Louise de Marillac, Formator of the Laity

by | Mar 15, 2012 | Vincentian Family

The Vincentian Encyclopedia is once again happy to present in English translation another excellent study, Louise de Marillac, Formator of the Laity, by  Sister Maria Angeles Infante Barrera, DC

By reason of its length we will present the article in five parts corresponding to the the five sections of the article. The first segment…

1 Introduction and background

For those who wish to immediately read it in its entirety.

1. Introduction and background

When I was asked to give this presentation my first thought was to have recourse to the biographies of Saint Louise.  In the first written by Nicolás Gobillón fourteen years after her death, we find the following words: from the moment [Louise] began these meetings the women came together in great numbers and were enchanted with her presentations.  This event was mentioned by later biographers: Luis Baunard, Ponciano Nieto, Jean Calvet, Joseph Dirvin, Leandro Daydi, Dominique Poinssenet and Benito Martinez.  While B. Martínez treats this theme of formation, he does not fully develop this matter because he focuses on Louise’s mission as a formator of the Daughters of Charity[1].

In approaching this theme I am very aware of three premises that were formulated in the document of the Second Vatican Council that dealt with the lay apostolate: 1] the Christian laity have an indispensable mission in the present day Church; 2] the apostolate of charity, which is essential to the life of the Church, requires the presence and the commitment of the laity; 3] the Catholic laity need a strong and solid spirituality.  These premises were repeated by John Paul II in his exhortation, Vita Consecrata (#54) when he spoke about collaboration and communion with the laity in a shared mission.  He returned to this same theme in his exhortation, Novo Millennio Ineunte as he outlined a pastoral program for the new millennium.

I should state here that I approached the study of this theme from the threefold perspective mentioned above and I am happy to say that Louise de Marillac is very relevant … her life and teachings on the formation of the laity are in complete accord with the present thinking and teaching of the church.

As I begin this presentation I am reminded of the words of Jean Calvet when he wrote that Louise possessed a passion and an art for teaching because she understood the value of knowledge and the fact that the human person is meant to learn[2]To form other people is to teach and transmit principles, ideas, knowledge, convictions and ways of acting … it is to teach and communicate criteria that enable people to confront life in a positive and hope filled manner.  To form others is to offer insight so that people can “read” and understand the history of God’s movement throughout the ages … this also involves teaching people to view the future with hope and to take responsibility for the creation of the future.  To form people is to instill in them principles of sensitivity toward the poor so that they are able to serve the poor as children of God, able to serve them and view them as their “lords and masters”.  Those who have engaged in this ministry of formation are very aware of these principles.

This is what Louise de Marillac did in the French church of the seventeenth century.  She transmitted her faith convictions, her ideas about God and life, her knowledge and concepts that she had formed with regard to the society in which she lived, the criteria that guided her activity as a devout and charitable woman and above all, she communicated the principles, attitudes and different ways of serving the poor.  It was for this reason that Pope John XXIII declared her the patroness of all charitable associations (February 10, 1960)[3] and now this is also the reason why we turn our eyes toward her as we initiate this Vincentian jubilee on the occasion of the 350th  anniversary of the death of Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac.  Through this presentation I hope to be able to render some small homage to Saint Louise at this time when we are about to initiate this time of jubilee.

Before fully entering into this theme, it would be good to recall the role, the mission and the formation of the laity in the French church of the seventeenth century.

1.1.] The laity in the church of 17th century France

If we want to know that situation then we must take up the work of René Taveneaux, French Catholicism during the seventeenth century.  In an orderly and detailed manner the author describes the life of the bishops, the pastors, religious and the large religious institutions.  His only reference to the laity, however, occurs when he mentions Henri de Levis, the Duke of Ventadour, the king’s representative in Languedoc and the founder of the Company of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  The members of this group formed a pious confraternity and met every Thursday.  Their meetings began with and ended with prayer.  Much time was given to prayer, to reading the Bible and the Imitation of Jesus Christ and the members had great devotion to the most Blessed Sacrament.  This group was dependent on the contributions that were offered by the members of this confraternity.  These offerings were placed in a sealed envelope and given anonymously … in turn these free will offerings enabled the confraternity to carry out its objectives.  It should be noted that in a circular letter dated 1660 charitable work was listed as one of its objectives: the Company is involved not only in the ordinary works of providing assistance to the poor, the infirm, prisoners and those who are afflicted in any way but we also provide assistance to the missions and seminaries and are involved in the conversion of heretics and the spreading of the faith throughout the world.  We are likewise concerned about preventing scandal, impiety and blasphemy and we attempt to provide a variety of services.  In a word, we attempt to foresee every form of evil and thus seek remedies to such situations as they arise.  We accept those works that are difficult, despised and forgotten and we engage in those works in order to provide for the needs of our neighbor … this work is an extension of our charitable ministry[4].

