Father Ernest André and Our Lady of Holy Hope

Father Ernest André and Our Lady of Holy Hope

 

On July 5, 1852, Father
Ernest André, a young parish priest in Mesnil-Saint-Loup, a poor village in the
diocese of Troyes, France, was received in a private audience by Blessed Pius
IX. Kneeling at his feet, he asked, “Most Holy Father, would you grant the name
of Our Lady of Holy Hope to the Blessed Virgin honored in our church?” At these
words, the Pope raised his head, then, after a moment of recollection, seemed
full of joy, and said with a marked note of satisfaction, “Our Lady of Holy
Hope—yes!

Under the impetus of the pastor, in just a few short years
Our Lady of Holy Hope would not only transform the parish of Mesnil-Saint-Loup,
but also spread her graces far beyond the village.

 

Ernest André, who would later be known as Father Emmanuel,
was born on October 17, 1826, in Bagbeux-la-Fosse, in the Aube. At the age of
nine, the child contracted typhoid fever, which brought him to death’s door.
After forty days of near-unconsciousness, he was cured as though by a miracle.
Shortly thereafter, he expressed the desire to become a priest. In 1839, Ernest
entered the minor seminary. The sacrament of Confirmation, which he received at
the end of the first year, marked him profoundly. Later, in his teachings, he
would often emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.
His years of formation at the major seminary took place at a time when a
missionary spirit permeated French Catholicism. Some of Father André’s
classmates left the seminary to enter the Marist Brothers or the Picpus Fathers
to evangelize distant lands. He too felt the fervor. Nevertheless, in the end he
dedicated himself to the more traditional mission of parish priest in his
diocese. After the dark years of the Revolution, did not Christianity need to be
rebuilt in France itself?

“He won’t stay with us”

Ordained a priest on December 22, 1849, Father André then
twenty-three years old, was appointed pastor of Mesnil-Saint-Loup, a parish of
three hundred fifty souls, twenty kilometers west of Troyes. On December 24th,
the new pastor arrived in Mesnil. Catching sight of the village, he asked a man
the way to the church. As he accompanied him there, the man naively made his and
the entire region’s confession: “You see, sir, we are not very devout here. Oh,
we don’t miss Sunday Mass, but afterwards, we are fond of going for a drink.”
Hearing him chant the Midnight Mass, the parishioners said to each other: “This
one sings too well—he won’t stay with us.” But in fact, he would remain at
Mesnil-Saint-Loup fifty-three years. In this village where the people were poor,
religious practice was a regular part of life, at least if one considered the
number of people attending Sunday Mass and Vespers. But it was only women who
fulfilled the obligation of receiving Communion at Easter. In the intensity of
his faith and the passion of his pastoral zeal, Father André could not be
content with the minimum. He wanted more, and above all better—fervent
Christians eager to drink from the spring of the sacraments, who were nourished
on the word of God and gave a real place to prayer in their daily lives. The
young pastor immediately set to work—visiting parishioners, especially the sick,
catechism, and preparation for first Holy Communion. His good humor, spirit, and
easy laugh were already warming hearts. His entire being showed an exuberance
for life that wished only to expend itself for the salvation of souls. But
Father André quickly understood the the harvest does not come the day after
sowing. He noted that, among the communicants prepared by his predecessor the
year before, few had persevered in the sacramental life. Would he have better
success in 1850? He deployed all his zeal: “Committing one’s life,” he said, “is
a serious matter. You belong to Jesus Christ.” Nevertheless, several boys left.
The young priest’s repeated exhortations, and joining in their games, won some
of them back. But it all remained precarious.

