Mary in the life of marcellin champagnat

Paul Sester

MaryThere is no lack of studies on Marcellin Champagnats marial devotion.
One might even ask whether there is any point in adding another which will just repeat the same things. However, the same subject can be treated in many different ways, looked at from complementary points of view, and thus give us greater understanding.

Therefore, the present study, rather than treating of what is normally understood by "devotion", tries to grasp the intimate relationship the Founder of the Marist Brothers had with her whom he commonly called "the Good Mother".
Our approach will therefore be rather psychological. The undertaking is not without risk, since Marcellin Champagnat revealed practically nothing of his interior life; but by comparing documents, among themselves and in the context of the circumstances which elicited them, various indications come to light. Spending a long time with a person by way of research into various areas allows one to understand, from his mere choice of words, more than the latter say in themselves.

We must also take into account evolution, because we may be certain that the Founders relationship with Mary was not the same at the end of his life as it was at the beginning of his ministry. That evolution took place thanks to the events, especially the most painful ones, which occurred during his lifetime.
We are not dealing with a transformation, but with a deepening of the elements he received during his formation, and with the interiorisation of more or less formalized external practices, leading him to the closest of intimacy.

External devotion

These practices, on which his biographer and many others after him dwelt at length, include all the devotions which he took on himself and prescribed for his disciples. There was nothing original about them. They are reminiscent on the one hand of the popular devotion practiced in his family or his home parish, and of what the seminary regulations suggested. For example, in a Sulpician seminary, "not a single exercise begins without invoking her and almost all of them end with the Sub tuum praesidium. Every day, the rosary is recited in community, to honor Mary in her various mysteries; her feasts are celebrated with the greatest possible solemnity…. The month of May is specially consecrated to her" (J.H. Icard, Traditions du séminaire de Saint-Sulpice, p. 266). Could we think that Marcellin Champagnat was not familiar with the life of Fr. Olier, or that, conscientious seminarian that he was, he would not have tried to take the founder of the Sulpician seminaries as a model? The latter, in fact, considered "the Blessed Virgin as the inspiration, the only real superior and the support of the seminary of Saint-Sulpice" (ibid., p. 265).

These were the materials Marcellin Champagnat used to lay the permanent foundation of his marial life. We need not look elsewhere for the inspiration behind certain practices or even certain ideas he would later suggest to his Brothers in order to focus their lives on Mary. Menacing developments would inspire him to add certain prayers, like the evening Salve Regina in imitation of the monks, and the morning one which would rapidly become a tradition, even though it might give the impression that the beginning of the day was being snatched away from God.

There is no arguing with the fact that novenas, the vast majority of them addressed to Mary, held an important place in the Founders devotional life. The parishes of his day no doubt had recourse to them often, but the frequency with which he prescribed them attests to his personal fervor and to his concern for making it easy for simple people who were usually very busy to practice marial devotion. They needed simple and easily-remembered formulas rather than long and scholarly prayers, something always right at hand when ones heart is tormented by some trouble or other.

In other words, we see in these devotions the external manifestation of his deeper attitude, one in which confidence in Mary is lived out in simplicity and familiarity, like a childs towards its mother.

The Presence of Mary

There can be no doubt that Marcellin Champagnat lived such a marial devotion. One need only read through his letters to become aware of familiar he was in his dealings with Mary. The letter of 20th July 1839 (L. 259) expresses their general tone: "Besides what we can say to Jesus, what do we not have the right to say to Mary…. So tell Mary that the honor of her society requires her to keep you as chaste as an angel". Remember that the author is less than a year away from his death and that he is writing to one of his young Brothers who is beset by temptations. Of course, eight years earlier, on 4th February 1831, in trying to encourage Br. Antoine, he used an almost shocking expression: "Tell [Mary] that after you have done all you can, it is just too bad for her if her affairs dont go well" (L 20). The expressions "our good Mother" and "our common Mother", so often repeated in his letters, fall into the same category. His face-to-face dealings with Mary show not the slightest trace of embarrassment. And the doser he feels to her, the more he feels her to be present just like a living person.

This is not the presence of someone waiting for honor or praise, it is the presence of someone who acts; not of someone who comes to offer you gifts, dazzle you with sensational phenomena or miracles, but of someone who offers to work with you, but who does not dispense you from acting, from doing all you can to succeed, and from imploring her help. "Mary, our common Mother, will lend him a hand", he promised Brother Antoine, referring to Brother Moyse (L. 53). And when he was in Paris, struggling to obtain from the government legal authorization for his undertaking, he wrote, "With Marys help, we will move heaven and earth…" (to Br. François, 20th May 1838, L. 193).

