The Origins of the Guard of Honor
From the Beginnings of Christianity
“It must not be said that this devotion has taken its origin from some private revelation of God and has suddenly appeared in the Church; rather, it has blossomed forth of its own accord as a result of that lively faith and burning devotion of men who were endowed with heavenly gifts, and who were drawn towards the adorable Redeemer and His glorious wounds which they saw as irresistible proofs of that unbound love.” — Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Haurietis Aquas, 96.
To support this assertion, the Encyclical of Pope Pius XII cites many of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church who have won particular renown in the development of Sacred Heart spirituality through the centuries.
In the 17th Century, in the Order of the Visitation
However, Pope Pius recognized that, while the revelation received by Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque did not contain in themselves anything new in terms of doctrine, they did spark the spread of a devotion that would keep on growing, especially over the course of the past two centuries.
This spirit of devotion to the Sacred Heart would stir within the Sisters of the Visitation a determination to be more than its simple and faithful witnesses.
A tradition of the institute says that St. Francis de Sales was inspired to found an Order in the Church with the purpose of, among other things, giving honor and praise to the adorable Heart of Jesus Christ. There was no other Order in his day that professed to pay homage to the Divine Heart. (Letter to St. Jane Frances de Chantal on , June 1st, 1611).
In a vision on July 2nd, 1688, St. Margaret Mary heard St. Francis de Sales invite his daughters of the Visitation to “come draw from this spring” which is the Heart of Christ. (Cult du Sacré Cœur, Ed. Caritas)
The Visitation at Bourg-en-Bresse
The Monastery of the Visitation at Bourg-en-Bresse, France, was founded in March of 1627 and was closely united to the Monastery at Paray-le-Monial, which had been founded at virtually the same time (September 1626). It was at the latter where St. Margaret Mary received her first revelations on December 27th, 1673.
Furthermore, the Monastery at Bourg was certainly one of the first to be aware of what was happening at Paray. Already during St. Margaret Mary’s lifetime one of the Superiors at Bourg, Mother Marie Clémence Choin (professed in 1662 and named Superior in 1704) showed evidence of “a tender devotion to the Heart of Jesus.” The chronicles of the Monastery add that she led the entire Community into sharing this fervor. (Archives of the Monastery)
Her successor, Mother Marguerite Marie de Court, ended one of her circulars (dated March 4th, 1713) with the words, “Accept the respectful attachment with which I have the honor to be in the Sacred Heart. (Archives of the Monastery)
The Monasteries of the Visitation were strongly encouraged by Pope Clement XI to foster devotion to the Sacred Heart. In 1700 he gave them authorization to celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart on the Friday in the Octave of Corpus Christi. (Culte du Sacré Cœur, p. 42)
Up to this point the devotion to the Sacred Heart was viewed as private worship. When Cardinal Neuville de Villeroy, Archbishop of Lyon (which included Bourg-en-Bresse) authorized throughout his diocese the Solemn Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1722, the Visitation at Bourg gave this feast a special emphasis. The following year, the community at Bourg founded in its Chapel the Confraternity of the Sacred Heart, which very soon included members from among the residents of Bourg and surrounding areas. (Monastery Archives)
It was through preaching (particularly that of Père de la Chaise in 1731, while rector of the Jesuit House at Bourg) that the monastery chapel became a regional center of devotion to the Sacred Heart. According to the chronicles, “on every First Friday of the month people come from outlying areas to assist at the consecration as well as the Honorable Amends to the Sacred Heart, and to receive the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.” (Monastery Archives)
Once the many trials and tribulations, even exile, which the Visitandines of France underwent at the time of the Revolution were over, the Visitation soon took root again at Bourg in 1806. The Confraternity of the Sacred Heart was reestablished there in 1825, thanks to the diligence of the parish priest.
Monseigneur Devie, the Bishop of Belley (diocese to which Bourg belonged since 1823) was of the opinion that a religious vocation, exceptionally oriented towards the Sacred Heart, could blossom to its fullest potential in this Monastery. This he expressed to Constance Bernaud in 1849, as we will see a bit later.
This means that the soil at Bourg was well prepared to become the center of an association in honor of the Sacred Heart. It should also be noted that simultaneously with this, the Church, after a long waiting period, recognized the revelations of Paray-le-Monial, beatifying Margaret Mary (+1690) on September 18th, 1864.“Blessed are those whom the Divine Heart will make use of in order to establish his kingdom.” – St. Margaret Mary
Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart Bernaud, docile in the hands of the Lord
God’s instrument in the foundation of the Guard of Honor at the Visitation of Bourg-en-Bresse was Constance Bernaud, a modest nun born in Besançon in 1825. In the midst of circumstances which must be called providential, she made her profession in 1851, taking the name of Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart.
