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Janice Farnham and Rosemary Mangan, RJM. St. Claudine Thévenet. A Spiritual Profile.
Revised edition of unpublished manuscript, 2005.
SAINT CLAUDINE THÉVENET
A SPIRITUAL PROFILE
Prepared by the United States Province
of the Religious of Jesus and Mary
for the Bicentenary of their Foundress
SAINT CLAUDINE THEVENET: A SPIRITUAL PROFILE
YEARS OF FORMATION
The Revolution in Lyon
The world of Claudine Thévenet was a point in history of violent revolutionary throes, of religious tension and persecution, and of immense apostolic zeal in the face of insurmountable hardships. It was within such a world that the Lord fashioned her for mission, that she might be identified with him to reveal the Father's love to those who suffered around her. Her apostolic vision and response became the expression in her life of Christ's redemptive love for her, and through her, for those to whom she was sent. In studying her apostolic personality, we can see how she was formed by the circumstances of her world. The "signs of the times" revealed to her the dimensions of apostolic love and the breadth of horizon which lay before her. This profile attempts to trace the underlying pattern of that vision and endowment, and to highlight key factors and formative elements in Claudine's growth for spiritual ministry which developed into leadership within a Church and world undergoing change as radical as our own.
"Glady," as she was familiarly known, was born into a devout Christian family of the petite bourgeoisie in Lyon. She was the second of seven children, and the eldest daughter. Close familial bonds of love and support are reflected in her only extant letters. Her keen intellect and well-endowed personality were further graced by education at home and at the renowned Abbaye de St-Pierre, where she began formal schooling as a boarder in 1783. Until she was fifteen, Claudine shared there with her teacher and the novices among whom she lived, a peaceful atmosphere for study, and a contemplative experience of the Lord in a monastic setting characterized by devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacred Heart, and Our Lady.l
In the autumn of 1789, however, the outbreak of the Revolution in Paris brought an abrupt and fear-ridden end to her formal education. Decrees of the National Assembly suppressed all Church goods, and the Abbaye lost its properties, a main source of revenue.2 Nuns and youngsters were dispersed, Claudine among them. Her education now took a radical turn, as she witnessed the erosion and collapse of those social and religious structures which had been forces of stability to generations before hers. Such shattering events were the new lessons by which she would be instructed and led into paschal dimensions of Christ's redeeming love.
As in the rest of France, the Revolution did not make an immediate violent impact in the city of Lyon. A series of political and economic changes had led to crises in the silk industry, leaving 40,000 laborers without bread or work, living in the direst misery.3 On the whole, loyalty to the monarchy and the Church characterized the citizens of Lyon, and would later prove to be a strong motivating force in their fierce struggle to defend the city from one of the revolutionary governments, the Convention. As time passed, however, the situation of growing pressure, opposition and repression resulted in feelings of helplessness and powerlessness which gradually crippled the city. Antagonisms arose between the bourgeoisie and the workers fueled by a growing sense of frustration, anxiety and agitation on all sides. Some of the outbursts were violent.
In April of 1790, a radical General Assembly assumed power, dooming the Church's institutions to destruction. A constitutional clergy, separating the dioceses of France from papal authority, was erected, and a series of revolutionary oaths imposed upon the bishops and priests. In many parts of France, Church authorities refused to recognize the constitutional government or its laws, and forbade all clerics and religious to do so. Thus, by 1791, the diocese of Lyon was suppressed, and a schismatic bishop, Adrien Lamourette, was elected and given authority over the Church. Chaos and confusion led to crises of conscience and doubts regarding the "true" Church.4 The effect upon clergy and religious was designed to be devastating: priests who refused to sign the constitutional oath were forbidden to exercise any ministry, and were to be proscribed and denounced. By May of 1792, religious orders had been suppressed, their goods confiscated, their buildings emptied. The lot of most priests and nuns included exile or hiding, the constant threat of denunciation or house arrest, daily fear of imprisonment, and, above all, the imminence of the guillotine or firing squad. All that year, people of Lyon watched in fear as "refractories" were dragged before tribunals. Every area of their life was disturbed. All that they had known of peace and security from their king and their Church, was an assurance now past. As jails filled to overflowing with suspects and prisoners in the spring of 1793, one word summed up the violence pervading the city: "La Terreur."
The Thévenet Family in the Revolution
To the Thévenet family, living in the heart of the city and deeply involved in its industry, as well as its political and religious life, the Terror brought its own form of unrest, separation, fear, anguish and death. Claudine's father, Philibert, a generous and kind man, had already suffered serious financial reverses as a silk-merchant in 1782, so that the family had already undergone some change in their life-style.5 With the summer of '93, renewed violence and threats to the loyalists bore down upon the city, and the citizens' army organized for resistance. M. Thévenet thought it best to take the four youngest children to his sister's at Belley, a safer place in the countryside. He was unable to re-enter Lyon before a three-month siege began on August 9. The two oldest sons, Louis-Antoine, 20, and François, 18, volunteered to serve with about 6000 others against the Jacobin Revolutionaries in defense of their city. Claudine, as the oldest daughter, remained to comfort and strengthen their mother, and to join her in a long, agonizing vigil.
In October, their worst fears were realized: the boys were imprisoned when Lyon fell to the Convention Army. Efforts on the part of Philibert Thévenet to secure their release would prove to be in vain.6 In December, a Brother of Mme. Thévenet was sentenced to imprisonment and execution, presage of an agony which, within a few weeks, would touch this family yet more closely.7
The religious scene was no less troubled with the "Goddess Reason" reigning in the midst of festivities and pseudo religious celebrations. While the citizens organized themselves for political resistance and siege, the Church of Lyon struggled to sustain an orthodox faith, to hold firmly to doctrine and loyalty towards Rome, and to provide forms of worship and needed services to her faithful, many of whom were imprisoned. The forms these took were shrouded in secrecy. It was a time for spiritual resistance and for an underground Church that would give testimony, time and again, of its deep conviction and lively faith.
A Republican "Instruction" of November 16, 1793, proscribing all public worship and confiscating Church goods and property, fired months of fierce religious persecution.8 In such an atmosphere, where all that had previously spoken of God's goodness seemed destroyed, Claudine's apostolic vocation came to birth. The Revolution would provide fertile soil for the initial expression of her mission: a ministry of consolation in her immediate environment.
One of the most significant figures of church resistance in Lyon was the vicar general, Jacques Linsolas. In 1779, Father Linsolas had returned to live in his native parish of St. Nizier, near where the Thévenet family lived. In 1788, he organized a small secret society of young women, the Demoiselles, selected for membership on the basis of their piety, virtue, discretion, and depth of commitment. In the Rule which he gave them at the outset, we can glimpse the creative insight of an apostolic zeal that would later counteract the schism and meet the needs of so many victims in the wake of revolutionary upheaval: the tri-weekly meetings of the association laid stress on mutual support in works of piety and mercy toward the neighbour.9 The "Congregation des Demoiselles" was an elite group and needed to be such, especially as the time of active persecution drew near.
