Louise de Marillac: Formator of the Laity

From VincentWiki

by: Sister Maria Angeles Infante Barrera, DC

(This article first appeared in Santa Luisa de Marillac, ayer y hoy, XXXIV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, [Saint Vincent de Paul, Yesterday and Today, XXXIV Vincentian Studies Week], Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2010).

Introduction and background

When I was asked to give this presentation my first thought was to have recourse to the biographies of Saint Louise. In the first biography written by Nicolás Gobillón fourteen years after her death, we find the following words: from the moment [Louise] began these meetings the women came together in great numbers and were enchanted with her presentations. This event was mentioned by later biographers: Luis Baunard, Ponciano Nieto, Jean Calvet, Joseph Dirvin, Leandro Daydi, Dominique Poinssenet and Benito Martinez. While B. Martínez treats this theme of formation, he does not fully develop this matter because he focuses on Louise’s mission as a formator of the Daughters of Charity [1].

In approaching this theme I am very aware of three premises that were formulated in the document of the Second Vatican Council that dealt with the lay apostolate: 1] the Christian laity have an indispensable mission in the present day Church; 2] the apostolate of charity, which is essential to the life of the Church, requires the presence and the commitment of the laity; 3] the Catholic laity need a strong and solid spirituality. These premises were repeated by John Paul II in his exhortation, Vita Consecrata (#54) when he spoke about collaboration and communion with the laity in a shared mission. He returned to this same theme in his exhortation, Novo Millennio Ineunte as he outlined a pastoral program for the new millennium.

I should state here that I approached the study of this theme from the threefold perspective mentioned above and I am happy to say that Louise de Marillac is very relevant … her life and teachings on the formation of the laity are in complete accord with the present thinking and teaching of the church.

As I begin this presentation I am reminded of the words of Jean Calvet when he wrote that Louise possessed a passion and an art for teaching because she understood the value of knowledge and the fact that the human person is meant to learn [2]. To form other people is to teach and transmit principles, ideas, knowledge, convictions and ways of acting … it is to teach and communicate criteria that enable people to confront life in a positive and hope filled manner. To form others is to offer insight so that people can “read” and understand the history of God’s movement throughout the ages … this also involves teaching people to view the future with hope and to take responsibility for the creation of the future. To form people is to instill in them principles of sensitivity toward the poor so that they are able to serve the poor as children of God, able to serve them and view them as their “lords and masters”. Those who have engaged in this ministry of formation are very aware of these principles.

This is what Louise de Marillac did in the French church of the seventeenth century. She transmitted her faith convictions, her ideas about God and life, her knowledge and concepts that she had formed with regard to the society in which she lived, the criteria that guided her activity as a devout and charitable woman and above all, she communicated the principles, attitudes and different ways of serving the poor. It was for this reason that Pope John XXIII declared her the patroness of all charitable associations (February 10, 1960)[3] and now this is also the reason why we turn our eyes toward her as we initiate this Vincentian jubilee on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the death of Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac. Through this presentation I hope to be able to render some small homage to Saint Louise at this time when we are about to initiate this time of jubilee.

Before fully entering into this theme, it would be good to recall the role, the mission and the formation of the laity in the French church of the seventeenth century.

The laity in the church of 17th century France

If we want to know that situation then we must take up the work of René Taveneaux, French Catholicism during the seventeenth century. In an orderly and detailed manner the author describes the life of the bishops, the pastors, religious and the large religious institutions. His only reference to the laity, however, occurs when he mentions Henri de Levis, the Duke of Ventadour, the king’s representative in Languedoc and the founder of the Company of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The members of this group formed a pious confraternity and met every Thursday. Their meetings began with and ended with prayer. Much time was given to prayer, to reading the Bible and the Imitation of Jesus Christ and the members had great devotion to the most Blessed Sacrament. This group was dependent on the contributions that were offered by the members of this confraternity. These offerings were placed in a sealed envelope and given anonymously … in turn these free will offerings enabled the confraternity to carry out its objectives. It should be noted that in a circular letter dated 1660 charitable work was listed as one of its objectives: the Company is involved not only in the ordinary works of providing assistance to the poor, the infirm, prisoners and those who are afflicted in any way but we also provide assistance to the missions and seminaries and are involved in the conversion of heretics and the spreading of the faith throughout the world. We are likewise concerned about preventing scandal, impiety and blasphemy and we attempt to provide a variety of services. In a word, we attempt to foresee every form of evil and thus seek remedies to such situations as they arise. We accept those works that are difficult, despised and forgotten and we engage in those works in order to provide for the needs of our neighbor … this work is an extension of our charitable ministry [4].

The Company of the most Blessed Sacrament was a semi-secret association of ecclesiastics and laymen that was established to tend to the various needs of the Church (utilizing every possible means). Thus the historian, José María Román affirms that the Company of the most Blessed Sacrament collaborated in spreading the Confraternities of Charity. In 1634 a note was sent to the members of the Company informing them about the work of the Charities and they were encouraged to form other similar groups throughout the French empire. The Bishop of Alet, Nicolas Pavillon, approved the Rule for a Confraternity of Charity in his diocese and, thanks to the influence of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, this Rule was an exact copy of the one written by Vincent [5]. The Company of the Blessed Sacrament supported Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac ideologically and financially.

Yet the Church of the seventeenth century was clerical, very clerical. The Council of Trent, whose implementation was spreading day by day, had emphasized the clerical dimension in its canons and organizational norms. It was not until the twentieth century and the Second Vatican Council that the laity, baptized Christians, would obtain status and a defined mission in the life of the Church. The Council’s decree on the apostolate of lay people, Apostolicam Actuositatem, gave the laity an active participation in the life and the mission of the Church, (in the same way that this was done at the time of the dawning of Christianity). In the introduction to this document on the laity we read: To intensify the apostolic activity of the people of God, the most holy synod earnestly addresses itself to the laity, whose proper and indispensable role in the mission of the Church has already been dealt with in other documents. The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it.

The Council supported its statement with reasons: faithfulness to the origins of Christianity, that is, Sacred Scripture clearly shows how spontaneous and fruitful such activity was at the very beginning of the Church [cf. Acts 11:19-21; 18:26; Rom. 16:1-16; Phil. 4:3] (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #1). In addition, the Council stated that the present situation of the world, the advances in science and technology have opened many areas for lay ministry, a ministry that only they can exercise. The urgency of the lay apostolate is expressed in the following words: This apostolate becomes more imperative in view of the fact that many areas of human life have become increasingly autonomous. This is as it should be, but it sometimes involves a degree of departure from the ethical and religious order and a serious danger to Christian life. Besides, in many places where priests are very few or, in some instances, deprived of due freedom for priestly work, the Church could scarcely exist and function without the activity of the laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #1).

The Council concluded this section by referring to the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church: An indication of this manifold and pressing need is the unmistakable work being done today by the Holy Spirit in making the laity ever more conscious of their own responsibility and encouraging them to serve Christ and the Church in all circumstances (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #1).

Before continuing I want to state here that the Second Vatican Council uses the words lay Christian and secular Catholics interchangeably. This, however, was not the case during Louise’s lifetime when the words baptized laity were used to refer to the members of the People of God who were not priests or members of the consecrated life. Today, as yesterday, the great majority of the People of God are laymen and laywomen.

In seventeenth century France the clergy composed a very small part of the population despite the large number of diocesan priests, women who were members of contemplative orders and religious men. At that time there was no place for religious women except behind the walls of the monasteries. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac were pioneers in the area of religious life which would allow men and women to dedicate themselves to the apostolate in the midst of the world.

What role did the laity play at that time? Even though the majority of the population were laity, that had a passive role in the life of the Church. They were the persons who “received” the sacraments, the catechetical instruction and listened to the preaching … in general, their Christian formation was found to be lacking in almost every aspect. The majority of the laity, especially in the towns and villages, were illiterate and therefore, their catechetical instruction involved the use of images rather than words [6].

Nevertheless, the Council of Trent opened a door (though not wide) that allowed the laity to participate in the church through parish confraternities. These associations could be established by the pastor and were to have pious or charitable objectives. The laity could also become members of the Third Orders of the large religious congregations (for example, the Franciscans, the Capuchins). In the large capitals, such as Paris, there were “spiritual circles” where devout individuals gathered together in order to deepen their spiritual life. Some of these circles became famous such as that of Madame Acarie and Mother Mary of the Incarnation [7].

The Christian formation of the laity

Here we must distinguish between the urban and the rural setting. In the urban areas there were many priests and religious, catholic universities and seminaries … all of which offered the possibility of a Christian formation. Louise was very concerned about providing her son, Michel Antoine, with this formation and felt obliged to enroll him in the seminary school that Adrian Bourdoise had established in the parish of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet (even though Michel showed no clear indications of desiring formation for the priesthood) [8].

