I.	France in Montfort’s Times: 
	1.	An overview of eighteenth-century France; 
	2.	Structures and divisions of the French territory: 
		a.	The religious structures, 
		b.	Administrative and juridical structures, 
		c.	The division into areas according to landscape 		
	3.	Montfort in western France. 
II.	The Sociopolitical, Economic, and Cultural Circumstances: 
	1.	The sociopolitical and economic situation: 
		a.	The political scene, 
		b.	The economic situation; 
	2.	The social strata: 
		a.	The clergy, 
		b.	The nobility, 
		c.	The common people or third estate; 
	3.	The cultural circumstances: 
		a.	The two cultures, 
		b.	Socio-cultural perceptions. 
III.	Religious Mentality and Practice: 
	1.	The socio-religious mentalities: 
		a.	The mentalities in the regions, 
		b.	The mentalities of the social classes; 
	2.	Religious mores: 
		a.	Worship, 
		b.	Morality, 
		c.	The life of faith, 
		d.	The clerical life, 
		e.	Religious life. 
IV.	The Influence of His Time on Montfort’s Life and Writings: A Man	
	who through his Holiness Transcended His Time: 
	1.	Montfort’s ties with the three social orders: 
		a.	His ties with the bourgeoisie, 
		b.	His ties with the clergy, 
		c.	His ties with the common people and the poor; 
	2.	From a mission in time and space to a timeless mission in 	
		the Church.

If the various writings of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort are difficult to read, and if we are surprised by the main events of his life and the characteristics of his attitude and work, it is because they must be seen within their cultural and historical context.1 This article—which draws heavily on a course given by Fr. L. Perouas—does not set out to give explanations. Rather, it seeks to highlight the atmosphere of the times, i.e., the historical, sociological, and cultural context which was the background of Montfort’s life and mission. The aim of this article is to spur us to further reading, research work, and reflection. It is our hope that it will be a signpost on the road to a better understanding of Montfort’s contemporaries, of their mind-sets and of their lifestyles: of what influenced him as a man and as a missionary priest. This article does not claim to be exhaustive. In order to give a comprehensive picture of Montfort, we would need to bring together his many facets. Even if this were possible, God, who made every saint, would insure that some things would elude us.


When Montfort began his missionary work in the early eighteenth century, the national boundaries and political structures of Europe were very different from today. National boundaries still as ill-defined as they were in the Middle Ages, gave rise to constant quarrels: the Austrian Empire and the great kingdoms of France and England were continually waging war, either internally, in order to achieve unification, or externally in order to establish their political, economic, maritime, and colonial supremacy.

1. An overview of eighteenth-century France

The boundaries of the kingdom were roughly the same as those of present- day France. Some provinces, however, like Lorraine or Savoy, were not fully part of the kingdom. The total area was nearly 500,000 square kilometers. The total population of France was nearly 19 million. It was the most densely populated country in Europe. The average birthrate per family was five. The death rate was high, with life expectancy no more than forty years.

2. Structures and divisions of the French territory 2

The most striking feature of France in this period was that it was made up of many closely interwoven political, juridical, administrative, and religious structures. They were like many different size frames placed one on top of another.

a. The religious structures.

Since the beginning of its history, France had been divided into dioceses. In 1700 their number was much larger than it is today. Their sizes varied widely, and their boundaries did not fit juridical or political divisions. In Montfort’s time there were twenty or so dioceses in western France. The diocese of Poitiers was made up of over 600 parishes, whereas the diocese of Avranches numbered only 67. The dioceses were divided into areas headed by archpriests or deans having jurisdiction over a group of parishes. The geographical location and size of the parishes varied greatly, with a larger number of them in urban areas. In Poitiers, for example, there were no fewer than 20 parishes. They were basic administrative units, responsible for keeping the records now held by registry offices. The parish priests informed their parishioners of the latest legislation and news in their Sunday sermons.

b. Administrative and juridical structures.

The province was the oldest and most important political and administrative division. In Montfort’s day, people felt they belonged to a province, e.g., Normandy or Brittany, rather than to the French kingdom. A province was, in a way, a nation within a nation. It had its own rights, customs, traditions, trade and commerce, which determined the local way of life, culture, and language.3 In 1700 there were twenty-seven French provinces, of very unequal size, each relatively independent. The provincial government was divided into a great many sections for administrative purposes: one of them dealt with military matters, another with finances, another with taxes, and an-other with juridical matters. In some provinces the parliament was the highest authority and dealt with fiscal and juridical matters. The provincial law courts had jurisdiction over a number of bailiffs and other court officials. At the top of the juridical administration was an intendant, who was the king’s representative in the province, and who had a number of sub-delegates. Vested with extensive powers, he controlled and governed everything within his jurisdiction, and thus upheld the centralized power of the state. This outdated form of administration was not really efficient. It required a large body of highly paid functionaries with varying degrees of efficiency, who were difficult to manage properly. Most of them were officials who had bribed their way into posts, which they would later hand on to their children.

c. The division into areas according to geographic and economic factors.

