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Religion in France during the time of Madame Acarie

After the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), there was a firm commitment to the reform of the Catholic Church in Spain and Italy.
In France, as the sixteenth century drew to its close, the Wars of Religion had been raging for thirty years and all the reforms, the reform of the clergy in particular, had yet to be implemented.
Madame Acarie’s salon was a meeting-place for all those individuals who were concerned with making the Catholic reformation in France a reality, with the conversion of both clergy and laity.

Influential members of French society gathered there around outstanding spiritual directors – a necessity if the reforms were to take effect…
…with the arrival of the reformed Carmelite Order in France (1604). The reform of the clergy would follow… and the “Century of Saints” would begin!

The state of religion in France in Madame Acarie’s time

Monsieur Philippe BONNICHON, Senior Lecturer at the Sorbonne.

Reverend Mother, Reverend Father, Sisters, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for welcoming me to give a lecture on “The state of religion in France in Madame Acarie’s time”; that is, to all intents and purposes, the period of the reign of Henri IV.

Imagine if you will, by making an effort to free yourself of preconceptions, that you are in the year 1600. It is necessary to undergo a sort of “mental purification” in order to conjure up a picture of people who, although different from us, were not entirely lacking in resemblance to ourselves.

France in 1600 was a country which in many respects was very different from the France of today; it was different, first of all, because the political power was a monarchy, and the monarchy was sacred; and it was in this collectivist society that French people, very divided amongst themselves in other respects, could find their identity. It was also different from the France of today because it was a hierarchical society (what we could call today democratic values did not obtain) It was a hierarchical society in which the values that were professed were Christian values, that is, the idea was one of service. The polite formula of the time was to say “I am, Monsieur, your most humble and obedient servant.”

It was, of course, possible to make use of this formula without giving a thought to putting it into practice. There was, notwithstanding, in the social interaction of people who knew that they were not equals in everyday life, a willingness to engage in a dialogue which was a Christian dialogue between individuals of differing ranks in society; it was an ideal of service which is manifest only in a Christian society. France at that time was also very different from the France of today because Christianity was the backbone and setting for both society and the landscape. Church buildings and the sound of church bells are still with us; but Christianity was something much more interwoven in the rhythm of each individual’s daily life. Religious life, that is the manner in which the faith was embodied was still a living reality for the majority of people. The problems posed by this religious life are strangely comparable to – I do not say identical with – our own; for it is possible to say that in France in the year 1600 what Holy Father calls at the present time “the new evangelization” was a matter as urgent, as essential and probably as difficult as today, because nine-tenths of the faithful were to a large extent ignorant of their religion, and of doctrine, of faith and of the meaning of the gestures which many of them, by imitation or by force of habit, continued to make. There was ignorance amongst the faithful and ignorance amongst the clergy, who had for the most part been discredited, their very existence lacking credibility, as a result of the Protestants’ critical stance; clergy among whom what are traditionally called “abuses” had not been eradicated – far from it; clergy who were ill-educated, sometimes lacking any formation, unaware of the duties of their state of life and as a consequence, hard put to respond to the expectations of the laity.

The result was that in the France of 1600, a country scarcely at peace (may I remind you that the Edict of Nantes was issued in 1598, and the Treaty of Vervins was signed with Spain in the same year) there were acts of violence and daily transgressions of the law and the Ten Commandments of God. Transgressions of all sorts were a frequent occurrence: duels, assassinations, kidnapping. So an attempt to understand the religious state of France in 1600 means facing up to the reality of the human condition at a particular period, and, it goes without saying, to the truth of the Gospel, a truth which is valid in every age. Witness the reception given to this same Gospel at the beginning of the 17th century.

These facts having been recalled, the initial overview of the situation is clear; I will enlarge on it very shortly. I shall begin with the destruction accumulated in the preceding thirty years through the Wars of Religion; the catalogue of this destruction must, however, be subject to qualification.

There was material destruction, but also, around the years 1590-1600, destruction in minds and hearts. Many barriers, seemingly insurmountable from the human point of view, were thrown up between individuals, groups and political parties. This is my starting point. The second aspect of this initial overview is that out of a deteriorating situation there came a point where just as clearly, religion had a widening influence on society; but it was a society where Madame Acarie was no longer present, for she died in 1618. After her death, about 1630 – 1650, in the reign of Louis X111 and Louis X1V’s minority, came the dawn of what would be thought of as the “century of saints”; after St. Francis de Sales, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac would come St. John Eudes, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Father Claude de la Colombière and later at the end of the century, St. John Baptist de la Salle and St Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort. It would be impossible to name them all; the list of canonised saints which we come across in the 17th century, just after the time of Madame Acarie, is something unique in French history.

