Three French Saints

Three French Saints
The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 6

Críostóir Ó Floinn, who has published over sixty books in both Irish and English, has produced this trilogy recounting the lives of three famous French saints – Joan of Arc, Bernadette Soubirous and Thérèse of Lisieux. Written in a very readable and simple style, each book gives a background to the times of the saint in question and then a full account of those aspects of their lives which gave rise to their canonisation by the church.

Joan of Arc
The one who led an army…
Joan of Arc at the coronation of King Charles VII in 1429, Ingres, 1884, Louvre.

There are few personages in history who have been investigated so thoroughly, during their lifetime and ever since their death, both by friends and enemies, by believers and cynics, as the girl who is now known in her own country as Jeanne d’Arc and in English as Joan of Arc.

During the Hundred Years’  War, Joan led an army to recover France from the English and secure the throne for the Dauphin, Charles VII. Her involvement in the war occurred after she began receiving visions of the Archangel Michael, St Margaret, and St Catherine of Alexandria when she was just 13. She rose to prominence when a siege of Orléans was lifted after only nine days. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII’s consecration at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory.

However, a politically motivated trial for heresy awaited Joan. On the evening of Wednesday, May 30, Joan was brought from her cell to be subjected to a final sermon about her errors, this time in the marketplace of Rouen where platforms had been set up like those in the cemetery on the preceding day. Having found Joan guilty, they should then have handed her over to the bailiffs of Rouen to be formally sentenced to death and executed. All those who gave testimony later agreed on how she died, crying out the holy name, Jesus, many times.

Although it was apparent, as the interrogations and inquiries proceeded, that Joan, from her first appearance on the public scene to the moment of her death at the stake, was a very holy woman, the idea that she might be officially recognised as such by the church was overshadowed for a long time by her idealisation as a political prisoner and the iconic heroine of France. It was left to Felix Dupanloup, Bishop of Orléans, to call universal attention to the personal sanctity of Joan d’Arc, as she had now become known. He got the bishops of France interested in the case to the extent that, in 1869, they sent a petition to Pope Pius IX asking permission to begin yet another investigation into the life and death of Joan. The process continued under subsequent bishops until finally, in 1909, Pope Pius X beatified Joan. The First World War intervened in this as in many other matters – in that war, the warrior girl of Orléans was invoked as a patron of France by the soldiers trudging towards the trenches – until at last, on 6 May 1920, the name of Joan of Arc was prefixed by the word Sainte as she was added to the roll of those whom the Catholic Church officially acknowledges as persons who, having lived lives of heroic virtue on this earth, are now enjoying the promised reward of eternal happiness with God in heaven.

As an aside, opposite the tomb of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the political churchman who instigated and presided over her trial, a statue of Joan in shining armour, with her sword held upright in her right hand, was erected in 1923, three years after her canonisation, by the Anglican diocese of Winchester, as a mark of reparation to Joan of Arc.

Three French Saints – Joan of Arc by Críostóir Ó Floinn is available on Columba Books.

Thérèse  of Lisieux
The one who hid away…
Thérèse of Lisieux in a photograph taken in the courtyard of the monastery of Lisieux on Easter Monday, April 15, 1894.

On 30 September 1897 a twenty-four-year old nun named Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus died of tuberculosis in a convent of the Carmelites, an enclosed order, in the city of Lisieux in France. She had entered the convent at the exceptionally young age of fifteen. She was unknown to the world outside the convent, except for some relations – her parents were already deceased – and was considered by some of her sisters in religion as an ordinary nun whose short life in the order was not marked by anything unusual, so much so that, shortly before she died, one of them wondered what could be said of her in the brief biographical notice which it was customary to distribute to other houses of the order on the death of a nun. In 1925, just twenty-seven years after her death, Pope Pius Xi officially proclaimed this young nun a saint – she was already long canonised by voxpopuli. One hundred years after her death, Pope John Paul II bestowed on this young woman, who had lived and died unknown to the world, the title Doctor of the Church, thus declaring to the Catholic world that her spiritual teaching and way of life were to be regarded as having contributed significantly to the understanding, by clergy and laity alike, of the theology and spirituality of the Catholic faith. Not only did this make her one of only three women among the thirty three saints thus honoured – her own patron saint and founder of the Reformed Carmelites, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) counsellor of popes and kings, were both given the title in 1970 – but it placed the young nun of Lisieux on the same exalted plane as theological sages like St Thomas Aquinas.

