Peter Julian Eymard was born in 1811 at La Mure in the French Alps. He had an intense devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, and he made pilgrimages to Marian shrines throughout France. His father was to die while he was young, and with his mother’s permission, he entered the novitiate of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Marseille, but had to leave because of illness. The Oblates later helped him to enter the diocesan seminary. In 1834 he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Grenoble and appointed assistant pastor at the town of Chatte. Three years later he was appointed pastor of Monteynard.
Throughout his life Peter Julian had a strong attraction to the Eucharist. As a priest, he opposed the backward thinking of his day which suggested that communion was a reward for the virtuous, not to be received often or by anyone ‘unworthy’.
After praying at the Basilica of Fourvière in 1851, Peter Julian moved to establish a Marist community dedicated to eucharistic adoration. His superiors disapproved, transferring him to the Marist College at La Seyne-sur-Mer. Eventually Peter Julian resolved to leave the Society of Mary to begin a new religious congregation with the diocesan priest Raymond de Cuers.
After many trials, Eymard and de Cuers established public exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in Paris in 1857 in a run-down building at 114 rue d’Enfer (‘street of hell’). He would write:
Every time we come into the presence of the Eucharist we may say: This precious Testament cost Jesus Christ His life. For the Eucharist is a testament, a legacy which becomes valid only at the death of the testator. Our Lord thereby shows us His boundless love, for He Himself said there is no greater proof of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
When Pope Pius XI granted a Decree of Approbation in 1863, the new Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament had twenty-eight members, among them the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin. Their mission included exposition and perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacarament, ministries to priests and to the poor, and particularly to the destitute children or ‘ragpickers’ who were living in the ghettoes of Paris.
Peter Julian also established an association of lay people called the Aggregation of the Blessed Sacrament, and he collaborated with Marguerite Guillot to found a eucharistic congregation for women now known as the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament.
In declining health, Eymard lived to see his own Congregation begin its expansion outside France in the mid 1860s. His mystical life deepened during his final years, as he came to recognise what he called the ‘gift of self’ which involved an act of total self-surrender based on the model of Christ. Following a stroke, he died in 1868.
St Peter Julian Eymard was canonised on 9 December 1962 and is known today as the ‘Apostle of the Eucharist’. His feast day is celebrated each year on 2 August.