Pope Benedict summarizes SJE’s importance to the Church:
“Indifference to spiritual things, greed for wealth and success at any price still threaten us today [as they did in the 17th century]. The divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” widens, and injustice is intensified through terror and violence.
Mankind needs to hear again that it is destined to receive God’s love and to share it with others – for this is man’s true greatness.
John Eudes, who succeeded in finding the words and deeds needed to convert the lukewarm Christians of his time, also invites us to discover the type of apostles required in our day. And, as Pope Paul VI used to say, ours is a day which will only accept as leaders those who first and foremost are witnesses.”
- Armand Le Bourgeois CJM Bishop of Autun, France Former Eudist Superior General
- Many priests did not even know how to say mass, they had been ordained simply because they pleased a bishop. Scandals were also widespread of priests who did not hold to their vows of celibacy.
- Bishops were often social climbers, who sought the episcopate purely for the social and economic benefits. This meant spending all their time in the king’s court, and rarely, if ever, in their own diocese.
- The faithful were almost totally ignorant of their faith. They struggled against widespread and abject poverty, while the royals lived in complete opulence. (In fact, it was during this time that the “decorative arts” reached their peak in the palace of Versailles while people starved to death in the streets right outside.)
It was into this context that St. John Eudes was born. Not all was darkness, however. The 17th century produced many of the greatest saints and doctors of the church, which are still well-known today:
- St. Vincent de Paul, the great apostle of the poor, who founded the Vincentian order.
- St. Francis de Sales, one of the first to write books on sanctity for the laity, so they too could seek holiness.
- His student, Jean-Jacques Olier, who founded the Sulpician order to implement the new concept of “seminaries” mandated by the Council of Trent.
- And Pierre de Bérulle, who was inspired by St. Philip Neri’s Oratory in Rome, which was a center for the revival of both the clergy and the liturgy. Bérulle founded the French Oratory in Paris, and was the primary theologian behind the great French School of Spirituality.
In the little village of Ri, in the countryside of Normandy, lived Isaac and Martha Eudes. After three years of marriage, they found themselves still childless. Appealing to the intercession of the Blessed Mother, they promised a pilgrimage to the shire of Our Lady of Recovery (18 miles away, traveled on foot). Nine months later, in November of 1601, they were given their first son, John. He was followed by six other beautiful children
“At the age of nine, in a little quarrel, so frequent among children, one of his companions struck him in the face. In spite of the pain caused by the blow, John thought not of revenge; far from it. Falling on his knees, he turned his cheek to his aggressor and said with simplicity: ‘Strike on the other side.’ The guilty boy, recalled to his duty by this evangelical humility and meekness, blushed and asked for pardon.”
Called to the priesthood
Thanks to the insight and generosity of his pastor and confessor, John Eudes was sent to Caen, a neighboring village, to study with the Jesuits: first Latin and rhetoric, then philosophy and theology. He excelled there, both intellectually and spiritually. In 1623, his missionary zeal drew him to the Congregation of the Oratory in Paris, to participate in the spiritual and clerical revival they were bringing about in France. In 1625, he was ordained a priest of the Oratory, under the close mentorship of the great theologians Pierre de Berulle and Charles Condren. In the Oratory, he found a spirituality that matched his overwhelming desire to place every part of him at the service of His Good Master. In the Oratory, prayer was more than simply recital. It penetrated into thoughts, feelings and desires; it aimed to animate, transform and entirely unite the man to Christ.
“Never had there been seen in that house a novice so fervent, one so faithful in working out his perfection… Mortification of the senses, profound humility, rare modesty, strict silence, in a word, a blending of all the virtues required in his holy state, soon made him a perfect model, not only for his brother novices, but even for the oldest members of the community; everyone found in the young cleric examples of virtues which excited both their surprise and their admiration.”
Immediately after his ordination, he came down with an illness that kept him bedridden for a year. The Lord wished him to spend more time in prayer, study and meditation before he began his great vocation.
