Marcellin Champagnats approach to education

Seán D. Sammon



The unique form of Marist education is rooted in the spirituality and teaching methods of Marcellin Champagnat, founder of the Congregation of the Marist Brothers. In order to sketch its fundamental characteristics, we should analyze what was accomplished more than what was put into words. Marcellin Champagnat and Charles de Foucauld exhibited two distinct methodologies when they set out on their foundational projects. Champagnat, propelled by the Spirit and by necessity, inspired and prepared a group of young men with the goal of a Christian educational ministry in the context of lay religious life. When his life took an unexpected turn and new members arrived to ask admittance to the Congregation, Marcellin felt a need to provide them with a set of Constitutions. Deeds took precedence over words. Foucauld, on the other hand, went to meet his Maker, having drawn up a verbally perfect Constitutions, but without providing for a successor who could have brought the project to fruition. Outstanding individuals have emerged throughout history, and are remembered to the present day, despite never having put anything down in writing. Not counting Jesus Christ, whose writings would have been preserved for only a short time, having been done in sand, the only good example is Socrates. Marcellins letters, with his sermons and a few other items form his written legacy–scant data, considering that the greater part of its content addresses practical matters. The biography written by Brother Jean-Baptiste followed the literary canons of the time as regards lives of the saints. This would lead later on to more critical analyses that attempted to arrive at a genuinely human portrait of Marcellin Champagnat.

2.- Getting closer to Marcellin: his story and his style

I would like to focus on seven areas that might allow us to better understand Marcellins foundational project and his approach to education.

2.1 He was born in 1789, the year of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution began in 1789, the same year that Marcellin Champagnat was born. The historical context within which he lived cannot be ignored. The ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were being preached everywhere. Marcellins father had political responsibilities as a member of the Jacobin party. The official biography is silent on this point. His fathers membership in an aggressively left-wing party would perhaps detract from the idealism put forth in the biography of his son.

* Marcellin founded a lay institute unique at the time (composed of Brothers only), though there did then exist a congregation that was composed of two classes of Brothers. The Marist brotherhood is based on the equality of its members and, among Marists, this equality has been an unchallenged rule from the beginning.
* He had great freedom of action within the political world. Having been educated amid a dialogue with contemporary trends, made very real in the person of his father, he saw no need to defend himself. Other clergy of the time, fearing the unknown, took a very conservative political stance without any trace of personal freedom or independence.
* Marcellin considered it useful to maintain a good working relationship with both the civil and the religious sectors. Whenever a new establishment was begun, he would always secure the permission of both the mayor and the parish priest.
* His project of founding the congregation was never swayed by politics: "Completely dedicated to their specialty, they kept themselves outside the political upheavals before and after 1830, aligning themselves with no political party. The Little Brothers of Mary formed a new and excellent way to provide a complete primary education in morality and religion, neither more nor less" (Jean-Jacques Baude, deputy from Loire, member of the Council of State, November 5, 1838).

2.2 His Early Religious Formation

Two people deeply influenced Marcellins early religious education: his mother and his aunt, who was a nun. His mother, Marie Thérèse, nine years older than his father, was a woman of strong personality and religious spirit, both of which she passed on to Marcellin: "At the root of his personality his writings show a high level of vital energy, inherited from his mother, which is even more evident in his ability to deal with youth, children as well as adolescents" (Psychological Profile IGM Urbino). His fathers sister Louise, a Sister of St. Joseph, was given shelter in their home during the Revolution and had a deep influence on Marcellins religious development.

* Because of these strong influences, a deeply traditional spirituality began to take form in Marcellin.
* His large and very close-knit family led to his developing one of the most attractive personality traits that has come down to us today: his family spirit: an identifying Marist characteristic.
* His mothers strong maternal presence led to his view of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the Good Mother, always near, and full of love and caring.

2.3 Personal Academic Experiences

The academic situation of his time was dreadful. It is not surprising that two experiences he had, one in public school and the other in catechism class, were very negative. A teacher had struck a friend of Marcellin for wanting to read before he was called on: "I will never go back to a school with a teacher like him. When he abused that boy without cause, I could see what was in store for me. For no reason he could treat me the same way. I dont want to have him as my teacher, much less suffer his abuse" (Life, 1, 6). He did not return to that school. In catechism class, the teacher reprimanded a boy, giving him a nickname and making a less than kind comparison. Already the butt of jokes to his classmates, this event turned him into a surly, anti-social and hardhearted boy. It was to be foreseen, as well, that Marcellin would have difficulty on account of a language problem, since he spoke a dialect of Occitano: Provençal French. His studies met with another obstacle: he undertook them at a point in his development where thinking things out was a greater priority for him than rote learning.