I should like to turn from this scene of destruction in order to look at the religious expansion of the 1650s. That is to say that there were so many preachers, founders and members of religious orders and congregations of secular clergy, so many women devoted to the poor, to children or to education, all hard at work, that there must be a reason behind it. The real reason is the action of the Holy Spirit, but people must be open to this action. If one considers this transitional period, from 1600 to 1650, and examines the resulting flowering of religious life in the 1650s, one is amazed to see the central role played by a woman, a mother of a family, who became a religious, a lay sister; she was never anything other than a lay sister in the Order which she brought to France (or which was brought there on her initiative and under her direction). This woman is Madame Acarie. So is she a key figure? She was not alone. St. Francis de Sales and several others had their part to play, and Bérulle, her cousin, certainly had. Madame Acarie acted as a catalyst for so many initiatives in her immediate circle and gathered together so many spiritually gifted people that she was in some way the guiding light and the inspiration for the “French school of spirituality” which would have widespread influence in seventeenth-century France, and, indeed up to the time of the Curé of Ars and perhaps even in our own day.

So France was largely de-Christianised; religion was strongly influenced by politics; society was sealed off, one might even say hermetically sealed off from the supernatural; the clergy were in need of reform; and in the midst of all this – otherwise nothing would have been possible – there were a few little centres of fervour, a few persons, men and women, through whom God and the Church would be able to carry out the work of reconstruction.

In the sixteenth century the religious fervour of those who wished to live a more Gospel-centered life was the prerogative of the reformers, who at the beginning were often, but not always, Protestants. This was a cause of division in the sixteenth century, precisely because they believed in God; since everyone was a believer, the question was, what form of worship, in spirit and in truth, should be given to God as the all-powerful, transcendent Lord, far greater than any earthly King?
According to the way in which they related to God, people would also have different ways of relating to each other. Calvin and St. Ignatius Loyola were, like their contemporaries, preoccupied with the glory of God. “Soli Deo gloria”, (“To God alone be the glory”), said Calvin, and you know the motto of the very ant-Calvinist Jesuits, “Ad majorem Dei gloriam.” (“For the greater glory of God”) These are two different ways of looking at the glory of God.

“SOLI DEO GLORIA”: First scenario: there is nothing for man to do; God’s glory is perfect, man must bow down and adore, in fear and trembling taking care not to hold in his more or less impious hands anything which could tarnish the brilliance of God’s grandeur.

“AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM”: This glory is perfect in itself but is not necessarily perfect in, or evident to human eyes; there is therefore great scope for an apostolate “Let your light shine before men, so that seeing your good works, they will give thanks to your Father in Heaven.”
Everyone speaks of “glory”; but not everyone has the same concept of Divine “glory” and “omnipotence” or of the relationship of God with humankind. This is probably the crucial point giving rise to the following texts of Christian faith: “And you, what do you believe? Show me your faith, and show it to me through words and actions”. If the Reformed Protestants give a privileged place to the Word of God, it is precisely because God is revealed to them in Scripture, in the Word, and Scripture has retained the place of a Sacrament; whereas for the Catholic, God certainly speaks to us in Scripture and has revealed Himself in history, but He continues to become incarnate by means of each of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, those signs which are accessible to the senses, the very signs which in the name of purity of faith, Protestants find unacceptable and objectionable.

And what about the churches which contain statues and images? Idol-worship, said the Protestants; as a consequence, it was necessary to abolish images. There was an iconoclast movement; the Protestant reformers were especially vigilant, as was the case with the French Calvinists, in abolishing all these so-called intermediaries between God and man, which only serve to turn man into a idolater and to conceal the true face of God, who only reveals Himself to the one to whom He is well-disposed.

Catholics, on the other hand, would say: God became incarnate, God speaks in history, He is present here and now; there is a mediation of likeness achieved through the body, because body and soul were created by God. It is an act of faith and trust made by the Christian.