In June 1852, Father André embarked on a pilgrimage to
Rome. Along the way, as he said his Rosary, he was seized interiorly by a
thought that filled him with joy and excitement—Mary is the Mother of Holy Hope,
according to the Biblical expression (I am the mother of fair love, and fear,
and knowledge, and holy hope: I therefore, being eternal, am given to all my
children which are named of him
cf. Sir. 24:18). At that moment, he received
the certainty that once he reached Rome, he must ask the Pope’s permission to
give the name of “Our Lady of Holy Hope” to the statue of the Virgin in his
church, and to institute a feast in her honor. The Pope’s consent, he rightly
thought, would be the sign that this inspiration came from Heaven. Against all
expectations, he immediately received permission from Pius IX to celebrate a
liturgical feast in honor of Our Lady of Holy Hope on the fourth Sunday of
October. In 1854, this feast would be accompanied by a plenary indulgence. The
fact that it was Pius IX who instituted the devotion of Our Lady of Holy Hope
was not mere chance—it was extremely significant. The Holy Father personally
gave Our Lady of Holy Hope to the parish of Mesnil-Saint-Loup. He himself had
had a great devotion to the Virgin Mary since his earliest childhood. On the
very day of his birth and baptism, on May 13, 1792, Giovanni Maria Masai
Ferretti had been consecrated by his parents to a Madonna called Our Lady of
Hope. Pius IX would also be the Pope of the Immaculate Conception, proclaiming
that dogma in 1854.

“Crying the little prayer”

On his return to his parish, Father André initially kept
secret the favors he had just obtained from the Holy Father, waiting to announce
them on the Solemnity of the Assumption. During a memorable sermon in which he
let his joy and filial confidence in Mary burst forth, Father André addressed a
series of invocations to the Virgin Mary, one of which touched his parishioners
more than the others: Our Lady of Holy Hope, convert us! It was a simple
expression that grabbed the faithful’s piety. They would say it, praying and
crying, to the point that the expression “crying the little prayer” was coined.
Father André did not ask his parishioners to convert, but asked Mary to obtain
their conversion from her son. The Christian life is a continual conversion, a
gift we receive through prayer.

The first conversion was that of Ernest André himself, who
was transformed into an inspired and effective worker: “Before the Holy Hope,”
he would later say, “I was directionless. I knew nothing. With it, I became
focused, I saw, I understood.” In the school of Mary, Father André would become
a pastor and incomparable former of Christians. From that day on, the Blessed
Virgin’s immense power to convert omnipotentia supplex (the
all-powerful suppliant,
an expression used by the Fathers of the Church)
manifested itself in a sensational way. On Sunday, October 22, 1852, the first
feat of Our Lady of Holy Hope was celebrated very simply, but with great joy.
The parishioners did not typically receive Communion on an ordinary Sunday, but
Father André insisted. The women went without much difficulty, but would the
young men he had brought together have the courage to publicly approach the
sacraments? Most of them came to confession at a rather late hour—human respect
still held them back. But the next day, they received Communion at the High Mass
in front of everyone. It was the first victory of Our Lady of Holy Hope. A new
wind, the Holy Spirit, was blowing through Mesnil-Saint-Loup. The grace of
baptism buried in their hearts reappeared in all its freshness and strength.

Reestablishing true notions

Father André commented, “For Christian behavior to be
reestablished, true notions of Christianity must first be reestablished in
people’s minds. All of Christianity consists of knowing and recognizing in
practice what we lost in Adam and what we have received in Jesus Christ; the
doctrine on original sin and its consequences on one hand, and on grace and its
necessity on the other.” And later on, he would specify what conversion consists
of: “The work of Our Lady of Hope in Mesnil-Saint-Loup was simply to reestablish
Christianity among the baptized. Here as elsewhere, almost everything had been
invaded by a cold and base naturalism that does not allow man to elevate his
thoughts above his feelings. Here as elsewhere, human reason—and what
reason!—prevailed over divine reason, that is to say, over faith. The grace of
Our Lord Jesus Christ was a sublime unknown. … All the Christian virtues were
unknown, replaced by an easy and universal virtue the world calls honesty. From
the moment Our Lady of Holy Hope arrived, every soul understood that great
change was absolutely necessary. The external practices of religion would be
found inadequate, the interior motives for action would have to undergo
fundamental modifications; the love of God would have to stop being just an
expression. The Spirit of the Lord was going to breathe into dried bones and
raise up a new people (cf. Fz. 17).”

