APOSTLE OF MARY
ST. LOUIS MARIE DE MONTFORT
By P. M. FENNESSY
A.C.T.S. No. 1452 (1965)
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, a young man named LOUIS
MARIE GRIGNON DE LA BACHELERAIE decided to surrender all things for
Christ - even his name. So for his family name he substituted MONTFORT,
the place of his birth, and he has become famous since his canonization
in 1947 as St. Louis Marie de Montfort.
A "sign of contradiction" in his own time, even as the Crucified Master
he served, he remains today a centre of controversy both among
Christians and non-Christians. And this storm of opposition lashes
continually, not so much at his own person, as against his spiritual
doctrine of the "True Devotion". The violence of the tempest has, in
fact, completely obscured the valuable witness of his own life, so that
even his friends see only a confused outline of the saint they acclaim
as "Tutor of the Legion of Mary", "Apostle of Mary", and "Missionary of
the Blessed Virgin".
This short biography is an attempt to give at least a glimpse of the
remarkable man who was Founder, Missionary, Doctor and Theologian, and
the spiritual father of a multitude of Marian disciples. Some
acquaintance with the saint and his time is an indispensable
preliminary for an understanding of the full significance of his
teaching. Perhaps, by way of introduction, the principal objections to
de Montfort's spirituality should be faced at the outset.
His book on the "True Devotion" does not
almost deify Mary, so that the role of Christ - His position as
Mediator - is obscured. The basic ideas of his Marian teaching were
centuries old when he combined them into his masterly synthesis. And in
the introduction to his Treatise he writes:
Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, of all
things. We labour not, as the Apostle, says, except to render every man
perfect in Jesus Christ. If then we establish the solid devotion to Our
Lady, it is only to establish more perfectly the devotion to Jesus
Christ, and to put forward an easy and secure means for finding Jesus
The "True Devotion" is familiar enough from innumerable booklets and
pamphlets on the subject. However, perhaps it is not fully realized
that it represents only a part of de Montfort's doctrinal structure on
"Love of the Eternal Wisdom". "True Devotion", though certainly his
most important, is not his most comprehensive work. "Love of the
Eternal Wisdom" is the key to his spirituality, of which "True
Devotion" formed the fourth part.
His principal theme is his teaching on Christ-Wisdom, which is a
development of St. Paul's doctrine of the humility of the Incarnate
Word. De Montfort follows here the guidance of Berulle, and his
opinions are typical of the French School of spirituality of the 17th
century. Berulle drew from the teaching of St. Paul the practical
conclusion that Christians should imitate the servitude of the human
nature of Christ by offering themselves totally to the Word, and
remaining completely dependent on Him. It is significant that de
Montfort has made this idea the corner-stone of his own spirituality
and, in his book on "Eternal Wisdom", he develops it in a way which
shows the broad sweep of his thought. Great importance is also given to
the Passion of Christ and the need for renunciation, the purpose of
which is clear from the concluding words:
is the Cross and the Cross is wisdom."
But the book is wide in its scope, and proposes four principal means
that must be employed to possess and love Christ. A perfect devotion to Mary, Mother of the
Incarnate Wisdom, is the fourth means which makes it possible
for Christians to offer themselves totally to the Incarnate Word and
remain completely dependent on Him. The other means are
It was de Montfort's compassion for our weakness in using these
means of holiness, and in responding generously to God's grace, that
urged him to take the fourth part of his Treatise and enlarge it into a
special study now known as "True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin".
- prayer, and
While "True Devotion" is undoubtedly de Montfort's most important and
inspiring contribution to religious literature, it is not, as is often
supposed, a complete expression of his teaching. To regard it as
complete in itself is to condemn de Montfort's spirituality as
unbalanced, and to mis-understand both his life and his work. His
principal theme is always Christ-Wisdom, and it is on this foundation
that he has erected his system of spirituality. Devotion to Our Lady is
not an end in itself, but a means, although a most perfect means, of
possessing Jesus Christ.
Another objection is that de Montfort's approach is no longer in tune
with the temperament of modern Christians, or the spirituality of our
time - particularly since the work of the Second Vatican Council in
giving a new emphasis to Mary, not as Mediatrix, but as Mother of the
Church. Yet Mgr. Mattenci, in a broadcast from Vatican Radio in
October, 1963, pointed out that the desire of the Council was simply to
express Mary's maternal function in the Mystical Body and to encourage
devotion to her as "the type of the Church". For in the life of the
Church, Mary fulfils an ecumenical, maternal role as Mother of unity,
Mother of reconciliation, Patroness of the Council.
It will always be true, in spite of the shift of emphasis in the new
theology, and in spite of difficulties caused by the poverty of
language itself, that Mary has a vital part to play in the apostolic
work of the Church, and in the life and devotion of every Christian. We
would not now use de Montfort's descriptions of Mary's privileges; but
Mary is no less our Mother. What, after all, could be more glorious or
more meaningful, than the very first of Mary's titles, "Mother of God",
bestowed on her at the great Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431?
