August 28, 1997

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


August 28, 1997
Saint Augustine

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

God so loved the world, as to give His only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting (John 3: 16). The announcement of this Good News to all men is at the heart of the evangelization of the third millennium.

Comfort on the cheap?

"Does modern man feel the need for this announcement? At first glance, it would seem not, since the general attitude and a certain dominant culture present the image of a humanity sure of itself, which willingly does without God, which claims an absolute liberty, even against moral law. But when we look closely at the reality of the individual person who is obligated to face his fragility and his solitude, we glimpse that minds are dominated, even more than we would believe, by sadness, anxiety about the future, fear of sickness and death. That explains why so many people, looking for a way out, sometimes take frightening shortcuts, like the abyss of drugs or that of traumatic superstitions and magical rites.

"Christianity does not offer comfort on the cheap, because it requires an authentic faith and a rigorous moral life. But it gives us cause for hope, by showing us God as Father, rich in mercy, who gave us His Son, thus showing us His immense love" (John Paul II, Angelus of March 9, 1997).

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, shows us this love through the gift of a mother's affection which He personally gives to every man: When Jesus had seen His Mother and the disciple standing whom He loved, He said to His Mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, He said to the disciple: Behold thy mother (John 19: 26-27). In the maternal face of Mary, Christians recognize an expression of the solicitude and goodness of God the Father. The Blessed Virgin appears as she who attracts sinners and reveals to them, through her kindness and indulgence, the Divine Mercy. She helps them surmount the obstacle of fear that the majesty of God naturally inspires in the creature. The growing attraction exercised on many generations of Christians by the devotion to Mary testifies to the excellence of such a gift. The presence of a Mother is indeed a source of comfort and joy. Whatever our station in life, whatever our responsibilities, we are all enveloped in the sweet maternity of the Virgin Mary, who carries out for us, in the realm of grace, the acts that every mother performs for her children: She loves, she watches over, she protects, she intercedes. Indeed, she assists in the spiritual birth and education of each of us. She causes grace to come into our hearts, and ceaselessly increases the domain of holiness.

In order to give our age an example of the maternal action of Mary, Pope John Paul II beatified Anne-Marie Rivier on May 23, 1982.

A little woman four foot four in stature

In 1770, before she was even two years old, Anne-Marie was the victim of a serious accident: she fell out of the top of a bunk bed. In the fall she fractured her hip; after that, even with crutches, she could not stand up. This dramatic episode took place in the area where she was raised, at Montpezat, in the mountains of the Ardèche (France).

Anne-Marie also suffered from rickets. She had a normally developed head and chest, but her arms and legs remained thin, and as an adult she was only four feet four inches tall. She was hobbled by her infirmity and every day her mother took her to the Chapel of the Penitents, where they venerated the very ancient statue of the Pieta. During these visits, Mom explained to her child who this weeping Mother was with her Son, brought down from the Cross, stretched out in her arms. The love for Christ and His Mother, the desire to do something for them, the horror of sin which was the cause of their suffering, and, above all, an absolute confidence in Mary, slowly entered into the tender and generous heart of the little girl. One day, without beating about the bush, she said to her mother: "The Lady in the chapel will cure me!" She calmly awaited the miracle which did not come, and asked: "Blessed Virgin, cure me, and everyday I will bring you bouquets and crowns. If you do not cure me, I will not come back again.... If you don't cure me, I won't have anything to do with you!"

Nevertheless the poor sick little child continued to have herself transported every day before the statue. She knew that in Heaven Mary was pursuing her role for the eternal salvation of men. By her words and actions, related in the Gospels, she contributes to our spiritual upbringing: she invites us to perfect purity, to the unique care of pleasing God, to fidelity, to docility towards all actions of the Holy Spirit, to the practice of virtues, to intimate union with Jesus. Mary is a heart that loves, sings, rises up and shines. The Blessed Virgin also intervenes in our lives by her prayers, which can obtain miracles for us, if she decides it is worthwhile. Her good inspirations are more frequent than we might imagine. How many times are we awkward about a choice or a duty which is difficult to accomplish. And then, after an invocation or a call for help, the light shines and joy returns. Sometimes there are also more precise words, more clear instructions for those who, faithfully, ask to know which way to go. Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus wrote, "The Blessed Virgin never fails to protect me the moment that I call on her. If I become upset or embarrassed, I quickly turn to her, and always, like the most tender of mothers she takes charge of my concerns" (Ms C, folio 26 r°). Anne-Marie would also feel the effects of this maternal protection.

At her home she told edifying stories to the children of the village, and she really knew how to hold the attention of her small audience and keep them enthralled. She taught catechism and made all the children pray. Little by little she felt in her heart the desire to consecrate herself to God and to the education of children. She would later say, "I also felt more than ever a great desire to be cured."

