Fr Anthony Nzubechukwu Ibegbunam
“If I were to say that God sent me, I shall be condemned, but God really did send me.” –St Joan of Arc
“Give me the command of a small army, and I will restore order throughout the country in the name of God!” Hearing these words proclaimed by a 16-year-old shepherdess who could neither read nor write, Sir Robert de Baudricourt was stunned. Anyone else would have sent the audacious girl back to her flocks, but Baudricourt, a knight in command of a military garrison in the east of France, listened to her appeal. This was a miracle in itself, and many more would follow in the short yet dramatic life of Joan of Arc…. Joan played an integral part in the history of France, and her story is a rare case in which religious experience and political mission are intimately linked. (Pierre Amar, The Witness Of St. Joan Of Arc, A century after her canonization, the French martyr’s life remains a model of Christian courage and public service, 5/1/2020, www.kofc.org)
Joan of Arc (in French, Jeanne d’Arc) was born at Domrémy, France, around 6 January, 1412. “Her parents, Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romée, were well-off peasants, known to all as good Christians. From them she received a sound religious upbringing, considerably influenced by the spirituality of the Name of Jesus, taught by St Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) and spread in Europe by the Franciscans. The Name of Mary was always associated with the Name of Jesus and thus, against the background of popular piety, Joan’s spirituality was profoundly Christocentric and Marian. From childhood, she showed great love and compassion for the poorest, the sick and all the suffering, in the dramatic context of the war. (between England and France)” (Benedict XVI, Saint Joan of Arc, GENERAL AUDIENCE, Paul VI Audience Hall, Wednesday, 26 January 2011, vatican.va). Joan was not taught to read or write, but her pious mother, Isabelle Romée, instilled in her a deep love for the Catholic Church and its teachings.
“Joan of Arc did not know how to read or write, but the depths of her soul can be known thanks to two sources of exceptional historical value: the two Trials that concern her. The first, the Trial of Condemnation (PCon), contains the transcription of the long and numerous interrogations to which Joan was subjected in the last months of her life (February-May 1431) and reports the Saint’s own words. The second, the Trial of Nullity of the Condemnation or of “rehabilitation” (PNul), contains the depositions of about 120 eyewitnesses of all the periods of her life. (Benedict XVI, Saint Joan of Arc)
Joan was born during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. At the time, France had long been torn apart by a bitter conflict with England from May 24, 1337 to October 19, 1453 (later known as the Hundred Years’ War), in which England had gained the upper hand. On May 21, 1420, King Charles VI of France, signed a peace treaty (Treaty of Troyes) disinheriting his son, the dauphin (crown prince) Charles of Valois, and transferring the throne to Henry V of England making him ruler of both England and France. “Along with its French allies (led by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy), England occupied much of northern France, and many in Joan’s village, Domrémy, were forced to abandon their homes under threat of invasion” (history.com).
Joan testified that in 1425 at the age of 13, while she was working in her father’s garden at noon, suddenly she saw a bright light and heard a voice. The voice called her “Joan the Maid” and told her to live a virtuous life. The Voices came more often and gave instructions: Joan was to save France and help the dauphin (France’s rightful heir) be crowned. Joan questioned how she could possibly accomplish these astounding feats. The voices said God would be with her. Joan later identified the voices as belonging to St Michael the Archangel, St Margaret of Antioch and St Catherine of Alexandria. (Joan of Arc: Teenage war hero with visions, www.christianitytoday.com)
At the age of 16, she asked a relative named Durand Lassois to take her to the nearby town of Vaucouleurs, where she petitioned the garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, to supply her with a horse, an armed escort, and authorization for an audience with the Dauphin, Charles VII. Baudricourt’s sarcastic response did not deter her. She returned the following January 1429 and gained support from two of Baudricourt’s soldiers: Jean de Metz and Betrand de Poulengy. “The girl insisted that God had chosen her as his instrument to lead the armies of France to victory over the English invaders and to secure Charles’s ascendance to the throne. Accompanied by a few volunteers and dressed in the clothes of a soldier, Jeanne made a dangerous eleven-day journey on horseback through enemy territory, from Vaucouleurs to Chinon in the Loire Valley, where the Dauphin held his court.
