On May 30, the Church celebrates the feast of Joan of Arc. The Maid of Orléans is one of the most unusual saints that the Church has ever canonized. But she is also a member of one of the largest groups of saints in the history of the Church, for she lived and died in France.
How do nations rank in terms of the number of Catholic saints and blesseds they have produced in twenty centuries?1 The winners might surprise you.
In the year 483, Catholics in North Africa2 experienced a great persecution, and 4,966 martyrs and confessors are recognized by the Church as having died in that year. Other saints from this time period in North Africa bring its total up to 5,081. Spain comes in second place, with 2,407 saints and blesseds. Italy comes third, with 1,897 saints and blesseds.
The nation of France comes in fourth in terms of its total number of saints and blesseds: 1,376. Of that total, 656 died as martyrs. But an astonishing 720 French Catholics have been acclaimed as saints or blesseds yet did not die as martyrs.
Clearly, the nation of France has been one of the most fertile lands for saints since the beginning of the Church. However, there are certain events and time periods in French history which have given birth to more holy men and women than others.3
During the days of the Roman empire, the Catholic faith quickly spread to France, then known as Gaul. Pagan tribes living outside the empire occasionally challenged the authority of Rome by sending armies to loot regions along the edges of Roman territory. When Chrocas, the leader of several Germanic tribes, decided to invade Gaul around the year 264, one of the cities he attacked was Clermont. Saints Cassius (a Roman senator) and Victorinius (a former pagan priest) had become Catholic leaders in that city. They were brutally executed during the invasion and have been remembered ever since as martyrs; some traditions say that thousands of Christians died with them during the attack.
As the Catholic faith gradually became part of French culture, more men felt called to renounce their worldly possessions and become monks. Saint Vincent of Lerins (d. 445) was one such French monk and priest; his writings about the faith were so influential that he was later named a Father of the Church. Many holy monks eventually became holy bishops and abbots, such as: Saint Hilary (400-449), bishop of Arles; Saint Germanus (496-576), bishop of Paris; and Saint Walter (990-1070), abbot of l’Esterp Abbey. These men and many other French bishops and abbots inspired the Catholic laity through their devotion to monastic life, but also through their willingness to stand up to greedy and immoral nobles.
The first king of the Franks, Clovis I (c. 466-511), was converted to the Catholic faith by his devout wife. But it was King Sigismund of Burgundy (d. 539) who became the first Frankish king to be acclaimed a saint. Unfortunately, Sigismund’s life demonstrates that being baptized a Christian is one thing, and learning how to live a Christian life is another. Sigismund’s second wife made false accusations about Sigismund’s oldest son, and, in a jealous rage, Sigismund had his own son executed. When he found out the truth—that his son had been innocent—he spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his crime through works of charity, finally dying a martyr in battle. But his personal example as king helped to establish the practice of the Catholic faith in France.
In our fallen world, there will always be Christians who, intentionally or not, distort the Gospel. The heresy of Catharism—a dualistic religion with Catholic trappings—spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, particularly in the region of Albi, France. Catholic preachers traveled the French countryside to refute this heresy and bring people back to the Church, men like Blessed William Arnaud and his ten companions. In 1242, these eleven Catholic priests and brothers stayed as guests at a castle in Avignonet, but they didn’t realize that the man who invited them into his home also intended to betray them. Their host waited until the eleven men were asleep and then let armed soldiers into their room to murder them.
After the discovery of the New World, French Catholic missionaries were sent all over the world to bring the Gospel to those who had never heard it before. Saint Francis de Montmorency-Laval (1623-1708) was sent as a missionary bishop to Canada, where he established the Catholic school system. Blessed John Martin Moye (1730-1793) served as a missionary in China for a decade before returning to France.
No one knows how many faithful Catholics were executed or died in prison during the French Revolution, although many have been beatified and canonized. Fortunately, devout men and women such as Saints Madeline Sophie Barat (1779-1865) and Anne-Therese Guerin (1798-1856) kept their faith despite the danger and rebuilt the Church in France after the Reign of Terror had ended.
All the examples above bring us to perhaps the most remarkable saint celebrated in the month of May: Saint Joan of Arc (1412-1431). Even non-Catholics know the story of the heroic young woman with no military experience who donned men’s clothing, led a demoralized French army to victory, and was captured and burned at the stake by the English.
The Church does not usually canonize military leaders, particularly those who lead one Christian nation to fight a war against another Christian nation. So why is she considered a saint?
When Joan was born, the French and the English had been fighting for almost a hundred years. The French had lost so many battles and so much land during this bitter war that many French leaders had given up hope.
But like every French martyr, Joan was ready to die for her faith and her people. Like so many French bishops, she was willing to confront spineless leaders. Like so many missionary priests and sisters, she was ready to go anywhere God sent her, even into battle.
Some Catholic historians have wondered what would have happened if Joan had not inspired the French army and led them to defeat the English. If King Henry VIII had possessed large swaths of French territory in the sixteenth century when he declared himself the head of the Church in England, what would have become of the Catholic faith of the French people?
Perhaps God sent a protector to France in the form of a humble, nineteen-year-old girl not only for the sake of France, but for the sake of the entire Church. Or perhaps the longstanding faith and fervent devotion of so many French Catholics impress even Him.
1 These numbers are based on the author’s analysis of the saints and blesseds included in the Martyrolgium Romanum, Editio Typica Altera, dated 2004, along with those who have been added to the calendar since 2004. Information about newer saints and blesseds can be found at the Discastery of the Causes of Saints website and at the Vatican website.
2 Obviously, North Africa is a region, not a country. The only saints included in this total are those who have been identified as being from this region and who died in the first through fifth centuries. Saints from specific cities, such as Saint Cyprian of Carthage or Saint Augustine of Hippo, are not included here.
3 All of the saints and blesseds named in this article are celebrated by the Church in the month of May.
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