There was a further division, based on a region’s economy and terrain. This was particularly noticeable in western France. The wooded- countryside areas were strikingly different from the flat-countryside areas. In the wooded areas, the bottom soil was impervious to water and contained many springs. People lived in scattered hamlets or in remote farms. Their fields were fenced in with thick hedgerows and trees. The soil was poor, and farmers could only raise low-yield crops every three years. In some areas half the land was barren and given over to heath and trees. By contrast, the flat-countryside areas lay on chalky soil with few springs. Thus, people tended to live in clusters of houses near the center of the parish, or in a couple of villages in the open country, with fenceless fields, where their cattle pastured after the harvest. The land in the flat areas was fertile, and 80 percent of it was sown with wheat. It yielded a good harvest every second year. The differences of terrain perhaps accounted greatly for the two ways of life, the two mind-sets. In the wooded areas, the population was scattered, inward-looking, and individualistic. Their primary concern was to become economically self-sufficient. In the flat areas, the clustered houses were conducive to trading and to a more communal way of life. There were many wooded areas in Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, and Poitou. These had wide flat areas on the fringes. There were other very unique regions, but they were less extensive and not so strikingly different as the two types we have just considered. There were the coastal areas, with their farming and fishing population: with many craftsmen and shopkeepers, especially near the ports of La Rochelle, Nantes, and Saint-Malo. There were the marshy areas, where cattle- breeding was prevalent and the suburbs of some large towns, for example Montbernage. The Loire valley was a heavily traveled area with many rural trading centers, where fairs were held regularly, etc. Whatever the area, whether large or small, rich or poor, those who gave parish missions there, had to take its geographic and economic peculiarities into consideration.

3. Montfort in western France 4

Louis Marie Grignion was born at Montfort-sur-Meu in the Rennes valley. His native village was part of the diocese of Saint-Malo and lay in the heart of the province of Brittany. He gave most of his missions in the provinces of Brittany, Poitou, and Aunis, and only a few in the neighboring provinces of Normandy, Anjou, and Saintonge. He carried out most of his missionary work in the dioceses of St.-Malo, Rennes, Saint- Brieuc, Poitiers, Nantes, La Rochelle, and Luçon. He also passed through the dioceses of Coutance, Bayeux, and Saintes. He received his priestly formation in Paris and exercised his ministry there in various forms, and on several occasions. His missionary work was clearly influenced by the geographical, administrative, and socio-economic circumstances prevailing in France at the time.


Around 1700 the political and economic prospects in France were rather gloomy in the wake of a series of unfortunate events.

1. The sociopolitical and economic situation

a. The political scene.

It can be summed up in one word: absolutism. Since 1661, when he became king, Louis XIV was the embodiment of the state, having taken all power to himself. His role was puffed up by politicized theologians who made him out to be "God’s assistant."5 At the court at Versailles, his seat of royal grandeur, the king lived a life of self indulgent pleasure and luxury. From this place he wielded power over his subjugated people; its upkeep was costly, and it kept the king remote from the real problems and difficulties of ordinary people. From 1680, and especially after 1700, the political situation kept deteriorating. The king turned within himself, hardening his stand on some of his mistaken and arbitrarily made decisions. These included his conflict with the Pope over his appointment of bishops, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and, above all, his endless ruinous wars, such as that of the Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714. The war affected the northern and western parts of France most severely. At Pontchâteau and Ile d’Yeu, it hindered Montfort’s missionary activities in the Atlantic coastal region.6 As a result of the war, new taxes were levied and the number of militiamen increased. Ordinary people, already hard hit by the economic crisis, bore the brunt of these new measures. The troubles grew tragically worse at the end of Louis XIV’s reign, and more and more people denounced the general malaise. In Remonstrances,7 Fénelon wrote, "It is not only a question of bringing the war to an end abroad, but also of providing food for the population within the country."

b. The economic situation.

In the sixteenth century, the growth of navigation and foreign trade, the colonization of the Americas, and the abundance of precious metals gave rise to a dramatic economic expansion. This fostered the coming into existence of a new social class—the middle class. In the seventeenth century, on the other hand, Europe was plunged into economic stagnation. And the depression grew periodically worse because of political problems, wars, bad weather and ensuing poor crops. The end of Louis XIV’s reign was marked by a series of linked crises in 1693, 1698, and 1713. Their effects were felt for years. The soaring prices of foodstuffs made it virtually impossible for the population to get adequate supplies. The slump in business was aggravated by countless taxes, inequitably levied. These problems turned ordinary poverty into extreme misery, giving rise to revolts, that were then ruthlessly quelled.8 Montfort’s early biographers mention a few incidents in his life which suggest the crisis nature of the times, especially around the years 16939 and 1706.10 The population fluctuations, however, offer the best clues to those difficult days. From 1696 to 1716, the death rate and the birth rate were almost level. The number of people dying of famine was alarmingly high. The misery endured by ordinary people prompted some to become vagrants, beggars, or thieves in both urban and rural areas. All of this culminated in a subhuman way of life. This accounts for Montfort’s commitment to serve the poor.

