Many educated Catholics are familiar with the great Spanish saints of the 1500s: Saints Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, and many more. They are saints of the counter-reformation era but not counter-reformation saints. Due to the reforms of a visionary Spanish cardinal long before Father Luther went mad, there, was no reformation in Spain that needed countering. This sixteenth century Spanish golden age has a counterpart in seventeenth century France. France in the 1600s produced Saints Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, John de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, Margaret Mary Alacoque, Jane Frances de Chantal and today’s saint, John Eudes, among many other men and women outstanding in holiness. The reforms of the Council of Trent were slow to be implemented in France, but their seeds eventually sprouted abundant spiritual, theological, and missionary fruit, including Québec, Canada, and that region’s Ville Marie de Montreal, a specifically Catholic settlement.
John Eudes was born to pious but uneducated parents in a tiny town in Normandy just as the hot religious wars of the 1500s in France simmered to a low boil. He was deeply impressed with his Jesuit teachers at a Catholic high school and began to think about religious life. He fell under the holy sway of some of the great priests of his era and decided to emulate their pattern of life. He was ordained a priest for a French version of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in 1625. He then became a tireless preacher of parish missions for many years. He preferred to preach in a town for at least six weeks in order to counter the widespread religious ignorance of the faithful. He desired of his hearers nothing less than a total change of life, a complete conversion. He used processions, works of theater, mimes, and whatever else he could think of to draw a congregation. Once in his presence they learned the creed, the sacraments, an examination of conscience, the laws of morality, and all the fundamentals of the faith. Father Eudes preached Christ in full—a total God who demanded a total human response.
Essential to Fr. Eudes’ spirituality was a profound identity with the emotions and humanity of Jesus. He thought that the mysteries of the Word of God are forever unfolding, that there are always hidden depths of Scripture remaining to be discovered. The meaning of the Word of God, both written and in the flesh, will never be exhausted on earth. This means that Christ’s divinity is accessed through his humanity but is never exhausted by it. There is always more God to know and God to love. This accords with Christian common sense. To assert that a passage of Scripture has been understood in its totality is to limit God’s providence and to place one’s own mind over that of God’s. That Scripture does not contain error is not the sole proof of its perfection. Scripture is inspired not just for being error free but for what it will communicate, one day, in heaven. God, the Lord and Giver of Life in the Holy Spirit, is the primary author of Scripture, meaning divine truths await discovery, and, more subtly, will always await discovery.
As a door of entry into the mystery of Christ and His Blessed Mother, Saint John Eudes tirelessly promoted a liturgical feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and what he termed the “Holy” Heart of Mary. Saint John’s Sacred Heart devotion was more theological, and less anatomical, than the similar devotion advocated by his contemporary, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. Christ’s heart, for Saint John, was emblematic of His interiority, His hiddenness. It was a symbol of the heart of all mankind encased in the chest of God. John’s devotion to the Sacred Heart led, inevitably, to a very high ideal of the Catholic priest as a man after the heart of Christ, a would-be saint who acts in the person of the one high priest, Jesus Christ. This “French school” of theology and spirituality was fresh thinking in the 17th century. That it is now commonly accepted theology is a credit to its soundness.
John suffered grievous calumnies and attacks from many in the Church when he left the Oratory to start his own Congregation of secular priests, an arrangement similar to that of the Oratory. His promotion of a feast to the Sacred Heart also incurred enemies who did not understand his theology. The Congregation of Jesus and Mary, commonly known as the Eudists, are still active in parish missions and in teaching in several countries, though France’s historic anti-Catholicism removed them from many of their prior apostolates. There is presently an active effort in the Holy See, spearheaded by French priests and bishops, to have Saint John Eudes declared a Doctor of the Church.
Holiness is the wholehearted openness to the love of God. It is visibly expressed in many ways, but the variety of expression has one common quality: concern for the needs of others. In John’s case, those who were in need were plague-stricken people, ordinary parishioners, those preparing for the priesthood, prostitutes, and all Christians called to imitate the love of Jesus and his mother.
Patron Saint of:
The Diocese of Baie-Comeau, Québec
Saint John Eudes, your deep identification with the person, emotions, and heart of Jesus Christ inspired all who heard and knew you. May your tireless pastoral efforts, life of prayer, preaching, and writing give powerful example to all priests, whose sacramental dignity you championed.