In 1774, her father was called to God. The burial took place on September 8, feast of the Nativity of the Most Blessed Virgin. That same day, Anne-Marie asked for her crutches, which had been taken away. They were found. And then to everyone's great astonishment, she started using them and went around the room three times. The Virgin Mary, for her feast, had given her the gift of a beautiful miracle, permitting her to walk with the help of her crutches!

More than ever she occupied herself with other children and organized small processions, the little girls wearing veils and the boys wearing crosses, while everyone recited the Rosary.

A double dose of miracles

On July 31, 1777, Anne-Marie, who was nine years old at the time, fell from a ladder and fractured her thighbone. A surgeon was called for the emergency and set the bone. After the doctor left, Madame Rivier, moved by the faith that can move mountains, took off the bandage and rubbed the injured leg with oil from the lamp of Notre-Dame de Pradelles. The next day, the swelling in the leg had gone down. On the 15th of August following the accident, one of her uncles told the child: "Get up and try to walk." A second miracle, even more surprising than the first: Anne-Marie got up and walked without her crutches! She let out a cry of joy: "The Blessed Virgin has cured me!... The Blessed Virgin has cured me!..." In her joy, she retold everywhere the wonders performed by Mary on her behalf.

Her love for God grew with the graces she received. One day, someone met her in the woods: "Where are you going?" - "To the desert to pray to the good Lord." She was taken back to the house, but her desire for solitude and prayer did not diminish. Her charity for the poor brought her to give everything that she could. She even helped a blind woman beg, taking her by the hand to show her the way.

When she was eleven, she made her First Communion: She would later say, "I was so little that I had to put my woolen hat under my knees in order to reach the Communion rail." Her mother then made her learn to read and write and then, to complete her education, sent her to the sisters of Notre-Dame at Pradelles. When she was back at home, in her zeal she carried out numerous pastoral and charitable works: she catechized, brought the young to Mass and to the confessional, cared for the sick and watched over the dying. Her interior life was fulfilled by daily reception of Holy Communion, the recitation of the Rosary and the little office of the Immaculate Conception. Her holiness was such that she was asked to make novenas for different intentions.

When she was seventeen years old, she sought entry among the Sisters of Notre-Dame, but the council of the Sisters refused her admission on account of her poor health. Painful surprise! She confided, "These refusals only inflamed my desires; since they won't let me into the convent, I will make make my own convent!" A faith that could uproot massive oak trees, a blind confidence in the Most Blessed Virgin and an overflowing charity inflamed the heart of our "little" Anne-Marie.

"All in Paradise"

In 1786, she returned to Montpezat. She was eighteen years old, but her stature was still small. That did not stop her from asking the parish priest to establish her the head of a school. The priest thought her request was ridiculous, thinking that she would get neither respect nor obedience from the children. Anne-Marie insisted and insisted.... Not only did she want to bring girls together, but she also desired to raise good mothers of families, convinced as she was of the evangelizing role of families and of the importance of initiation to religion from a young age. She would say, "Life is entirely in the first impressions!" The priest finally yielded. She thus had permission to put together a school in a house belonging to some Dominican sisters. The school opened with the beginning of the 1786 school year, with the student body made up of the children of local notables, but also containing poor children who were admitted freely.

The young mistress was stern, but she was loved by her girls who understood that her firmness would be to their profit and came from her love for them. Her teaching method was simple and quite sensible. She was conscious of the fact that the complete formation of a child must include a solid and deep spiritual and doctrinal formation. Her desire to lead the souls in her trust to their eternal beatitude made her frequently repeat: "My children, I want to lead all of you to Paradise."

She obtained encouraging results from her students. Her secret? Audacity, tenacity, an expansive joy and a lot of courage. Here's some advice that she would later give to her sisters:

For teaching: "Don't get noticed by your talents, not even to attract students to the school.... If they succeed, they shouldn't take themselves for geniuses looking to be brilliant. Don't use technical terms to talk to them. Don't admire their attire: teach them to be horrified with jewelry and fashion."

She put the new teachers on guard: "The children are sometimes clever enough to try to test the character of a newly arrived sister, wanting to see if she is energetic, vigilant, if they can make fun of her and get away with it. So those who take over the direction of a class should have a serious and stern air about them which makes it known that work is to be done without kidding around, and also a tone of goodness and politeness that wins them over."

"Make sure they are clean and have food in abundance; young people must have enough to eat. Sleep and exercise are necessary. Their feet shouldn't be damp. Give them a hot drink if they are cold. If they are ill, call the doctor without giving them `old wives' remedies. Don't give them food for which they have an unswerving repugnance..."

