Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort
Missionary - Founder
(1673 Brittany – 1716 Vendee)
At the beginning of the twenty-fifth year of his pontificate, on October 16, 2002, Pope John Paul II proclaimed a «Year of the Rosary» and signed the Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariæ (RV). «The Rosary of the Virgin Mary... is a prayer loved by countless saints and encouraged by the Magisterium. Simple yet profound, it still remains, at the dawn of this third millennium, a prayer of great significance, destined to bring forth a harvest of holiness... It would be impossible to name all the many saints who discovered in the Rosary a genuine path to growth in holiness. We need but mention Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, the author of an excellent work on the Rosary» (John Paul II, RV, nos. 1, 8).
Louis Grignion was born in Montfort-la-Cane, in Brittany, on January 31, 1673. He was baptized the day after he was born. The day of his confirmation, he added the name «Marie» to his first name. Sent to nurse with a farmer's wife in the surrounding area, the child retained from this experience a love of nature and solitude. His father, a lawyer, had a lively and sometimes violent disposition. Louis-Marie was an energetic boy who studied with great fervor and showed a high level of intelligence. From his earliest years, he turned, as if by instinct, to the Most Blessed Virgin. He called her his «Good Mother,» asked her with childlike simplicity for everything he needed, and led his brothers and sisters to honor her. When Louise-Guyonne, his little sister whom he especially cherished, hesitated to leave her games to come recite the Rosary with him, he told her in a convincing tone: «My dear little sister, you will be very beautiful and everyone will love you if you really love God.»
The art of configuring ourselves to Christ
Louis-Marie led his family members to Mary in order to better lead them to Jesus. «It is not just a question of learning what He taught but of 'learning Him,'» says the Pope. «In this regard could we have any better teacher than Mary?... Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort explained in the following words Mary's role in the process of our configuration to Christ: 'Our entire perfection consists in being conformed, united and consecrated to Jesus Christ. Hence the most perfect of all devotions is undoubtedly that which conforms, unites and consecrates us most perfectly to Jesus Christ. Now, since Mary is of all creatures the one most conformed to Jesus Christ, it follows that among all devotions that which most consecrates and conforms a soul to our Lord is devotion to Mary, His Holy Mother, and that the more a soul is consecrated to her the more will it be consecrated to Jesus Christ.' Never as in the Rosary do the life of Jesus and that of Mary appear so deeply joined. Mary lives only in Christ and for Christ!... One thing is clear: although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed, with her and through her» (RV, 14, 15, 26).
At the age of twelve, Louis-Marie entered the Jesuit school in Rennes. The young man soon took his seat at the head of the class. He showed a special liking and talent for painting. Guided by a devout priest, he went, with other students, to visit the sick, bringing them the best his heart could offer. He would read them a passage from the Gospel and comment on it, then talk with them about the Blessed Virgin. At the school in Rennes, he made two good friends, Jean-Baptiste Blain, who would later write his life, and Claude Poullard des Places, future founder of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit Fathers.
Louis-Marie wished to become a priest. At times he endured violent scenes from his father who had other plans for him, but Louis-Marie's gentleness won out in the end, and at the age of twenty he left on foot for the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. On the way there he gave everything he owned to the poor, then made a vow to never possess anything. In Paris he was first received in a seminary established for poor seminarians. He excelled in his studies. During recreation he joined in the conversation, to the delight of all, making a point to cheer his confreres with lively and amusing conversation. With his superior's consent, he devoted himself to all kinds of penances, but his health could not withstand them, and a serious illness laid him low. When he had regained his health, he completed his studies at the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice and formed a small society whose members had a special devotion to Our Lady. During a pilgrimage to Chartres, Louis-Marie spent a whole day in prayer before the statue of Notre-Dame-sous-Terre.
In the school of the Blessed Virgin, and particularly by reciting the Rosary, our saint learned to pray and contemplate. «The Rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation,» writes Pope John Paul II... «The Rosary, precisely because it starts with Mary's own experience, is an exquisitely contemplative prayer. Without this contemplative dimension, it would lose its meaning, as Pope Paul VI clearly pointed out: 'Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas... By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord's life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord' » (RV, 5, 12).
