Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France


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December 28, 2002
Feast of the Holy Innocents


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

One's upbringing often exerts a critical influence on the orientation of one's entire life, as is shown in the story of a saint from the Basque country. «From his earliest years, Saint Michael Garicoits heard the Lord's call to follow Him in the priesthood. The maturation of his vocation and the receptiveness he demonstrated are connected to his parents' attentions, to their love and to the moral and religious upbringing he received, thanks in particular to his mother's attentive care. In his spiritual development, his family thus had an important role... Because of it, young Michael learned to turn to the Lord, to be faithful to Christ and to the Church. In the present day, where marital and familial values are often ridiculed, the Garicoits family remains an example for couples and for educators, who have the responsibility to convey the meaning of life and to make their charges aware of the greatness of human love, as well as stir the desire to meet and follow Christ» (John Paul II, July 5, 1997).

Scoundrel or saint?

Michael, the eldest of six children, was born on April 15, 1797, in Ibarra, a little village in the diocese of Bayonne, to Arnaud Garicoits and Gratianne Etchéverry. This poor family's faith was strengthened by the tribulations of the French Revolution. Many priests, hunted by the revolutionaries, took refuge in the Garicoits home before being discreetly led by Arnaud into Spain. Michael was not born a saint—original sin touches us all. He would later say, «Without my mother, I would have become a scoundrel.» Of an impetuous temperament and greater than average physical strength, he liked to be aggressive and violent. He was just four years old when he entered a neighbor's house and threw a rock at a woman suspected of having done wrong to his mother, before taking off as fast as his legs would carry him. At the age of five, he stole a packet of needles from a traveling salesman. «When my mother saw it in my hands,» he confessed, «she gave me a very stern lecture.» On other occasions she had to intervene again to return stolen objects. «I was just seven,» he told another time, «when I stole a beautiful apple from my brother two years younger than me. I believed without a doubt I had done no wrong, but when she remarked, 'Would you be happy if somebody did the same thing to you?', I bit my lips, and the thought that we mustn't do what we wouldn't want others to do to us hit me so hard that this event and all the surrounding circumstances have never faded from my memory.»

To correct her son's difficult temperament, Gratianne did not launch into long speeches but would very simply turn from the visible to the invisible world. In front of the flames that roared in the kitchen hearth, she told him, «My son, it is into a much more terrible fire than this that God casts the children who commit mortal sin.» Every inch of the child's being trembled at the thought of it, but he had learned a sound lesson on man's final ends, as well as a lively fear of sin. Yet his mother's comments were more often on Heaven than Hell. One day, hoping to go to Heaven as soon as possible, Michael imagined he could easily reach it from the top of the hill where he grazed his flock. After a difficult climb, he realized that the sky was still higher, but that it seemed to reach another, higher peak, and so left for this more remote hill. And so, from hill to hill, he got lost and had to spend the night under the stars. The next day, he found his way, managed to gather his flock and returned to his family's home. No one scolded him for his childish flight, but he kept the desire for Heaven deep in his heart.

In 1806, Michael was placed in the village school. His lively intelligence and sure memory quickly brought him to the head of the class. But in 1809, his father obtained him a position as a servant on a farm to earn some money. When he went out with the flock, Michael always took a book along with him to teach himself, and in this way learned grammar and the catechism. Two years later, great anxiety overcame his soul—he had not yet made his First Communion. A few months later, he obtained permission to receive Jesus. Thirst for the Eucharist would live in his soul from then on. Having become a priest, he wrote, «Ours is a strong God—without Him, my soul languishes, it thirsts... Ours is a living God—without Him, I die... I cry night and day when I see myself distanced from my God... (cf. Ps. 41 [42]:4).»