And, despite his difficult style and intense spirituality, de Montfort
himself is the most modern of saints - almost flamboyant in the zeal of
his missionary experiments. One could easily imagine him as an 18th
century Bishop Sheen or Father Peyton, making full use of the
spectacular and the unconventional, if only it would lead men to
Christ. He was one of the greatest of the preachers and missioners of
the eighteenth-century Church, and one of the most dynamic opponents of
the dangerous heresies of Jansenism and Calvinism. The antidote to this
insidious poison - a corruption spreading from within Christianity
itself - was not only St. Margaret Mary's revelations of devotion to
the Sacred Heart, but also de Montfort's teaching on devotion to Mary.
When the spirituality of Louis Marie de Montfort is seen in its true
perspective, his life can be appreciated for what it was - the life of
"the herald . . . of the reign of God through Mary ". * [*
Address of His Eminence Frederico Cardinal Tedeschini, after unveiling
the statue of St. Louis Marie in St. Peter's, Rome.]
Louis was the eldest of the eight children of John Baptist Grignion,
and was born on the last day of January, 1673, in the little town of
Montfort-la-Canne. At Confirmation he added the name of Mary, and later
substituted Montfort, his birthplace, for his family name.
When he had completed his education at the Jesuit College in Rennes, he
went to Paris at the age of twenty to prepare for the priesthood. Lack
of means prevented him from gaining admittance to the Seminary of
Saint-Sulpice, and he became a student under Abbe de la Barmondiere.
When the Abbe died, he was left in even more destitute circumstances,
and joined a community of ecclesiastics who lived a life of Spartan
discipline and extreme poverty.
He and his fellow-students had "the pleasure of poisoning themselves"
(as one of them wryly admitted) with wretched and poorly-cooked food.
So primitive were the conditions under which they tried to study, work
and pray, that Louis soon became seriously ill. (Not long before he had
earned a small stipend by keeping watch over the parish dead, and had
spent almost the entire night - three or four times a week - in study,
spiritual reading and prayer.)
In spite of the care that he received on his removal to hospital, his
condition became rapidly worse, and there seemed no hope of survival.
It was when he appeared to be on the verge of death that he calmly
announced his complete recovery! Not long afterwards he began to
improve, and was soon able to return to his studies. In the meantime,
Providence had provided him with friends, whose generosity enabled him
to be admitted to the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice.
Even before his early training was completed he had gained a reputation
for heroism, love of the Cross and love of Mary, and it was at this
time that the Queen of Heaven began to claim him as her own.
"The Tree of Life"
Someone placed in his hands Boudon's work on "Slavery to the Blessed
Virgin" and immediately he sensed the important influence it was to be
in his spiritual life. He soon began to share his enthusiasm with the
other students, and from such a small seed the "Tree of Life" grew to
its present incredible dimensions. As he wrote later: ["The Tree of
Life - its culture and growth," by St. Louis Marie de Montfort.]
you cultivate (Mary) the Tree of Life, freshly planted in your soul by
the Holy Ghost, it will grow so tall that the birds of Heaven will come
to dwell in it. It will be a good tree, yielding fruit of honour and
grace in due season, namely the sweet and adorable Jesus, who always
has been, and always will be, the only fruit of Mary."
Louis Marie de Montfort was ordained priest on June 5th, 1700, and
spent the entire day in thanksgiving before the Blessed Sacrament. His
first Mass was celebrated in the chapel of the Blessed Virgin in the
parish church of St. Sulpice. Not long before he had been one of two
students chosen to make the annual pilgrimage to a Marian shrine, and
at Chartres had placed his future work under the powerful protection of
the Queen of Apostles; one of the most significant events of his early
As he had had previous experience and unexpected success giving
catechetical instruction to the roughest of the Parisian children, he
sought apostolic work which would call for strength and sacrifice - the
total dedication that he was so eager to give.
So he applied for the dangerous and demanding Canadian missions, but
his superiors refused the request, desiring that he should remain and
dedicate himself to the home missions of France. Staying for a short
time at Nantes with a priest-friend, who trained men for the home
missions, he then continued to Poitiers - a place which, like Francis
and Assisi, was destined to be inseparably associated with his name.
In the meantime, however, he had antagonized the Jansenists by his open
opposition to their teaching. They held that Christ the Redeemer had
shed his blood only for the predestinate, and that the conditions for
the reception of the Sacraments (especially Penance and the Eucharist)
should be as severe and exacting as possible.
Threat of Jansenism
De Montfort's unfailing loyalty to Christ and His Church, his deep
understanding of the immense love of God in the Incarnation and
Redemption, made him a militant apostle of traditional theology against
these subtle and dangerous innovations. The spirit of Jansenism had by
this time eaten into the very vitals of Christianity, had penetrated
monasteries, seminaries and convents, so that the Church (especially in
France) seemed in danger of being undermined from within.
"Friends of the Cross"
As part of his campaign against the teachings of Jansenism, de Montfort
later founded an association of "Friends of the Cross", so that
Catholics would be encouraged to fight the evils of the time and make
reparation to the Sacred Heart. His devotion to the Sacred Heart was
inseparable from his devotion to Mary: these were the two powerful
influences which were to pour oil into the wounds of a stricken
Christianity and restore its vigour.
