“Give me the command of a small army, and I will restore order throughout the country in the name of God!” Hearing these words proclaimed by a 16-year-old shepherdess who could neither read nor write, Sir Robert de Baudricourt was stunned. Anyone else would have sent the audacious girl back to her flocks, but Baudricourt, a knight in command of a military garrison in the east of France, listened to her appeal. This was a miracle in itself, and many more would follow in the short yet dramatic life of Joan of Arc.
After leading an army in support of the French king, she was condemned to death for heresy by corrupt judges and burned at the stake May 30, 1431, at age 19. Twenty-five years later, her reputation was restored, but it took another five centuries before she was canonized a saint on May 16, 1920.
Joan played an integral part in the history of France, and her story is a rare case in which religious experience and political mission are intimately linked.
Joan was born in 1412 in the village of Domrémy, about 275 km (170 miles) east of Paris. (Today the town is home to a Knights of Columbus council, named, of course, after St. Joan of Arc.) The situation in Europe in Joan’s time was particularly troubled: The Western Schism, with its competing claims to the papacy, lasted until 1417, while the Hundred Years’ War would continue until 1453.
Factions in France had been battling for power — against England and against each other — for decades. By 1420, the queen of France had signed a treaty disinheriting her son, the dauphin (crown prince) Charles, and transferring the throne to Henry V of England.
Several years later, Joan had her first mystical experience at age 13 — she heard the “voice” of St. Michael the Archangel, and later those of St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch — and felt called by God to help alleviate the suffering of her country.
During two particularly intense years, she undertook a mission to expel English forces and place Charles on the French throne. Her banner was blessed in Blois, also home to a council of Knights; her suit of armor was forged in Tours, where a memorial stone in the cathedral recalls the Knights’ presence in World War I.
The city of Orléans, which had been under siege by the English for more than six months, was liberated in May 1429, just nine days after Joan’s arrival. It was the French army’s first significant victory, and a turning point in the war. Joan saw the coronation of King Charles VII at Reims Cathedral two months later.
The following year, a truce with England abruptly came to an end, and Joan was captured in the northern city of Compiègne, which she was helping to defend against a siege. She was eventually put on trial in Rouen, the capital of the Normandy region, and condemned as a heretic.
On the morning of May 30, Joan received holy Communion for the last time, in prison, and was led to the stake in the town square. Asking a priest to hold up a cross, she died with her eyes fixed upon the crucified Christ, crying out the name of Jesus.
Since Joan of Arc was the subject of two trials, much is known about her life. The first trial, conducted by ecclesiastical judges, condemned her. The second — the rehabilitation trial — concluded 25 years after her death, based on the testimony of people who knew her. The debates and statements of the trial were recorded, and nearly 600 years later, some of her saintly exclamations are remembered today.
A number of them appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “We must ‘serve God first’” (223); “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” (795); “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there’” (2005).
The difficulty with Joan of Arc is that we have often made her a kind of caricature that hides the essentials — as if the warrior prevented us from seeing the saint. God gave her many victories, but when the Church proclaimed her a saint, it was not because of her military exploits or her political role, but because of her holiness. St. Joan of Arc’s holiness consists of a childlike spirit, similar to that of another famous French saint, Thérèse of Lisieux.
When her mission begins, Joan is still almost a child. And, spiritually speaking, she will never leave childhood. The answers she gives at her trial reveal a childlike faith; and as for her theology, if we can use this term for Joan, it is also a child’s theology. All she knows, as she readily admits, is the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Creed, which she learned from her mother.
Joan owed much of her understanding of God to her faithful and regular prayer. It was prayer according to God’s heart, consisting not only of saying her prayers but of being in prayer — of contemplating God in spirit, of living in his presence, of talking to him constantly, very familiarly, about everything and nothing. This form of contemplation is the true source of knowledge of God. St. Thomas Aquinas, who is perhaps the greatest theologian the Church has known, said that he understood more by contemplating a crucifix than by devouring the library in his monastery.
Joan added to all this a great devotion to Mary, the saints and angels, as well as a regular recourse to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, at a time when frequent reception of holy Communion was uncommon.
But the key to Joan’s holiness, for every saint has one, lies in her docility. One fine day, voices call her — first St. Michael, and later other saints. She answers them, and she leaves home. And throughout her mission, she does nothing, absolutely nothing, without first asking for detailed instructions. With St. Joan of Arc, the Lord wanted to offer us an example of spiritual docility. This is why she is holy, regardless of her history.
In the end, Joan’s lesson is very simple: There is no Christian life, no progress toward holiness, without a decisive “yes.” For Joan, this included her vow of virginity and her intense commitment to God.