In his catecheses on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Pope
Francis, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, explains the role of the Holy Spirit and
the importance of the gift of fear, which is connected with the virtue of hope:
“Filial fear does not mean that we are afraid that we will fail to obtain what
we seek from divine help, but rather that we are afraid that we will separate
ourselves from this help. This is why filial fear and hope are united, and each
perfects the other (Summa Theologiae, (IIa-IIae, 19,9, ad 1um)

“When the Holy Spirit, the Pope continues, “comes to dwell
in our hearts. He infuses us with consolation and peace, and He leads us to the
awareness of how small we are, with that attitude—strongly recommended by Jesus
in the Gospel—of one who places his every care and expectation in God and feels
enfolded and sustained by His warmth and protection, exactly as a small child
with his father! This is what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts. He makes us
feel like small children in the arms of our father. In this sense, then, we
understand how fear of the Lord in us takes on the form of docility, gratitude
and praise, by filling our hearts with hope. Indeed, we frequently fail to grasp
the plan of God, and we realize that we are not capable of assuring ourselves of
happiness and eternal life. It is precisely in experiencing our own limitations
and our poverty, however, that the Holy Spirit comforts us and lets us perceive
that the only important thing is to allow ourselves to be led by Jesus into the
Father’s arms. This is why we need this gift of the Holy Spirit so much. Fear of
the Lord allows us to be aware that everything comes from grace and that our
true strength lies solely in following the Lord Jesus and in allowing the Father
to bestow upon us His goodness and His mercy. To open the heart, so that the
goodness and mercy of God may come to us: this is what the Holy Spirit does
through the gift of fear of the Lord. He opens hearts. The heart opens so that
forgiveness, mercy, goodness and the caress of the Father may come to us, for as
children we are infinitely loved” (General audience, June 11th, 2014)

The confraternity of Perpetual Prayers

From 1852 to 1860, not a single feast or feast of Our
Lady of Holy Hope passed without real conversions taking place, which led souls
to God by radically separating them from worldly life. Participation in the
sacraments increased, and more men joined the women in saying the Rosary. In
1853, despite the opposition of some of the parishioners, an altar to Our Lady
of Holy Hope was erected in the church. The same year, a confraternity to say
the little prayer was established. So that the little prayer might be extended
over the course of the day as a perpetual prayer, the members, in sets of
twelve, committed to saying each at a set hour, a Hail Mary with the
invocation Our Lady of Holy Hope, convert us! Before and after it.

Father André cared more about the fidelity and fervor of
the members than their number. Nevertheless, the confraternity grew rapidly. At
the end of 1854, there were just 272 members, but a year later there were more
than 4,000. In 1856, Father Desgenettes, the pastor of Our Lady of Victories in
Paris, spoke of the initiative of Our Lady of Holy Hope saying: “All these
storms are stirred up against the effort only because it is well planted on the
rock of Saint Peter. It is a young tree that will become great and strong,
because its roots have penetrated the rock to draw Catholic vigor from its
source.” In fact, the Perpetual Prayer quickly spread beyond the parish. Members
came from all of France and even from abroad. Encouraged by several briefs from
the Holy See, the Perpetual Prayer would be established as an archconfraternity
on August 27, 1869. Less than ten years later, the association would number
100,000 members. On March 25, 1877, the monthly Bulletin of Our Lady of
Holy Hope would begin to be published.

The transformation of the parish in Mesnil was the work of
Our Lady, but the pastor cooperated with it with great zeal. He said, “I need
Christians as Baptism made them. They exist in seed; I will cultivate them and
obtain them, and I am collaborating with His grace. I will not tolerate the
mixing in of the spirit of the world that deforms, diminishes, and even
sometimes under religious pretenses kills, the Christian. 100% Christians,
Christians of the Gospel, Christians who, far from cloaking themselves in
deliberate ignorance, seek the light in order to be wholly one with the
light—that is my aim.”

To accomplish this, Father André began Sunday afternoon
classes; his constant concern was to instruct his faithful, to enlighten their
faith. He taught on the books of Holy Scripture, the liturgy, the sacraments. He
even went so far as to teach them the rudiments of Latin, so they could
understand the chants of the Mass and the Psalms—for on Sunday and feast days,
many came to the church to chant a part of the Divine Office (Lauds, Vespers and
Compline). The instruction was intermingled with games on the town square, and
Sundays concluded with evening prayer, with the express aim of putting an end to
dances and the influence of cabarets. Within a few years, cabarets and dances
had disappeared from Mesnil. Conversion was also reflected in modesty of dress.
The pastor waged war against vanity and immodest attire. “Modesty,” he said “is
one of the signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a soul. In general men do
not know how to be chaste if women are not modest.” In 1878, he would gather
together the most committed women in the “Society of Jesus Crowned with Thorns”.