A light for the world
Through contemplation of the mysteries of the Rosary, Louis-Marie gained a natural familiarity with Jesus and Mary. «Just as two friends, frequently in each other's company, tend to develop similar habits, so too, by holding familiar converse with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, by meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary and by living the same life in Holy Communion, we can become, to the extent of our lowliness, similar to them and can learn from these supreme models a life of humility, poverty, hiddenness, patience and perfection» (Blessed Bartolo Longo, RV, 15). In order that the Rosary might further a more complete knowledge of the life of Christ, the Holy Father suggests inserting, in addition to the fifteen usual mysteries, a series of mysteries about Jesus' public life, called the «Mysteries of Light» because Christ is the light of the world (Jn. 9:5). These are: the Baptism in the Jordan, the wedding at Cana, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God with the call to conversion, the Transfiguration, and the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
Ordained a priest at the age of 27, on June 5, 1700, Louis-Marie celebrated his first Mass in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, at the altar of the Blessed Virgin. Then he left with a priest from Nantes who had gathered a few confreres to preach missions from village to village. After having worked with them for a while, he placed himself at the disposal of the Bishop of Poitiers. First received at the city hospital to serve the poor there, he amazed the needy with his profound piety. Seeing his charity towards them, they asked the bishop to name their new benefactor the hospital chaplain.
Louis-Marie wrote, «The hospital I am assigned to is a house of confusion in which peace never reigns, and a house of poverty in which goods, both spiritual and temporal, are lacking.» In a few short months of dedication, in the face of every adversity, and despite the lively opposition of influential individuals as well as of some poor in the hospital who did not want any reforms, Louis-Marie established order in the house once again. His activity extended to the material needs of his charges, for whom he organized collections in the city, as well as to their spiritual good: «Since I have been here,» he wrote, «I have been on a continuous mission—hearing confessions almost every day from morning to evening and giving advice to an infinite number of people... The Good Lord, my Father, Whom I serve albeit sometimes unfaithfully, has given me insights that I did not have, a great ease in expressing myself and speaking immediately without preparation, perfect health, and a great openness of heart towards all.»
He brought together several sick women of good will, gave them a rule of life that emphasized humility and penance, and entrusted them to the Son of God, the Eternal Wisdom. Soon thereafter a young woman from a middle-class family, Marie-Louise Trichet, came to him for confession. She wished to become a nun, and Louis-Marie brought her into the group of poor women he had just gathered. On February 2, 1703, he gave her a religious habit that made her the laughing stock of all. But she wore it with courage for ten years, before becoming the first Superior of the Daughters of Wisdom, a congregation that is dedicated to caring for the sick, the poor, and children, and which today numbers close to 2,400 sisters in more than 300 houses.
A letter from four hundred of the poor
Shortly before Easter 1703, Louis-Marie left for Paris. For several months, he tended to the sick in La Salpêtrière hospital. Then, dismissed by the hospital administration, he remained in the capital, taking advantage of his solitude to intensify his union with God. He poured out his heart in the ardent pages that would be titled The Love of Eternal Wisdom. In 1704, an astonishing letter arrived from Poitiers for the Superior of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and which began, «We, four hundred of the poor, very humbly beg you, through the greater love and glory of God, to have come to us our venerable pastor, who so dearly loves the poor, Father Grignion...» Two letters from the Bishop of Poitiers, addressed to Louis-Marie, also summoned him and persuaded him to return to this city, where he resumed his duties as hospital chaplain.
However, his zeal and the order that he restored did not please everyone—one year after his return, he left the hospital again and offered himself to the bishop to evangelize Poitiers and the surrounding area. Making himself all things to all people, he wandered the alleyways of the suburb of Montbernage, entered the homes there, inquired after the health of the inhabitants, and blessed the children. His gentleness, his poverty, and his humility opened many hearts to him, allowing him to begin a mission. He converted a barn into a chapel, in the middle of which was placed a large crucifix. Fifteen banners representing the mysteries of the Rosary decorated the walls. Processions, hymns he had composed himself, and public recitation of the Rosary gradually transformed hearts. Having finished the mission, Louis-Marie completed his work by planting a cross. Then, in the barn that had become Our Lady of Hearts Chapel, he placed a statue of the Most Blessed Virgin and asked for someone to commit to coming to recite the Rosary before it every Sunday and feast day. Immediately, a worker in the neighborhood volunteered to do it. He kept his promise for forty years.