Michael dreamed of a vocation. Little by little, he was stirred by the thought of becoming a priest. When he returned to his parents' home in 1813, he made known his resolve. But he came up against a refusal, as his family's poverty did not leave any money for the costs his studies would entail. The young man then appealed to his grandmother who, after having convinced his parents, walked twenty-some kilometers in order to go to Saint-Palais, where there was a parish priest she knew well. She got him to agree to have Michael stay with him and let him enroll in school. At the rectory, the young student had a difficult life—while devoting himself to his studies, he had to carry out numerous domestic tasks at the same time. But with heroic determination, which was indeed in his temperament, he studied constantly—while walking, eating and even in the middle of the night—and finished with excellent results. He became friends with a pious young man, Evariste, who would die young. «God,» he later said, «gave him insights greater than all the learning of the theologians. He attained a remarkable level of meditation and intimate union with God, and yet was so friendly and so charitable to his neighbor.» After three years at Saint-Palais, Michael was sent to Bayonne, where he worked in the Bishop's palace while studying at the School of Saint-Léon. The efforts he put forth to overcome his temperament and to devote himself to his neighbor brought about a noticeable transformation in him. He himself reported a characteristic feature of his conduct. «At the Bishop's palace, I often had to endure the cook's bad moods. I took my revenge by cheerfully cleaning the pots and the casseroles. And she ended up using her free time to sew my handkerchiefs and do my laundry.»

A slow but deep mind

In 1818, Michael entered the Minor Seminary in Aire-sur-l'Adour, then, the following year, entered the Major Seminary in Dax. His professors first considered him slow-witted, but soon they realized that he went to the root of every question and always gave a relevant answer. At that time, the diocese of Bayonne had the practice of sending a few select pupils to the Saint-Sulpice seminary in Paris, where these students would receive a more advanced education. Michael was unanimously chosen for this distinction. But at the last minute, the Bishop, rightly fearing losing him for the diocese, kept him in Dax. In 1821, he was given the responsibility of professor in the Minor Seminary in Larressore. There, during the free time that his courses permitted him, he continued his studies in theology. Finally, on December 20, 1823, he was ordained a priest.

At the beginning of the year 1824, Michael was named vicar in Cambo. The parish priest, elderly and paralyzed, left the young vicar in complete charge of ministry. The latter said, laughing, «If they chose me to be here, it's no doubt because of my strong shoulders!» Father Garicoits soon won the hearts of his parishioners. His sermons, clear and understandable to everyone, and enlivened by his love of God and neighbor, drew to the church more than one of his compatriots who had forgotten the way there. His reputation spread throughout the Basque country, and he spent entire days in the confessional, even if it meant going without meals. He personally attended to the children's catechism, convinced that the mission of the priest is to teach the elements of Christian doctrine, and that a good catechism remains, for many people, their primary Christian recollection to the day they die. His hale constitution allowed him to devote himself to numerous penances. Yet on feast days, he joined in the delights of the population and went to the Basque pelota games. Then he would return to the church to pray at length before the Most Blessed Sacrament.

At the end of 1825, Father Garicoits was named professor of philosophy at the Major Seminary in Betharram, and also became its bursar. Both the material and spiritual state of the seminary were mediocre at best. The buildings, situated on the side of a hill, were very damp. The discipline, spiritual fervor and progression of studies left much to be desired, as the Superior, nearly eighty years old, no longer had the strength to administer the house. Father Garicoits was sent to Betharram to attempt a necessary and urgent reform. His task was not easy, but his moral qualities assured him a significant audience among the seminarians, and allowed him to slowly bring about a sound reform. In 1831, the Superior of the seminary passed away, and Father Garicoits was named to fill his place. However, this same year the Bishop decided to transfer the seminary to Bayonne, to which he sent the philosophy students first. Soon, the new Superior of Betharram found himself alone in the large empty buildings. But joy and humor did not leave him...