Our own yes must also mark a break and must be repeated, at least implicitly, every day. It is a yes that must be pronounced in faith — and often even in the darkness of faith. Christian life is always an adventure. You commit without exactly knowing what it entails; you never know what crosses the next day will bring. The yes that God asks of us is an unconditional yes — but once we give it, his grace is also unconditional.
The life of Joan of Arc illustrates all this. It shows what the faith of a Christian allied with the grace of God can do. It shows us that the only decisive victory is that of fidelity to our vocation.
Novelist André Malraux, France’s first minister of cultural affairs, once described what the strength of Joan’s courage and the serenity of her convictions were able to achieve: “In this world where the dauphin doubted that he was the dauphin, France that it was France, the army that it was an army, Joan reestablished the army, the king, France!”
God definitely has a curious conception of human resource management: For a warrior, he chose a frail young girl. For a mission that was eminently political, he chose a small, illiterate shepherdess who was completely ignorant of politics.
Politics, in its first sense, is the management of the life of the city. And God, who wants the good of men, is interested in this work. In his name, the Church never tires of asking for a generation of men and women who understand that politics is a demanding path of charity in action — a charity based on an essential conviction that all power is called to service. To enter politics to serve one’s brothers means to forget oneself and to take on the mantle of the servant — like Christ on the evening of Holy Thursday.
Joan of Arc’s whole life is a lesson and encouragement for those who are committed to political service of their fellow citizens. Like St. Louis before her and St. Thomas More after, she gives all her nobility and dignity to political commitment.
In this sense, she cannot be claimed by any one political party — or even one nation. She belongs to the whole world.
FATHER PIERRE AMAR is a priest of the Diocese of Versailles, France, and a charter member of Père Jacques Hamel Council 16915 in Limay. An author and speaker engaged on social media, he co-founded the French Catholic website Padreblog.
A HISTORIC OPPORTUNITY’
Knights of Columbus celebrates a rich history and promising future in France
SUPREME KNIGHT CARL ANDERSON paid tribute to the past and looked forward to the future during a visit with Knights of Columbus in France in February, following the K of C Board of Directors’ pilgrimage to Rome.
“I wished to come here after my pilgrimage to Rome because the service of our Order to the Holy See began after a pilgrimage to France,” the supreme knight told Knights gathered in Paris Feb. 13. “And if during this centenary of service we have supported nine popes, all this was made possible because we came to France.”
The first K of C councils in France were established in December 2015, but the Order’s close connection with the country goes back much further. The Knights of Columbus operated recreation huts throughout France during World War I, and in August 1920, a large delegation of Knights made a pilgrimage to Metz. The pilgrims, led by Supreme Knight James Flaherty, presented the city with a statue of its native son and hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette. They also presented a gold ceremonial baton to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, supreme allied commander during World War I. The delegation then went on to meet with Pope Benedict XV in Rome, beginning the Order’s century of service to the successors of St. Peter.
During his visit to Paris in February, Supreme Knight Anderson prayed at the tomb of Marshal Foch, who became the millionth member of the Order — and the first Knight of Columbus in France — by vote of the Board of Directors during his tour of the United States in November 1921. Foch is interred near Napoleon at Les Invalides, a complex that includes a veterans’ hospital, military museums and memorials, and a home for war veterans.
More than 100 Knights and 20 new candidates later participated in a combined exemplification ceremony at the nearby Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides, the cathedral of the Diocese of the French Armed Forces. The supreme knight also thanked Bishop Antoine de Romanet for his collaboration with the Knights, which has included the annual international military pilgrimage to Lourdes.
In the past five years, the Order’s presence in France has grown to include more than 500 Knights in 22 councils, spread throughout 12 dioceses. Later this year, the supreme knight announced, France would be granted territory status.
“It is important for us to be active in those countries which will be the most important for the future of the Catholic Church in the coming century,” Supreme Knight Anderson told Knights participating in the ceremonial. “We are in France because France is decisive in evangelization and the future of the Catholic Church.”
In recent weeks, the Knights of Columbus in France have been busy responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Blessed Charles de Foucauld Council 16502 in Paris has mobilized hundreds of volunteers for the archdiocese, distributing thousands of meals to the homeless and other people in precarious situations. In Saint-Raphaël, in southern France, members of St. Honorat Council 17338 are delivering food parcels to people who are isolated. Councils have also been helping to facilitate the online streaming of parish Masses and other spiritual events.
The quarantine has also required Knights who are fathers to step up as leaders of their domestic church, noted Arnaud Boutheon, grand knight of Council 16502 and the Order’s special consultant for French affairs. “This is a historic opportunity,” he said, “to show our children fathers kneeling, praying, armed with the rosary.”
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