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December 28, 2002|
Feast of the Holy Innocents
Scoundrel or saint?
To correct her son's difficult temperament, Gratianne did not launch into long speeches but would very simply turn from the visible to the invisible world. In front of the flames that roared in the kitchen hearth, she told him, «My son, it is into a much more terrible fire than this that God casts the children who commit mortal sin.» Every inch of the child's being trembled at the thought of it, but he had learned a sound lesson on man's final ends, as well as a lively fear of sin. Yet his mother's comments were more often on Heaven than Hell. One day, hoping to go to Heaven as soon as possible, Michael imagined he could easily reach it from the top of the hill where he grazed his flock. After a difficult climb, he realized that the sky was still higher, but that it seemed to reach another, higher peak, and so left for this more remote hill. And so, from hill to hill, he got lost and had to spend the night under the stars. The next day, he found his way, managed to gather his flock and returned to his family's home. No one scolded him for his childish flight, but he kept the desire for Heaven deep in his heart.
In 1806, Michael was placed in the village school. His lively intelligence and sure memory quickly brought him to the head of the class. But in 1809, his father obtained him a position as a servant on a farm to earn some money. When he went out with the flock, Michael always took a book along with him to teach himself, and in this way learned grammar and the catechism. Two years later, great anxiety overcame his soulhe had not yet made his First Communion. A few months later, he obtained permission to receive Jesus. Thirst for the Eucharist would live in his soul from then on. Having become a priest, he wrote, «Ours is a strong Godwithout Him, my soul languishes, it thirsts... Ours is a living Godwithout Him, I die... I cry night and day when I see myself distanced from my God... (cf. Ps. 41 :4).»
Michael dreamed of a vocation. Little by little, he was stirred by the thought of becoming a priest. When he returned to his parents' home in 1813, he made known his resolve. But he came up against a refusal, as his family's poverty did not leave any money for the costs his studies would entail. The young man then appealed to his grandmother who, after having convinced his parents, walked twenty-some kilometers in order to go to Saint-Palais, where there was a parish priest she knew well. She got him to agree to have Michael stay with him and let him enroll in school. At the rectory, the young student had a difficult lifewhile devoting himself to his studies, he had to carry out numerous domestic tasks at the same time. But with heroic determination, which was indeed in his temperament, he studied constantlywhile walking, eating and even in the middle of the nightand finished with excellent results. He became friends with a pious young man, Evariste, who would die young. «God,» he later said, «gave him insights greater than all the learning of the theologians. He attained a remarkable level of meditation and intimate union with God, and yet was so friendly and so charitable to his neighbor.» After three years at Saint-Palais, Michael was sent to Bayonne, where he worked in the Bishop's palace while studying at the School of Saint-Léon. The efforts he put forth to overcome his temperament and to devote himself to his neighbor brought about a noticeable transformation in him. He himself reported a characteristic feature of his conduct. «At the Bishop's palace, I often had to endure the cook's bad moods. I took my revenge by cheerfully cleaning the pots and the casseroles. And she ended up using her free time to sew my handkerchiefs and do my laundry.»
A slow but deep mind
At the beginning of the year 1824, Michael was named vicar in Cambo. The parish priest, elderly and paralyzed, left the young vicar in complete charge of ministry. The latter said, laughing, «If they chose me to be here, it's no doubt because of my strong shoulders!» Father Garicoits soon won the hearts of his parishioners. His sermons, clear and understandable to everyone, and enlivened by his love of God and neighbor, drew to the church more than one of his compatriots who had forgotten the way there. His reputation spread throughout the Basque country, and he spent entire days in the confessional, even if it meant going without meals. He personally attended to the children's catechism, convinced that the mission of the priest is to teach the elements of Christian doctrine, and that a good catechism remains, for many people, their primary Christian recollection to the day they die. His hale constitution allowed him to devote himself to numerous penances. Yet on feast days, he joined in the delights of the population and went to the Basque pelota games. Then he would return to the church to pray at length before the Most Blessed Sacrament.
At the end of 1825, Father Garicoits was named professor of philosophy at the Major Seminary in Betharram, and also became its bursar. Both the material and spiritual state of the seminary were mediocre at best. The buildings, situated on the side of a hill, were very damp. The discipline, spiritual fervor and progression of studies left much to be desired, as the Superior, nearly eighty years old, no longer had the strength to administer the house. Father Garicoits was sent to Betharram to attempt a necessary and urgent reform. His task was not easy, but his moral qualities assured him a significant audience among the seminarians, and allowed him to slowly bring about a sound reform. In 1831, the Superior of the seminary passed away, and Father Garicoits was named to fill his place. However, this same year the Bishop decided to transfer the seminary to Bayonne, to which he sent the philosophy students first. Soon, the new Superior of Betharram found himself alone in the large empty buildings. But joy and humor did not leave him...
