“Where are you off to now? To some church, I suppose, where you’ll gaze at the images and think yourself pious. All the time what is really wanted of you is a decent house for these poor creatures.” (Madeleine Lamy speaking to St. John Eudes [1601-1680])
Although he is not widely known in America, St. John Eudes (feast day 19 August) remains an important figure in the contemporary Church because of the spirituality he advanced in his own time and which endures even today. St. John’s work, in fact, is particularly important this year because we are celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of Our Lady appearing at Fatima, Portugal. In these approved apparitions, the Blessed Mother talked to three children about devotion to her Immaculate Heart as the way to genuine peace in the world, which is found not as some abstract idea, but is found to reside within one’s own heart first through obedience to God. Indeed, the way to Jesus Christ can be discovered most readily through devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Heart. Our Lady expressed to the children at Fatima that Jesus Himself wanted devotion to His Mother’s Immaculate Heart spread throughout the world. St. John Eudes (pronounced “yoods”) was instrumental in promoting devotion to both the Sacred Heart of Jesus (years before St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s private revelations of the Sacred Heart) and Mary’s Immaculate Heart in the seventeenth century as part of a Catholic spiritual revival, as it were, known as the French school of spirituality.
St. John was born on a farm in northern France in the village of Ri, and interestingly, he would later die in Caen, the next county over from Ri, which was in Normandy. John was educated by the Jesuits, but he joined the Oratory of St. Philip and was ordained a priest at the age of twenty-four. His training and study with the Oratorians led him to embrace the hallmarks of the French school of spirituality throughout his whole life: an emphasis on Christ in Eucharistic adoration, a personal intimacy with Jesus especially through the Cross, and a reliance on the Holy Spirit in one’s daily vocation.
During two severe plagues that broke out in northern France in 1627 and 1631, Eudes immediately volunteered to care for the sick and dying, which placed his own health in considerable danger both times. Nevertheless, he administered the sacraments to the sick and dying, tended to plague victims personally, and buried the dead.
At the age of thirty-two, Eudes became a travelling preacher giving parish missions to hundreds of churches. St. John was a noted preacher and teacher, and his parish missions lasted sometimes several months. During this time, he noticed that the education of the clergy was clearly lacking. He established, therefore, the Congregation of Jesus and Mary whose apostolate was to form diocesan clergy in the seminary. He met tremendous opposition from the heretics of his day, the Jansenists. The Jansenists objected to the idea of personal intimacy with Christ in a person’s spiritual development because they emphasized more of a strict moral rigorism in carrying out one’s Christian life and duty. The Jansenists thought that Eudes’ approach was too lax and too liberal.
Nonetheless, Eudes did not alter his approach. Not only did the French school of spirituality influence him, but St. John also relied heavily on the life and teaching of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), who was another object of attack from the Jansenists. John Eudes combined St. Francis’ superb spiritual insights with the private revelations of St. Gertrude (1256-1302) and St. Mechtilde (1241-1298); both of these religious women had great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He wanted the devotion to the Sacred Heart spread universally through the Church, and he, consequently, composed an Office (of readings) and a Mass (prayers and music) for the Sacred Heart. These were later approved by several bishops for use in the universal Church. Pope Leo XIII conferred the title upon St. John as the “Author of the Liturgical Worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Holy Heart of Mary” in 1903.
Two of his seminary chapels were dedicated to the Sacred Heart. In 1648, the first feast of the Holy Heart of Mary (later, the Immaculate Heart) was celebrated, and in 1672, the feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated; both of these feasts had an octave, which means that they were celebrated in the local French dioceses for eight consecutive days. St. John Eudes also wrote the first published book on the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He knew that devotion to one was inseparable from the other—not because the Blessed Mother is divine, but because her will and life is joined so uniquely to her Son, that God wills that we venerate Mary’s Immaculate Heart as the sure entrance into Jesus’ Sacred Heart. St. John always stressed that Jesus is the center of our worship and devotion, but His love radiates out first with His own Mother, and then to us as we join with her in our love for Christ.
One of St. John’s most important works also included his care for women who wanted to leave a life of immoral practices. After the abovementioned quote from Madame Lamy around 1640, St. John was troubled that his devotion to God was not tangible enough in meeting the needs of women before him each day. Madame Lamy was instrumental in helping women leave a life of prostitution, but there was no substantial future for them because they had no adequate place to live and no vocational abilities. Therefore, St. John created the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge for women who wanted to leave their former life of prostitution and lead a life of penance. The congregation of women grew quickly, and in 1666, Pope Alexander VII approved this congregation officially.
St. John’s life was dedicated to the spiritual improvement of the people who came to him. His concern for their needs—whether they were plague victims, women who needed to escape one life to find another one of purity and holiness, seminarians, or parishioners—was founded in the depths of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Devotion to both Hearts would never leave a faithful Christian astray, and in today’s world, this truth is never more necessary than ever before! May we have daily recourse to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus as the way to God’s truth which each person is meant to discover, to live, and to grow in everyday.
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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