When a Christian is not puzzled or trapped in the middle of the crisis, but instead strives to be true to his faith and come out renewed at the same time, foreseeing a new stage and opening up to the future, it is because he understands faith as a vocation for progress. When that crisis happens to be the French Revolution, and that Christian a priest from Bordeaux called William Joseph Chaminade, we have before us a complex and original ecclesiastic creation: the Marianist Family, which is based on one of the first modern movements of the lay apostolate (the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, 1800) and two other religious congregations: the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (1816) and the Society of Mary (1817).
Chaminade behaves paradoxically, in the midst of a revolution, not as a nostalgic for what is being lost, but as a prophet of what is coming, what God wants. Thus Pope John XXIII accurately said when declaring his heroic virtues, “It is with all justice that he is considered a pioneer and a precursor”. Chaminade sensed the signs of the times, the changes in society and values brought by the revolution, and responded as a Christian would: he said Yes to Liberty as openness and incarnation, as a style of tolerance and respect for personal consciousness, with a sense of adaptation; he said Yes to Equality by creating a religious congregation in which laymen and clergymen worked together, with the same rights and duties, on a mutual and complementary project; he said Yes to Fraternity by promoting the creation of true communities of faith, life, and mission for laymen, clergymen and women, imprinting on them the seal of simplicity, cordiality, and family spirit.
All his spirituality can be summed up in the mystery of the Incarnation: living from the faith, like Mary, to embrace the Incarnated Word as it comes to our lives, just as she did. The “Spirit of Mary,” Her evangelical style of walking, encourages us to embrace the figure of Jesus Christ in our lives, and always leads us to listen to Him, to believe in Him, and to live according to His teachings, as Mary Herself said, to “Do whatever He tells you [us].” Missionary Incarnation in our world today.
The roots. The first River, the Isle, joining Périgueux and Mussidan
We could compare the life of William Chaminade with a river born from a spring, nurturing the soil in its course, and finally becoming part of the ocean. His roots are right there by the Isle, in French Dordogne. He was born in Périgueux, on April 8, 1761, to a modest family of artisans and merchants. He was the fourteenth and last son of Blaise and Catherine. He got his faith and sense of gratuity from his mother, and his realism and hardworking character from his father. Some of his brothers had entered the religious life. The eldest, Jean Baptiste, belonged to the Society of Jesus until it was dissolved. He began his studies in Périgueux, but soon moved to the town of Mussidan, where his brothers were in charge of a Seminary School founded by the priestly Congregation of Saint Charles. There he continued his studies and was prepared for the sacraments of initiation by his brother Jean Baptiste, his first Catechist. Upon receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, he added Joseph to his Christian name as a sign of his Marian sensitivity: Joseph was the first person closest to Mary. Mary was a major part of his faith from the beginning of his life. He once made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Verdelais to give thanks for a cure, and became a regular visitor at the small church of Our Lady of the Rock, right by the river in Mussidan. The curious image of the sanctuary, a depiction of Mary holding both baby Jesus and the body of her crucified Son in her arms, seemed to point out the path of Incarnation and Mission to him.
He felt that God called him to the priestly vocation, and thus he prepared himself for this mission. We do not know the location of his ordination, but he soon began to work as a priest with his brothers at the school in Mussidan. Everything seemed to indicate such would be his life: the pastoral and educational work of a rural priest. However, God had other plans.
Second Act. The Garonne River, in Bordeaux, and the Ebro, in Zaragoza.
God’s change of plans included a change of scenery and a change of life. New symbolic rivers in the vocation of Chaminade. During the summer of 1789, the revolution broke out in France. In the following year, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was approved, turning State officials and priests into instruments of a “national church”. William Joseph, together with his brothers in Mussidan and many others in all France, opposed this revolutionary law by refusing to take the oath required of all priests. This posture caused a schism in the French clergy. The Terror would begin with the arrival of Robespierre. Then William Joseph decided to abandon Mussidan and move to Bordeaux. He thought it would be more beneficial to exercise the priestly mission in the big city, especially in those times of persecution. He also believed he would thus be able to help more people and have a better chance to give a testimony of fidelity. The next two years would be full of anxiety and difficulties in the Diocese of Bordeaux. Such was the risky nature of his ministry that people began to call him “Bordeaux’s own Saint Vincent de Paul.” Disguised as a tinker or a peddler, he tended to those in difficult situations, visited the sick, and celebrated the Sacraments clandestinely, all in close collaboration with highly committed lay people in a new era of catacombs in France. In the meantime, he bought a small farmhouse, the vineyard of San Lorenzo, on the outskirts of the city, where he installed his parents. That house would be of great importance, as it would serve as a refuge and the birthplace of the Society of Mary. From 1794 to 1796, with the fall of Robespierre, he carried out important work: reconciling the sworn priests. He also started to think of the young people to reconstruct the Diocesan ecclesiastic life: he opened several chapels and places for them to meet.