2. The social strata

Since the Middle Ages, French society consisted in three strictly hierarchic and rather self-contained orders: the clergy, the nobility, and the third estate, i.e., the common people.11 Praying, fighting, and working had been the respective roles of the three orders in medieval society. This social structure remained unquestioned for the most part, until the seventeenth century. In the seventeenth century, one notes a gradual irreversible shift "from a social order-based society to a social class-based one. That is, from a society established by social privilege to one determined by wealth." Money became the "source of power and esteem" (L. Perouas). The bourgeoisie, the new moneyed order, began then to assert itself. At the same time, within each order, social homogeneity was eroded, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened.

a. The clergy.

This was the highest social order in the kingdom and generally the richest. Canonically, the clergy included both religious, and secular priests, i.e., bishops and priests in charge of dioceses and parishes. The most noticeable social inequality was to be found among the secular clergy. Under the terms of the 1516 concordat, the king appointed the archbishops, bishops, and abbots. He selected them from among the nobility and, only occasionally, from among the bourgeoisie. Parish priests and other secular priests, who came from the common people, had little if any social contact with the "high clergy" and almost never became bishops. Bishops lived on huge incomes generated by the land donated to the Church, and on tithes levied on crops. Such income was shared in a grossly uneven way. Most was kept by the high clergy, who would pass on only a meager portion to the parish priests and curates.

b. The nobility.

The nobility occupied the second most dominant place in society, because of the political privileges which they enjoyed. Some privileges were merely honorary, but other privileges such as tax exemptions came with royal appointments and were more substantial. These royal appointments included high ecclesiastical posts, well-paid court positions, the diplomatic service, the armed forces, or the government administration. In addition to tax advantages from court appointments, the nobility owned a great deal of land for which they received taxes directly. People became royalty by birth and by wealth. There were the "royalty for life" who were the actual descendants of medieval knights. There were those who were made nobles because of some great social service, but many were raised to the nobility only because of their wealth. Certain privileged nobility lived at court on pensions provided by the king, and owned mansions or manor houses; less privileged nobility lived in the country where they eked out a meager existence, through their land taxes and farming. Such nobles were impoverished, possessed little political influences and felt particularly threatened by the rising bourgeoisie.

c. The common people or third estate.

The lowest order, the third estate was by far the largest and the most varied. Traditionally it did the hard work required by landowners and clergy, and paid nearly all the taxes. In 1700 not a single town, outside Paris, numbered more than 100,000 people. About 20 percent of the active population lived in towns and the rest, mostly farmers, lived in the country.

Rural society included many divisions in status, from the farmer to the day laborer (who had no status). Between the well off to the destitute, there was a whole range of people living in varying degrees of poverty. Their lives were generally harsh. They depended on the landowners and their homes were wretched. Their incomes were contingent on the weather and the crops and on the whim of the rich.

The urban society could be divided roughly into the bourgeoisie, the "middle class or common people," and the poor or "little people." The bourgeoisie which had grown considerably in the sixteenth century, controlled the wealth of the country, and aspired to seize power. Included in this middle class were professional people, such as lawyers and doctors, business people, such as industrialists, wholesale merchants, ship owners, bankers, heads of corporations, and merchant navy captains. There were bourgeoisie by function and those by trade— high, middle, and low levels. Most were well educated and enterprising, interested in intellectual and artistic activities, and concerned about educating their children, and about their future careers.

In Montfort’s days, 85 percent of La Rochelle’s population was made up of common people who were engaged in about 60 trades or professions and possessed quite varied incomes. Badly housed, poorly educated, frequently exploited and generally despised, the common people had to bear the brunt of hardships in times of crisis, famine, and epidemic.

The poor were the underclass in the full sense of the term. They were the homeless and unemployed, and also those lacking steady work. Also included among the poor were the journeymen, farmers evicted from their tenanted farms, the elderly and infirm who could not earn a living. Also, there were the tramps and beggars who inhabited the roads and the streets, sometimes in gangs, posing a constant threat to the safety of the population. Some poor were locked away in poorhouses, where they were fed and had a roof over their heads. Locking away the poor began in 1660 when between 300 and 400 of them were locked up in Poitiers, 200 at Fontenay-le-Comte, and 400 at La Rochelle. These people lived in such tragic conditions that Saint-Simon wrote: "The poorhouses are a disgrace to the poor, for whom life is already a torment."

French society in 1700 was based on inequalities but was seemingly stable.