Do good and wait
Father Garicoits returned to his usual work, without abandoning the idea of forming a religious community devoted especially to teaching, education, the religious formation of the worker and farmer, and to all kinds of missions besides. With this aim in view, he engaged three priests. The Bishop granted this little community the privileges of diocesan missionaries that already existed in Hasparren, on the other side of the diocese. Slowly, the community grew novices headed for the priesthood and brother coadjutors. In Betharram, Father Garicoits created a permanent «mission» to ensure service to the sanctuary, to receive and offer confession to the pilgrims, and lead retreats. In the course of these activities, he placed in the hands of these retreatants the book of Saint Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. Drawing his inspiration from the «First Principle and Foundation» formulated by Saint Ignatius«Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord, and by this means to save his soul»he affirmed: «To possess God eternally is man's supreme good. His supreme evil is eternal damnation. There are two eternities. The present life can be likened to a path that we can make lead to one or the other of these two eternities that we want.»
But the «Saint of Betharram» did not forget any part of the revealed Truth. He knew the vastness of Divine Mercy for those who truly wish to receive it. Visiting a criminal condemned to death, he insisted from the start, «My friend, you are in a good situation. Cast yourself upon the bosom of Divine Mercy with utter confidence. Say, 'My God, have pity on me!' and you will be saved!» He added, «If, one day, I found myself in danger of losing my life between Betharram and Igon, and if I saw myself burdened with mortal sins, without help, without a confessor, I would throw myself heart and soul into the arms of Divine Mercy and would believe myself to be in a very good situation.»
In the French Catholic world of the 19th century, the idea took shape that in order to re-Christianize post-revolutionary France, it was necessary to re-Christianize the schoolhouse. Convinced of this necessity, Father Garicoits opened a primary school in Betharram in November 1837, not without the opposition of some members of his community who hoped to keep all available resources for the missions. Nevertheless, success was immediatethe students soon numbered two hundred. For our Saint, to educate was «to form the man and to prepare him to yield a useful and honorable career in his state of life, and thus to prepare for eternal life, in elevating the present life... Education, be it intellectual, moral or religious, is the highest human work that can be done. It is the continuation of what is most noble and elevated in the divine work: the creation of souls... Education imprints beauty, nobility, courtesy, greatness. It is an inspiration for life, grace and light.» Encouraged by the marvelous transformation that he observed among the students, the founder opened or re-opened numerous schools in the region over the course of the years.
Sensitive to attacks by the enemies of religion, and desirous of defending it, Michael Garicoits worked to enlighten souls through serious doctrinal education. He devoted time in particular to apologetics, the account of truths that support our faith. «[T]his faith in a God who reveals Himself also finds support in the reasoning of our intelligence. When we reflect, we observe that proofs of God's existence are not lacking. These have been elaborated by thinkers under the form of philosophical demonstrations in the sense of rigorously logical deductions. But they can also take on a simpler form. As such, they are accessible to everyone who seeks to understand the meaning of the world around him» («The Proofs of God's Existence,» General Audience, John Paul II, July 10, 1985). The General Directory for Catechesis, published in 1997 by the Congregation for the Clergy, affirms, «[E]ffective apologetics to assist the faith-culture dialogue is indispensable today.»
In 1838, Father Garicoits asked his Bishop for permission for him and his companions to follow the Constitutions of the Jesuits. Bishop Lacroix gave his provisional acceptance, and later submitted to the Fathers, who would from then on be called «The Auxiliary Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,» a new Rule that he had drawn up for them. But this text was quite deficient. The vows were not acknowledged in their full force. The Bishop reserved functions that should have been retained by the Superior... In his profound humility and obedience, Father Garicoits nevertheless submitted without the least reserve. However, certain faulty provisions in the new Rule caused dissensions within the community that the founder would have to endure until the end of his life. On numerous occasions Father Garicoits depicted the disjointedness of the situation, but without success. Returning one day from a meeting with Bishop Lacroix, he confessed, in a tone filled with emotion, «What a laborious thing the birth of a Congregation is!» It would not be until after the death of the founder and the arrival of the 1870's that the new Congregation would succeed in establishing itself according to Father Garicoits' views.
Forward! All the way to Heaven!
«Father, here I am!» This was the exclamation that sprang from the heart of Saint Michael Garicoits. «Our God is a Father,» he used to say. «In the end, we must surrender to His love, we must answer Him, 'Here I am!' At once, He will lift His child from the cradle of his misery and lavish all His Love on him.» This is the grace that we ask Saint Joseph and Saint Michael Garicoits to obtain for you and all your loved ones.