us to be the very essence of the Self. Only it gives movement and life. Only it is capable of establishing a bridge between what we are and what we seek to be”.5

We can say, then, that the deepest desire of man is to be and to be in all fullness, such as the Creator wanted, a sharing in His absolute Being. In the story of the fall of our first parents, Genesis seems to confirm this thesis. If the serpent replies to the woman, “You will be like the gods !” (Gen. 3, 5), there is nothing strange in this wish, since temptation always follows paths already walked.

Father Rodriguez could well have found there the justification for his long treatment of the difference between the yearning for material things and the desire for spiritual. Referring to the first of these, “scarcely has one attained what has been desired, than one begins to despise it to fix one’s eyes on something else, which, once it is in its turn possessed, proves to be equally boring” and, with regard to the spiritual desires, “the more we taste them, the more eager becomes our seeking them … because we are not born for this world, and thus, there is nothing in this world that can completely satisfy us”.6


Elsewhere the same author adds, “Once this Desire is firmly imprinted in the soul, we must set ourselves, with attention and with ardour, to obtain what we long for, for we will naturally work hard to seek and find the things that we are attracted to by our inclinations”,7 giving us to realise that our desire however great it may be, is not enough to bring about the goal – we need to act. That is so obvious that it scarcely needs to be mentioned. Whoever does nothing, is nothing. Commenting on the words of Psalm 61 “You repay man as his works deserve”, Father Rodriguez states, “It holds true that the good or bad condition of our soul, derives from our good or bad actions, since we will be what our actions will be, and in the end it is they who reveal what we are.”8
Indeed, if we take the example of a sportsman, how can he know all the potential within himself, if he does not practise his sport and pit himself against fellow sportsmen? This holds good for everyone who wants to make use of his latent powers, his capabilities. In this sense then, we can say, quite truly, that the human person makes himself/herself. “Doing, and in doing, making oneself”, is the very apt comment of the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

But we still need to understand clearly what this creating action does. On this point, Rodriguez devotes much time to explaining what our actions must be if they are to contribute to our spiritual progress, which is to say, our fulfilment. “It is not enough for our progress and our perfection to do everything we ought; we must do this well”,9 is the first point that he makes. And in so doing, highlights the two things necessary to ensure that action will prove effectual in the process of becoming.

The first is what the philosophers call value. A subjective value, born from the subject’s desire for something that he feels will satisfy that yearning. The more one wants an object, the more one is ready to pay to get it without worrying about its intrinsic value. Value is called objective when the quality, good or bad of the object or the action, is under consideration. For the purpose of what we are dealing with here, I shall call “good” whatever accords to the sense of my nature, and “bad” what does not. Consequently, the good alone is to be sought for by whoever takes upon himself the task of self-realisation.

The second condition is what I shall call commitment, meaning by that the attention, the awareness and the application needed by the action, so that the person can claim it as his own. To the extent that I devote myself to my action, with a free and voluntary decision, taking upon myself alone to carry it through, then this action can be said to be mine, and so the creator of my personality. The warning given by Rodriguez, “This matter of Christian perfection, is not something that is brought about by force; the heart must embrace it,”10 emphasises the same point. Further, when he claims that, “Our progress and our perfection consist of but two things: to do what God wishes that we do and to do it as He wishes it to be done,”11.
I would translate that as the need to act according to our nature, for what God wants of us, is that we be ourselves, to be what He has created us to be. “The glory of God is Man standing erect,” says Saint Ireneaus.

Going Beyond

Even with all these conditions fulfilled, more is needed, except in exceptional cases, than just one act to achieve the “becoming”, because a single act does not bring into play all possibilities of a being. Practice makes perfect, it is said, but on condition that the action practised is driven by the desire to get better and better. Like the athlete forever trying to better his performances, the tendency within us to open out our capabilities to their fullest, is the heart of our wish to go always further and further. To do this, we must “go beyond” ourselves. This yearning to have the “more” which haunts the depths of our hearts, drives us to search for it in what we are not as yet, going outside ourselves, beyond ourselves..

To let weariness bring us to a halt, or to have no other aim than winning the good opinion of others, would be a mistake, because that is to be closed in on oneself. The writer of the treatise on Perfection first sounds a warning with the well-known “To halt, is to lose ground.” Then he spends six chapters of the third treatise “on uprightness and purity of intention” to expose all the possible harm that “vain glory” can do, which, according to him, consists in giving to creatures, the honour and glory that belongs to God alone.