If one were to go through the very rich archives of the Monastery of the Visitation of Bourg, one would discover there a wealth of documents, manuscripts, as well as a significant body of international correspondence showing the rapid, extraordinary, almost miraculous expansion of the Guard of Honor. This remarkable growth, beginning in March of 1863, continued throughout the remainder of the 19th century. The death of its foundress in 1903 did not slow the worldwide spread of the Guard of Honor, which continues even today.
A perusal of all these writings reveals a striking and systematic self-effacement on the part of Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart Bernaud as the Guard of Honor began to take shape. Even at Bourg, because “no one is a prophet in his own country,” her name, work and influence went unknown. She preferred it this way, as there was only one thing she wished for: to be freed from this responsibility. She was convinced that there were others who were more competent or in better health who could more effectively bring to fulfillment the project she had begun, a project whose demands seemed to exceed her strength.
And this self-effacement was accompanied by a tact and sensitivity that made her receptive to all manner of misery and complaints. She was completely docile in the hands of the Lord, for the benefit of others.
Such is the picture of this great body of documents sketches of Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart. Her whole life long, in the midst of trials and health problems, she had but one concern: to be the humble servant of the Sacred Heart, to offer herself as a victim to participate in His redemptive work, to fill up in her own flesh, in the words of St. Paul, “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church[.]” Colossians 1:24.
Childhood and Youth
From a human perspective – and we must not rely on such to judge the spiritual and apostolic activity of someone who was always available to do God’s will – there is nothing that would have prepared Anne-Marie Constance Bernaud to found a work of the Church, one which would quickly spread throughout the whole world.
She was born at Besancon, France in the shadow of the St-Jean Cathedral on October 28, 1825. She was one of eight children in a family of devout Christian merchants.
Anne-Marie’s childhood and adolescence were marked by a vibrant piety, as well as a remarkable intelligence and musical sense. She completed her studies at the Convent of the Ladies of St-Maur de Langres. Typically for those times, an eldest daughter would return home to assist her mother. But was that the path she should follow?
When she was only five years old, upon learning of the death of one her aunts who was a Sister of Charity of Besancon, she exclaimed, “I want to be a nun, too!” But her parents dismissed this as the mere babblings of a child.
That desire stayed in her heart, albeit somewhat obscured and confused. Anne-Marie felt it when she went to the Convent of the Ladies of St-Maur de Langres, but she had to wait for the Lord’s call.
In 1841, when she had not yet reached the age of 16, her parents thought differently and married her to a 28-year-old businessman, Monsieur Thieulin. While this marriage was motivated more by business than by love, she accepted it out of respect for her parents’ will. Everything seemed to indicate that she would be a discreet and faithful wife, a devoted mother and a homemaker. Her husband, however, was not as understanding of her as she had hoped.
In July of 1846, before Constance became of age, her husband died. She remained a widow: childless, with no prospects, but available. One of her four brothers, who lived in Paris, invited her to live there, and she accepted. In Paris she encountered “the elegant life,” as she would recall later, and was tempted by the worldly success she experienced.
While in Paris, Constance experienced firsthand the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848. She was walking along the Boulevard des Capucines when the gunfire erupted. She barely escaped the violence that brought down the Jul Monarchy and established the Second Republic. These types of events make an impression on one’s life.
By the end of 1848 she was back in Besançon. She was only 23 years of age and had her whole life ahead of her. She could consider beginning a new home, or else stay at her parents’ home and bring up her younger siblings.
It is at this point in Constance’s life that the Lord intervened in an unexpected manner. Constance received an invitation from a cousin, Madame Reine Morel, to come see her in Belley. She accepted the invitation.
A Sister of the Visitation
The sister of Monsieur Morel, Mother Marie-Aimée Morel, was the Superior of the Visitation of Bourg. Could it be that Madame Morel had heard of Constance’s aspirations for religious life? Had she worked this out with her cousin’s parents? Possibly. At any rate, Constance received a letter from Mother Marie-Aimée suggesting that she come to the retreat given in preparation for the Feast of the Sacred Heart, which fell on the 15th of June in 1849. Constance responded enthusiastically, hearing in this invitation the Lord’s call. She arrived at the Visitation of Bourg on June 9, never to leave it again.
In view of Constance’s docility in obeying God’s will, this comes as no surprise. However, once the retreat was completed, she started having some doubts. Wouldn’t it be better to join the Ladies of St-Maur, whom she knew since her adolescence?
She entrusted her doubts and aspirations to the counsel of Mother Superior and that of Monseigneur Devie, the great Bishop of Belley. Devie was a man of God as well as a friend and follower of the Holy Curé of Ars, St. John Mary Vianney. He freed her of her indecision, advising her unequivocally to enter the Visitation, where she would find support for her apostolate of the Sacred Heart.
In spite of her delicate health, and sustained by her unflagging energy, Constance, now Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart (she especially wished for this patronage of the Sacred Heart) led the simple life of a Visitandine for twelve years. She zealously fulfilled any task entrusted to her. Vividly intelligent and musically gifted, she taught at the boarding school attached to the Monastery, as was the custom in those days.