Such fidelity implies a great love for the Most Blessed Virgin, which is expressed in the repetition of the «Hail Marys» of the Rosary. «If this repetition is considered superficially, there could be a temptation to see the Rosary as a dry and boring exercise. It is quite another thing, however, when the Rosary is thought of as an outpouring of that love which tirelessly returns to the person loved with expressions similar in their content but ever fresh in terms of the feeling pervading them» (RV, 26).
A broad enough field
One day while he was hearing confessions in a church, Louis-Marie saw a young man praying for a long time. Moved by inspiration, he invited him to help him in his apostolic work. Under the name of Brother Mathurin, this young man dedicated his life to teaching children their catechism and teaching the hymns composed by Father de Montfort to the crowds during the missions. Maligned by those who did not support his apostolate, Louis-Marie became suspect in the eyes of the bishop, who eventually rescinded his assignment as a preacher. It was a terrible blow, but Father de Montfort received it with humility and saw in it the plan of Providence. He then decided to go to Rome to ask the Pope himself for advice. Received in an audience with Clement XI in the spring of 1706, Louis-Marie set out his difficulties and his desire for distant missions. «In France you have a field for apostolate that is broad enough to exert your zeal,» replied the Pope. «In your missions, forcefully teach the doctrine to the people and to children. Have them renew their Baptismal vows.» The Holy Father then conferred upon him the title of «Apostolic Missionary.» Louis-Marie placed a crucifix blessed by the Pope on the top of his walking stick and left for the Abbey of Saint-Martin de Ligugé, in the diocese of Poitiers, where he thought he could rest a while. But his former enemies were on the lookout, and he could not stay there.
Towards the end of 1706, he joined Father Leuduger, a priest who organized parish missions in Brittany. Louis-Marie excelled in teaching catechism. To his mind, this work was «the mission's greatest work,» and «finding an accomplished catechist is more difficult than finding a perfect preacher.» The catechist «seeks to make himself all at once loved and feared, such, however, that the oil of love exceeds the vinegar of fear.» He livened up catechism, «which of itself is rather dry, with little and short agreeable stories, so as, by this means, to please the children and to renew their attention.» So that the children might better learn Christian doctrine, Louis-Marie put it in verse and had the children chant it to familiar tunes. But the Rosary remained his favorite prayer. «It is also beautiful and fruitful to entrust to this prayer the growth and development of children,» writes Pope John Paul II... «To pray the Rosary for children, and even more, with children... is a spiritual aid which should not be underestimated» (RV, 42).
In his preaching, Louis-Marie taught the great truths of the faith (death, judgment, heaven, hell), denounced vice and sin, and exhorted his listeners to contrition and to confidence in the Divine Mercy. He had Baptismal vows renewed, and conferred the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. Divine Providence supported its servant through the gift of miracles (cures, multiplication of food, etc.). But subsequent to differences of opinion between him and Father Leuduger, Father de Montfort moved into a small hermitage close to his city of birth. Two years later, he left for Nantes, where a priest he was friends with, Father Barrin, vicar-general, sent for him. In this diocese, he preached many missions and was close to the poor, whom he comforted and encouraged to lead saintly lives and to work hard for a living. Convinced of the value of suffering, which gives birth to souls, he said to one of his associates during a mission without problems: «We are too comfortable here. We are very bad, and our mission will be fruitless because it was not based on or supported by the Cross. We are too beloved here. So this is what is making me suffer—no cross! What sorrow for me!»