While popes and theologians were thus acknowledging officially that a girl who desired only to hide herself away from the world in a life of prayer and sacrifice had been chosen by the Holy Spirit to be an instrument of grace and renewal in the Church of Christ, the hidden nun of Lisieux was becoming one of the most popular saints in the devotional manifestations of the faithful everywhere. Under the familiar title of the ‘Little Flower’, deriving from her own description of herself as merely a little white flower of the Child Jesus, she was taken to their hearts by all kinds of people, from intellectuals like Paul Claudel, Edith Stein and Thomas Merton, to the very children making their First Holy Communion. Her statue, along with that other favourite, St Anthony of Padua, was to be found in almost every Catholic church in the world, and she was prayed to probably more than any heavenly intercessor except our Blessed Lady herself. Miracles physical and spiritual were being attributed to her, and in many countries there were societies and magazines promoting devotion to a saint who seemed to have been specially provided by God for the technologically enriched but spiritually impoverished world of the twentieth century. In the middle of that century, in 1954, after the Second World War had shown once again the madness that afflicts the human race when it ignores its Creator, the Basilica of Sainte Thérèse was consecrated in Lisieux and became a place of popular pilgrimage in the very town where she had tried to hide away from the world and be known only to God. How did this extraordinary metamorphosis come about? To answer that question, we have to go back to the last decade of the nineteenth century and to that enclosed Carmelite Convent in the town of Lisieux in France.

Three French Saints – Thérèse of Lisieux by Críostóir Ó Floinn is available on Columba Books.

Bernadette Soubirous
The one who saw visions…
Bernadette Soubirous in a photograph taken around 1858.

Bernadette Soubirous was born on 7 January 1844 in the small town of Lourdes which nestles below the Pyrenees mountain range dividing France from Spain.

From Bernadette’s many narrations, and from the accounts taken down later from her sister and their friend, her account of the first apparition in Massabielle on a fateful day in February are well documented. The other two girls had wandered off from the cavern, Bernadette had sat down and removed her clogs and one stocking when she heard a noise ‘like a gust of wind’. She looked around. Behind her in the field there were tall poplars that would sway in the slightest breeze; but they were not stirring. She bent again to remove her other stocking. Again she heard the noise of a gust of wind. This time, looking across towards the rocky hill on the other side of the stream, she noticed that some branches on the side of the rock were moving. They were the branches of a wild rosebush, flowerless now in winter, growing at the foot of one of several cave-like openings in the face of the rocky cliff. While she stared, Bernadette saw a gentle light begin to glow in the dark grotto. Then a form began to appear and became clearer.

Bernadette saw a beautiful young woman standing there, smiling. She was dressed in white from head to foot, with a blue girdle; her feet were bare but adorned with two golden roses, and a long rosary beads was suspended from her right arm. The young girl blinked her eyes tight, convinced that she was imagining what seemed to have appeared in the grotto. When she opened her eyes, the person was still there, beautiful and smiling. Bernadette now felt uneasy and fearful, but not, she said later, in a way that urged her to run away. Instead, she resorted to what parents and priests had instilled into children as the instinctive reaction to anything that might be from an evil source; she put her hand in her pocket and took out her rosary beads. (Let us pause to ponder how many girls in France or elsewhere today carry similar protection in purse or pocket!) When Bernadette tried to make the Sign of the Cross to begin her rosary, she was unable to raise her hand to her forehead. Then the young lady in the grotto made the Sign of the Cross, upon which Bernadette found herself able to do the same. She began to recite the rosary. While she did so, the lady moved her fingers along her own beads, but did not move her lips. When Bernadette finished her rosary, the lady smilingly gestured to her to cross the stream and come nearer; but the young girl was afraid to do so. Then the vision disappeared.

Bernadette gradually became aware again of her surroundings. The grotto was as dark and gloomy as it had been, just like the other apertures in the cliff face. The dull morning was still windless, the fog had turned to drizzling rain. Although feeling a strange sense of happiness and wonder, Bernadette now became mindful of the practical purpose that had brought her and the other girls to this place. She took off her second stocking and walked across the stream. In doing so, she wondered why her sister had cried out that the water was freezing when they crossed over; to her bare feet it felt pleasantly warm. Little did that peasant girl know then that many saintly mystics, when in ecstasy, had felt that same sensation of unseasonal warmth.

Three French Saints – Bernadette Soubirous by Críostóir Ó Floinn is available on Columba Books.