If she was a model Visitandine, there was nothing about her life that suggested that she would play a key role in the founding of an important work which would give her a place in the Church of the late 19th century. However, the Lord prepared her for precisely that.
It was through a series of fortuitous – or rather, providential – circumstances that Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart was led to begin the Guard of Honor in the Visitation of Bourg on March 13, 1863. She would bring the Guard of Honor to other Visitations, then to other monasteries, finally to all the faithful who find themselves attracted to this spiritual program and who would enroll in it. It became a Confraternity on March 9, 1864, and then the Archconfraternity of the Guard of Honor on November 26, 1878.
It was in her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that she found the idea of consecrating an hour of guard every day. This hour would be offered hust as it is, without making any changes to whatever occupations or activities would be part of it. During that hour, associates would unite themselves mentally to Christ as He offers Himself on the Cross for our redemption. The enrollments in the Confraternity would be inscribed upon a dial marking the twelve hours of the day. In this way, a crown of adorers “taking up their guard” one after the other would be formed around the world. This “Guard of Honor” would be modeled after the vigil kept by the Blessed Mother, Magdalene, and John at Calvary. They stood at the foot of the Cross at the very moment Our Lord’s Heart was pierced, from which flowed blood and water, the symbols of the grace merited by His sacrifice.
Although the Guard of Honor spread very quickly throughout the world, it was not without obstacles and much suffering on the part of its foundress. Without leaving her modest cell, first at rue Teynière, then at rue Bourgmayer, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart multiplied her efforts at starting up the Guard of Honor. She worked extensively with other Monasteries, among religious authorities, and kept a voluminous correspondence to which the archives at Bourg give but an incomplete witness. She humbly stayed on this course because she saw it as God’s will.
How could she interpret otherwise all the failures she experienced every time she tried to have others take charge of the work? She tried to do this first with the Visitation of Annecy, then with the Jesuits of the Apostleship of Prayer at Toulouse, then the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Issoudun, the Chaplains at Montmartre, to say nothing of the difficulties she had with the Fathers of the Abbey of Frigolet. Every single time the initiative fell short, she found herself taking up the reins alone, with insufficient human means, and with her faltering health. Like every other work inspired by God, the Archconfraternity of the Sacred Heart was born amidst many tears, sacrifices, humility, and a radical docility on the part of its foundress.
Of course, this is not to say that Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart found nothing but obstacles in founding this work. She also found support and help from zelators, zelatrices, as well as many humble and faithful collaborators now cloaked in anonymity. At the time of the work’s foundation, certain names stand out: that of Marie Deluil-Martiny, “chère petite Marie,” who would one day found a Congregation, the Daughters of the Heart of Jesus (which saw the light of day as an “offshoot” of the Guard of Honor). Sister Deluil-Martiny (now known as Blessed Mother Marie of Jesus Deluil-Martiny) died tragically. For her apostolic labors in promoting the Guard of Honor, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart gave her the title of First Zelatrix.
There was also Mathilde de Nedonchel and her father. Mathilde would be among the first members of another congregation, The Sister Consolers of the Heart of Jesus, whose foundress was Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Bel. The latter benefitted greatly from the lights and counsel from Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart Bernaud.
It is to Mother Marie of Jesus Deluil-Martiny, as well as to Mathilde de Nedonchel and her father, that we owe the Hymme de la Garde d’Honneur (Hymn of the Guard of Honor), from 1864.
One year after its foundation, the Guard of Honor received the approbation of Pope Blessed Pius IX, who called himself “the first Guard of Honor”. By this same time, there were 30 bishops from France and abroad, over 110 monasteries, as well as a great many faithful spread over 20 countries who were included in the membership.
While we should be slow to call it a miracle, we must admit that such a vast and rapid expansion, starting from the cell of a humble Visitandine, is highly improbable. It makes sense if one sees it as a manifestation of the will of Jesus Christ, since this expansion happened at the same time that Margaret Mary Alacoque, the confidante of Paray, was being beatified (1864). This beatification was a renewed sign of the Church’s approval of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.
While reserving judgment to the Church alone as to whether a direct intervention by the Sacred Heart was involved (and some have felt able to speak of interior illuminations), we can at least affirm that at the root of this great expansion was the total docility towards the will of God of Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart.
This docility comes up time and again in her personal notes. In her abandonment in the face of opposition, and in her weariness, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart understood herself to be not only the Lord’s humble servant, but also a victim offered in union with the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the world and the conversion of sinners. “I want to make amends to the Sacred Heart for the ingratitude of men,” sums up what she wrote on every page of her notebooks. It is the spirituality that she imprinted upon the statutes of the Archconfraternity, on her prayers, on the billets (that she composed from a single draft), and on her entire correspondence.
Throughout her whole life and activity, until her death on August 3, 1903, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart was a docile instrument in the hands of the Lord.
“Mine is the immense happiness of working, suffering, loving…my part is too beautiful.” – Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart