Saint of the Day – 14 May – Saint Michel Garicoïts (1797-1863) “An Apostle of the Love of God” Priest, Founder of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Bétharram, Defender of the Faith, Confessor, Teacher, Preacher, ardent devotee of the Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Heart. Patronages – the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Bétharram and Teachers.
Born on the 15th April 1797, Michel Garicoits was the eldest of six children. He spent his youth in an isolated house at the foot of the Pyrenees, not far from the Spanish frontier with France. He grew up in a Catholic family, remained faithful to the Church of Rome during the persecution of the Revolutionary period. His parents and grandparents made a deep impression on him by their piety and example. He received a very strict up- bringing from his mother principally and later, he would say that after God, he owed her everything.
The young lad knew his catechism by heart and would sing hymns and canticles while guarding the cattle. At the age of 13 he was sent as a servant to the farm belonging to the Anghelu family at Oneix. It is here that he made his First Communion on Sunday 9 June 1811, feast of the Holy Trinity. He was 14 years of age. This powerful experience of the Presence and Love of God was to accompany his whole life through.
His First Communion triggered his vocation. On returning to his native village he announced to his father “I want to be a priest.” It was an impossible dream for lack of money in the household. But his grandmother had no hesitation in doing the 25 kilometres on foot which separated them from Saint-Palais. She convinced the Parish Priest to enrol Michael at the school in exchange for a few services. A very hard worker by nature, our little Basque friend would study by candlelight late into the night and quickly became the best pupil in Latin and French.
A promising young cleric:
Both at the Junior Seminary in Aire-sur-Adour and the Major Seminary in Dax, Michel made a very good impression. By his success in his studies, together with personal piety, he came to be compared with St Aloysius Gonzagua. While still a student he was called by Father Claverie to help out in the Junior Seminary in Laressore. Thanks to his kindness and seriousness, our young cleric soon became the favourite teacher both in the classroom and during recreation. On 20 December 1823 he was Ordained a priest by Mgr d’Astros in Bayonne Cathedral.
He was appointed to Cambo where he quickly won the hearts of his parishioners while at the same time promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Little by little, he placed the Heart of Christ at the centre of his life and spirituality.
After two years, Father Garicoits swapped his role of curate to become a teacher in Betharram. In 1825 the seminary was in a deplorable state. Mgr d’Astros, who had originally thought of founding a group of missionaries there, soon found in Michael Garicoits a visionary rather than a reformer.
Not far from there, he got to know Jeanne Elizabeth Bichier des Ages and the Daughters of the Cross which she had founded. The meeting was decisive. Thanks to their lack of the essential and the dedication of this new community, he discovered the Religious Life. At the same time, the Superior of the Seminary, was fully aware ,of the helplessness of the hierarchy, in the face of the carelessness and the lack of discipline of some of the clergy. His decision was made: “I shall train priests who, by their obedience, will be a consolation for their Bishops.”
The Priests of the Sacred Heart:
Right from the start, Michel Garicoits intended to found a real religious congregation (with vows and a superior who would be elected). His dream was a body of soldiers for Christ, ever ready to answer the Church’s call. In 1832, a thirty day retreat in a Jesuit centre, helped him to accept God’s will. His spiritual director, Father Le Blanc, explained it thus: “God wants you to be more than a Jesuit, follow your inspiration which is from Heaven and you will become the father of a family which will be our sister.”
As soon as he got back to Betharram, Michel threw himself down in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. From this experience, he was confirmed in a project which was to occupy the rest of his life. There would be no shortage of problems. – “How difficult it is to give birth to a Congregation!” he once exclaimed on his return from a visit to Bayonne. There was no shortage of graces either..
The Betharramites first assembled in 1835 and in 1841 took the name of Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Father Garicoits guided his little family by word and example. He suggested to his companions to live according to the rules of the Jesuits and in the spirit of St Ignatius. He threw his little society far and wide, sending the first Betharramites to the Argentine. He accompanied the religious of the diocese, beginning with the Daughters of the Cross in Igon. He gave weekly conferences and guided the retreats of his religious. His concern was that everyone – teacher, missionary, pastor, manual worker- should receive the right formation for his ministry. In community, he was close to his brethren, in society he was attentive to all human needs.
St Michel of Betharram and of the whole wide world:
In 1853 Father Garicoits was victim of severe illness. “Don’t be afraid” he said to those who were worried by his partial paralysis, “we shall carry on as long as God wants.” One Ascension Thursday Michel reached the heavens which as a child he vainly tried to touch as he skipped over the hills. On Thursday, 14 May 1863, at about 3:00 am, he died without having seen his work completed. His final words were: “Have pity on me, Lord, in Your great mercy”. It would take a further fourteen years for his dream to be realised. The Constitutions of the Congregation of Betharram were approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1877.
Today the spirit of St Michel Garicoits is very much alive in different parts of the world. Although few in number, the Betharramites are imbued by his charism “Here I am to do your will”. It is this same energy which drives them to answer the Bishops’ call, especially for places, where no-one is able, or willing to go.
Following in the footsteps of their Father, St Michel, the Betharramites too try to share with others the happiness which is theirs. They entrust themselves to God and His Divine Providence, to continue the mission of the Sacred Heart and with the same conviction, as that of their Founder, they strive “to see that God as the author and guardian of our Society. He governs it and will protect it.” As Christians and members of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart, they answer God’s love in their different missions.
The sainthood cause commenced under Pope Leo XIII in mid-1899 while Pope Benedict XV later named Michel as Venerable on 10 December 1916 upon the confirmation of his heroic virtue. Pope Pius XI Beatified him in 1923 while Pope Pius XII Canonised him on 6 July 1947.