Louis Lavelle would have us see the situation in quite another light. He sets it out in his book “Narcissus’ Mistake”12, the beginning of which I shall briefly summarise. We all know Ovid’s fable about the adventure of Narcissus – “Aged sixteen …. pure of heart ….there he is, going to quench his artless thirst in a virgin fountain where no one yet has been mirrored. All at once, he becomes aware of his beauty and his thirst disappears – he wants only himself. It is his beauty which from now on will torment him, which divides him from himself in showing him his image, and which drives him to seek himself where he sees himself, that is, where he is not …. he plunges his arms in the water, to grasp the object which can be nothing but an image …. and he lives on now, at the edge of the fountain, as witness to his sad adventure, as a flower with a saffron-coloured heart, surrounded by white petals.”13
His mistake was to stop to contemplate his image, to fail to realise that the image had no reality, not to have known how to go beyond it. His being and his “becoming” thus became set in one thing, without a doubt beautiful, yet no more than a water-lily.

“Narcissus disappeared in the fountain for he wants his surpassingly beautiful image to fully occupy the place of his being, as happened to Lucifer, when he became Satan.”14

Action, therefore, can open out and develop the being of the person who is active only in so far as it is dominated by a view-point higher than itself, which goes beyond self and which urges it to reach out beyond what it has achieved. If it is the desire to be that animates us, would not it be an illusion to stop the momentum at an object which, by definition, will always be different from us ? It is only the Absolute Being, from whom we hold our being, who can bestow on us the more-than-what-we-are that will bring us to fullness. The word of the Gospel, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” is neither more nor less than an invitation of the Lord to perfect our “becoming” by possessing being as fully as we can, just as the Absolute Being possesses His. From this flows the need that each of our actions, which since its results remain finite, be surpassed, renounced we might say, or seen as nothing, as Jean-Paul Sartre would have it, so that our ambitions have free rein. Made capable of beginning again, wiping out the past, so that we can, with fresh enthusiasm, conquer new heights, as St. Paul says – “forgetting the past, I strain ahead for what is still to come, I am racing for the finish….”15 Rodriguez links up with that, using the words of St. Basil and St. Jerome who, he says “teach us that whoever wishes to be a saint, must forget the good that he has done and set his mind continually on what yet remains to be done.”16


Do we still need to go back, after all, on the essential character without which action would not affect the person, that is freedom? Without freedom, in fact, the personality is not at stake, neither, consequently can his “becoming” be thought of, lacking responsibility, the fruit of freedom. “Becoming” is nothing less than the blossoming of the personality, nothing that it cannot realise by itself. From which it follows that it is totally responsible for its “becoming”, no excuses, no appeals.

We must then, come to an agreement on this word freedom for in general use it is interpreted in different ways. The usual meaning attached to being free is to be able to do what you want, to be able to act without restraint. Taken to mean this, freedom is, for the most part, only exterior. But there is another freedom, an interior freedom. If it is praiseworthy for me, in a democratic country to do and to say what I will, within the limits of the law and of morality, how can I be sure that I am not being influenced in a way that determines me towards one mode of action rather than another ? Am I not the slave of some passion, of tendencies that I lack the courage to resist ?

We have seen that the will is always animated by some desire stemming in some way from the absolute desire to be. But this desire is, we might say, cheapened in actual life by particular desires which are related to it closely or distantly, as one interprets them. These secondary desires determine us only to the extent that the will accepts them or turns them away. For often, disguising their deep source from us, they lead us astray into pathways that do not lead to the expected end. Hence the need to free ourselves from these misleading mirages, and to return to the desire that we experience in the depths of our being as the authentic road to our personal fulfilment.

It is true that in the present situation in which we find ourselves, immersed in a material world which calls to us from all sides, it is not easy for us to free ourselves from attractions, even interior ones, or from passions which are like abnormal growths holding us back on our progress forward. Real freedom is not given us a hundred percent pure; it is our task to refine it, to master it, sometimes even at the cost of a hard-fought struggle.

Such is the price that we must pay in order that our actions may be entirely responsible, that is, truly our own. This is the one stipulation needed if our actions are to give birth to our own personality, ready for our “becoming”. This finds expression in Rodriguez, though in terms other than we have used – “Our advancement and our perfection rely on the perfection of our actions. ….. the more they are holy and perfect, the more also we shall be holy and perfect. If we accept this as incontestable, we can still maintain that our actions will have more merit, more perfection in proportion as our intention is more upright, more pure, and when we are following a higher and more sublime aim, for our intention and our aim are what give the character to our actions.”17

This too idealistic road promises to be arduous. But it is the narrow road that the Gospels speak of.. The road to sanctity, for “becoming” and sanctity are one. But it is important not to forget two things – first the Absolute Being seen as the aim of our journeying, is not a Being who is elusive and remote. He is the God of Love, eternally present to support our efforts. Secondly, it cannot be denied that our deepest joys follow our victories over ourselves and the accomplishing of our purest desires, in the full sense of the word. Possible therefore, despite the distance that separates us from this distant God to unite ourselves to Him through love, towards whom our being yearns, because that is where it finds completion or perfection.

Marcellin Champagnat

That Father Champagnat, whom it is reasonable to presume read Father Rodriguez, would have understood him in the way we have just presented, is quite out of the question. He did not have the means to do so. However, his intuition, supported by a well-based and realistic judgement, enabled him to form his own interpretation in which the apostolate was the base. His spirituality, in as much as he lets it come through spontaneously, breaks free from that of Father Rodriguez, in his having a deep and close intimacy with God through a relationship that grew more and more free and trusting. Recall the lighthearted way of speaking, which persisted right up to the solemn moments that preceded his death, and the kind of discussion that he brought to his spontaneous prayers. Moreover taking into account his exuberant activity and his care to do only what God willed, how can we doubt that he saw the task given him by his companions in the seminary, as a mission coming from God, which he had to accomplish, as the price to be paid for his own salvation. In fact, through the way he gave himself to the task, despite his failings, he realised the “becoming” implanted in his nature.

But who can judge the way he gave himself, who can know the extent of his holding firm, his obedience to the divine impulses that led him on ? He never speaks about his interior life, nor does he let it be seen, unless perhaps by those who were his constant companions, those whom he had formed by his example and words. These then, are the men to question, notably, Br. Jean-Baptiste, his biographer and the author of numerous writings aimed at handing on to us the spirit of the Founder.

In one of these works, entitled The Sayings, the Teachings and the Advice of Venerable Father Champagnat,18 there are two chapters which deal with his thoughts on “what is a Saint ?” setting out how he sees the ideal he took as his own. It is these two texts that I shall first analyse to get an idea of how Father Champagnat thought of “a saint still living on earth” before going on to examine how he himself lived sanctity.

What is a Saint

Chapter 20 of the book mentioned, treats of six indispensable characteristics of a saint, namely,
Someone who fears sin more than all the evils of the world and who avoids sin more than he would avoid death; someone who lives a well-founded piety; who loves Jesus; a humble, obedient and mortified person.
I would remark that the characteristics given above are in italics in the text, to show that they are from Father Champagnat himself.. On the other hand, we should remember that he is speaking to the Brothers, more particularly to the novices, to enthuse their fervour in the religious life.

He treats the subject rather superficially, one might say, describing a saint by the outward aspects and the reporter in his commentary, is careful to keep to the same level. His concern is to justify what the Founder says, rather than explain it, rather than deepen the sense and nuances of what the Founder expressed.

These six characteristics can be grouped in threes – first, the three attitudes directed towards God (fear of sin above all evils of the world; to be a man of prayer; to love Jesus), and second, the three virtues that the saint must practise (obedience; humility; mortification). The first three attitudes are arranged in the sense of going from the exterior to the interior, from the negative to the positive and they stand each on its own without any link between them. It is not stated that the saint fears sin, because it is the enemy of love; neither is it claimed that prayer stimulates love by creating intimate contact with God; love is presented as a “liking for Jesus”, as “a sign of the chosen”, almost a strongly platonic love. Certainly this passage is not inspired by Rodriguez, who insists strongly, from the very beginning, on love as the foundation of of sanctity as he sees it, and he makes no express mention of the “fear of sin”, at least in his first treatment of the topic. In contrast, the three virtues are certainly those on which sanctity rests, and Father Champagnat indicates that it is the example of Jesus that shapes his choice of them.

At the end of this chapter, he again stresses these characteristics which “are so truly the essence and the elements of sanctity that if a single one of them is missing, then sanctity is no longer present.”19 Then he lists them, three times more, but forgetting each time one or other of them – thus, the fear of sin is repeated only once, mortification twice, while the love of Jesus does not appear at all. We are then, a long way from Rodriguez, for whom
“Christian perfection consists in our union with God through love.”
Consequently, rather than sanctity properly so called, we are dealing here only with the means to obtain it.

The next chapter of the book takes up again the same theme and in a similar way without going any deeper. It lists the effects that a saintly life produces in the person living it – “light, a sun which radiates light and life …. an example for everyone … the instrument of God’s goodness … although he may be a man like us, but he never complains, neither about the weather, nor his work, nor his superiors or any of his confreres no matter what their characters or weaknesses may be … not even of his enemies and persecutors … and even less of his bodily infirmities and spiritual difficulties.” The double presentation of these last points explaining first of all their positive side and then their negative, shows that there is no question of a description here, rather of an exhortation. In the situation described the reasons put forward for the practice of the virtues of mortification, obedience and humility are that they enable us to pile up merit and to attain heaven, all of them focusing in on the love of God:

“They find God everywhere, who is the sole object of their love.” (239) Though it is not highlighted, this last comment underlies the whole text and show us in a flash the key understanding of the Founder. It is a pity that the reporter has not set it out more clearly, as a summary of all that goes before, a bringing together into one single attitude of attachment to Jesus, the goal which, when sought after, underpins everything else. We could then see the person taking into his own hands the responsibility of working to achieve his own “becoming”, his supreme worth, drawn on by the love of God, in the setting shaped for him.

Noticeable that there is no reference to the apostolate, though this may be sensed in the wording of the first two points:
“light, a sun which radiates light and life” and “..example for everyone…”
Having in mind to speak of sanctity in general, he does not apply it in any special way to the Brother – which leads us to suspect that Br. Jean-Baptiste did not know how to point out the links which the Founder hints at and which the last Council set out clearly, the connections there are between apostolic work and religious life.
However, the first chapter of the book, entitled, What is a Brother in the eyes of Father Champagnat ? brings into higher prominence this aspect, especially in his first two points. A Brother, the Founder explains, is – “1. He is a soul predestined to great holiness, to a life of high purity, to solid virtue; a soul towards whom God has special plans of mercy; a soul called to study Jesus Christ, to love God and to devote himself forever and entirely to the service of God …. a soul predestined to great glory, whom nothing of this earth can satisfy.

2. He is the co-operator and companion of Jesus Christ in the sacred mission of saving souls.”

Here, Father Champagnat directly addresses the ideal that he has for his Brothers. He does not speak of sanctity, but of the vocation which is, when all is said and done, merely the road to “becoming”, the call felt by everyone. Without entering into philosophical deliberations, he sets out clearly the goal, in which every human being finds fulfilment. No less explicit is his reference to action, in which two characteristics immediately appear, namely the end-point, reaching the state of fullness destined by the Creator for His creature, and the mode, the going beyond oneself precisely that the other might benefit, the forgetting of oneself.

The 4th point of the chapter refers implicitly to freedom, where it deals with the Brother taking the place of “soldiers and police”. In addition to the idealist vision of a society without laws, we could call to mind here St. Paul’s idea, in which Jesus Christ frees us from law, in order to set us completely free, responsible only to Him, as Augustine says, “Love, and do what you please !”

Real Achievement

Far from using these texts to have Father Champagnat say what he did not say, I wish merely to share my conviction that the thinking of Marcellin Champagnat reached beyond what he could put into words and far beyond what the Brothers who reported them, were able to grasp. Like the philosopher of whom H. Bergson speaks who never succeeded in communicating his intuition is all its depths20, so Marcellin Champagnat was unable to express clearly what was his intuitive understanding of human life. But everything that he was able to say and do shows, more or les accurately, what this was. So it is there, in what he says and what he does in the circumstances of the moment, giving us the opportunity to discover it.

His environment, physical, family and social, certainly influenced Marcellin Champagnat more than we might expect. By nature, he has an inner nobility, scarcely noticeable because of the peasant milieu of the mountain people. Although he comes from a family that does not lack material and spiritual values, his upbringing inclines him to a certain reserve, a reserve arising out of good sense and honesty and from the religious and social conditions found in a big family steeped in the Catholic faith. His temperament, in as much as we can see it from the accounts given by his biographers, puts him in the category of bilious whom Mounier describes as having – a driving urge for action physical strength contrasting with a slim build quick to react having a yellowish tinge angular features deepset eyes a gaze that is ardent and wide-ranging lips firmset lively gestures precise clear and distinct voice easy and rapid way of talking.21

An active man not given to dickering or long reflecting before putting into action his decisions. A practical man rather than a theorist, who could glimpse the goal without worrying to much about what steps will take him there, relying on his courage and his skills, sometimes to the point of rashness.

Book-learning holds little attraction for him so that he dodges it on the slightest pretext, but he is an observant and a quick learner from his father when it came to all kinds of manual work to the point of launching into money-making ventures such as sheep trading. Accepting reality, permitting the fundamental laws of his nature to shape him, he is able to develop his taste for enterprise. Political activity, the melding of ideas, the interchange of theory, all this seems too unreal and holds no interest for him. His mind inclines to things concrete – he can visualise the revolution as a “monster”.

However the realm of the incomprehensible. of the supernatural cannot fail to make a profound impression on him. From his earliest days, as in every Christian household, his mother had sown in his soul the highest spiritual and (even more so) the highest religious values. It was from her, as well as from his aunt-nun, that he received the basics of the Christian faith – an awareness of God, prayer, the service of the Lord of heaven and earth. We can well imagine how religion fascinated the child. A son of the countryside with its secret seedings and growings, surrounded by wooded mountains, dark and mysterious, his awareness easily absorbed the world of the supernatural.

More than that, delighting in the setting and beauty of liturgy, in watching its dramatic display, his heart must have quickened to the splendour of the ceremonies in honour of the God whom he pictured as the Lord, unseen yet present as could be sensed from the recollection showing on every face. In contrast to her husband at the beck and call of public affairs, his mother was a home-lover, concentrating on seeing that her household, with its numerous people, ran smoothly. Habits of order and rightness, a wise modesty in one’s attitudes, reserve in outside relationships were the focus of her watchful care, the standards which she passed on to her children. Young Marcellin, the last of the family after the premature death of his little brother, followed the example of his brothers and sisters, accepting to be shaped in this mould, satisfied to exercise his vitality within this framework, knowing no other.

So when the priest-recruiter said to him, after their short personal exchange, “You must become a priest. This is God’s will,” how overwhelmed he must have been by two emotions – astonishment at such a revelation and joy at the glimpse of the realising of a yearning that he had, without doubt, secretly dreamed of, without ever expressing it through fear of revealing a wild fancy. Even after this meeting, whenever he spoke of being a priest, he would immediately add, “since God wishes it.” It is not lightly that he so speaks, for along with obedience to the call of God, his fondness for adventure was finding an outlet.

His mind made up, no matter what. From this moment on, he took his future into his own hands. The way forward far from being even faintly marked out, was but a mountain track overgrown with branches and roots, and so the struggle against obstacles began. The people closest to him gave him conflicting advice, and there was the unexpected death of his father – these were the least of his problems; he had some money saved up and the support of his mother who did not hesitate to accompany him on pilgrimage to La Louvesc. As far as the studies went, he relied on his readiness to work, his courageous tenacity, to make the grade.

Leaving the home of his birth, something he had to face sooner or later, brought a twinge to his heart, which was quickly forgotten in the feelings arising from finding himself in a new world of boys, mostly younger and more advanced than he was. Shy, awkward at first, his usual self quickly emerged. The minor seminary scene at Verrieres had really nothing that could daunt him for long. On the contrary, his unusual height, his well-built body, his quick and lighthearted way of speaking with the country twists of expression and the spirited repartee, made him stand out and quickly admitted him to the “happy gang”. But not for long, it seems, since his teachers, once they had brought order to the place, put him in charge of a dormitory. He gives us, himself, a glimpse of his real conversion in his “resolutions”: “I will make no distinction when speaking with my fellow-students, no matter what unpleasantness I might feel, since now I see that this is a result of my pride creating difficulties. How can I look down on them ? Because of my abilities ? I am the last in my class. Because of my holiness ? I am full of pride. Because of the bodily beauty ? God has shaped my body, but it is far from being perfect, and ultimately I am nothing but a pinch of dust.” He needed more time to master his wordiness, as he adds a further resolution: “I will try as well, during recreation, to be less talkative.”

Despite all this, his world of relationships retained the characteristics already mentioned. His ease with words, where often his bent for spiritual witticisms and jests had free rein, delighted and surprised those close to him – even on his deathbed, as Fr. Maitrepierre testifies.22 During recreation time, he liked to tease some one of the Brothers, mischievously, to get him to react to some amusing sally to the amusement of those present, not to score off the Brother, but to show a personal interest in the man. This, as much as what was said, shows the mutual love and confidence that coloured these relationships. While Marcellin Champagnat poured out on the Brothers a love that was virile, deep and no holds barred, they, in their turn, loved him as their father in all the fullness of the word, a father totally dedicated to their welfare. “He was firm, yes, firm indeed; we would tremble at the mere sound of his voice, at a glance from him, but first and foremost, he was good, he was compassionate; he was our father….” writes Br. Francois. These qualities, taken together, give us a personality that is likeable, strong, reliable, that gives a sense of security based on an all-embracing, calm and serene kindness. It gave him a strong hold and influence over his companions, which they willingly accepted since it seemed to them to be a help, freely given, to living out their common vocation.

