St. Joan of Arc

(1412-1431)

The French Revolution created “Marianne”, a mythical young beauty, as the symbol of France. A nobler symbol of France is Joan of Arc, who was not only a real-life patriot but a saint.

“Jeanne la Pucelle”, as the French used to call her, was the daughter of Jacques d’Arc, a peasant farmer of Dornremy, in northeast France. Although she never learned to read and write, Joan was well-instructed by her mother in household skills. As a child, she was hearty, happy and helpful. She became a holy young woman too “. . . so good,” those who knew her testified, “that all the village loved her.”

Joan, lived, however, in troubled times. Henry V of England had invaded France to add it to his kingdom. The dukes of Burgundy, enemies of the French king, sided with Henry. Although Henry of England and the mad Charles VI of France died the same year, the war continued. Charles VII was heir to the French crown, but stuck in the mud of despair, he practically gave up the fight.

When she was 14, Joan began to have apparitions and to hear voices that advised her. Eventually the voices identified themselves as those of St. Michael, St. Catherine, St. Margaret. These “instructors” gradually informed the teenager that she was called by God to a special mission.

In 1422, the voices came to the point. They commanded her to go to the French king and tell him that she was sent by God to lead his armies to victory! When he showed amazement at the command, the saints assured her that since God had picked her for the job, he would see her through.

After many initial difficulties, Joan was able to persuade the general, Baudricourt, to take her to the king. Forewarned, Charles had disguised himself to test her; but the Maid, assisted by her voices, picked him out at once in the crowded chamber. Startled, the king asked his council to interview Joan. The councillors were very favorably impressed and recommended that Charles give her military authority. So Joan, clad in white armor, rode off at the head of the regiment to rescue the city of Orleans, which lay under enemy siege.

Although wounded in the affray, Joan succeeded in raising the long siege of Orleans in just a few days. Then she moved on to Patay, where her troops achieved another victory. On the strength of these victories, Charles went to Rheims, where he was crowned king on July 17, 1429. Joan stood beside him at the ceremony, bearing her special religious banner.

The coronation over, La Pucelle returned to the battlefield. But on May 23, after leading an unsuccessful sortie out of Compiegne, she was accidentally locked out of the city, and fell into the hands of the Burgundians. The vengeful Duke of Burgundy kept her captive several months. Then he sold her to the English for a huge price. The ungrateful Charles did nothing to rescue her.

The English leaders sought Joan’s death. They could not condemn her on the basis other victories, but they hit upon another approach, which would also, they thought, discredit her.

Pierre Cauchon, the pro-English bishop of Beauvais, brought her before a church court on the charge of witchcraft and heresy. After a rigged process, the court condemned her as a relapsed heretic, and Joan, at the age of 19, was burned to death at Rouen on May 30, 1431. She died with great courage, invoking the Holy Name. Her ashes were thrown into the Seine River to prevent their veneration.

At length, however, the English forces were driven from France. In 1454, at the insistence of Joan’s family, Pope Callistus III ordered a retrial. Enough of the witnesses of Joan’s military career and her trial were still alive. Their testimony in favor of her orthodoxy and holiness was absolutely convincing. The pope therefore cancelled the sentence of the earlier court. Almost 500 years later, in 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized the Maid as a saint. One might say she, too, had risen from the dead.

Many groups tried to lay claim to St. Joan as their own. But, though a patriot, she was not a nationalist; though a soldier, she never used her sword to wound; though the victim of a rigged church trial, she was completely devoted to the Church; though a female leader, she was not a feminist.

No, St. Joan of Arc was simply a devout, highly intelligent, and utterly common-sense young woman who accepted a divine assignment comparable only to those given to the Old Testament heroines, Judith and Esther. In Joan, St. Paul would say, “God chose [one of] those whom the world considers absurd, to shame the wise,” (I Cor. 1:27).

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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