Here are two fundamentally different teachings which, it ought to be said, resulted in acts of brutality, for the whole problem of the Wars of Religion was the problem of Truth, but if Truth is cut off from Charity, you know all too well what happens; the one who is in error has no right to profess his error or even, in certain circumstances, to remain alive. The result was that the Wars of Religion caused much destruction.

In addition, the power of the King, which had been considered sacred by the majority of French people, had largely lost its sacred character, especially in the reign of Henri III.

And moreover, what of the situation if the King, who through his birthright should be the legitimate heir to the throne, were a Protestant, as was the case with Henri IV at the time of Henri III’s assassination? It was a question which perturbed many people, and I would say that those of a religious bent abolished, or at least undermined, the notion of legitimate succession. Basic questions were asked: in politics, where can truth and goodness be found? How should one act? Which side should one support? These were questions to be resolved in the privacy of each individual’s conscience, and it was no easy matter to do so. As a result, they looked to other countries for help, the Protestants looked for help especially to the German princes or to other countries such as the United Provinces; the Catholics looked to Spain, and in doing so they were creating some confusion between politics and religion; a confusion which was welcomed by the King of Spain. Confronted with a divided Kingdom such as France was at that time, with the danger that heresy would triumph (although to be truthful, there was never any danger that heretics would triumph numerically) the King of Spain made himself out to be the defender of authentic religion and of Catholicism. In support of him, the “good Catholics” had regrouped in the party of the League, which was itself organised along almost revolutionary lines. Paris was then, about the year 1590, a city in revolution, the bourgeoisie were armed, and its districts divided up, under the authority of a certain number of leaders like M Acarie; these in principle were under the orders of the Guise family until the latter were assassinated, and they hoped that Spain would ultimately gain some sort of victory; this was clearly something of which many people, known as “good Frenchmen” by Catholics as well as Protestants, were not in favour. It was these “good Frenchmen” whom Henry IV rallied to his cause, at the same time abjuring his faith, (and that was for the third time in his life). This time he abjured Protestantism for good, sending a signal to the whole of his Kingdom; he was anointed King, not in Rheims but in Chartres (for Rheims was a stronghold of the League). He was now in reality the King of France.

There was no reason from then on for Paris to maintain its resistance. The Kingdom rallied progressively to Henri IV’s cause. It was certain that those who had been at the forefront of the opposition, especially in political and armed resistance as uncompromising Catholics, men of great sincerity like M Acarie, would be disgraced and, in any event, imprisoned and sent into exile for several years.

So the civil war only came to an end because, after thirty years, the two parties had reached an understanding. The majority party realised that in no way could the minority be exterminated, even if that were possible or desirable; the other party, the Protestant minority, that it was impossible to produce in France a swing in favour of the Protestant Reformation; this would have engaged the whole of Europe, given the territorial, demographic and political importance of the French nation.

So following this realisation, a “modus vivendi” was established. The Edict of Nantes established peace in religious affairs for practically the whole of the seventeenth century, until its revocation in 1685. In the Europe of the time, this was an astonishing thing to happen; France was practically the only country in Europe and the Christian world whose subjects, or some of them, were able to profess a religion which was different from that of the Sovereign. So there was a “modus vivendi”; everyone knew that it was only temporary. The preamble of the Edict of Nantes put it well: “All our subjects adore God, but all cannot yet do this in the same way and with one voice”, so what was being granted was time for conversion, perhaps the conversion of Catholics to true Catholicism, and also the conversion of Protestants to the Catholic faith. This is the point at which Madame Acarie and her successors come on the scene; if, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the tide of religion and religious fervour flowed in favour of the reformers, in the seventeenth century all the religious fervour would now be on the Catholic side, and if, in the preceding century, many Catholics had turned Protestant, there would be numerous conversions from the Protestant faith to Catholicism; these were genuine and sincere, in spite of the episode of forced conversion which occurred at the end of the period, in the reign of Louis XIV, under a political system of coercion which preceded the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

After an uncertain start, there would be an expansion of the Catholic religion in French society, thanks to a chosen few. But in 1600 this had not yet taken place.

In 1600, France was a country that had been devastated; not only had its ruins to be repaired, but instruction had to be given, because people were uneducated; the clergy too, especially the lower ranks, were almost equally uneducated.