Despite the fact that in the cities there was both the personnel and the means to acquire a good formation, few people benefited from this situation. In fact only the nobles and bourgeois took advantage of this opportunity. The poor had neither the time nor the means to avail themselves of basic cultural education and sound Christian education.

In the rural towns and villages there was hardly any formation. There was a lack of schools and teachers; there were few priests and many of those in the rural areas had been ill-prepared for ministry. We remember how Vincent met some priests who did not know the formula to absolve the faithful of their sins [9]. In the countryside religious and cultural ignorance were rampant. The need for formation was one of the primary needs that Louise encountered during her visits to the Confraternities … Marguerite Naseau (CCD:IX:64-66), the first Daughter of Charity, had the same experience.

Challenges that resulted from the Protestant Reformation

One of Luther’s ideas and convictions in order to spread the Protestant Reform was the creation of schools and the formation of Christian catechists and leaders who would make the Reform known among the poor and simple people. Thus during the sixteenth century these schools enabled the Protestant Church to gain ground and to spread throughout Europe. Luther’s catechism spread rapidly as a result of the formation that prepared catechists, pastors and teachers.

The Protestant reform was penetrating France but more slowly than in other countries because of the Edict of Nantes (1598). According to the terms of the Edict the Huguenots were granted freedom of conscience throughout France; they were allowed to build churches and celebrate religious services in certain towns and in the suburbs of the cities (except in Episcopal and Archiepiscopal cities, in cities where the king resided, and within a five mile radius around the city of Paris). Huguenot nobles could celebrate religious services in their houses and all their civil rights were guaranteed, including the right to hold public office. Four universities became Huguenot universities (Montauban, Montpellier, Sedan, Saumur) and a special court (Chambre de l’Edit), composed of ten Catholics and six Protestants, was established in order to protect the Huguenots in the Parisian Parliament. Similar courts were established in the Provincial Parliaments. Huguenot pastors, like Catholic priests, were paid by the government. As a guarantee of protection the Huguenots, during a period of eight years, were granted one hundred places de sûreté.

Nevertheless, in 1629 Cardinal Richelieu revoked the political clauses of the Edict and during the reign of Louis XIV (especially after 1681) the persecution of the Huguenots was renewed. With the revocation of the Edict hundreds of thousands of Huguenots left France and sought refuge in Protestant countries. The slow advance of Protestant doctrine in France can be attributed to these events (here we speak of slow advance in relation to the spread of Protestantism in other European countries). This period of struggle between Catholics and Huguenots was called the Thirty Years War. During this time some Catholics, because of a lack of formation and solid convictions, abandoned the Catholic faith and became Huguenots and heretics.

These events did not leave Vincent de Paul or Louise de Marillac indifferent. They viewed this situation as an urgent call that demanded an immediate response. And so they responded … especially Louise who, beginning in 1629, established the Charity schools which were dependent on the Confraternities that she visited [10]. Louise became aware of the work that the Protestants were engaged in, that is, the formation of young girls. Louise encouraged the members of the Confraternities to respond by forming teachers and creating schools. As Louise de Marillac engaged in this work, the Holy Spirit inspired other persons to become involved in this ministry as a privileged form of evangelization.

During the Council of Trent the Holy Spirit, who always guides the life of the Church, revealed a path that would lead to the renewal of the Christian life of the laity: the establishment of confraternities and schools. In the postconciliar period, Pope Clement VIII (1582-1605) set forth concrete norms for the establishment of parish confraternities: they ought to have clearly defined pious or charitable objectives; they should be under the authority of the bishop; the rules or statutes should be well defined and if there are any exemptions or privileges they should be granted in a public manner; the rector of the group should be the pastor or another priest delegated by the pastor; the governance of the association should be outlined in the rule. This is the framework in which Vincent and Louise developed their charitable activity. Louise, under the wise guidance of Vincent de Paul, dedicated herself to the mission of forming the laity as the Confraternities spread and developed. As occurred at the beginning of Christianity when the laity were actively involved in the ministry of the Church, Louise developed the ministry of deaconess as an alternative to the Protestant Reformation that had broken the unity of the universal Church.

Louise’s preparation for formation (1626-1629)

All the members of the Vincentian Family are aware of the excellent formation that Louise received at Poissy. This formation provided for the human, cultural, social and religious aspects of her life. Nevertheless, from the time that Louise became a widow she prepared herself in a personal and particular manner to become a formator. Her correspondence with Vincent de Paul during those three years reveals some of the details of that preparation … she was guided by her spiritual director, she waited from the revelation of divine providence and also waited until the will of God was clearly made known.

Louise meets Isabelle du Fay and the other Ladies

During the three years following the death of her husband, Louise became involved in a search for God’s plan with regard to her life. She was very aware of the ways in which she had been inspired and kept in the front of her mind the comings and goings that she had referred to in her spiritual experience of June 4, 1623, an experience that she called the light of Pentecost.

At that time Louise’s spiritual director was the itinerant missionary, Vincent de Paul … like him, Louise turned to Mademoiselle Isabelle de Fay, a friend and a pious and charitable member of the parish of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet (Louise was also a member of this parish). A brother of Isabelle, Antoine Hennequin, was a priest and a faithful friend of Vincent de Paul … he would be admitted to the Congregation of the Mission in later years. Also Isabelle’s uncle, René Hennequin, had married Marie de Marillac, Louise’s aunt. Thus besides being related to one another, Louise and Isabelle were members of the same parish and had the same spiritual director. Those circumstances created a strong bond of friendship between these two women. The depth of this friendship can be seen in the letters that these women exchanged with Vincent de Paul. In the first letter that Vincent wrote to Isabelle de Fay in October 1626, we find the following words: Mon Dieu! how different your director's daughters are: one full of respect for the defense of the Church, and the other fully confident that she is right about the Poissy affair! Have courage! Our Lord is honored equally by both of them from what 1 see of your community, to whose Mother 1 send my regards (CCD:I:25).

As is clear from the text of the correspondence, both women had experienced the community at Poissy and were concerned about the change of the prioress there and the difficulties that might arise from such a change. This concern was quite normal since Poissy was the center of a circle of spirituality that both women often frequented. The letters that were exchanged between these women and Vincent between 1626 and 1629 highlight the following events:

• Isabelle du Fay and Louise de Marillac maintained a friendly relationship that led them to help one another in their spiritual life, to seek the will of God and to minister on behalf of the poor. They learned how to make shirts and to live in obedience to the guidance of their director (CCD:I:26-31).

• This time was a period of formation for both women: they read the gospel together and commented on what they had read; they practiced a form of lectio divina and frequented the same spiritual circles and also read the same spiritual books (CCD:I:26-27).

• Both were concerned about Vincent’s long absences from Paris and his lengthy missionary journeys. They frequently wrote to Vincent and communicated to him their spiritual situation (often doing this in the same letter). Thus in the letter that they wrote on June 5, 1627 Vincent became aware of Isabelle du Fay’s anxiety and soon thereafter was told about Louise’s illness. Vincent responded to both in the same letter.

In October 1627 Vincent suggested that Louise broaden her circle of friends. At that time Vincent was ministering in the villages of Poitou and Cévennes where he recognized the needs of the poor country people and their lack of formation … Vincent had considered incorporating Mademoiselle de Fay and Mademoiselle Le Gras in this mission but M. de Fay, without having discerned or consulted anything with Vincent, offered this possibility to Louise. Vincent expressed his opinion in this manner: I thank you … for notifying me of good Mademoiselle du Fay's donation. Please keep it until you need it, unless she thinks it should be set aside and reserved for going to win over poor souls to God in the regions of Poitou and the Cévennes. If that is not her intention and she wishes it to be used for the poor of this area, be so kind as to forward it to me and send three shirts to Mademoiselle Lamy in Gentilly for the Charity of that place (CCD:I:27-28).

The text reveals that Vincent gave Louise the responsibility of helping Mademoiselle du Fay in her discernment process while at the same time she was to contact Mamemoiselle Lamy and Catherine Vigor, the wife of Antoine Lamy, Auditor in the Chambre des Comptes and president of the Confraternity of Charity in Gentilly (CCD:I:28 [footnote #2]). Both spouses were benefactors of the various Vincentian works and in 1634 they established a mission house in Ferreux. This relationship with Catherine Vigor broadened her circle of friendships and expanded her charitable action.

