JESUS LIVING IN MARY:
HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
SICK

Summary
I.	Montfort in His Time: 
	1.	Health situation in the seventeenth century; 
	2.	Montfort’s experience of illness; 
	3.	Montfort and the sick. 
II.	Montfort’s Teaching. 
III.	The Suffering Patient Today: 
	1.	A presence to the sick; 
	2.	Illness, suffering, and the spiritual life; 
	3.	Pastoral service to the sick and dying.

I. Montfort in His Time
1. Health situation in the seventeenth century 
Life was precarious for most of the population in seventeenth-century 
France. Precisely those “cataclysms that, for long centuries, people had 
prayed to avert pestilence, famine, war” now burst over their heads.1 
The plague itself had receded and disappeared after 1650, but it raged 
on in the minds of the people. They thought they saw it everywhere. La 
peste, “pestilence,” “plague,” was the term used at the time for 
diphtheria, typhoid, smallpox, typhus, and “purple fever” in other 
words, any severe epidemic. Epidemics were brief but most deadly. Even 
today, in Brittanyat Plourin, for example one finds votive chapels 
erected precisely to ward off the plague. Hippocratic medicine was 
helpless in the face of diseases of this kind, except for the ones 
called chaleurs and fièvres (“heats” and “fevers”). The presence and 
availability of the medieval hospital with its medical equipment had 
grown by leaps and bounds in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.2 The 
years 1693-94, 1698, and 1709-10 figure among the seven years of the 
century in which the death rate peaked. Brittany was very much affected 
in 1673-75.3 Montfort was born in 1673. Wars regularly added their own 
quota of misery to that of famine, epidemics, destruction, massacres, 
and fires.
2. Montfort’s experience of illness 
Endowed with a robust constitution, Montfort never had any great 
interest in his health. He ate little, slept on a thin pallet or even 
the bare floor, often took the discipline, and walked throughout the 
countryside of northwestern France, in addition to his pilgrimage on 
foot to Rome. His preaching activity can only be called exhausting. Yet 
throughout all this, his health appears to have been strong enough to 
continue a highly demanding ministry.
On at least two occasions, there was fear for his life. The first was 
when he was twenty-one years of age and living in Father Boucher’s 
community in Paris. In this instance he was transported to the 
Hôtel-Dieu and subjected to repeated bloodletting, which ultimately 
exhausted his already enfeebled body. Here he acquired a personal, deep-
seated knowledge of solitude and abandonment amidst an energetic 
struggle with illness and death. Once he began to recuperate, his 
recovery was rapid. His early biographers admired his patience, 
gentleness, and acceptance of the will of God.4
In the fall of the year 1713, at the age of forty, during a mission that 
Montfort preaching at Mauzé, he was suddenly hit by most violent pains. 
He went on with his mission, concluded it, then went to the La Rochelle 
hospital, to remain there for two months. A severe fever, caused by a 
rather large abscess, raged unabated, and he was subjected to frequent 
probings and to delicate operations with the means available at the 
time, all of which he bore with strength and courage. He would ask the 
physicians not to go easy with him, and it is said that he would murmur 
during the procedures, “Long live Jesus! Long live his cross! Is it not 
altogether just that he be loved?” In the face of ninety- nine-to-one 