However, that phrase should not lead us to think that he thought Mary was at his service. On the contrary, it was his role to serve, to be at her service, to be nothing more than her servant. "You know that I am your slave" (Life, p. 18), he protested to Mary in his 1815 resolutions. It was certainly not the spirituality of Grignon de Montfort, whose True Devotion had not yet been published, which had put him on that path, but it definitely was his formation in the major seminary, whose rector was the Sulpician Gardette. How could we think that Marcellin Champagnat did not know the life of Fr. Olier, or that as his fervent disciple he did not aim for the ideal which the founder of the Sulpician seminaries represented for him? The latter considered "the Blessed Virgin as the inspiration, the only real superior and the support of the seminary of Saint-Sulpice" (J.H. Icard, op.cit., p. 255). In fact, he claimed that the plans for the seminary, with whose construction he felt he had been entrusted, had been inspired by the Blessed Virgin. From then on, he considered that building as "Marys work", of which she should therefore be "the counsellors, the president, the treasurer, the queen and everything else" (ibid. p. 265).

So when the builder of the house of N.D. de lHermitage constantly speaks of "Marys work", do not the words seem an echo of those of the great Sulpician? The objective nuance separating a material work (ouvrage = Oliers word) from an organic work (oeuvre = Champagnats word) is here more apparent than real, for by the word ouvrage Fr. Olier means not on1y the building, but also the lifestyle whose normal routine should be facilitated by his structure. So, on the one hand as well as on the other, it is Marys concrete activity among her faithful which is being evoked.

Considering the way Fr. Champagnat insists upon that activity, he himself was certain of it. In addition to the five letters in which the word "work" appears nine times by itself (three times in L. 6, twice in LL. 11 and 44, once in LL. 45a and 45b), three others contain the more explicit expression "Marys work". Most often, the word refers to the Society of Mary as a whole. When Marcellin Champagnat says that Fr. Courveille could have brought about the ruin of a "work which the divine Mary was not upholding with all the strength of her arm" (L. 30), he is definitely speaking of the Society of Mary. Should we conclude from this that he is excluding the Brothers congregation, which might be supposed from the expression he used in writing to Fr. Cattet: "The society of Brothers cannot be explicitly considered as Marys work, but only as a branch, posterior to the society itself"? (L. 11)

In trying to be very specific that her intervention here consists of her activity on behalf of the Fathers rather than the Brothers, who have no difficulty along that line, he does not mean that Mary has not intervened on behalf of the latter, but he unfortunately uses the expression "Marys work" in place of "the Society of Mary". In his letter of thanks to Fr. Dumas, parish priest of St-Martin-la-Sauveté, for sending a postulant, his thought is unequivocal: "1 thank you at the same time for your interest in Marys work" (L. 142). Even more explicit is this sentence from his letter to Br. Hilarion: "Tell Mary that this is far more her work than ours" (L 181).

This affirmation also merits special attention: it distinguishes human activity from Marys. If we draw a parallel between them, both actions are concerned with the same work, and are in fact subordinate to one another, as the preceding sentence suggests: "Let us hope strongly and pray unceasingly; there is nothing which fervent and persevering prayer cannot obtain!" So we must conclude that in context, Marcellin Champagnat is seconding Marys plans.

This notion of being the instrument Mary uses to carry on this work is a conviction deeply rooted in his heart. It does not date from this particular moment (1838) but goes back to the very conception of the Society of Mary. This project was born of an inspiration which carne to Fr. Courveille in the basilica of Le Puy. When Marcellin Champagnats insistence on adding a branch of Brothers leads the group to tell him to take it upon himself, he takes their reply as a commission from heaven. lf his companions later have doubts about the likelihood of his succeeding, in view of his limited resources, he on the contrary, recognizing his poverty, turns to God and places himself at his service: "Here I am Lord. I come to do your will" (Life, p. 57). Mary is not absent from this relationship. Even though he never says so explicitly, Fr. Champagnat seems to give her the role of intermediary between us and God, as can be deduced from this statement to his first recruit: "Courage! God will bless you and the Blessed Virgin will bring you companions" (Life, p. 59)

This role he attributes to Mary, of being the real master-mind behind this work, was no doubt still just an image in his mind at this point. Events would soon imprint it as an unshakable certitude on his whole being and on his way of acting. First carne the arrival, after many prayers and novenas, of the eight postulants, whom he believed were brought there by Mary. "I do not dare refuse those who come to us; I consider them as having been led here by Mary herself", he will later exclaim to Bishop de Pins (L. 56). Later, there was the construction of the Hermitage without personal injury or financial roadblocks. Then, when a rash decision on his part one winters night put him in danger of dying in the snow, he said a fervent prayer and Mary saved him from death and his congregation from certain ruin. And again, on at least two occasions, the threatened suppression of his congregation by the diocesan administration faded away. Finally, there was the success of an undertaking in which temerity laughed at human prudence which was very much justified by the insufficiency of the means at hand. "What a miracle it is…he said, that God made use of such men to launch this work? You have there, 1 believe, a marvel which proves beyond doubt that this community is his work" (Life, p. 397).

