THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY MAY BE FITLY DESCRIBED AS THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE DEVOTION TO THE PURE HEART OF MARY. UNTIL THAT TIME IT WAS PRACTISED EXCLUSIVELY BY A FEW CHOSEN SOULS, AND SPREAD ONLY BY DEGREES THROUGHOUT THE CHURCH. ASCETICAL WRITERS AND LEARNED THEOLOGIANS BEGAN TO TREAT MORE FREQUENTLY OF THIS DEVOTION. GREAT MEN, SUCH AS LOUIS DE GRENADA, CARDINAL DE BERULLE, CANISIUS, AND SUAREZ, WORKED WITH ENERGY AND ZEAL TO MAKE THIS DEVOTION BETTER KNOWN.
It was reserved for St. John Eudes to be the apostle and chief organiser of this special devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We must remark here, however, that in this holy man’s mind, the two Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary were ever inseparable. For almost thirty years before the revelations of Saint Margaret Mary took place, St. John had been an apostle of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. By word and work, he had laboured to spread that devotion throughout the Church of France. Hence, in the decree of January 6th, 1903, on the heroicity of St. John Eude’s virtues, the Church herself styles him “the author of the liturgical cult of the Holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary.” As, in the divine plan, Mary prepares the way for Jesus, so also in the Church of God, devotion to the Heart of Mary prepared the way for devotion to the Sacred Heart. In St. John’s view, the ultimate object of all devotion and love is the adorable Heart of our Saviour, but, the best means of attaining that object is the Immaculate Heart of His Mother. Wherefore, he first set to work to preach and organise devotion to the Heart of Mary. And of that devotion he is the apostle par excellence, for when he began in 1641 it was scarcely known, but when he died (1680), it existed in a .flourishing condition in most of the dioceses of France. A few words, then, on St. John Eudes and his work.
Born in 1601, at Ri in the Department of Orne (France), John Eudes possessed from his tenderest years a profound love for, and a .filial devotion to, the Immaculate Mother of God. After a brilliant course of studies in the Jesuit College at Caen, he decided to enter the Congregation of the Oratory, founded by Cardinal de Berulle, and did so on March 25th, 1623. Ordained priest in 1625, Father Eudes began his sacerdotal ministry in the town of Caen. From the very beginning of his priestly career he zealously applied himself to the important work of preaching missions, and in this he was very successful.
It was not until 1641, however, that he devoted his attention to the propagation of devotion to the Heart of Mary. In that year he made the acquaintance, of a holy soul, Marie Desvalles, whom he ever afterwards regarded as a saint, favoured with divine communications and extraordinary graces. Probably, this saintly woman made known to Father Eudes the will of God with regard to the part he was to play in spreading devotion to the Pure Heart of Mary. This holy man looked upon his mission as divine, and considered himself an instrument in God’s hands for the formation of a new and distinctive devotion,and from the year 1641 the apostle of Mary’s Immaculate Heart gave himself unreservedly to the furtherance of this great project. Saint John Eudes was a Founder of religious institutes, a zealous and eloquent missionary, and a great spiritual writer. In each of these capacities, he applied all his energy and talents to his great lifework-the establishment among the faithful of France of a special devotion to the Most Pure Heart of Mary.
St. John Eudes was, first of all, a Founder of religious congregations. His first foundation on December 8th, 1641, was that of the Society of Our Lady of Charity-a Society much similar in end and constitutions to the Congregation of the Good Shepherd, of our day. Everything in that Society breathed devotion to the Pure Heart of Mary. Its very existence, in the holy Founder’s view, was due to the virginal Heart of Mary, who loved, with one and the same love , both Mary Magdalen and the Apostle, St. John. From its inception, this institute was dedicated to the chaste Heart of Our Lady. Its Founder always loved to call its members “the daughters of the Heart of Mary,” and continually invited them to seek in that Heart their rule of life, and especially their model of Christian charity. For them, moreover, he instituted the first liturgical feast of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, which was celebrated on February 8th of each year.
The Society of Jesus and Mary (the Eudists) was founded by John Eudes at Caen in 1643. He first conceived the idea of this new Society in 1641, when he was yet a member of the Oratory. In fact, it appears that he quitted this latter Congregation in order to establish the Society which now bears his name. In his intention, the Eudists were to be apostles and promoters of devotion to the Heart of Mary. He never ceased to inculcate this devotion amongst his priests, reminding them that “the Congregation is dedicated in an especial manner to the Holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and that they must love and honour these Hearts as their principal Patrons.” In his numerous letters to them, he frequently alluded to the same subject, and earnestly- besought them to spread his cherished devotion among the people.
The Saint’s third foundation is not a religious congregation, nor even a “Third Order” properly so called, but only an Association of holy women living in the world and practising perfect chastity. It bears the beautiful name, of the “Society of the Heart of the Mother Most Admirable.” His saintly friend,, Marie Desvalles, was the first associate of this new Society. It is still in existence, and now numbers about 25,000 associates. Probably no Society established by St. John Eudes did so much as this one for the propagation of devotion to the Heart of Mary.
