May 16, 2020, is the 100th anniversary of the canonization of St. Joan of Arc, one of the most inspiring and enigmatic figures in the history of the Church. The “Father of American Literature”, Mark Twain, wrote a major work on her which he considered to be his most important and best book. “She is easily and by far,” he said of the saint, “the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” The Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth stated succinctly why one might agree with Twain: “Consider this unique and imposing distinction. Since the writing of human history began, Joan of Arc is the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen.”
The farmer’s daughter from the small village of Domrémy went on to become famous all over Europe as the savior of a nation before being captured, condemned, and burnt at the stake. Her rehabilitation was swift. Upon her death, one of King Henry’s secretaries bemoaned: “We are lost; we have burned a saint!” Everyone recognized there was something special about her, that God was working in and through her. How else could a mere teenager reverse the tide of history? Everyone also recognized the ecclesiastic court that condemned her was corrupt and controlled by her nation’s enemies.
Despite this travesty we should be like Joan and never lose faith in the Divine Mandate held by the Church. “About Jesus Christ and the Church,” she said, “I simply know they’re just one thing.” Appeals were made for a formal re-examination of the case made against her. Pope Callistus III was quick to favor these petitions and appointed a commission to study the matter. Their verdict was accepted by the pope in 1456 who declared the sham trial against Joan to be null and void. This long proceeding collected the evidence of witnesses and the opinions of theologians, which laid the foundation for her cause of canonization. Devotion to Joan continued to grow, especially among soldiers, and over the years plays reenacting her life and victories on the battlefield became a staple of certain French festivals. Finally, on this day in 1920, Pope Benedict XV raised her to the heights of the altar as a saint.
This anniversary is a good occasion to renew our interest in Joan of Arc and the important lessons we can learn from her short but impactful life.
When Joan was born in 1412, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France had been raging for 75 years. The conflict began in 1337, when King Edward III of England, whose mother was a French princess, declared himself the rightful ruler of France. However, there was already a French king on the throne. Battles over rival claims to the throne of France would continue on and off until 1453. In Joan’s early childhood England took a decisive advantage in the conflict.
In the midst of its war with England, France was immersed in its own civil war as well. Remembered by history with the moniker “Charles the Mad,” King Charles VI was weak and suffered from bouts of insanity throughout his tumultuous reign. He was unable to maintain peace between two rival branches of the royal family, the Houses of Orléans (known as the Armagnac faction) and Burgundy; thus, war between them broke out. Eager to capitalize on the divisions within France, King Henry V of England launched a massive invasion of the country. England’s new period of dominance in the long war came with their victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Joan was three years old at this point and rival England controlled all of Normandy. Five years later, traitorous to their nation’s cause, the House of Burgundy entered into an alliance with England. An exhausted and demoralized King Charles then signed the Treaty of Troyes. His son, the Dauphin Charles VII, was disinherited from the French crown and according to the treaty upon his death, King Henry V of England and his heirs would become the kings of France.
Charles VII, known as “the Dauphin,” and the House of Orléans rejected this treaty. They would continue to take up the fight and not sell out their country to the English. The odds, however, were against them. England and their ally the House of Burgundy controlled all of northern France including the most populous city of Paris. Even when Charles VII claimed the throne of France upon his father’s death in 1422, he was unable to be properly crowned as the city of Rheims, where the coronations of the new kings took place by tradition, was under English control. His makeshift court was assembled south of the Loire River in the city of Bourges. As this was one of the few areas left in French control, Charles VII was disparagingly referred to as the “King of Bourges.”
This was his lot. This was the desperate situation he inherited. Without hope, he dithered in his little court making no effort to expel the English from northern France. Then one day, a teenage girl was permitted an audience and claimed to be sent from God to see her country liberated and Charles crowned king. It was the farmer’s daughter from Domrémy.
In 1425, when Joan was 13, her hometown was attacked by a band of Burgundians, which devastated the village and caused widespread terror. Not long after this raid Joan began to hear the voices. These supernatural manifestations would set the course for the rest of her life. In time, she discerned that it was the voices of Sts. Michael the Archangel, Catherine, and Margaret. The saints made known to Joan a special mission God had for her: she was to save France!
Joan’s response is the “stuff” saints are made of. She did not vacillate. She did not doubt God with the easy rationalization that as a mere peasant girl she could do nothing for her country. With childlike simplicity she accepted God’s Will and with determination set out to accomplish it. Joan is a great model of Catholic action.
She was, of course, also a mystic with a contemplative streak. Upon hearing the voices of the saints she made a vow of virginity, redoubled her prayers and relied on the graces of the Church’s sacraments.
In a beautiful discourse delivered in a Wednesday General Audience back in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI had this to say about the saint’s interior life and commitment to action:
We know from Joan’s own words that her religious life developed as a mystical experience from the time when she was 13 (PCon, I, p. 47-48). Through the “voice” of St Michael the Archangel, Joan felt called by the Lord to intensify her Christian life and also to commit herself in the first person to the liberation of her people. Her immediate response, her “yes”, was her vow of virginity, with a new commitment to sacramental life and to prayer: daily participation in Mass, frequent Confession and Communion and long periods of silent prayer before the Crucified One or the image of Our Lady.