We cannot dismiss these words as pious talk, no more than we can classify them as a deliberate act of humility, because we can sense how filled they are with the memory of past events, of trials arising from all sides, through which his work was able to pass without dying out, thanks to heavenly intervention. The logical conclusion to draw from this realization is his total confidence in Mary, his reflexive turning to her in every situation, his insistent recommendation that we do the same for every little thing. He goes even further, to the point of placing the whole undertaking, his own activity at every moment, and his own person, in Marys arms, resting satisfied with serving as her instrument. That is where he drew the conclusion he expressed on his death-bed: "Man is only an instrument or rather he is nothing; it is God who does everything" (Life, p. 226). But God, according to Marcellin Champagnats unfailing belief, wants to go through Mary; that is why he borrowed a phrase which he completely saturates with his personal thought, to serve as his motto: "Ali to Jesus through Mary, all to Mary for Jesus".

The Imitation of Mary

But that is not the sum-total of his relationship with Mary. Even if the work is in Marys hands, the instrument she uses can work effectively only to the extent that he adapts himself as much as possible to her. It was certainly not such a process of reasoning which made Marcellin Champagnat aware of the necessity of imitating Mary. Long before him, many spiritual writers had recommended that practice. However, it is not unthinkable that his frequent contacts with her intuitively justified and strengthened his own convictions.

When we put together the various statements of the Founder, we can, without forcing the texts, but simply trying to sense their inner resonance, grasp something of his personality. When I do so, I discover a man who has become more and more aware of his limitations, and who finds himself involved in an adventure well beyond his natural capacities, but feels sure he will succeed because of circumstances outside himself. Given the sincerity of his conscience, he must give the glory for this, not to himself, but to her whose help he has always requested and whose inspirations he has followed as faithfully as possible. What else is left for him to do, but to hand over to her his entire self through his more and more selfless service? By doing so, he the servant finds himself in the same position as she, the handmaid of the Lord. His very reason for existing, like that of the Virgin of the Annunciation, is nothing else but to be the implement God wishes to use to complete what is still lacking in the work of redemption (d. Col 1, 24).

From then on, he sees Mary in a totally different light, as a model and as a light marking his path. Hence the theme of imitating Mary often arises, as we know, in his exhortations. This is another aspect of his marial devotion, an aspect particularly esteemed as a condition for the effectiveness of the type of apostolate proper to his congregation.

This fashion of presenting the imitation of Mary, and for that matter all of Marcellin Champagnats marial devotion, is not fully in agreement with that of his biographer, Br. Jean-Baptiste. According to him, the founder saw imitation of Mary as complementary "to all these practices in honor of Mary", as something which we must join to all the practices established in the Institute to honor the Mother of God (Life, p. 338).

The disagreement arises first of all in the definition of the word "devotion". If we want to believe St. Francis de Sales, "devotion adds nothing, so to speak, to the fire of charity, except the flame which makes charity prompt, active and diligent" (Introduction to the Devout Life, end of ch. 1). It is therefore a matter of eagerness expressing itself through devotional practices: homage and prayers. It is definitely in this sense that Br. Jean-Baptiste understands it. Here, on the contrary, the word must be understood in a wider sense, designating the place Mary occupied in Fr. Champagnats life.
Moreover, to avoid being reproached for sentimentalism, it is preferable to look at devotion positively: as a means which we can use to strengthen the relationship which should unite us to God, who is the only goal, after all, of any spirituality. Then devotion takes on more the sense of devotedness, expressing the fact that one has vowed oneself to something or someone. in order to leave oneself behind and rejoin God, who alone makes every being which comes from him grow. To sing Marys praises, to affirm our platonic love for her, while passively awaiting her help, is no doubt an excellent thing, but it is still better to live intimate1y with her in order to arrive more easily at doing so with her son.

