Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France

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July 31, 2003
Saint Ignatius of Loyola


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«The sin of the twentieth century is the loss of the sense of sin,» declared Pope Pius XII on October 26, 1946. A half-century later, the crisis in the sacrament of Penance, abandoned by so many Catholics, shows that the Pope's opinion is still quite true today. However, «to the eyes of faith no evil is graver than sin and nothing has worse consequences for sinners themselves, for the Church, and for the whole world» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 1488). Our present day is not the first to endure a crisis in the sacrament of Penance. The Most Blessed Virgin Mary has often been the messenger of God to men and women to turn them from sin and bring them to love of their Creator. Over the last centuries, she has intervened on several occasions, particularly at La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima. But before these, she deigned to appear to a poor girl from the Alps, Benoîte Rencurel.

On September 16, 1647, Benoîte Rencurel was born in the little free town of Saint-Etienne d'Avançon, in the southern Alps. Her parents were good Catholics, and lived modestly from the works of their hands. When Benoîte was born, they already had a daughter, Madeleine; a third daughter, Marie, would be born four years later. The father, Guillaume Rencurel, died when Benoîte, full of life and high spirits, was seven years old. For the widow and her three daughters, this death would lead to material destitution. There was no school in Saint-Etienne d'Avançon, so Benoîte never learned to read or write. Her only instruction came from Sunday Mass. She learned there that Mary is the most merciful Mother of God, which awakened in her a desire to see her. Benoîte, a contemplative soul, loved to pray for long periods of time.

«My name is Lady Mary»

One day in May 1664, the young girl, who was working as a shepherdess for farmers in the area, was tending sheep in a little valley, the slopes of which had holes from faults that resembled shallow grottos. Benoîte was reciting her rosary when she perceived a beautiful Lady on a rock, holding the hand of a child of singular beauty. «Beautiful Lady!» she said to her. «What are you doing up there? Would you like to have a snack with me? I have a little bit of good bread—we could dip it in the spring!» The Lady smiled at her simplicity, and did not say a word to her. «Beautiful Lady! Would you like to give us this Child, Who would make our hearts so glad?» The Lady smiled again without answering. After having stayed a while with Benoîte, she took her Child in her arms and disappeared in the cave in the side of the rock, where the shepherdess saw her enter and go out several times.

Over the course of four months, the Lady appeared every day, talking very familiarly with the young girl. To prepare her for her future mission, she instructed her, correcting her vivaciousness and her abruptness, her stubbornness and her attachment to things and animals. Benoîte related her visions to her employer, who at first did not believe her, but who, one morning, secretly followed her to a small valley, the Vallon des Fours. There, she did not see the Lady, but she heard the words that the Lady spoke to Benoîte. The apparition asked the shepherdess to warn her employer about the dangers her soul was facing—«Her conscience is in a poor state. She must repent!» Moved, the employer mended her ways, began to receive the sacraments again, and lived the remainder of her days in a very Christian manner. On August 29, Benoîte asked the visitor what her name was, and heard the response, «My name is Lady Mary.» But at the same time, the Virgin announced to her that the apparitions would cease for an indefinite time. Indeed, Benoîte spent a month without seeing the Lady. This absence, by depriving her of a considerable consolation, served to purify her soul.