By 1793, Father Linso1as had been named to share the responsibility of diocesan administration with a zealous co-worker, M. de Castillon, who was later captured, condemned and guillotined. Left alone to organize a Church very much divided within itself, and facing total institutional collapse, he wished to 'fortify the faith and to have the consolation of reconciling many priests and people in schism.”10 A rabid monarchist who had already been jailed on one occasion for his outspoken denunciation of the revolutionaries, Linsolas wrote a circular letter exhorting the faithful to stand firm. He decided to utilize his "Congregation des Demoiselles" as well, and to expand their services while dividing them into three task-forces: messengers to imprisoned priests, religious, and lay women; visitors to the sick in the hospital of Hotel-Dieu; catechists to prepare young girls for first communion.11
All of these works demanded extraordinary fidelity and strength, while entailing risk to the point of heroism. Although the difficulties of the times exacted complete discretion in the use of names,12 and Claudine Thévenet is nowhere mentioned in the Memoires written by Father Linsolas, circumstantial evidence is strong enough to prove that she was a prominent member of this "Congregation" during the years of the Revolution. Everything we know of her apostolic poise, her personal qualities of sure judgment, sensitivity, and strength of character, as well as the many-faceted expressions of her apostolic self-assuredness in the service of the Pious Association, help us to infer that she had probably been trained and exposed to organized ministry in her native parish of St. Nizier. Events had forced upon her an early maturity, a capacity to recognize Christ in his suffering members and a desire to alleviate that suffering with a self-discipline which overcame natural fear and sensitivity to bring comfort and consolation. Finally, when we consider the characteristic traits of the Pious Association, founded in 1816, expressive of Claudine's apostolic vision and spirit, we see clearly reflected the type of organization, knowledge, and experience of means found earlier in the society of "Desmoiselles": mutual support in service and love for the Lord in the distressing disguise of the poor and the sick.13
When her Brothers, uncle, and possibly a fiancé,14 became prisoners late in 1793, Claudine was no stranger to the practice of visiting the crowded holes which had earned such aptly-descriptive names as “la mauvaise cave.”15 A French biography written in 1926 alludes to her involvement in the work of consolation inaugurated by Fr. Linsolas at St. Nizier: "Already before the incarceration of her Brothers, many times and under various disguises, she had gone into the prisons to console the inmates and even to attempt saving their lives."16 In addition to the general unrest and fear out of which issued the impulse for Claudine to respond to the Lord as he manifested himself in his suffering people, the situation as particularized in her own family reveals how this same impulse led to a deeper understanding of the dimensions of her commit-ment to Christ in his passion and death. Faithful to her Brothers in their time of imprisonment, she would follow them to their dreadful execution on January 5, 1794, taking to her heart their last message: "Forgive, Glady, as we forgive.”17 The letters of farewell from Louis and François were written in haste on the eve of their death, but they are an eloquent testimony to Claudine's power to strengthen and support:
Good bye, dearest, good, and all-too-sensitive Glady! My dear, it is for you now to console our mother. I feel so keenly what a shock our death will be for her. Do comfort her – she is so good! Yes, my dear, tell her she still has five children and she must be for them... 18
It must have been a moment of utter abandonment, a feeling of collapse of all that had previously made sense to her and given support to her faith, a crushing limitation and blind meeting with Christ on his Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:24). She was now to seek and find him in this hour of separation, loneliness, deprivation and destitution, a first "dark night" which turned her in pain to her God with a deepening dependence. The sweetness she had known earlier in experiencing God's goodness had turned to anguish, loss, incomprehensibility. She found herself, among the poor, one of them. Desolation and death were fertile soil into which the grain of wheat must fall to produce abundant life for the Church (Jn. 12:24).
One of the earliest documents we possess, the Petit Manuscrit,19 was written by one of Claudine's first companions in a style free from embellishment or need to aggrandize the figure of the Foundress. Simply and lucidly, it sums up the years following the Revolution in terms of her contemplative longing, apostolic vision, and a developing sense of mission:
The suffering of (her) heart had been too great for her to be able to seek any consolation henceforward except in the Lord. As soon as order and religious liberty were restored in France, we see her giving herself completely over to practices of piety and works of zeal. To do good, especially to the poor, had become a need for her. . . She felt deep within her the movement of grace, and wanted to respond with her whole self.20
What met her eyes daily was a scene that "made her tremble": the urban poor in abjection and neglect filled the streets of what had once been a thriving, industrial city. Almost every institution of the church, which had earlier attempted to alleviate human deprivation, was destroyed. Schools, hospitals, providences, refuges, had fallen before the scythe of the Convention. What resources were available to her or to anyone who wanted to repair, restore, or help bring order to Lyon? These material and spiritual ravages of recent years called forth from Claudine's heart a need to comfort and console, to heal and instruct those who had suffered most. She could not bear to let the cry of the poor go unheeded when it found such an echo in her own impoverishment. Indeed, her willingness to act out of that very weakness, in a situation where obstacles abounded, where difficulties loomed insurmountable, where literally everything had to be rebuilt from ruins, issued from the energy and power of Another (2Cor 13:4). Such was her own "hunger and thirst for what is right" (Matt 5:6), and she would not be satisfied with any response save that which called for "her whole self." Beneath the external squalor and misery which so moved her, lay the spiritual dereliction which most touched her heart: that inner destitution and deprivation of those who would live and die, perhaps, without ever knowing God.21 Her desire to alleviate this greatest of misfortunes prompted Claudine to summon all her abilities and resources to seek means of revealing the Lord's name and love, and to restore structures that would heal the wounds inflicted by religious ignorance above all.22 The dimensions of her calling were taking shape more clearly – and more uncompromisingly.
It is important to notice that at this time, for Claudine and others like her, the experience of “Church” was not one of stability and security. On the contrary, to take the Church seriously meant danger, constant flux, lack of visible support, crises of conscience because of dubious leadership, and an overall sense of rootlessness with regard to ritual, structures and form.23 No institution level had avoided rupture or change, no group in the hierarchy or laity could lay claim to full knowledge of the “right way” to do things. Openness, flexibility, a readiness to adapt and change at a moment’s notice, were everyday demands on committed Christians. In order to face these demands, they clung to the security of the doctrine they had known and the support of others like themselves.
Although bloodshed ceased after 1794, a general atmosphere of fear and persecution still surrounded the Christian community. Because of the chronic shortage of priests resulting from the Terror, a system of "missions" had replaced the traditional parochial structures in the Lyon archdiocese. This too was the work of Father Linsolas, a project springing from his desire to care for Catholics still faithful to the Roman Church. Strong lay involvement carefully thought-out organization, great doctrinal strength, and a "unity of teaching, cult, and religious practice," characterized this Church of silence for almost a decade.24
Such was the setting for a more intensive and extensive apostolic involvement on Claudine's part. While remaining with her immediate family on rue Masson, she spent time, energy and her material resources on apostolic works, especially those which seemed particularly effective in repairing the ravages of the Revolution. These she used as graced circumstances, opportunities to make the Lord known and loved again. She also continued to work in the Society which Father Linsolas had inaugurated, engaging in an "underground" cult and service to victims of the disorders still rampant in the city.25
In 1801, Napoleon’s Concordat with the Church brought a temporary religious stabilization. Formal religious worship and structure were reintroduced as a practical means of securing social order among the masses once again. The parish of St. Bruno, into which the Thévenet family had moved in 1794, was officially re-opened in 1802, becoming the focal point of Claudine's apostolic orientation and activities.26 She remained active and fervent in her zeal, which was finding new outlets. Her name begins to appear on the parish register, as a witness to baptisms and weddings.27 In 1809, she is listed at the head of the first twelve members in the newly-formed parish Confraternity of the Sacred Heart.