Thirdly, if Br. Jean-Baptiste describes devotion from the outside, so to speak, this study is trying to grasp it rather from the inside, with the help of psychology. Now, in that domain, every compartmentalization is only theoretical. Hence, separating imitation from devotion does not correspond to reality. And therefore, seen from that angle, the disagreement concerns only the way we look at things.

In this same paragraph, his biographer points out that which, according to the Founder, the Brothers should imitate. First of all, he mentions Marys virtues globally, then becomes specific: "the Brothers love for Mary should lead them especially all to acquire her spirit and to copy her humility, her modesty, her purity and her love for Jesus Christ" (Life, p. 338). Without quibbling over the fact that "spirit" is not a virtue, nor over the way he ranks them, it is more logical to begin with love of Jesus, then stress her humility, and finish with her spirit.

Imitation of the love of the mother and educator of Jesus is indispensable for the Brothers for two reasons: because this love is the source of all spiritual life, and because it is a necessary means for effectively fulfilling their apostolic task. "To love God," Fr. Champagnat used to say, "to love him and to labor to make him known and loved – this is what a Brothers life should be" (Life p.490). In another place we read, "To educate children well, one must love them…" (ibid., p. 538). These two quotations could be followed by the statement his biographer places after the first: "In these few words, and quite unwittingly, he has painted his own portrait and recounted his own story."

And he does indeed show that same love for his Brothers. He loves them with a love like that which Mary first showed them by inspiring them to commit themselves within her Society. There can be no doubt he agrees with the Mother of Jesus, whose example of "bringing up and serving the holy Child Jesus" he tells the Brothers to follow (Common Rules, 1852, Part I, ch. 6, art. 9). Over and above her motherly love, here he is thinking even more of the love which she vowed to the Redeemer. In this way, he loved in his Brothers the workers whom "the Blessed Virgin has planted…in her garden" (L. 10) to prepare them for their mission. For that reason, this love of his, like that of Mary for her son, was full of respect for each ones personality, as is shown by the confidence he had in each of them.

This is how he engendered in the Hermitage community that spirit, considered to be marial, of openness, simplicity, sincerity in relationships, and easy familiarity, convinced as he was that the Holy Family had lived just that way. When he reproved his novices because they were too noisy during recreation, he reminded them that the Blessed Virgin "was always modest and recollected, even during the times of relaxation that nature required" (Life, p. 69).

But the virtue dearest to his heart, the one through which he hoped to be most like Mary, is indisputably humility. The importance of this point calls for a closer examination of the way in which our Founder, it seems to me, understood and practiced it.

In the example of the handmaid of the Lord, he certainly found none of that stiff and pitiful attitude which inspired some of the spiritual writers who were in vogue in his day. The humility practiced in Bethlehem and Nazaret had to include above all openness, truth and simplicity. Mary, fully conscious of the role which it was her mission to accomplish, a role which she had not chosen but accepted for love of the Lord, took the place which was hers, without considering whether it made her higher or lower. God puts down the proud and lifts up the lowly (cf. the Magnificat). God asks of her a special contribution to the work of the redemption, in ways which circumstances would reveal to her. She will adapt herself to them with her entire being, being attentive to the slightest sign: "Mary…remembered all these things and thought deeply about them" (Lk 2,19). Always submissive, she yielded to the adolescent who "had to be in [his] Fathers house" (Lk 2,49), before the grown Son who would act only when "his hour" had come (Jn 2,4), in the cenacle to the apostles designated by the Savior. But she is not inactive, and she takes part in the dram which ratifies the worlds salvation, and is present in the "upper room" where the apostles wait to receive the Holy Spirit (d. Ac 1,13-14; 2,1-4).

In his Life of Marcellin Champagnat, Br. Jean-Baptiste writes, "Since the Blessed Virgin, who excelled in all the virtues, was particularly remarkable for her humility…he wanted humility, simplicity and modesty to be the distinctive characteristics of his new Institute" (p. 398). Then the author goes him on better with a listing which has more of literature than reality about it: "The first lesson" he gave to the postulants "was a lesson in humility"; "the fin book he placed in their hands was the Livre d’or, a treatise on humility "pride was the first vice whose destruction he pursued…".

However, that should not lead us to believe that the Founder did not place love of God as a presupposition before that virtue. In a prayer accompanying his resolutions, we read, "Overthrow the throne of pride within mi not only because other people cannot stand it, but because it is displeasing to your holiness" (OME, doc. 6(17), p. 38). So we can conclude that for him humility begins with our welcoming God, which spontaneously makes us assume the rank of a creature face-to-face with the Creator, with all that that implies. And we kmow how he despised any sort of pretention, or ridiculous and silly boasting. We must accept ourselves as we are, he seems to say, when he acknowledges, in the same prayer. "Lord. I confess that I do not know myself".- He never showed any pretention lurking behind his praise; his dignity never wavered when he was humiliated.

