The sick old priest arrived at Roussay to preach a mission. He mounted the pulpit in the parish church, and after a brief prayer, began to speak. This tiny town in the west of France consisted of several dilapidated buildings, most prominent of which was this church with a rowdy bar right next door. As the preacher raised his voice, the drunkards could hear the sermon, and the parishioners could hear the raucous noise coming from the bar.
Knowing this, the denizens of the bar tried to disturb his sermon by screaming insults at the congregation and mocking them for their cleaner habits.
The priest very calmly finished the sermon, gave the people his blessing and exited the church. As he left, though empty handed and alone, he walked directly into the bar. An eyewitness describes what happened next:
Father said nothing, except with his fists. For the first time since he came to Roussay, men had a chance to see how big, and to feel how hard, those fists were. He struck them down and let them lie. He overturned tables and chairs. He smashed glasses. He walked over the bodies of stunned and sobered hoodlums, and went slowly back up the street.
Saint Louis de Montfort was only forty years old at the time of the incident mentioned above. Due to a life of sacrifice and penance, his body was worn out by many labors. But this “sick old priest” had developed a well-deserved reputation as a fiery preacher filled with zeal for souls.
His time at Roussay illustrates the total balance he manifested throughout his life. On the second day of his mission in Roussay, a drunk man burst into the church and stood in the aisle screaming insults at Saint Louis. Saint Louis calmly left the pulpit and approached the man. Everyone was expecting him to react as he had the day before, giving the man a beating he would not soon forget. To their great amazement, Father de Montfort knelt before the man and begged pardon for anything he had done to offend him.
The man was stunned and nearly collapsed before running out of the church in sadness. Saint Louis calmly returned to the pulpit and finished his sermon as though nothing had happened.
In 1700, when Saint Louis was ordained, great crises plagued France. The heretical movement known as Jansenism had taken root in all corners of the kingdom. Working to change the Church from within, the Jansenists preached false notions of piety. Where their influence prevailed, people stayed away from the Sacraments. This heresy infected laymen, priests and bishops alike. Once-vibrant Catholic devotions like the rosary and Marian processions were condemned as idolatrous practices. At the same time, decadence dominated all social classes, marked by a craving for crass pleasures and entertainments of all kinds. These libertines seeking lives of comfort and luxury contrasted greatly with the Jansenists, though the two never condemned each other.
Saint Louis de Montfort’s perfect balance inspired great multitudes while making many enemies. As he foretold on numerous occasions, the devil would toil unceasingly to erase his influence from history. However, though forgotten for many years, Divine Providence raised up this Apostle of Mary to have his greatest impact in our times. Three hundred years after his death in 1716, his undying influence and constant intercession give great strength for our many battles. As he prophesied, today’s struggles will culminate with the great victory of the Reign of Mary.
Saint Louis de Montfort was born in 1673 and was the oldest of eighteen children, ten of whom died in infancy. From the youngest age, he exhibited great piety, spending long hours in prayer before a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the church at Rennes. Even as a child his zeal could be seen in the hours he would devote to teaching other children catechism. Inspired by the stories of Abbé Julien Bellier who had traveled as a missionary, young Louis began seminary studies aiming to spread devotion to Mary, his “Good Mother.”
Louis gave himself entirely to his vocation, consecrating himself to Jesus through Mary and vowing to never keep any personal possessions. He walked the 190 miles from Rennes to Paris to begin his studies, and he quickly earned the admiration of his fellow students by his zeal and seriousness. His piety earned the ire of many of his superiors, many of who were infected with the Jansenist spirit. They did all they could to delay his ordination, though he was a brilliant student and model seminarian. After ordination, it was more than a year before he was given a first assignment.
A hospital in Poitiers was Father de Montfort’s first vineyard. Having walked there from Paris to take up his new assignment, even the poor were moved at the pitiful sight he made upon his arrival in the chapel. Not realizing he was their new chaplain, they took up a collection for him, needy as they were. Their charity was well repaid, as Father de Montfort would personally see to each patient, often dressing open wounds and spending long hours comforting the dying. His missions met with great success, inspiring the poor to call for a more permanent assignment for “kind Father de Montfort.” The bishop made him chaplain of a local hospital.
It was during this providential assignment that Blessed Marie-Louise Trichet came to Father de Montfort for Confession. He demanded, “Who sent you to me?” When Marie-Louise replied that her sister suggested that she confess to him, he replied: “No, it was the Blessed Virgin who sent you to me.” She later became the first of his “Daughters of Wisdom” and was also named the convent’s first mother superior.
