The Practical Christianity of Marcellin Champagnat

Seán D. Sammon

Within weeks of Cardinal Joseph Bernardins death from cancer, his physician had this to say about the man: "I found early on that I was strongly drawn to him." The doctor faced a dilemma, though, as she struggled to put her finger on just what it was that drew her so quickly to Chicago’s (USA) late Archbishop. Was it his kind and gentle nature, sharp mind, or quick wit that she found so attractive? Eventually, she realized that some entirely different qualities caused Bernardin to stand out from so many of her other patients; they were his honesty, courage, and great faith. "After all," she said, "he asked only that I be honest with him."

The doctor’s last encounter with the Cardinal says it all: "When I saw him on the Friday before his death, I told him that he would die before Christmas. He said simply, I am ready. I promised him also that I would tell him when he was very close to death, and when I saw him three days later, there had been rapid deterioration. So, I said to him, You are very close – you will die this week. Are you OK with this? To which he replied, If it must be, I am ready. Inner peace such as that displayed by Joseph Bernardin does not just happen; it has to be nurtured over a lifetime."

The late Cardinal and Marcellin Champagnat have a great deal in common: the inner peace that so marked Bernardin’s final years was also evident in the life of the founder of the Little Brothers of Mary, a group known worldwide today as Marists. Adversity and illness helped shape the late Cardinal’s spirituality? Several other elements came together to form the practical Christianity that so characterized the spirituality of Father Champagnat.

Marcellin loved young people. They, in turn, found his enthusiasm and energy contagious. What factors fueled his passion for life and shaped his spirituality? An awareness of God’s presence, an unwavering confidence in Mary and her protection, and the two uncomplicated virtues of simplicity and humility.

Marcellin’s Spiritual Testament, not written in his own hand but expressing the sentiments of his heart, develops in more detail the spirituality of his “Little Brothers.” Practice the presence of God, he told them, it is the soul of prayer, meditation, and all the virtues. Let humility and simplicity be the characteristics that distinguish you from others, and maintain always a spirit of poverty and detachment. Have a filial and tender devotion to Mary, he counseled, make her loved in every place. Love and be faithful to your vocation, and persevere in it courageously.

The origins of Marcellin’s spirituality, then, are not to be found in some monastery; rather, his is a spirituality with its roots in the marketplace. There was nothing petty about the founder of the Marist brothers: he took the gospel seriously. It is not surprising, therefore, that obedience and love were the two attributes he recommended to his early followers. They are, after all, the foundation of community. Obedience is its mainstay; love binds together all virtues and makes them perfect. Of this second, there was to be no limit. Marcellin loved his brothers; he expected no less from them, each one for the other.

As a founder he was young, aged twenty-seven years, when he invited his first two recruits to join him. He gave his Little Brothers a clear mission. Proclaim the Word of God directly to the young, he said, make Jesus known and loved among them, especially those most neglected. He knew that to teach young people you had to love them first, and guided his life and work by that principle. Marcellin expected his brothers, and all who embraced his practical Christianity, to do the same.

Throughout his life as a priest, the founder was fond of saying, “to rear children properly, we must love them, and love them all equally.” The virtue of love, therefore, was to be not only the foundation of community but also of a distinctive Marist method of evangelization and education. It had been Mary’s way with Jesus; it was now to be the way of all who followed the dream that so captured the heart of this country priest and his early brothers.

In May of 1789, Marcellin Champagnat was born into a world that was beginning to convulse with the tremors of change. The one he left fifty-one years later had seen war and peace, prosperity and hardship, the death of one Church and the birth of another. A man of his times, he carried within himself all the greatness and limitations of the people of his age. Suffering tempered him, setbacks strengthened him, determination drove him, and grace helped him move beyond his circumstances.

Marcellin Champagnat was a priest of the Society of Mary, and superior and founder of its Little Brothers. He was also an apostle to youth and an example of a very “practical Christianity.” A man and Saint for his season and time, he is both for ours also.


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