Joan arrived Chinon on March 4, 1429, and won the personal confidence of Charles through her disclosing to him of a secret, the contents of which remain a secret to us. The Dauphin arranged for an ecclesiastical examination of Joan at Poitiers by reputed theologians of the University of Poitiers, who concluded that Joan was a pious girl of good character. “At Poitiers, (on March 22, 1429), Jeanne dictated the first of her letters, an ultimatum to the king of England, demanding the withdrawal of his troops from French soil.” (Ann Astell, “God, Country, and Joan of Arc” in Church Life Journal: A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/god-country-and-joan-of-arc/, May 02, 2019)
Jeanne began her work of liberation. She “joined the royal army on its way to recapture Orléans from the English and entered the city on April 29, 1429. Galvanized by the presence of Joan, the French troops stormed the English fortresses surrounding the city and took them, one by one, until the battle ended in English defeat on May 8, (thus turning the tide of the war). The victory at Orléans was followed by a rapid succession of victories, the most famous of which occurred at Patay, where the English general, John Talbot, was captured. City after city yielded to the Maid (Joan), who wept over the dead and wounded, English and French alike, and who called repeatedly for peaceful submission to Charles. The way opened up for the Dauphin to proceed to Rheims, where he was anointed and crowned king by the presiding archbishop on July 17, 1429. His succession to the throne secured, Charles began to vacillate in his support of Jeanne’s martial efforts for a complete expulsion of the English army from France….” (Ann Astell, “God, Country, and Joan of Arc”)
Joan was captured at Compiègne on May 23, 1430. King Charles VII made no attempt to rescue her; he made no offer either of a ransom or of a prisoner exchange for Joan, he abandoned Joan. On December 23 she was led to the city of Rouen. There the long and dramatic Trial of Condemnation took place. It began on January 9, 1431 and ended on May 30 with her being burned at the stake. “Chained and guarded by English soldiers day and night, Jeanne was tried by an ecclesiastical court, over which Pierre Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais, presided. Through relentless interrogation, sleep deprivation, threatened torture, and violations of the seal of confession, her judges sought to validate charges of heresy, immorality, sedition, idolatry and witchcraft.” (ibid)
“It was a great and solemn Trial, at which two ecclesiastical judges presided, Bishop Pierre Cauchon and the Inquisitor Jean le Maistre, but in fact it was conducted entirely by a large group of theologians from the renowned University of Paris, who took part in the Trial as assessors. They were French clerics, who, on the side politically opposed to Joan’s, had a priori a negative opinion of both her and her mission. This Trial is a distressing page in the history of holiness and also an illuminating page on the mystery of the Church which, according to the words of the Second Vatican Council, is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium, n. 8).” (Benedict XVI, Saint Joan of Arc)
Joan’s appeal to the Pope, on May 24, was rejected by the tribunal. On the morning of May 30, in prison, she received Holy Communion for the last time and was immediately led to her torture in the Old Market Square. She asked one of the priests to hold up a processional Cross in front of the stake. Thus she died, her gaze fixed upon the Crucified Jesus and crying out several times the Name of Jesus (PNul, I, p. 457; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 435) (ibid).
In 1456, King Charles VII ordered an investigation into Joan’s trial. The Trial of Nullity, which opened under the authority of Pope Calixtus III, ended with a solemn sentence that declared the condemnation null and void (7 July 1456; PNul, II, pp. 604-610). This long trial, which collected the evidence of witnesses and the opinions of many theologians, all favourable to Joan, sheds light on her innocence and on her perfect fidelity to the Church (ibid). Pope Pius X beatified her in 1909 and Benedict XV canonized her on May 16, 1920. This year is the 100th anniversary of the canonization of Joan of Arc. Her feast day is May 30.
LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF ST JOAN OF ARC
Joan’s piety was at her core, and it was the source of her charisma and courage. Joan lived with the soldiers, for a whole year, “carrying out among them a true mission of evangelization. Many of them testified to her goodness, her courage and her extraordinary purity. She was called by all and by herself “La pucelle” (“the Maid”), that is, virgin.”
“The Name of Jesus, invoked by our Saint until the very last moments of her earthly life was like the continuous breathing of her soul, like the beating of her heart, the centre of her whole life…. Jesus always had pride of place in her life, in accordance to her beautiful affirmation: “We must serve God first” (PCon, I, p. 288; cf. Catechismo della Chiesa Cattolica, n. 223). Loving him means always doing his will. She declared with total surrender and trust: “I entrust myself to God my Creator, I love him with my whole my heart” (PCon, I, p. 337). With the vow of virginity, Joan consecrated her whole being exclusively to the one Love of Jesus: “it was the promise that she made to Our Lord to preserve the virginity of her body and her mind well” (PCon, I, pp. 149-150). (ibid)
“Virginity of soul is the state of grace, a supreme value, for her more precious than life. It is a gift of God which is to be received and preserved with humility and trust. One of the best known texts of the first Trial concerns precisely this: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there’” (ibid., p. 62; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2005). (ibid)
“Our Saint lived prayer in the form of a continuous dialogue with the Lord who also illuminated her dialogue with the judges and gave her peace and security. She asked him with trust: Sweetest God, in honour of your holy Passion, I ask you, if you love me, to show me how I must answer these men of the Church” (PCon, I, p. 252). Joan saw Jesus as the “King of Heaven and of the earth”. She therefore had painted on her standard the image of “Our Lord holding the world” (ibid., p. 172): the emblem of her political mission. The liberation of her people was a work of human justice which Joan carried out in charity, for love of Jesus. Her holiness is a beautiful example for lay people engaged in politics, especially in the most difficult situations. Faith is the light that guides every decision, as a century later another great Saint, the Englishman Thomas More, was to testify.” (ibid)
In Jesus Joan contemplated the whole reality of the Church, the “Church triumphant” of Heaven, as well as the “Church militant” on earth. According to her words, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing” and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” This affirmation, cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 795), has a truly heroic character in the context of the Trial of Condemnation, before her judges, men of the Church who were persecuting and condemning her. In the Love of Jesus Joan found the strength to love the Church to the very end, even at the moment she was sentenced. (ibid)
St Joan of Arc invites us with her luminous witness “to a high standard of Christian living: to make prayer the guiding motive of our days; to have full trust in doing God’s will, whatever it may be; to live charity without favouritism, without limits and drawing, like her, from the Love of Jesus a profound love for the Church.” (ibid). St Joan of Arc, pray for us
Fr Anthony Ibegbunam is a priest of the Catholic diocese of Nnewi