A contemporary of his fellow Frenchman, Descartes, Saint John Eudes (+1680) was of quite a different mind and spirit. Rather that meditate on whether he existed or not – cogito, ergo sum – Saint John simply accepted the very fact of creation as a gift from the Creator; and rather than reducing what we might know for certain to quantitative extension – the Cartesian ‘clear and distinct ideas’ – Saint John saw reality as rich, full and deep, extending from this life in a seamless harmony on to the next in eternity. He took a private vow of chastity at the tender age of 16, difficult to do in that hormonally-challenged time of life.
Like all saints, he was ahead of his time. During the fractious century in the wake of the Protestant ‘reformation’, which saw the rise of rationalism, unwittingly commenced by the hyper-rational and God-less French philosophes, John saw the need of men – priests especially – totally dedicated to God. At first joining the Oratory in France, which, unlike the other Oratories of Saint Philip, was a religious order, he proved himself a zealous and indefatigable pastor, well-read and well-formed, spiritually and intellectually. I am always heartened when I read of priests like Eudes, who ministered to the sick and dying during time of pandemic, this one a severe plague which hit France between 1627 and 1631. To avoid infecting his brethren, he lived for a time in a large cask in the middle of a field Something to ponder.
Part-way through his life, he discerned a call to dedicate himself specifically to the formation of priests, most of whom he perceived as ill-equipped for their demanding role. He saw that priests must be leaders, true shepherds, able to guide their flock through the increasing complexities of the vita moderna, and things have not gotten easier since then. So he founded the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, initially established on March 25, 1643, commonly called the ‘Eudists’, which continue their formative work to this day.
Saint John Eudes also found time – saints always seem to ‘find time’ – to write voluminously, spreading the then-new devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, emphasizing the divine and human mercy and love of God for each individual person, against the paralyzing rigor and pessimism of Jansenism, which spirit also seems to be making a resurgence. This, all without losing sight of the need for a healthy and balanced asceticism, working and praying hard, but all motivated by the love of God and our fellow man, and not some dour fear. Like his spiritual father, Saint Philip Neri, he would have no ‘sad saints around his house’.
There is a move to have Saint John Eudes declared a Doctor of the Church; we will see, for that is a rather restricted group (37, and very slowly counting). But his works certainly make for profitable reading, and I would recommend today’s Office.
Also, please do peruse the reflection of Pope Benedict XVI from this day in 2009, where the Pontiff describes Saint John Eudes as a model pastor, in the context of the Year of Priests which he had just called, from what seems a more halcyonic time in the Church.
We could use Eudes’ example in our troubled days, where so many priests seem sad of their sacrifice, regretting their celibacy, their poverty, their workload, and the whole ‘gift of self’. But we should recall that giving oneself is required not only of priests, but of any vocation (just ask any married man, or woman, and what truly raising children entails).
Saint John Eudes died at Caen on this day, August 19th, in 1680, and was canonized, quite fittingly along with the Curé d’Ars, by Pope Pius XI on May 31st, 1925, the fruit of a life spent in service to God and his fellow man in the holy priesthood.
As we heard in the reading on the feast of Saint Lawrence, God loves a cheerful giver, so, like Saint John Eudes and the whole host of saints, may we keep our hands on the plough, not look back, give all, and happily, so we gain it back a hundredfold.