Saint Peter Julian Eymard and the Most Blessed Virgin Mary
by André Guitton, SSS
Appeared in a French publication,
Le Règne de Jésus par Marie,
in the August-September, 1997 issue.
Recently, shortly before Fr. de Montfort, Fr. Eymard was inscribed in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. The Church acknowledges him to be “an eminent apostle of the Eucharist” and invites the faithful to follow his example and make the Eucharist the center of their personal and community life. Who is Fr. Eymard? What place did the Virgin Mary hold in his life? What message has he left us about this subject?
“A little like Jacob, always on a journey”
Without wishing to retrace his life, let it suffice for us to note several biographical landmarks. Born at La Mure d’Isère, February 4, 1811. Peter Julian had to confront numerous difficulties before being ordained a priest in the diocese of Grenoble in 1834. There he carried out his ministry for five years, first at Chatte as assistant, then as pastor at Monteynard, close to La Mure. In 1839, attracted to the religious missionary life and influenced by his Marian devotion, he joined the Marists. There he carried out various ministries, whether at the service of youth in the colleges of the Society such as being spiritual director at Belley in 1840, or as superior at La Seyne-sur-Mer in 1851.
From 1844 to 1851 he was involved in the government of the Institute as Assistant of the Superior General, Fr. Colin, or as Visitor General. At that time he resided at Lyons. There he was engaged in the development of the Third Order of Mary, the lay branch of the Marists, and established many relationships with various people. His particular attraction to the Eucharist, enhanced by special graces, led him to leave the Society of Mary in order to found, in 1856, the Society of the Blessed Sacrament. The beginnings were difficult. He opened, in the 14th municipality of Paris, a community of adoration with a mission among the working class, the work of first communion of young workers, and he made preparations, together with Marguerite Guillot, to form the women’s branch of his Institute, the Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1864, he established them at Angers. His ideal was to promote the renewal of Christian communities and society through the Eucharist by encouraging the faithful to frequent communion and inviting them to adoration. His life seemed to be, as he himself once wrote, that of a ” man always on a journey”. However it was unified by a passionate love for the Lord present in the Eucharist and a zeal to promote his cult. “The greatest grace of my life” he wrote in 1868,” has been a strong faith in the Most Blessed Sacrament, right from my childhood” (April 28, 1868). At his death, which happened at La Mure, August 1, 1868, he left behind him six communities with about fifty religious and a community of women adorers, as well as an association of lay adorers under the title of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. Beatified in 1925, Peter Julian Eymard was canonized by Pope John XXIII on December 9, 1962, at the end of the first session of the Second Vatican Council. His feast is celebrated on August 2.
The place of Mary in his life
If Fr. Eymard gradually came to discover the place of the Eucharist in his life and in his mission of founder, his devotion towards the Virgin Mary was rooted in his childhood and is revealed in certain events often connected with Marian shrines.
1. Laus or the tenderness of a mother
The first shrine, chronologically speaking, and also the dearest to his heart, was that of Laus. Situated 80 km from La Mure, in the diocese of Gap, Our Lady of Laus has been, since the 17th century, a center of pilgrimage spreading out to include Provence, Dauphiné and well beyond. At the age of 11, Peter Julian travelled there by himself, on foot and begging for his food. “It was there”, he would later write, “where, for the first time, I knew and loved Mary”. Madeleine Pelorce, his mother, never failed to inculcate in him a tender devotion towards Mary. Undoubtedly, we are dealing with a spiritual experience at that time which would leave an enduring mark upon him. The conditions of life in Matheysine were hard, and no less arduous were the forms of devotion at this beginning of the 19th century marked by Jansenistic rigorism. At Laus Mary taught Peter Julian to open himself up to love. He made his first communion at the age of 12 and at that time he manifested his intention to become a priest. His father, however, was opposed to this desire. Peter Julian made another pilgrimage to Laus where he received from Fr. Touche the confirmation of his vocation and the grace to be allowed to receive communion every Sunday – a rare privilege at that time.
More determined than ever, he applied himself to the study of Latin, privately without his father knowing about it. In the month of August, while he was working for a priest at Saint-Robert, close to Grenoble, he heard almost by chance of the death of his mother. He hurried to the chapel of the hospice to confide himself to Mary. “I asked for the blessing of Our Lady of Laus”, he would later write, “and the day when I took her as mother at the time of the death of my poor mother, I asked her, at her feet, in the chapel of Saint-Robert, that I would one day be a priest”. (March 17, 1865). “Since that time”, he would again write “I have always felt the protection of Mary in a very special way” (September 3, 1839).