The Company of the most Blessed Sacrament was a semi-secret association of ecclesiastics and laymen that was established to tend to the various needs of the Church (utilizing every possible means).  Thus the historian, José María Román affirms that the Company of the most Blessed Sacrament collaborated in spreading the Confraternities of Charity.  In 1634 a note was sent to the members of the Company informing them about the work of the Charities and they were encouraged to form other similar groups throughout the French empire.  The Bishop of Alet, Nicolas Pavillon, approved the Rule for a Confraternity of Charity in his diocese and, thanks to the influence of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, this Rule was an exact copy of the one written by Vincent[5].  The Company of the Blessed Sacrament supported Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac ideologically and financially.

Yet the Church of the seventeenth century was clerical, very clerical.  The Council of Trent, whose implementation was spreading day by day, had emphasized the clerical dimension in its canons and organizational norms.  It was not until the twentieth century and the Second Vatican Council that the laity, baptized Christians, would obtain status and a defined mission in the life of the Church.  The Council’s decree on the apostolate of lay people, Apostolicam Actuositatem, gave the laity an active participation in the life and the mission of the Church, (in the same way that this was done at the time of the dawning of Christianity).  In the introduction to this document on the laity we read: To intensify the apostolic activity of the people of God, the most holy synod earnestly addresses itself to the laity, whose proper and indispensable role in the mission of the Church has already been dealt with in other documents. The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it.

The Council supported its statement with reasons: faithfulness to the origins of Christianity, that is, Sacrd Scripture clearly shows how spontaneous and fruitful such activity was at the very beginning of the Church [cf. Acts 11:19-21; 18:26; Rom. 16:1-16; Phil. 4:3] (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #1).  In addition, the Council stated that the present situation of the world, the advances in science and technology have opened many areas for lay ministry, a ministry that only they can exercise.  The urgency of the lay apostolate is expressed in the following words: This apostolate becomes more imperative in view of the fact that many areas of human life have become increasingly autonomous. This is as it should be, but it sometimes involves a degree of departure from the ethical and religious order and a serious danger to Christian life. Besides, in many places where priests are very few or, in some instances, deprived of due freedom for priestly work, the Church could scarcely exist and function without the activity of the laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #1).


The Council concluded this section by referring to the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church: An indication of this manifold and pressing need is the unmistakable work being done today by the Holy Spirit in making the laity ever more conscious of their own responsibility and encouraging them to serve Christ and the Church in all circumstances (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #1).


Before continuing I want to state here that the Second Vatican Council uses the words lay Christian and secular Catholics interchangeably.  This, however, was not the case during Louise’s lifetime when the words baptized laity were used to refer to the members of the People of God who were not priests or members of the consecrated life.  Today, as yesterday, the great majority of the People of God are laymen and laywomen.

In seventeenth century France the clergy composed a very small part of the population despite the large number of diocesan priests, women who were members of contemplative orders and religious men.  At that time there was no place for religious women except behind the walls of the monasteries.  Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac were pioneers in the area of religious life which would allow men and women to dedicate themselves to the apostolate in the midst of the world.

What role did the laity play at that time?  Even though the majority of the population were laity, that had a passive role in the life of the Church.  They were the persons who “received” the sacraments, the catechetical instruction and listened to the preaching … in general, their Christian formation was found to be lacking in almost every aspect.  The majority of the laity, especially in the towns and villages, were illiterate and therefore, their catechetical instruction involved the use of images rather than words[6].

Nevertheless, the Council of Trent opened a door (though not wide) that allowed the laity to participate in the church through parish confraternities.  These associations could be established by the pastor and were to have pious or charitable objectives.  The laity could also become members of the Third Orders of the large religious congregations (for example, the Franciscans, the Capuchins).  In the large capitals, such as Paris, there were “spiritual circles” where devout individuals gathered together in order to deepen their spiritual life.  Some of these circles became famous such as that of Madame Acarie and Mother Mary of the Incarnation[7].

1.2.] The Christian formation of the laity

Here we must distinguish between the urban and the rural setting.  In the urban areas there were many priests and religious, catholic universities and seminaries … all of which offered the possibility of a Christian formation.  Louise was very concerned about providing her son, Michel Antoine, with this formation and felt obliged to enroll him in the seminary school that Adrian Bourdoise had established in the parish of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet (even though Michel showed no clear indications of desiring formation for the priesthood)[8].

Despite the fact that in the cities there was both the personnel and the means to acquire a good formation, few people benefited from this situation.  In fact only the nobles and bourgeois took advantage of this opportunity.  The poor had neither the time nor the means to avail themselves of basic cultural education and sound Christian education.

In the rural towns and villages there was hardly any formation.  There was a lack of schools and teachers; there were few priests and many of those in the rural areas had been ill-prepared for ministry.  We remember how Vincent met some priests who did not know the formula to absolve the faithful of their sins[9].  In the countryside religious and cultural ignorance were rampant.  The need for formation was one of the primary needs that Louise encountered during her visits to the Confraternities … Marguerite Naseau (CCD:IX:64-66), the first Daughter of Charity, had the same experience.

1.3.] Challenges that resulted from the Protestant Reformation

One of Luther’s ideas and convictions in order to spread the Protestant Reform was the creation of schools and the formation of Christian catechists and leaders who would make the Reform known among the poor and simple people.  Thus during the sixteenth century these schools enabled the Protestant Church to gain ground and to spread throughout Europe.  Luther’s catechism spread rapidly as a result of the formation that prepared catechists, pastors and teachers.

The Protestant reform was penetrating France but more slowly than in other countries because of the Edict of Nantes (1598).  According to the terms of the Edict the Huguenots were granted freedom of conscience throughout France; they were allowed to build churches and celebrate religious services in certain towns and in the suburbs of the cities (except in Episcopal and Archiepiscopal cities, in cities where the king resided, and within a five mile radius around the city of Paris).  Huguenot nobles could celebrate religious services in their houses and all their civil rights were guaranteed, including the right to hold public office.  Four universities became Huguenot universities (Montauban, Montpellier, Sedan, Saumur) and a special court (Chambre de l’Edit), composed of ten Catholics and six Protestants, was established in order to protect the Huguenots in the Parisian Parliament.  Similar courts were established in the Provincial Parliaments.  Huguenot pastors, like Catholic priests, were paid by the government.  As a guarantee of protection the Huguenots, during a period of eight years, were granted one hundred places de sûreté.

 Nevertheless, in 1629 Cardinal Richelieu revoked the political clauses of the Edict and during the reign of Louis XIV (especially after 1681) the persecution of the Huguenots was renewed.  With the revocation of the Edict hundreds of thousands of Huguenots left France and sought refuge in Protestant countries.  The slow advance of Protestant doctrine in France can be attributed to these events (here we speak of slow advance in relation to the spread of Protestantism in other European countries).  This period of struggle between Catholics and Huguenots was called the Thirty Years War.  During this time some Catholics, because of a lack of formation and solid convictions, abandoned the Catholic faith and became Huguenots and heretics.

These events did not leave Vincent de Paul or Louise de Marillac indifferent.  They viewed this situation as an urgent call that demanded an immediate response.  And so they responded … especially Louise who, beginning in 1629, established the Charity schools which were dependent on the Confraternities that she visited[10].  Louise became aware of the work that the Protestants were engaged in, that is, the formation of young girls.  Louise encouraged the members of the Confraternities to respond by forming teachers and creating schools.  As Louise de Marillac engaged in this work, the Holy Spirit inspired other persons to become involved in this ministry as a privileged form of evangelization.

During the Council of Trent the Holy Spirit, who always guides the life of the Church, revealed a path that would lead to the renewal of the Christian life of the laity: the establishment of confraternities and schools.  In the postconciliar period, Pope Clement VIII (1582-1605) set forth concrete norms for the establishment of parish confraternities: they ought to have clearly defined pious or charitable objectives; they should be under the authority of the bishop; the rules or statutes should be well defined and if there are any exemptions or privileges they should be granted in a public manner; the rector of the group should be the pastor or another priest delegated by the pastor; the governance of the association should be outlined in the rule.  This is the framework in which Vincent and Louise developed their charitable activity.  Louise, under the wise guidance of Vincent de Paul, dedicated herself to the mission of forming the laity as the Confraternities spread and developed.  As occurred at the beginning of Christianity when the laity were actively involved in the ministry of the Church, Louise developed the ministry of deaconess as an alternative to the Protestant Reformation that had broken the unity of the universal Church.

[1] Cf., Nicolás Gobillón, Vida de la señorita Le Gras, fundadora y primera Superiora de la Compañia de las Hijas de la Caridad [The life of M. Le Gras, founder and first superior of the Company of the Daughters of Charity], translated, Alberto López and Martín Abaitua, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, CEME, 1991; Louis Baunard, Vida de la Venerable Luisa de Marillac, Fundadora de las Hijas de la Caridad de San Vicente de Paul [Life of the Venerable Louise de Marillac, founder of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul], translated into Spanish by a priest of the Congregation, 1st Spanish edition Madrid, Imp. S. Francisco de Sales, 1904; Ponciano Nieto, Vida de la Beata Luisa de Marillac [Life of the Blessed Louise de Marillac], 2nd edition Madrid, López Zarza, 1920; Leandro Daydé, La bienaventurada Luisa de Marillac y las Hijas de la Caridad [Blessed Louise de Marillac and the Daughters of Charity], Barcelona, Imprenta de José Vilamala, 1920; M.D. Poissenet, De angustia a la santidad: Santa Louisa de Marillac, fundadora de las Hijas de la Caridad [From anguish to sanctity, Saint Louise de Marillac, founder of the Daughters of Charity], Ediciones Estudium, Madrid, 1963; Jean Calvet, Luisa de Marillac, retrato [Louise de Marillac: a portrait], Ed. CEME, Salamanca, 1977; Joseph I. Dirvin, Louise de Marillac of the Ladies and Daughters of Charity, (translated into Spanish by Luis Huerga and published by CEME in 1995) Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1970; Benito Martínez, Empenada en un paraíso para los pobres, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, CEME, 1995.

[2] Jean Calvet, Louisa de Marillac, retrato, [Louise de Marillac: a portrait], Ed. CEME, Salamanca, 1977, p.93.

[3] Pontifical Brief of Pope John XXIII; cf, M.D. Poissenet, De la angustia a la santidad: Santa Luisa de Marillac, fundadora de las Hijas de la Caridad [From anxiety to holiness: Saint Louise de Marillac, founder of the Daughters of Charity], Ediciones ESTUDIUM, Madrid, 1963, pp. 287-290.

[4] R. Voyer D’Argenson, Annales de la Compagnie de Saint Sacrament [Annals of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament], Marsella, Beauchet-Filleau, 1900, p. 17.

[5] José María Román, CM, St. Vincent de Paul: a biography, [translated by Sister Joyce Howard, DC], Melisende, London, 1999, p. 495, 551, 572, 584, 635.

[6] Ibid., p. 95, 96-99, 190-191 and 591.

[7] A spiritual woman with strong convictions who in January 1618 had a violent confrontation with Cardinal Bérulle who wanted the Carmelites to take a fourth community vow of slavery to Jesus.  M. Acarie’s attitude provoked the resistance of many religious women and the opposition of M. Duval who denounced the case to Cardinal Bellarmine.  In April 1618 M. Acarie died and various members of the Carmelite Order made the decision to abandon their convent in Paris and sought refuge in Spain.

[8] Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, New York, 1985-2012, volume I, p. 26-27, 33, 34-35.  Hereafter, references to this work will be noted with the letters CCD, followed by the volume number, and then the page number, for example, CCD:I:26-27, 33, 34-35. Generally, these citations will appear in the text and not as footnotes. See also, Román, op.cit., p. 99, 102, 103.

[9] CCD:XI:162-163; see also, Román, op.cit., p. 113-114.


[10] Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, edited and translated by Sister Louise Sullivan, DC, New City Press, New York, 1991, p. 729 [A.47].  Future reference to this work will be noted with the letters, SWLM followed by the page number, followed by [the number of the letter which will be bracketed] — at other times the letter “A” or “M” will appear in brackets and these are references to Louise’s other writings.  All the numbering is in accord with the English edition, for example, (SWLM:729 [A.47]).  Generally said references will appear in the text and not as footnotes.


(This article first appeared in Santa Luisa de Marillac, ayer y hoy, XXXIV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, [Saint Vincent de Paul, Yesterday and Today, XXXIV Vincentian Studies Week], Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2010).  This article can be found at:

To be continued with Part II

Images courtesy of St. Vincent de Paul Image Archive


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