The clergy of the time were enmeshed in the system of benefices. An ecclesiastical benefice is an income, either of money or deriving from land, which one enjoys, in principle, in return for fulfilling an office, that is to say, a ministry. Although it was essential for the office to be fulfilled, according to mentality of the time, the benefice took precedence over the office. If the person who was the benefice-holder was unwilling or unable to fulfil the office, he delegated it to someone else, by means of a financial arrangement, a small salary called a “congruent portion”, which was paid to many priests in parishes. The result was that many benefice-holders were not the persons who fulfilled the office, and those who did fulfil the office were unsuited to it, and very often underpaid and ill-prepared. There was wholesale competition for benefices. The question was, to whom did Church money belong? To the benefice-holders? It did not, in principle; it belonged to the poor and to God. It belonged to God in order to give Him worship; it belonged to the poor because they are the sign of God’s presence here on earth. So the Church of the time had duties to fulfil: teaching, works of charity, mutual aid, in fact, all the budgets for the different ministries were the Church’s responsibility, worship aside. Look at the work done by St. Vincent de Paul and others; this is the purpose to which Church money should be devoted. The scandal is not that the church should possess wealth or benefices or income, the scandal is not that a bishop has a hundred thousand livres of personal allowances; it is a question of knowing what he does with these hundred thousand livres. The seventeenth century would bring no change in the structures – the system of benefices would remain in place until the French Revolution – but would bring a change in the spirit behind them. So, if a benefice-holder or a Canon had a change of heart, the Canon in question would take the duties allotted to him seriously; his only responsibility was to recite the Divine Office in the Cathedral church, and that was not an onerous task; if he had a change of heart, he would do more; he would undertake some ministry; he would imitate St Jean Baptiste de la Salle in doing more and going further than necessary. One of the parish priests who had a conversion experience was St. Vincent de Paul, who waged war on the benefice system; he would become a missionary and devote his talents to an active and widespread charitable ministry. So the structures remained the same, but the spirit behind them would change.

I am already giving you a prospect of the year 1650, to help you to understand how it all started and where it was all leading. It is certain, at any rate, that the French clergy of 1600 had had no formation. Now the Council of Trent had reflected on this and both in principle and in actual fact (for example, in Italy) it had changed the current practices and remedied abuses. The Council had ended thirty years before; it had given rise to model bishops such as St. Charles Borromeo in Milan. But this had not yet happened in the France of 1600; the Wars of Religion had delayed matters. As far as French Catholics were concerned, the Tridentine reform had not taken place; any change would imply that the Council decrees had been applied. In addition, the decrees of the Council of Trent did not yet have the force of law in France… Consequently, all the reforms which would be carried out thanks to Madame Acarie and her associates would be carried out because the clergy themselves decided to put the decrees of the Council of Trent into practice, although they were not obliged to by law. So it was a law that was interiorized after a fashion, a law which, for all kinds of reasons, including Gallicanism, placed no formal obligation on French citizens. Since the reform of the Church had not yet taken place in France, in order for it to be carried out, religious fervour was a prerequisite, a fervour which presumed – this is the conclusion of historians of the period – the existence of a social elite, not necessarily a social elite, but a spiritual elite, grouped of necessity around a key figure or figures who had an outstanding influence in their times. I recall St. Francis de Sales and Madame Acarie in particular, also the Port Royal Reform, which before becoming Jansenist effected a noteworthy conversion in religious life; Mère Angelique Arnauld, moreover, was acquainted with St. Francis de Sales, who strongly encouraged her to carry out this reform – and St. Francis de Sales was no Jansenist!

I talked of a society which was to a certain extent closed off from the supernatural, but all the more attentive to and anxious about anything out of the ordinary such as witchcraft or certain kinds of prophecy. Madame Acarie would unmask a false prophet, a woman who preached reform without, it seems, being inspired by the Holy Spirit. So people on the one hand tended to be eager, in an emotional way, for anything extraordinary; on the other, they evinced a practical humanism, a very down-to-earth wisdom and a religion “of the world”, the sort which would later be criticised by Pascal; their morality was based on giving in order to receive, a commercial transaction; “marchand a marchand” (“From one trader to another”) is the phrase used by Père Garasse. This sort of relationship between God and man is clearly improper.

