Take a look at a map of France. Now notice something about its shape. See how one part sticks way out almost as if it were running away from the rest of the landmass, ready to dive off into the Celtic Sea? That jutting arm in the northwest of the country is called “Brittany,” and that’s where St. Louis de Montfort grew up.
There’s something special about Brittany that seems to have had an influence on St. Louis: its Celtic roots. Brittany is considered one of the six Celtic nations, meaning that the Celtic language and culture still survive. (So, scratch that part about Brittany being ready to dive into the Celtic Sea. It’s already in and swimming.) And one part of Celtic culture seems to have seeped deeply into the heart of St. Louis: the high-spiritedness of its warriors.
From ancient times, Celtic warriors have struck terror in the hearts of their enemies. If you’ve ever seen the movie Braveheart, you know what I mean. Think of the fearless figure of Sir William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) and his crazy crew of Scottish Highlanders who take on an English enemy many times their size. This shows something of the Celtic fighting spirit, but the real life version is even more intense.
Often wearing nothing but blue battle paint, real Celtic warriors would work themselves into a blood-thirsty frenzy, rush into combat screaming their heads off, and wildly slash, bash, and slice away at their enemies with huge, two-handed swords. These fierce fighting men, despite their lack of discipline, armor, and order, were extremely effective in battle because of their unmatched passion and ferocity. Throughout history, nobody has wanted to mess with the crazy Celtic warriors.
St. Louis’s dad, Jean Grignion, must have been descended from these wild-men warriors, for nobody wanted to mess with him either. In fact, he was known for having the most fiery temper in all of Brittany. As one author puts it, “He was a volcano frequently erupting.”10 St. Louis, on the other hand, was as gentle as a lamb, right? Wrong. He confessed that his temper was just as bad as his father’s. But Louis channeled his fiery passion not to threats and violence but to laboring for the greater Glory of God — well, except for the time he knocked out a couple of drunks who wouldn’t stop heckling him while he preached. We can get a better sense of Louis’s remarkable zeal if we reflect on his short but incredibly productive priestly life.
When he died in 1716, St. Louis was just 43 years old, having been a priest for only 16 years. Tireless labors to bring souls to Jesus through Mary, especially by his preaching an endless succession of parish missions, brought about his early death. As if these life-sapping labors weren’t suffering enough, Louis had to bear vicious persecution from the clergy and Jansenist heretics,11 even to the point of being physically attacked and poisoned by them. Despite all this, our indomitable warrior kept advancing on the battlefield, continuously preaching his trademark path to Jesus through Mary. In fact, when leaders in the Church in France thought they had put an end to his work, Louis walked the thousand-mile journey to Rome and asked the Pope for his wisdom and counsel. The Pope not only told him to go back to France and continue preaching but awarded him the title “Apostolic Missionary.” Obediently and joyfully, our saint returned to France where he continued to preach, write, and patiently bear his many sufferings out of love for Jesus, Mary, and souls.
St. Louis’s passion and zeal lit a fire in a young Karol Wojtyła,