By CAROLE BRESLIN
In the 15th century up in northeastern France, the Hundred Years War continued year after year. The people of the province of Lorraine lived on the border of the conflict between the supporters of the insane King Charles VI of France and King Henry V of England, who invaded Normandy, and claimed the crown of France for himself. After the death of Charles VI, the crowning of the next king was delayed.
In the tiny village of Domrémy in Lorraine, on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1412, a small family marked the birth of a most amazing maiden, St. Jeanne La Pucelle, better known as St. Joan of Arc.
While her parents were not destitute, they were poor. One of five, Joan grew up spending much time in prayer at the local church following the example of her pious mother. Like most children, she enjoyed the celebrations of feasts and the activities of her neighbors such as singing around the Fairy Tree. Her childhood was also marked by the war with the English, who were supported by the Duke of Burgundy. During one raid, she and her family were forced to flee to Neufchatel to escape the Burgundians.
The young girl, greatly affected by these raids, prayed that there would be peace in her country. By the age of 12, she had left the childish pursuits, behind leading a life of greater prayer and reflection. In the summer of 1425 she heard the first of her “voices.” Over the next year the voices became known to her as St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret.
While she remained in Domrémy, she did not speak to anyone about the voices, which eventually explained the mission our Lord had planned for her. Before three more years passed, in May 1428, the voices became explicit in their instructions: Joan must meet with the commander of the king’s men in Vaucouleurs.
However, when she presented herself to her uncle to take her, he sent her away, disdainfully telling her that her father should give her a whipping. She returned home only to be pressed forward again by her voices. Upon returning to Vaucouleurs, the realization of her prophecy of the impending defeat of the French forces convinced Baudricourt, the commander, that she could actually be telling the truth about her voices.
On March 6, 1429, Joan — in her male dress to protect her identity — finally met with the king. To confirm the veracity of her mission, she revealed something about the king to him that only he knew. Needless to say, the king’s advisers, especially La Trémoille, thought her an opportunist. Thus she was sent to some theologians in Poitiers who would examine her.
These theologians then gave their approval to the king to make use of her prudently. The king supplied Joan with men and arms. Beginning on April 29, they took little more than a week to rout the English and lift the English siege of Orleans, despite Joan’s being injured by an arrow. All the events of this expedition had been predicted by Joan before she entered battle in her white armor and the standard of the fleur-de-lis.
Not to rest content with this victory, she pushed forward and won more victories, after which she begged the king to go to Rheims and be crowned. The French court hesitated — a common fault — but finally went to Rheims where Charles VII was formally crowned on July 17, 1429. Joan stood soberly at his side during the coronation. She was only 17 years old.
This marked the end of the mission that her voices had given to her. It also was the end of her military successes as the following attack planned on Paris failed when the king did not provide the promised support. During this battle, Joan was struck again by an arrow, this time in the thigh. If she had not been dragged away by her men, she would have continued to fight despite the wound.
A period of quiet during the following winter left Joan to fend for herself in the court of the king — a court which had no respect but only resentment for her successes as a woman and a youth. When hostilities resumed, Joan entered the fray only to be caught outside the walls when the drawbridge lifted too soon.
On May 23, 1430, she was captured by the Burgundians, remaining a prisoner of the duke when the French did nothing to try and gain her release. Even though the French did not want her, the English did. After six months she was sold to them for about $100,000, in current value. Her execution was imminent. Rules of war would not allow them to execute her for defeating them, but they knew they could try her as a witch, claiming that she only subdued them because of the spells she cast upon them.
For the next six months, she was imprisoned and questioned, and tried in a church court by the unscrupulous Bishop Peter Cauchon of Beauvais, who was better known for his political pursuits of power than his piety. The trial was a sham with many irregularities. Joan repeatedly, though not yet 20 years old, embarrassed her questioners, outwitting them with responses that could only be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Though in a time of weakness she gave into their demands, she later recanted and refused to change her statement, which resulted in her being condemned to death. Once again Joan insisted that she had heard the voices and that she was, indeed, sent by God to lead the French army against the English. For this she was burned to death on May 30, 1431.
Twenty-three years after Joan’s death, her mother and brothers insisted the case be reopened. Pope Callistus III did just that. Then, on July 7, 1456 the verdict was overturned, validating the claims of the French maiden. On May 16, 1920, nearly 500 years after her death, Joan was canonized and named the patron of military personnel and especially France.
For a more in-depth treatment of the life of Joan of Arc, the book of her life written by Samuel Clemens a/k/a Mark Twain is highly recommended. Out of all his many writings, Twain held his writings about Joan in the highest esteem.
Dear St. Joan, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, you did not hesitate to do the will of God despite how unusual it was. In the face of overwhelming odds, you persevered as a servant of God and won victory over the enemy of your day. Intercede for us, we pray, that we, too, will unhesitatingly face the enemy in our midst and achieve victory, not counting the cost, but trusting in the love and mercy of God. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)