Compassionate Kindness and Invincible Patience

It was a bizarre sight – a rowdy group of ragged urchins pursued by a middle-aged priest in his cassock. Overtaking the stragglers he got their attention. Curious, the leaders began to drift back. Soon all were ambling animatedly to the house once more. The burst of truancy calmed, the lesson could be resumed.

On the outskirts of Paris in the late 1850’s, rag-pickers and factory workers were attending a First Communion class. The priest was Peter Julian Eymard, founder of a religious community dedicated to the Eucharist, whose feast we celebrate on the 2nd of this month.

In just a few years some 7,000 new inhabitants had drifted to the capital from the impoverished countryside (by 1856 Paris counted 1,538,600 inhabitants). They lived in wretched hovels, prostitution was rife, the ravages of alcoholism everywhere. Neither police nor clergy would dare enter such a “Lions’ Den” (as one of the slums was called) for fear of being stoned. With barely enough to eat, children and adolescents – many abandoned by their parents – toiled 12-15 hrs a day in noxious settings, six days a week, without holidays. Their life-expectancy was 30 years.

On the outer side of the new community’s lodgings, Lower Street descended into the slums – rue d’Enfer, “inferior” street (translatable, ironically, as “Street of Hell”!).

“It is simply impossible to tell you,” Eymard told a friend, “the state of degradation, of ignorance in which we find these young workers.” Illiteracy was rife, religious ignorance abysmal.

“Many have not the first notion of God! Their only fears are prison and destitution.” As one boy exclaimed, “‘God’ – what’s that?”

Teaching such youngsters who, as Eymard admitted, “are often insolent,” was daunting. A collaborator described them as “filled with hesitation and distrust, coming towards him timidly and then fleeing as fast as their legs could carry them.” Volunteers often gave up.

Yet Eymard won them over. Volunteers marvelled at “the cleverness and .. patient goodness needed to awaken their attention and hold it, and even more so to regain it in the midst of bursts of laughter, silly questions, smart answers, or songs started by some clown and taken up by all at the top of their voices right in the middle of an explanation!”

The First Communion program was held three times a year, with classes in the evenings – twice a week, then every night, with a three-day retreat prior to First communion.

Eymard undertook the work with immense faith, convinced that God would provide despite scant resources and little money. Helpers came from the St Vincent de Paul Society, money from friends. Women volunteers allowed young girls to participate as well.

Each communicant was to recruit others; and they did – with resounding success. The net spread ever wider, including families. Numbers grew – about 100 to 150 a year.

It was Eymard’s “princely” ministry. For God, he told his ragamuffins, “you are princes” – and they responded. “Those little street urchins become humanized little by little. … They are no longer the same.” He had the gift of touching their hearts.

“What I would like you to retain, at least, from this retreat,” he would say, “is the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Without that, your First Communion will be of no use to you at all. In your instruction at catechism, you were told who he is. You have him in your head; now you have to put him in your heart.”

He gave them a sense of their dignity. “Until now, nobody has shown you honour. But today the Church is celebrating a feast for you and people are flocking here.”

It is touching to hear him speak of First Communion. “When the day comes, each communicant is newly dressed; they are really spruce on that great day … they take their place in Church and in society.” For most, these were their first new clothes. “Not one of the 107 communicants came as a pauper, for all were wearing a wedding garment for the feast.”

He kept contact with them to encourage their perseverance, and could declare, “What consoles me is to see the majority of our communicants become good Christians.”

“They now call me the Father of the poor, the consolation of the afflicted. Everybody comes!”

What might we learn from him for our day?

Fr. Tony McSweeney, SSS