The sanctity of the mother and the cult of ancestors

This is the seventeenth in a series of twenty articles drawn from Mgr Delassuss two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905). The section of his work translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of society, the disastrous effects of human tampering and the necessity of the restoration of Christian society. This series began in April 2022 with How states are formed“.

To the authority of the father must be joined the sanctity of the mother. “Blessed is he”, said Lamartine, “to whom God has given a holy mother!”1 He was among those who had this blessing, and he never tired of revisiting the debt of gratitude that he owed to her: “for having watched over the thought of this child, day after day, to turn it towards God, as one watching over a stream from its very source to direct it towards the meadow where one wants to make new grass reappear.”2

How many other mothers have imprinted deeply in the soul of their children the respect, worship and adoration of God, of which they were, by the purity of their life, the living image for them! “Mine”, said the same poet, “had the piety of an angel. The beauty of her features and the holiness of her thoughts fought together to perfect one another.”3

As mother, the Christian woman sanctifies the man as infant; as daughter, she edifies the man as father; as sister, she improves man as brother; as wife, she sanctifies the man as husband. “I want to make my son a saint”, said the mother of Saint Athanasius.

“A thousand thanks, my God, for giving us a saint for mother!” cried the two sons of St Emilia, St Basil and St Gregory of Nyssa, at her death.

“Oh my God! I owe everything to my mother!” said St Augustine.

In his gratitude for having so deeply pervaded him with the doctrine of Christ, St Gregory the Great had his mother Sylvia painted at his side, dressed in a white robe and a doctor’s mitre, extending two fingers of her right hand, as if giving her blessing, and holding in her right hand the book of the holy Gospels before her son’s eyes.

Who gave us St Bernard, so pure, so strong, so consumed with love of God? His mother, Aleth. Closer to our own time, to some people who congratulated him for having had a taste for piety at a young age, the holy Curé d’Ars said, “After God, it is the work of my mother.” Almost all the saints have attributed their sanctity to their mothers, who saw in their children, according to the beautiful thought of Lamartine:

“One more servant to serve the great Master,
One more eye, a mind to know Him,
One more tongue in the infinite choir,
By whom, from age to age, He must be blessed!”

One can add that great men too were made by their mothers.

Bishop Castulf, in a letter to Charlemagne, reminds him of the memory of his mother Bertrada, saying:

“O king, if God Almighty has raised you above all your contemporaries and all your predecessors in honour and glory, you owe it above all to the virtues of your mother.”4

“On the mother’s knees,” said Joseph de Maistre, “is formed that which is most excellent in the world.” She is at the heart of this resplendent lamp of which the Gospel speaks, shining on all the light of the faith and the flames of divine charity. It is for her to make the thought of the sovereignty of God — our first principle and our last end — live in the family; the principle of love and gratitude that we must have for His infinite bounty, the fear of His justice, the spirit of religion which unites us to Him, the law of chaste morals, of honesty, of acts and of sincerity of speech; the principle of devotion and mutual support; the principle of work and temperance.

So many families have thus come, by the women, to the highest degree of consideration and prosperity, and so many fallen families have also been raised up again by them!

In the sixteenth century, Louis de Gonzague, Duke of Nevers, was on the verge of bankruptcy; his wife, Henriette of Cleves, took over the government of the household and reestablished order in its affairs. Another wife and mother, Jeanne de Schomberg, sister of the second of the marshals of this name, saw her husband’s ruin:

“I will see for myself, and examine all our affairs with care, according to the capacity that God has given me, and before working on this, I will raise my heart to the Holy Ghost, to ask Him for the gifts of counsel and fortitude, in order to act in all things with prudence and firmness.”

St Jane-Frances de Chantal was introduced, by her marriage, into a house “very tangled in its accounts”. She began, from the day after her wedding, to repair the harm done.

“She accustomed herself to rise early in the morning; she had already put affairs in order and sent the men to work before her husband was up.”

