France experienced a great spiritual revival in the 17th century. A major figure in that revival was the outstanding home missionary St. John Eudes.
John was the first-born of Isaac Eudes, a farmer of Normandy. The family was very devout and John showed a precocious spirituality; yet his parents wanted him to marry and carry on the family farm. By 1620, however, he had made a private vow of celibacy, so he declined their proposal.
In 1621 he began to study theology, with a view to becoming a diocesan priest. Then he changed his mind and joined the Congregation of the Oratory of France. He had the good fortune to be trained there by Pierre de Berulle and Charles de Condren. From them he inherited the idea that the priest, of all people, should strive most for perfection.
France at that time needed to be shaken up spiritually. One of the means undertaken was the parish mission, which had just been “invented.” Father Eudes was to become the country’s ablest domestic missionary. The mission plan involved two emphases in particular: sermons preached to large crowds, in church or in the open, and sacramental confession. As Eudes himself described this procedure, “The preacher beats the bushes and the confessors catch the bird!”
As he went around from city to city, hamlet to hamlet, John kept his eyes open for other needs of the spirit. One thing he observed was that there was no special provision for women who had converted from a wayward life. Therefore, in 1641 he himself opened a house of refuge for these penitent women, with some Visitation nuns of Caen in charge. In 1650 this group of Visitandines decided to separate from their community and found another order devoted entirely to this sort of work. They called it the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge. (These sisters established a convent home in Buffalo in 1855, from which, in 1930, another convent was set up in Rochester. The Rochester convent, Holy Angels Home, closed several years ago).
St. John also decided that, given the importance of the priesthood for renewing spirituality, the training of priests should be a priority. Since the Congregation of the Oratory did not want to take on seminary work, Eudes set up, in 1643, a new community of priests without vows to specialize in seminary education. He called them the Congregation of Jesus and Mary. By the time of his death, these “Eudist Fathers” had charge of six French seminaries.
Another of John’s responses was to those stricken by the plague. He insisted on caring for them with his own hands. So as not to risk carrying their disease to others during the epidemic of 1631, he lived for a while in a huge barrel in the middle of a field, eating food brought to him from a nearby convent. (Thus he became a model for today’s nurses of the victims of AIDS).
St. John’s great devotion was to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He did not originate these devotions; it was St. Margaret Mary, from 1675 on, who was the chief promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But it was he who got the church to accept liturgical offices in honor of the Sacred Heart of Mary (1642) and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1672). So he was one of the leading advocates of both of these devotions. His congregation adopted as their badge the symbol of the two hearts joined together.
Meanwhile, St. John continued his tireless work for the home missions. It was these efforts that eventually brought about his failure in health. In 1675 he preached a nine-week mission in the open air at Saint Lo. As a result, he fell ill from overexertion and was unable to give any missions thereafter.
Eudes had converted souls not only by his preaching but by his example of personal devotion. He was especially reverent in the celebration of Mass. One of his most famous remarks was that to offer Mass properly one needs three eternities: the first, to prepare for it; the second, to celebrate it; the third, to give thanks for it.
How does our participation at Mass accord with St. John’s three criteria?
–Father Robert F. McNamara