3. The cultural circumstances

To gain a thorough understanding of a particular era, it must be seen from a cultural perspective. Some have defined culture as "social heredity." A more accurate definition might be that it is the total configuration of inherited and learnt forms of behavior shared by a given group of people.

a. The two cultures.

Reading Montfort today and understanding him is not easy. His life, attitude, and language belong to the "social legacy of a different time and place." Part of a "total configuration," it must be understood through "trans-culturation" as Fr. Perouas suggests. That is to say, one must try to analyze the cultural elements pervading Montfort’s work and spirituality. This is all the more difficult since the culture of his times is extremely hard to decipher. We know about the so called "intellectual" culture of the period—the grand siècle in France. It was a high point of civilization in virtually every field—academic, artistic, and religious. But this high culture was accessible only to the educated social classes. There was another type of culture which has long gone unacknowledged. It was the culture of the mostly uneducated people. The French historian Robert Mandrou12 authentically describes the popular culture of the era in his book, Blue Library of Troyes. It reproduced a large collection of short booklets, which were distributed by hawkers and meant for a popular readership of the time. The booklets reflect the traditional oral culture of the period. Included are a variety of literary genres and styles. The key word is "secret." The booklets were best sellers because they fulfilled the need of the poor for escape. Montfort found himself at the meeting point of these two cultures. He stood between two sets of attitudes, each determining people’s behavior.

b. Socio-cultural perceptions.

The sociocultural attitudes were many, and depended on the individual person and the social class that they belonged to. The times were very gloomy marked by a seemingly irreversible fatalism. Bereft of hope for the future, ordinary people turned to an idealized past. This gave rise to a passive attitude of resignation, one marked by a longing for escape through fantasy and dreams. Festivals and feasts were the result. People longed for heaven, where they would experience an entirely different society. This attitude fostered a somewhat naive return to the early Church, and to a romanticized era of simple purity (the clergy’s teaching strengthened this attitude). Fostered was a belief in a purely transcendent order of things which made the present immutable. Any change which departed from such a determined order was sinful. It was clear, then, why the clergy of the times denounced and condemned the attitude of the bourgeoisie who sought to advance their social status. They also condemned the attitude of the educated social classes who sought a future marked by greater freedom and happiness.

Obviously, the attitudes to society varied with the social classes. Ordinary people saw society as a relationship between the rulers and the ruled and were generally resigned to their plight. They desired justice but saw it primarily as something to be obtained in the afterlife. The aristocracy and the bourgeoisie perceived society inversely one from another. Conscious of being superior to ordinary people by birth or wealth, the nobility and the bourgeoisie both despised the poor. They looked on them as backward, unrefined, and superstitious. But the clergy, who cherished medieval values, saw the upper and lower classes as complementary, designed as such by Providence. They believed that the nobility and the wealthy were meant to be the charitable patrons of the poor.

As was said, this was a period which emphasized belief in a great variety of forms of the "supernatural" life. The term "supernatural" in this context refers to those images of God, religion, and the extraordinary phenomena which cannot be explained by natural laws.

The theological and spiritual outlooks of the period derived from two main currents of thought. There were the "humanists," and for them God was near. Humanity had access to God through its own efforts. Without denying grace, they relied on human nature, reason, and freedom for discerning what was right and doing it. This inspired a religion which stressed will power, organization, and devotional practice. The Jesuits were closely associated with this current. On the other hand, there were the "Augustinians," for whom God was far away, "wholly other." God transcended humanity in such a way that few would have access to Him, understand Him, or please Him. Consequently, religion was filled with adoration and awe and reverential fear but emphasized human weakness and infirmity and inner dispositions at the expense of strength, goodness and outer actions. This became the nature-grace controversy for these two perceptions gave rise to widely different attitudes towards God’s mystery and presence in the world and in human relationships.

Popular perception was akin to a sort of simplistic Manichaeism. Ordinary people explained what eluded their immediate comprehension, by resorting to the supernatural, attributing most things to God or Satan. They looked to the supernatural hoping for some just reward, and sought out myths, legends, and marvelous tales to help them escape from their humdrum lives.

The bourgeoisie’s religious perception shows that they approached life more concretely—generally from an economic perspective. Their social relationships were filled with planning and little risk taking. The bourgeoisie looked on poverty as a fault, but more as a sign of social failure than as an evil thing. Thus their perception of God’s action appeared to be rather at odds with the Christian idea of Providence. But they remained animated, over all by a deep and vital faith, as witnessed by the large number of priestly and religious vocations that came from the bourgeois class.


he general mentality and religious practice of the people was a natural consequence of the perceptions mentioned above. These were the social and outer manifestations of such religious perceptions. It is important to take a closer look at them if we are to form an accurate idea of Montfort’s ministry.

1. The socio-religious mentalities

The mentalities varied widely and there were almost as many of them as there were regions and social classes. Montfort’s mission reflects his profound grasp of the unequal forms of consciousness which prevailed at that time.

a. The mentalities in the regions.