This association had as its aim to promote spiritual growth of its members through acts of reparation and Eucharistic adoration.28 Claudine's apostolic concerns were thus integrated into her contemplation of the Heart of the Lord, in this time of unobtrusive yet fruitful activity within the parish. An interesting detail of this period is that there appear, on successive pages of the register mentioned above, the names of Claudine's mother, sister, aunts and friends. Her influence and power to attract were clearly growing.29 In 1811, and again in 1813, she was named as heir to the legacies of two aunts, who no doubt recognized that the funds would be used generously and well, on behalf of others.30
These events sketch only broadly the framework out of which Claudine emerges as a fully-formed apostolic woman, ready to use her abilities as a leader and organizer consistently and effectively, with genuine concern for others in order to reveal God's goodness. To the successive pastors of St. Bruno, she proved again and again an invaluable associate to the priesthood, in a ministry as diverse as the needs before them.31 From her loving knowledge of the Lord and her experience of a world and Church in turmoil and constant change, she had acquired that freedom of heart which never allowed any single structure or "program" to override the service which her people and her times demanded. She acted flexibly, with a singleness of purpose and simplicity of heart which relied on the Lord, and which proved ever ready to "let go" for the sake of God's glory and the service of those to whom she was sent, in his name.
Long years of service and experience in a variety of situations, compassion which had grown out of her own suffering, profound empathy for others, and a sustained hope expressed in her willingness to keep trying without ever losing heart: these gifts of the Lord in Claudine attracted others who shared her vision and desire. Between the lines of the scanty information which documents afford us about her during these years, we can appreciate that she had learned how difficult an apostolic task becomes when it must be faced and accomplished alone. The best support to faithfulness in ministry is the loving help of friends who share one's desires. Having offered her own person totally, in virginity, to alleviate "the greatest misfortune," she began to know the consoling power of a community that was expanding: "Together with many of her friends, she longed to relieve such great misfortune; she sought adequate means to free at least a few of these young people from ignorance and to form them for Christian living.”32 For Claudine, the power of universal loving began now to be experienced mutually.
A communitarian effort was more effective and more supportive than individual good works. At the same time, these young friends found in Claudine a leader and an inspiration: one whose age and experience, as well as knowledge of the parish, gave them a sense of direction in their new ministry.33
During the years of Napoleon's reign in France, Lyon was engaged in post-war struggles which brought it to the brink of further crises: in the winter of 1812-13, there was an economic recession, and famine threatened. Added to this was renewed panic created in 1813 by the invasion of France by foreign troops. Talk of another Army of resistance filled the air, alarming the citizens whose memories of the Terror were still vivid. As the city passed from the hands of the French to the Austrians twice during the years 1814-15, the Thévenet family along with others, took in some soldiers bringing the total number of people in the house on rue Masson to nineteen.
On March 16, 1815, Philibert Thévenet, the good and gentle father, died at the age of eighty. Once again, the now familiar rhythms of unrest, displacement, insecurity, and sorrow stirred in Claudine's soul. Remaining sensitive to her mother's need for her, despite the burdens of fatigue and anxiety, Claudine still turned in charity to others with an awareness and love-knowledge of the Lord whom she recognized in them. Her zeal and example now extended beyond the confines of her home and parish alone. Those strong and deep bonds of friendship, of mutual love for the Lord and a desire to heed the cry of his forsaken ones, had prepared the hearts of Claudine and her young companions to face a wider and more demanding apostolic horizon. Seven of them would pioneer the venture that came to be know as the Pious Association of the Sacred Heart. They were surely unaware that the longings to alleviate poverty and religious ignorance by means of this small undertaking would find an echo far into the future.
THE PIOUS ASSOCIATION OF THE SACRED HEART
Father André Coindre arrived as a curate at the parish of St. Bruno in 1815, when he was twenty-five years old. In November of that year, he found two abandoned children on the steps of the Church of St. Nizier. Inquiries as to a generous parishioner who might take them in led him naturally to Claudine, who found lodging and care for them. To provide for these children and others like them, to help meet the many pressing needs of the parish, Father Coindre suggested that Claudine and her companions establish an organization. Her response was the formation of an apostolic group whose breadth of vision was equal to his apostolic zeal. There came into being, on July 31, 1816, the Association of the Sacred Heart.
There is no doubt that the Association developed from the heart of Claudine, and was formed by her vision. "Since it concerned a feminine association, Father Coindre must have been happy to give over to the Servant of God the complete responsibility for the practical carrying through of the Association."34 The testimony of Pauline-Marie Jaricot, future foundress of the Propagation of the Faith, who became an associate in 1817, makes it clear that the Association was the work of Claudine.35 We are therefore able to read her heart and share her vision through two important documents of this group which have been preserved: the Rule of the Pious Association and the Minutes of its meetings. From these texts, we get a clearer picture of the life and activity of the associates. In the ideas and circumstances they portray, we gain insight into Claudine's endowment for mission. Because of the documentation available to us from this period, and the fact that her apostolic charism was operating with a freedom that would later necessarily be restricted, we can say that her existence as a missioned person is demon-strated best in the Pious Association. There is nothing so specific and proper to her concentrated existence as this. The Pious Association emerges as the concrete expression of Claudine's apostolic aspirations, bearing the unmistakable stamp of the call which had shaped her heart through the misery and deprivation all around her, and through the felt presence of the Lord within her.
What is demonstrated is a strong expression of apostolic hope, a hope that destruction can be coped with, and coped with out of weakness and deprivation. Coupled with this trust is a sureness of purpose in directing and organizing apostolic efforts, a sureness that reveals familiarity with the needs of others. Claudine saw with a clarity born of experience the difficulties that beset the apostle of her day: the total collapse of all structures that spoke of God and aided those striving to make him known; the anti-religious pressures that met all efforts with opposition or ridicule; the civil strife that undermined attempts to restore order, while it added to the misery of the poor and the helpless. These obstacles could be met only by those who had a supportive community: “When we go alone on a long and difficult journey, we soon grow tired and have only ordinary and commonplace means for our encouragement; but when on the contrary, several are together, they go along with assurance and courage and fresh support.”36
Thus, the most striking characteristic of the Pious Association is a consistent emphasis on the importance of mutual support. The associates were to seek the glory of God in mutual sanctification through the practice of the virtues and the exercise of the works of mercy. At no time should they cease to help one another, to advise and admonish one another; at all times they must be grateful for the support found in union. The mission was to grow, not through defined structures, but through the growth of those who were serving others and helping one another to be apostolic.
