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October 24, 2004|
On April 28, 1876 a child born in Beaune, in the diocese of Dijon, received the names Louise, Emma and Emily at her baptism. Her family called her Irma. The Grivots were poor; the father was a cooper. Irma, who suffered from pleurisy in her childhood, had a sickly physique all her life, but her soul was lifted up to God. When she was examined in catechism her answers were lucid and precise. During her retreat before receiving First Holy Communion when she was twelve, she heard about the martyrdom of young children. The sufferings they endured seemed quite frightening to her. But the thought of entering Heaven immediately, the joy of seeing God and loving Him without fear of losing Him, stirred her enthusiasm and gave her the desire to become a martyr. At the Carmel in Beaune, a miraculous statue of the Child Jesus called «the little King of glory and grace» was venerated. On special occasions, a priest presented the statue for the faithful to kiss, and the faithful who did so often obtained graces. Irma entrusted to the Child Jesus her desire to become a martyr.
Unaffected, honest, intelligent, studious, and with an affectionate heart, Irma easily progressed with her studies until 1893. She aspired to the religious life, but her parents were categorically opposed to it. To give herself a degree of independence from her family, she worked, giving private lessons. Then, one evening in 1894, persevering in her plan for consecrated life, she knocked at the door of a community of women religious devoted to adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament and the foreign missions, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, in Vanves (close to Paris). This community, which had recently been founded by Hélène de Chapotin de Neuville, a fearless Breton who in religious life had taken the name of Mother Mary of the Passion, would be permanently approved in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII. In 1904, when Mother Mary of the Passion died, her community, which reached to the far corners of the world, numbered more than 3,000 religious, spread out among 86 houses, hospitals, workshops, and leper hospitals. The foundress was declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II on October 20, 2002.
Congregations dedicated to the foreign missions announce that Jesus, true God and true man, is the sole mediator between God and mankind. There are some people today who maintain that the Mystery of God «would ... manifest itself to humanity in many ways and in many historical figures: Jesus of Nazareth would be one of these» (DI, 9). To remedy this very common relativistic mentality, «it is necessary above all to reassert the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In fact, it must be firmly believed that, in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, ... the full revelation of divine truth is given» (DI, 5).
Her family doesn't accept it
If one of her students rebelled against her advice, she tried, through a thousand attentions, to bring back the wandering sheep. At times, she was judged for her excessive kindness: «I see God in this child,» she would respond. «You have to endure something to get to Heaven... If I go to China one day, the Chinese will make me suffer much more.» She maintained the house ledger. Her qualities of precision and clarity were noticed, as were her love of beauty and nobility of thought. On July 22, 1894, Irma received the religious habit, under the name of Sister Mary Hermine of Jesus. Brittany's coat of arms bore an ermine, (hermine in French), an animal that, it is said, prefers death to the loss of its whiteness, with this motto: «Death rather than stain.» This was also Sister Mary Hermine's stance.
In order to be able to accept the greatest sacrifices, she began with little renunciations in a humble and hidden life. «What is humility?» she asked herself in her journal. «The intimate and true knowledge of oneself and our life regulated on that knowledge.» Sister Mary Hermine held onto the desire to leave for the mission countries. But at the end of her novitiate, she was called to another kind of dedication: the duties of accounting and managing the work in the house in Vanves. There the missionary Sisters, poor by vocation, derived their means of support and development through various types of work: printing, printmaking, bookbinding, leatherworking, artistic production, etc. The absorbing work left Sister Mary Hermine with no time for rest, but when anyone knocked at her door, that person was invariably welcomed by her with kindness and gentleness, no matter how inopportune the interruption might be to her work.
A dual adherence
Sister Mary Hermine did not doubt that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ. In fact, «The Lord Jesus, the only Savior, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific mystery: He Himself is in the Church and the Church is in Him... Just as there is one Christ, so there exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ: a single Catholic and apostolic Church... The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity rooted in the apostolic succession between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church... The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection divided, yet in some way one of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach» (DI, 16, 17).
In 1898, Father Fogalla, a Franciscan, vicar of the Bishop of Shanxi, China, asked the Mother General of the Missionary Franciscans of Mary for a foundation in the capital of his diocese, Taiyuanfu. Sister Mary Hermine was approached by her Superior General for this new foundation. «Without any hesitation whatsoever,» she wrote, «I answer yes, my beloved Mother... I entered the Institute to save souls by caring for their bodies.» Shortly afterwards, Sister Mary Hermine learned she had been nominated to be Superior of the Chinese foundation. Her humility made her frightened of this responsibility, but she accepted out of obedience.
Necessity of the Church
This truth radically rules out the indifferent mentality «[that considers] the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions... [T]he followers of other religions... are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation» (DI, 21, 22). The various religious traditions of the world most certainly contain elements of religiousness. But one must be aware that certain rituals of other religions come from superstitions and are an obstacle to salvation (cf. DI, 21). Nevertheless, «Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life» (Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 16).