That certainly did not come about without an inner struggle, if we are to believe his resolutions, which in spite of everything, never succeeded in suppressing his human nature. None the less, timid as his personality was, he did not find it difficult to stay in the background, while not surrendering for all that the responsibilities of his position, which enabled him to stand up to both the bishop and the prefect. Knowing that he was called to care for simple people and for the poor, he knew how to stay on their level, respecting them as individuals and teaching them to recognize their true value regardless of their social standing.

This behavior of Marcellin Champagnats may seem natural; in fact, it was only his affection for the humble handmaid of the Lord which enabled him to act that way and to direct all his ambition towards spiritual growth, by slaking his thirst at the fountain of all being, rather than direct it towards any advancement in the realm of worldly possessions. Besides, in the latter realm he was shielded by the poverty from which he did not wish to depart; by the modesty of his social, familial and personal standing, which he accepted without bitterness or regret; and finally by the confidence which allowed him to fear nothing and succeed in everything (cf. Life, Part II, ch. 3).

Marys Spirit

The perfection of humility, at least if we measure it by Marys example, is to be found less, perhaps, in great and spectacular self-abasement than in the extremely gentle, serene, discreet, well-balanced and natural way in which she practiced it. When good judgement governs the interaction between love and humility, then we may truly speak of spirit, and indeed of Marys spirit.

Spirit, the dictionary tells us, is "the ensemble of ones dispositions, ones habitual way of acting" (Petit Robert, p. 619, col. 2). Applied to Mary, this definition might suggest as characteristics: an abandonment which is total, but tranquil and confident, based on a certitude which itself is sustained by an unfailing love on the part of God who so much desires the development of each person; a reciprocal attachment, urging her to render service until all her possibilities have been exhausted, while retaining nothing for herself; a serenity which is the fruit of an inalterable happiness in which the most cruel pains vanish; a respect full of gratitude for every creature which has come from the prodigal hands of the Creator; a joyful submission to the will of the Lord who governs all things with love.

As an archetype of the human race, Mary presents herself as a person whose activity, heart and total existence belong to God, leaving to him the care of her own interests as well as her fulfillment. Her only concern is the genuine good of her peers, in each ones uniqueness, because there resides the glory of God. She is therefore the absolute enemy of evil in its most essential sense of the destruction of being.

Whether or not he pictured the Virgin with these traits, or from that angle, we can say that Marcellin Champagnat intuitively understood her in this way by striving to imitate her. Even though they follow a different path, the salient points which his biographer draws from his life are precisely those of total abandonment to God, of concern for opening to every human being the road to salvation, of persuading everyone to follow that road, and then humbly stepping aside so as not to interfere with each ones freedom to decide.

Marcellin Champagnat himself gives witness in his letters of his total dedication to his work and of his disinterested love for his Brothers. "There is no sacrifice which 1 am not ready to make for this work" (L. 44). In his most desperate hours, his reaction is not to abandon his Brothers, but to "share all their misfortunes and share the last piece of bread" (L. 30). His goal, like Marys, is heavenly beatitude: "I beg our common Mother to obtain for us a holy death, so that having loved one another on earth, we will love one another forever in heaven" (L. 79). Is there any better way "to make such an effort to be like her that all in [ones] actions and ones entire person are a reminder of Mary, and reelect her spirit and her virtues?" (Life 338).

Nothing other than that spirit was able to create, in the Hermitage, that family atmosphere, characterized by openness and simplicity, sincere and manly mutual affection, confidence and calm assurance, simple joy and prudent ambition. So we can read between the enthusiastic lines, which are a veritable hymn of praise to Mary, in his letter of 27th May 1838 to Bishop Pompallier: "Mary shows very clearly how well she protects the Hermitage. Oh, what power the name of Mary has! How lucky we are to bear it! Without that holy name, without that miraculous name, people would long ago have stopped talking about our society. Mary: there you have the sum-total of the resources of our society" (L. 194). Who does not realize that by the word "name", the writer means the person, and that the expression "to bear it" means to have placed ourselves under her direction? Over and above his joy, these rhetorical flourishes express his gratitude and his love, and show us to what extent the Mother of God filled his whole existence and how ardently he desired that she always continue to hold the same position among those who will carry on her work.

Br. Paul Sester
Marist notebooks 8 January 1996 p. 29 – 38

Edition: Marist notebooks 8January 1996 p. 29 - 38


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