The formation of this lay association was an example of de Montfort's
instinctive response to the grave spiritual needs of his century. Like
a good general, he sensed immediately where the battle-line of the
Faith needed strengthening and, without fear or favour, used the most
efficient means of meeting an assault. Nor could he be satisfied with
anything less than complete victory. It was the Marian lay apostolate
in eighteenth century France!
In a letter to the association he wrote:
"Christian perfection consists:
1. in willing to become a saint -
'If any man will come after Me'
2. in self denial -
'let him deny himself'
3. in suffering -
'let him take up his cross'
4. in doing -
'let him follow Me'."
It was a programme he was to follow faithfully throughout his life. Not
that he was a plaster saint - he was far too rugged and uncompromising
for that - but the challenge of the Cross never found him without a
response. It was a manliness and courage purified to white-heat in the
fire of the Holy Spirit.
The old-world town of Poitiers, above the valley of the Clain, has been
Christian since the Roman occupation of the country and is one of the
earliest centres of Christianity in Europe. Its churches, in which
saints such as Radegonde are venerated, date back to the seventh
century, and it is famous for one of the most ancient burial-grounds.
Although the countryside was ravaged by wars and revolutions it was to
welcome the Cistercians in the eighteenth century and - in its "second
spring" - St. Madeline Sophie and her newly-formed Society of the
Arrival at. Poitiers
Even with his extraordinary insight into the future and his prophetic
powers, it is unlikely that de Montfort, on his arrival at Poitiers,
had any realization of the important part the city was to play in his
life, and in the history of the congregations he was destined to found.
Yet his impact on its citizens was dramatic and immediate. Those who
assisted at his Mass in the hospital at Poitiers called out to each
other: "Here is a saint. Here is the man for us. Let us detain him and
try to keep him." They petitioned the Bishop to appoint him as their
chaplain and the appointment was finally confirmed.
De Montfort's deep spirituality did not lessen his shrewdness, realism
or masterly flair for organization. In this he resembles the great St.
Teresa who, after being elevated to the heights of mystical prayer,
could conclude an eminently satisfactory business arrangement on behalf
of the Reform.
The hospital was in a chaotic state both medically and financially and
only a saint would have had the patience and wisdom to overcome the
disorders. Typically enough, he gave up his own salary to provide more
revenue for the inmates, ate the same food as the poorest of them and
gave any money donated to him to the necessities of the patients and
the upkeep of their chapel. Not satisfied with this, he even tramped
through the city begging assistance on behalf of the sick, so that he
soon became a familiar sight - his donkey ambling beside him laden with
All Things To All Men
What spare time he had left was entirely devoted to the needs of the
patients, and no task was too menial for him - waiting at table,
sweeping rooms, preparing beds, nursing those desperately ill, and
ministering to the dying. It seemed as though this extraordinary man
never slept and had the power of being everywhere he was wanted at the
Unfortunately there is nothing like disinterested dedication to arouse
jealousy and resentment, so that de Montfort's very success gained him
enemies. Two of his persecutors - the superior of the institution and a
member of its committee of management - did everything possible to
obstruct and discredit him. This did not surprise him in the least for,
as he dryly admitted in one of his letters: "I entered this poor
hospital or rather this Babylon, with a firm resolution of bearing, in
company with Jesus Christ my Master, the crosses which I well foresaw
would certainly befall me if the work were from God."
In the midst of the turmoil created by this pair of trouble-makers
there was a sudden and unexpected calm, for both of them became
seriously ill and died within a short time of each other. Such was the
impression these strange circumstances created that de Montfort was
finally left in peace.
The Chaplain's work in the meantime had greatly increased but he
somehow managed to extend it even further by preaching, catechizing and
hearing confessions in many of the outlying parishes of Poitiers. It is
difficult to imagine how he accomplished all this with such enthusiasm,
yet he added the guidance of ecclesiastical students to his already
It was -at this time that he was obliged to journey to Paris to arrange
his sister's entry into a convent and during his three months' absence
the hospital again lapsed into chaos, due to appalling inefficiency and
neglect. Yet de Montfort not only remedied the disorder soon after his
return, but increased his missionary work in the churches of the city
and carried on a large correspondence with those who continually sought
As a tribute to his amazing success in bringing about the spiritual
reformation of the city, he now began to experience the unwelcome
attentions of "the prince of this world". Diabolic phenomena (similar
to that which tormented the Cure d'Ars) added trials and terrors by
night to the persecution he was already suffering by day. For de
Montfort, as a missioner, had rapidly become famous in Poitiers, and
the malice of his enemies had received a new stimulus.
The Daughters of Wisdom
In his despair at getting any effective co-operation in the management
of the hospital, he founded "the Daughters of Wisdom", a new
congregation of women. Several girls, from amongst the poorest citizens
of Poitiers, were chosen as pioneers of the movement, even though some
of them were blind, crippled or in uncertain health. De Montfort
gathered them together in a room of the hospital which he named "La
Sagess" and placed in it a large Cross as their source of inspiration.
