In 1810, two soldiers were on their way to Namur Belgium. Halfway there, they met a friendly religious sister who was also making the thirty-mile journey. Matching their steps, this woman—who was nearly 60—became the soldiers’ welcome though unlikely companion. How surprised the solders would have been to learn that this stalwart woman had been paralyzed for twenty-two years—sometimes incapable of speech—and had been on her deathbed five times. Perhaps they would have been even more surprised if they could know that in the next century the church would proclaim her Saint Julie Billiart.
A Lifelong Task
Being a catechist was a lifelong career for Julie. At age eight she fascinated other children in Cuvilly, France when she spoke of God and scripture. By the age of sixteen, she attracted an older class; harvesters on their midday break.
After witnessing an attempt on her father’s life when she was 23, Julie suffered partial paralysis. This did not stifle her consuming drive to make God known and loved however, even though by the time she was thirty-one her paralysis had become total.
A lesser person might have quit, but Julie continued to teach. Moreover, she boldly spoke out against schismatic priests and helped by hiding some of the ones who remained faithful to the church. One night, when a mob of French revolutionaries came to kill her, she escaped hidden under straw in a farm wagon
During her time living in hiding, Julie continued to catechize. Sometimes she was wheeled to missions given by the Fathers of the Faith where she would instruct the women and children. She also directed ladies who came to her for guidance, including the Viscountess François Blin de Bourdon. These two women became close friends with a shared vision. Together they brought about the spiritual renewal of the town of Bettencourt and the organization of a catechetical center in Amiens.
In 1804, Julie, François, and another noblewoman, Catherine Duchatel, made the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But they added a fourth vow: to train Catholic teachers. Julies’ congregation, the Sisters of Notre Dame, was born.
At the age of fifty-three Julie was cured of her paralysis. Her spiritual director had encouraged her to make a novena to the Sacred Heart for a special intention. In the course of the novena, he told her, “Mother if you have any faith, take one step.” Realizing that she was the special intention, Julie stood and began to walk. Thereafter, her life was a series of walking journeys—to open convents and schools and to form catechists.
In all her catechetical work Julie’s motto was God is good. This is the essence of bible teaching and the essence of the revelation of Jesus Christ, and so it is a valid motto for catechists today too. Julie thought that the call to be a catechist was a privilege, but she also knew it to be a challenging responsibility. Therefore, she established principles to help people meet that challenge. Hers were not new principles, but it is good to recall them today, especially when students seem disinterested, bored, or argumentative. These principles can sustain us when we feel tired or discouraged.
Have confidence in God. To Julie, education was a work of faith and trust. “Catechists must see God in children and believe in the greatness of the work even when greatness is least apparent,” she wrote. “The more difficult the times are, the more we must expect and hope everything from the goodness of the good God. He will sustain us in his work which we cannot continue without his constant assistance.”
Another time she wrote, “Blessed, a thousand times blessed are those who rely only on the good God. What a solid prop they have found. . . . Never will they be shaken.” In short, she recommended putting the “good God at the head of the class every day.”
The importance of an interior life. Julies believed that the personal formation of the catechist is crucial. “What the teacher is, is more important than what she does or than what she knows.” Without an interior spirit, “all is only dust gone with the wind.” Of education Julie claimed, “Only by prayer can it bear any fruit in the children. “ According to her, the hallmark of an interior life was simplicity—doing everything out of love for God and his greater glory. Simple persons attuned to God follow him freely “like the sunflower, which follows all the movements of the sun and ever turns towards it.”
Though Julie promoted three devotions: the Sacred Heart, the Eucharist, and Mary, her greatest devotion was to the Gospel. Of teaching others the Gospel, she told her followers: “Do not make little of their vocations as Christians. Instill into them the great Gospel maxims. Do not be afraid to show them the morality taught by Our Lord in all its austere beauty.”
Julie knew that it was impossible to lead others unless we ourselves are closely united to God. Obviously she lived her own advice, for in one village she was known as “the walking love of God.”
The place of the cross. Many priests maligned Julie; the bishop of Amiens expelled her from his diocese; even her own sisters turned against her. Yet she was not bitter. “Everything must be tested by fire to be purified, to do some good for the good God. To achieve anything we must pay the price. Nothing is for nothing.” She believed that the true sign by which God’s work must be recognized was the cross. Yet she always taught that crosses must be carried with love, fidelity, and courage.
Julie accepted her own crosses. “All will go well because I put all my hope all my confidence in the Lord. And so I go through difficulties. One should fear nothing, but trust in the Lord. Let us leave all to the good God. He will draw us out of our difficulties if it is his will. Repeatedly she called for “a manly courage” (today she would add “womanly courage”) and ”a strong soul.”
A hard-working, apostolic heart. Julie often said, “There must be nothing little about us; we must have hearts of apostles.” She knew the meaning of work. In eleven years, under adverse conditions, she founded fifteen houses, made 103 journeys, and wrote almost seven volumes of letters. Her letters recounted hardships: strong winds that threw her to the ground, roads so slippery that the horses fell, stagecoaches that were worse than walking. But she knew success would not be immediate. “You must neither neglect anything nor think it will come all in one day. It needs patience, much patience at that, and praying hard.”
She believed that study was a catechists’ duty. “The work must be prepared and how can you teach what you do not know? Make use of every moment to improve yourselves. Try to secure as much free time as you can to get on with studies which are useful, even necessary.”
A personal pedagogy. Julie accepted children of all ages and classes into her free school. She also included the underprivileged, the retarded and handicapped, and dealt with each child lovingly. She said, “One who is filled with the spirit of faith sees the image of God in each one of her pupils. She sees one for whom Our Lord Jesus Christ gave his life.”
To develop thinkers was Julie’s goal. “It is not what you do yourself, but what you use to be done that is important. Let the children do it themselves; they learn better that way. We must, wherever possible, talk reason to the children; piety yes, but let us begin with reason. It is the most useful thing in the world for finding a way into their hearts.”
To capture students’ interest further she used hymns, dramatizations, pictures, liturgy, and prayers. She praised schools where teachers used all the means that charity could suggest to excite in the children a love for their school: good notes, little rewards and presents, affectionate praise, and reprimands given at the proper time.
Regarding discipline, Julie advised tender tenacity. “It should never be said of a teacher that she is too lenient. We live in an age when much strength of mind, much character are needed. We must give our thoughts time to cool before we speak . . . We must begin always with sweetness. That is the way in which the spirit of the good God acts. Let us say things in a kind and gentle way, and not in a harsh tone, and let us not tire of repeating them often. Be patient with those who give you trouble and the good God will accept it as very meritorious.”
Over and above her principles, Julie Billiart was “the smiling saint.” “The joy of the Holy Spirit must be engraved on our countenance to the glory of God,” she wrote.
As a member of Saint Julie Billiart’s congregation, I am proud to share her faith and wisdom. May you catechists be uplifted and fortified by her as you carry out “the greatest work on earth.”
Tip: For a more complete story of St. Julie’s life in simple language, see my book Saint Julie Billiart: The Smiling Saint. A more recent book in novel form for teens and adults is “The Walking Love of God: St. Julie Billiart.” Either of these can be purchased by contacting me at email@example.com.