Some weeks later M. Guérin (the wife of Gilles Guérin, Councilor of the King and Auditor of Accounts) became a member of Louise’s circle. She was also a member of the parish of Saint-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet. In this case M. Guérin offered her services to Louise and participated in the spiritual circle and the charitable group that Louise had created. Louise’s spiritual and charitable leadership continued to develop … Vincent recognized and encouraged this development and also utilized this gift on behalf of the poor. In a letter that was probably written during the autumn of 1627 Vincent entrusted her with the administration of donations because he knew that the women admired her and her accurate and effective administration: As for the money from Mademoiselle du Fay's Charity, I gladly approve the use you wish to make of it, and I am also pleased with the decision those good young women have made to put everything in common (CCD:I:31).

Louise was creating a charitable movement in Paris as a way of following up on the missions that Vincent and his companions preached in the towns and villages. She not only collected and administered donations but also became the spiritual formator and animator of the group which later would give rise to the Confraternity of Charity in Paris.

Formator of young village girls: a test or a mission?

The letters that Louise exchanged with her spiritual director reveal another dimension of Mademoiselle Le Gras. We notice the detailed information that she gave Vincent about the young women she was forming … this took place between 1627-1629, two years before she began visiting the Confraternities.

In a letter date June 5, 1627 Louise provided Vincent with a very precise report: Father, allow me to trouble you once again about a young woman, twenty-eight [years] of age, whom they wish to bring from Burgundy in order to entrust her to me. She is intelligent and virtuous, from what they tell me. However, before her, the good blind girl from Les Vertus told me that her companion, who is twenty-two [years] old, might perhaps come to our house. She has been under the direction of the Fathers of the Oratory for four years and is a genuine country girl. I am not sure that she wants to come; nevertheless, she has given me evidence of some desire to do so. I most humbly entreat you, Father, to let me know what I should do about this (CCD:I:27).

The report creates some questions. Louise spoke about three young women: one who was living in Burgundy and with whom Louise had had no contact even though some people wanted to bring this woman to her to be formed (probably to work as a servant of the Ladies of Charity who would pay her for this service). But, should Louise undertake this mission of formation? She wanted to know the thinking of her spiritual director and therefore asked him for advice. The other two women were from Les Vertus. Louise knew them and had spoken with them. One of them was blind and the other was able to see … both were virtuous women and were being directed by members of the Oratory (founded by Pierre Bérulle). The woman who was able to see desired to enter the spiritual and charitable circle of Louise.

How did Vincent respond to this? We do not know. Louise feared that Vincent’s letters were lost (CCD:I:33). But the mission of Louise as a formator of young women, servants of the Charity, continued. Louise made it clear that her son was studying at the seminary school of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet but had no intention of becoming a priest. This disturbed Louise and she sought Vincent’s counsel and wrote him on January 13, 1628. As soon as Vincent, who was in Joigny, received Louise’s message, he responded. First, he attempted to calm her about the decision of her son and then he asked her to take charge of two poor girls from Joigny: get ready to do an act of charity for two poor girls whom we have decided should leave here. We shall send them to you from here in a week's time and ask you to direct them to some good woman who can find them work as servants, unless you know some upright lady who may need them (CCD:I:35).

Vincent responded to Louise through action since he understood that Louise was able to form these girls and place them with some family, that is, Vincent realized that Louise could provide these women with work which would give them a sense of purpose. In this case, however, the objective was not to form these girls so that they could serve the poor who approached the members of the Confraternity for assistance. One of these girls would become a servant in the house of Isabelle du Fay and the other girl would work as an employee of the Confraternity of Charity at Joigny (CCD:I:36).

In February 1628 Vincent wrote to Louise and thanked her for receiving into her home another young woman from Joigny (CCD:I:37). Louise’s service and her mission as a formator were most providential and were the result of events. Louise did not look for this but rather these young women sought Louise and therefore, both Vincent and Louise viewed this as in expression of God’s will. Vincent wrote to Louise and said: Mademoiselle … be quite cheerful in the disposition of willing everything that God wills. And because it is His good pleasure that we remain always in the holy joy of His love, let us remain in it and attach ourselves to it inseparably in this world (CCD:I:36).

Joy was indispensable for one who wanted to form young women from the countryside so that they could find work and a thus feel a sense of purpose. Louise was like that well-grounded tree that began to produce fruit for the Kingdom of God. Vincent expressed this opinion in a letter dated July 30, 1628 … the gospel for Mass that day was the passage about the good tree and the rotten tree (Matthew 7:17-20) and Vincent stated: Now then, I imagine that the words of today's Gospel touched you deeply; they are so impelling to the heart that loves with a perfect love. Oh! what a tree you have appeared to be today in God's sight, since you have borne such a fruit! May you be forever a beautiful tree of life bringing forth fruits of love, and I, in that same love (CCD:I:46).

The fruit of formation spreads

Louise experienced her involvement in the formation of the Ladies of Charity and in the formation of young girls in the villages as servants of the Charity as a blessing from God. Encouraged by her spiritual director she decided to make a spiritual retreat and in the presence of God wanted to discern how she might respond to the idea that was welling up in her heart of expanding her mission of formation. Vincent encouraged her with these words: Well yes, dear lady, I do consent. Why not, since Our Lord has given you this holy thought? Go to Communion tomorrow, then, and prepare yourself for the salutary review you have in mind; after that, you will begin the retreat you have arranged. I could not tell you how ardently my heart desires to see yours in order to know how this has come about in it, but I am quite willing to mortify myself for the love of God, in which love alone I desire yours to be immersed (CCD:I:46).

At the end of 1625 having concluded her retreat, she made the decision to offer herself unconditionally to serve God in the Confraternities of Charity, a ministry in which she saw Christian formation and teaching the Catechism as urgent needs. On the sixth day of her retreat she expressed this in the following words: I must be mindful not to seek tenderness or spiritual consolation as a motive for serving God. Rather, I accept all the dryness and lack of consolation for which my soul is destined. 1 offer myself in total abandonment to God to endure all the temptations it will please Him to send, and to live and to die in this state if such be His holy will (SWLM:701 [A.7]).

This decision of unconditional surrender was made known to Vincent who in the beginning remained silent but found this most pleasing even though he delayed responding to Louise because of his work. Nevertheless he found some time to explain to Louise his silence: You are wrong, my dear daughter, in thinking that I was of the opinion that you should not accept the young lady's suggestion, because I have not given it a thought. And I have not given it a thought, because I am sure that you wish and do not wish what God wishes and does not wish, and that you are disposed to want and not want only what we tell you that God seems to want and not want. Therefore, confess your fault with regard to that thought and never let it enter your mind in the future. Try to live content among your reasons for discontent and always honor the inactivity and unknown condition of the Son of God. That is your center and what He asks of you for the present and for the future, forever. If His Divine Majesty does not let you know, in a way that cannot be mistaken, that He wants something else of you, do not think about or let your mind become engrossed in that other matter. Leave it to me; I shall think about it enough for both of us (CCD:I:54).

Was Vincent afraid that Louise might have made her decision because she was seeking some notoriety or popularity and was this why he asked her to honor the unknown condition of the Son of God? This is very possible because vanity and rashness were defects that Louise recognized and confessed. Therefore Vincent took some time to discern the will of God with regard to this unconditional offering of Louise. A few weeks later, near the end of 1628, he encouraged Louise to trust in Providence in the midst of waiting to know God’s will: Mon Dieu, my daughter, what great hidden treasures there are in holy Providence and how marvelously Our Lord is honored by those who follow it and do not try to get ahead of it! (CCD:I:59; cf; CCD:I:59-63).

In the same line of thought with regard to waiting patiently and accepting the will of God He wrote her six letters between February and May 1629. He recognized Louise’s qualities as a formator of young country girls but he wanted it to be clear that this mission was what God expected of her.

Meanwhile Louise prepared herself spiritually as she meditated on the Word of God and together with Isabelle de Fay, Lamy and Guérin and the other members of the Charities assisted the poor who approached the different Confraternities that were near to Paris and which she presided over.

The formator sent on mission (1629)

During the time of Louise’s “novitiate” (1626-1629) Vincent continued his missionary work. In May 1629 he is found near Paris, in Montmirail where Philippe Emmanuel de Gondi, who was preparing to enter the Oratorians, asked to speak with Vincent (CCD:I:63 [note #2]). From the De Gondi estate Vincent wrote a letter that sent Louise forward on her mission. It was May 6, 1629 … he had written a previous letter to her with details about traveling to Montmirail.

The travels of the formator

The time of going forth on mission had arrived. The wait resulted in great joy as Louise’s desire became a reality. The comings and goings that she perceived in 1623 were about to begin. Divine Providence had established the right moment and had prepared the heart and the spirit of this missionary. Vincent was convinced that this was time and that God was calling Louise. Therefore without any words of introduction or affection or diplomacy Vincent refers to this new situation as something important and sacred: I am sending you the letters and the report that you need for your journey. Go, therefore, Mademoiselle, go in the name of Our Lord. I pray that His Divine Goodness may accompany you, be your consolation along the way, your shade against the heat of the sun, your shelter in rain and cold, your soft bed in your weariness, your strength in your toil, and, finally, that He may bring you back in perfect health and filled with good works (CCD:I:64-65).