The rule of life he gave them was a well-balanced one of prayer and
activity. Although he foresaw that he would not live to witness the
growth of the congregation, the knowledge that he had at least made a
beginning gave him immense consolation. For he realized the important
role it was to play in the. life of the Church in later centuries, and
was proud that the sick, the blind and the crippled had been the
privileged ones summoned to the service of the King.
The bitter opposition to his work now became so serious and so
dangerous that he felt compelled to resign his position.
A Home Missionary
Immediately the Bishop accepted his services as a home missionary and
sent him to Montbernage, a suburb of Poitiers, notorious for its moral
decay. Here de Montfort began in earnest his extraordinary career of
apostolic activity. His methods were so modern in their approach that
they alarmed and bewildered the more conventional clerics. Sometimes it
would be the realistic portrayal, in dramatic form, of the truths of
the Faith or the struggle of a soul to find salvation. Or it might be
the burning of dangerous literature on a great pyre, surmounted by an
effigy of the Devil as a society-woman! (The literature was not
gathered by witch-hunts, but was brought voluntarily to the missionary
by the repentant towns-people.)
What a scene this would make in the twentieth century (or the 21st) - a
pile of the latest fashionable obscenities burnt outside the Cathedral
with the effigy of a satanic society-woman on top of the pyre! It would
immediately gain widespread publicity for the campaign for Christian
literature by all the mass media of communication and would be worth a
hundred sermons which was exactly the effect intended by de Montfort.
But it takes rare courage to make such a gesture in any century.
Louis Marie de Montfort is very much of our time, and would have used
radio, TV, mass rallies and pilgrimages with daring, imagination and
skill. He was never concerned about what "they" would think - whether
powerful or pious - and went to any lengths of flamboyance to drive
home his message. Yet the response was not ephemeral or simply
emotional; it was solid and lasting, because it was a response to the
message of his own crucified life.
The results of his missions were soon evident in the many churches
restored, the pilgrimage centres established, the contributions given
to the poor, and in the real spiritual renewal brought about in the
dioceses he had visited.
Other Parishes Follow
Montbernage was only the first of many parishes, almost on the verge of
ruin, which he re-vitalized with the fire of his zeal for the Kingdom
of Christ. It was here, also, that he erected the first chapel
dedicated to the Blessed Virgin under her new title of "Queen of All
These activities were accompanied by an amazing gift of prophecy, such
as his prediction of the recovery of the Governor's wife when she
seemed almost at the point of death.
Crowds flocked to his confessional and thronged to hear him whenever he
preached. The situation could only rub salt into the wounds he had
already inflicted on the Jansenists. Misrepresenting his work, they
complained to the Bishop of Poitiers and de Montfort was peremptorily
ordered to discontinue his ministry in the diocese.
Pilgrimage to Rome
Without any attempt to justify himself, he accepted the curt dismissal
with serenity. He even seemed glad of the opportunity it gave him of
making a pilgrimage to Rome. For a long time he had wanted to obtain
permission to volunteer for the missions overseas that he might offer
his life for Christ. Martyrdom was never far from his hopes and desires
although, in another form, he endured it daily.
Before leaving Poitiers, the scene of so many graces, he wrote a
touching letter of farewell to his people, encouraging them to
persevere. This message, so confident in the face of overwhelming
adversities, was typical of the man:
"It is through Mary", he wrote "that I look for and shall find Jesus,
that I shall crush the serpent's head, and that I shall overcome my
enemies and myself to the greater glory of God."
On the same day he set out on his pilgrimage in the spirit of the
Gospels, with only a Bible, a Crucifix, a Rosary, an image of Mary, and
his staff. The few coins he had he gave to the poor, trusting in God
for his food and shelter.
It was a penitential pilgrimage of fasting, watching and prayer, and
with only one pause along the way - that he might dedicate himself once
more to Jesus through Mary at the Shrine of Loretto.
Rome at Last
At last the great dome of St. Peter's came into sight against the pale
horizon and, taking off his shoes, de Montfort walked barefoot the two
leagues that still separated him from Rome. There, after visiting the
churches of the city and its places of pilgrimage, he sought an
audience with Pope Clement XI.
On 6th June the request was granted and, for de Montfort, it was a
momentous occasion. The Pope listened kindly to his enthusiastic plans
for a missionary apostolate, and for the honour of being sent to a
mission where he might shed his blood for the Faith. (The tenacious
reformer of Poitiers was never a man for half measures!) He added that
he would regard the Pope's decision as the will of God, and that he was
ready to work in any part of the world to which he was sent.