I mentioned finally that the clergy were in need of reform. I will take up this theme again with reference to their education – there were no, or very few, seminaries – the celibate vocation and the competition for benefices. The higher ranks of the clergy were at that time still a necessary part of the government, there were perhaps not yet enough members of the nobility and court officials to enable politics and administration to be the work of the laity. It was the bishops who were educated, who were used to dealing with the world and to giving orders, so it was natural at that point in time that they were employed in a sphere which was not proper to him. The result was that they were not resident in their dioceses and often – and this was mostly in spite of themselves – they did not carry out their ministry as bishops.

The lower ranks of the clergy were uneducated. They included parish priests who cut a fine figure, such as the unfortunate Père Grandier who was burned at the stake in the time of Richelièu; swashbuckling churchmen like the Sourdis who at a later date would lead naval forces on behalf of this same Richelieu. So reformation, a Catholic reformation, that is, was necessary. What sort of reformation? Reform is concerned with the way we dress. Dress is what sets us apart from others, and is our characteristic; dress enables us to know the kind of person with whom we are dealing. It would be a long time before ecclesiastics would wear a distinguishing habit. Reformation thus included reform of dress, reform of place of abode, reform of priestly formation in seminaries, reform of discipline and of obedience to the bishops.

It followed that about the year 1600, the clergy were so imbued with the spirit of the age that the image and ideal of the priesthood seemed, to all intents and purposes, non-existent. The priest, as the Council of Trent reminds us, is conformed in his very person to the person of Christ, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. He is the only one who is able to make God, Jesus Christ, truly present to men; in a word, he is a mediator, by means of the Sacrament, for humanity. Hence the importance of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, for Christ’s Incarnation in the Eucharistic mystery, on which Mary of the Incarnation, Madame Acarie, would place so much emphasis. But we have said that in the France of 1600 the decrees of the Council had not yet been accepted.

There were indeed areas of stability; religious orders like the Capuchins who served the ordinary people, or the Jesuits (in spite of their temporary banishment) who served the more cultured sections of the community; areas where the desire for reform could become established. And there were a few small centres of religious fervour. For if the situation were uniformly bleak, it would be very hard to imagine by what miracle one could escape from it. Religious fervour was centred on a form of spirituality known as “devotio moderna”, which was aimed at the imitation of Jesus Christ (“The imitation of Christ” is a book which has been widely read, especially since the sixteenth century, and it will continue to be so). It was a spirituality of personal encounter with the person of Christ; this was intended for every Christian, not just for the specialist, the monk or nun living in an enclosure. The spirituality developed in certain groups which, from a social and cultural point of view, at the time with which we are concerned, had real importance, often in connection with the nobility. They were people who were cultured, powerful and if they were members of the Parlement of Paris, accustomed to the struggle against Protestantism. Many of them were members of the League, in the cause of safeguarding the integrity of the royal power. It is surprising how many of these persons knew each other, or were related, and this was how their influence was felt in society. Madame Acarie’s mother was a l’Huillier, she was a cousin of the Séguiers, Pierre de Berulle’s mother was a Séguier, and a Pierre Séguier would be Chancellor of France, that is, the second most powerful person in the Kingdom. There would be many women from the Seguier family in Carmel. The Bérulles, the Marillacs, the Avrillots; Barbe Avrillot, Madame Acarie would be part of this milieu, which was also shared to some extent by the Arnauld and Marion families, the reformers of Port Royal. Other families in this circle were those of Madame de Chantal, née Frémiot, St. Francis de Sales’ penitent; the family of President Brulard, which was one of the great noble families; Madame Brulard was also one of St. Francis de Sales’ penitents.

In the reign of Henri IV, then, there was a whole group of people who were fitted to make their influence felt in society, especially since they had their supporters at court, in the guise of various noble ladies and reformist bishops; I am thinking of the aforementioned person who was at the time Coadjutor Bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales. To put it another way, in France at that time, in a troubled and de-christianised setting, there existed a chosen few who were receptive, and Madame Acarie’s experience, taking place in Paris after the dissolution of the League, would come as a shock.