In 1797, with the Jacobins in power once again, he received the order of exile. He headed to Zaragoza, where he arrived on the eve of the day of the Pillar. He was impressed by the contrast between life in France and what he saw in Zaragoza: a popular atmosphere of celebration of the faith. Once again by a river, this time the Ebro (which, according to tradition, witnessed how Mary encouraged the nascent Church’s faith along its banks), Chaminade spends three years in exile. He spent many hours working on crafts to make a living, talking to exiled French priests like himself and praying in the Holy Chapel of the Pillar. Those years were decisive in the “missionary conversion” of Chaminade: the “new strategies, or new struggles” that faith was to require after the revolution. “Nova Bella elegit Dominus”, he said. Mary was giving signs that a new way of working and of mission was needed. Since then, the figure of Mary as Our Lady of the Pillar would be cherished and announced throughout the world by the Marianist family. Just like Mary on the column, we are “strong in faith”, carrying Jesus, summoning a great missionary community at the service of faith in the world.
A forerunner of the lay apostolate movements
William Joseph Chaminade returned to France in 1800. Since then, until his death in 1850, his life would be devoted to the progressive and complex development of that new conception of evangelization and church that had flourished in him. Unlike many founders, the first thing he did was work with the laity. Upon his arrival, he founded the “Congregation of Mary Immaculate”, first with the young, then with adult men and women with whom he intended to found real communities of faith and mission in the diocese. Meetings and celebrations in the Church of The Magdalen, in the heart of the city (which to this day continues to be the Church of Mary in Bordeaux), made a lasting impression on the young due to their new approach to church work. All social groups were represented. When the time came to make a commitment, the members received a “missionary consecration”, making alliance with Mary to do whatever Jesus told them. The spirituality of the family would be marked by this Marian and missionary understanding: it would become the original seal of the charisma.
In those years he met a young noblewoman, Adele de Batz de Trenquelleón, who was also involved in a partnership of formation in faith and mission. Adela, after learning about the work in Bordeaux, joined the project of the Congregation of Mary Immaculate.
A consecrated life with new emphasis
Within a few years, Adela herself, along with some friends, would be the one to take the first step in the nascent Marianist family by founding a religious congregation in collaboration with Chaminade. Thus appeared in Agen the “Daughters of Mary Immaculate” (DMI) on May 25, 1816. A year later, Jean-Baptiste Lalanne, a young secular member of the congregation, put himself at the founder’s disposal for the same adventure. On October 2, 1817, at the estate of San Laurent, in Bordeaux, the first seven Marianists decided to found a community. Thus the “Society of Mary” (SM) was born. The congregation’s originality lay in its structure, as it brought priests and laity together on an equal footing. It was the “mixed composition” which would represent a new model of “mixed”, neither clerical nor lay, religious congregations in the Church. This structure, as embodied by the SM, was not easily accepted by the Holy See in its beginnings. However, the Society of Mary regarded it as one of its greatest treasures, as it entailed an integrating and original model in male religious life.
The triple Foundation was then completed. Thirty years had passed in the development of these three branches of the family: the laity, and both male and female religious groups. The mission was universal, which entailed an availability to accommodate diverse commitments of evangelization. Following the example of the laity, the Society of Mary and the Daughters of Mary got involved in the educational task, always driven by an intention to form in faith and extend faith communities. Both congregations were also called to work for the laity and in close collaboration with them. The Daughters of Mary began to leave a mark of important evangelization in the French Southwest, while the Society of Mary extended all the way to Alsace. Marianist Pedagogy began then to build a path with the creation of a pedagogical method of its own, new subjects, books written by the teachers themselves, and some new initiatives for teacher training: the first steps towards the Teaching Schools in France were the fruits of this Marianist educational action.
Nevertheless, the last ten years of William Joseph’s life were difficult for everyone and painful for him, as some of the first disciples wrongfully pressed for him to resign his position as Superior General, and even cut off all his connections with his own foundations. It was not until serious historical research was done in the 20th century that Chaminade’s position and heroic fidelity was confirmed, and his good name vindicated. He died in Bordeaux on January 22, 1850. His Beatification on September 3, 2000, two hundred years after his first Foundation, and one hundred and fifty years after his death, is a great sign for the Church.