Mission in France
The Pope's reply was swift and unexpected. Stretching out his. hands in
the direction of France, he said: "You have in your own country a field
worthy of your zeal." He then explained the anxiety of the Holy See at
the encroachments of Jansenism, which he had just explicitly condemned,
and asked de Montfort to teach Christian Doctrine to the people,
helping them to understand the spirit of Christianity by the renewal of
their baptismal promises. Finally, he conferred on him the title of
Although dumbfounded at the Holy Father's unexpected decision, de
Montfort now felt certain of his vocation to the home missions. It was
a keen disappointment to him that, for the second time, the door had
been firmly closed on his own plans for a martyr's death. Yet he was a
man for whom God's Will was the supreme value, even when it meant the
sacrifice of his dearest desires. And if his longings for martyrdom
could not be literally fulfilled, his enemies would try to provide him
with its equivalent!
Little did they expect that the priest they had succeeded in removing
from his diocese, and whose work they had so subtly undermined, would
return as the chosen champion of the Holy See against their own
Return to France
After a short rest and retreat, and a pilgrimage to some of the French
Shrines, de Montfort offered his services to the Bishop of his home
diocese. As several priests were just beginning a mission in the town
of Dinan, the Bishop sent him to join them. This mission, and one for
the soldiers of the garrison, proved to be successful beyond all
expectations, and he was asked to preach throughout the neighbouring
At this time a strange incident occurred in de Montfort's life, which
we can understand only by recalling a prophecy made two and a half
centuries before his birth.
Our Lady of Pity
St. Vincent Ferrer the great
missionary of the Middle Ages and the apostle of Brittany, was then
preaching at a place called La Cheze, near Loudeac, when he happened to
notice a large, ancient, but deserted and roofless chapel, almost in
ruins, and overgrown with briars and nettles. He paused in his sermon,
and seemed deeply touched by the sight of the abandoned sanctuary,
which was known as the Chapel of Our Lady of Pity. Then he began to
tell the people what a joy it would be to him if he could restore it to
the worship of God and the Honour of the Blessed Virgin.
Suddenly he seemed inspired by a vision of the future, and understood
that this very work was destined to be accomplished by another
missionary in centuries to come.
Looking around him as one filled with the light of the Spirit of God, St. Vincent said; "This great
undertaking is reserved by God for a man whom the Almighty will cause
to be born in later times, a man who will come as one unknown; a man
who will be greatly contradicted and laughed at; but a man,
nevertheless, who will bring this holy enterprise to a happy issue."
There could be no truer portrayal of Louis
Marie de Montfort who, in 1707, went to La Cheze, preached to
the people there, and felt inspired by God to rebuild the ruined chapel
of Our Lady of Pity. Although he had no resources for the project nor
any hope of assistance, he set to work to raise money for the
restoration of the shrine, and his efforts met with extraordinary
success. The rapid completion of the sanctuary astonished the people of
the district, who flocked in hundreds in procession for the opening
A number of other incidents occurred which convinced them that de
Montfort had miraculous powers - that he had multiplied bread to feed
the poor, and had restored invalids to health. Their enthusiasm was so
great, and their demands on the missioner so incessant that, when he
left the city, de Montfort felt the need for a quiet retreat where he
could renew his strength.
Returns To His Diocese
So he retired to St. Lazare and, after a period of prayer and silence,
took up his missionary work once more in his own diocese. Crowds filled
the churches, and no one could keep count of the number of conversions.
Sometimes de Montfort's simple gesture of placing a crucifix before the
assembled people, and asking them to venerate it, produced an amazing
change even in indifferent and hostile congregations. There are those
who would dismiss it as mass hysteria, but the incredible influence of
the man on his contemporaries cannot be so lightly explained.
He had no pulpit oratory to win the admiration of the crowds, and
always spoke of the fundamentals of the faith in the most
straightforward terms. Frequently he simply recited the 15 decades of
the Rosary with the people, and then gave them the Crucifix to kiss.
Yet the results of his missions were astounding, and the conversions
made proved, in most cases, solid and lasting. Again there is a modern
touch - he composed some 160 poems, and a number of rousing hymns,
using many of them as a simple and effective means of instruction. Even
in the years of revolutionary France, these were to keep a flame of
Christianity alive in the hearts of the people. His own nuns chanted
one of these hymns as they travelled in the tumbrels to the guillotine,
so that even the depraved mob felt strangely moved and clamoured for
Devotion To The Sacred Heart
He was one of the earliest preachers to recognize the significance of
the devotion to the Sacred Heart, and to use its message in the
struggle against Jansenism. By this means and by encouraging devotion
to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our. Lady, he restored a well-balanced
Christianity to areas which for years had withered in the clutches of
harsh and erroneous doctrines. During every mission, an act of public
reparation was made to the Blessed Sacrament, and the success of the
mission left in the hands of Mary.
Apostle of Mary
"The love of Mary" said one of his fellow-missioners, "seemed to have
been born with him." And it is as the Apostle of Mary that he is mainly
remembered, for we have seen the fruits of his treatise on "The True
Devotion" in the miraculous growth of the Legion of Mary. This book,
which de Montfort predicted would be "enveloped in the silence of a
coffer" was not discovered until 1842, 126 years after his death. The
inspiration it has given to the Marian lay apostolate amply fulfils de
Montfort's prophecy that * "in those
latter times, God will raise up mighty saints, servants, slaves and
children of Mary . . . who shall kindle the fire of divine love
everywhere . . . like sharp arrows in the hand of the powerful Mary to
pierce her enemies." [* "True Devotion," by St. Louis de
"True Devotion" has always borne the stigma of "Marian exaggeration"
but it is interesting to recall that, when De. Pusey pressed this
accusation, the champion of de Montfort's teaching proved to be no less
a figure than the learned and saintly Cardinal Newman. Probably St.