odds, Montfort lived.
Biographers also indicate a dangerous scare in 1708, at Chevrolière: 
“violent colics and a constant high fever,” due to his constant 
preaching of parish missions. Again he pulled out of the illness in 
spite of the blood-letting cures of the physicians. In 1711, in the 
course of the La Rochelle mission, Calvinists poisoned his soup. 
Although he survived, he would ever after feel “weakened and feeble.”5
Worn out with his labors, Montfort died at the age of forty-three. 
Stricken with an apparent pleurisy in the midst of a mission that he had 
been unwilling to interrupt, he asked to celebrate the Sacrament of 
confession and to receive Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction,6 and his 
life was over.
3. Montfort and the sick 
The “General Hospitals” of Montfort’s time were the poorhouses; more 
places of refuge for the poor and outcast than for the sick. Extreme 
poverty is the fertile soil of illness; it was Louis Marie’s apostolate 
to the poor that brought him into the apostolate to the sick. At 
Poitiers, sharing the life of the poor of the Hospital, Montfort became 
deeply interested in the welfare of the sick poor. He not only 
ministered to them spiritually but he also cared for the sick 
physically, making their beds, washing their clothing, and cleaning the 
wards and bathrooms and assisting in their medical care. When someone 
with a contagious disease was thrown out into the street, Montfort would 
have the poor person carried back in and would care for him himself, 
secluding him from the others lest they might be infected, then would 
assist the victim in a happy death.7
Montfort, by vocation a member of the first estate, the clergy, by blood 
a member of the bourgeoisie, through friendship tied in with some 
members of the nobility, was by evangelical choice one with the absolute 
destitute, sharing their life and serving them first with the Word and, 
to the extent possible, with food and care. His attitude is clearly 
revealed in the oft-repeated incident at Dinan in 1706, when he came 
upon a leper, all covered with ulcers, lying in the street. “He lifted 
him upon his shoulders” and carried him to the missioners’ house, where, 
in response to his knocking, the cry came, “Who’s there?” In reply, 
Montfort called out, “Open up to Jesus Christ!” then entered, laid the 
leper in his own bed, and cared for him as best he could.8
For Saint Louis Marie, the poor—and in a special way the sick poor—are 
unique sacraments of Christ. He was able to minister to the most 
difficult cases because he truly saw in them the suffering Jesus. His 
respect for the handicapped was based on his belief that they were 
chosen by God to be special manifestations of the Cross. His words and 
actions, he hoped, would help them understand their dignity and accept 
their Cross even joyfully.
At Nantes, Montfort encouraged the foundation of a hospice for 
“incurables” that is, paupers who were physically unable to beg their 
bread. He supported those in charge and gave them advice in their 
undertaking.9 At the same time, he lent his support to a “convalescent” 
establishment. His foundation of the Daughters of Wisdom is in itself an 
indication of his deep concern for the poor, especially the sick poor, 
since the care of the handicapped and the sick is among their “exterior 
aims” (cf. H 149; RW 1). 
Superstition attributed many a sickness to sorcery and the devil. 
Montfort struggled with this mentality, instructing the people as best 
he could.10