The young French peasant girl’s compassion and dedication in the face of her people’s suffering were intensified by her mystical relationship with God. One of the most original aspects of this young woman’s holiness was precisely this link between mystical experience and political mission.
Joan’s mission began in 1429. King Henry V and King Charles VI were dead; Henry VI was the King of France. On the other hand, Charles the VII (known as “the Dauphin”), considered himself to be the rightful, though uncrowned, King of France. He continued to languish in his makeshift and itinerant court south of Paris. Joan knew she had to get to him so she could begin to lead the French army.
Obviously, a teenage girl wanting to meet the French king so she could lead his army sounds preposterous. By sheer force of her will and the sincerity with she spoke, however, Joan managed to win an audience while Charles and his court were at a castle in Chinon. Their encounter is one of the more famous anecdotes from the lives of the saints.
Knowing in advance of her strange claims, Charles wanted to test Joan’s authenticity. When Joan was permitted entry to the hall of the castle where the court was assembled, Charles was hidden among his courtiers dressed as an ordinary nobleman. Joan ignored the man dressed up as the king sitting in the place of honor in the center of the hall and went straight to the real king and knelt at his feet. This impressed everyone. As Joan began to speak, they only became more impressed and touched by her confidence.
Charles had Joan interviewed by a panel of theologians in Poitiers. They believed her mission from God was genuine. With this, in a decision that is too strange for fiction, Charles sent Joan off to the battlefield with a special standard made for her that bore the Holy Names of Our Lord and Lady: “Jesus : Maria.” She was sent there to lead.
Joan’s presence among the army wrought marvels. The soldiers became more disciplined and stopped swearing. She was affectionately called La pucelle—“the Maid,” that is, virgin. Following the Maid into battle, the soldiers of France began to win victory after victory. Joan’s presence completely revered the course of the war in France’s favor, and with it the course of history.
Joan first wanted to come to the aid of the beleaguered city of Orléans. This was a large city for the time, with a population of 30,000. The English had it completely surrounded and cut off from food supplies. It was very close to falling into their hands. Joan’s arrival brought a great boost to the city’s morale. Before she charged into battle Joan first appealed to the English King for peace. When this was rejected she urged the French soldiers to advance on the surrounding English forts. More than just a figurehead, Joan took charge of the fighting. She rushed into battle and was even wounded by an arrow. Amazingly, the English siege was lifted and all their surrounding forts captured.
The voices of the saints told Joan more victories would follow but that she herself would not last long. Undaunted, she urged a further campaign and won a decisive victory at Patay. With this, she pressed for the immediate coronation of the Dauphin. The ceremony by tradition had to take place in the city of Rheims. A coronation there would be a powerful statement to England and the Burgundians that France would never accept a foreign king. The newfound resiliency of the French army compelled Troyes to surrender. With this last obstacle on the way to Rheims now gone, Charles VII was solemnly crowned King of France in the city’s cathedral on July 17, 1429. Joan was standing by his side with her standard in hand. Of this accomplishment, Benedict XVI said, “The liberation of her people was a work of human justice which Joan carried out in charity, for love of Jesus. Her holiness is a beautiful example for lay people engaged in politics, especially in the most difficult situations.”
This grand event accomplished the mission entrusted to her by God. But as the voices of the saints made known to her, she herself would not last much longer. Despite this, Joan still took up the fight.
With great boldness she marched on Paris. King Charles promised to be present with additional troops but failed to show. At the last moment he probably deemed an attempt on the city too dangerous. The French were unable to take the city and Joan was wounded in the fighting and had to be dragged to safety. Upon her recovery she rallied to the defense of Compiégne under siege from the Burgundians. There she was captured and held as a prisoner of the Duke of Burgundy. The ungrateful King Charles made no attempts to secure her freedom. The Duke sold her to the enemy English, who set up a show trial to condemn her as a heretic and a sorceress.
Of course, the clerics who ran the trial were opposed to Joan politically and had their minds made up about her before the proceedings even began. Benedict the XVI described the trial as “…a distressing page in the history of holiness and also an illuminating page on the mystery of the Church which, according to the words of the Second Vatican Council, is ‘at once holy and always in need of purification’ (Lumen Gentium, n. 8).”
The grossly unfair proceedings led to her being burned at the stake in the marketplace of Rouen on the morning of May 30, 1431. Joan, since childhood, was devoted to the Holy Name. As the the flames consumed her, she was heard by all calling upon the Name of Jesus. With the Holy Name on her lips the Maid gave up her soul. She was 19 years old.
“Dear brothers and sisters” said Benedict XVI in 2011, “the Name of Jesus, invoked by our Saint until the very last moments of her earthly life was like the continuous breathing of her soul, like the beating of her heart, the centre of her whole life…with her luminous witness St Joan of Arc invites us to a high standard of Christian living: to make prayer the guiding motive of our days; to have full trust in doing God’s will, whatever it may be; to live charity without favouritism, without limits and drawing, like her, from the Love of Jesus a profound love for the Church.”
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