holiest works for the sanctification of the soul
The Society of Jesus Crowned with Thorns
excerpts from the book 'Le Père Emmanuel'
by Dom Bernard Maréchaux
English translation by John R. Symons
There was, let us repeat it, a profound unity in the life of Father Emmanuel. The care of his periodical, the Bulletin, would never distract him from the care of his parish. What he taught in the Bulletin was the same as he preached in the parish, La Sainte-Espérance: the parish set all his writings and all his preaching aglow.
Now for him, as we have seen, la Sainte-Espérance was complete Christianity. Christianity is only steady and solid insofar as it is complete; and it is complete only if, penetrating first the interior of man and renewing him in the image of Jesus Christ, it comes to regulate the exterior -- acts, words, attitude -- according to this same image. It does not suffice, the Apostle tells us, to believe in the heart; if one wants to be saved, it is necessary also to confess with the mouth; and this exterior confession of faith must extend to every gesture, every movement, every habit and relation of the Christian.
It is in starting from this conception of Christian life that Father Emmanuel came to understand the practical importance of modesty in women. A vain woman belies the promises of her Baptism; a woman who seeks to draw men’s looks to herself shows by that that she has no care to please Jesus Christ. This truth was borne in upon Father Emmanuel’s spirit, as will be seen in what follows.
Living in the midst of a population which he had made profoundly Christian, God knows at the cost of what labor, a population which was generally poor, and which as a consequence preserved as completely natural the old-fashioned and very simple manner of dress, he had not had occasion to express an opinion on the question of modesty. But during the period 1867-1868, there occurred an incident which could have had the most unfortunate of consequences.
Two young persons from the town had been sent off to a boarding school in Troyes. They returned from the city bringing with them the latest fashions -- hats not in use in the town, luxury of dress which contrasted with the general appearance there. Father did not at first comprehend the danger; he continued to admit these persons to weekly Communion, without giving them any warning; but he was not long in noticing that this fashionable attire constituted a temptation to vanity for the young girls of the parish and a lure to sin for the young men. No evil had occurred, but the peril was blatant.
His resolution was soon made. In 1868, he gave several forceful sermons on Christian modesty, and brought to the forefront the apostolic texts of Saint Peter and Saint Paul which map out the rules. “Wives,” said Saint Peter, “whose adorning let it not be the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel: But the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and a meek spirit, which is rich in the sight of God” (1. Pet. 3:1-4). -- “In like manner women also in decent apparel: adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety, not with plaited hair or gold, or pearls, or costly attire, but as it becometh women professing godliness, with good works” (1 Tim 2:9-10). -- “But every woman praying or prophesying with her head not covered, disgraceth her head” (1 Cor. 11:5). It appeared to Father Emmanuel that these teachings implied an explicit precept, and that no one could escape from observing them without failing to observe the duty of Christian obedience.
The sermons that he delivered on this theme struck home. The movement, which had been able to sweep feminine youth outside the paths of traditional modesty, was halted. There had been a considerable struggle; but grace triumphed completely.
However, at the feast of Notre-Dame de la Sainte-Espérance in 1869, several devout ladies arrived on pilgrimage dressed in attire that was far too worldly. Father believed he must give a sermon on modesty in order to preserve the parish from contagion by example. He took up his subject from a high perspective. He established that by Holy Communion, Our Lord seizes our entire being in such a way that the soul lives in him obedient through humility, and the body itself is subjugated through restraint and modesty. Whence it follows that a person communicating must contrast sharply, even on the outside, with a person not communicating. In a word, modesty for a woman is the sign that Jesus Christ resides in her heart; she is the fragrance of enlightenment, which she is called to spread about her. This sermon was very beautiful, calmly paced and restrained in emotion. Only one stroke contained a barb: Father said that there is a kinship between luxury and lust.
Nevertheless these words displeased those persons who had reason to apply them to themselves. There were murmurs and protests, but this hubbub passed quickly. In the following years, worldly display did not reappear. It is said that one lady sent her headdress to Mesnil-Saint-Loup before going there herself on pilgrimage, so as to ensure that it fell within the accepted norm. There was perhaps a small irony in her action; or rather, it was a way of laying down one’s arms. Father had won the battle.
After 1870 there emerged an outbreak of vanity among some girls. We have recounted above how Father quelled it, on the evening of the novena of Sainte-Espérance. His own tears elicited tears of remorse, and the whole matter was ended for the time being.
But the Devil never sleeps, and likewise vanity is always more or less on the alert in feminine minds. How ingenious it is to make its appearance by means of innumerable inventions, most of them ridiculous! It is an insensible process of germination, but constant. Pull out the roots; for if you are content to remove the sprouts one by one, you will never finish.
