Outstanding in the precious legacy of St. Marcellin to his followers are the wise method of education and devotion to Our Lady—the foundation and quintessence of Marist pedagogy.
The challenges faced by the young peasant Jean-Marie Vianney in tackling his seminary courses are legendary. Despite valiant efforts, the future Curé of Ars did so poorly in his exams that it was virtually a miracle that he passed. But his piety far surpassed his intellectual limitations, and grace generously compensated for what nature had denied him. Once ordained a priest, he attracted multitudes to tiny Ars and his name became famous throughout all of France, both for his wisdom in guiding souls as well as for his knowledge of the things of God.
Curiously, among the seminary colleagues of the Curé of Ars in those early years of the nineteenth century, was an individual who experienced similar learning difficulties. He was St. Marcellin Champagnat, founder of the Congregation of the Marist Brothers.
He too was a genuine son of the soil, with a robust physique and steadfast spirit. And he entered the seminary determined to become both a priest and saint. Formed from the crib according to the solid principles of the Catholic religion, he may have lacked knowledge, but not faith. Accordingly, when his superiors sought to dismiss him, alleging his inability to successfully complete the prolonged ecclesiastical courses, he promptly called upon his great Protector, the Mother of God and entrusted his vocation to her care, beseeching her to help him through the drudgeries of study. He obtained much more than he had asked. On the day of his canonization, the Church—the great Teacher of life—crowned his merits by calling him a “model for parents and teachers.” 1
A witty child with a good soul
“I was a witty child and had received a good soul” (Wis 8:19). No expression could more fittingly describe the childhood of our saint than this eulogy that Wisdom makes of itself. Marcellin Joseph Benedict Champagnat was born on May 20, 1789, a few weeks before the outbreak of the French Revolution. He was the second to last of ten siblings, and came into the world in the village of Le Rosey, nestled in the mountainous region of the Loire River. A healthy child, with a joyful and expansive temperament, he promptly latched onto devotion to Our Lady, which his mother encouraged in him from early childhood.
It was surely because of the patronage of Mary that the winds of irreligion which devastated France during St. Marcellin’s childhood did not find entry into the Champagnat home. Since he showed such avid interest in everything to do with the Catholic Faith he was allowed to make his First Communion at 11 years of age, two years before the age prescribed by the Church in that epoch. At this point, religious life was returning to normal in the country, and Marcellin was registered among the first group of First Communicants of 1800, in the Parish of Marlhes, to which the village of Le Rosey belonged.
First contact with the world of education
As a student enrolled in the preparatory course for the solemn reception of the Eucharist, St. Marcellin began observing the world of education with a keen pedagogic sensibility. Once, during a class, a teacher lost his patience with a particularly unruly student and, in a fit of rage, poured out a barrage of harsh words and branded the boy with a humiliating epithet. The other children found this amusing and, from that day on, taunted their classmate by repeating the nickname.
To escape derision, the culprit sought refuge in isolation. As time went by, he became a withdrawn, coarse, and angry adolescent. “Look at the result of a defective education,” St. Marcellin concluded decades later, in narrating this episode to the Marist Brothers. “Because of his bad character, such a child is bound to become the torment of his home, and perhaps, the scourge of his neighbours! And all because of a thoughtless word, uttered in a fit of irritability and impatience, which could have easily been repressed.” 2
He had another unhappy experience in the village primary school. Besides the poor condition of the teaching quarters, the instructor resolved disciplinary issues through corporal punishment, in accordance with the norms then in vogue. On the first day of classes, St. Marcellin looked on as the teacher harshly punished a student with an attitude that smacked more of anger than of correction. He recoiled so strongly against this lack of uprightness and justice that he decided to never return to school. He was just under 12 years of age, and was set on spending the rest of his life far from school and books. That is, until the day in which he discerned of the will of God in his regard…
Call to the priesthood
A short time prior to the above-mentioned incident, the Concordat signed by Pope Pius VII and Napoleon had reinstated religious liberty in France. Cardinal Fesch, uncle of Bonaparte, who governed the Diocese of Lyon, to which the Parish of Marlhes was annexed, was eager to fill the breaches in the ecclesiastical ranks produced by the Revolution with new vocations. He opened the old seminaries, inaugurated others and asked parish priests to recommend candidates among the faithful.