We are presented with similar examples in all the conditions of life. August Cochin says:

“In the working family, the dominant figure is the woman; everything depends on the mother’s virtue and ends up modelling itself on her. To the father, the work of the gain of the household; to the woman, the care and interior direction; the husband earns, the wife saves; the husband feeds the children, the wife alone raises them; the husband is the head of the family, the wife is the link; the father is its honour, the wife is its blessing.”

The happy influence of the Christian woman extends well beyond the home. The Viscount de Maumigny said:

“God created among us these numerous generations of pious women, to whom we owe our national character, just as Rome owes its own to its great pontiffs. He gave us the Clotildas and the Bathildas, the Radegunds and the Blanches, the Isabelles and the Jeannes, and, in these last centuries, pious queens worthy of them. Shepherdesses vie with princesses. The virgin of Nanterre (St Genevieve) and the virgin of Vaucouleurs (St Joan of Arc); St Germaine de Pibrac and Benoîte Rencurel; a whole legion of holy women from all conditions and ranks make the sweet influence of Mary, their model, penetrate everywhere.

“Whilst the salvation of Italy has come to us, above all, by its holy pontiffs, it has also come from the apostolate of women. In the eighteenth century, kings, magistrates, savants and even pontiffs were sleeping; but the women remained heroically faithful. And when the men said, ‘I do not know this man, his kingdom is not of this world!’ the women silently followed Christ and His Vicar to Calvary.

“We owe to our mothers and to our sisters the foundation of honour and of chivalric devotion which is the life of France. We owe them the Catholic faith. Disciples of the Queen of Apostles and Martyrs, women have made their hearts pass into the hearts of their sons.

“Women are the soul of all good works in France — from Peter’s pence to the propagation of the faith — and it is the breath of their mother and their sisters which carried the defenders of the Holy See to Rome. I know more than one young man who would be in the papal zouaves if he had followed the secret desires of his mother; I only know one whom a Christian mother stopped.5 The father could weaken, never the mother — never, either before, during or after. A mutilated son was her pride, and when, before the body of a martyr, God said at the bottom of her heart, ‘Your son is with me’, gratitude smothered her sorrow. More than the blood of her son, she loved His glory.

“Mary their model had taught these mothers how to sacrifice an only son to God and the Church. ‘No,’ said Pius IX to the story of these sublime immolations, ‘France, which produced such saints, will not perish!’

“The first time that the heroic widow of Georges de Pimodan saw the pope, she did not say to him, ‘Oh, Holy Father, give me back my husband!’ but, ‘Oh, tell me that he is in heaven!’ And when Pius IX responded, ‘I no longer pray for him’, she asked him nothing more, because she had understood that she was the widow of a martyr, and that sufficed.

“Women are the soul of everything which has moved France, and by her, the world. At Castelfidardo, the zouaves fought before the eyes of their mothers, present in their thoughts, by the walls of the sanctuary where the Queen of Martyrs begat the King of Martyrs. All, in marching towards the enemy, repeated these words: ‘My soul to God, my heart to my mother, my body to Loretto.’ To their mothers, to Mary who inspired them all, went the honour of the battle. As the knights of old, and later, the fighters of the Vendée, they had learned on their mothers’ knees how to die for God, the Church and their country.”

In a beautiful study, published in the Défense Sociale of 16 April to 1 August 1903, under the title, Le Progrès, a Monsieur Favière notes that modern civilisation is attached by its origins to Helleno-Latin antiquity:

“The Gospel differentiates them but unites them because of their affinity. This affinity comes from the fact that Greece and Rome, contrary to what happened in the Orient, had never excluded the woman from social life, such that feminine genius had taken part in the development of their civilisation, which was by this very fact more apt than eastern civilisations to receive the evangelical graft.”