In order to fix souls in the enlightened and firm practice of Christian modesty, Father Emmanuel, after having prayed and reflected a great deal, and genuinely inspired from above, conceived the plan of an association which would join together persons who were steadfastly modest, under the name of Society of Jesus Crowned with Thorns.
Here was a holy inspiration! Make of modesty a practice of love toward Jesus suffering and dying for us; fix the interior eyes of souls on the spectacle of His head swollen and bloody under the thorns that pierced it; in this way bring Christian women to be ashamed to deliver their own heads to foolish vanities. This conception is in every way admirable and moving. Is it new in the Church? Assuredly not. Without mentioning the pleas of the Fathers to Christian women to preserve a strict modesty, we still hear Saint Bernardin expressly recalling to them the thorns which rent the brow and the temples of the Savior. And nevertheless it appeared new in the sense that it was the updating in an original and striking form of a traditional teaching too often forgotten.
The plan of the new society was presented to Bishop Cortet. The truly pastoral soul of the prelate was open to such initiatives; he understood and relished them. He received this one of Father Emmanuel’s favorably. On March 18, 1878, he approved the statutes of the Society of Jesus Crowned with Thorns, and accorded indulgences to the members, especially when they assisted at Holy Mass on Friday and prayed for each other’s spiritual advancement.
Let us give an idea of these statutes. Father Emmanuel assigns to the Society the purpose of rendering its members “faithful to the graces of their Baptism, their Confirmation, and their First Communion.” He indicates two proper means for attaining this end: “the union of souls in charity, and the practice of modesty in dress.” The Society has dignitaries -- a president, two vice presidents or champions, and a secretary -- who make up the committee and decide upon, with the approval of the priest-director, the admission of new members. They hold office for three years. The meetings of the Society take place every three months. As one can see from this account, Father Emmanuel seizes upon modesty as a means to stir up charity in souls, to make them more attentive to the fulfillment of obligations entered into at Holy Baptism. At every opportunity he would bring exterior practices back into the light of the great principles. His works of zeal always bore a doctrinal character.
At the first meeting of the Society, writes Father Emmanuel, with common accord we agreed to maintain a modesty of dress so that the poor would have no occasion to envy the rich, and the rich to despise the poor; we recognized that this was necessary to fulfill the commandment of Our Lord: Love one another.
The joy of souls, unable to contain itself, was expressed first in tears, and, a little afterward, in the form indicated by Saint Paul, when he said: Salute one another with an holy kiss. One of the members spontaneously proposed that they all kiss each other as the first Christians had done. No sooner was this said than each one kissed her neighbor to the right and to the left.
It was a day of happiness at no cost to anyone; for it was drawn from the treasure of God, one of the graces merited by Jesus crowned with thorns.
Such was the truly charming inauguration of the Society for the conservation of modesty. The fruits corresponded to this happy debut; one would not know how to tell all the good it accomplished, then and later on. We do not hesitate to affirm that it preserved the parish of Mesnil-Saint-Loup from the general decadence which was causing Christian practices everywhere to weaken.
The good will of the members was immense, their spontaneous and joyful obedience to the least indications of Father extraordinary. Let us introduce a few details supplied to us by contemporaries. The bonnets of the time were fastened under the chin with colored ribbons; Father said one word and the ribbons disappeared. The bonnets were turned up in the front with ruches; Father asked why, having the head veiled, the bonnets had the appearance of turning the veil up; and that was enough, the bonnets were immediately returned to the maker, stripped of their ruches, and reconstructed along modest lines. And that was done, so to speak, in the wink of an eye, with a touching unanimity, without there having been any formal command from Father. In the same way he showed, without absolutely proscribing the black bonnet, a preference for the white bonnet, founded on reasons which were not attributable solely to color. Afterward one saw only white bonnets, the celebrated “little white bonnets,” which became, for twenty leagues round about, the term of description for women and girls of la Sainte-Espérance.
But let us listen to Father Emmanuel himself on the good produced by the humble Society: it had to have been that this good was both great and manifest, in order that, in the joy of his soul, he should confide it to His Excellency the Bishop in the terms we are about to read.
According to the statutes of the Society of Jesus Crowned with Thorns, an account of the condition of the Society is to be submitted to you each year.
I am going to attempt to fulfill this obligation.
Begun on March 25, 1878, the Society, after a year of existence, numbers 80 members, of which 34 are women and 46 are girls. Nine of these girls have not yet made their First Communion.
The number of members in itself would be of little significance, if one did not have to record as well that these persons are animated with a true desire to please God, to serve Our Lord, and to love each other, according to His commandment.
In this way they have abandoned those small stirrings of vanity that tend to overcome us, and they are greatly cheered by that and are feeling very much at ease not having to occupy themselves any longer with trifles which threaten to become the earnest occupation of their souls.
Even persons who remained strangers to the Society have felt its effects; for today, little by little, they have been brought to abandon eccentricities of dress and to clothe themselves with an edifying simplicity.
In view of these results, at our last meeting (last Tuesday) we thanked God with one voice, Who is the Author of all good things, and thanked also Your Excellency, who approved and blessed the little Society.
All the members ask Your Excellency to pray for them, so that the Society will grow and produce still greater fruits.
Happy to have had the duty to render this account to Your Excellency, I too beseech you to bless our little Society.
Be so good as to accept, Your Excellency …
Fr. Emmanuel ...
Mesnil-Saint-Loup, March 27, 1879
In the margin of this letter, Bishop Cortet writes:
I am happy with the progress of the Society and the results obtained.
I bless with all my heart the members of the Society and I commend myself to your prayers.
March 28, 1879 -- + Peter, Bishop of Troyes
Let us gather together some of Father Emmanuel’s views on this blessed Society, some of the teachings which he gave to them.
For him, the practice of modesty consisted principally in two points: to have the head covered, and to wear a cape or an overcoat which modestly conceals the forms of the body. The prescription of Saint Paul to women to veil their heads concerns principally the times when they are in church; but if one weighs the reasons with which he supports it, one must recognize that it has a general application. As to what concerns the concealment of the forms of the body, it is implied in the use of the veil, which in the time of the ancients, enveloped the entire person in its long folds; besides, one would have to be blind not to realize that garments clasped narrowly at the waist, constructed so as to set the forms off to advantage, constitute a provocation to lascivious thoughts and sins against purity.
Father understood very well that a married woman obliged to please her husband, or a daughter desirous of marrying, could admit something more to her dress, but without violating the two rules we have just explained, which he thought essential. Following the exquisite word of Saint Francis de Sales to girls of marriageable age, he permitted “the sign,” which is to say some small adornment which announced their entirely licit ambition. We don’t know, however, if “the sign” was actually worn.
With all that, one would believe that he would want -- and he never feared to say it in the Society meetings -- that “his girls should be beautiful,” but beautiful in their modesty, and even by means of their modesty. He never would admit that the bonnets, simple as they were, resembled “nightcaps.” One is very much obliged to recognize that the “little white bonnets” give the girls a character of freshness and of innocent grace entirely different from that of the badly out-of-balance hats of the day and the fashionable designs of doubtful taste.
Finally, Father Emmanuel recommended to the mothers that they form their daughters to modesty from the first years. There is a difference, which leaps to the eyes, between the little girl who wears her modest clothing ingenuously and the one who, coquettishly dressed, already observes herself. There where the worm of vanity exists, the fruit goes bad rapidly.
The results obtained by Father Emmanuel amply justified his method. The girls of Mesnil preserved their piety, and the young men were chaste.
Nevertheless, he was criticized. He was reproached for the refusal of the sacraments, by which means he would have opposed dissident girls, the “bearers of hats.”
We enter here upon privileged ground. No one will ever know what passed in the confessional between Father and the young women. In the capacity of parish priest, he was justified in asking them not to break openly with the tradition of modesty preserved in the parish, and which seemed to him, with reason, a necessary safeguard against the spirit of the world. He who is responsible for an edifice does not permit others to breach its walls.
They withdrew from him, it is true; his position was clear. They confessed somewhere else and presented themselves at the altar at Mesnil; we do not know whether he refused them Holy Communion. Besides, they presented themselves there in modest dress.
One day when we were questioning him on the course of action to take vis-à-vis dissidents, he answered us: “Ask them for a sign of good will.” And that was all.
But then he added: “I prefer that some of them withdraw, than to lose all of them.” Which recalls to us this axiom from antiquity: “The welfare of the people is the supreme law, salus populi suprema lex.” The statements of the moralists are worth what they are worth, in certain given circumstances. But the necessity not to permit a conflagration to come to life and to spread prevails over all the endless arguing.
One day a preacher developed this theme before Father Emmanuel: “Man is lost by woman, he is saved by woman; this one loses man by the display of vanity, this other will save him by virtue of her modesty. The moral world oscillates between Eve and Mary. As long as modesty is not preached by everyone as it is here, society will not recover. ” Father Emmanuel surely must have embraced such a preacher!
In heaven, modesty of Christian women will certainly be one of the most beautiful of the jewels in the crown of the sadly missed Father Emmanuel.