This spontaneous giving, this forgetting of self show through in different ways in Marcellin’s way of acting. In spite of the great interest he had in his Brothers, he saw to it that they had a certain autonomy, even when this was not, strictly speaking, called for. In the first years when they were isolated in their little communities, nothing was more normal than their choosing a superior among themselves; even more striking was that Marcellin, in coming to visit their poor houses, showed no wish to “take over the direction of the house” since “beyond that fact that the work of his priestly ministry made it impossible, he realised that this was not his concern, but that of the Brother Director.”23 Later, at the Hermitage, although he mingled with the Brothers at recreation time, “in the dining room he sat alone, his table was set apart.”24

Where the spiritual direction of the Brothers was concerned, he preferred to leave this to others, partly out of lack of time, partly out of respect for their freedom but also, no doubt, from being aware of his own inadequacy in theology. This accounts for his wish to have another priest with him – first going off to find Fr. Courveille, then calling on help from the archdiocese in the form of young Fr. Seon. In the same spirit, he recommended in his letters that the parish priest be the spiritual director of the Brothers who worked with the young people of the parish. He touches more fully on the same point in a remark reported by his biographer, which we have no reason to doubt comes from the Founder….
“In speaking to you in this way, I am fulfilling a duty of conscience;
now it is up to you to fulfil yours,”25
spoken to his Brothers when pointing out to them the need to teach catechism, putting on their shoulders, we might say, the responsibility for the work, to boost which was for him, his only mission.

The fundamental inspiration for this way of acting is undoubtedly his modesty. Taking into account his happy character, the success he enjoyed with young people and in his undertakings, Marcellin Champagnat had every reason to be a proud man. Admittedly an abiding shyness, his peasant manner, his lack of academic training ever present to his perceptive judgement – all this prevented him from having a distorted sense of himself. On the contrary, he made every effort to keep on the right side of the line. His reply to a priest who was impressed by the discreet bearing of his companions, is typical: “They are Brothers who run schools for the younger country children … some young men got together …. they had a Rule drawn up in keeping with their goal, a curate gave them some help …. God has blessed their community and made it grow beyond all human expectation….”26

This attitude could be interpreted as keeping his distance from the Brothers – which would be quite wrong. On the contrary, despite his priestly position, he gave himself totally to the work, mixing with the Brothers as if one of them, sharing their life fully, yet being all the while the animator and organiser of the venture. So he found ways to give an example, especially of humility which he saw as the fundamental virtue, which consisted for him, essentially in candour and simplicity. Any pretence, any kind of vanity were for him foolishness unworthy of a thinking man. So he reacted vigorously against high-flown language, cut down the pride of those seeking to be praised, yet he put up with their unthinking blunders, even when he had to suffer from them himself. In dealing with those in authority, he came as he was, without pretence, even at the risk of being taken as insignificant by those who judged only from the exterior. All of which did not prevent him from standing up to anyone in defence of the Brothers and of their interests.

There can be no doubt that such a way of acting was in tune with his character. The resolutions taken in his adolescence are a clear indication of this, and, if the efforts of his mature years corrected his natural tendencies, they did not destroy them. Events, seen by his good judgement and perception as significant and valuable, helped him form a right relationship with God. The arrival of the group of eight postulants following his urgent petitions that “we do not perish, like a lamp without oil”; deliverance from death in the snow through the fervently prayed “Memorare”; the construction of the Hermitage without any fatal accident; the successful outcome from various difficulties that threatened the congregation’s future – these were so many facts revealing God’s intervention, through Mary, in the establishing of the Society. His clear-sighted faith led him to accept to be an instrument in the whole process, and to give himself completely to it with a courage ever more selfless. It was “Jesus and Mary have done everything for us,” again and again he came back to this with ever deeper conviction. Knowing that he had been chosen by God to complete what “was lacking in the passion of Christ” he found in this his whole reason for being and the way to direct his future. Hence there was but one alternative left open to him by his personality – to give himself without reserve in a union with the Master that became ever more and more intimate, with His will the one driving force of everything that he does.

His tireless activity stemmed from the pulsing conviction that he would reach fullness only in God and from the impact that this conviction had on his energetic nature animated as it was by an extraordinary apostolic fervour. Becoming aware in the seminary of the situation of the Church and especially the plight of young people, he seemed to detect, in the planning of his companions to set up a Marial Society, the voice of God, saying to him, “We must have Brothers.” His drive countenanced no delay in putting into action what had been decided, and, as soon as he was made curate in the parish, he drew together some young people with the view of forming them to be Brothers.