Finally, one morning at the end of September, the shepherdess, who had stopped her sheep and goats on a river bank, perceived Lady Mary before her, blazing like a beautiful sun. She hastened to catch up with her. But the old wooden bridge that crossed the river was broken, so she crossed the water by climbing on the back of a big goat. When she had gotten close to the apparition, she asked, «My good Lady, why have you deprived me for so long of the honor of seeing you?» «From now on, when you want to see me, you will be able to in the chapel in Laus,» replied the Lady, pointing out to her the path to follow. The next day, Benoîte went to the village of Laus and arrived at the little chapel. She immediately entered and saw on the altar the Virgin Mary who congratulated her on having searched without losing her patience. Delighted to see Our Lady again, Benoîte was embarrassed to see the poverty and dirtiness of the place. She suggested cutting her apron in two, so as to put a cloth under the Lady's feet. The Lady answered that in a short time, nothing would be lacking—she would see linens, candles, and other ornaments there. She added that she wanted to be built there a church in honor of her and her most dear Son. Many sinners, men and women, would be converted there. During the winter of 1664-1665, Benoîte went up to Laus very often. Every day she saw the Virgin who urged her «to pray continuously for sinners.» By way of this, Our Lady gives us to understand that sinners are in a piteous state. God is offended by their sins, but He wants to show them His boundless mercy, which can only be accepted freely. The news of the apparitions spread among the villagers with the help of vigils during the winter nights. Starting on the Feast of Saint Joseph, March 19th, pilgrims came to Our Lady of Laus. Many obtained graces through her intercession; they came to go to confession and to resolve to change their lives.

The doctor who examines the wound

The Gospel is the revelation, in Jesus Christ, of God's mercy towards sinners. But, although «God created us without us, He did not want to save us without us» (Saint Augustine). Accepting Divine Mercy requires us to admit our sins. If we say, 'We are free of the guilt of sin,' we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us. But if we acknowledge our sins, He who is just can be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrong (I John 1:8-9) (cf. CCC 1846-1847). This confession of sins is a result of grace, for God, just like a doctor who examines the wound before dressing it, casts a bright light on the sin. «To acknowledge one's sin, indeed— ... to recognize oneself as being a sinner, capable of sin and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God. For example, this is the experience of David, who having done what is evil in the eyes of the Lord and having been rebuked by the prophet Nathan, exclaims: For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight» (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia, December 2, 1984, no. 13).

God gave man the freedom to love Him and serve Him. Sin, which is an abuse of this freedom, consists of every act, word, or desire that is contrary to the law of God. However, sins are not all of the same seriousness. There is a distinction between mortal (or grave) sin and venial sin. Venial sin cools the love of God in our hearts without depriving us of the life of grace. Mortal sin, as a serious infraction of the law of God (for example, blasphemy, idolatry, irreligion, heresy, schism, perjury, abortion, contraception, adultery, fornication), turns man away from his Creator, over Whom the sinner prefers a created thing. For a sin to be mortal, a grave matter is not enough—the act must also have been committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. «Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back» (CCC 1861). The apostle Saint John thus described the fate of those who die in a state of mortal sin: As for the cowards and the faithless, the depraved and murderers, the fornicators and sorcerers, the idol-worshipers and deceivers of every sort—their lot is the fiery pool of burning sulfur, the second death! (Apoc. 21:8). This truth becomes all the more striking considering that, for every human being, death is a certainty, and after death, each of us will be judged. The lives of all of us are to be revealed before the tribunal of Christ so that each one may receive his recompense, good or bad, according to his life in the body (2 Cor. 5:10). But, after death there will be no more time to convert. Therefore, it is now that one must do penance. «Woe to those who die in mortal sin!» (Saint Francis of Assisi).

A miraculous oil

In September 1665, an investigation into the apparitions in Laus was undertaken by the vicar-general of Embrun, Antoine Lambert. After having finished questioning the seer, he celebrated Mass. That morning, Catherine Vial was present. This woman was seriously ill with a nervous disease which caused her to bend her legs such that her heels touched the lower end of her back. Her parents had tried everything to cure her, but in vain. She was taken to Laus in order to make a novena to Our Lady. During the night following the end of the novena, she could stretch out her legs, and felt cured. In the morning, she had herself carried to the chapel just as the vicar-general was concluding the Mass. Everyone exclaimed, «A miracle!» When the Mass had ended, the cleric questioned the woman who had been miraculously cured, as well as the witnesses, then affirmed: «The finger of God is there.» Thus, on September 18, 1665, for Benoîte's eighteenth birthday, the apparitions and the pilgrimage were officially recognized by the diocesan authority and, in the fall of that year, construction was begun on a church large enough to accommodate pilgrims who were becoming more and more numerous.