This letter was a true commissioning of a missionary and Vincent shared with Louise some spiritual advice for her journey: Go to Communion the day of your departure to honor the charity of Our Lord, the journeys that He undertook for this same and by this same charity, and the difficulties, contradictions, weariness, and labors that He endured in them. May He be pleased to bless your journey, giving you His spirit and the grace to act in this same spirit, and to bear your troubles in the way He bore His (CCD::I:65).

This was followed by some practical advice with regard to the duration of each visit: two days seemed to be sufficient, but Vincent gave Louise the freedom to stay longer if she felt it was necessary but asked that she would write to him and explain the reasons for a prolonged stay. Everything was regulated and foreseen! In 1629 more than thirty Confraternities were functioning in the various towns. Since 1625 Vincent and his companions had been preaching missions and at the conclusion of each mission a confraternity was established. The confraternities were one of the fruits of the mission. Their growth obliged Vincent to look at the question of some form of central organization and some manner of encouraging the members to maintain their enthusiastic spirit.

Some of the confraternities had seen the introduction of certain abuses and others experienced difficulties in functioning; in different places the initial fervor of the members had grown weak and in almost all the confraternities the members felt there was a need for some kind of formation in order to confront unforeseen difficulties [11]. Indeed, there was an urgent need for instruction and formation. This was Louise’s mission as she visited the confraternities. Divine providence had manifested itself and Louise made herself available and placed herself at the disposition of providence.

Until this time Louise’s activity could be seen as being in the rearguard, that is, she was responsible for the administration and the formation of women and young girls who were related in some way to the Confraternities. Now, however, her activity would be seen as being in the vanguard. Her activity became more intense and the areas for her ministry were expanded and opened to the movement of the Spirit. Thus, in 1629 she visited the Charities in Montmirail and Asni?res. Her concern during this visit was to help the “neighbor” come to a knowledge of God which would be a source of great comfort (SWLM:704-705 [A.50]). As Louise formed the various individuals who were entrusted to her she communicated to these persons her knowledge, her criteria, and her convictions. At the same time she was a mystic who experienced God dwelling within her … in the very midst of her missionary activity she experienced God becoming present to her as the Spouse of her soul: I left on the Feast of Saint Agatha, February 5, to go to Saint-Cloud. At the moment of Holy Communion, it seemed to me that Our Lord inspired me to receive Him as the Spouse of my soul and that this Communion was a manner of espousal. I felt myself more closely united to Him by this consideration which was extraordinary for me. I also felt moved to leave everything to follow my Spouse; to look upon Him as such in the future; and to bear with the difficulties I might encounter as part of the community of His goods (SWLM:705 [A.50]).

In 1630 Louise visited Saint Cloud, Villepreux, Villiers-le-Bal and returned to Montmirail and Beauvais. Meanwhile, as a result of Louise’s initiatives the first Confraternities had been established in Paris, namely, in the parishes of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet and Saint Sauveur where the first steps for their establishment were taken in 1629. Why were these establishments in Paris due to the initiative of Louise? The answer is clear. Vincent had made a decision not to preach missions in the cities and the confraternities had emerged as a fruit of the missions that Vincent preached in the countryside. This fact prevented Vincent from promoting the confraternities in Paris. Therefore who else but Louise was able to convince and motivate the pastors of Saint-Nicolas and Saint Sauveur? She knew the pastors and also knew how to approach them … she would then be entrusted with forming the women who became members of these associations. She knew these women because she had been a member of both parishes. She was a member of Saint Sauveur when she lived on the rue Cours-au-Vilain (CCD:I:64) and a member of Saint-Nicolas when she lived on the rue Foxes Saint-Victor [12]. Louise was president of the Confraternity of Saint-Nicolas.

In 1631 Louise visited the Confraternities at Monrueil-sous-Bois, Montmirail (for the third time), Le Mesnil, Berg?res, Loisy, Souli?res, Sannoiis, Francoville and Herblay. Nothing could keep her from this mission. The trips were uncomfortable and often she had to use ill-equipped stagecoaches and seek lodging at inns that were unsafe or in towns that were half abandoned … but she had no fear. During these trips she experienced the strength of the Spirit and a great interior consolation. She had no doubt that she was fulfilling the will of God and this surety was the source of serenity and courage. With missionary zeal Louise, accompanied by Isabelle de Fay or one of her servants, traveled the roads of France. After each visit she wrote a report that was then sent to Vincent. As a result of these reports and the letters that have been preserved we are able to reconstruct her missionary and formation activity among the Confraternities.

Formation and the activities of the Confraternities

One of the first Confraternities that Louise visited was that of Saint-Cloud. We become aware of her activity there through a letter that Vincent wrote to her on February 19, 1630. We read the following: I praise God that you have the health for the sixty people for whose salvation you are working, but I beg you to let me know right away whether your lung is being irritated by your talking so much, or your head by so much confusion and noise (CCD:I:67).

What did Louise de Marillac do in Saint Cloud with these sixty lay persons? From her correspondence we can see that Louise spent many hours speaking with them, motivating them and encouraging them … sometimes she would explain the Catechism (beginning with an instruction on the Creed) and at other times she spoke about the gospels and the life of Jesus Christ. She frequently read the Rule so that the members of the confraternity would be very clear that through their activity they were honoring Jesus Christ and continuing his mission among the poor. This was her task in the area of formation [13]. She also spoke about the attitude of faith that the women should have as they served the poor, reminding them of the text from Saint Matthew’s gospel: whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40).

From Saint Cloud Louise traveled to Villepreux and Beauvais where there were eighteen functioning Charities. From there she went to Montreuil, Pontoise, Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, Loisy-en-Brie, Gournay, sur-Aronde, Asni?res and many other places. She always traveled by stagecoach and on roads that she was unfamiliar with … at night she stayed at inns where she became aware of promiscuity, the bold and vulgar conversations of men, the poverty of the lodgings and the guests, the moral and religious ignorance of the peasants … she often slept on straw mattresses in cold rundown rooms. At other times, when she only had to journey a short distance she would travel by horseback.

When Louise arrived at a town or city, she was usually received by the members of the Confraternity who were grateful for her visit. During her stay she would meet with the women and would encourage them in their work and renew them in their fervor. If she felt it necessary, she would revise their Rule, examine their ledger of accounts and review the minutes of their meetings. This would allow her to determine if they had been faithful to their ministry or if they had grown lax in their activity. She would personally visit those persons who were infirm and would gather together the young girls whom she would instruct. In many towns and villages she went to great lengths to find a permanent teacher for the girls. Her enthusiasm was contagious. In one of the testimonies that was written down we are told: Once Louise went to a town where all the women felt so consoled when listening to her that they recounted all of this to their husbands who also wanted to listen to her. The men were told, however, that they could not go. Nonetheless they went and hid under the beds and in other areas of the house. They asked if Louise became aware of all of this [14].

One of Louise’s concerns was the formation of catechists and teachers who in turn would be able to teach the girls and the young women who lacked instruction. In this way her ministry of formation became a network that enabled the communication of Christian values and knowledge. It was for this purpose that she wrote her Catechism [15].

Organizing the Confraternity at Saint-Nicolas

Vincent’s letters reveal some of the details of this Charity in which it was not he who intervened but rather it was Louise who prepared the way. This was done first of all by motivating the noble and wealthy women who were willing to commit themselves. Secondly, she encouraged the pastor who was responsible for the establishment of the Confraternity and finally, with the assistance of Mademoiselle Isabelle du Fay, they identified the sick poor of the parish who needed to be cared for.

Through Vincent’s letters we know that the Confraternity was established in February 1630, probably at the beginning of Lent. There was a Jesuit priest (his name is unknown) who collaborated in this endeavor by preaching which encouraged the women and the priests in this ministry (CCD:I:70). After the establishment of the Confraternity Louise continued to encourage the members and helped them to sustain their fervor. At the same time she sought new members. As a result of the formation of the members and the fact that Louise was able to communicate her own convictions to the women, this Confraternity became a model for the confraternities in the other parishes in Paris. Vincent congratulated her for her work: With regard to your Confraternity of Charity [the Confraternity of Saint-Nicolas] I cannot tell you how much it consoles me. I beg God to bless your labor and to perpetuate this holy work (CCD:I:69-70).

