A Fiery Preacher of God’s Wisdom
A Man Consumed by God’s Love
Name: Louis Marie Grignion. He adopted the last name “de Montfort” at his confirmation to tell the world where he was baptized into Christ Jesus.
Born: 31 January 1673 in Montfort sur-Meu, France
Died: 28 April 1716 in St Laurent-sur-Sevre
Canonized: 20 July 1947
On July 19, 1947, an editorial appeared in the renowned French newspaper, La Croix, commenting on the canonization of Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716) which would take place on the following day. The editor, Pierre Lermite, wrote that there are two kinds of saints. The first type, everyone loves, everyone appreciates: peaceful, meek men and women like Francis de Sales, Bernadette, Therese of Lisieux. There is, however, another type of saint, the editor insisted. They appear to us like a rushing torrent cascading down a mountainside, overturning everything not sealed with the name of Jesus, leaving us stunned, if not shocked. The saint to be canonized tomorrow, said the editorial, is of this second kind: a roaring torrent cascading down a mountainside.
Attempts have been made to summarize Saint Louis de Montfort in a phrase or even a word. Pierre Lermite believed that the metaphor of a thundering mountain torrent captured the essence of the saint from Montfort. Others prefer “artist,” or “mystic,” or “missionary,” “man of the absolute,” or “Our Lady’s troubadour” and even “the vagabond,” “Wisdom’s Fool.” And even Saint John Paul II, who read St Louis Marie’s writings every day, called him an “excellent theologian” primarily because of his masterpiece, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Pope Saint John Paul’s episcopal motto, Totus Tuus, comes directly from Montfort’s prayer for consecration.)
- Hospital Chaplain
- Preacher of Parish Missions
- Apostolic Missionary
- Founder of Three Religious Congregations to serve the poor:
- Lover of prayer and contemplation
Undoubtedly, it is difficult to summarize the multi-faceted life of the Father from the Breton village of Montfort.
There is, however, a metaphor used by John Baptist Blain, a close friend and early biographer of Montfort, to describe the powerful personality of Saint Louis, an image also found in the famous epitaph on Montfort’s original tomb: FIRE. Montfort is a raging fire. It not only signifies his boundless zeal; it primarily points to the fire who is God, a “consuming fire,” and more specifically to the Holy Spirit, the infinite flame uniting the Father and the Son.
Louis Grignion was ablaze with God. He participated so ardently in the very nature of God that he became the Holy Spirit’s flame: jumping, leaping from one place to another, igniting towns and villages into living fires of God’s love. Montfort’s ministry scorched off the rust of sin and was like a refiner’s fire, burning all impurities, transforming his hearers into the pure gold of Jesus Christ.
Pope Clement XI, in 1705, bestowed on him the title, ‘Apostolic Missionary’ which empowered him to go about Western France preaching missions of baptismal renewal and consecration in nearly 200 parishes during ten years time.
He prayed that God would raise up, through Mary’s intercession, a team of missionary preachers like himself who were on fire with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Today that missionary community bears the name he gave it: the Missionaries of the Company of Mary.
Blain initially speaks of Montfort as “a fire not allowed to burn.” Blain is referring to the years that Louis Grignion spent at St Sulpice Seminary in Paris (1694-1700) after having completed eight years at the Jesuit college of St Thomas Becket at Rennes. The detailed rules of St Sulpice hemmed Montfort in, they put boundaries and limits on his yearning for mortification, for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, for service to the poor of the area. The seminary superiors tried to contain the fire. The fundamental rule of Saint Sulpice, “one size fits all,” was not made for a fiery young man who was being prepared by God for an extraordinary ministry in the Church.
Writings : He was also a man of deep prayer and his many writings and songs reflect the wisdom he gained from his relationship to Jesus through Mary. The centerpiece of his spiritual legacy is Love of the Eternal Wisdom, which teaches us so tenderly about God’s love in Christ.
It was at Poitiers, several months after his ordination in 1700 that the contained fire began to blaze freely. He was appointed chaplain at the local poorhouse. The flames of his heart reached out to every aspect of the institution; he ate with the poor, he begged in the name of the outcasts, he identified with the homeless, he drew up a program of reform so that the poor would be recognized for who they really are: the very images of Jesus Christ. He tenderly embraced those whose fetid, running sores caused revulsion on part of the staff. Montfort firmly believed that he was embracing the very presence of the Lord.
He ardently desired that the fire of God’s special love for the poor, the sick, the uneducated, would burn in the hearts of more and more followers of Jesus. He therefore founded, right in the poorhouse, the community of the Daughters of Wisdom. Marie Louise Trichet, a young girl from a middle class Poitiers family became the first member of the new religious order (1702). The poor house would be her novitiate. And he yearned for a missionary congregation of priests and brothers who like him, would boldly ignite the world with God’s firm tenderness by their Spirit-filled preaching. When news of all this spread, many regarded the young priest – ordained only two years - as absolutely mad, a fire gone out of control.
The opposition of the Board of Directors made it impossible for him to continue his ministry at the poorhouse. He then began in earnest the vocation which would be his right up to his death in 1716: preaching parish missions and retreats in churches, town squares, soldiers’ gatherings, night clubs and even houses of prostitution. The fire of God’s Love broke out into a huge conflagration, engulfing cities, towns and villages into the burning Heart of God.