The Germans, in establishing their empire, carried into it the superstitious respect which they had for the woman. The Church purified this sentiment, reserved the purity of morals to the first rank in men’s esteem, and so opened on the world all the treasures of the heart and of the intelligence of woman, doubling the resources and field of action of progress. Monsieur Favière continues:

“It is by the woman that the Christian nations have received the gift of piety, it is from her that they hold this faculty of communicative emotions which sway crowds; of sudden and irresistible awakenings which sometimes raise peoples above themselves, their mercantile interests and their repose; of precipitating them in the way of sublime adventures which are the great steps of humanity. What people know it better than our own? It is not only by the heart that the woman is associated with the work of progress; it is not only heat and movement that she has communicated to it, by which she has raised Christian civilisation above what the world had ever seen; she has served it no less by her intelligence. The prompt and instinctive intelligence of the woman, whose penetration masculine intelligence cannot equal, has views on the moral world. … It cultivates in the family a sense of the good, it gives the intelligence of first truths, it teaches them by its acts, by its judgments, by its manifestation of its esteem and its blame.”

For the last two centuries, there have been very few men in France who have not let themselves get wrapped up in the Revolution, whether or not they wanted to. Women, on the contrary, have the same instinct for the truth as they do for charity. In them, all apostasy, all cowardice, all weakness of mind or heart find inflexible judges. They love the Church and their country, Christ and His Mother; they love them more than themselves, more than riches, more than their children. We saw instances of it at Mentana and at Castelfidardo. And for them, this love takes the place of knowledge. In France, they are the firm support of the society of the Church. The Revolution knows this only too well. It knows the number of brothers, sons and husbands preserved, snatched from secret societies by simple working women, by simple peasant girls. Without cease, the revolutionary has been plagued by this feminine war, whence its complaints, its plots to pervert the heart of woman. But the women of France are hardened by 100 years of incessant battles.

The spirit of family begets that which has been most justly been called the cult of ancestors, and is nourished by it.

This cult existed in pagan countries but soon degenerated. It is alive in our Christian societies, and we see it constitute almost the entirety of religion in China.

Among the pagans, it would at first consist only in sentiments of gratitude of children for the father who had raised them, and of the family for the ancestor who had made it what it was, who had given it the lesson and example of the moral virtues by which it has prospered.

Little by little, as the venerated image of the founder receded into the past, it took on a more mysterious aspect, producing in hearts sentiments of a more religious character.

Soon they were translated into a cult properly called. They offered sacrifices at the tomb of the ancestor and said to him, “Underground God, be favourable to us!”

In addition, an altar was erected in the heart of the family home. Coals burned there night and day. They symbolised the soul of the family, the spirit of the family received from the ancestors and always living in it. Woe to the house where the hearth came to be extinguished! The fire must not stop burning on the altar until the family had perished in its entirety. The hearth extinguished and the family extinguished were synonymous expressions.

Christianity has destroyed nothing of what has sprung naturally from the human soul. But it has purified everything. It too wants us all to keep the memory of the authors of our days religiously, to conserve their lessons and their examples, and to pass them on to the following generations.

But, in addition, Holy Church wants us to remain in communion with our ancestors, with father and mother, brothers and sisters, who have preceded us into the superior world. She wants us to pray for them and to them, to go their aid and to have confidence in theirs; above all, in maintaining ourselves on the path where they have put us and guard us.

This series will continue next month with “Rebuilding the social body (1)“.


1. Alphonse de Lamartine, Harmonies poétique, 3,9. Despite the swerving of his imagination, Lamartine always kept the memory of Christian education that his mother had given him. More than two years before his death, he knelt to receive Communion beside his mother during Holy Week. As Joseph de Maistre said:

“If the mother has made a duty of imprinting the divine character on the forehead of her child, one can be just about sure that the hand of vice will never efface itentirely.”

The memory of a holy mother follows the virtuous man everywhere! Frédéric Ozanam, speaking of his mother, said:

“When I am good, when I do something for the poor whom she loved so much, when I am at peace with God whom she served so well, I see her smiling at me from afar. Sometimes, if I pray, I think I hear her prayer accompanying mine, just as we did together in the evening at the foot of the crucifix. Finally, often, when I have the blessing of receiving Communion, when the Saviour comes and visits me, it seems to me that she follows Him into my miserable heart, like so many times before she followed Him, carried in the viaticum, into the poorest houses.” 

2. Cours familier de littérature, p 9.

3. Ibid.

4. Patrologia Latina, T. 46, c. 1363.

5. This was written in 1862, while the papal zouaves were shedding their blood to defend the Holy See.