Louis Marie would not state his teaching today in the same theological
terms, but he would insist on the same profound relationship between
Mary and each member of the Church.
Diocese of Nantes
De Montfort continued to work fruitfully in his native diocese until
harried by the Jansenists and forced to leave. He then offered his
services to the great diocese of Nantes, and his missions there met
with the same remarkable response. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of the
crowds, he decided to erect an immense Calvary which, rising from the
vast plain that surrounds Pontchateau, would be visible for miles
around. It was to be a centre of pilgrimage, and a perpetual reminder
of the promises the people of the district had made to God during the
The project was greeted with joy, and 500 labourers immediately
volunteered. Soon the work was completed and proved its worth, not only
by continuing to stimulate local devotion, but by drawing crowds from
other areas - hundreds of people who found here the inspiration for the
reformation of their lives. Once again de Montfort showed that he
understood and respected the need men have of finding God through the
windows of the senses - through what is tangible, moving and
Opposition by Jansenists
A mass pilgrimage was arranged for the opening ceremony, and the hidden
power of the Jansenists in clerical circles is indicated by the fact
that they managed to get it cancelled the night before. (The feast-day
chosen for the event was the Feast of the Holy Cross.)
They then spread the incredible story that the shrine was built as a
fortress where de Montfort and his misguided followers could entrench
themselves, threatening the law and order of France. Even more
incredibly these accusations were believed, and the civil authorities
demanded the destruction of the shrine. In spite of protests by the
townspeople and their refusal to carry out the order, the work of
demolition was brought about by force and, after three months, not a
trace remained of the once famous Calvary. However, the townspeople had
at least one consolation - they managed to detach the figure of Christ
from the Cross before it could be desecrated or destroyed.
De Montfort received this public humiliation with his usual calm. He
even foretold that a new Calvary would rise again on the site of the
old one. This prediction was finally fulfilled in 1825, when a crowd of
20,000 pilgrims, bearing white standards, surrounded the hill and made
a public act of reparation at the restored Calvary.
The missionary again retired to renew his spiritual strength, and made
a retreat at the Jesuit house at Nantes. Before leaving the diocese, he
personally led a courageous and heroic rescue of flood-bound
householders, whose district had been inundated by the waters of the
The Diocese of La Rochelle
Towards the end of March, 1711, he agreed to a request to give missions
to the diocese of La Rochelle, where his work as a home missioner was
destined to reach its most amazing climax. His preaching created such
scenes of fervour and enthusiasm that he earned the bitter hatred of
some of the Calvinists, who determined to assassinate him. When he
arrived at the street they had chosen for the attempt, he felt
compelled, without understanding why, to retrace his steps and take a
long detour to his destination. "My heart became as cold as ice" he
told a companion, "and I could not take a step forward."
This was not his only escape from death. An attempt was later made to
poison him and, although he survived the dose, his system became so
weakened that he suffered its effects for the rest of his life.
Pastoral Work Continues
These persecutions formed a dark background to the increasing
brilliance of his pastoral success. Jansenists, Calvinists, even
pirates (who unsuccessfully tried to capture him while en route to a
mission at the Isle-Dieu) could only interrupt, but never stop, the
mighty tide of graces that seemed to accompany his work everywhere, and
particularly at La Rochelle. Here the accounts of cures, miracles and
conversions remind one of the days of the early Church. While due
allowance must be made for exaggerated enthusiasm, it is still an
extraordinary record of pastoral activity - one which gives increasing
evidence of the sanctity of this untiring and courageous man.
The De Montfort Fathers
Realizing that he had little time left on earth, he now began to
organize a society of priests to continue his work. The rule of life he
drew up was approved and he chose, from the community of St. Esprit, a
seminarian who was later destined to be the first member of the Company
of Mary to work with him - Pere Vatel. The new society known as the De
Montfort Fathers was soon to become one of the most enterprising of the
missionary congregations, making foundations in many countries of
Europe, Asia and America.
The Daughters of Wisdom Again.
De Montfort, with his usual thoroughness and dedication, also completed
his plans for the Daughters of Wisdom, and selected as their Superior
Mme. Trichet, afterwards known as Sister Marie-Louise of Jesus. As the
saint predicted, the nuns were given the administration of the hospital
at Poitiers, where the congregation had been founded, and later became
equally famous not only in other cities of Europe, but also in
missionary countries throughout the world.