Vincent continued his letter and offered some practical advice that he knew would be well-received. He knew the curate wanted to become the treasurer and the administrator of the group and so he warned Louise: You must take care not to let the curate keep the money because of the many difficulties that might arise. I shall tell you about them some other time. Let me tell you in advance that experience has shown that, of all the methods, the surest ones that can be practiced in the Charity are those which you had in mind (CCD:I:70).

It seems that the question about the administration of the group as well as the question of treasurer had been discussed. Both Vincent and Louise were aware of the difficulties that could arise and Vincent expressed this very well at the conclusion of his letter: Experience has shown that it is absolutely necessary for the women not to depend on the men in this situation, especially for the money (CCD:I:70).

The president of the Confraternity of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet was Louise de Marillac. This was her parish and it was logical that she should have been elected to this position of responsibility since she was the one who initiated this work. This enabled her to experience herself as a committed member of the parish. It was also probable that Louise established the Confraternity in the parish of Saint-Sauveur where she resided from 1613 until 1621. Louise was seen as one who had the moral authority to engage in the formation of the laity. Despite their preparation problems soon arose in the Confraternity with regard to taking turns in preparing the food for the poor. Louise consulted Vincent about what should be done in this regard and a response was given: If you now relieve each one at the Charity of the obligation of getting the meat cooked, you will never again be able to restore this practice. If you have it cooked elsewhere and someone undertakes to do it out of charity right now, it will become a burden to her in a short time. If you hire someone to do it, it will cost a lot. Then, with time, the ladies of the Charity will say that the woman who prepares the food should carry the pot to the sick, and in this way your Charity will be reduced to failure (CCD:I:70).

The vitality of the Confraternity is known through the letters that Vincent and Louise exchanged. The problem of yesterday is also today’s problem … there are many sick poor to be cared for and not enough committed people who are willing to provide for them. Therefore it soon became necessary to seek the assistance of some young women who became salaried workers of the Confraternity. Vincent approved this arrangement and said: I am delighted with the employment of those good young women (CCD:I:70).

Louise would be entrusted with forming and guiding them. Her work was increased but Vincent encouraged her: So you are a small number of workers for so much work. Oh, well! Our Lord will work with you. The suggestion that each one of you take a day to feed the sick at your own expense seems fine to me. That is how it is done elsewhere until the day the confraternity is established (CCD:I:71).

Vincent was aware of the economic hardships that she endured and helped her financially: It will indeed be proper for you to make use of those offerings for the needs of those poor people ... Well now, there are more than five women. I beg God to send you some others. As for the means, Our Lord will provide (CCD:I:72).

In the spring of 1630 Louise had five women who were serving the poor and collaborating with the Confraternity of Saint-Nicolas-de-Chardonnet and Saint-Sauveur. Louise formed, guided and supervised their work and paid them with money that was collected by the members. At the same time Louise and Mademoiselle du Fay were able to continue their missionary work of visiting the confraternities that had been established in the various towns and villages. In 1630 Mademoiselle de Fresne participated in these missionary journeys (CCD:I:173). Thus day by day Louise expanded her charitable network. The member of Saint-Sulpice saw the good that was being done by the members of the Confraternities of Saint-Nicolas and Saint-Sauveur and requested the establishment of a confraternity in their parish.

Could the renown of the name “Marillac” in political and spiritual circles, especially the activity of Michel de Marillac … could this have led to the expansion of the Confraternities? It is very probable that was the case but that in no way diminishes Louise’s responsibility, her courage and her commitment to the formation of the Confraternities of Charity. The fact that the name “Marillac” was well known should be seen as a favorable circumstance. It is certainly true that the fact that her name was well known among the nobles and the members of the Carmelite spirituality circle opened doors and enabled her to influence the women of the noble class. It also led to her charitable proposals being accepted by the pastors and curates in the parishes throughout Paris. But this fact takes nothing away from the human and evangelical value of her initiatives as an apostle of charity.

Offering a solid gospel spirituality

Louise de Marillac was a spiritual woman who lived a profound interior life that enabled her to experience God in the midst of her surroundings, a habit that she cultivated throughout her life. We see this revealed in her Rule of life in the world as well as in her reports and her entries in her spiritual diary. She spoke of her mystical experience that she had during her visit of the Confraternity in Asni?res: Throughout my trip, I seemed to be acting without any contribution on my part; and I was greatly consoled by the thought that God wished that, despite my unworthiness, I should help my neighbor to know Him (SWLM:704-705 [A.50]). At the same time she referred to the experience of mystical espousal (SWLM:704-705 [A.50]. Teresa of Avila spoke of this experience in the sixth mansion of her Interior Castle. This extraordinary union with God was the center of Louise’s piety and had a great influence on the way she carried out her mission.

The members of the Association

What did Louise do with the Confraternities and what did she say to the members of the Association that filled them with the strength of the Spirit and led them to engage in charitable activities? We do not have direct knowledge of this but we can get a sense of this from her spiritual diary. Some notes from 1632 have been preserved and in one of her entries entitled “Conformity to the divine will” we read: I hereby renounce self-love with all my heart and choose your holy will as the directing force in my life … O Holy Will of my God! How reasonable it is that you should be completely fulfilled! You were the meat of the Son of God upon earth. Therefore, you are the nourishment which will sustain within my soul the life received from God … I shall recognize your will by reflecting upon the life which your Son led upon earth, to which I shall strive to conform my own (SWLM:713 [A.15]).

During her retreat of 1632 Louise renewed her resolutions and her motivations: I have resolved to follow [Jesus] wholeheartedly, without any reservation … I felt interiorly moved freely to place myself in a disposition of total availability in order to receive the call of God and to carry out his most holy will (SWLM:715 [A,5]).

It is clear that Louise lived and presented the service of charity as a call from God and a way of being faithful to the will of God (just as Jesus was faithful to the will of his Father). To live like Jesus Christ, to follow him and conform one’s life to him is a direct result of being faithful to one’s baptismal commitment. To imitate Jesus Christ, to live like him and to serve the poor as he did is to fulfill the will of God. This spirituality guided and enlightened Louise’s life and she proposed this manner of living to others. The Rule of the Confraternity that she wrote under Vincent’s supervision was an expression of this spirituality: It shall be instituted in the parish church, in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, which is a symbol of union. Its end is to honor Our Lord Jesus Christ, as it patron, and his holy Mother; to assis the sick poor of the parish where it is established (SWLM:717 [A.46]).

The patron whom they must imitate in the practice of charity and the model whom they ought to contemplate is Jesus Christ. He is the fountain and the source of charity. This should be the center then of the spirituality of the women (married, single or widowed) who are members of the Confraternity. Therefore the Rule demanded the members to engage in the practice of prayer, the reception of the sacraments and charitable works … the Rule demanded this because this was the way Jesus lived his life with the disciples. Vincent counseled the women to cultivate this spiritual disposition: Read the book concerning the love of God, in particular the one that deals with God’s will and indifference (CCD:I:80).

Louise expressed this same vision in her writings, conferences and reflections. Vincent had complete trust in her and during her second visit to the Confraternity at Montmirail Vincent wrote to her on October 22nd, 1630: You want to know whether you are to speak to the assembly members of the Charity. I would indeed like that very much, they would profit from it, but I do not know whether it is opportune to advisable. Speak to Mademoiselle Champlin about it and do what Our Lord inspires you to do (CCD:I:89).

Four days later Vincent received news about the good that Louise was doing. He was told that Louise’s words had had a profound effect on the members of the Confraternity and that the women wanted her to remain there for a longer period of time so that they might be better formed. Vincent again wrote to Louise on October 29th and stated: Since you are cured please continue until you have results somewhat similar to those you have had elsewhere (CCD:I:90).

Where did this spiritual fruit come from, this fruit that was shared wherever she went? … Certainly it came from her interior strength that nourished her life, that strength that renewed and enlivened her spirit and her mission … a gift of the Holy Spirit as she herself stated in her report and the notes on her visit to the Confraternities in Asni?res and Saint Cloud: Throughout my trip, I seemed to be acting without any contribution on my part; and I was greatly consoled by the thought that God wished that, despite my unworthiness, I should help my neighbor to know Him (SWLM:704-705 [A.50]).

Here we are dealing with a spirituality that was incarnated in her life and that led her to serve those persons who were most poor, that led her to encourage, animate and temper the behavior of the members of the confraternities, that led her to keep account of the funds of the association, to rectify errors and to put in order those things that were not functioning well. This interior strength of her spiritual life led her to accept with calmness the misunderstandings and difficulties that she encountered in her mission. Thus in Villepreux the pastor was upset because the women of the confraternity and some other young women gathered and met together without his consent. The pastor wrote to Vincent and complained about Louise (CCD:I:75, 76-77). She accepted this criticism and did what her director counseled and continued her mission, finding much satisfaction in her work on behalf of the salvation of souls. During this visit Louise’s fundamental task was to revitalize the spiritual life of the members: their prayer and sacramental life. This Charity had been functioning for twelve years and was one of the first Confraternities that Vincent established … with the passing of time their fervor had grown weak. Thus Louise’s visit was an opportunity to renew the confraternity and put things in order (CCD:I-80-82).