* A project that would have qualified teachers: "Having been born in the canton of St.-Génest-Malifaux, department of the Loire, it was only with great difficulty that I learned to read and write, due to the lack of capable teachers. Since those days, I have come to appreciate the urgent need to form a group of men that can give country children the same solid education provided by the Brothers of the Christian Schools to the children in the cities, but at a lower cost" (Letter to King Louis Philippe of France. The Hermitage, January 28, 1834).
* An approach to teaching based on respect and love; one that eschews physical punishment and verbal abuse.
* A teaching style characterized by simplicity and availability, with a supporting personal presence that elicits the best, without becoming overly attached.
* A preference for the least favored, because they need love more than other children do.

2.4 Inculturation and Universality

Because of his family background. Marcellin easily identified with farmers and animal breeders. Being close to the land enables one to be more "down to earth". His business sense developed in this environment. He began working at an early age, and so was better able to appreciate its value. Yet his deep dedication to local needs did not prevent him from having an authentic sense of being sent, of being a missionary.

* Marcellin was a "worker priest". His project of building of the Hermitage led to criticism for his directing, and actually doing, manual labor. He did not flinch. His financial situation and his wanting to "teach by example", which sums up the values that he embodied, impelled him forward.
* Hard work was a distinguishing mark of his undertaking. It was a value that would be lived out in his religious congregation and one that would be passed on in its education of children and youth. Manual labor as well. In the beginning, the schools founded by the Marists always had a small vegetable garden.
* This simple undertaking was not limited by the narrow demands of the here and now. It opened up to the world. It was astonishing in its daring, even more so when one considers its humble and hidden origins: "All the dioceses of the world are a part of our project." History proved him right. The Marist presence today in seventy-four countries confirms it.

2.5 The Turning Point: Jean Baptiste Montagne, 17 years of age

On October 28, 1816, Marcellin visited a youth of 17 years, who was on his deathbed in the village of Palais. The boys ignorance of religion, which was only one aspect of his lack of education, served as the impetus Marcellin needed to press forward with his project. He couldnt hold back. The needs and the hopes of children and youth inflamed his zeal to such an extent that he just couldnt stand idly by. He had to do something. Now.

* He founded the congregation when he was 27 years old: "Ordained a priest in 1816, I was sent as parochial vicar to a country parish. What I saw there made me realize ever more strongly the need for the project that I had been considering for quite some time. I therefore set out to train teachers. I gave them the name of Little Brothers of Mary since I was convinced that the name would attract a great number of postulants. What happened in the ensuing years confirmed my intuition and has even exceeded my hopes" (Letter to King Louis Philippe of France, The Hermitage, January 28, 1834).
* He felt the need to combine the cultural and faith components of education: "If you only attempt to teach the children secular knowledge, there would be no need for the Brothers…lay teachers would do just as well. If we only try to impart religious education, we limit ourselves to being religion teachers, meeting an hour a day for recitation of the catechism. But our goal is greater: we want to educate them, that is, to bring them to a knowledge of their duties so as to carry them out, to fill them with enthusiasm, a religious sense, and to bring them to acquire the virtues of a Christian gentleman. We cannot accomplish this without being teachers, without living with the children, without having them spend the majority of their time with us" (Life, XXIII, 374).
* He was sensitive to the world in which he lived: "This experience (of the love of Jesus and Mary), coupled with his great openness to events and to other persons in his life, became the fountainhead of his spirituality and apostolic zeal. It made him sensitive to the needs of his time, especially the religious ignorance and many forms of poverty in which so many young people were living. His faith and desire to do Gods will clarified his mission: to make Jesus known and loved. He often said, Every time I see young people I long to catechize them, to make them realize how much Jesus Christ loves them " (Constitutions, 2).

2.6 A Project Ahead of Its Time

The needs to be met were so demanding that he took on a project that involved the risks of exploring new territory. When Brother Louis, suffering from scrupulosity, mentioned his wish to stop doing anything out of a fear of committing sin, Marcellin asked him if he would not willingly run the risk of getting burned a bit in an attempt to save a child from a burning building. He continued taking risks when he sent out groups of Brothers in twos: "The honorable Minister objects to the fact that the Little Brothers of Mary, on setting out in twos, do not offer the same guarantees as regards established customs as do the Brothers of the Christian Schools, who never set out in groups of fewer than three. I am aware, Your Excellency, that this is a matter of discipline to which we must pay special attention. To this end, from among the many establishments we are invited to direct, we always choose those that offer the best guarantees in this respect. But faced with many small rural towns inability to subsidize any more than two Brothers, must we vacillate
between leaving them without a source of education and providing it to them with the presence of two Brothers, despite this offering fewer guarantees than three? Would it be to societys and to religions best interest to stand still before such a consideration?" (Letter to Bishop de Pins, February 3, 1838).

