Like all of us, Peter Julian Eymard [pronounced A-mard] was conditioned by his cultural background as well as by the sociopolitical atmosphere of his time. The French Revolution of 1789 had radically altered the political, legal, social and religious structures of the country. As a teenager, the industrial revolution was changing the face of Europe.
Struggle to Become a Priest
Peter Julian Eymard’s road to the priesthood, as well as his life as a priest, was marked by the cross. In French society, there was a strong anticlericalism. In addition, the Eymard family was poor and Peter Julian’s father was reluctant to give his blessing to his son’s decision. His first attempt to attain priesthood ended because of serious illness. He tried again. On July 20, 1834, at 23 years of age, Eymard was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Grenoble.
In Eymard’s day there was a religious movement called Jansenism. This movement focused on the gravity of human sinfulness and as a consequence stressed our unworthiness in the presence of a transcendent and perfect God. In his early years as a seminarian and priest, Fr. Eymard was influenced by this reparation spirituality and he would struggle his whole life long to seek that inner perfection that would enable him to offer to God the gift of his entire self.
Taking His Vows
Perhaps it was the intensification of this growing spiritual struggle along with Fr. Eymard’s desire to accomplish great things for God that led him to enter religious life. On August 20, 1839, Fr. Eymard became a member of the Marist Congregation by professing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
All his life Peter Julian had an intense devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. He knew about the apparition of Our Lady at La Salette and enjoyed traveling to various Marian shrines [throughout France]. It was Eymard’s work for the Society of Mary that put him in contact with the various currents of eucharistic piety that were flowing in the French Church. Peter Julian, despite his poor physical health, was an unusually energetic and hardworking priest/religious. He always had a desire to spend time in contemplation; but with his work, travel, writing, preaching, spiritual direction, and responsibilities as Marist provincial [superior], there was neither the environment nor the time for this desire to be fulfilled very frequently.
What did Fr. Eymard do as a Marist? He was an outstanding organizer of lay societies, a zealous educator, a well-prepared preacher, and a bit of a prophet to his fellow priests and even to his religious superiors.
Peter and the Eucharist
He asked his Superior General, Fr. Jean-Claude Colin, for permission to write a eucharistic rule for the Third Order of Mary of which, he, Peter Julian, was the director. Fr. Colin said no. Nevertheless, the idea for such a rule had already been written in the mind and heart of Fr. Eymard.
He wanted to begin a Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, but it was not an easy task. In fact, responding to God’s Spirit as a founder involved him in relational conflicts, personally embarrassing situations, financial troubles, and physical exhaustion. His first hurdle was getting the founding of the Congregation approved by several local bishops. When this approval came, Fr. Eymard opened his first community in Paris.
Bringing People to Jesus
The work of preparation for First Communion, especially among adults, was the aspect of the new eucharistic venture that had interested the archbishop of Paris. Other eucharistic communities and organizations were springing up throughout France but Archbishop Sibour rightly perceived that Eymard’s intuition about the Eucharist was not limited merely to the worship of the holy sacrament but to actively reach out to those who were estranged from the church and to evangelize them. Father Eymard directed his ministry firstly to the children and young workers that made up a large segment of the labor force of Paris.
No sooner did he attract a few men to join him than he had to close this house and move to another location. This happened twice within the span of a few years. These early Eymardian communities were so poor that on several occasions a neighboring convent of sisters fed the fathers and brothers. (Not being able to provide the basics of food and shelter did not help Fr. Eymard attract vocations!)
As early as 1845, Eymard began to move away from a spirituality of reparation toward a spirituality of Christ-centered love. Three years prior to his death, Fr. Eymard made a long retreat in Rome. During this retreat, he was powerfully struck by the force of Christ’s love within him – a love he felt taking over his whole person. Anticipating the renewal of the Church brought about by Vatican Councils I and II, Eymard had a vision of priests, deacons, sisters, and lay people living lives of total dedication to the spiritual values that are celebrated and contemplated in the Eucharistic celebration and in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
Blessed Pope John Paul II declared St. Peter Eymard, “Apostle of the Eucharist.”
St. Peter Julian Eymard, pray for us, that we would discover Jesus in the Eucharist and become close friends with Him.