It was in this spirit, in imitation of Jesus Christ, that St. John Eudes was more at home with the poor than with the rich. He was in constant service of them, whether it be to hear their confessions, or to share the burden of their trials with them. Since the first days of his ordination, Fr. Eudes had a special love for the poor and neglected, those who no one else would serve.
Service to the Plague Victims
Shortly after his ordination, when he had recovered from illness, the plague broke out in his hometown.
“With the permission of his superiors, he hastened to the stricken districts and with heroic self-sacrifice, devoted himself during the whole course of the plague to the relief of the sick and dying. A few years afterwards, the plague again burst forth in all its fury, in the very heart of the city of Caen. A general panic ensued; all who could do so fled the city. Only the poor and the sick and the dying remained. Deprived of every help, temporal and spiritual.”
During this time, St. John Eudes was a blessing to all who encountered him. He went about Normandy committing himself to the sick, administering the sacraments, and burying the dead. He was completely selfless and regardless of the danger to himself, he served those who had no one to serve them. As an effort to avoid contagion to others, he lived in a wine barrel in a meadow. For a long time afterwards, this meadow was known as “The Meadow of the Saint.”
Conversion of Prostitutes
“During the long course of his missionary labors, Saint John Eudes frequently had the happiness of winning back women and girls from a life of turpitude to a life of purity and virtue. To his great sorrow, however, he remarked that in many cases these conversions were not lasting: many of these weak souls pressed by shear want or solicited by evil associations, soon fell back into their past disorders. To protect and instruct them, and thus assure their perseverance in the way of virtue, he conceived and undertook the establishment of a new religious order.”
He first tried to establish this order in 1635, but not until six year later was he able to procure a house on the outskirts of the city of Caen. Though difficulties and trials arose, St. John Eudes was determined and eventually the order was established.
Within His Congregations
His love of the poor was so great that soon he began to ask and require that the poor be treated with great respect by his congregations. He made it a rule that in all communities that several times a year dinner was to be served to twelve poor people and that on Sunday and Thursday of every week one of them would eat with the members of the community. Twice a week he would invite the poor to the seminary at Caen to give alms and teach catechism. He said that “the soul, being superior to the body, spiritual nourishment as well as bodily food must be given.”
He often encouraged his brother priests to hear the confession of the poor since no one wanted to and yet the line to hear the confession of the rich was longer than the line of those confessing. The poor though, are often abandoned in soul as well as in body. St. John Eudes was often begged to encourage the people to give alms. On two such occasions, once in Paris in 1651 and a few years later in Caen, the zeal and fervor in which he preached enticed the parishioners to contribute that soon the purses were filled and the poor received considerable aid.
He was said to never preach himself; he preached Jesus Christ always. Because of this, crowds could not keep away. He was often preaching for crowds of ten, fifteen, or twenty thousand people at a time. The multitudes were too large to fit into a church so he would preach in cemeteries, public squares, or open country. At Valognes, in 1643, a crowd of forty thousand people came to listen to him, and though this was long before the microphone, each and every person could distinctly hear what it was he had to say. St. Vincent de Paul, a good friend of St. John Eudes, said, “The great square of Quinze-Vingts could not contain the multitudes that assembled to hear Fr. Eudes when he preached there in 1660.”*
His missions were always “solid and abundant, nourished with the purest and richest Catholic doctrine, clear and to the point, and perfectly adapted to his audience.”* Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, a French Bishop and Theologian, upon hearing St. John Eudes cried out, “This is how we should preach!”*
“Father Eudes spoke from the abundance of his overflowing heart. His natural eloquence issuing forth strong and vehement from such a source, aflame with the spirit of God and replete with the grace and unction, swept away all barriers and carried even the most rebellious hearts before it. At his words, congregations were frequently seen bursting into tears; on one occasion the multitude fell to their knees and cried out with the preacher: ‘Mercy, my God, Mercy!’”*
After his sermons the people would rush to the confessionals. St. Eudes writes;