 

II. Montfort’s Teaching 
For Montfort, illness is one of life’s crosses which the Christian must 
carry (L 13; H 46). We find the word “illness” on the famous Wisdom 
Cross at Poitiers. By his life, Montfort shows us that we must struggle 
with disease and seek to heal it. At the same time, he describes the 
human being’s gravest maladies as a preparation for death.
A readiness to accept one’s terminal illness figures among the 
“proximate dispositions” for meeting the Lord: “Suffer sickness 
patiently, for God sends it to us. It can withdraw us from exile. It 
enables us to expiate our sins, and bravely to accept our death at its 
hands” (HD 5).
Hymn 46 summarizes the essentials of Montfort’s teaching about sickness. 
On stage come three characters: the Sick Person, the Devil, and the 
Friend of God. The Sick Person focuses on his affliction (colic, gout, 
fever, toothache, asthma, or sciatica). He suffers, he burns with fever. 
He is like a poor beast, overwhelmed with pain to the point of death and 
not knowing what to do. A very saint would waver. And the Sick Person 
reflects: “What misfortune! What a mournful lot! I would rather die than 
be permanently ill! What have I done to the Lord?” (H 146:10). This 
miserable patient feels neglected by all those around him, even by his 
physician, and he plots vengeance. The Devil drives the Sick Person to 
discouragement, rebellion, and blasphemy: “Look! Everyone’s leaving you 
alone / Like a sick dog. / No one gives you / any help or support” . . . 
How I pity your misery! / Cold soup, stale bread / a piece of bad meat, 
/ They’re making a fool of you, that’s for sure! . . . Keep far from 
your door / the Father confessor / His presence only brings / Fear and 
pain” (H 46:11, 22, 32). The Friend of God naturally takes the opposite 
tack from that of the Devil in order to assist the sick person to suffer 
well. His words meant to be comforting and seem a little strong to 
contemporary ears: God scourges us as a Father; He chastises us to test 
us; He gives us grace at every moment; suffering is better than hell. 
Gaze upon Jesus crucified: does he not suffer more than we? Suffering 
wins us an eternal reward; one day of sickness is of more value than 
excellent work throughout a whole year; at the end comes victory. After 
each strophe, the refrain nails the Sick Person’s Cross to the Cross of 
Christ: “Cross of Calvary, / So quickly passing and so dear!”
The last two strophes are a prayer placed on the lips of the Sick 
Person. He adores, he accepts, he asks God’s help: “My God, I adore You 
/ In your decisions; / If you strike again / Powerfully help me. . . . 
In your Blood I drown / My sins and my troubles, And I embrace with joy 
/ Any new suffering you may send” (H 46:37, 38).
The hymn so well describes the situation of the sick person overwhelmed 
with unbearable suffering. The teaching of the Friend of God, however, 
is doubtless more appropriate for the healthy than for the sick; this 
short “skit” was meant to be acted out not in the presence of the ill 
but of those who are well so that they may prepare for the inevitable 
day when sickness envelops them.
Hymns 145, to Our Lady of All Patience, and 159, to Our Lady of All 
Consolation, emphasize Mary’s motherly role with the poor sufferer. 
Montfort names her the “remedy of the incurably ill” in both hymns and 
“health of poor sinners.” He invites the sufferer to pray to her.
Not only because of the culture of his day but more so because of his 
theology of the Cross, Montfort sees suffering and sickness as a 
“healthy punishment” for sin and a privilege of sharing in the 
sufferings of Christ. He does not hesitate to accept the medication that 
the medical profession was able to supply in his day; his trust in God, 
however, is apparently far deeper than his trust in doctors, or, better 
still, whatever medicine is able to accomplish is but the loving hand of 
God reaching out to heal.

 