The Rule shows the influence of other apostolic groups of the time, including that of Father Linsolas, with whom Claudine had worked.37 The aim of the Association was “to honor the adorable Heart of Jesus.” The chief means to achieve this end were “the mutual sanctification of its members by the practice of Christian virtues and of the evangelical counsels; the exercise of charitable works toward the neighbor.”38 There is an immediate conjoining of sanctification and service, and the extraordinary stress on mutual sanctification appears in the second article of the Rule. “The charity which unites all associates shall lead them to help one another with advice, warn one another of their faults, and to maintain in the Congregation that spirit of union which reigned among the first Christians: one heart and one soul.”39
The assemblies of the Association, which were to be held “at least once a month and as often as the good of the Congregation requires it,”40 were specifically designed to promote a sharing among the members that would lead to encouragement and correction. The President herself (Claudine was always elected unanimously) was to be the first to relate how she had carried out the devotional practices, and to share her reflections on the subject proposed at the previous meeting; she then asked others to share their thoughts. The Rule is at pains to point out the spirit of these sharings:
They shall. speak without constraint, simply, humbly, more in simple, heartfelt terms than in a conceited searching after choice words; it is God's glory and one's mutual edification that are to be sought; a pretentious spirit is never a source of edification.41
This emphasis on mutual help is found both in the section on apostolic works, and in that on the devotional practices of the associates. In the latter, the Rule stipulates:
Each associate shall choose another to watch over her. Occasionally she shall ask her privately what fault she has noticed in her; and when she has received a warning from anyone, she shall express her gratitude to this associate and recite a Pater and an Ave for her. Your best friend is the one who warns you of your defects.42
Similarly, in speaking of the division of the associates into four groups for various apostolic works, provision is made for each group to come together about “every fortnight” for a short conference on their spiritual progress, the means of carrying out their apostolate, the obstacles met with and the good achieved.43 Even in the matter of admitting new associates, the deep degree of union desired in the Association is considered: “To be received, she must have unanimity of votes. Thus, the Society will be more stable and its members more united, since all know that their presence is not objected to by anyone.”44
From what is shown above, it is obvious that Claudine saw the loving union among the associates as the chief support of that union with Christ in his mission which alone would render apostolic service fruitful. Deprivation and misery might call forth the compassion of the apostle's heart, her experience of the Lord's consolation and presence might urge her to respond to their needs as he did, but she had need of her sisters in order to persevere in responding to this call "with assurance and courage and fresh support."
The concrete response of the Association to apostolic needs is clearly delineated in the Rule. Internally, a stable structure of government, consisting of a president and councilors, provided for division of duties, regular election, and possible growth.45 Candidates for membership were carefully screened, and were to be judged not only by their piety, but also for their apostolic potential:
A deep piety unaccompanied by any advantage for the various sections would not be sufficient. The persons admitted must first of all be very pious, but in addition they must possess a good spirit, a gentle and equable character, that is, not unsociable, and with pleasing manners likely to attract towards virtue.46
In the organization of the works of the Association, there were four sections, each with its own proper works, its own president and members, named by the President of the Association every three months.47 The section for Instruction had as its main purpose "the teaching of catechism, either to children being prepared for their first Holy Communion, or to adults who are ignorant, schismatic, heretical, or to unbelievers who are coming into the fold of the Church.48 Listed second, the section for Edification is described in terms which give a broad scope to its work. The young, it seeks to maintain in fervor and to guard from things injurious to their faith; the irreligious or mediocre, it attempts to lead back to strong faith and reception of the sacraments; the devout, it aims to inspire to greater apostolic activity.49
From 1818 onward, at the annual meetings held on July 31, when reports and evaluations of apostolic work are given, the primary task of this section is spoken of as being "the salvation of the neighbor." Those in the section for Consolation are charged with visiting “the suffering members of Jesus Christ, either in hospitals, prisons, or private houses,”50 comforting them, and exhorting them to the Christian dispositions of patience and contrition. The final work named, that of Almsgiving, is meant to “provide the same consolations to the poor and the sick assigned to its care,”51 as well as to solicit and distribute alms for individuals and institutions. Members of this section are also directed to help find work for the unemployed.
The Inner Dynamism of the Associates
If the organization of apostolic work reveals the practical wisdom gained by Claudine through years of experience, another section of the Rule, designed to form the attitudes of the associates in their apostolates, provides an insight into the way in which Claudine's own heart was shaped through her years of ministry. Those who give alms must pay “special attention to the weakest, the most shameful, and the most forsaken.”62 While they are warned to obtain accurate information about those whom they help, and to exercise caution, this must never become an overriding concern: “Nevertheless, because someone may have deceived them, it would be unjust to have an all-round prejudice; it is better to do good to several poor who do not deserve it than to refuse a single one who does.”63 What must be an overriding concern is that people be helped, not necessarily that the help be given by the Association: “When, for good reasons, they are unable to help or visit them, they shall direct them to other Congregations of good works.”64 In one passage, we can read Claudine's conviction, deepened through the years, that no one must live and die without knowing God: “Those who are selected for instructing shall consider themselves fortunate to have the opportunity of making Jesus Christ known and loved.”65 And, it is perhaps in the passages on how to make the Lord known that the nature of God's gifts to Claudine for mission stand best revealed:
They shall endeavor, very gently and patiently, to overcome the vulgarity and ignorance of their pupils, in order to imprint deeply into their souls the love of religion and the duties it prescribes.56
. . . while winning over respect, they shall enlist friendship and confidence. Gently they shall look into their way of seeing, in order to lead them toward good; they shall not discourage them by overloading them with moral instruction, but shall bring them to love virtue by their interesting conversations, their gentle manner and their courteous behavior; they shall not exact the same perfection from all; beginners would be alarmed at being told they must attain a particular goal57
. . . in all cases, let them speak of God joyously, with open hearts, and not for too long a time. Joyful virtue is cherished and easily leads others to God; an industrious charity will provide them with a thousand skillful ways of leading [others] to virtue.58
The picture drawn is that of an apostle patterned according to the image of Jesus, meek and humble of heart, the image presented to the associates as their model.59 Indeed, the Rule is careful to point out that they must never succumb to the subtle temptation that can ensnare those called to mission:
You shall be very careful not to think that you have more virtue than the other faithful who are not members of some society like yours. How many who know neither how to read, write or meditate and yet have much more charity and humility than you.*60
The apostle is always a servant: of those whom she serves, with their weakness as well as their potential for strength and beauty; of the circumstances and situations that may have brought misery and deprivation, and that must be accepted and molded to bring knowledge of God. In the last analysis, the apostle is the servant of the Father who sends her. Sent by him, formed in the likeness of his Son through the transforming power of his Spirit, she goes to others as his messenger. The felt reality of the nature of her mission impels her to go out to others, and compels her to serve them as her Master did. From the years of being formed by and for her mission, Claudine could speak with the assurance of a mature apostle who knows what the essence of her mission is, and the source of the power at work in her weakness: “. . .to change a heart is a sort of a miracle.”61
The history of the Pious Association, as recorded in its Minutes, shows an apostolic group distinctively marked by the communitarian spirituality expressed in its Rule, and following the apostolic direction given therein with confidence. The group develops, however, not in view of a predefined structure, nor of returning to any previously existing structures, but in view of the needs of the situation and the growth of its members. The mission is not static. It grows as the members grow, in serving one another and those to whom they are sent. The Association is dynamic, mobile, open-ended, circumscribed only by the limitations of the associates them-selves, the enormity of the task they encounter, and the weight of the pressures that oppose their mission.