“We have twelve confessors, but had we fifty, they could be well employed. The people come from a distance of twenty-five or thirty miles. . . What afflicts us most is that we cannot hear the confessions of a quarter of them. The confessors see some having to wait a week before being able to approach the confessional; when they meet a missionary, they throw themselves on their knees at his feet, and with clasped hands and tears in their eyes implore him to hear their confessions; this however is the sixth week we have been here.”*
His missions would last for six weeks or longer. “Without this,” Father Eudes writes, “you cover up the sore, you do not heal it; you break through evil habits, you do not uproot them; you make much noise but you gain little fruit.”* Because of their great many exercises and sermons adapted specifically for the needs of each class of society, these missions “meant a great reawakening of the faith and a holy revolution in the spiritual condition of a parish.” The results of these missions were outstanding. “Sinners abandoned their vices; enemies were reconciled; bad books and indecent pictures and paintings were placed at the feet of the missionaries to be publicly burned.”*
Occasionally, it was St. John Eudes duty to preach to those in a position of authority. Instead of mincing words and appeasing them, he always spoke with true apostolic frankness and courage. Once, when addressing Ann of Austria, he spoke so openly in front of her people that it was rumored he was for sure to be sent to the Bastille. But the Queen exclaimed, “He preached as he ought to have preached; those who flatter us, deceive us; truly, I must be considered very evil to have it said I would cast into prison a man who spoke as he ought to have done.”*
Though He had great love for what he did, his heart was torn with anguish at how quickly the people forgot the teachings of his missions. He quickly realized that this was the fault of the local pastors who neglected the duties of their office and who “lived in ignorance and forgetfulness of their sacred obligations.”* An enduring change to the lives of the faithful could only be achieved by reforming the lives of the clergy. He began to give lectures to the clergy twice a week followed by prayers, meditation, and spiritual readings. But sadly it was not enough. His missions could not make up for the insufficient preparation for Holy Orders, nor could it easily change the ways of the elderly clergy. He soon came to the conclusion that the only way to truly train the clergy was to create special schools where they would be given “serious training in the virtues and functions of their holy state.”*
*St. John Eudes by Rev. P. A. Bray, Holy Heart Seminary Haifax, N. S. 1925
Congregation of Jesus and Mary
St. John Eudes set out to build a seminary in Caen, but when he sought permission to begin construction, he received a resounding no even though it was in union with the spirit of the oratory.
“This was the turning point of his career. He saw clearly that the work he deemed so necessary for the good of the Church and the welfare of souls could not be undertaken so long as he remained a member of the society. After serious reflection, consultation and prayer, the conviction forced itself upon him that it was his duty to quit the Oratory and found a new congregation, the principal aim of which would be the conducting of ecclesiastical seminaries for the training of young men for the priesthood.”*
In 1643, he left the oratory and immediately founded the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, but it was not easy. It seemed that everywhere Father Eudes turned he was met with opposition. The Jansenists especially found him to be an opponent of their heresy. But having made the cross one of the congregations foundation-stones, he was not afraid of the martyrdom he was facing always trusting God’s protection and assistance.
The two main purposes of the Congregation are “to revive the ecclesiastical spirit in the clergy by means of seminary training”* and “to reawaken the Christian spirit in the faithful by means of missions.”* St. John Eudes said: “To train priests is to save the savers, direct the directors, teach the doctors, feed the shepherds, enlighten those who are the sanctification of the church, and to achieve here on earth what the cherubim and seraphim accomplish in heaven.”*
The Order of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge and of the Good Shepherd
In 1635, St. John Eudes set out to create an Order of Religious sister dedicated to the task of “winning back women and girls from a life of turpitude to life of purity and virtue.”* But as it turns out, this task was far more difficult than the Saint had ever thought. At first, he entrusted the care of this special order to a small group of devout and virtuous women. However, poverty and disagreements among the leaders soon brought the work close to an end. St. Eudes asked that the Sisters of the Visitation take over and he was sent two sisters and a superior to take charge. Under the guidance of Mother Marguerite the new foundation grew and flourished.