In this context, at the end of 1803, when our saint was 14 years of age, a priest sent by the Vicar General of the diocese arrived in the village of Le Rosey, with the mission of recruiting young men who wished to “study Latin”—which, in the common expression, meant “to study to be a priest.” The pastor promptly directed the visitor to the Champagnat home, inviting him to see for himself if any of the boys harboured such an aspiration. The two older sons declined, but Marcellin said not a word. The priest called the lad aside for a brief chat and detected that he had all the makings for a good priest. With a fatherly and categorical tone he said: “My boy, you need to study Latin and be a priest; God wants this.” 3
A short time before this visit, the youth would never have imagined entering the priestly state. He had thought of following the profession of his parents—farmers and millers—and then exchanged this idea for that of seeking his fortune as a merchant since he had a penchant for finance. Nevertheless, the words of God’s minister were enough to dissolve these human plans. He promptly heeded the divine call, and from that day on his life presented a new outlook, very disparate from the confines of economy, and altogether more suited to the nobility of his soul and the vigour of his faith.
An elite group in the seminary
After several months of groping after a basic notion of Latin, young Marcellin entered the Minor Seminary of Verrières in 1805. He faced bleak intervals because of his initial inaptitude for studies, however, under Our Lady’s protective eye, and through sheer dint of effort he conquered these obstacles and left his teachers wide-eyed when he started excelling the other students, completing two school years in one.
In 1813, now in the Major Seminary of Lyon, he promoted the formation of a group of fervent students—which included the future Curé of Ars—with the objective of restoring the Faith in the world through devotion to Mary. They gathered to discuss the most suitable apostolic mean to carry out this noble aim and to save the greatest possible number of souls. They desired to labour within two fields of action: missions and youth evangelization.
With this, the foundations for the Society of Mary or the Congregation of Marist Fathers were laid—a work that would later be consolidated and founded by the Venerable Father Jean-Claude-Marie Coli. In his memoirs, this priest confirms that St. Marcellin, “impressed by the difficulties encountered in learning,” 4 proposed during one of these meetings of this elite group, the creation of another institute—not of priests, but of teaching brothers—aimed at the education of children and youth, uniting the teaching of the truths of the Faith and the fundamental sciences in one sole method.
The idea was approved, and St. Marcellin was entrusted with carrying it out. Soon after receiving priestly ordination, on July 22, 1816, he found that the circumstances were ripe to set the project in motion.
Foundation of the Little Brothers of Mary
Appointed as coadjutor of the populous Parish of La Valla, in the Loire region, the young priest was a first-hand witness of the moral disorder and absence of pious devotion in which most of the population wallowed. Religious ignorance—one of the most nefarious consequences of the Revolution of 1789—was practically generalized; the region did not have a single teacher to teach the rudiments of reading, writing and other elementary subjects. In this state of affairs, his plan for a new foundation almost became a demand of the apostolate.
Before taking any conclusive steps, he put the undertaking in Our Lady’s hands, choosing her as Mother, Patroness, Model and First Superior of the future Institute. He also resolved that the religious would be called Little Brothers of Mary, convinced that the name of the Virgin would be sufficient to attract many candidates.
It was not long before the first aspirants appeared: two youths of good character from the parish who frequented the Sacraments and who were eager to embark on the religious life. Fired with enthusiasm for the proposed ideal, the new members soon assembled in community, in a modest house near the parish church. In this way, in January of 1817, less than six months after Fr. Champagnat’s arrival at La Valla, the history of the Little Brothers of Mary, also known as Marist Brothers started unfolding. By the middle of the twentieth century its numbers had surpassed eight thousand, with 700 schools spread worldwide. The holy founder was only 28 years of age at the time of the founding.
From that time onward, St. Marcellin would tread the path of all founders, who, with their sufferings, purchase the fidelity of their followers and the glory of their work. Until his death at age 51, setbacks of every form gave his life the distinctive note of men pleasing to God: being tried “in the furnace of humiliation” (Sir 2:5).