A work that gradually came to absorb much of the attention of Association was that of the Providence. The purpose of such an establishment was to gather together poor children, orphans and non-orphans, give them a solid Christian formation, a rudimentary education, and a means of livelihood.62 The need for such care was even more urgent in the wake of the destruction left by the Revolution, with families often destroyed, and civil and ecclesiastical institutions in total disarray. The meeting between Father Coindre and Claudine had been occasioned by concern for abandoned children, and similar concern for the young is evidenced in the minutes of the Society's annual meetings, which always included a report of the Association's apostolic activities for the year. On July 31, 1817, the Section of Edification reported:
The Society also took charge of two young persons, absolutely forsaken.
For a month and more, we took care also of a girl who is in service, and with whom we are very well pleased.
Actually we are charged with a little girl whose mother begs.
Our Society sacrificed a great deal for a young girl of seventeen. We had placed and fed her during five or six months. . .
The Society furnished 20 fr. for a girl placed at St. Michel.
The Society has just taken under its care another young girl, totally friendless, who has no place to stay.63
The Minutes make it clear that the associates undertook to care for these persons, most often by placing them in homes or establishments, and paying for their room and board. With adults, there was concern that they have employment; with children, that they be taught a means of livelihood. With all, there were efforts to break down the hostility, indifference or ignorance toward God, and to lead them to a fuller Christian life.
Some of the persons helped responded with a change of heart, others remained closed to the spiritual counsel of the associates. The Minutes again record the following reflection on these latter:
If the .Society has made sacrifices for certain individuals, which do not appear to have advanced their eternal welfare, we can at least find consolation in the thought that the destitute we assisted would probably have died of cold or hunger, if we had not helped them. The experience of abandonment might have led them to the deepest despair.64
However, limited resources necessitated that choices be made in the use of time and of funds; and already, at the first annual meeting, the need was seen for laying down criteria for such choices. The president's report summarized the situation:
Considering that our financial means do not allow us to help all the poor, we give preference to those who seem more likely to respond to both spiritual and temporal aid, this being the main purpose of our Society.
Considering also that, among the various poor that we have assisted, the young have given us more satisfaction from a spiritual point of view, without our having undergone all the sacrifices made uselessly for the others, to help them improve their situations, I believe that we should devote ourselves especially to this work.*65
It was immediately after this meeting, having seen that “we experienced a great deal of difficulty in helping each one individually and being unable to supervise their conduct as we saw fit,” that the associates rented a place to serve as a Providence for girls. The annual report of 1818 recounts the origins and purpose of this Providence. At first, the house merely served as overnight lodging for the children, while the associates, none of whom was free to take on this task, looked for someone to live there, to “teach them religion, mould their hearts in terms of virtue,” as well as to direct their work. In September, they made an agreement with the Sisters of St. Joseph, who sent two of their religious to take on the work; by the following July, the number of children had grown from seven to thirty.
The Association poured a large part of its financial resources into the Providence, and established a Bureau – a governing board – from among the associates, who were charged with its supervision. Each year, the report mentions the children of the Providence, their development in piety, the type of training they are receiving, the dedication of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who by 1825 were seven in number.
It would seem, from the evidence of the Minutes, that Father Coindre was very much in favor of the work of the Providence, and urged the associates to undertake it. It was “especially on the Director's advice,”66 that preference was given to the young, and we know, from the annual report of the year 1818, that a place was rented in the Carthusian Cloister on the following day. There were pressing financial difficulties at the start, but the Minutes record that the associates were “urged on and encouraged by the remarks and counsels of our Director.”67 Father Coindre himself was working for the establishment of a similar Providence for boys.
In the activities and reflections recorded in the Minutes, the primary apostolic concerns of the associates are clearly seen. Wherever they meet ignorance, they try to impart knowledge. Thus, catechism classes are given in hospital wards, as well as in parishes and in the Providence:
During this year, with the exception of two months, only two catechism classes have been organized in the women's ward, one for the little girls, the other for the adults.68
Where they meet poverty, they seek to alleviate it:
. . . we have noticed that we would accomplish more for souls if we could offer some temporal relief... it is necessary to find employment for those seeking it; though they have had a good start, if they are left without resources, we have lost our time.69
Their activity is directed primarily, if not exclusively, to the poor, those most victimized by disease and ignorance, 70 who are most in need, because they are seen as the favored of the Lord, and in a real and unique way, as the image of his presence on earth.
They will speak very often of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, of his lowliness and his love, striving above all to make them understand that he wants to resemble the poor and that he chooses them to adore him before all others in his manger.*71
This vision led to a type of apostolic presence specific to the associates, one that led them to approach people with great reverence and respect for their human dignity and freedom. This exquisite sense of ministerial presence is illustrated in one of the reports of the Section of Consolation:
. . . we have noticed that, in order to do good, we must of all necessity forget ourselves, simply seek God's glory, speak with zeal, ardor, charity, show love and compassion toward the sick, listen to them with patience, accept their rebuffs without repelling them, inquire with interest about their work, their family life, . . . so that once their confidence has been won, they may experience consolation more deeply.72
The source that nourished and sustained this patient zeal is to be found in those gatherings of the associates where they shared “reflections on pious subjects,” “speaking without constraint, simply humbly, . . . in simple, heartfelt terms. . .,”73 At each meeting, the associates were to discuss their activities, as well as share in the manner just described. Such was the apostolic orientation of the group, the mutual sanctification through practice of the virtues spoken of in the Rule.