The parish missions that Montfort offered in western France were to people from areas of the country which possessed a great many different social outlooks with many fundamental differences. Regions thus varied in socio-religious mentality, based on their geographic composition. Some people came from wooded-country areas and others from flat-country areas. The former tended to be more individualistic and suspicious, but courageous, generous, obedient, and with a faith inclined to mysticism. The latter were more welcoming and sociable but rather listless, stingy, and more independent. They were more materialistic but also more down- to-earth. Therefore, people came to the parish missions with their differences of attitude and behavior. In wooded-country districts, people tended to place more value in religion, whereas those in the flat-country districts tended to be more lukewarm or indifferent. Such stark differences must be qualified but there is a general truth here. People living in the marshy regions were perhaps more listless when it came to religious practice and those living on the sea coast were generally more enthusiastic but lacking depth. But the Catholic urban population had perhaps the widest variety of different religious attitudes and behaviors.

b. The mentalities of the social classes.

Each order or class for the most part had its own ways of thinking. The nobility’s image reflected that of a king who ruled by divine right. Most of its members valued religion, seeing it as something that brought stability. But the impoverished lords jealously clung to their rights and did not take kindly to the clergy or bourgeoise using their religious influence or their wealth to rise to equality with them.

Because they were hard working and active people, the middle-class were the mainstay of the urban parishes. They funded them and ran their programs such as the confraternities, and contributed greatly to the poor, and their children were educated in the local schools run by such orders as the Jesuits or Oratorians. At La Rochelle the influence exerted by these two religious Orders reflected the division mentioned above between the "humanists" and the "Augustinians."

Because "the times were hard," ordinary people seemed irreversibly alienated from a proper religious balance. As was said, they tried to compensate for the tough lives by indulging in various forms of escapism—such as licentiousness or occultism. The churches therefore were filled with feasts and festivals with special celebrations of patron saints and pilgrimages, which combined religious and secular rituals. These festivals were filled with dancing, theater, etc. A parish mission, including its sermons, hymn-singing, processions, and Sunday mass was also an opportunity for people to escape into a well kept, brightly lit church. Parish fairs, weddings, and other get- togethers broke the monotony of their lives. Even church functions reflected a touch of the occult escapism mixing magic and superstition, especially related to the veneration of relics and to the keeping of esoteric secrets. In 1700 ordinary people did not live an individualized form of religion but tended to be carried along by the group, depending on rules imposed from above, and upon set prayer formulas and traditional practices.

The poor, especially the beggars and tramps, were keenly conscious of being marginalized. And, as a result, they questioned the society that rejected and oppressed them, and the Church which seemed to look on them as sinners, as failed Christians. But even those who only occasionally practiced their religion were generally not without religious faith.

As for the clergy, their mentality in 1700 was a middle class one. They for the most part had a standard of living and way of life which far exceeded that of the ordinary people both socially and economically. Their mentality was based on this superior position, which set them apart from the common people and made them aloof. They tied this sense of superiority to a lofty theological image of Christ as the triumphant highpriest. From this image, they derived a pre-eminent dignity for the priesthood, almost angelic. Consequently, the clergy looked down on popular entertainments, shunned women, and had little regard for everything unspiritual and this meant especially anything pertaining to the body. Their vision was dualistic, somewhat akin to Catharism. They tended to repress their feelings. Finally, their mentality became overly inward-looking, inflexible, and servile. Training in the seminaries had laid great emphasis on the teachings of the Council of Trent. The Council had stressed the priest’s dependence on the bishop and on the ordinances and regulations governing the priestly function "to the point that they did not dare do anything without permission."13 This is a far cry from the prophetic "Liberos" in PM.

Then from 1640 on some scholars and specialized historians like the Bollandist Jesuits and the Benedictines of Saint-Maur began systematically to interpret "religious" texts from a historical point of view. This gave rise to a critical movement, the aim of which was to sift out authentic historical reality from myth or legend. As a result, some types of popular religion were shaken to their foundations. More importantly, thanks to scientific and medical advances, some disturbing phenomena, attributed until then to the devil, were accounted for scientifically. After 1670 there were almost no more witchcraft trials. Science and its particular form of concrete inquiry tended to diminish the prevailing transcendentalism. Empirical positivist thinking began to replace an experience of the majesty of God. Montfort strongly denounced such "skeptics," "critical devotees," and "proud scholars" (FC 17; TD 26).

2. Religious mores

In the late seventeenth century, it was almost inconceivable for anyone to be without religious faith. Everyone was baptized. Most people accepted the doctrine and discipline of the Church. The general atmosphere was Christian, with Catholicism the only religion recognized by the state. There remained some traces of Protestant influence in certain areas, like the diocese of La Rochelle. But even there persecuted Protestants had been forced to return to the Church after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1686.

a. Worship.