Father Fogolla, promoted to the bishopric by Pope Leo XIII, foretold to Mother Mary Hermine: «You must expect to bear many crossessufferings during the crossing, sufferings on the ground, due to the utter lack of the things that are the most indispensable to life, and lastly, sufferings in the Mission itself, among the Chinese used to their customs and whose character at times leaves a lot to be desired.» The departure for China was a most painful trial. Madame Grivot still did not accept her daughter's vocation. Mother Mary Hermine wrote to a friend, «I hope against all hope. Maybe God is still allowing me this cross to spur on my confidence. Who knows if my family's salvation is linked to their daughter's faithfulness?»
Shanxi, a province in northern China, is an immense plateau. The climate there is harsh, and the harvests are late and inadequate. A host of superstitions divided the Chinese empire, and many martyrs had poured out their blood for its evangelization. Some thirty years before the arrival of the Franciscans of Mary, ten Daughters of Charity had been massacred in Tientsin.
«How good it is...!»
Close to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary's temporary convent was an orphanage run by native women religious. The establishment was in need of organizationorder, hygiene and work habits were lacking there. The Chinese religious exhibited a certain mistrust of the new practices the Franciscans brought with them. Helping them to progress was Mother Mary Hermine's job. She wrote, «We must work slowly, because they cling to their ideas and apparently cannot teach anything but the native customs.» The Franciscans taught the orphans to knit, to use a sewing machine, and to make lace. But the newcomers had to pay their dues to the country's climatethey were soon struck by illnesses. «No matter what happens,» wrote Mother Mary Hermine, «we are all resigned to the divine will, surrendered to the Master's hands. Our lives are at His service alone... The cross of missionary life must be borne joyfully.»
Half of my life
In the midst of her distress, a new blow struck: «My father is seriously ill,» she wrote. «Oh! My grief is not so much for his body as for his soul! For a long time, he has not practiced his faith. What will become of him? Will he receive the grace of the last Sacraments?... Will my faithfulness be enough to touch the Heart of the Sovereign Judge? In my anguish, I turn to the Mother of Sorrows and I have complete confidence in Her who is never invoked in vain.»
The twentieth century opened to revolution and famine. The young emperor of China had attempted to introduce the technical advances of European civilization in his countryschools, railroads, industry, etc. But these changes antagonized the people who were jealous of their nation's tradition and independence. To this was added a terrible drought which resulted in a food shortage. Secret societies in the country exploited the discontent. Among them, the sect called the Boxers (from the English word «box,» in the sense of «boxing,» «fighting») recruited youth, both boys and girls, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, who were fanatical against the Europeans and Christians. A significant portion of the empire was at risk of arson, pillage, and murder.
In April 1900, with the help of the Boxers, a new governor (or viceroy), Yu Xian, stirred up the population of Shanxi against the Christians who were denounced as the cause of the famine. The Bishop advised the nuns to flee. Mother Mary Hermine answered in their name: «For the love of God, do not keep us from dying with you. If our courage is too weak to resist the executioners' cruelty, believe that God who sends us the test will also give us the strength to come forth victorious from it. We fear neither death nor the torments with which the viceroy's fury threatens us. We have come here to practice charity and, if need be, to pour out our blood for the love of Jesus Christ. Thus, with tears in our eyes, we entreat you not to snatch from us the palm that Divine Mercy offers us from the heights of Heaven.»
On June 27, an ultimatum by the governor forbade Christians from meeting in any place whatsoever to pray. On July 5, the viceroy promulgated an edict that threw a conclusive light on the real motives for the carnage that was about to start: «Being that the Christian religion is dissolute and cruel, despising spirits and tyrannizing the peoples, the fires and massacres of the Boxers are imminent.» The following night, Yu Xian had transferred to the mandarin's house of hospitality his group of victims which was comprised of thirty-three individuals: Bishop Grassi, the Apostolic Vicar; Bishop Fogolla, his coadjutor; Father Theodoric; Father Elias; Brother Andrew Bauer; five Chinese seminarians; the seven Franciscan Missionaries of Mary; six orphans; a sixty-six-year-old widow; and nine servants in the Home. The nuns and their orphans had to stay in a damp, dirty room that was too small to hold them all. Mother Mary Hermine encouraged the prisoners who were preparing themselves for martyrdom.
The most astonishing
On October 1, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 martyrs of China, including thirty-three missionaries, both men and women, including Sister Mary Hermine of Jesus and her six companions. «[T]hose martyrs are an example of courage and consistency to us all,» observed the Holy Father. Indeed, although we are not all called to evangelize faraway countries, we all have the mission to give witness to the truth of Christ and His Church around us, by a holy life and true charity towards our neighbor no matter who he may be. Let us ask Saint Joseph to obtain for each of us this missionary spirit through the ordinary activities of everyday life, and to support the persecuted Church in China.
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