My task today is not to speak to you about Madame Acarie. I remind you only that she belonged to one of the noble families, that in her youth she had a strong desire to enter religious life, and that she could not realise this desire until after she was widowed, and then of course, in an Order with which she was not familiar. She had been married (being herself a very wealthy heiress) to a young man of considerable fortune and she lived through very contrasting circumstances during her life. Coming from a very wealthy background ( and in 1600 she was able, thanks to her natural gifts, to recover this wealth in part) without going in search of it, she experienced poverty and humiliation at the time of her husband’s disgrace; he, as we have said, had played an important role in the Parisian branch of the League. She suffered very painful disabilities, especially after a riding accident. She devoted herself to the poor during the Civil War, both in the hospital and in her own home. Throughout her married life, she practised obedience to her husband, seeing the will of Christ in his sometimes contradictory desires.

She was an utter realist. She was able to restore the family affairs to normality and she was valued by both Henry IV and the Queen on account of her personal reputation. Her home would be frequented by many people who were concerned about the religious and spiritual reform of France in the 1600s: Dom Beaucousin, the Carthusian, Messieurs Gallement and Duval, who, with Pierre de Bérulle, then a young priest, would be the superiors of the Carmelite Order in France. She knew the Order through her reading and perhaps through M. de Bretigny who was from a Franco-Spanish family and who had dreamed for more than ten years of introducing the reformed Carmelite Order into France. St. Francis de Sales would come to the Hôtel Acarie; frequent visitors were great ladies like Madame de Maignelay, Madame de Breauté, Madame de Longueville and Madame de Joyeuse, all ladies at Court, who had friends there and were influential. So in this way, worldly influence would serve the dissemination of spiritual teaching, because Madame Acarie became a topic of conversation; people spoke not only of her virtue and her charity, but also of the mystical states which she took great pains to conceal, but which finally became known and the subject of everyone’s curiosity. She was a woman who lived in a permanent state of prayer; everyone recognised this, but it did not distract her from the necessary duties of her state of life. If we think about the parts of the soul, as described by St. Francis de Sales, the “sensible” and the “superior” parts, then in Barbe Acarie the sensible part was entirely subordinate to the superior, precisely the part where through one’s will and in the depths of the soul, God can encounter the human person and the human person lets himself be encountered by God. She experienced a permanent state of prayer, but had great mistrust of what she termed “imagination”. There was not a trace of piety in her; her spiritual state was manifest through her wide-ranging charity. Such are the main features of her spirituality, which were well-known and had a visible effect on the Paris of her day; many people came to ask her advice.

I spoke about the duties of one’s state in life. St. Francis de Sales had extolled them in his “Introduction to the Devout Life”. In this book, one of the most widely published books in France, he affirmed that Christian perfection, the search for Evangelical perfection, can be the condition of any state in life and it is not the special preserve of those who devote the whole of their life to it in the cloister. This was one of the features of “devotio moderna”. It is possible to say that Madame Acarie was the living example of this type of devotion, in her Paris home, before becoming a Carmelite in Amiens and here in Pontoise; this was by means of the duties of her state in life.

A permanent state of prayer was another very important feature of her spirituality; it was the imitation of Christ with an insight that, following in Madame Acarie’s footsteps, people throughout the seventeenth century would maintain with considerable attention; the whole matter consisted in avoiding concentration on self-love; there was a real fear of self-love, that is, of putting oneself in some way in the place of God. Self-love is in opposition to the love of God, and the real acid test is the abandonment of self-love in favour of obedience; we recognise in this the spirituality of St. Therese and St. Ignatius of Loyola (and, in Madame Acarie’s case, St. Teresa of Avila).

In such a society, which had the notion of service to the King and, when all comes to all, understood what it was to serve the King of Heaven, the glory of man was synonymous with his self-emptying; the annihilation of human nature through the Cross is the glory of God and at the same time the glorification of the human person. This is the paradox of being annihilated to achieve resurrection. This appears to be a central idea. It is consequently understood that the natural way is one of humility, of the littleness of spiritual childhood, which is at the same time the way of active charity; for it is certain that in Madame Acarie’s case, contemplation and action were united, necessarily so, otherwise contemplation would not be genuine. This again was explained to us by St. Francis de Sales in his “Treatise on the love of God”. Here below, God is a hidden God, hidden in the Eucharistic species; He is truly present. It is this hidden God who informed (in the sense of “shaped”) a major part of 17th century spirituality so Madame Acarie’s action in the Church in France at the time was three-fold :

