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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Marcellin Joseph Benedict Champagnat

June 13, 2019 saints No Comments


The end of the 18th century in France was a time of persecution for the Catholic Church with many priests and religious driven from convents and rectories, and others put to death. As more and more priests were martyred, the Church searched for good young men to replace them.
In the history of the Church, there have been men who seemed unable to fulfill the role, but nonetheless became great saints, such as St. Joseph of Cupertino and the Curé of Ars, who studied with St. Marcellin Champagnat — another seemingly unqualified candidate for the priesthood.
Marcellin was the ninth of the ten children of Jean-Baptiste and Marie Therese Chirat Champagnat. He was taken to the church on the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord to be baptized on May 21, 1789, the day after his birth.
Although a poor peasant, his father played an important role in local politics, which Marcellin picked up on as a child. In addition, as Marcellin worked side by side with his father from his earliest days, he also learned many practical skills such as farming, bricklaying, and construction which would assist him in his ministry for the Kingdom of God.
As the French Revolution tried to destroy the Church, Marcellin’s Aunt Louise, a Sister of St. Joseph, was forced to abandon her convent and came to live with the Champagnats. With his mother, she instilled a great love of Mary, the Mother of God, in Marcellin. As he witnessed the chaos caused by the political upheaval, his family surrounded him with love and support in his faith.
Marcellin attended school for a few years, but he struggled with his lessons. Witnessing the harsh punishments boys received further discouraged him. By the time he was 14 years of age, he decided to forgo studying and raise lambs for the market. Becoming a priest no longer served as his goal in life.
At this time, the archbishop of Lyons, searching for vocations came to Saint-Chamond, Loire, France, the home of Marcellin. He asked the people if there were any men who might be candidates for the priesthood. Surprisingly, when he approached Marcellin, the youth agreed to accept his invitation.
Once again Marcellin struggled with his studies. Not only did he lack the academic prowess of the other young men, but he also was older than they were, making him feel out of place. At the end of the first year, his superior suggested that he return home and further discern what his future would be.
Despite the challenges, after prayer and careful consideration, Marcellin decided to return to the seminary and begin again. He did well with this fresh start, impressing the priests at the seminary with his newfound motivation. Two events had helped sober Marcellin’s youthful antics. First, he had an intense conversation with Fr. Linossier, who headed the seminary. Second, his dear friend, Denis Duplay, died suddenly on September 2, 1807, causing Marcellin to think seriously about his own eternal destiny.
Marcellin then entered the major seminary at St. Irenaeus in Lyons, about 40 miles northeast of his home. There he met St. Jean-Marie Vianney and the Venerable Jean-Claude Colin.
Because the seminary directors noticed Marcellin’s exemplary conduct and virtue, he soon became responsible for the boys’ dormitory. After the boys were all in bed for the night, he would retire to his corner and study the next day’s lesson. By this preparation, he made quick progress.
Some of his friends in the seminary shared his devotion to Mary and together they planned to found an order of priests who would dedicate themselves to the formation of youths.
Another idea was also forming in Marcellin’s mind. He thought, “It’s not only an order of priests we need, but also a group of brothers, who can be devoted exclusively to the teaching of youths.” He kept this desire in his heart and was finally ordained on July 22, 1816 — he was 27 years old.
His first assignment led him to a small parish in La Valla, a short distance southeast of his home town. As he approached the village and saw the steeple of the church piercing the sky, he fell to his knees and begged God to bless his future work.
Fr. Champagnat had many duties which occupied most of his time, but he never let go of his hope for an order of brothers. That desire increased all the more when he was called to the bedside of a sick boy, Jean-Baptist Montagne, in October 1816. For two hours he spoke with the boy and heard his Confession just before he died. The priest was saddened that the boy knew so little about Catholicism.
Meanwhile his sermons and catechism classes were so highly anticipated that young and old alike would line up long before the doors opened to hear them.
Eventually, Jean Marie Granjon and Jean-Baptiste Audras came to him, his first brothers. Fr. Champagnat bought a dilapidated house near the rectory, putting the skills he learned by his father’s side to use. On January 2, 1817, the two young men moved in and lived as a family, praying, studying, and working together.
A third man joined them, then a fourth, and fifth. As more joined the group, Fr. Champagnat realized they needed a superior and an election was held. Brother Granjon became their new head.
In addition, a schoolteacher came who instructed the children of La Valla. She also taught the brothers teaching methods. Soon they were able to teach in the villages nearby. The parents were thrilled to see young men interested in their sons’ welfare.
Fr. Champagnat’s devotion to Mary never wavered, especially in difficult times. In 1823, in the deep winter, a brother became ill in a distant hamlet. Without hesitation, despite the storm, Father set out to attend to the sick brother. He met with the brother and, as he recovered, they set out for La Valla in a heavy snowfall, becoming hopelessly lost.
When the brother collapsed, Champagnat stopped to pray to the Blessed Virgin asking her assistance. As they rose, they noticed a light in the distance and went to the nearby farmhouse. Mary answered their prayer quickly!
More and more men joined the brothers, requiring more housing than they had, so Fr. Champagnat found a new site. He begged for funds, and sought the bishop’s approval, but he refused, telling the priest that he was a “madman.” The townspeople also ridiculed him and denied their support.
Nevertheless, he persisted and he and the brothers worked tirelessly, doing the construction and bricklaying for a building to house 150 men — far beyond their current number. The building was completed in a short time and was blessed.
The order continued to grow, leading Fr. Champagnat to seek government approval for it. Approval was refused. However, in 1830 more persecutions of the Church arose. Some soldiers even came to their residence, searching for fugitives and ammunition. Once again in 1836, he sought approval and failed.
Broken, but not discouraged, he continued his work until his health declined, and he died on June 6, 1840 as the brothers sang the Salve Regina. His feast is celebrated on this day.
At the time of his death there were 278 brothers and 48 Marist schools.

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