In torment

1789: The French Revolution broke out. Anne-Marie did all she could to help recalcitrant priests carry our their ministries even though they were hunted by the authorities for their loyalty to the Pope. Night and day, as circumstances permitted, she brought the faithful together for confessions, Mass and Holy Communion. When a priest was unable to come, she herself gave instruction. In those days when the guillotine worked ceaselessly, one had to speak realistically. She did not hesitate to speak with force, of Jesus Crucified, the model of courage and constancy, of the last things, of mortal sin that leads to damnation, of the Paradise promised to those who remain faithful to the Gospel and to the Roman Church. Then she asked her listeners: "Do you promise that you will die for Jesus Christ?" And with tears in their eyes, everyone answered: "Yes!" She was soon called before the revolutionary commissary who forbade her to preside over such get-togethers, under pain of being locked up and then sentenced. But this little woman of four foot four held her head up, and without worrying, pointed out to trustworthy people the Rivier house as a meeting place. In Montpezat, the Dominican house, although nationalized, had not been sold. Anne-Marie continued to run her school there. She soon had a half dozen boarders whom she tried to shape into a sort of religious community: The idea of a convent was still on her mind. Her zeal for the salvation of souls inspired her with great boldness. She said, "God sustained me so much that instead of thinking of abandoning projects I had undertaken, I thought about still greater ones. Here, I said to myself, the children are raised, the women and girls are helped, but elsewhere, who is taking care of so many poor souls? And I burned with the desire to multiply myself...." This was in 1793, at the height of the revolution. Three girls were taken up with her ideals and joined her. Anne-Marie assigned each of them to a neighboring village so that they could teach catechism and help the young people live in conformity with the Gospel.

The blessed virgin again

In 1794, the revolutionary government sold the Dominican house in Montpezat. Anne-Marie and her companions, who had to move out, asked the Blessed Virgin to give them a sign of encouragement: the statue of Mary moved and smiled at them. Fortified by this miracle, they settled in the village of Thueyts, in another house belonging to the Dominicans, and established a school there. The number of students was so great that Anne-Marie had to place the boys with the Brothers of Christian Schools. Her example attracted two other young women who decided to help her. One day she got these first five companions together and quickly declared: "Let's get together and we will create a convent!" Everyone agreed, the foundation was launched. Preliminary authorization was received from the bishop, and, on November 21, 1796, on the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, Anne-Marie and her girls consecrated themselves to God and to youth, under the patronage of Our Lady of the Presentation. Later she would say, "We were nothing, we had nothing, we could do nothing. After that, how can you doubt that it is the Good Lord that is in control of things?" Indeed, the spirituality of the foundress was based upon the virtues of faith, hope and charity, with a wholly apostolic flavor. For her it meant acting with Christ to pursue the work of the Redemption. That is why she wrote: "Our vocation is Jesus Christ." At the beginning of the school year in October, 1798, the school in Thueyts had 62 boarders and it was necessary to buy another house; obviously they did not have the money.... But Providence, which never fails those who have faith in it, provided, and the necessary funds were rapidly obtained. In 1801, Archbishop d'Aviau approved the provisional Rules that Mother Anne-Marie had submitted to him. She was confirmed as Superior for life and twelve sisters made their consecration. In 1815, the greater part of the community moved form Thueyts to Bourg-Saint-Andéol, to the large Convent of the Visitation sisters, acquired with difficulty by the foundress. "I never sought money except through prayer, and it always came," she would say pointing to a statue of the Most Blessed Virgin. The schools multiplied rapidly. When she finally left this earth to go to the Virgin Mary whom she had so faithfully loved on this earth, her congregation counted 300 sisters spread among 141 establishments. Today, the Sisters of the Presentation number about 3,000, with 9 provinces, 3 of which are in Europe and 6 in the United States. They are simultaneously teachers, hospital sisters and parish educators.

On February 3, 1838, while reciting the second part of the Hail Mary: ..."Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death," Mother Anne-Marie died peacefully. Our Lady was there to meet her.

By asking Mary for her intercession, we recognize our condition as sinners and we implore the "Mother of mercy," the All-Holy One. We confide in her the "now," the today of our lives, that she might instill in our hearts the certitude that God loves us, and that she be close to us in our times of loneliness, when we are tempted to give up in face of the difficulties of life. May our confidence again increase to entrust to her from this moment "the hour of our death." May she be there as she was at the death of her Son on the Cross, and at the time of our passing, may she welcome us as our Mother and lead us to Jesus in Paradise (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2677).

Such is the grace we hope for you and for all those dear to you, living and deceased, through the intercession of Saint Joseph.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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