Do good and wait

The buildings comprising the seminary of Betharram were adjacent to a sanctuary that had been consecrated to the Blessed Virgin since the 16th century, and where many miracles had taken place. Crowds from the entire area, but also pilgrims from distant regions came there to honor the Mother of God. Father Garicoits took advantage of his availability to devote himself to an abundant and fertile apostolate by means of confession and spiritual direction. His solicitude extended to the nuns in the convent in Igon, which he visited several times a week. Four kilometers from Betharram, this religious house accommodated a community of the Daughters of the Cross, members of a Congregation devoted to apostolate among the people, recently founded by Saint Elizabeth Bichier des Ages. Father Garicoits' contact with the Sisters allowed him to appreciate the spiritual advantages of religious life and its apostolic power. Filled with admiration for Saint Ignatius of Loyola and his Spiritual Exercises, he wished to become a Jesuit. In 1832, he made a retreat with the Jesuit Fathers in Toulouse. At the conclusion of this retreat, the priest who was directing him asserted, «God wants you to be more than a Jesuit... You will follow your first inspiration, which I believe comes from Heaven, and you will be the father of a religious family that will be our sister. While you are waiting, God wants you to stay at Betharram, continuing the ministries that you perform there. Do good there and wait.»

Father Garicoits returned to his usual work, without abandoning the idea of forming a religious community devoted especially to teaching, education, the religious formation of the worker and farmer, and to all kinds of missions besides. With this aim in view, he engaged three priests. The Bishop granted this little community the privileges of diocesan missionaries that already existed in Hasparren, on the other side of the diocese. Slowly, the community grew novices headed for the priesthood and brother coadjutors. In Betharram, Father Garicoits created a permanent «mission» to ensure service to the sanctuary, to receive and offer confession to the pilgrims, and lead retreats. In the course of these activities, he placed in the hands of these retreatants the book of Saint Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. Drawing his inspiration from the «First Principle and Foundation» formulated by Saint Ignatius—«Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord, and by this means to save his soul»—he affirmed: «To possess God eternally is man's supreme good. His supreme evil is eternal damnation. There are two eternities. The present life can be likened to a path that we can make lead to one or the other of these two eternities that we want.»

What work!

Saint Michael Garicoits believed, with the entire Church, in the existence of Hell. «The teaching of the Church,» as the Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls, «affirms the existence of Hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell, where they suffer the punishments of Hell, 'eternal fire.' » (CCC, 1035). Quite often in the Gospels, Jesus warns us about Hell. On the day of judgment, He will speak to those who will be on His left to tell them: 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the demon and his angels'... And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mt. 25:41, 46). These words from Truth itself cannot deceive us. On that day, therefore, there will be damned souls, lost forever through their own fault. This is why Father Garicoits' zeal for the salvation of souls inspired him with words glowing with love. «Our purpose is to work for our own salvation and perfection, for the salvation and the perfection of our neighbor,» he said to his priests. «To utterly exert ourselves in this task is to live. To carelessly exert ourselves is to languish. To not exert ourselves is to die. Working to avoid Hell, to reach Heaven, to save souls that cost Our Lord so much, that the devil tries so hard to lose, what work! Does it not demand our complete attention? Can one fear doing too much? Will we ever do enough? We will never do as much for souls as the devil and the world will do to lose them.»

But the «Saint of Betharram» did not forget any part of the revealed Truth. He knew the vastness of Divine Mercy for those who truly wish to receive it. Visiting a criminal condemned to death, he insisted from the start, «My friend, you are in a good situation. Cast yourself upon the bosom of Divine Mercy with utter confidence. Say, 'My God, have pity on me!' and you will be saved!» He added, «If, one day, I found myself in danger of losing my life between Betharram and Igon, and if I saw myself burdened with mortal sins, without help, without a confessor, I would throw myself heart and soul into the arms of Divine Mercy and would believe myself to be in a very good situation.»

Tenderness everywhere

One of his nuns wrote of him, «He was as immersed in and persuaded of God's goodness as he was of man's destitution. He could no more understand the feeling of mistrust of God than he could the presence of pride in the heart of man.» Michael Garicoits drew his gentleness from contemplation of Jesus. «What does Our Lord preach to us? Tenderness everywhere—in the Incarnation, His holy Childhood, the Passion, in the Sacred Heart, in every inch of His person, both internally and externally, in His words, in His looks... What must be the foremost characteristic of our spiritual life? Christian tenderness. Without this tenderness, we will never possess this spirit of generosity with which we must serve God. It is as necessary for our interior life and our relationship with God as it is for our exterior life and our relationship with men. What is the gift of the Holy Spirit whose special purpose it is to bestow this tenderness? The gift of piety.»