As would happen throughout his life, trouble followed in the wake of his good deeds. False rumors were spread by those who resented his serious example, especially from the outraged family of Marie-Louise who had become his follower. The bishop forbade him from offering Mass, which forced him to move on. He walked on to Paris, but a brief ministry at a hospital there was also short lived.
Father de Montfort, seeing few prospects in France, walked over 1,000 miles to Rome for an audience with Clement XI. He begged the Holy Father to send him to Canada as a missionary. Pope Clement, struck by this beggar priest of extraordinary sanctity, appointed him Missionary Apostolic and sent him back to France.
Filled with gratitude for knowing the Divine Will, Father de Montfort walked back to France and spent several weeks at Mont Saint-Michel. As he later wrote, “I used my time to pray to this archangel to obtain from him the grace to win souls for God, to confirm those already in God’s grace, and to fight Satan and sin.”
Marching on to the northwest, Father de Montfort began his rigorous mission. In every town it was the same: he would arrive and preach missions in the parish church. The people, moved with compunction, would flock to the sacraments and engage in public processions to confront human respect. To show their seriousness, bad books would be piled in front of the parish church. Father de Montfort would set the piles ablaze, leading the crowd in joyous hymns to show their delight in embracing virtue.
With the serious demeanor of a hardened soldier, Father de Montfort was never seen without his greatest weapon: the rosary. He often emphasized his confidence in the power of the rosary: “Never will anyone who says his rosary every day be led astray. This is a statement that I would gladly sign with my blood.”
While preaching a mission at Rennes, a certain Monsieur D’Orville complained to him about the noise coming from the immoral people of the town square, which was on the other side of the wall from where his family would meet every evening to pray the rosary. The pious priest offered a solution: “Place a niche in the wall with a statue of Our Lady facing the square, and meet in front of it to pray in the public square.” Uneasy about the idea, Monsieur D’Orville nonetheless placed the statue in the niche and met the next evening in the square to pray the rosary with his family. His wife led the mysteries while he stood guard with a whip to keep the aggressions of young hoodlums at bay. After praying in this way for some time, the public square rosary became a curious attraction. People came in crowds to pray, as if some great church ceremonies were taking place, and soon, the disorders in the square ceased.
Taking Our Lord’s example very seriously, the great missionary never missed an opportunity for taking on physical suffering. Frequent fasting, wearing hair shirts and chains beneath his clothing, and being tortured by devils who would rob him of his sleep were his constant lot. But these paled in comparison to the spiritual sufferings he endured.
After having given a very effective mission, the people were enthusiastic and had constructed one of the famous pyramids of immoral and heretical material to burn. Just as Father de Montfort was finishing the last sermon of the mission and preparing to go out and burn the pile, the vicar of the diocese arrived and forbade him from continuing.
Father de Montfort immediately came down from the pulpit and knelt to receive a rebuke from the vicar. When word spread that the pile of immoral books was not going to be burned, gangs of evil boys converged upon the pile and ran off with the bad material.
When Father de Montfort heard what had happened, he remarked: “Why have they not taken away my life rather than poison so many of these little ones? If I could buy back those evil books and pictures by shedding my blood, I would shed every last drop of it.”
Another custom of Father de Montfort consisted in building a Calvary scene on the highest point overlooking a town once a mission was completed. At Pontchateau, when he announced his determination of building a monumental Calvary on a neighboring hill, the idea was enthusiastically received by the inhabitants. For fifteen months between 200 and 400 peasants worked daily without recompense. The finished Cross was over fifty feet tall! On the day of dedication, the order came from the king that the whole scene should be demolished, and the land restored to its former condition. The Jansenists had convinced the king that a base for a British invasion was being erected, and for several months 500 peasants, watched by a company of soldiers, were compelled to carry out the work of destruction. Father de Montfort was not disturbed on receiving this humiliating news, exclaiming only: “We had hoped to build a Calvary here. Let us build it in our hearts. Blessed be God!”
From the start of his missions, Father de Montfort gathered together the sick and suffering into what would come to be called the Friends of the Cross. In his first assignment at Poitiers, the sick and suffering would meet under his direction, led in prayer by a blind woman. At their first meeting, he took a rough cross made of two simple pieces of wood and placed it on the wall of the chapel, stating for all to hear, “Behold, your one and only rule.”