Although entirely made up of nominal Catholics, the general population was not equally devout. With few exceptions, people made their Easter duty. Sunday Mass was not attended by everyone, since some parishioners were prevented from going to church if they lived too far away or had to harvest their crops, or if bad weather prevented the journey. It was general practice in those days for people to receive Holy Communion at only two or three major religious feasts during the year. Most houses of worship were renovated in the seventeenth century and although many parishes were poor, the parishioners showed their devotion by keeping their churches in good repair. The vitality of the parishes was attested to by the many large donations of money as stipends for Masses for the dead and for other celebrations or for pilgrimages. The seventeenth century also saw the emergence of many confraternities, like those of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, the Virgins or the Penitents. In addition, a variety of confraternities were founded to help the poor. FC, which is both an exhortation and a set of rules,14 was written by Montfort for the Confraternity of the Friends of the Cross.

b. Morality.

Morals were generally very good relative to what exists today. The records left by the parish priests are proof of this. At the same time they throw some light on certain aspects of the Church’s attitude to sin in those days. The records denounce in the first place public transgressions of sexual morality, which were few. In a diocese lacking fervor like La Rochelle, between 1 and 2 percent of the marriages were invalid, and 1 percent of the births were illegitimate. Parish priests tended to denounce the occasions of sin as well, especially the drinking and dancing in public houses on Sundays, feast days, and market days. They also challenged mixed dancing at local festivities, weddings, and parties. Such occasional forms of relaxation undoubtedly led to abuses but not all of them deserved such condemnations. The records show that a greater leniency was shown to private faults, like missing Sunday Mass, fraud, usury, and dishonest dealings. The following were regarded as minor faults: quarrels, fights, even long-standing disputes among families, villages, parishes, social groups, and private individuals (including the parish priests). These occurred over issues such as legacies, neighborhood interests, precedence, or authority. Such constant bickering, however, was proof of a sad lack of harmony, forgiveness, and love. Montfort endeavored to restore these virtues in his missions.

c. The life of faith.

In the wake of the Council of Trent, Catholics had broadened and deepened their knowledge of the faith. Seminary training, publication of catechisms, regular Sunday sermons, the teaching of catechism to children in parishes, coupled with religious teaching in schools and in the recently established "charitable schools," effectively combated religious ignorance making it a rather rare occurrence. Diocesan catechisms, like the one published at La Rochelle in 1676, are evidence that the teaching methods were generally well suited to the people. This was no mean achievement at the time. However, it remains a mystery as to how much of the teaching was actually absorbed by parishioners, most of whom were illiterate and only able to learn by rote.

d. The clerical life.

Although the number of vocations had decreased, there were still more than enough priests to serve the parishes. The decline in numbers brought about a deep change in the financial, intellectual, and social status of the priests. In 1700 the priests received a fixed income that varied between 400 and 1,500 livres. This was enough for a decent, though not comfortable, lifestyle. Nearly all the priests had been educated in seminaries. Some of them had attended university. Most had at least thirty books in their bookcases, a sign of a fairly decent cultural level for the period. Finally, around 1700, a group of priests emerged who were conscious of their social position. They were not inclined to practice a great deal of detachment or evangelical poverty. Their ministry tended to be more fixed than transient, and functional rather than missionary.

e. Religious life.15

In the seventeenth century, many abbeys and convents founded in the Middle Ages possessed vast riches but showed little religious vitality, whereas the Orders founded in the sixteenth century in the wake of the Counter-Reformation displayed a great spiritual and apostolic drive. The Jesuits, Ursulines, and Capuchins were engaged in apostolic work which included teaching and caring for the needy. The clerical communities were also engaged in preaching parish missions. New and dynamic types of religious Congregation came into existence in the seventeenth century. Among them were the Oratorians, Vincentians, Daughters of Charity, and De La Salle Brothers. Their members came from all types of social background. They led a more modern sort of life. They dedicated themselves to difficult apostolic work and remained close to the people. Although these Congregations did valuable work in the dioceses, they often did not follow the diocesan pastoral directives strictly. They broadened their sphere of action and became increasingly engaged in social work. In the late seventeenth century, when the country was torn by wars and bedeviled with economic crises, these religious Congregations played a leading role. They did so because of their awareness of the rights of the people, especially of the poor. They sought to obtain justice, education, and a better life for the socially dispossessed. It might even be said that these Congregations came into existence in response to the overall needs of the poor, to the tragic call of a society powerless to help its destitute, sick and illiterate. St. Vincent de Paul, for example, brought to the fashionable society of his time, a "social" understanding of the Gospel. Such Congregations devoted themselves to "caring for the poor" in hospitals and at home. They looked after orphans and abandoned children. They set up charitable institutions and established "charitable schools" for the education of poor children. A great spirit of solidarity inspired these foundations and kept them going. Bishops, the Christian people with their confraternities, and even the civil leaders of cities and provinces came to realize how important these educational and charitable institutions were. They supported their growth with donations, grants, and endowments. The whole nation was gradually brought to an awareness of its duty in providing mutual support and in sharing their resources with those in need. As a result, the populace began to realize the value of evangelical poverty and the obligation it entailed. This conformed to Montfort’s ideas and, in part, prompted his uncompromising attitude of service towards the poor.


