IN a class-room of the Roman College, in the year 1563, a young Belgian Jesuit, Father John Leunis, is surrounded by a group of boys of seemingly unbounded energy. The good Father sees in their dark eyes a power and an enthusiasm which, if inspired and directed, may do immense things for God. They must be kept unspotted from the world. He speaks to them out of the abundance of the heart. He is not there primarily to teach them classics, but to fire them with love of God and zeal for souls. Soon the boys are hanging on his every word. I can, I will! Such were the thoughts passing through their minds. To be a knight of Our Lady - her perpetual servant - to be worthy of her. To put on her white armour; to be a Galahad with the strength of ten - here was a high aim - a star to guide them through the storms of life.
They knelt down and consecrated themselves to Our Lady. Only a simple class-room; only a young Jesuit priest; only a little band of boys; yet, from that little act of devotion with no pomp or circumstance, favours untold have been won for millions of souls!
It was the birth of the Sodality of Our Lady. It spread through the Holy City, into every country of Europe, gathering under the banner of Mary, kings, queens, emperors, popes, saints: millions of souls whose names remain unrecorded on the roll of secular fame have bee led upwards and onwards by the splendid enthusiasm of personal consecration to the Queen-Mother. The young Jesuit and his spirited pupils little imagined on that school-day morning in 1563 that they were calling into being one of the most enduring and romantic apostolates for God and the salvation of souls.
The first schoolboy Sodalists bound themselves to go to Confession every week and to Communion on the first Sunday of every month, hear Mass every day, make half an hour's meditation, and recite the Rosary in the college chapel after school. This development of personal piety bore fruit in work for others, and the service of the poor was their first triumph in Catholic Action. Even in its first year, too, the Sodality began to give a particular impetus to mental improvement by the holding of literary reunions, which were called Academies. At these Academies were produced short plays, and debates were held on subjects usually, but not always, religious.
The Roman College Sodality was favoured in 1577 with indulgences granted it by the Sovereign Pontiff. The Sodality spread far and wide, and the good it was doing led the General of the Society of Jesus, Father Cladius Acquiviva, who had himself been Director of the Roman Sodality, to ask Pope Gregory XIII to make the Sodality at the Roman College what is called a head Sodality or primaria - that is, a mother Sodality which can communicate to others affiliated with it the privileges and indulgences possessed by itself. This was done by the Pope in the Bull Omnipotentis Dei issued on the 5th December, 1584. Many other Popes increased the powers and privileges of the Sodality. The most remarkable of the Pontifical favours is the Bull, Gloriosae Dominae of Pope Benedict XIV. It is known as the "Golden Bull" because, in token of special honour for the Mother of God, the seal was not, as is customary, of lead, but of gold.
The growth of the Sodality was not confined to students of Jesuit Colleges. Others also were added who had never been Jesuit pupils at all, men from all vocations in life. Soon there were Sodalities of priests, of nobles, of merchants, of working-men, of clerks, of married men, of unmarried men, of soldiers, and so on, each confined to a particular class of people, and all affiliated to the Prima-Primaria Sodality in the Roman College.
It is interesting to note that for one hundred and sixty-seven years of the Sodality's existence - that is, from 1584 to 1751 - the membership was open only to men. It was only in 1751 that Pope Benedict XIV gave leave to aggregate Sodalities of married women and girls. A great increase in membership was the result. Such, too, was the outcome when, in 1825, Pope Leo XII granted affiliation to Sodalities not under Jesuit direction.
The sodalities so founded and aggregated to the Prima-Primaria must have formed to goodness and piety over twenty-five million souls from their foundation to the present day. There were learned men and writers like Corneille, Lipsius, Bollandus; there were painters like Rubens; there were preachers like Bossuet, Fenelon, Segnari, Bourdaloue; there were magistrates, generals and ministers of State, like Tilly, Turenne, Don John of Austria; there were counts and dukes and princes of the blood royal, like Emmanuel of Savoy, Leopold of Austria, Wallenstien; there were kings and emperors, Bishops, Archbishops, Cardinals and Popes. In the seventeenth century alone seven Popes belonged to the Sodality of Our Lady.
On its rolls are the names of many saints, amongst whom may be mentioned: St. Charles Borremeo, the zealous reformer of Church Discipline; St. Francis de Sales, the gentle Bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church; St. Alphonsus de Ligouri, the Bishop, Moral Theologian, Doctor of the Church, Founder of the Redemptorists; St. Camillus de Lellis, the patron of Catholic hospitals; St. Leonard of Port Maurice, the eloquent Franciscan preacher; St. John Baptist de Rossi, the Vincent de Paul of Rome; St. Peter Claver, the apostle of the negro; the humble Jesuit Brother, St. Alphonsus Rodriguiez. Amongst the recently canonised saints may be numbered St. Madeline Sophie Barat, foundress of the religious of the Sacred Heart; St. Julie Billart, the foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur; St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus; St. Bernadette Soubirous, to whom Our Blessed Lady, Queen and Mother of Sodalists, appeared at Lourdes.
The Sodality is not a mere pious organisation. The first of its rules makes that clear: the Sodality "is a religious body which aims at fostering in its members and ardent devotion, reverence, and filial love towards the Blessed Virgin Mary. Through this devotion, and with the protection of so good a Mother, it seeks to make the faithful gathered together under her name good Catholics, sincerely bent on sanctifying themselves, each in his state of life, and zealous, as for as their condition in life permits, to save and sanctify their neighbour and to defend the Church of Jesus Christ against the attacks of the wicked."
An intense devotion to Our Lady will, of course, characterise every Sodalist. A zeal for perfection makes the regular frequentation of the Sacraments, and it is the glory of the Sodality of Our Lady that it urged frequent Communion when it was by no means common among the faithful. The primary rule of the Sodality entails, however, that the zeal for interior sanctity should abound, too, in work for the neighbour. A well-organised sodality will, then, have different sections, each devoted to some particular form of Catholic Action, and each Sodalist may chose the one whose activity best suits his opportunities and inclinations.
Thus there may be a section of the Sodality whose members will care for their chapel and its altar, or who may be permitted to adorn the altars of the parish church and care for the vestments. A section may be formed whose members will perform the Holy Hour. A useful section might be founded of Promoters of the Apostleship of Prayer or of Promoters of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. There is a vast sphere of work awaiting a section that will take on itself the promotion of Closed Retreats. A Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society should be worked by every Sodality. A section engaged in visiting the sick and those in prison has been from the beginning one of the characteristic activities of the Sodality.
But the Sodality has, in fact, a very wide sphere of work awaiting it if it will but live up to its traditions and possibilities. The feeding and clothing of the poor; catechetical instruction; help in the preparation for the Baptism, Communion, Confirmation for those in need or of lapsed Catholics; the case of late vocations to the priesthood or religious life; work on behalf of the Missions; a vigilance committee that will study the tone of periodicals, the stage, the cinema; a section for writers or the production of plays; a section for doctors or dentists who will give their services to the poor and study Catholic ethics; a section that will look after the housing of the poor and homeless - these and other activities await Sodalists who will form sections of active Sodalists who are worthy children of the Virgin Mother, worthy brothers or sisters of Christ.
At the present day there are sodalities for priests as well as for lay-folk; sodalities for physicians, lawyers, school-teachers, nurses; sodalities for schools and universities - in a word, for all sorts and conditions of people. Ireland, with her 600 Sodalities affiliated to the Prima-Primaria, has at hand an illustrious school of individual sanctity and a splendid force to be used in the cause of Catholic Action.