When Claude des Places began his studies for the priesthood at the Jesuit College in Paris in October 1701, probably the last thing on his mind was that two years later he would open a new seminary. However, as so often happens, the Holy Spirit, the "Right Hand of God", wrote straight on crooked lines.
Very soon after Claude became a comfortably housed boarder at the Jesuit College, he began to notice a rather badly dressed group of day students in his classes, mostly country boys like himself. What a shame, he thought, that these young men, nicknamed 'pauperes' because they were getting free tuition in the College, were in such danger of losing their vocations because, all alone in the big city, they had to fend for food, lodgings and facilities to do homework
In the beginning, no one objected when he quietly tried to help one or two of them with a little money or left-over food from the boarders' dining hall, but when it was rumored he was going to leave his comfortable room in the College and go and live with these 'pauperes', everyone thought he was mad. And who could blame them, for Claude was not used to this kind of rough life in a lodging house, was not much older than the others and above all, was not a priest or a professor at the college, but only a seminarian
Such stuff as dreams are made
To the outsider, life in rue des Cordières in those early days was nothing but misery. For Claude and his fellow boarders, however, it was leurs beaux Jours, (the 'time of their lives'), something like that of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans, when he and his first companions took on the job of repairing the little ruined chapel of the Portiuncula.
Rue des Cordières may only have been occupied for three years or less, but there was born the dream that would enrich not only the Church in France of that time but the whole Christian world for centuries to come. Dedicating themselves to the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday, 1703, Claude and the others bonded themselves as an 'association of friends' with a 'one heart and soul' (Cor Unum et Anima Una) solidarity. They pledged themselves to be a special breed of 'tomorrow's labourers' ready to take on any work, however unrewarding, for which the Church was having difficulties finding volunteers.
If this 'mission statement' (to use a modern term) was quite extraordinary, the 'formation program' (again to use a modem term) was even more so. These young men would model their clerical training not on seminaries for the upper clergy and their often less than demanding spiritual formation, or on seminaries for the lower clergy and their not infrequent very skimpy study of theology, but on religious institutes like the Society of Jesus. This would involve, after careful screening of applicants, six years of serious study (2 philosophy and 4 theology) and an almost military regime life style, study habits, household chores and community prayer! Why? As they saw it, all this was necessary if they, as 'tomorrow's labourers', were to measure up to the demands of their future ministries as 'rag-pickers of the Church'. However, this kind of seminary, organized by seminarians themselves and demanding so much of human nature, far from scaring, attracted so many high spirited and generous young men that all sorts of adjustments soon had to be made.
The price of progress
For starters, in six years Claude had to make many leaps of faith and financial gambles in the necessary move to bigger premises and quieter areas as well as draw up some basic rules for the residence. Proper prayer and studies were not possible on noisy streets or in a free-for-all young men's residence. Then Claude had to make a great personal sacrifice. Although a gifted speaker and zealous to preach the gospel himself, he now had to forget all this and become a full time mentor of those who would!
Les Messieurs du Saint Esprit
Although a born organizer, Claude soon realized that he could not do everything himself and so invited some hometown priest friends to come and help him. Later he was able to depend for this support on his own ordained students like Louis Bouic who, after Claude's death, as third Director, guided the seminary with great distinction for 53 years. It was these volunteer associates (familiarly called les Messieurs du Saint Esprit) who first as secular priests and later as religious confreres eventually became the present Society of the Holy Spirit or Spiritans.
Claude, then, was no outside sponsor financing a new project or a qualified armchair lawyer drawing up its bylaws, but a regular chartered member taking all the bumps and slowly but deservedly becoming identified with what all his fellow 'tomorrow's labourers' would ever hope to be. As a gentleman (in the truest sense) he taught them the value of courtesy and mutual respect, as a scholar to be lifelong learners, as a man of God to merrily serve the Lord. His rules at first sight might seem harsh, but like St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictines, he knew how to temper them with a gentle kindness
Lessons for now
Claude and his friends were little concerned about titles as long as the good work went ahead. He intentionally avoided any publicity when he and his first twelve companions made their commitment to the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday 1703. In fact, from the outset, Claude had to be careful to insist that he was opening a 'residence' for clerical students following regular lectures not in the residence but at the Jesuit Theology College. This he did to avoid trouble both with the government because its draconian law of 1666 forbade the opening of religious communities without prior authorization, and with the Church that forbade opening a 'seminary' without permission of the local bishop.
At first sight, this whole story of the early foundation of the Spiritans may seem just ancient history, but in the light of the many sad recent clerical scandals, much may be learned by those who train 'tomorrow's labourers' from Claude's carefulness in continuous screening of candidates for the priesthood and in never shortening or lowering the standards of their spiritual or theological formation.
by Fr. Michael Troy, C.S.Sp.