A severe illness from which de Montfort suffered in 1713 was treated by
the barbarous methods of the time, and his survival of the ordeal
seemed almost miraculous. His cheerfulness during these operations,
performed without anaesthetics, was only an expression of the spirit of
penance which had characterized his whole life. At this time he told a
priest friend that "God had favoured him with a very special grace,
which was the abiding presence of Jesus and Mary in the depth of his
soul." He did not attempt to explain it theologically, and it is
doubtful if he could have done so. It seemed a wholly mystical
experience of his union with Jesus, through Mary, which had been the
inspiration of his life and apostolate.
He was destined now for a final glorious spring of missionary activity
- preaching and praying the rosary in churches, shrines and streets,
and even in the midst of a ribald crowd aboard a market boat. He
established innumerable Rosary Confraternities; and it was his great
love for the rosary which led him to become a Dominican Tertiary.
A Lasting Impression
In spite of ridicule and opposition, his work grew to immense
proportions and had a lasting effect on the French Church. As an
example of the fruits of his missions, the Cure of Saint-Lo testified
that many of his parishioners still practised the devotions they had
learned at these missions 60 years after the saint's death!
Yet not content with this prodigious activity, he established hospitals
and schools, and still had time and energy for the foundation of the
Company of Mary, the Daughters of Wisdom, and the Association of the
Friends of the Cross.
The once-Calvinist stronghold of La Rochelle was to be the crown of his
missionary achievements, and it was there that he was revered as
another Saint Paul. He was besieged at all hours, by people from all
classes of society, seeking spiritual advice; and many of his visitors
claimed to have seen his face transfigured. This occurred publicly as
he was preaching in the Dominican church on the glories of Mary on the
Feast of the Purification. The phenomena of levitation has also been
recorded, although de Montfort took every precaution to avoid
discovery. So great were the crowds that flocked to hear him that,
during one mission, the pulpit had to be placed in the open air at the
foot of a large tree.
His Death Approaches
In January, 1716, he resumed his missionary work in the neighbouring
parishes, and it seemed that he was at the peak of his powers,
spiritually and physically, but it was at this very time that he
foretold his own death, which he said would occur before the end of the
year. His last project, and perhaps the one dearest to his heart, was
the organization of a mass pilgrimage to the Shrine of Notre Dame des
Ardilliers to obtain the blessing of the Queen of Heaven on the new
Company of Mary, and its future work. Pere Vatel and Pere Mulot,
destined to be the first two priests of the Company, led the
pilgrimage. Having followed in their steps to the Shrine, in spite of
the ill-health which now became painfully obvious, de Montfort resumed
his missionary work at Saint-Laurent-sur-Seine. He had left the future
of his two congregations in Mary's hands, and felt his work on earth
had at last been completed.
During the month of April, 1716, as the missionaries were preparing for
a visitation by the Bishop of La Rochelle, de Montfort suddenly
collapsed. Although he was gravely ill, he managed to preach a last
sermon on the Compassion of Jesus. Those who heard him (with no
realization of the gravity of his condition) remarked that he seemed to
be delivering a farewell message to his people.
His Final Message
It is significant that his final sermon should have been on this very
subject - the Mercy, Compassion and loving-kindness of Christ. It was
the rock of his teaching against which the bitter fury of his enemies
beat in vain, just as that same fury had lashed aimlessly against the
rock of Peter.
But his victory could only lead to his crucifixion in the cause of
It was largely due to the labours of de Montfort, and his
fellow-missionaries, that the influence of false doctrines in the
French Church was finally overcome. And through the intercession of a
Woman "fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in
battle array", (Song of Songs 6: 10), the Spirit of Truth renewed and
vivified the heart of Christian Europe.
He Receives the Last Sacraments
After his farewell sermons, de Montfort was obliged to admit the
seriousness of his illness. He received the Last Sacraments, expressed
the wish to die as he had lived - a slave of Jesus and Mary. Even at
this moment he was not granted peace or privacy, and the room in which
he lay was soon crowded with people, begging his blessing. It is
typical of him that he cheerfully obliged, even adding a few words of
consolation and trying heroically to join them in a song. The effort
was too much and he lapsed into unconsciousness. His last words were
the names of Jesus and Mary, an expression of his confidence in their
power against the forces of evil, and the joyful announcement that he
had "finished his course - it is over now, and I shall never sin again."
He Dies, His Work Lives On
It was eight o'clock on the evening of 28 April, 1716, and he was 43
years old. (After his canonization in 1947, this date was chosen as his
feast-day.) But this was only the beginning of his work, for it was
continued by the Company of Mary and the Daughters of Wisdom and, in
spite of persecution, the de Montfort Fathers (as they later became
known) gave 430 missions in the 63 years before the French Revolution.
The reformation they brought about in France was similar to that
achieved in Italy, at the same period, by the Redemptorists. Soon their
apostolate was to find a fruitful harvest-field in several continents.
The Daughters of Wisdom are now numbered in thousands, and have
foundations throughout the world devoted to charitable activities.
The Legion of Mary
The latest developments of de Montfort's apostolate have been in our
own 20th century - the foundation of the Priests of Mary and the Legion
of Mary. The association of the Priests of Mary is dedicated to the
preaching and practice of the "True Devotion". The Legion of Mary is
one of the most flourishing organizations of the lay apostolate, and is
based on the teachings of the saint adapted and brilliantly applied to
the spiritual needs of our own 20th and 21st century by Frank Duff.