Vincent valued and encouraged Louise in her mission while at the same time he tried to purify her spirituality and mission by pointing out those things that were incompatible with the gospel spirit that ought to animate her service on behalf of the poor. Therefore Vincent shared with her some of Jesus’ words that she should be faithful in following: God is love and wants us to go to him through love (CCD:I:81). This spirituality is presented in Saint John’s gospel, the gospel that Louise read most often and frequently reflected on. Vincent knew and understood this and was able to encourage her to focus on the very essence of the gospel: charity.

To form the Ladies for the service of charity was a constant in Louise’s life. On Saturday, April 8, 1665, the day before Palm Sunday, knowing that a General Assembly would be held the following day and that Vincent would preside over the Assembly, Louise wrote Vincent: I have been told that the general assembly of the Ladies is today. Would you not think it advisable, Most Honored Father, to explain the spiritual good that could be done by visiting the poor galley slaves at the time our Sisters bring them dinner? They serve them at ten o'clock (CCD:V:589).

In personal encounters and in meetings

In September 1639 Louise’s fame as a spiritual guide began to spread throughout Paris and some noble women requested her to be their spiritual director. Such was the case with Genevi?ve de Attichy, the wife of Scipion d’Acquaviva, the Duc d’Atri in the Diocese of Soissons, not far from Beauvais where Louise visited the confraternity that was established there. This woman, a cousin of Louise, first had recourse to Vincent and requested to meet with Louise. She was in the midst of a difficult situation and needed to be listened to and encouraged. Vincent encouraged Louise to accept this new mission of formation: It is not without good reason that you are going to visit a person of such high rank as the one who is asking for you and who perhaps needs your advice to make a decision on something very important. Go then, Mademoiselle, in the name of Our Lord and with His blessing. If the opportunity arises to do something for the children of that place, do it with prudence; a great deal of it is necessary in that diocese (CCD:I:85-86).

Thus we find Louise being sent forth on a new mission: spiritual director. Vincent sent her forth on this mission with the same words he spoke to her when she began to visit the Confraternities: Go forth, Mademoiselle, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time Vincent requested that she also engage in another service: to do what she could for the children of Genevi?ve de Attichy. This was a delicate situation. The daughter of Genevi?ve, Mademoiselle d’Atri, to the great displeasure of her family, had created a scene in Paris over her alleged diabolical possession [16]. Louise accepted Vincent’s proposal and undertook this new mission, trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This mission as a personal counselor to the women of the Confraternities was actually begun in 1630. Louise was in Beauvais visiting the eighteen Confraternities in that Diocese … more than three hundred women were members of these confraternities. Louise took on the role of formator, as well as the role of supervisor and counselor. On December 7, 1630, Vincent wrote a lengthy letter to Louise in order to respond to various matters. In this letter he recognized and affirmed her mission as a spiritual director: Would to God that good Madame de la Croix could follow your advice! It would be worth as much to her as a good religious order would be (CCD:I:93).

Louise’s reputation as a spiritual woman and as a woman filled with the Spirit of God became known by more people. In the beginning of 1631 Mademoiselle Tranchot traveled to Paris where Vincent was in the midst of organizing the Confraternity of Charity at Saint-Benoit. He wrote the following words to Louise: We have just set up the Charity at Saint-Benoit … You will be talked about at the Saint-Benoit meeting. Mademoiselle Tranchot is relating wonders about you. Do you think it would be a good idea for you to take the trouble to visit the good woman in order to stabil[ize] her spirit so that she can strengthen the others? If you have visited her before, you could easily do so under any pretext you might find, for she will not fail to talk to you about it, nor shall I fail to be … (CCD:I:95-96).

Louise was able to calm those persons who received and accepted her guidance. In light of this reality Vincent, in June 1632, asked her to undertake a mission and visit the Confraternity at Villeuve-Saint-Georges which was passing through a very critical situation: there were only nine members. Vincent sent Louise on this mission because he realized that with her convictions and counsel she would be able to restructure and give new life to this group of women. She was accompanied by Madame Goussault and Mademoiselle Pollalion. From Paris Vincent encouraged Louise: I certainly had no doubt at all that you would find it very difficult to reestablish the Charity and more so than you tell me. But blessed be God that there is some reason to hope you will set it up again! As for the difficulties you reported to me, I think it wise for you to act as you have written to me (CCD:I:162-163).

As a result of her ability to offer counsel and to listen, as well as her prudence and her ability to relate to the women, Louise, together with those who accompanied her, was able to reorganize the Charity in a brief period of time (in less than a month). On July 10, 1632 Vincent wrote to her: Blessed be God, Mademoiselle, that in the midst of so much work you are well and that He has blessed your efforts! (CCD:I:163).

During her retreat of 1632, a retreat that took place prior to the celebration of Pentecost, Louise referred to the secret of her tactfulness, her prudence and her ability to offer advice when she said: The principal reason for the recollection of the Apostles was their love for their Master. This same love must also be the sole reason for my dependence in which, with the help of his grace, I shall persevere all my life (SWLM:717 [A.5]).

This dependence on the Holy Spirit made Louise aware of her gifts and blessings as well as her weaknesses and limitations. As a result of this understanding Louise felt that she was able to counsel and encourage and inspire others. It was the spirit of God who acted in her and through her. As 1633 dawned all of Louise’s attention became focused on the Daughters of Charity and therefore her ministry with the members of the Confraternities was of secondary importance … at least this appears to have been the situation as recounted in her correspondence.

In retreats and spiritual direction

An aspect of Louise’s formation became very visible in her ministry as a retreat director for some of the Ladies of Charity. Her correspondence makes us aware of the fact that this ministry began in August 1641: The Pastor of Saint-Germain-I'Auxerrois sent me a message asking if a lady could come here to make her retreat. I do not know if perhaps her husband is not planning to make his with you. From what I have heard, they are people who have suffered a great deal, but I do not know their name. I told him that I would send him a reply tomorrow after I have had the opportunity of discussing the matter with you (SWLM:58 [L.67]).

At that time it was well-known in the parishes of Paris that Louise was a holy woman who directed the retreats of her Sisters, as noted in the post-script of the above referenced letter. Vincent responded to this letter on the same day and on the same piece of paper that Louise had written her message: I do not think there is any objection to your receiving that lady, after she has told you her name and titles. I know nothing about her husband (CCD:II:206)

Thus, as we have just stated, Louise began this new ministry in August 1641. In May 1642 Madame Humi?res requested and was given permission to make a retreat at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity. This retreat was done under the direction of Saint Louise (SWLM:79 [L.64b]). At the end of the retreat Louise requested that Vincent (or some other priest whom he would designate) would hear the confession of two women whom Louise had guided during their days of spiritual recollection (SWLM:209 [L.188]). In June 1656 Madame Guergret, a member of the Confraternity of Saint-Sauveur, made a directed retreat with Mademoiselle Le Gras (SWLM:511 [.482]), and in March 1659 Madame Baroness de Mirepou also made a retreat. At the conclusion of this retreat she expressed her decision to participate in the General Assembly of the Ladies of Charity of Paris.

With regard to the fruit of these retreats we have a letter that Louise wrote to a woman who had made a retreat with her. We do not know the exact date of the letter but her words reveal the depths to which she wanted to lead this individual: Enclosed are the spiritual exercises that I mentioned. According to the insights which, in your goodness, you gave me into your dear soul, they seem to me to be exceptionally well-suited to you. Put them into practice, my dear Lady, living entirely for God by this loving and serene union of your will with His in everything. In my opinion, this practice, in its holy simplicity, contains the means for acquiring the solid perfection God asks of you. Always have great esteem, my dear Lady, for humility and gentle cordiality. While reflecting on the divine gentleness during your periods of meditation, speak to Our Lord with great simplicity and innocent familiarity. Do not be concerned whether or not you experience any consolation; God wants only our hearts. He placed within our power only the capacity to make a simple act of the will. He considers this alone and the deeds resulting from it. Make as few reflections as possible and live in holy joy in the service of our Sovereign Lord and Master. In all simplicity, I present these suggestions to you, Madame, as Our Lord has given them to me since, in your humility, you requested them from my poverty. I beg Him, in His infinite goodness, to raise your dear soul to the heights of holiness that, in His love, He desires you to attain. Commend me to His divine mercy I implore you, Madame, and be assured that I have already done what you asked of me and that I shall never forget you in my poor prayers nor will I fail to remember your husband and all those dear people who are so precious to you. May God be blessed! (SWLM:679-680 [L.40]).