In his Circular Letter to the Friends of the Cross, he captures in words his superb imitation of Our Savior that he spread throughout France:
Friends of the Cross, you are like Crusaders united to fight against the world… Be brave and fight courageously… Evil spirits are united to destroy you; you must be united to crush them. The avaricious are united to make money and amass gold and silver; you must combine your efforts to acquire the eternal treasures hidden in the Cross. Pleasure-seekers unite to enjoy themselves; you must be united to suffer. You call yourselves “Friends of the Cross.” What a glorious title! I must confess that I am charmed and captivated by it. It is brighter than the sun, higher than the heavens, more magnificent and resplendent than all the titles given to kings and emperors. It is the glorious title of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. It is the genuine title of a Christian.
One year before his death, he was so consumed with love and the presence of Our Lady, that he experienced a type of Transfiguration before a congregation in La Rochelle to whom he was speaking. This is how one of his first biographers describes the scene:
It came to pass that as he was speaking, there shone down upon him, as of old on the face of Saint Stephen, a reflection of the glory of his transfigured Lord. All of a sudden, his worn and wasted face…became luminous. Rays of glory seemed to go forth from it…so that even they who were used to looking at him knew him only by his voice.
He stood there before them all, this truehearted herald of Mary’s name, and they saw his glory, the glory given by the “Father of lights” to them who love and serve the Mother of His Son.
With Father de Montfort’s passing, he was given a humble tomb beside his parents at Saint Laurent-sur-Sèvre. By the time of his death he had been kicked out of all but two dioceses, France having more than 170 at the time. As he predicted during his life, the devil did all in his power to keep the prolific writings of this great priest from spreading.
Over a hundred years later, someone rummaging through a box of old books happened upon a manuscript titled Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. True Devotion to Mary soon spread far and wide, translated into dozens of languages and inspiring countless Catholics to follow the sublime path outlined by this humble priest. Renewed interest and deep spiritual renewal would eventually propel Father de Montfort to be recognized as a great saint and Doctor of the Church, canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1947. In this spiritual masterpiece, Saint Louis de Montfort shows the idea of spiritual slavery through the Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary as the means for bringing about the kingdom of Our Lord Jesus Christ on earth.
Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gives a moving summary of this most important aspect of Saint Louis de Montfort’s spirituality:
Saint Louis de Montfort proposes that the faithful consecrate themselves freely to the Blessed Virgin as “slaves of love,” giving her their bodies and souls, their goods, both interior and exterior, and even the value of all their good actions, past, present, and future, so that Our Lady might dispose of them for the greater glory of God, in time and in eternity. In exchange, as a sublime mother, Our Lady obtains for her “slaves of love” the graces of God that elevate their intellects to the most lucid understanding of the highest themes of the Faith, that grant their wills an angelic strength to rise freely to those ideals and to conquer all the interior and exterior obstacles that unduly oppose themselves to them.
The “slavery of love” is, then, for all the faithful that angelic and supreme liberty with which Our Lady awaits us at the threshold of the twenty-first century, smiling and attractive, inviting us to her reign, according to her promise at Fatima: “Finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
Speaking to our days, Saint Louis reassures us of the certainty of this triumph: “I feel more than ever inspired to believe and expect the complete fulfillment of the desire that is deeply engraved on my heart and what I have prayed to God for over many years, namely, that in the near or distant future the Blessed Virgin will have more children, servants and slaves of love than ever before, and that through them Jesus, my dear Lord, will reign more than ever in the hearts of men.”
Three hundred years after his death, the great Saint Louis de Montfort continues his fight for Mary’s reign by interceding for us in our daily struggles. Keeping our eyes on the prize, may his words echo in our souls as we pray daily that Our Lord hasten the victory for His Mother’s triumphant reign:
The Holy Spirit, finding His dear Spouse present again in souls, will come down into them with great power. He will fill them with His gifts, especially wisdom, by which they will produce wonders of grace. My dear friend, when will that happy time come, that age of Mary, when many souls, chosen by Mary and given her by the Most High God, will hide themselves completely in the depths of her soul, becoming living copies of her, loving and glorifying Jesus? That day will dawn only when the devotion I teach is understood and put into practice. Ut adveniat regnum tuum, adveniat regnum Mariae: “Lord, that your kingdom may come, may the reign of Mary come!”