With the growing success of this mission, St. John Eudes wished to gain from Rome the approbation of the Sovereign Pontiff necessary for the stability of the order. Again, new difficulties arose. “At Rome it was feared that continual contact with the class of persons they were to assist, would prove prejudicial to the religious themselves. The project was novel, even audacious, and was looked upon with suspicion.”*
But the confidence and faith of the founder proved to be too great. He knew that these women would not be open to the counsel of priests and would in fact hide and flee from them. He understood that the care and gentleness only a motherly figure could provide was essential to the conversion of these lost souls. On January 2, 1666, the institutes of Our Lady of Charity were made official by Pope Alexander VII. When the Founder died in 1680, the Order of Our Lady of Charity had four foundations. In the 19th century, after significant growth, the Order divided into two: Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge, and Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd of Angers.
The Apostolic Associations of the Sacred Hearts
“To interest all good Christians in the spiritual welfare of others, and to enable them to share in the merit of his own apostolate in its different forms, Saint John Eudes established two associations for pious Catholics: the Apostolic Confraternity of the Sacred Hearts, and the Society of the Admirable Heart of the Mother of God.”*
The goals of the Associations was dual. First was that the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary be honored and to spread the devotion of them. Second, to pray for the vocation of priests and graces to priests.
“In 1674, Saint John Eudes obtained from Rome six Briefs of indulgences for this confraternity, which he purposed establishing in his six seminaries. The event was the source of great joy for him, as well as for priests, seminarians, and pious lay-folk, who vied with each other in their zeal to join the Association.”*
*St. John Eudes by Rev. P. A. Bray, Holy Heart Seminary Haifax, N. S. 1925
“It had taken no very definite form, however, nor was it officially recognized by the church, nor practiced by the faithful in general. It was Fr. Eudes who defined the object of the devotion, composed the first Mass and the first complete Office for it, procured its entrance into the liturgy of the Church, and inaugurated the first feasts and confraternities calculated to popularize and propagate it.”*
Because of this the church has granted him the titles of Author of the Liturgical Worship of the Sacred Hearts and Father, Doctor, and Apostle of the Devotion. From early manhood, or quite possibly his youth, St. John Eudes had a strong devotion to the Sacred Hearts. In 1641, he dedicated the new Order of sister to the Holy Heart of Mary and in 1643, when he founded the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, he consecrated it to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He often spoke of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary as forming one Heart.
In 1644, the first Feast of the Most Pure Heart of Mary was held. The Mass, written by St. John Eudes, contained many references to the Sacred Hearts “that were always so perfectly united in love.”* In 1668 it was officially approved by Cardinal de Vendome, Legate a latere of Pope Clement IX.
Once the Feast of the Most Pure Heart of Mary was established, he set out to create a separate feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1670 the first Mass and Office were used in celebrating the Feast of the Sacred Heart in the seminary at Rennes. In 1672 the Feast became an annual celebration in all the houses of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary.
Cardinal Pitra said:
“Father Eudes deserves to be called the apostle of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart: he was the first to propagate it, and continued to do so during his whole active life; he dedicated to the Sacred Heart the churches and chapels he built, and the two congregations he founded; he was the Doctor who first determined the precise form of the Devotion, and defended it against the attacks of its adversaries; he was the first to compose Offices for the Devotion, and to obtain for them episcopal and apostolic approbation; he was the first to inaugurate public feasts for the Devotion, and to organize confraternities destined to propagate and perpetuate it. With him originated a movement which has ended by embracing the whole world.”*
*St. John Eudes by Rev. P. A. Bray, Holy Heart Seminary Haifax, N. S. 1925
Statue of St. John Eudes being installed in St. Peter’s Basillica