Humility in practice was the virtue spoken about at the very first meeting, and the associates discussed “placing oneself interiorly below all those around us. . . ,"74 What is important about the considerations of humility and other virtues and practices is that all are seen in the context of the apostolate: that is, they are for the sake of the mission, and the mission takes its form from this spirit which shapes it. “one who is humble is loved by all,” and thus reaches people; meekness “succeeds in touching and bringing back hearts;” through modesty we can “lead to good by our very presence.”75 Sanctification is for service and service leads to sanctification. Beneath the insistence on gentleness and kindness in approaching people, there burns an ardent zeal that demands mortification and detachment:
Beyond all else, the will must be mortified and this type of mortification is that which pleases God most.76
There was also a lengthy discussion on the freedom of spirit that persons striving to live a deep Christian life should endeavor to acquire, in order that virtue and religion be made attractive to outsiders. . . the great secret for having liberty of spirit is to be detached from everything.77
The apostolic influence of the Jesuit Constitutions, of the lay Jesuit sodality known in France as La Congregation, and the spirit of St. Ignatius himself can be drawn from the fact that he is one of the major patrons of the Association. Even more is it evident in the all pervasive apostolic thrust, the flexible openness to varying needs in every aspect of the Associates' self- understanding: "... our ministry is to teach, to bring back, to edify, to console and to grant all the spiritual and temporal help exacted by charity.”78 Further, the Ignatian influence is readily apparent in certain passages that recall his Spiritual Exercises:
"It was stated that, to facilitate the practice of virtues, endurance in suffering, constancy in sorrow, this divine Savior willed to be our model, to experience himself all kinds of trials, to take on our nature, to place himself in the most painful circumstances, that we might be encouraged by his example. . . Jesus Christ willed to ennoble the meanest of our actions, the lowest by their very nature: he practices them that he may glorify poverty, humility, those things which the world repudiates; he practiced them that we might glory in them.79
The preoccupation of the associates with their mutual sanctification and their insistence on its importance reflects the Ignatian principle that those who form others must themselves first be formed in the Lord's likeness. This belief was at the heart of the zeal which impelled them to reach out to others, and of the loving respect which saw the Lord in those they served.
Over and over again, there can be seen in the Minutes the conviction that such a belief cannot be lived and sustained without mutual support and help. Sometimes it is seen in expressions of gratitude for belonging to the Association:
We must remember how blessed we are to be part of a Society where we share everything, and where there exists such powerful support for a deep and joyful Christian life.80
. . . what a privilege to have been called to an Association. . . where everyone can vivify her fervor, where the examples of virtue give her strength and courage to undertake good with ardor and to carry it out, however difficult it may appear…81
When the Minutes record complaints of laxity that has crept into the Association, it is failure in the practice of mutual sharing and correction that is emphatically noted:
There are several practices eagerly requested and which have been almost forgotten; for instance, the accusation of one's faults, mutual correction and asking one's companions to mention them on reunion days.82
. . . the reason for this dwindling (of fervor) stems. . . finally, from the little care we take" to warn each other of our defects.83
Built into the fabric of the Association, and forming part of its essential nature, was this conscious inter-dependence of the associates. They accepted responsibility for one another, as well as for those whom they served; they were to form and be formed by both. To withdraw either element – mutual sanctification or service – would be to distort the nature of the Association and the vocation of one called to be part of it.
Union must prevail, among ourselves, with those to whom our zeal reaches, and with God. It is the bond of the first two without which the third could not exist. Our mutual union is that spirit of love which must bind us in one heart and one soul. Jesus Christ is the life and bond of this spirit. Union with those who are the object of our zeal: we must treat them and speak to them in meekness and peace. This is what attracts, touches and wins them all over to Jesus Christ. Lastly, union with God: by sanctifying grace, by the contacts we make with God in drawing near to him through love and hope. If we strengthen our hearts by these three kinds of union, we will assure our salvation, contribute to that of others, and work successfully for God's glory.84
This, then, is the apostolic community which Claudine formed, and in which she continued as President, even after the Congregation was begun.
Claudine was very much a member, as well as animator, of the Association. She herself continued visiting the poor, instructing working girls, persuading the poor to send children to school and carrying out other works of mercy.85 She worked with the associates as one of them. Even as she used her experience of ministry to direct others in service, she remained a co-worker.
However, she also filled the role of spiritual leader, as this was laid down in the Rule. Her position was very much one of exhorting, encouraging, admonishing, instructing. Since each section had a president, who might call her own group together to discuss and arrange the work being done, these details of administration were not her responsibility. The President was called upon to animate the meetings, reporting on the practices proposed, speaking on a spiritual topic, leading the associates in discussion. The Rule placed upon her a special obligation to maintain the spirit of the society: She was to explain this spirit to those who were newly received, and it was her special task to console any associate who was in trouble or sorrow.86
Each annual meeting contains a discussion of the practices adopted that year, and the fruit derived from them. Her remarks at these sessions reveal something of Claudine's conception of the role of a spiritual leader.
A realization of the essential mystery of growth in Christ:
God alone can be the judge of this, who searches man’s heart…to Him alone it behooves to penetrate the secrets of souls.87
A love for her community and its spirit:
. . . let us ask for an interior spirit and an ardent zeal in the practices of our society. Unless each of us supports it as well as she can, instead of expanding, it will fall altogether. . .88
A readiness to encourage:
. . . if I may be allowed to say so, it seems to me that fervor has revived, that a greater exactitude has been shown in the observance of the Rule of our Society and, finally, that we have worked more zealously at what pertains to God's glory, the good of the Society and the salvation of others.89
A willingness to rebuke:
We can all admit to our shame that we derived meager results, owing to the weak desire and the lack of eagerness in asking for practices of humility…90
Finally, as she encourages her sisters to greater zeal, to humility, to gratitude for their calling, Claudine returns to the need which each has of the other:
We are so weak, so little inclined towards mortification, that if we do not encourage one another by a holy emulation, as our rule states, we soon fall into laxity.91
Every apostle must have a personal vision of the Lord that touches her, moves her heart, impels her to carry out his mission in her world. With Claudine, we can read that vision in the apostolic choices that led her to the poor, the most forsaken, and most wretched. Further, her own attitude and that in which she formed her community – always one of respect, sensitivity, patience – are shaped according to the image of Jesus, meek and humble of heart, whose words, "Learn of me . . . " she took for the motto of the society. Again, all those in the community she forms must share their burdens with one another "in a simple, heartfelt way"; in the sharing, the burdens will become light enough to bear.
The topics Claudine proposed at each meeting fill out the image of the Christ she saw as her own model and that of the associates: humility, meekness, zeal, submission to God's will, detachment, mortification. The nearer we approach to the suffering and humble Christ, the nearer we approach the heart of Claudine. For the nineteenth-century Christian, there was a real sense of union with Christ suffering and dying, a union that gave life and strength. We read that in meditating on the Passion of Christ, one 'finds a host of good feelings: compassion, contrition, thanksgiving, confidence, encouragement, strength, patience.”92 Here is the consolation in which the apostle experiences the love of Christ which urges Claudine on. This is the image in which she is forming her companions when she exhorts them to submission to God's will, humility, meekness: "He practices them that He may glorify poverty, humility. . . that we might be encouraged by His example.”93
The ultimate source of her enrichment, then, was the Lord who revealed himself to her as One whose heart had so loved us, and had spared nothing. She saw Jesus in the misery of those around her, and she saw no way of responding except by allowing herself and her companions to be formed by the Spirit in the image of Christ's heart. Because it was enrichment for mission, her enrichment could only lead her into the mystery of that self emptying through which Christ himself had brought redemption to all people.
THE EARLY CONGREGATION
In her work with the Pious Association, Claudine had experienced the joy of helping to create and foster a dynamic apostolic community. Yet, by 1818, she had begun to sense the Lord's call to a more total assimilation to himself, which would, in effect, separate her from the community she had formed. As in the past, she heard the cry of the poor around her. Her response echoed the needs and aspirations of those to whom she was sent, the companions who shared her mission, and the director to whom she looked for guidance.