Louis Marie de Montfort could not escape being influenced by his social era, though at times he appeared to be either behind or ahead of his times. Though he distanced himself from the middle class, he belonged to it. It was his family’s background, and from it came his vocation and clerical formation. Montfort chose through his missions to become one with the ordinary people, especially the poor.

1. Montfort’s ties with the three social orders

a. His ties with the bourgeoisie.

We know that his father, Jean-Baptiste Grignion, was an ambitious man who worked with grim determination but with little success to improve his social status. What is even more evident is the way St. Louis Marie distanced himself from his family for the sake of the Gospel: "In my family—the one I belong to now—I have chosen to be wedded to Wisdom and the Cross, for in these I find every good, both earthly and heavenly" (L 20). Although he severed his ties with his family, he owed to their bourgeoisie status the fact that he was educated at the Jesuit school in Rennes. As well it was through his parents’ connections among the nobility, that he gained admittance to Saint Sulpice Seminary. From his bourgeoisie background he inherited a number of attitudes and qualities, such as a spirit of enterprise, independence, and respect for authority. These qualities stood him in good stead when he gave missions and acted as a spiritual guide. In his writings he even used banking terms. He spoke of managing spiritual wealth, and called Mary the dispenser and treasurer of God’s gifts (TD 178). But having said this, Montfort’s way of life was in direct opposition to his bourgeoisie origins. He wedded himself to poverty and lived in complete surrender to Providence.

b. His ties with the clergy.

At the Seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris, Montfort received the best theological and spiritual formation available at the time and was nourished on Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the mystics of the period. His mind, thought, and heart were steeped in all of this especially as it came to him through the French School; his writings mirrored the great tradition but in a personal, albeit original way. He alternated between periods of intense and highly internalized religious formation (which included long periods of meditation, prayer, and mortification) and periods of practical formation in the apostolic work of actively caring for the poor and teaching catechism. The fact remains, however, that the training he received at Saint Sulpice did shape him. The seminary’s numerous rules had as a primary purpose turning a would-be priest into a holy man, set apart from the world. The seminary tended to produce priests who remained closer to the bourgeois population than to the poor. They made good servants of the Church, solid religious functionaries but they tended to remain more often establishment types rather than men given to risky apostolic activities. We know how vigorously Montfort reacted against this concept of priesthood, from the time he left the seminary until the end of his life. Although this was the accepted image of the priest in clerical circles, he showed a complete disregard for it when, early in his priestly life, he threw in his lot with the poor. His formation, however, had left its mark on him, as shown by the style of his letters to Fr. Leschassier, superior of Saint Sulpice Seminary (L 5, 6, 10). In them he gave signs of still being influenced by his seminary teachers. But shortly after, Montfort chose to break with them. Rejecting the social appearances of such a clerical lifestyle, he clung only to the essentials of the priesthood which he had been taught in the seminary.16 As a priest of Christ, he wanted to imitate Jesus closely, the way the Apostles had done. He wanted to be poor, detached, free, and available (PM 7-10), and concerned with the urgent needs of the Christian people, especially those who were the poorest and most uneducated or "those whom the world neglects." His attitude unsettled and challenged people. Breaking from the clerical image of the period, he distanced himself from his fellow priests, and accepted to be treated as a "madman." He allowed himself to be denounced and driven from various dioceses without ever fighting back or rebelling. He remained obedient to the bishops and to a Pope who confirmed him and his work by granting him the title of "Apostolic Missionary." Montfort belonged to the clergy through filial obedience to the hierarchy and dedication to his priestly mission, but he strongly opposed the tendency on the part of the clergy to become socially or culturally established or fixed.

c. His ties with the common people and the poor.

