The 66 years from 1594, when Frances de Sales set out on foot to re-evangelize alpine France, to the death of St. Vincent de Paul in 1660, was a time of extraordinary spiritual renewal in France. It is sometimes called the "generation of saints" although it spanned three generations.
At the center of this revival was the parish of St. Sulpice and its pastor, Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpicians. He lived in a very different time where so many of the things we take for granted were missing: universal public education, innumerable public and private programs and services for the poor and sick; an educated laity, etc. So we can't just imitate what he did but we certainly can imitate his spirit!
What I find fascinating is his intensely apostolic and creative view of the parish, the diocesan priesthood, and the whole Church. For him, the parish was all about mission, not maintenance. The Sulpicians at St. Patrick's told me that Olier was noted for his collaboration with the laity.
Read this (long) description of Olier's amazing evangelical creativity at the parish level from the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia. And then give yourself permission to dream about what God could do in and through your parish:
"In August, 1641, M. Olier took charge of St-Sulpice. His aims were to reform the parish, establish a seminary, and Christianize the Sorbonne, then very worldly, through the piety and holiness of the seminarians who should attend its courses. The parish embraced the whole Faubourg-St-Germain, with a population as numerous and varied as a large city. It was commonly reputed the largest and most vicious parish, not only in the French capital, but in all Christendom. The enormity of the evils had killed all hope of reformation.
Father Olier organized his priests in community life. The parish was divided into eight districts, each under the charge of a head priest and associates, whose duty it was to know individually all the souls under their care, with their spiritual and corporal needs, especially the poor, the uninstructed, the vicious, and those bound in irregular unions. Thirteen catechetical centres were established, for the instruction not only of children but of many adults who were almost equally ignorant of religion. Special instructions were provided for every class of persons, for the beggars, the poor, domestic servants, lackeys, midwives, workingmen, the aged etc. Instructions and debates on Catholic doctrine were organized for the benefit of Calvinists, hundreds of whom were converted.
A vigorous campaign was waged against immoral and heretical literature and obscene pictures; leaflets, holy pictures, and prayer books were distributed to those who could not or would not come to church, and a bookstore was opened at the church to supply good literature. The poor were cared for according to methods of relief inspired by the practical genius of St. Vincent de Paul. During the five or six years of the Fronde, the terrible civil war that reduced Paris to widespread misery, and often to the verge of famine, M. Olier supported hundreds of families and provided many with clothing and shelter. None were refused. His rules of relief, adapted in other parishes, became the accepted methods and are still followed at St-Sulpice.
Orphans, very numerous during the war, were placed in good parishes, and a house of refuge established for orphan girls. A home was open to shelter and reform the many women rescued from evil lives, and another for young girls exposed to danger. Many free schools for poor girls were founded by Father Olier, and he laboured also at the reform of the teachers in boys' schools, not however, with great success. He perceived that the reform of boys' schools could be accomplished only through a new congregation; which in fact came about after his death through St. Jean Baptist de la Sale, a pupil of St-Sulpice, who founded his first school in Father Olier's parish.
Free legal aid was provided for the poor. He gathered under one roof the sisters of many communities, who had been driven out of their convents in the country and fled to Paris for refuge, and cared for them till the close of the war. In fine, there was no misery among the people, spiritual or corporal, for which the pastor did not seek a remedy.
His work for the rich and high-placed was no less thorough and remarkable. He led the movement against duelling, formed a society for its suppression, and enlisted the active aid of military men of renown, including the marshals of France and some famous duellists. He converted many of noble and royal blood, both men and women. He combated the idea that Christian perfection was only for priests and religious, and inspired many to the practices of a devout life, including daily meditation, spiritual reading and other exercises of piety, and to a more exact fulfillment of their duties at court and at home. . .
He persuaded the rich–royalty, nobles, and others–to a great generosity, without which his unbounded charities would have been impossible. The foundation of the present church of St-Sulpice was laid by him. At times as many as sixty or even eighty priests were ministering together in the parish, of whom the most illustrious, a little after Olier's time, was Fénelon, later Archbishop of Cambrai. This was one of the best effects of Olier's work, for it sent trained, enlightened zealous priests into all parts of France. From being the most vicious in France, the parish became one of the most devout, and it has remained such to this day.
Olier was always the missionary. His outlook was world- wide; his zeal led to the foundation of the Sulpician missions at Montreal (Sherry's note: Montreal was founded by a remarkable band of French lay Catholics who dreamed of recreating the Christian community of the book of Acts and evangelizing Native Americans) and enabled him to effect the conversion of the English King, Charles II, to the Catholic faith.
The second great work of Olier was the establishment of the seminary of St-Sulpice. By his parish, which he intended to serve as a model to the parochial clergy, as well as by his seminary, he hoped to help give France a worthy secular priesthood, through which alone, he felt, the revival of religion could come. . . The beginnings were in great poverty, which lasted many years, for Olier would never allow any revenues from the parish to be expended except on parish needs.
From the start he designed to make it a national seminary and regarded as providential the fact that the parish of St-Sulpice and the seminary depended directly on the Holy See. In the course of two years students came to it from about twenty dioceses of France. Some attended the courses at the Sorbonne, others followed those given in the seminary. His seminarians were initiated into parochial work, being employed very fruitfully in teaching catechism. At the Sorbonne their piety, it appears, had a very marked influence. The seminary, fulfiling the hopes of Father Olier, not only sent apostolic priests into all parts of France, but became the model according to which seminaries were founded throughout the kingdom.