On the afternoon of July 31, 1818, Father Coindre held a meeting of seven of the Pious Association members, along with five close friends of Claudine.94 His intention was that they should seriously consider forming themselves into a religious society, with Claudine as the foundress. Even before this meeting, some of the associates had confessed their need to make a more radical commitment to the Lord, who, they felt, was calling them to devote the whole of their lives to his service.
Practical Apostolic Needs
When the Association had established its own Providence in 1817, a problem arose: who among the associates were free to dedicate themselves to this work on a full-time basis? Since none of the members was able to do so, they were forced to look for others properly qualified "to instruct the children, to lead them towards purity of heart, to eradicate the evil tendencies which their lack of upbringing had left to develop. If only one of us had been able to give herself to this work. It was not possible, however, at this time; so, with the general consent of us all, we hired two Sisters of St. Joseph. . . ,”95 Such instances as this underlined the need for a more total commitment in order to insure the continuation of their apostolic task. Although religious life in the canonical sense would entail positive restrictions, their apostolic availability, at least, would give permanence and security to the more institutional aspects of their mission. Moreover, the generally positive attitude of the restored monarchy towards religious communities dedicated to useful and practical services, such as education of the poor, provided further assurance for continuity of mission, and support to a longing for more total contemplative union on the part of some of the associates.
Fulfillment of Spiritual Aspirations
The Minutes of the meeting of July 31, 1818, affirm Claudine felt to be a fundamental weakness of the Pious Association: the immense difficulty of forming totally-committed apostles without the helps which canonical religious life could afford:
It seems to me that our apostolic zeal has diminished during the year. Practices once taken as essential have been almost entirely abandoned; for instance, the revision of life through the mutual offering of spiritual alms on our days of recollection.... If religious houses depend for their survival on a faithful observance of their rule... in order to preserve the spirit of their state in life and the Spirit of the Lord as well... how much more do we need, in order to be faithful to our commitments, to be more assiduous in our prayer, more zealous in our works, lest we lose the awareness of God's presence...96
Claudine's long experience of union with the Lord in mission only served to confirm her in the conviction that the apostle must die totally to self in order to be alive in him. She was constantly aware of this need for spiritual transformation and apostolic growth, and perhaps never more so than on the day of this momentous meeting.
The urgent call to a more total consecration, the feeling that a stable institution would answer apostolic urgencies more effectively, the need of the associates for a consistency of support and communion which seemed impossible in the context of a partial commitment: all this combined to persuade Claudine toward the one solution open to women of her time – canonical religious life. Indeed, she must have seen her foundation as an opportunity to live out more fully the Rule and spirit of the Pious Association, which animated the infant Congregation from its inception: “Since October 2, the five who made up the little community, followed the Rule of the Association as far as circumstances permitted, with a greater spirit of perfection, which the President tried to manifest in her own life and to communicate to others.”97 In taking such a step, however, Claudine realized fully what the personal cost would be, and this, precisely in terms of apostolic fulfillment.
The Apostolic "Night of the Faculties"
Father Coindre had revealed his plans for what he hoped develop into a three-tiered Congregation – priests, Brothers and sisters who would share the same rule of life and devote themselves to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in and around the diocese of Lyons.98 Claudine alone was spiritually and apostolically mature enough to assume the responsibility of founding a new religious community. Yet, because of the very quality of her response, and of its maturing freedom during twenty-five years of apostolic life, she felt herself being led by the Lord into what seemed a totally unforeseen experience of impoverishment and darkness.
The night at Pierres-Plantées is a crystallization for us of her inner struggle and tension, the agony and loneliness she underwent, the feelings of futility and senselessness attendant upon her decision to begin this new venture. The Pious Association had developed from her heart and had been formed by her vision. Though she would continue to be its animator and inspiration until 1825, she knew that she could not sustain it indefinitely. It had been a source of so much support and an effective means to reach those who hungered for God. She had, however, accepted the practical impossibility of achieving and maintaining the level of spiritual detachment which she saw to be necessary for apostolic maturity. With characteristic realism, she admitted her own failure in forming totally committed apostles in the context of the Association, as pointing the way to the foundation of a religious congregation.99
Seven associates had heard the declaration of Father Coindre on the afternoon of July 31st. As the time drew near to break with the past, with family, and with so much she had known, however, Claudine found herself alone, in her own Gethsemane. Until the end of her life, she would recall that "worst night" of October 6, 1818, when, in solitude, total darkness, and from the depths of her poverty, she accepted to be the foundress of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary:
"I felt that I had undertaken a foolish and hazardous enterprise, which held no guarantee of success. On the contrary, it seemed destined to come to naught.”100
Her apostolic endowment now seemed to shrink in upon itself and her inspiration to wither. She could not see clearly the path which lay before her, as she left behind the Association which had been so dear and which had grown out of her apostolic longing. Yet she found certainty in her undaunted hope of being united, through this pain, with Christ crucified, for the sake of his Church which she loved.
The Young Congregation
So it was that Claudine's charism for apostolic service found new expression within a framework which, though it circumscribed her zeal in terms of mobility and flexibility, opened for her new possibilities in the formation of her companions. She began to see that the congregation could provide assurance of membership, and promise of expansion and continuity, while lending a special support to the Pious Association and its works.101 Since the apostolic religious woman of the nineteenth century was limited by the constriction and rules of the cloister, the works of mercy were exercised by taking in those in need, to Providences or boarding schools or hospitals, rather than by going out to the poor where they were to be found. Thus, Claudine and her first sisters sought to express their developing understanding of mutual sanctification for service in different terms.