III. The Suffering Patient Today 
Montfort spirituality has always included a special concern for the 
sick. The teachings and examples of Father de Montfort and Mother Marie 
Louise call forth a loving union with all those who share in the Cross 
of Christ. What is asked for is not only a union of prayer but a 
practical, supportive presence, to the extent possible. The sick are, in 
so many ways, “the poor” who need to experience God’s loving care 
through the love shown by the members of the Body of Christ. 
Montfort spirituality also gives strength in one’s own suffering. Saint 
Louis Marie’s profound teaching on the Cross, his constant reminders of 
the love of Jesus and Mary for all, and his beautiful doctrine on 
Providence and the ultimate victorious outcome of all things in Christ 
Jesus are thoughts to be thoroughly learned well before serious illness 
strikes. As an aid to this apostolate to the sick, we close with a few 
remarks on this ministry.
1. A presence to the sick 
Many feel awkward in the presence of the seriously ill. Perhaps this is 
especially felt by those who have not as yet experienced a brush with 
death. Yet the seriously ill person has to experience loving presence, 
especially of loved ones.
Being present to persons stricken with disability means taking them as 
they are sick or hurt and trying to help them live in their new 
situation. It means trying to understand them without judging them or 
even attempting to “put ourselves in their place,” since each person is 
unique and singular. It means accepting their reactions, their 
questions, their silence. It means not running away despite the sense of 
confusion and sometimes helplessness that they so often awaken in us. It 
means “being there,” and being glad to be there, taking them seriously 
with discernment being true, credible, being a vessel of hope, even when 
an attitude of defiance, persecution, or revenge is manifested. It means 
not simply shrugging off a request for euthanasia but perceiving the 
immense distress it implies and the cry for help it conveys.
One who is present to the sick has need of balance, courage, love, 
openness, humility, sincerity, and quite often a sense of humor. His or 
her role is to be reassuring and to offer a sense of security, telling 
the sick person the truth that he or she can bear, distinguishing moral 
from psychological guilt (actual guilt from mere guilt feelings), 
responding to spiritual need, facilitating the elucidation of anguished 
questions and the positive element of life, helping the suffer to reject 
any useless or wicked suffering rebelliousness, resentment, false 
notions of God.
Love and compassion will respect the solitude and sense of dispossession 
of self that opens the way to God, Who is the Utterly Other especially 
when medicine can no longer do anything, so that now the sick person is 
no longer the object of care but only the subject of love.
2. Illness, suffering, and the spiritual life 
A time of illness can be a time of rebellion and blasphemy, or one of 
hope, love, and grace. Suffering without love is unlivable. The sick 
person is sometimes reduced to a cry, a supplication often without a 
response. The Passion narratives and many of the psalms begin to take on 
new meaning. Faith does not suppress the senseless aspect of certain 
sufferings. God seems absent when they supervene. The presence and 
compassion of those around may restore courage. After all, God is 
present in the very experience of absence. In Jesus, God bestows on each 
one of us the opportunity to face our own suffering and to cooperate 
with the divine enterprise that is the salvation of the world. Christ 
identifies with the sick person: “I was sick and you visited me” (Mt 
25:36).
Illness has the character of a test. It also has an educational value 
for those able to consider it from the standpoint of the reign of God. 
In discovering, thanks to faith, the redemptive suffering of Christ, 
human beings also discover their own sufferings there. Thanks to faith, 
they find those sufferings enriched with a new content and a new 
meaning.
3. Pastoral service to the sick and dying 
Christians seek to promote a pastoral ministry of health, one calculated 
to keep account of the dignity and the rights of the patient. The Church 
reminds physicians of their duties, which include “respect for life in 
all its forms, respect for the freedom of patients to choose their 
conditions of existence in function of their own hierarchy of values.”11
If the saints of the miraculous cures are no longer as much in vogue as 
in years gone by, pilgrimages (to Lourdes, for example) continue to 
offer the gravely ill the opportunity to express their cry to Mary, 
Health of the Sick, to feel accepted and respected in their dignity, to 
take their place as members of a people sensitized to the “Gospel of 
suffering” a community of persons who pray with them and for them. They 
discover their usefulness at work in the Church and weave new bonds. 
They find serenity and go their way with more love, faith, and hope; for 
they have accepted and offered their life of suffering for a filling up 
in their flesh of what is lacking to the Passion of Christ for his Body 
that is the Church (Col 1:24).
The Church further asks for the “protection, at the moment of death, of 
the dignity of the human person and the Christian conception of life 
against an abusive technicity” or therapeutic relentlessness. Indeed, 
some have begun to speak of a “right to death” not the right to put 
oneself to death, or to have oneself put to death as one wishes 
(euthanasia), but the right to die in human and Christian dignity, in 
all serenity and in the presence of other, genuinely caring, respectful 
persons.12
J. Bulteau

 

Notes:
(1) R. Mandrou, La France au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle (France in 
the 17 and 18th Centuries), Presses universitaires de France, Paris 
1970, 91. (2) Ibid., 93. “When the General Hospital of Paris was founded 
in 1656, with the intention of endowing it with capital as a ‘necessary 
establishment’—even after the creations of St. Vincent de Paul—the move 
was so well received that in the following years, the monarchy 
recommended its imitation in all of the cities of the kingdom” 
(ibid.). (3) Cf. H. Méthivier, L’ancien Régime (The Ancien Régime), 
Presses universitaires de France, Paris 1971, 66, 69. (4) Besnard II, 
37-38. (5) Besnard I, 166, 232. (6) Besnard II, 156-58. (7) Besnard I, 
71-72 (8) Ibid., 15 (9) Besnard I, 194-95; Besnard II, 22; L 33. (10) 
Besnard II, 97-101. (11) F. J. Paul-Cavallier, Mourir vivant (Dying 
Alive), Mediaspaul, Paris 1990, 23. (12) Congregation for the Doctrine 
of the Faith, Déclaration sur l’euthanasie (Declaration on Euthanasia), 
in Documentation Catholique, no. 1790, July 20, 1980, 699.

 


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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