  • Firstly, it was a question of introducing the Carmelite Order into France in the 1600s; it became a source of conversions throughout the century. The Carmelite Order as reformed by St Teresa was Spanish. French people wanted nothing which came out of Spain; the project seemed impossible. Madame Acarie sent her cousin Pierre de Bérulle to conduct negotiations in Spain at the precise moment when the whole project seemed about to fail. In the end, it succeeded, when all human means were, as Bérulle said, “lacking”, that is to say, there was nothing else that it was humanly possible to do; it is God who did everything. During that time, Madame Acarie had plans drawn up, and a monastery built in Paris to receive the Spanish Sisters. She did not have the financial means to do it, but she succeeded at last in finding the money and she prepared the future French nuns for the arrival of St. Teresa’s companions.
  • Secondly, there was the establishment of the Ursulines, who would be influential; after contemplation, came action in the form of teaching in a society which had to be reconverted to Christianity. A whole lecture could be devoted to the influence of the Ursulines on the education of women in France.
  • Lastly, there was the creation of the Oratory by é in 1611. Bérulle gave the Bishops – he said this himself – something that the Pope had at his disposal, thanks to the Jesuits; men who were entirely in their hands, to carry out the apostolate to which Bishops committed them. The Oratory, being detached from the system of benefices, would allow the reform of the French clergy to take effect. Chronologically, it was after the turning-point of the years 1604 – 1611 (from the introduction of the Carmelite Order into France to the creation of the Oratory by Berulle) that the Catholic Reformation’s wide-ranging influence was felt, culminating in the flowering of the spiritual movement which I described at the beginning of my paper.

Right from the beginning of the reform of the French clergy it was clear that there was a link between clergy and Carmel, between an Order of contemplative nuns and the reform of secular priests. This was, moreover, what St. Teresa of Avila had explicitly desired; and it would also be referred to by “Little” St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It was a union of Martha and Mary which grounded the Apostolate (which was so fruitful in seventeenth-century France) in contemplation, the contemplation of Christ and the mystery of Christ: a Christocentric spirituality. It would have a theological explanation, Pierre de Bérulle emphasised the importance of the hypostatic union, the union in the one person of Christ of His two natures; Man finds his meaning only in obedience to the Divine, the result being what can be termed a Copernican revolution; man must find his centre outside himself, just as the earth revolves around the sun, the sun being God, Jesus Christ. “It is no longer I that live”, as St. Paul says, “but Jesus Christ living in me”. Pére Bourgoing, Bérulle’s successor, gave a good explanation; man cannot know himself, or even exist unless he centres himself on Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ became incarnate and was made visible. God makes use of the body and the senses; it is so-called baroque piety, emotion, and the mediation of images which distinguishes Catholics from Protestants. But should one limit oneself to sensible consolations or even to extraordinary manifestations? In no way; these are only signs. There must be, to quote the contemporary masters of spirituality, “ecstasy in life”, not just in thought and imagination. Ecstasy in life is only possible through the Real Presence of God amongst men; this presence is the Eucharist, where God is hidden, hence the role of the adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist, the reception of holy Communion, processions and Corpus Christi celebrations in which He was made manifest for the sake of the hierarchical society of the time, taking possession of social structures and spaces, and human hearts.

The priest who makes this presence of God amongst men a possibility was consequently an important person; as a result, new congregations were established; the Oratory, St. Sulpice, the Eudists, the Lazarists, all the other orders created in the seventeenth century, including numerous missionary orders. All this took place during the Catholic Reformation which had not yet been undertaken at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but which was a possibility thanks to Madame Acarie’s achievements in 1604 and Berulle’s in 1611. It would spread from a few influential centres into a hierarchical society, where the initiative of higher-ranking persons was subsequently taken up more widely.

This, then, was largely the achievement of Madame Acarie; she could only make this a reality through obedience, persevering faith and humility, all human means having been found wanting; as for her, Blessed Mary of the Incarnation, Marian devotion went hand in hand with devotion to the Real Presence, something which Bérulle himself would recommend; because in the Incarnation as in the Eucharist, perfect obedience and true Kenosis are found in the “fiat” or oblation of oneself.

As a historian, it has been my wish to examine the conditions leading to the large numbers of conversions throughout French society. What was relevant to the people of the 17th century could also be a valuable lesson for us in the first years of the new millennium.

Thank you for your attention.