A short time later it seemed his dream was about to be realized: he joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Marseilles. However, his time at the novitiate turned out to be short because of ill health. He had to wait through many long months of convalescence and the death of his father before he was finally able to enter the major seminary of Grenoble. During the course of his ministry at Chatte he received a particular grace at the Calvary of Saint-Romans where he learnt “to see things, right from the start, from the side of the goodness of God towards man”. Undoubtedly, his Marian devotion led him to this positive approach to the Christian life.
2. Fourvière or the place of a call
His entry into the Marists in 1839 fulfilled his expectations to become a religious in a Society that bore the name of Mary and which would be her family in a very special way. He made his novitiate at Lyons during a period of some months, and from that time onwards the shrine of Our Lady of Fourvière became his preferred place of prayer: he went there at least twice a week. In a retreat made at his entry into the novitiate he wrote:
I have felt within me a great desire to live by the life of the Most Holy Virgin and to make a continual study of her humility, her obedience and her divine love. I must ask for the illumination of the Holy Spirit through Mary in order to know the will of God regarding myself… in order to obtain the spirit of the Society of Mary (August 28, 1839).
He began to study the hidden life of Mary at Nazareth and in the bosom of the first Christian community in Jerusalem.
Through this hidden and unrecorded life of Mary – a theme dear to Fr. Colin – the power of God manifested itself in an extraordinary way. Fr. Eymard would assimilate this spirituality and would know how to transmit it through his various ministries. As spiritual director at Belley, then as superior at La Seyne, he formed the young in a filial trust in Mary and enrolled the most generous of them in the Congregation of the Virgin. In the same way at Lyons, from 1844 to 1851, he devoted himself to the laity of the Third Order of Mary, attentive to form them in a solid spiritual life. It was during this period, in 1846, that the Virgin appeared at La Salette, not far from La Mure.
Fr. Eymard became a zealous apostle of her message and a faithful pilgrim to the new shrine. Lyons marked an important stage in his own journey. On the feast of Corpus Christi in 1845 he experienced a very strong eucharistic attraction which was later to mark his ministry. On January 21, 1851, while he was praying at Fourvière, he received the inspiration to devote himself to eucharistic work. At that time he saw that the Eucharist was the remedy for religious indifference and modern disbelief. Another grace, at La Seyne-sur-Mer, on April 18, 1853, strengthened him in his desire. He gave direction to the young, made preparations with priests and laity to create this eucharistic work.
In reality, his project was to turn out to be short lived but still he had the conviction that it was the Virgin Mary who was guiding him towards this new vocation concerning which he had a presentiment that it would require that he should take leave of his vows. When in time it became quite apparent that the work could not be realized within the Society of Mary and that it would be necessary to leave his religious family he would affirm that it was Mary who had guided the whole affair.
3. At the Cenacle, with Mary
While meditating on Mary, at the time of his long retreat at Rome, he wrote:
I owe to her (to Mary) my preservation, my vocation and above all the grace of the Most Blessed Sacrament. She gave me to her Son as his servant, his child of predilection (March 11, 1865).
Or again a little later:
How she (Mary) has led me by the hand, all by herself, to the priesthood! And then to the Most Blessed Sacrament! (March 17, 1865). From Nazareth Jesus went to the Cenacle and Mary there made her dwelling place.
He wrote to Marguerite Guillot, at that time directress of the Third Order of Mary at Lyons. “I would like you to place yourself at the feet of the Lord so that he may deign to place a word in your heart for you and for me” (January 1, 1855).
Once his congregation had been approved by the Archbishop of Paris, he wrote to invite her to join herself to his work:
As regards the women, it is as decided, that is, that there is no desire to become associated with any already existing community with its own spirit and works, but to form true adorers of Jesus Eucharistic after the model of Our Lady of the Cenacle, adoring and living before the divine tabernacle (September 20, 1856).
His consecration to Mary led Fr. Eymard to consecrate himself to the Eucharist, and from then his Marian devotion was opened up to a new dimension: with Mary, from Nazareth to the Cenacle.