In his mind, the aim was clear-cut : “We must have Brothers to teach catechism, to support the missionaries, and to set up schools for the children.”27 But what was his idea of a Brother? We can take it as certain that he had a sufficiently clear idea of the Brothers of the Christian Schools to use them as a model, and the intention to do the same task as they did, but in places where they could not go. His words and his writings present a Brother as a man on fire with the desire to make known to others the love of Christ the Saviour, a love that engulfs him to the deepest reaches of his being. A man anchored in the conviction that the salvation of the human race, both here below and beyond, is to be found only in the total and deep embracing of the Gospel of divine love. Once this goal has been set, here remains the need to work out the means to attain it. They are of two kinds – the agent and the instrument.

The agent is the Brother whose main traits we have already touched on. Marcellin wants him to consecrate his person and his entire life solely to the mission of educating children. Thus he has to be free from any other occupation, aiming only at forming young people, teaching them the basic elements of learning, and even more, teaching by example how to live “as good Christians and worthy citizens.” He knows this is no easy task, seeing the need to have the children with him for a long time, to devote himself fully, to have a real humility, for, at least on the surface, the teaching profession is not a glamorous one. Beyond that, he has to accept to live frugally so that parents only a little more favoured than himself, can confide their children to him for a reasonable fee. To live like that, a Brother needs to be animated by a genuine religious life and to be supported by community living.

As to the means available to him, how – in that first half of the last century – would he put his faith in anything other than the school, and the primary school at that ? Against the temptation to set his sights higher, the Founder never gave up on insisting on the teaching of catechism and on humility – two points that he laboured to live himself, since he maintained they were the pillars of his spiritual structure throughout his entire life; “I cannot see a child, without wanting to teach him his catechism,”28 he recalled, with nostalgia.
Events led him to a higher level, if that is the word for it, since instead of doing this himself, he was forced to work to multiply resources by training teachers and at the same time, to organise the field of work for them. For all that, his work did not become easier. Quite the contrary, he poured into it all his energies. His letter to Fr. Barou, vicar-general of Lyons, gives us an insight into this: “Briefly, this is my situation….. I estimate that by the end of August, we will number more than 80 …. by All Saints we will have 16 establishments, which it is imperative that I visit every 2 – 3 months at least, to see that everything is going well, and to arrange with parish priest and mayor to collect what is due to us ….. I’ll pass over without comment the accounts that have to be kept, the correspondence to attend to, arrangements that have to be made, bills to pay or to collect, the spiritual and temporal needs of the house. Everyone agrees that it is vitally important that the young people get good training. It is therefore very important that those who give themselves to such an excellent task be themselves well trained, and that they are not left to their own resources once they have been appointed.”29

Although the diocese, heeding these quiet calls for help, did supply some aid, the work never seemed to slacken off, since the scope for action got wider and wider.

It preoccupied him so much that it overrode all personal interests; obedience to the will of God, he believed, required him to establish this venture. Everything that he poured into it – the totality of his physical and spiritual resources, his time, his weariness and sufferings – all had only God as its end.

As to his spiritual life we find the relationship between himself and Christ becoming more and more intimate – he the servant, the instrument to bring to blossom, in the hearts of children, the power of Christ’s redemption. As the sense of being led by God become more clearly defined in Marcellin’s soul, his inner attitude towards Him became simpler, more confident, more spontaneous. He saw himself as a fellow-worker, a companion of Jesus, sharing the same work, with a similar love.
And he felt just as close to Mary. The somewhat sentimental devotion, the legacy of his childhood from his mother and aunt-nun, took on, as a result of his life experiences mentioned above, the more concrete character of an active presence forever at his side. The titles, “Good Mother”, “Ordinary Resource” were commonplace to him, because they expressed the outcome of his own experiences. Yet, surprising is the familiarity that can appear, that he showed towards her: “Get Mary on your side; tell her that after you have done everything you can, then too bad for her if her initiatives don’t work out !”30
This recommendation to Br. Antoine – which shows his own way of acting.

He had no shadow of a doubt that Mary returned in generous measure the love that he had for her – so he could write to Bishop Pompallier in May, 1838: Mary shows her protection of the Hermitage very clearly. Oh, what power is in the name of Mary ! How blessed are we to be graced with it ! Our Society would long ago have dropped out of notice but for this miraculous name. Mary – there you have the entire resources of our Society.”31
He was convinced that she was the one who inspired his plans and who guaranteed help in the difficulties which seemed insurmountable at first sight. She, handmaid of the Lord, is his perfect model, for to become like her, is to serve the Lord Himself.