The rule of life so familiar and helpful to the Associates of the Sacred Heart remained the basic inspiration in laying down a sound basis for the religious formation of the new community. The Rule of the Association and its spirit were observed as faithfully as possible,102 while the Rule of St. Augustine and the Summary of the Constitutions of St. Ignatius were adopted as the two basic documents for developing formation in the virtues proper to consecrated life.103
In addition to the Salesian Rule of Augustine and the Summary of the Jesuit Constitutions, a skeleton Rule was drawn up sometime in 1821. This document, discovered in the General Archives of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, was written by Father Coindre apparently to serve as a common basis for each section of the threefold congregation which he had designed: for the priests and Brothers, as well as for the sisters.l04 More a collection of maxims and observations than a "rule" in the strict sense, it treats chiefly of the virtues and behavior proper to religious life of early nineteenth- century France. As we have seen, while the regulations for the associates are remarkable for their stress on an integrated apostolic spirituality, with clear ends and means expressed in evangelical terms of joy, liberty, charity, simplicity, and mutual edification, the main emphasis of the Rule of 1821 is on the self-effacement and fuga mundi [flight from the world] belonging to a more monastic setting, which was the norm for all women religious of the time. Claudine accepted this for the novitiate situation of her young community – as a means through which the Lord was to shape her companions for a more complete apostolic service.l05 It is evident that these norms of 1821 were never meant to be definitive or comprehensive. In fact, some sections, such as that on prayer, were left incomplete.l06 A letter of Father Coindre, dated February 25, 1826, mentions the need for time and experience before giving definite form to religious rules.107 There are, however, several points in this first expression of the life-style of the Congregation which show a continuity of spirit with the Pious Association:
- A strong development of zeal, characteristic of the Heart of Christ and his apostles, which unites the sisters with the Lord's mission of teaching and healing;108
- A manifestation of mutual support and a spirituality of concern demonstrated by acceptance of self and others, submission to religious superiors, spiritual sharing, and even social courtesies;109
- A longing to 'put on the Lord Jesus Christ," by learning to be meek and lowly of heart with him (Matt. 11:25-29), and by continual self-emptying for the sake of the kingdom.110
Perhaps the most unique and striking characteristic of this "First Rule" for Claudine's young community is contained in the vow of "stability," which expresses in precise terms her cherished aspirations for the fulfillment of her own inspiration and gift for mission: total openness to the call of the Lord through the need of the neighbor, and total availability for service to that need. Since the Brothers of the Sacred Heart had no such vow in their tradition, we can assume this was particular to Claudine's congregation and was her own suggestion. What "stability" meant was being deeply rooted in Christ, totally assimilated to him as the One sent by the Father, a union and communion in liberty of heart:
Those who are called to the vow of stability should be especially characterized by this spirit (of indifference), since they are a kind of vanguard in the congregation, ever ready to leave all behind and to go at a moment's notice wherever the will of God and his glory calls them.111
The obvious reflection of the Ignatian apostolic spirit is evident in this terse yet powerful challenge to those among the first religious who would, like their foundress, have been progressively called by the Lord to complete freedom in loving service: sanctification for service, and service leading to deeper union with Christ and each other.
Apostolic Work 1820 -1826
The apostolic situation of the early years was varied and demanding, especially for Claudine, who carried the responsibility for the Pious Association, as well as the new Congregation. The former group, feeling the absence of a "fulltime" president, was reorganized in May of 1821, at the suggestion of Father Coindre, who at this period was frequently absent from the meetings, because of preaching commitments and other travels. Uniting the Pious Association with the "Ladies of Fourvière" would be good for “mutual support.”112 Claudine became president-for-life at this meeting, and was also asked to be the leader of all sections. While she was seeking local ecclesiastical approval for her institute as well as caring for the Providence at St. Bruno and inaugurating a new Providence in the newly acquired property of Fourvière (1820). Her sisters took on the task of educating girls of the upper class in boarding schools at Fourvière and Belleville. In 1821-22, Claudine received twenty-two postulants in the community and directed the formation of her sisters.
There was no bishop appointed for Lyon in these first years of the Congregation, and the vicars-general refused to give approbation to the group.l13 Father Coindre thought that approval would come more quickly from the diocese of Le Puy, where he was superior of his group of missionaries and enjoyed episcopal support. Having sent three or four sisters to Monistrol in the autumn of 1822 to begin a short-lived apostolate there, Claudine received the diocesan approbation of her institute and the invitation to have a formal profession ceremony the following February. She was forty-nine years old, when with her four companions, she proclaimed the public vows she had so long lived out in her heart. On the next day, February 25, 1823, she was unanimously elected superior general by the first Chapter of the institute. Desiring the final seal of approval from Rome, Claudine knew she needed to seek further approbation from Lyon, which was obtained in July of 1825.
Into the "Night of God"
The gifts of sensitivity, courage, strength, discernment, and spiritual leadership which had been manifest in the developing years of Claudine's apostolic vocation, were now focused upon her growing congregation, to which she gave all the energy and love of her last years. She formed her sisters as she had the associates: to seek and find the Lord in all and through all, especially in his suffering humanity and the desire of his Heart to bring all the knowledge of the Father. With characteristic faith, freedom and insight, she knew that the unwritten law which the Spirit writes upon our hearts is the most efficacious power to bring the community to holiness in service. Her fervent hope throughout the years in which she governed the Congregation was that the inner power of her own apostolic existence, the love of Christ, would continue to animate her followers.
The last ten years from 1826 to her death brought a series of reverses and obstacles: financial difficulties, struggles with the hierarchy, the socio-political atmosphere that would erupt into another Revolution in 1830. Father Coindre's tragic death in 1826 left her alone to finish the work on the draft of the Constitutions. She realized that Roman approbation was essential if her congregation was to fulfill the potential of its charism: to be at the service of the whole Church. In 1826, she suffered the defection of one of her early companions and a general councillor, M. St-Pierre. An epidemic in 1828 brought death to two of her finest young sisters, and to several children in the Providence.
In the 1830's, attempts on the part of well-meaning clergy and even some of her sisters, to fuse her congregation with that of similar name and apostolic aim, threatened the distinct nature of her charism and of the Institute.114 The horrible and tragic death of her closest companion, M. Borgia Ferrand, in 1835, was yet another deep impoverishment. Illness in Claudine's family, the uprisings of revolutionaries in 1830 and 1834, tested to the depths the fullness of her trust in the power of Christ who lived in her (Gal. 2:20), her one support in the midst of inadequacy and weakness. Claudine's failing health and the trials of the last decade of her life did not deter her from desires to see the Congregation fully approved by the Holy See.
In 1836, François-Xavier Pousset was assigned to Fourvière as its chaplain. Because of his experience and skills, it was hoped he could help Claudine with the final drafting of her constitutions. For most of its history, the Congregation preserved a commonly-held tradition that at the profession ceremony on October 6, 1836, the eighteenth anniversary of the founding of the Institute, Father Pousset crossed out references to the Ignatian spirit and Summary of the vow formula, touching the essential "mission" nature of commitment in the Congregation.115 While the documents do not give evidence of such tampering, Claudine's struggle to preserve the original apostolic vision of the institute was very real. The early Constitutions reveal the influence of Father Pousset, who wanted to lay stress on monastic structures for the congregations, such as the sung Office. Whatever the dimensions of these painful differences of opinion, Claudine might well have perceived them as a blotting out of her apostolic vision; as a final crushing blow to the primitive spirit she had struggled to maintain, almost entirely single-handed. Perhaps it might even signal the annihilation of the congregation that she loved, and was now being called to abandon into the Lord's hands. It was the darkness of God, and she continued to surrender herself to that darkness. And she held strong her trust that this last "Into your hands, Lord." would mysteriously bring fuller life to the Religious of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
To submit to being emptied out yet again, even at the very last, until her integrity as a leader and her whole spiritual pilgrimage were called into question,116 was indeed to recognize her Lord, poor and humble of heart, in passion and death, at the core of her apostolic life. In Claudine's final hour, her unshakable fidelity through this last experience of impoverishment, freed her to pierce Christ's mystery and mission and to know the peace of those who have held nothing back. Her lifetime of forgiveness and compassion fused together in a cry of joy for Christ's giving: "How good God is!" In that cry, can we not hear the victory-song of one who has traveled the path of pardon, even to forgiving herself and her God, and who calls her sisters to reveal that gift to the world?