Mary’s “vengeance”

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that this
movement did not meet with opposition. Some in the village did not want Our Lady
of Holy Hope. Young libertines created a “second parish” in a stable that had
been transformed into a dance hall, where the parodied religious ceremonies. Our
Lady had her revenge in her own way: one Sunday in the month of Mary in 1854,
while these young people were going out on a pleasure excursion, the leader
stopped cold and decided to go home. His companions’ mockery had no effect on
him. He would later say, “It was as though the medal of the Blessed Virgin had
fallen on my head.” He began to say the Rosary, then, in October, he went to
confession. In the end, he became a monk at the Abby of La pierre-qui-Vire.

Despite these signs, Father André apparently did not win
the unanimous support of his parishioners. Nevertheless, from throughout the
diocese and even beyond, people flocked in, drawn by the renown of Our Lady of
Holy Hope, by the atmosphere of prayer that surrounded her, by the beauty of the
celebration of her feast. Gradually the fest on the fourth Sunday of October
became the object of pilgrimages, and registrations to join the Perpetual Prayer
flooded in. In his newsletter of November 1878, Father André wrote, “People go
on pilgrimage to where there is a spring, a miraculous spring. Several weeks
ago, a poor man came. He had come from far away, on two crutches. He asked for
our charity and shared a few thoughts. ‘Oh, so people do you have a spring?’ Do
you have a spring! Here is the true explanation for the pilgrimage to Our Lady
of Holy Hope. How many souls who are thirsting for God’s grace, for consolations
from Heaven, come here believing to find a spring. And of all those who have
come here, not one has ever said: I was deceived. Yes, there is a spring in Our
Lady of Holy Hope, in her whom the Church calls Mater, fons amoris: Mary
is Mother, Mother and Spring of Love.” At the feet of Our Lady, pilgrims lay
votive offerings. “Thank you to Our Lady of Holy Hope, who converted me.”—“She
freed me from vanity”…Such is indeed the grace of this devotion: in it, Mary
reveals herself as the all-powerful converter, the queen of hearts.

Monastic life

The crowds of pilgrims and the poor condition of the
parish church led to the decision to build a new one. The project would take ten
years. The Blessed Virgin did not stop there—she also fulfilled Father André’s
dearest desires. He had always been attracted to monastic life. In 1864, he
succeeded in founding a small monastery in the village, and took the name Father
Emmanuel. In 1886, the monastery attached itself to the Italian Benedictine
congregation of Mount Olivet, and in 1899 Father Emmanuel was released from his
parish duties. In 1901 he witnessed with profound sorrow the dissolution of his
religious community, which, like so many others, was the victim of severe
secularist measures. When he died on March 31, 1903, the monastery was
juridically liquidated. A community reformed there in 1920. In 1948, the monks
would leave to give new life to the abbey of Bec-Hellouin, in Normandy. A group
of monks returned to Mesnil in 1976. If the life of Father Emmanuel ended in
being stripped of everything, devotion to Our Lady of Holy Hope, the pilgrimage,
and the parish nevertheless remained very much alive.

In 1923, Rome granted the diocese of Troyes permission to
celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Holy Hope throughout the diocese every
October 23rd. The archconfraternity counted more than 150,000
members, and the bishop affirmed that the Perpetual Prayer continued to do much
good. One can still today, enroll in the archconfraternity of Perpetual Prayer
by applying to the parish house (Place du Pere-Emmanuel, 10190 Mesnil-Saint-Loup,
France).

On July 1952, in Mesnil-Saint-Loup, several bishops
commemorated the centenary of the archconfraternity, a day of thanksgiving for a
hundred years over which Our Lady of Holy Hope converted countless souls. For
the 150th anniversary, on July 7, 2002, a Mass was celebrated to give
thanks for these blessings and to ask that these fruits continue.

 

For us, who live today in “a world without hope” (Benedict
XVI, Spe Salvi, no. 42), the Mother of Holy Hope still wishes to
grant the grace of conversion. She is only waiting for our “little prayer” to
make us witnesses and apostles of the Hope [that] does not disappoint!
(cf. Rm. 5:5)

 

Dom Antoine Marie, osb

 

This article was made
possible with permission of the Benedictine
Monks of Clairval

 


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