His preaching was so filled with the Spirit that parish after parish experienced a new Pentecost as he went throughout northwestern France, preaching over 200 parish missions during his only sixteen years of priesthood. Once again, tongues of fire were poured out upon the fearful followers of Jesus. In 1708, when he was invited to the diocese of Nantes to preach, the vicar general and a Jesuit preacher-theologian sat in on his first sermon, so that together they could criticize and make a list of those “strange quirks” of Montfort. They left the church visibly shaken, for as they themselves said, they experienced wave after wave of the power of the Spirit enveloping the entire congregation.
He also wrote the Treatise on the True Devotion as a way for people to a renewed Christian commitment by a perfect renewal of their baptismal vows. In this text one can find Montfort’s famous, Consecration to Jesus through Mary.
He also wrote many letters, rules for his congregations of women and men, adapted popular songs into hymns for church, and poems about the love of God in Jesus whom we know so tenderly through Mary’s intercession.
St. Louis de Montfort was also an artist who carved images of the Cross and the Blessed Mother which were left behind when he moved on to another mission. One of his crucifixes now hangs at the house of his birth and can be seen in the above photo on the right.
Today: He is venerated as a great saint of the French School of Spirituality which he learned as a seminarian at St. Sulpice. This spirituality complemented the faith formation he received from the Jesuits and later the Dominican friars when he joined their Third Order.
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His signature missions comprising his fiery preaching, the solemn renewal of baptismal promises through Mary; the huge, colorful processions of the Blessed Sacrament - bands playing, crowds singing, soldiers parading - were transforming highlights of his stay in the town. And it ended with the planting of the life-size Crucifix, a sign that the town had once again pledged its allegiance to the flag of the faith, the Cross of Jesus Wisdom. Montfort was burning away the rust of sin, preparing the soil for new growth of life in Christ. And he left towns enriched with a catechetical school for the youngsters, confraternities for adults, a soup kitchen for the poor and at times even a clinic for the incurables. The fire who is Montfort had swept through the area, turning it into a towering flame of the Holy Spirit.
But the raging fire - so some said - had gone wild! Who could keep up with his incredible zeal, who could even understand it? His stress on the tenderness of Jesus and Mary, his success which some early biographers compare to the power of the apostles after Pentecost, his identification with the outcasts: that fool, Grignion, cried a few, but a powerful few. The command that he had over his congregations, so strong that even garrisons of soldiers begged to go to confession, alarmed some of the religious and political leaders.
The Bishops of Poitiers, Nantes, St Malo and others strongly invited the Father from Montfort to leave the diocese. The saint’s spiritual director for many years, the Sulpician Father Leschassier, began to doubt him and in fact stated that Montfort was clearly filled with the fire of the spirit but he was not sure that it was “a good spirit.”
Father Louis-Marie from Montfort was misunderstood, expelled, calumniated, called by the Louis XIV’s representative for Brittany, “that great fool, Grignion!” Several times attempts were made on his life for there were people who were determined to extinguish the fire so that they could live in peace, undisturbed by the radical demands of the Gospel. Many of his seminary teachers not only considered him a failure but a blot on the honorable name of St Sulpice.
The opposition upset Father Louis-Marie. The young preacher from Montfort had decided that with the Holy Father’s permission, he would leave France and go to the Indian missions of Canada. When he arrived in Rome, he was granted a private audience with Clement XI. Montfort poured out his heart to the Vicar of Christ. But the Pope told him he was more needed in France than in Canada’s forests and asked him to return to his homeland to continue the great work he was doing. He named the young priest an “Apostolic Missionary,” hoping, perhaps, that with such a title he would be able to overcome opposition from the clergy of northwestern France.
A fire gone out of control
Montfort’s Pentecost preaching called down flames of fire upon all who opened their hearts to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Saint Louis-Marie is a gigantic figure in the history of the Church, a fire so ablaze that he is considered upsetting—if not even mad!—by some, even today.
How did Saint Louis de Montfort become such an ardent fire of the Holy Spirit? We all know the answer: his secret of sanctity. As the fire of God comes to us through Mary, it is in and through Mary that we will become the fire of God. God awaited the Yes of Mary before igniting the Blazing Flame of His Word upon this earth. Her faith, willed by God, sparked the incarnation of the eternal Wisdom, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.
The Saint looked forward to a “deluge of fire.” In his magnificent fiery Prayer for Missionaries Montfort begs God to inundate this universe with this deluge of pure love, to flood this universe with the fire of the Holy Spirit. “When will it happen,” Montfort asks, “this fiery deluge of pure love with which you, O God, are to set the whole world ablaze, so that all nations will be caught up in its flames and be converted?” “Let the fire be lit,” cries Montfort! “Let its flames rise … let this divine fire which Jesus Christ came to bring on earth be enkindled!”
Are we today that raging fire of the Spirit of Love? The same Spirit that will ignite and engulf every person in the whole universe into the flame of the eternal and incarnate Wisdom? “Lord,” many of us can say, “we are not a roaring flame, but only embers.”
And that is one of the reasons we have set up this internet site. We pray that dying embers may be fanned into towering flames, so that sparks may catch fire, so that even smoldering ashes will burn into “a raging fire,” and thus, like Saint Louis-Marie de Montfort, bring about the reform of the Church and the renewal of the face of the earth.
~ by Rev. J. Patrick Gaffney, SMM, STD
Father Gaffney spent his life as a preacher and teacher of Jesus and Mary. He was professor emeritus from St Louis University where he taught in the Department of Theological Studies for many years. Father Pat was also a sought-after preacher of retreats and seminars on Mary, Montfort and baptismal consecration.