In the French Catholic world of the 19th century, the idea took shape that in order to re-Christianize post-revolutionary France, it was necessary to re-Christianize the schoolhouse. Convinced of this necessity, Father Garicoits opened a primary school in Betharram in November 1837, not without the opposition of some members of his community who hoped to keep all available resources for the missions. Nevertheless, success was immediate—the students soon numbered two hundred. For our Saint, to educate was «to form the man and to prepare him to yield a useful and honorable career in his state of life, and thus to prepare for eternal life, in elevating the present life... Education, be it intellectual, moral or religious, is the highest human work that can be done. It is the continuation of what is most noble and elevated in the divine work: the creation of souls... Education imprints beauty, nobility, courtesy, greatness. It is an inspiration for life, grace and light.» Encouraged by the marvelous transformation that he observed among the students, the founder opened or re-opened numerous schools in the region over the course of the years.

Sensitive to attacks by the enemies of religion, and desirous of defending it, Michael Garicoits worked to enlighten souls through serious doctrinal education. He devoted time in particular to apologetics, the account of truths that support our faith. «[T]his faith in a God who reveals Himself also finds support in the reasoning of our intelligence. When we reflect, we observe that proofs of God's existence are not lacking. These have been elaborated by thinkers under the form of philosophical demonstrations in the sense of rigorously logical deductions. But they can also take on a simpler form. As such, they are accessible to everyone who seeks to understand the meaning of the world around him» («The Proofs of God's Existence,» General Audience, John Paul II, July 10, 1985). The General Directory for Catechesis, published in 1997 by the Congregation for the Clergy, affirms, «[E]ffective apologetics to assist the faith-culture dialogue is indispensable today.»

In 1838, Father Garicoits asked his Bishop for permission for him and his companions to follow the Constitutions of the Jesuits. Bishop Lacroix gave his provisional acceptance, and later submitted to the Fathers, who would from then on be called «The Auxiliary Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,» a new Rule that he had drawn up for them. But this text was quite deficient. The vows were not acknowledged in their full force. The Bishop reserved functions that should have been retained by the Superior... In his profound humility and obedience, Father Garicoits nevertheless submitted without the least reserve. However, certain faulty provisions in the new Rule caused dissensions within the community that the founder would have to endure until the end of his life. On numerous occasions Father Garicoits depicted the disjointedness of the situation, but without success. Returning one day from a meeting with Bishop Lacroix, he confessed, in a tone filled with emotion, «What a laborious thing the birth of a Congregation is!» It would not be until after the death of the founder and the arrival of the 1870's that the new Congregation would succeed in establishing itself according to Father Garicoits' views.

Forward! All the way to Heaven!

On his trips to Bayonne to meet his Bishop, Father Garicoits would sometimes go to see his elderly parents. He would arrive there towards evening, have supper and spend most of the night talking to his father, showing him the deepest affection and going so far as to smoke, using one of his father's pipes. He would then return to his overwhelming schedule, splitting his time between his Congregation, the Sisters of Igon, the schools, the missions and the direction of souls. Around 1853, his vigorous health began to weaken and an attack of paralysis stopped him momentarily. In 1859, he suffered another attack, from which he made a miraculous recovery. He reassured his brethren, «Be calm, we will go on as long as the good Lord wants us to.» During Lent 1863, a particularly serious attack was an omen of his coming death. Always enthusiastic, he exclaimed to the Sisters of Igon, «Let's go! Forward! All the way to Heaven! We have to go to Paradise!» On May 14 of that same year, Ascension Thursday, he died murmuring, «Have pity on me, Lord, in Your great mercy.»

«Father, here I am!» This was the exclamation that sprang from the heart of Saint Michael Garicoits. «Our God is a Father,» he used to say. «In the end, we must surrender to His love, we must answer Him, 'Here I am!' At once, He will lift His child from the cradle of his misery and lavish all His Love on him.» This is the grace that we ask Saint Joseph and Saint Michael Garicoits to obtain for you and all your loved ones.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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