Great Things for God

Part 2 of A Short Biography of St Peter Julian Eymard

St Peter Julian Eymard.Extracted from The Road to Emmaus: A History of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation in Australia by Damien Cash (Melbourne: Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in Australia in association with David Lovell Publishing, 2007). Reprinted with permission.

Founding a eucharistic religious order was a logical extension of the eucharistic spirituality Eymard was developing. In his first, tentative reference to the concept in a letter to Marguerite Guillot in April 1853, Eymard said he wanted to do great things for God. He believed this great idea came from God, but he was also terrified that he was not great enough to implement it. He asked Guillot to pray. Typically, he did not rely entirely on prayer. He also asked the Dominican master-general (Fr Vincent-Alexandre Jandel) to put the idea before Pope Pius IX. Jandel later reported that the pope had viewed the concept favourably.

Working under Eymard at La Seyne was a brilliant young seminarian and professor of English named Julian Tenison Woods (1832–89), who later migrated to Australia and became a priest. With Mary MacKillop (now St Mary of the Cross MacKillop), Woods co-founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart in South Australia in 1866–67. He also founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Brisbane (1874). In a remarkable life, Woods acquired a wider reputation as an explorer, scientist, educationist, and author of over two hundred papers in geology, natural history, education, and literature. He never forgot how Eymard had encouraged and instructed him at La Seyne. When Woods described Eymard as a ‘saint’ in his memoirs, he reflected: ‘Of all the people I have met, he is the one who has left the deepest impression on my mind.’

During his Le Seyne years, Eymard also maintained contact with Raymond de Cuers, who was ordained a diocesan priest at Marseilles in June 1855. Both Eymard and de Cuers were involved in what Guitton calls a ‘holy plot’, planning for the new order and steering selected Marist aspirants towards its ideals. The role of de Cuers at this time should not be underestimated. Cave has described de Cuers as a driving force.

By May 1855 Eymard had drafted various rules or Constitutions for the future eucharistic congregation. It also seems that Colin had been thinking about establishing a Marist community dedicated to adoration of the eucharist, before stepping down as superior-general in May 1853. However, Colin’s successor, Fr Julien Favre, was not receptive in June 1855 when Eymard attempted to promote his eucharistic ideas. ‘You are a Marist before all else. . .’, Favre warned, and he instructed Eymard to abandon his eucharistic projects. Eymard would not be stopped. He believed that God was ‘urging’ him on.

A visit by Fr Jean-Joseph Touche to Eymard at La Seyne in July 1855 was a remarkable echo of the past and once again proved instrumental. Touche advised him to ask Pope Pius IX to intervene with Favre, preferably with a view to gaining dispensation from his vows to devote himself to establishing a Society of the Blessed Sacrament. As it so happened, Touche was on his way to Rome and offered to represent him. Eymard immediately drafted a petition which described how over the past four years he had been ‘strongly urged by grace’ to ask his superior-general for permission to devote himself entirely ‘to the glory and service of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist’. He told the pope he had resisted the impulse for three years, but after much reflection and consultation he had become convinced that the idea came from God, saying:

Holy Father . . . Why does the greatest of all mysteries not have its own religious group like the other mysteries; why would it not have men with a perpetual mission of prayer at the feet of Jesus in his divine Sacrament?

. . . The Society of the Most Blessed Sacrament would not limit itself to this mission of prayer and contemplation. It would dedicate itself apostolically to the salvation of souls by using all the [necessary] means inspired by a wise zeal enlightened by the charity of Jesus Christ. It would work to lead to the feet of Jesus Eucharistic as many adorers as possible, by forming associations of adorers in the world, by giving private and public retreats for men in their Cenacle, especially for secular priests . . .

The Society would gladly embrace all the works of zeal which concern the adorable Eucharist, such as 40 hour devotions, clergy retreats, preparations for first Communions, etc . . .

Eymard added that six priests and six philosophy students were ready to support ‘this Eucharistic project’, but his superior Father Favre ‘does not want to favour it outside of the Society of Mary’. Nor would Favre allow Eymard to work on its behalf without the approval of the pope. After sixteen years as a religious, Eymard argued, he had now been relieved of the major posts he had held and he believed his ‘withdrawal’ would not adversely affect the Marist order.

Later, Touche told Eymard that the pope had declared: ‘The work comes from God, of that I am convinced, the Church needs it, let one take every means possible to make the divine Eucharist known.’ Nevertheless, Touche said, it was also the pope’s wish that ‘the Marist priest [Eymard] be in agreement with his Superior and the local Bishop for the setting up of the work’. Thus, while Pope Pius IX could have given Eymard permission to proceed, he refrained, preferring instead that Eymard first obtain the co-operation or approval of his own order.

While Touche swore he had represented the pope’s views faithfully, it is feasible he put a little extra ‘spin’ on the letter for the benefit of Eymard’s superior. The tone of the letter suggests it may have been intended for this purpose, as Cave has concluded, and the timing of its arrival while Eymard was on annual retreat meant Favre had to open the letter before Eymard. On learning of Touche’s audience with the pope, Favre immediately wrote to de Cuers, saying that while he had the greatest respect for Touche’s account of the pope’s views, it was appropriate for him to hear them through official channels. It was neither prudent nor proper for him to act on Touche’s advice, as Favre said: ‘The Holy Father’s words can be badly heard, badly understood and reported badly, and all this with the best faith in the world.’

But Favre was in no hurry to verify Touche’s report. He left the matter unresolved, and any doubts concerning his disposition were probably removed when Eymard was forbidden to write to the Society’s aspirants, some of whom Favre had learned were backing de Cuers and Eymard’s eucharistic plans. Suddenly, Eymard found himself relieved of duties at La Seyne and transferred to the Marist novitiate at Chaintre for a ‘rest’. ‘I suffer and I hope’, Eymard wrote.

Favre did not reject eucharistic devotion in itself. He told de Cuers this work was ‘beautiful’, but Marist spirituality emphasized the Virgin Mary. Favre doubted the ‘fit’ was close enough to the order’s objectives or ‘apostolate’, and he did not want to lose an experienced priest like Eymard. In what seems like an effort to settle the issue, in February 1856 Favre asked whether Eymard would accept the pope’s decision if he personally presented the eucharistic project to the pope. Naturally, Eymard agreed. Privately, he believed Favre would try to persuade the pope not to allow Eymard a dispensation because of its impact on the order.

After Favre returned from Rome, he discussed the audience with Eymard on 22 April 1856. As Eymard later related the conversation to de Cuers, Favre began by saying that while in Rome he had consulted with some of Eymard’s former counsellors, in particular Fr Jandel, Fr Alphonse, and a Monsignor Luquet. According to Favre, each man had warned against allowing Eymard to undertake his eucharistic plan or be given dispensation from his vows. When Eymard insisted that the only view that mattered was the pope’s, Favre replied:

I intended to speak to the pope about this, but during my visit I totally forgot. God no doubt permitted this.

Therefore, we must settle this matter. Either you put this aside, or you leave the Society. But if you leave, I will not dispense you from your vows.

At that, Eymard told Favre: ‘It is finished.’

Part 3: The Work Begins

The Road to Emmaus by Damien Cash[Full sources for this text are available in The Road to Emmaus by Damien Cash which may be purchased in Australia at St Francis’ Church, Melbourne, Victoria and St Peter Julian’s Church, Sydney, New South Wales. To purchase direct from the Australian province of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation: download brochure with mail order form (PDF: 500KB).]