Through Her, in that way to be yet more devoted to the service of Jesus. Although more robust and respectful, the feelings he had towards Jesus were no less warm. His preferred exercise of the Presence of God kept him in almost continuous contact with Jesus, whether in his office, or on his journeys. So what had he to fear, or to worry what others might be thinking ? Fr. Maitrepierre was mistaken when he said of Marcellin, “Fr. Champagnat was, humanly speaking, fully equipped to fail in his undertaking,”32

since he directed all his human qualities to giving back to God what he had received by nature and by grace. Much more perceptive was the comment of a parish priest of the diocese : “God chose him and said to him, “Champagnat, do this,” and Champagnat did it.”33

This committing of his entire person to the redeeming work of Christ with a freedom of complete abandonment, in which confidence had banished all fear, led him into a union with the divinity that was almost tangible.
“When he offered the sacrifice of the Mass,” testifies Br. Sylvestre, “you would think that he saw Our Lord made visible, and that he spoke to Him thus,”34
The Brother highlights the intense faith, this sense of the presence of God, but we can see it all as the result of a love relationship, of complete collaboration throughout his entire life with the action of God, which filled him with the satisfaction of having accomplished his mission.


Such is the success of this life, of which I have outlined some features just to show how, in an outpouring of action, it kept on towards the unique goal of making known the love that God has for us and of convincing us that the only worthwhile way to reach fullness, to taste true happiness, is to respond to this love with our own love. God gifted him with abilities, just enough to grasp and to carry out the vocation that He put before him. He lacked anything that would have set him on a path ablaze with glory, he made do with the struggle through darkness. Lucky for him – for thus he was able to bring into play all the latent powers that enriched his nature, and, leaving all else to help from on high, could enter into the closest possible friendship with Him, who is the Source of Being and Becoming.

To do God’s work to the exhaustion of every capability that one has, what is this but to give oneself so completely as to identify oneself with God ? This is to realise oneself, to raise the personality to the height of completion, to accomplish “becoming” and to satisfy completely the deepest of hopes which is nothing less than the blessedness which is the destiny of every human being.

Translation: Br. Romuald Gibson. Auckland. New Zealand.


1 The Exercise of Christian and Religious Perfection, French edition in 3 volumes, vol. 1, p. 434
2 Ibid. p. 13
3 Erich Fromm, Ihr Werdet sein wie Gott (Vous serez comme Dieu), coll. rororo, Reinbeck bei Hamburg, May 1980
4 The Exercise of Christian and Religious Perfection, vol. I, p. 2
5 Louis Lavelle, Les Puissances du Moi, Flammarion, editor, 1948, p. 68
6 Op. cit. p. 20
7 Ibid. p. 13 – 14
8 Ibid. p. 93
9 Ibid. p. 93
10 Ibid. p. 12
11 Ibid. p. 95
12 L’Erreur de Narcisse
13 Louis Lavelle, L’Erreur de Narcisse, ed. B. Grasset, Paris, 1939, pp. 7 – 8 passim
14 Ibid. p. 19
15 Phil. 3, 13 – 14
16 Op. cit. p. 32
17 Rodriguez, The Exercise of Perfection, vol. 1, pp. 128 – 129
18 Sentences, Lecons et Avis du vénére Père Champagnat
19 Avis, Leçons, Sentences, ed. 1868, p. 236
20 cf. Henri Bergson, L’Intuition philosophique, a conference given at the Bologna Philosophical Congress, 10 April 1911, and included in La Pensee et Le Mouvant, Essais et Conferences, pp. 118 – 123.
21 Emmanuel Mounier, Traité du Caractère, ed. du Seuil, Paris, 1947, p. 184 passim
22 OME, doc. 164 (752), no. 56, p. 417
23 Vie de J.B.M. Champagnat, bicentenary edit. p. 79
24 Br. Sylvestre speaking of Father Champagnat, ed. Rome. 1992, p. 112
25 Vie, ed. 1989, p. 520
26 Vie, p. 407
27 Vie, ed. 1989, p. 31
28 Ibid. p. 504
29 Letters of Father Champagnat, vol. 1, doc. 7, p. 40
30 Ibid., doc. 20, p. 64
31 Ibid., doc. 194, p. 393
32 O.M.E., doc. 157 (337), p. 363
33 Ibid., doc. 162 (701), p. 396
34 F. Sylvestre raconte M. Champagnat, p. 276


Edition: Marist Notebooks 14, November 1998, pages 89-109


The Practical Christianity of Marcellin Champ...


Mary in the life of marcellin champagnat...