Father de Montfort's faith in the mystery of the Cross was the inspiration for his plan to build a monumental Calvary close to Pont-Château. It involved erecting an actual hill, surrounded by a ditch, on which would be planted three crosses like at Golgotha. Work began without delay with many volunteer workers. Louis-Marie collected food from nearby farms for these volunteers. But when the work was finished, the Bishop of Nantes forbade the Calvary to be blessed. In fact, under the pretext that the new hill could become a dangerous fortress in the hands of invading enemies, King Louis XIV, ill-informed, had given the order for it to be razed. Louis-Marie sighed, «The Lord allowed me to have this Calvary made, and today He allows it to be destroyed. May His Holy Name be praised!» Finding his peace of soul again, he continued his apostolic work. After his death, the Calvary would be rebuilt.
In 1711, Father de Montfort was sent for by the Bishop of La Rochelle. He conducted many missions in his diocese. La Rochelle was a Calvinist stronghold. Not wanting to let the Protestants think that they alone respected the Bible, he organized a procession in which, under the canopy, a priest carried the Holy Book respectfully. Louis-Marie also had the Rosary recited in the parish and in families. In fact, following the 1710 canonization of Saint Pius V, a great promoter of this devotion, fervor for the Rosary grew. In our time, John Paul II reminds us that the prayer of the Rosary is still very powerful, especially for peace and for the family: «The Rosary is by its nature a prayer for peace, since it consists in the contemplation of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the one who is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Anyone who assimilates the mystery of Christ – and this is clearly the goal of the Rosary – learns the secret of peace and makes it his life's project. Moreover, by virtue of its meditative character, with the tranquil succession of Hail Marys, the Rosary has a peaceful effect on those who pray it...
«As a prayer for peace, the Rosary is also, and always has been, a prayer of and for the family. At one time this prayer was particularly dear to Christian families, and it certainly brought them closer together... Many of the problems facing contemporary families, especially in economically developed societies, result from their increasing difficulty in communicating. Families seldom manage to come together, and the rare occasions when they do are often taken up with watching television. To return to the recitation of the family Rosary means filling daily life with very different images, images of the mystery of salvation: the image of the Redeemer, the image of His most Blessed Mother» (RV 40, 41).
In 1712, Louis-Marie wrote the Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. «I have put pen to paper to write what I fruitfully taught in public, and particularly in my Missions, over the course of many years,» he wrote. In these pages, the Saint showed that the grace of Baptism calls for a total consecration to Jesus Christ, which can be perfect only with a total consecration to Mary. Jansenist opposition prevented Father de Montfort from publishing his treatise, which would not see the light of day until 1843, more than a century after his death.
«Let us go to Paradise!»
Louis-Marie had the utmost concern for the instruction of children, and he created little free schools in villages. In 1715, he finalized the Rule for the Daughters of Wisdom. In the missions, he was assisted by four Brothers, but no priest joined him for any length of time. One day, meeting a partially paralyzed priest, René Mulot, he looked him in the eye and said, «Follow me!» Amazed, but won over, Father Mulot joined him. He became, after Father de Montfort's death, the first Superior General of his religious families. At the beginning of April 1716, Louis-Marie went to Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre to preach a Mission there. He used his energy in his typical manner, but his strength diminished and soon he was exhausted. After a last sermon in which he spoke of Jesus' gentleness, in tones that deeply moved his listeners, he had to take to his bed. He received last rites. Gathering up his last bit of strength, he sang, «Let's go, my dear friends, let's go to Paradise! Whatever one gains in this life, it's better in Paradise!» He held in his hands a crucifix and a small statue of the Blessed Virgin. On April 28, at the age of 43, he offered up his soul to God.
With Saint Louis-Marie, let us turn with confidence to Mary by praying the Rosary. «A prayer so easy and yet so rich truly deserves to be rediscovered by the Christian community,» affirms the Pope. «I look to all of you, brothers and sisters of every state of life, to you, Christian families, to you, the sick and elderly, and to you, young people: confidently take up the Rosary once again. Rediscover the Rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the Liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives» (RV, 43).
We pray for you, and offer all your intentions to the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary and her Spouse, Saint Joseph.
Dom Antoine Marie osb.