Our Lady revealed herself in Laus as the Reconciler and the Refuge of sinners. She also gave signs in order to convince sinners of the need to convert. She then announced to Benoîte that oil from the lamp in the chapel (which burned before the Blessed Sacrament), would perform cures on the sick who applied it on themselves, if they turned to her intercession with faith. In fact, many cures were recorded in a short time: a child recovered the use of an eye; a person was cured of an ulcer in his hand. Even in our time, miracles happen for people who, confident in the intercession of Our Lady, use the Laus oil with devotion.

A plank of salvation

Benoîte took to heart the mission she had received from the Most Blessed Virgin—to prepare sinners to receive the sacrament of Penance. She often encouraged the two priests who were assigned to the sanctuary to receive the pilgrims with gentleness, patience, and charity, treating the greatest sinners with particular kindness so as to encourage them to repent. «Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of His Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin... It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as 'the second plank of salvation after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.' Only God forgives sins. Since He is the Son of God, Jesus says of Himself, The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins and exercises this divine power: Your sins are forgiven. Further, by virtue of His divine authority He gives this power to man to exercise in His name» (CCC 1446, 1441). In this sacrament, the priest, who takes the place of Christ, Judge and Doctor, must be informed of the state of the penitent. As a result, «it is necessary that the faithful, as well as being aware of the sins they have committed, of being sorry for them and resolved not to fall into them again, should also confess their sins. In this sense, the Council of Trent declared that it is necessary 'by divine decree to confess each and every mortal sin' » (John Paul II, Motu Proprio Misericordia Dei, April 7, 2002).

This obligation is not a weight imposed upon penitents in an arbitrary manner, but rather is a means of liberation to find peace of heart again. If, through sin, we have turned away from our Heavenly Father, the sacrament of Penance allows us to return to Him, to throw ourselves in His merciful arms. Confession is thus the occasion of a loving reunion between the child and his Father. «It is not the sinner who returns to the Father to beg His forgiveness, but God who runs after the sinner and makes him return to Him,» said Saint John Vianney, the Curé of Ars. «To receive the sacrament of penance, three things are required,» added the same saint: «Faith, which reveals to us God present in the priest; Hope, which makes us believe that God will give us the grace of forgiveness; and Charity, which brings us to love God, and which places in the heart regret at having offended Him.»

Benoîte also encouraged confessors to warn penitents to come to Holy Communion only after a good confession, prepared by an examination of conscience in the light of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, «anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution» (CCC 1457).

Benoîte's job was not easy. The Virgin asked her to admonish women and girls who were leading a scandalous life which had sometimes gone to the point of infanticide, unjust or perverse men, and priests and religious who were unfaithful to their sacred vows. But the seer performed her duties well. She encouraged penitents, warned those who dared not confess their sins, and guided them to an appropriate confessor. «When he celebrates the sacrament of Penance, the priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, of the Good Samaritan who binds up wounds, of the Father who awaits the prodigal son and welcomes him on his return, and of the just and impartial judge whose judgment is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument of God's merciful love for the sinner» (CCC 1465). Benoîte especially sacrificed for sinners and prayed while they made their confessions. To atone for their sins and to obtain graces for them, she gave herself over to severe penances, to the point of jeopardizing her health.

A way to new life

However, not everyone looked favorably upon the events at Laus. Some people went so far as to attribute the apparitions to the Devil. Therefore, a new diocesan investigation became necessary. This investigation convinced the new vicar-general, Jean Javelly, of the truth of the apparitions. To those who complained that everyone was going to Laus, he replied, «Benoîte isn't the one who is causing the loss of devotion (that is, religious practice) in our Church, it's our sins which are the cause of it. With the little zeal and care that we have to maintain it, devotion has gone to the far reaches of the diocese. Rather than having it withdrawn, or doing anything to harm this good and holy woman whose virtue I am acquainted with, we must take care that devotion does not leave (the diocese of Embrun), and work together with her to keep it there, for fear of losing it altogether.» In her prayer as in her apostolate, Benoîte was constantly advised by Our Lady: «Take heart, my daughter! Have patience... Do your duties gladly... Bear no hatred towards the enemies of Laus.» Her guardian Angel instructed her as well: «When a person is joyful, everything he does is pleasing to God. When a person becomes angry, he does nothing that pleases Him.»

