While proclaiming Joan of Arc a saint, at the end of a long canonical process, May 16, 1920, Pope Benedict XV claimed that her life was “a proof of the existence of God.”
As her exploits and extraordinary heroic virtues arouse the fascination of people from all sensitivities, even far from the Christian faith, the Pope highlighted that all those who had tried to explain her life and work without God “got lost in a labyrinth of inextricable mazes.” Indeed, whereas “France is rightly proud of Joan, the Holy Church triumphs within her, too,” he said.
This vibrant tribute to the one that freed France from the British during the Hundred Years’ War also sounded like a gentle reminder addressed to the numerous anticlerical militants of that time who celebrated her as a poor commoner victim of the Church authorities and appropriated her memory as their own. But beyond any controversy, it illustrated the universality of Joan’s legacy, of which countless people were still drawing inspiration, five centuries after her death in 1431, at the age of 19.
Although it took several centuries for her personal sanctity to be officially recognized by the Church, the iniquity of the trial that led to her execution was rapidly attested by a second trial, initiated by Pope Callixtus III in 1455, and which fully rehabilitated her.
However, the strong perennial popularity she enjoyed among common people never really reached the political and intellectual elite before the 19th century, when historian Jules Quicherat published the very detailed historiography Procès de condamnation et de réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc (“Joan of Arc’s Trials of Condemnation and Rehabilitation,” 1841-1849).
In addition, to strengthen the Maid of Orléans’ image as a national heroine, the report of her trials and her dialogue with her prosecutors revealed, more than anything else, the greatness of her soul, the mightiness of her life of faith and her true holiness. It is precisely the reading of these reports that led the then-bishop of Orléans, Bishop Félix Dupanloup, to vigorously militate, from the 1850s, in favor of the recognition of Joan’s religious virtues. He initiated her cause for canonization in 1869, a process supported both by the city and the Diocese of Orléans, which came to a successful end in 1909 only under the pontificate of Pope Pius X.
Joan of Arc was canonized a decade later, in the aftermath of World War I, during which she became the subject of a great popular devotion, especially in the trenches. She was also proclaimed — together with Thérèse of Lisieux — after the Virgin Mary the secondary patron saint of France.
Very few historical figures can boast of having inspired as much literary, musical or cinematic works as Joan of Arc.
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