Montfort deliberately chose to become one with the common people, to throw in his lot with the poor. At the Cesson bridge on the outskirts of Rennes, while on his way to Paris, he took off the clothes of a bourgeois cleric and put on the clothing of a poor servant priest. He never took it off. His clerical garb would thereafter remain rough and simple. In his mind, this was the best way to identify himself with the suffering Christ. But for him there was no taint of morbid enjoyment of such suffering in this, rather, there was a pride in the restoring of value to a despised condition, of dignity to those without possessions. It was also a way of showing his gratitude (L 6). But there was much more to it. Montfort sought to make despised human beings aware of their dignity and he worked to change their hostile attitude at being social outcasts into one of responsibility and solidarity. He tried to make poor disabled women members of the first Community of Wisdom. He was a shining example of faith in human ability and in the future of humanity, one based on the dynamic presence of Jesus Christ’s saving action. Montfort remained close to the ordinary people, identifying himself with them whether they lived in the suburbs of Montbernage, or in some country district. He wanted to teach them catechism, to evangelize them and he worked among them living from hand to mouth at the bottom of the social ladder. He opened them to the opportunities which the faith life offered them. Although he came from a bourgeois and clerical background, he entered wholeheartedly into the culture, mentality, and customs of the poor. He purified and transcended such social realities instead of destroying them. In so doing, he was a true missionary, one attuned to his audience, one who adapted his preaching to those he served, and one who used whatever resources he found among them to evangelize them. He borrowed words like "marvel," "treasure," and "secret" from the language of the popular culture of his time. He set hymns to popular tunes. He used pictures, banners, liturgical ceremonies, processions, and calvaries which reflected their public entertainments. Although his way of teaching was not original to him, the way he adapted it to those he served was, and the results were certainly unique. He renewed and revived them, infusing those around him with his prophetic vigor and energy. As a true missionary, he enlisted the help of ordinary people in the work of undertaking "great things for God," like the Calvary at Pontchâteau. He insured the lasting fruits of his missions by leading those who attended to make individual and collective commitments, such as the renewal of their baptismal promises. He left them rules governing their prayer life, set up confraternities, and established devotional practices, such as CG and the Marian Consecration. Like a true missionary, he adopted the way of life of the Apostles, and of those threatened with misery and famine. He lived in poverty and with confidence in the Providence of God, all the while adapting himself to the popular mentality of his age.

2. From a mission in time and space to a timeless mission in the Church

Montfort met with opposition in his life. He lived at a time when humanity, society, culture, perceived salvation in Jesus Christ differently from the way we perceive it today. Some have reproached Montfort for both idealizing the past and prophetically, or even apocalyptically, envisioning the future. But here again he wanted to touch the mentality of his time and the unique way in which people longed for Jesus Christ. He put spiritual reality into two camps, the camp of God and the camp of the Evil One. This may appear too radical and simplistic, and some might say that it smacks of Manichaeism. But it was the spiritual language of an era marked by religious and political wars. Was it not a language which made it easy for the people to understand the choice involved in baptism? It is rather futile to fit Montfort into a social category. Montfort was no exclusivist either in his writings or in his missions. He designed his missions so that they would reach everybody, all social orders and classes, from the nobility to the poor, including the rich bourgeois. He called all to conversion and salvation. The best proof of this was the mission he gave at la Rochelle in the winter of 1711 which had a huge scope. It engaged the whole population of the town, and all of its social, economic, and political groups, including the bishop, the military governor, and those in its military garrison.

Influenced by history, family, society, and the Church, and with a particular culture and formation, Montfort was in every respect a man of his time. Yet, in spite of these realities, he remains an elusive, bewildering even baffling figure. His message took the Gospel literally, and he identified so completely with the poor, in whom he saw the image of the suffering Christ. His understood the baptismal commitment, and Mary’s role in the economy of salvation history. All of this rooted was in but transcended his times. His missionary teaching is timeless. He is a man for our times, if we translate him into our present culture. In Jesus Christ, Montfort’s message is a universal one.


Notes: (1) L. Perouas, Ce que croyait Grignion de Montfort, Mame, Tours 1973, 206-207; English translation, A Way to Wisdom: Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort and His Beliefs, Montfortians Yesterday and Today. (2) L. Perouas, Séminaire intermontfortain d’Avrillé, July-August 1971, typed notes. (3) P. Goubert, Mazarin, Edition Fayard, Paris 1990. (4) L. Perouas, op. cit. 1 map, p. 8. (5) Henri Daniel-Rops, L’Eglise des temps classiques—Le grand siècle des âmes, Fayard, Paris 1958, 214-219; English translation, Daniel-Rops, The Church in the Classical Times: The Great Century of Souls, trans. John Warrington, Dutton, New York, 1964. (6) Besnard I, 189, 239. (7) Daniel-Rops, L’Eglise, 265-268. (8) L. Perouas, Grignion de Montfort, un aventurier de l’Evangile (Grignion de Montfort, an Adventurer of the Gospel), Editions ouvrières, Paris 1990, 11-12. (9) Blain, 28. (10) Grandet, 151. (11) J. Michaud, 1492-1789: La Renaissance et les Temps Modernes (1492-1789: The Renaissance and Modern Times), Classique Hachette, Paris 1974, 220-244. (12) R. Mandrou, De la culture populaire en France aux 17ème et 18ème siècles. La Bibliothèque Bleue de Troyes (Popular Culture in France in the 17th and 18th Centuries: The Blue Library of Troyes), Edition Stock, Paris 1964. (13) Blain, 83. (14) Grandet, 401-402. (15) Daniel-Rops, L’Eglise, 107-115. (16) Blain, 187- 190.

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Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

Provided courtesy of the Montfort Fathers © All Rights Reserved.

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