But St. John was not content with spreading this devotion among his own children. He preached it also in his missions everywhere he went. From diocese to diocese, from parish to parish, this saintly priest passed, sowing, as he went, the seeds of a lasting devotion in the souls of his hearers. In the confessional as in the pulpit, the apostle of the Heart of Mary spent himself in the work of establishing his beloved devotion. To souls willing to advance in the path of perfection, he proposed the Immaculate Heart of Mary as the Model of all the virtues. To the weak and to sinners, he held it up as the sure means of salvation and perseverance. Despite Jansenistic outcries, he continued to inculcate this devotion, and eventually preached no mission or retreat without making the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary known and loved. His sermons everywhere were crowned with success, for, as a result of his apostolic labours, confraternities in honour of the Most Pure Heart of Mary were established in many parishes.
At length, in 1648, he had the happiness of seeing the desire of his heart fulfilled, for the feast of the Heart of Mary was for the first time publicly celebrated at Autun. That town is remarkable not only as the place where the feast of the Most Pure Heart of Mary first appeared in the Church’s public liturgy, but also as the spot where, thirty years later, the devotion to the Sacred Heart flourished in all its perfection. Here, again, Mary prepared the way for her Son.
The hour of Providence came when St. John preached a mission in Autun, and profited by the occasion to establish a public feast in honour of Mary’s Immaculate Heart. The Mass and Office composed by himself for the feast were first approved by the Bishop of Autun, Mgs. Claude de Ragny. On February 8th, the saint celebrated the solemn Mass of the feast in the cathedral. The crowds, which thronged the sacred edifice, seemed to be set on fire with love of the Immaculate Heart of their dear Mother. Everybody united in celebrating that beautiful feast in a befitting manner, and we are told that the day was marked by a religious enthusiasm scarcely ever surpassed in that diocese.
Having established the feast at Autun, he set out to establish it in other parishes and dioceses of France. The ardent missionary let no occasion pass without obtaining for the feast and its office the approval of Bishops and theologians. In July, 1648, he preached a magnificent mission in Fere-en-Tardenois. The Pastor of that diocese, Mgr. Simon Ledgers, came in person to witness the wonderful success of the apostolic preacher, and afterwards approved the Office and Mass of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. Other Bishops followed his example, and by their sanction gave a great impetus to the devotion. By these approbations, the feast gradually made its place secure in the liturgy, and served as a potent means of spreading the new devotion among the faithful.
St. John Eude’s missionary work was the main spring of all this progress. If to these approbations and to the numerous feasts celebrated in many dioceses of France we add the confraternities established, the many altars, chapels, and churches erected, the offices, litanies and prayers composed in honour of Mary’s Immaculate Heart, we shall have a more complete idea of what the saint accomplished for this devotion.
In spite of his wonderful zeal, the apostle of the Heart of Mary was not destined to obtain complete success. The greatest desire of his heart was to obtain Papal approbation for the Feast and office. that were already approved by the Bishops of France. By this means, he hoped to make his cherished devotion known not only in his own country, but also throughout the entire Church. In 1668 he obtained the approbation of the Papal Legate in France, Cardinal de Vondome. Encouraged by this success, he endeavoured to procure the Sanction of the Congregation of Rites for the devotion. Rome, however, was slow to act, and in 1669, the answer “non expedit” (“it is not expedient”) was given. Nevertheless, he succeeded in obtaining from the reigning Pontiff, Clement IX, many privileges and indulgences for the confraternities instituted by him in honour of Mary’s Immaculate Heart. It was only in later times that this devotion obtained the proud position it now enjoys in the Catholic Church.
The third means he adopted to spread devotion to the Heart of Mary was the apostolate of the Press. A missionary and man of work, he was also one of the most remarkable of ascetical writers of the 17th century. In his letters to his spiritual sons and daughters, in his publications concerning the Mass and Office of the Heart of Mary, in his published works on that same Heart, he is once again the great apostle of this devotion. His literary endeavours contributed in no small degree to the making of this new devotion public and universal. In 1648, he wrote that’ beautiful book, “Devotion to the Most Pure Heart and to the Holy Name of the Virgin Mary.” His principal work, begun in 1663, and completed only some weeks before his death, is entitled, “The Amiable Heart of the Mother of God.” Few works, indeed, have been written on this subject; but of those that are written none surpasses, in sublimity of thought and beauty of sentiment, this last mentioned book. In it the numerous perfections and virtues of Mary’s spotless Heart are explained and glorified. In it, also, the history, theory, and practice of devotion to that Heart are clearly and solidly expounded.
We see, then, that St. John Eudes, by the societies he founded, the missions he preached, and the spiritual books he wrote, is truly “the author, doctor, and apostle of the devotion to the Pure Heart of Mary.” That title was bestowed on him by the Vicar of Christ himself, and his it shall remain for all time. After a life of merits and good works, this holy priest died in the odour of sanctity on August 19th, 1680. The fifty-five years of his sacred ministry were spent in the propagation of the devotion to the .Immaculate Heart of his Dear Mother. On January 6th, 1903, his virtues were declared heroic by the great Pope Leo XIII, and on April 11th, 1909, Pius X decreed his beatification. On earth he loved and served the Heart of his immaculate Queen; now in heaven he loves, and will love for ever, that same spotless Heart. The day came when Blessed Father Eudes was raised to the altars of the Church. He was solemnly canonized on the 31st day of May, 1925, by Pius XI, and has been proclaimed Father, Doctor, and Apostle of the Devotion to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.