* It is necessary to take risks. Prudence and discretion are not compromised by taking up new challenges. Marcellin demonstrated common sense and courage. His personal consistency could have been greater, but the calls of the church and the world were deeply felt by him.
* The Brothers mission: "To love God and to spend oneself in making him known and loved–this must be the life of a Brother" (Life, XX, 312). He would often say: "Whenever I see a child I have this deep desire to teach him about God, to bring him to know how much Jesus loves him and how he must, in return, love his divine Savior" (Life, XX, 314).
* The present Constitutions sum up this sense of risk and of daring: "We seek out young people wherever they may be, even at the risk of entering unexplored territory where their need for Christ is evident in their material and spiritual poverty. In our encounters with them, we show a caring attitude that is humble, simple and selfless" (Constitutions, 83).

2.7 Historic Daring

Attaining legal recognition of the congregation did not come easily. The bureaucratic maneuverings, as much with the church authorities as with the civil, were many. To this end he made a number of trips to Paris, which were fruitless. On one occasion, when everything seemed to be in order and ready to sign, a sudden change of ministers made it necessary for him to start all over again. Neither did he want to see the congregation gain recognition at the cost of "selling out". This would happen if he agreed to limit its presence to towns having a population of 1200 or less. He refused. He also showed good judgment in the matter of military service. He enrolled his Brothers in another congregation which already had the right to deferment, but which had practically no vocations.

* Marcellin always saw history in the light of faith, but his trust in Providence did not lead him to give less than his complete dedication. However, he always was of the opinion that the end result was in the hands of God.
* When times were difficult and many religious congregations resorted to private profession of vows, Marcellin did not follow their example and go into hiding. He kept up his normal routine and continued to authorize the public religious profession of his Brothers.
* Quite often education is faced with legal requirements. Marcellin was concerned. The legal authorization of his congregation is the best example. It would come when it was needed. That was his conviction. Again, daily life took precedence over the concern for legal approval.
* Marcellin did not sacrifice educational freedom in order to gain access to legal benefits. Losing the possibility of going to large towns of more than 1200 population would lead to a reduction in potential apostolic fields and could make unavailable an important source of candidates. This, in turn, would reduce the opportunity to provide a presence in poorer locales. He preferred to wait instead of sacrificing his freedom of action.


Marcellins approach to education was rooted in his spirituality. His love for Jesus and Mary was the source of his teaching methods. He distanced himself, for example, from the contemporary approval of corporal punishment, very common at the time. Pedagogical theorizing….he did not do much of this. His contribution was a view of life and of people based on his religious convictions, a profound common sense and a way of coming up with practical solutions to the various situations that he faced. The letter Marcellin wrote Brother Bartholomew on January 21, 1830 is a valuable document in that it provides us an insight into his approach and his personality:

My dear Brother and close associate, Bartholomew:
I was very happy to have news from you. I rejoice with you over your
good health. I know you have many students: that means that there will be
many imitators of your virtues, because when they see you
they will follow your example, and cannot help but be good.
How very important is the work you do! How sublime! You are always among
those with whom Jesus took delight, since he expressly forbade his
disciples to keep the children away from him.
And you, my dear friend, not only do not keep them away, but
you do everything in your power to lead them to Him. Oh how well-received
you will be by the divine Teacher!…that generous teacher who
will not fail to pay back even a glass of cold water!
Tell your children that Jesus and Mary love them each very much: the good ones
because they are like Jesus, who is infinitely good;
those who are not yet as good (…) because they will be some day; that the
most holy Virgin loves them as well because she is the mother of all the children
in our schools. Tell them too that I love them very much;
that I never go to the altar without thinking about you and your
beloved students; that I would like to have the joy of teaching, of dedicating
myself in a more direct way to educating these innocent children.
Things are going quite well in all the establishments.
Pray for me and for all our houses.
I have the honor of being your affectionate Father in Jesus and Mary.

Superior of the Marist Brothers
Our Lady of the Hermitage, January 21, 1830.

Edition: Academic views investigations and documents, number 15. Br. Lluís SerraNEWS FILE No 2- Doc. 21CANONIZATION OF MARCELLIN CHAMPAGNATPublication Services - Marist Institute - Rome, 1999


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