Between 1669 and 1679, Benoîte was favored with five apparitions of Christ Who revealed Himself to her in a state of suffering. One Friday in July 1673, the bloodstained Savior said to her: «My child, I am making myself appear in this state so that you might participate in the sufferings of My Passion.» Indeed, the Lord Jesus wished to unite to His redeeming sacrifice those very people who are its first beneficiaries (cf. CCC 618). Saint Peter warns us: Christ suffered for you in just this way and left you an example, to have you follow in His footsteps (I Peter 2:21). It was our sins that made Our Lord submit to the agony of the Cross. «Those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for He is in them) and hold Him up to contempt (Heb. 6:6)» (CCC 598). But by His death, Christ frees us from sin, and by His Resurrection, He gives us a way to new life. The sacrament of Penance reconciles the sinner with God and gives him part in the Risen Life of Christ.

«She is the reason I am losing so many souls!»

In 1684, the Laus pilgrimage was growing rapidly. Troops stationed in Gap went to Laus en masse. The soldiers, overcome by grace, confessed, changed their lives and became messengers of Laus throughout France and even abroad. However, this time of success was followed by a period of trials and obscurity. Benoîte suffered strong temptations against trust in God and chastity. The demon even attacked her physically but, taking refuge in prayer, she did not give in. One day the infernal spirit revealed the motive behind his attacks: «She is the reason I am losing so many souls,» he exclaimed. At the end of July 1692, Benoîte and the priests of Laus were forced to take refuge in Marseilles to flee the invasion of the Duke of Savoy's troops who were laying waste to the region of Gap. The civil peace was finally restored, but Benoîte continued to endure purifying trials. In fact, Father Javelly's successor, an opponent of the Laus pilgrimage, named two new persons to be in charge of the sanctuary. These priests had little zeal for the care of souls and had published from the pulpit that Laus was just a hoax. In 1700, the shepherdess was forbidden from speaking to pilgrims, and threats hung over her reputation. However, Benoîte was not without consolations—she often received visits from the Blessed Virgin and from her guardian Angel, who both comforted her. Finally, in 1711, the pilgrimage was entrusted to a new community, that of the «Pères Gardistes.» These priests showed themselves to be men of prayer who instilled in the pilgrims to Laus devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and recourse to Mary, Refuge of sinners.

After twenty years of ordeals, Benoîte could once more carry out her mission in peace. A throng of pilgrims came to her. But so many mortifications and hardships had gotten the better of her health. Bedridden for over a month, she received Holy Viaticum on Christmas Day 1718. Three days later, she confessed and received Extreme Unction, with great consolation. Around 8 o'clock that night, Benoîte bid farewell to those surrounding her, then, having kissed a crucifix, her eyes raised to Heaven, she died in peace and went to join her Spouse Jesus and Her Most Holy Mother Mary in Heaven. The cause of beatification for the Servant of God Benoîte Rencurel, introduced in 1871, was recently taken up again by the diocese of Gap. After being administered successively by the Pères Gardistes, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Missionaries of Our Lady of Laus, the sanctuary is today entrusted to the diocesan clergy, with help from a community of the Brothers of Saint John. The sanctuary of Laus is a spiritual center that, faithful to its mission, welcomes pilgrims who have come to place themselves under Mary's maternal protection and receive the sacrament of forgiveness.

Let us ask the Mother of Mercy to renew among Christians respect for and the desire to go to this sacrament, which is a privileged means, instituted by the Savior Himself, to receive God's grace and peace of soul.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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