What do we know of the Cenacle? The question is raised in a quite different way for us today. In the 19th century, however, when Marian devotion was strongly influenced by the revelations of Marie d’Agreda, Fr. Eymard could imagine Mary receiving communion from the hand of St. John and in continuous adoration before the tabernacle. It remains that some form of deep speculation regarding Mary’s life in the Cenacle will always continue. After the Ascension Mary lived in the bosom of the Christian community, both as a member and as an icon of the Church. She was present, even if not named, in the first community at Jerusalem, of which the Acts traces for us some examples of their life: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, and to fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and prayers”.
For us to appreciate the texts of Fr. Eymard, it suffices to recall what he taught to the Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament in their Directory. There Mary is presented as Mother and Teacher of life:
Become inspired with the spirit of Mary. Her spirit is the same as that of Jesus… She is the true and perfect copy of the virtues of Jesus. The great mission of Mary is to form Jesus in us; she is the mother who educates us. Honour in Mary all the divine mysteries of her life as so many stations on the way to the Cenacle. It is the life of Mary in the Cenacle which should be the model and the consolation of your life. Honour this life of Mary in the eucharistic Cenacle. It is your beautiful portion” (text of 1863, the 1997 edition).
This insistence on the Cenacle is not just a recalling of past history. In the journey of Fr. Eymard the term takes on a symbolic value.
By 1864 he had planned the audacious – not to say unwise – project of acquiring the Cenacle of Jerusalem in order to make it a center of eucharistic adoration. During his lengthy stay at Rome in 1864-1865 in order to follow through with this affair, he spent nine weeks on retreat while waiting for the reply from the Vatican. During this time he discovered that what really mattered was not the shrine of the Cenacle or the creation of a community at Jerusalem but “the Cenacle in me – the glory of God in me”. He received this grace in a special way with the vow he made, on March 21, 1865, of the gift of his personality. His meditation on Mary in the Incarnation carries traces of this:
March 25, The adoration of the Most Holy Virgin of the incarnate Word. Here is my model, my mother Mary! First adorer of the incarnate Word. I have made a great request to our Lord, that of giving me to the Most Holy Virgin, adorer, as my true mother, and of making me part… of her act of continual adoration while she carried the incarnate Word in her womb.
According to tradition, shortly before his death, on May 1, 1868, while inaugurating the month of Mary at the novitiate of Saint-Maurice, near Paris, Fr. Eymard invited his sons to honour Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament, as a final testimony of his Marian devotion.
A message for our times
What do we know of Mary in the Cenacle so that her presence there can inspire our devotion towards her? As we discover in the Acts, she was present with the first community in Jerusalem, “faithful to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. She lived in faith and was nourished by the Eucharist. What else is there to say?
1. At the level of the sacramental life of the Church, Mary helps us to perceive the central place of the Eucharist in our personal life and in the growth of our communities. Her maternal presence at Cana which was manifested by this command to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you”, is not without a link to the command of Jesus when his “Hour” had come: “Do this in memory of me”. Also worth noting is how the major Marian shrines are places to which in a special way the Church turns to be renewed in its eucharistic fervour.
2. Following the example of Fr. Eymard, we can ask Mary for the grace to discover in a faith ever more deeper the riches of the Eucharist through sacramental participation and adoration. Mary can give us the taste for the interior life, can teach us to live in fellowship with the Lord, to dwell with him, in order to bear much fruit. As Cardinal Danneels has written:
God alone knows what is happening in the hearts of those adorers in spirit and in truth who express their love in spending entire nights in vigil before the Eucharist. Hour after hour man is being transformed by that which he adores; he takes part in the Passover of the Lord, in his death and resurrection. In this way the eucharistic man is born, a man of wonder and contemplation, filled with joy and inner peace. In this way the Marian man is born, bearing his Lord within himself in faith, a man visited by God, radiating his gifts: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, benevolence, faith, meekness and self-control.
3. Lastly, Mary reveals to us the apostolic fruitfulness of a christian life nourished by the Eucharist, lived in our daily existence, in our openness to the Holy Spirit, and having in our heart the desire to achieve great things even in the most simple of lives. The growth of the first community at Jerusalem and the vigour of its missionary vitality are not unrelated to the presence of her whom we can honour as the Queen of the Cenacle.
In his encyclical,
Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II calls to mind in these words the presence of Mary at the beginning of the Church:
She was present in the midst of [the faithful] as an exceptional witness to the mystery of Christ. The Church was assiduous in prayer with her, and at the same time contemplated her in the light of the Word made man. And so it will always be (n. 27).
Only contemplation can go beyond that which our words can signify or suggest, and with the help of Mary, make us penetrate to the heart of the Trinitarian mystery.