He was calumniated by his enemies and opposed by some of his own disciples. Financial resources were scanty, as were, at a point, even vocations. His tribulations eventually undermined his health and shortened his days. But minutes before his death, his face regained its colour, and looking intently on high, he said with a smile: “I am smiling because I see Our Lady. She is here and has come to fetch me.” 5
And the fruits of his action, which multiplied after his departure from this world, enable us to consider him as undeniable proof of Mary’s love, which makes of her beloved children “the good soil from which the Divine Sower harvests the thirtyfold or more from which He sowed.” 6◊
Some Aspects of Marist Pedagogy
Outstanding in St. Marcellin’s precious legacy to the Marist Brothers, is his wise pedagogic method, one of the most perfect expressions of his vocation.
The good example of the teacher
As a prerequisite for the success of the Institute’s mission, he believed it to be of utmost importance that his disciples be deeply convinced of their role as authentic educators and not merely communicators of knowledge: “We want to educate children, that is, to instruct them regarding their duty, teach them to practice it, instil in them the spirit and sentiments of Christianity, religious habits, and the virtues of a Christian and a good citizen.” 7 He made an interesting analogy between the cultivation of the earth and the importance of childhood education: “No matter how good the earth is, if it remains uncultivated it will only produce thorns and thistles. In the same way, no matter how good the dispositions of a child may be, if he is not educated, he will grow up without virtues and his life will be devoid of all good.” 8
He considered mutual respect between student and teacher to be an indispensable element for the efficacy of this mission. Above all he considered the good example of the master to be one of the credentials needed for stimulating the obedience of the students. “Therefore, education is, in the first place, a question of good example, because virtue strengthens authority; for it is in man’s nature to imitate what he sees done, and acts have more power to convince and persuade than words and teaching. Children learn more through the eyes than the ears. When they see parents or leaders working, they become accustomed to work and learn a trade. In the same way, it is by seeing the good being practiced and by receiving good examples that one learns to practice virtue and to live as a Christian. The pious, observant, charitable, patient, dedicated and honest Brother, faithful in all his duties, is always providing catechesis. Without being aware of it, he transmits love for work and all the Christian virtues to the students through good example, piety, obedience and charity.” 9
He also never let an opportunity pass by to remind the religious of this: “I am well aware that you have plenty of students”—he wrote to a Brother director—“therefore, you will have many copies of your virtues, for it is in your image that the children will be formed and your examples will be what guides their behaviour.” 10
Discipline is the body of education
Another aspect to which St. Marcellin gave great importance in the art of teaching was discipline. Time and again he would say that order is pleasing to all, including children, clarifying that the essence of discipline is not repression by force and by means of punishment, but rather the correction of defects and the formation of the will. “Discipline represents half the education of the child; with this half missing, in most instances, the other half is useless. Of what value is it for the child to know the catechism, if he has not learned to obey, to behave, and has not acquired the habit of curbing evil inclinations and to be faithful to the voice of conscience? Why are men today so inconstant, sensual, incapable of self-denial and of enduring things that are contrary to their nature? Because they were not subject to discipline from their childhood. They enjoyed excessive liberty. They were not taught self control, abnegation and to fight against evil inclinations. Discipline is the body of education; the Catholic religion the soul.” 11
“All to Mary for Jesus”
As an expert educator, he was not devoid of paternal sentiments; he found the perfect balance of firmness with kindness, which is reflected in this counsel: “Tell your students that God greatly loves those who are well behaved, for they are similar to Jesus, the well-behaved par excellence, and He also loves those who are not well behaved, for He expects that they will come to be.” 12
However, it is in devotion to Our Lady that one finds the foundation and quintessence of Marist pedagogy, as is set down in the Rule of the foundation: “The Brothers will make every effort to encourage deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin in the children.” 13 St. Marcellin Champagnat’s desire to glorify the Mother of God was so ardent that the motto “all to Jesus through Mary” did not satisfy him. In adopting it for his Institute, he completed it with a bold and filial play on words, which aptly sum up his whole life: “all to Mary for Jesus!” 14