The previous text reveals Louise as an insightful director of conscience. She counseled, accompanied and guided this woman in her relationship with God. She did not initiate this relationship but was requested to do this. At the same time she spoke about her own spiritual experience and prayed to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment and the wisdom to know what to say: In all simplicity, I present these suggestions to you, Madame, as Our Lord has given them to me since, in your humility, you requested them from my poverty (SWLM:679 [L.40]). Louise did not limit herself, however, to communicating her own spiritual experience. She proposed lofty goals that would enable the woman she was directing to attain the heights of charity: I beg Him, in His infinite goodness, to raise your dear soul to the heights of holiness that, in His love, He desires you to attain (SWLM:679-680 [L.40]). Then she concluded by asking for the assistance of prayer: Commend me to His divine mercy I implore you, Madame, and be assured that I have already done what you asked of me and that I shall never forget you in my poor prayers (SWLM:679-680 [L.40]).

Had this woman been guided by Louise in her retreat? Yes, most probably … the content of the letter seems to suggest this. It would be very normal that in the context of a retreat an individual would ask for further accompaniment. Louise was experienced in these matters both with the Sisters and also with the women from the various Confraternities. Therefore, it is very clear that Louise, guided by the Holy Spirit, encouraged, guided and directed other lay persons on the path of Christian holiness.

Questions and challenges for the Vincentian Family today

We have reflected on Louise de Marillac as the formator of the laity so that we might learn from her how to respond to the challenges that the Church presents to us in the twenty-first century. The Second Vatican Council invites us to be aware of what occurred at the beginning of the Christian era [17]. The majority of the followers of Jesus who converted to Christianity were lay people. The deacons and deaconesses who are referred to in the Acts were formed by the apostles and their successors. Monasticism and religious life did not appear as such until the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century.

From the perspective of fidelity to the origins of Christianity

The first Christian catechists and the first servants of charity were lay men and women. The first martyrs of the church were also lay people. Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles speak very clearly about the commitment of Prisca and Aquila, a married couple. Paul reminds us that all the Gentile communities are indebted to them (Romans 16:4). We know that they were exiled from Rome during the persecution that occurred during the reign of Claudius … they then took up residence in Corinth and worked as tent makers (the same work as Paul). They welcomed Paul as a guest in their house. We also know that they accompanied Paul in his mission to Ephesus and they were the founders of the Church in that city. This risked their own lives in order to save Paul and offered their house as a place for the members of the new church to gather … they catechized the great apostle, Apollo and both Saint Paul and Saint Luke considered this couple to be extraordinary missionaries.

The role of the laity did not come to an end with the conclusion of the New Testament. Lay men and women have had an important influence on many of the great spiritual movements that have taken place in the history of the Church. In the third and fourth centuries the majority of the desert fathers and mothers were lay persons. In the mystical tradition of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries many lay women, such as Julian of Norwich [18], played an important role. We also remember that in Saint Vincent’s time Madame Acarie, a mother of six children, was one of the most sought after persons as a spiritual guide.

The Second Vatican Council reminds us that from the very beginning of Christianity, all people are called to participate in the mission of the Church: The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, "the whole body . . . in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development" [Ephesians 4:16] (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #2).

From the perspective of fidelity to the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council

With good reason the decree of the Second Vatican Council on the laity, Apostolicam Actuositate, has been called the Magna Carter of the lay apostolate. This decree gathers together the teachings of the Popes and the bishops during the forty years prior to the Council … a time when the lay apostolate was organized and developed in the Church in multiple manners. The Council made it clear that there was a need to make all those who are baptized (hierarchy and the people of God) realize and become convinced of the fact that the lay apostolate is a right that flows from their baptism and from their profession of the Christian faith.

The six chapters of this decree present the important themes that we should be mindful of as we engage in the process of lay formation:

I.] The lay apostolate and lay spirituality --- emphasis is given to the need for a solid spirituality which is nourished by personal prayer and participation in the Church’s liturgy … a spirituality that is expressed by the habitual practice of faith, hope and charity. Christian laymen and laywomen should view Mary as the Model for their spiritual life and apostolate.

II.] The objectives of the lay apostolate are --- to contribute to the restoration of the temporal order in accord with Christ’s message and the demands of justice and charity. This restoration should be reflected in the culture, the economy, politics, the arts and all the other temporal realities, thus resisting the temptation to resort to some kind of idolatry of the temporal (#7).

III.] The various areas of the lay apostolate --- the family, youth, the social environment and all that is involved in the present complex situation … here these realities are viewed on a national as well as an international level.

IV.] Diverse forms of the lay apostolate --- here the document refers to the example of individual persons as well as the example of the community. It is clear that the Council is concerned with the apostolate that is done by people working together as a group/team. It is important to present here the call that is referred to in #19 of this document: Maintaining the proper relationship to Church authorities, the laity have the right to found and control such associations and to join those already existing. Yet the dispersion of efforts must be avoided.

V.] Order to be observed in the lay apostolate --- first, the various forms of the apostolate should be coordinated; there should also be mutual esteem thus eliminating every form of destructive rivalry … this section of the document also refers to the relationship with the hierarchy and with the clergy and religious (and their role in encouraging the spiritual development of the laity), the participation of the laity in parish and diocesan councils (councils that deal with the family, youth, charitable and social matters), collaboration between Christians and non-Catholics. The Council also asked for the creation of an international council on the laity that would promote the lay apostolate [19].

VI.] Formation for the lay apostolate --- here a request is made for special formation so that the laity might actively engage in the apostolate. I have given more emphasis to this point since this is the specific theme of this conference. This special formation certainly means that we provide the laity with an integral human formation that is accommodated to their specific situation. The laity ought to be aware of the situation of the contemporary world and therefore ought to be prepared to minister in the midst of the present society and culture. The lay person should learn especially how to perform the mission of Christ and the Church by basing his life on belief in the divine mystery of creation and redemption and by being sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God and who urges all to love God the Father as well as the world and men in Him. This formation should be deemed the basis and condition for every successful apostolate (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #29). The sixth chapter of this document insists on the need to provide the laity with a biblical, moral and social formation that is in accord with the magisterium of the Church, especially in those doctrinal matters that might be called into question.

With regard to formation for the apostolate of charity, a ministry, which as Vincentians, directly involves us, the following is asked: Since the works of charity and mercy express the most striking testimony of the Christian life, apostolic formation should lead also to the performance of these works so that the faithful may learn from childhood on to have compassion for their brethren and to be generous in helping those in need (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #31).

When speaking about those who should form the laity for the apostolate, the decree refers to the Christian family, the parish community and schools. It states: Schools, colleges, and other Catholic educational institutions also have the duty to develop a Catholic sense and apostolic activity in young persons. If young people lack this formation either because they do not attend these schools or because of any other reason, all the more should parents, pastors of souls, and apostolic organizations attend to it. Teachers and educators on the other hand, who carry on a distinguished form of the apostolate of the laity by their vocation and office, should be equipped with that learning and pedagogical skill that are needed for imparting such education effectively (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #30). Here we are presented with an urgent need, a need that also confronts us with a very real challenge.

This challenge, however, does not exclude the need for the on-going formation of the members of the various branches of the Vincentian Family: lay groups and associations dedicated to the apostolate or other supernatural goals, should carefully and assiduously promote formation for the apostolate in keeping with their purpose and condition. Frequently these groups are the ordinary vehicle for harmonious formation for the apostolate inasmuch as they provide doctrinal, spiritual, and practical formation. Their members meet in small groups with their associates or friends, examine the methods and results of their apostolic activity, and compare their daily way of life with the Gospel (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #30).

As sons and daughters of the Church we have to respond to these urgent calls that have been repeated by both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We need to form ourselves in order to form others and we also must be convinced of this ministry so that, like Louise, we dedicate our time and our physical and spiritual energy to this urgent task.

