An Easter Quo Vadis: St. Hugh of Grenoble (1053-1132)

St. Hugh’s love of heavenly things made all temporal affairs seem to him burdensome and tedious’

Francisco de Zurbarán, “St. Hugh in the Refectory”, c. 1655
Francisco de Zurbarán, “St. Hugh in the Refectory”, c. 1655 (photo: Public Domain)

The liturgical calendar is complicated. There’s the temporal cycle and the sanctoral cycle; holy days of obligation and solemnities; feasts, memorials and even optional memorials. And when you superimpose all that on our more pedestrian system of 12 months and 365 days (except in Leap Year – another complication!), you can often find obscure coincidental treasures that have serendipitous connections.

This year, however, a few of the coincidences aren’t so obscure. Like Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day: Want to know what true love looks like? Deny yourself, embrace the Cross, and follow the Crucified. Or how about Palm Sunday falling on March 25, which postpones our celebration of the Annunciation till after Easter. Among other things, it’s a clear reminder that, as important as the incarnation is and as much as we love honoring Our Lady, Jesus’ Passion and the events of Holy Week trump everything else – not only in our faith and doctrine, but in our worship schedule as well.

Then there’s Easter lining up with April Fool’s Day this year – yet another rich vein of liturgical serendipity and spiritual reflection. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men,” St. Paul writes the Corinthians, “and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Elsewhere in the same letter, Paul even labels himself and his companions “fools for Christ’s sake.” And what exactly is their foolishness? Not only that they “preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23), but that they practice what they preach: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure…. We have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things” (4:12-13).

Given that the Apostle goes on to implore his readers “to be imitators of me” (4:16), we are left with the discomforting truth that we, too, insofar as we bask in Easter’s victory, are called to a similar countercultural craziness. Is it any wonder, then, that we often shy away from the implications of our Easter commitments – from the temporal consequences of our baptismal insertion into the dying and rising of Jesus? Often, it’s a shying away in terms of interior dispositions and attitudes only, but sometimes it manifests as a Jonah-esque full-fledged rebellion.

Like when St. Peter fled the persecutions of Rome, according to tradition, and met Jesus heading back in the opposite direction. “Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked him – Domini quo vadis, in the Latin. Jesus’ reply was stark: “I go into Rome to be…crucified again,” according to the apocryphal Acts of St. Peter. Chastened, Peter spun on his heel and “returned to Rome, rejoicing, and glorifying the Lord.” There, the emboldened first pope defied imperial edicts, pastored his persecuted flock, and himself endured a crucifixion of his own.

Foolish? Perhaps, but precisely the kind of foolishness that Easter faith seems to demand of us. And it’s the kind of foolishness that we witness in the life of St. Hugh of Grenoble, France, whose feast is ordinarily observed on April 1.

Born in 1053, Hugh was a pious youth who early on felt a call to religion. After completing his education and taking on a clerical post, his virtues came to the attention of the Grenoble presbyterate, and in 1080 they pressed Pope Gregory VII to make Hugh their bishop. The Holy Father agreed, but he had trouble convincing the would-be monk to take on an episcopal mantle.

Eventually, Hugh acquiesced to the Pope’s request, and he served as Bishop of Grenoble for two years with distinction, reforming the clergy, rooting out immoral practices, and fostering a rich devotional life among the laity. No doubt thinking that he’d done his bit – that he’d put in his time and so earned the right to pursue his own desires – he decided to flee and “privately resigned his bishopric, presuming on the tacit consent of the Holy See,” as Butler’s has it. Hugh thereafter made a beeline for a monastery and piously laid low for a full year.

Yet the good bishop wasn’t going to get off that easy. The Pope “commanded him, in virtue of holy obedience, to resume his pastoral charge,” notes Butler. It was a “quo vadis” crisis for St. Hugh – a “where are you going” moment. He could’ve resisted – he could’ve fled again.

Instead, he plunged back into the episcopal fray. “Coming out of his solitude…he announced the divine law with greater zeal and success than ever.” Moreover, Hugh was instrumental in settling St. Bruno and his band of followers in their mountain fastness of Chartreuse, thereby facilitating the foundation of the Carthusian monastic order – an institution marked by courageous witness to the faith during the English Reformation and beyond.

Unfortunately for Hugh, his involvement with the early Carthusians only fanned his monastic inclinations, and he ardently desired to join Bruno and his brothers in isolation. “His love of heavenly things made all temporal affairs seem to him burdensome and tedious,” Butler writes, and Hugh repeatedly applied to the Holy See for release from his episcopal duties. No dice – he served the church at Grenoble the rest of his life, and his final days were marked by an incapacitating illness which he suffered with patience and spiritual fervor. Pope Innocent II canonized Hugh in 1134.

The world tells us to seek pleasure and ease; the Gospel directs us to “lay up treasure in heaven” and “seek first the Kingdom of God.” The world promotes expediency; the Gospel, sanctity. The world, upward mobility and success; the Gospel, humility and service to the poor.

Happy April Fool’s Day indeed. St. Hugh of Grenoble, pray for us.