The Confraternity of Mary, Queen of All Hearts, was first established
in Canada, and canonically erected in 1913. It is another manifestation
of de Montfort's spiritual influence on the interior life of Christians
in our time. Its object is "to establish within us the Reign of Mary as
a means of establishing more perfectly the reign of Jesus Christ in our
Yet perhaps it is in the apostolate of the Legion of Mary that we can
best see the genius of de Montfort in action in this 20th century,
effecting a reformation as powerful, and inspiring martyrdoms as heroic
and as fruitful as in eighteenth century France. Legionaries are surely
in the vanguard of those whom the saint foretold would transform
Christian society in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of
Christ through His Blessed Mother.
In spite of criticism of "True Devotion", it should be remembered that
six Popes [to 1965,] have recommended it, while Leo XIII renewed the
Act of Consecration on his deathbed, and St. Pius X both practised the
devotion and granted the Apostolic Benediction to all who would read
The number of interior transformations it has encouraged and inspired
cannot be calculated, but the Confraternity alone numbers several
hundred thousand members throughout the world.
Devotion to Mary is the royal highway to the establishment of Christ's
Kingship for, as de Montfort assures us:
union with Jesus always and necessarily follows our union with Mary,
because the spirit of Mary is the spirit of Jesus. When we have once
found Mary, and through Mary, Jesus, and through Jesus, God the Father,
we have found all good." *
[* "How Mary forms Jesus in
us," from "The Secret of Mary."]
Perhaps we could re-read his last great prophecy in the light of the
spiritual transformation the Marian apostolate has brought about in the
present [20th] century: *
Mary God came into the world the first time . . . . . may we not say
that it is through Mary also that He will come the second time, as the
whole Church expects Him, to rule everywhere and to judge the living
and the dead?"
[* 'Fruits of this devotion', from "The Secret of Mary."]
As most of us are not theologians, we do not have to construct
speculative theological systems about Mary. For if we live the total
consecration to Mary, as Montfort did, we have the words of St. Pius X
as our light and encouragement:
does not know that there is no more certain and easy way than Mary to
unite all with Christ and to attain through Him the perfect adoption of
sons, that we may be holy and immaculate in the sight of God?" *
[* "Ad diem illum." February
The Church Today
But what of the Church today? What is the mind of Pope Paul VI? The
best answer to these questions is the following extract from the second
part of the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter: "Ecclesiam Suam":
"This vision of humble and profound
perfection leads our thoughts to Mary most holy, for she reflects the
vision most perfectly and wonderfully in herself; she lived it on earth
and now in heaven she rejoices in its glory and beatitude. Devotion to
Mary is happily flourishing in the Church today; and we, on this
occasion, gladly turn our thoughts to her to admire in the Blessed
Virgin, Mother of Christ (and, therefore, the Mother of God and the
mother of us) the model of Christian perfection, the mirror of true
virtues, the pride of true humanity."
"We regard devotion to Mary as a
source of Gospel teaching. In our pilgrimage to the Holy Land we wished
to learn the lesson of real Christianity from her, the most blessed,
loveable, humble and immaculate creature, whose privilege it was to
give to the Word of God human flesh in its pristine and innocent
beauty. To her now we turn our imploring gaze as to a loving mistress
of life, while we discuss with you, venerable brethren, the spiritual
and moral regeneration of the life of Holy Church."
Mary, Mother of the Church
As though to confirm these words the Holy Father, in his address at the
solemn closing of the Third Session of the Second Vatican Council,
proclaimed the Blessed Virgin Mary "Mother
of the Church". He said:
"Thus to the glory of the Virgin and
to our own comfort we proclaim the Most Holy Mary as Mother of the
Church - that is, of all the people of God, as much of the faithful as
of the pastors, she whom we call the Most Loved Mother."
"And we wish that with such a sweet
title the Virgin shall from now on be still more honoured and invoked
by all the Christian people."
Later that same day - the Feast of Our Lady's Presentation- he visited
the basilica of St. Mary Major and prayed before the ancient image of
Mary "Salvation of the Roman People".
While the Pope's action implied no new dogma or doctrine, it was
evident that his proclamation would add to Catholic devotion to Mary.
It was especially welcomed in Australia, for the title was already
familiar and dear to Catholics in this country. At the twenty-eighth
International Eucharistic Congress in Sydney in 1928, it had been used
by Rev. Stanislaus Hogan, O.P., as the most appropriate description of
Mary's maternal relationship with the Mystical Body of her Son.
And throughout the Christian world the proclamation was greeted with
joy and gratitude, for it is in Mary's powerful intercession that her
children have placed their confidence for the ultimate success of the
Council, the reunion of Christians, and the salvation of mankind.
BERNARD O'CONNOR, Diocesan Censor.
+ JUSTIN D. SIMONDS, Archiepiscopus Melburnensis.
30th March, 1965.