From the perspective of fidelity to the teachings of our Superior Generals

With complete objectivity and truthfulness I believe that the Superior General who has given us the best understanding of this theme is Father Robert Maloney (1992-2004). He has often called us to collaborate in the formation of lay Vincentians. He has sensitized us and encouraged us to work together as a Vincentian Family, struggling to combat poverty with the richness of our charism. On several occasions he has stated that the work of lay formation is a question of being faithful to Saint Vincent and Saint Louise and not simply a matter of necessity that is demanded by the reality of the present time. He expressed these ideas in an article that was published in Vincentiana: In the wake of Vatican II, with a heightened consciousness of the mission of the laity and of the need for developing a variety of lay ministries, the Assembly saw this new statement of our purpose as an organic development of St. Vincent's original founding insight. He himself had wanted to gather young and old, rich and poor, clergy and laity, men and women "to lead them to a fuller participation in the evangelization of the poor. [20]"

In the same article Father Maloney offers ten characteristics that should mark one who is a Vincentian formator: [1] deeply rooted in the person of Jesus;[2] fully immersed in the Vincentian charism; [3] in contact with the world of the poor; [4] capable of being a guide on the spiritual journey; [5] a good listener; [6] a good communicator, skilled in using contemporary means for engaging others in the formation process; [7] knowledgeable about the social teaching of the Church; [8] capable of relating and working as a member of a team and of cooperating with others as a team member; [9] in touch with the various groups in our Vincentian Family; [10] truly missionary [21].

Father Maloney also presents the profile of Vincentian lay persons living and ministering in the twenty-first century. This profile is distinguished by the following characteristics: [1] they will be profound lay; [2] they will be profoundly Vincentian; [3] they will be well-educated; [4] they will be well formed; [5] they will be in live contact with the world of the poor; [6] they will be electronically connected; [7] they will have knowledge about the Social Teaching of the Church; [8] they will be a team player; [9] they will be multi-racial; [10] they will be truly missionary [22].

The challenge is very clear and now we are the ones who must respond … Louise de Marillac faithfully fulfilled her role as a good formator and she did this in accord with the circumstances of her time. She teaches us and she also has opened the door for us …

From the perspective of the present reality

Mindful of what we have already stated and understanding the fact that we live in a world that continually creates new forms of poverty, Saint Louise invites us to learn how to accept the Church’s call with regard to lay formation. This is easy and it is within our reach: to dedicate some of our time so that we, like Louise, can collaborate in the formation of lay Vincentians.

Louise, a faithful daughter of the Church, invites us today, here and now, to internalize the objectives proposed by the Second Vatican Council in the decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #30):

To carefully and assiduously promote formation for the apostolate of the Vincentian laity and to do this in keeping with their purpose and condition;

•To plan and offer doctrinal formation that is in accord with the magisterium of the Church and to also provide the members with a biblical and liturgical formation that nourishes the members’ spiritual life and their specific charitable commitment toward those most in need;

•The members shall meet in small groups with their associates or friends, to examine and evaluate the methods and results of their apostolic activity, and compare their daily way of life with the Gospel. (Apostolican Actuositatem, an adaptation of #30).

As we listen to our Superior Generals we are also invited to take up the challenge involved in systemic change:

To put into practice the principles of systemic change through a process of internalization and participation in service projects that reveals our sense of being missionaries.

All of this means that we be communities that take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us; that we be people who are willing and able to respond to the call; that we be spiritual people who live in deep communion with Christ and the Church and the poor; that we clothe ourselves in the Vincentian charism; that we be filled with apostolic zeal and enthusiasm and allow our actions to speak louder than our words and thus communicate joy and hope as we serve those persons who are poor.

I hope that the Holy Spirit will guide us and give us the necessary strength to respond to these challenges. This is not a problem of being advanced in years but rather a problem of “lacking fire” that results in a hesitant response to the call of God’s love.


[1] Cf., Nicolás Gobillón, Vida de la señorita Le Gras, fundadora y primera Superiora de la Compañia de las Hijas de la Caridad [The life of M. Le Gras, founder and first superior of the Company of the Daughters of Charity], translated, Alberto López and Martín Abaitua, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, CEME, 1991; Louis Baunard, Vida de la Venerable Luisa de Marillac, Fundadora de las Hijas de la Caridad de San Vicente de Paul [Life of the Venerable Louise de Marillac, founder of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul], translated into Spanish by a priest of the Congregation, 1st Spanish edition Madrid, Imp. S. Francisco de Sales, 1904; Ponciano Nieto, Vida de la Beata Luisa de Marillac [Life of the Blessed Louise de Marillac], 2nd edition Madrid, López Zarza, 1920; Leandro Daydé, La bienaventurada Luisa de Marillac y las Hijas de la Caridad [Blessed Louise de Marillac and the Daughters of Charity], Barcelona, Imprenta de José Vilamala, 1920; M.D. Poissenet, De angustia a la santidad: Santa Louisa de Marillac, fundadora de las Hijas de la Caridad [From anguish to sanctity, Saint Louise de Marillac, founder of the Daughters of Charity], Ediciones Estudium, Madrid, 1963; Jean Calvet, Luisa de Marillac, retrato [Louise de Marillac: a portrait], Ed. CEME, Salamanca, 1977; Joseph I. Dirvin, Louise de Marillac of the Ladies and Daughters of Charity, (translated into Spanish by Luis Huerga and published by CEME in 1995) Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1970; Benito Martínez, Empenada en un paraíso para los pobres, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, CEME, 1995.

[2] Jean Calvet, Louisa de Marillac, retrato, [Louise de Marillac: a portrait], Ed. CEME, Salamanca, 1977, p.93.

[3] Pontifical Brief of Pope John XXIII; cf, M.D. Poissenet, De la angustia a la santidad: Santa Luisa de Marillac, fundadora de las Hijas de la Caridad [From anxiety to holiness: Saint Louise de Marillac, founder of the Daughters of Charity], Ediciones ESTUDIUM, Madrid, 1963, pp. 287-290.

[4] R. Voyer D’Argenson, Annales de la Compagnie de Saint Sacrament [Annals of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament], Marsella, Beauchet-Filleau, 1900, p. 17.

[5] José María Román, CM, St. Vincent de Paul: a biography, [translated by Sister Joyce Howard, DC], Melisende, London, 1999, p. 495, 551, 572, 584, 635.

[6] Ibid., p. 95, 96-99, 190-191 and 591.

[7] A spiritual woman with strong convictions who in January 1618 had a violent confrontation with Cardinal Bérulle who wanted the Carmelites to take a fourth community vow of slavery to Jesus. M. Acarie’s attitude provoked the resistance of many religious women and the opposition of M. Duval who denounced the case to Cardinal Bellarmine. In April 1618 M. Acarie died and various members of the Carmelite Order made the decision to abandon their convent in Paris and sought refuge in Spain.

[8] Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, New York, 1985-2012, volume I, p. 26-27, 33, 34-35. Hereafter, references to this work will be noted with the letters CCD, followed by the volume number, and then the page number, for example, CCD:I:26-27, 33, 34-35. Generally, these citations will appear in the text and not as footnotes. See also, Román, op.cit., p. 99, 102, 103.

[9] CCD:XI:162-163; see also, Román, op.cit., p. 113-114.

[10] Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, edited and translated by Sister Louise Sullivan, DC, New City Press, New York, 1991, p. 729 [A.47]. Future reference to this work will be noted with the letters, SWLM followed by the page number, followed by [the number of the letter which will be bracketed] --- at other times the letter “A” or “M” will appear in brackets and these are references to Louise’s other writings. All the numbering is in accord with the English edition, for example, (SWLM:729 [A.47]). Generally said references will appear in the text and not as footnotes.

[11] Román, op.cit., p. 195

[12] Élisabeth Charpy, DC, Vida de Santa Luisa de Marillac, biografía breve [The life of Louise de Marillac, a brief biography], Editorial San Pablo, Madrid, 2000, p. 18.

[13] Ibid., p.21.

[14] Ibid., p. 21

[15] A copy of the catechism is contained in the Spanish edition of the Letters and Writings of Louise de Marillac but is not included in the English edition. I have still not been able to find an English translation of this document.

[16] Dirvin, op.cit., p. 33.

[17] Apostolicam Actuositatem, #1; See also the following Biblical texts: Acts 11:19-21, 18:26; Romans 16:1-16; Philippians 4:3.

[18] An English mystic of the fourteenth century.

[19] The creation of the Pontifical Council for the Laity is a direct result of #26 of the decree of the Second Vatican Council, Apostolicam Actuositatem. Pope Paul VI officially approved the creation of this council with the publication of the motu propio Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam (January 6, 1967). Ten year later, on December 10, 1976, another motu propio was published by Pope Paul VI, Apostolatus Peragendi, and as a result the structure of the Pontifical Council was reformed and it became a permanent part of the Roman Curia.

[20] Robert Maloney, CM, Some qualities of a good formator, in Vincentiana, July-October 2002 [46th year], p. 427-433.

[21] Ibid., 430-433.

[22] Robert Maloney, CM, El perfil del laico vicenciano [The Profile of a Lay Vincentian in the XXI Century], in Laicado Vicenciano para el tercer milenio, XXVIII Semana Vicenciana, CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, 1002, pp. 19-28. The Translator has obtained an English translation of this presentation from the author.

Translator: Charles T. Plock, CM