SAINT IVO OF KERMARTIN, PATRON OF LAWYERS AND CANONISTS
By Attorney Frank Magill
As a convert, one of the aspects of Catholicism that I find most appealing is the Communion of Saints. Here, awaiting only our willingness to read and learn, is a treasure-trove of inspiration and wisdom, both practical and intellectual. Coming from every conceivable background, the most humble fisherman to the high-born, the dregs of society to royalty, the saints teach us how to live virtuously, to receive and revere the Sacraments, to overcome the greatest of challenges, to pray and practice devotions: in short, how to get to Heaven — if we will but follow their example.
It would be hard to find a more compelling example of a holy and virtuous life than that set by St. Ivo1 of Kermartin, who is revered as a patron saint of lawyers and judges as well as abandoned children. Most everyone has heard of St. Thomas More, also a patron saint of lawyers, but St. Ivo seems to be lesser known. Ervoan “Ivo” Helori, meaning “son of Helor”, was born in 1253 at the Manor of Kermartinnear the town of Treguiér in Brittany, in the northwest of France, to a “noble and virtuous” family. His parents chose to educate him at home rather than sending him to a monastery or convent school. At that time, of course, the “progressive” institution of public, secular schools, (deemed by Marx and Engels to be a key component of a model communist society),2 did not yet exist in France.3
Saint Ivo went to the University of Paris in 1267 at age 14 to study the liberal arts and theology. According to Butler — whose account cites the evidence given in support of St. Ivo’s canonization as well as the Bull of canonization itself 4 — Ivo strongly desired to live a holy life, having been inspired from his childhood by his mother’s exhortations, and was repulsed by the hedonistic behavior of many classmates, devoting himself instead to his academic studies and to prayer. In his spare time he visited the sick at local hospitals. It was believed that Ivo’s example served to convince some of his fellows to reform their own ways. Following his years at Paris, Ivo moved on in 1277 to Orleans to study under two different clerics who later became bishops, one also being created Cardinal . Throughout his course of education, Ivo was noted both for his ability to learn and his piety.
By this time Ivo had established an ascetic way of life that would be unthinkable to most people today, when relatively few Catholics even know the fundamentals of the Faith, much less practice severe forms of self-discipline. He wore a hair shirt under his clothing, slept only sparingly, and then on straw or a mat, using a stone pillow. He strictly observed both Lent and Advent with bread and water fasts, as well as on vigils, ember days and other days during the year, and abstained from both meat and wine at all times. Privately, he took a vow of chastity, politely declining a number of offers of possible marriage without disclosing the real reason.
On completion of his course of study at Paris and Orleans, Ivo returned to Brittany where he was appointed to an ecclesiastical judgeship in the city of Rennes, on account of minor orders he had received at Orleans. Wigmore points out that, at this point in history, the Church courts were the most advanced in Europe, having civil and criminal, as well as ecclesiastical, jurisdiction. Here Saint Ivo began in earnest his service to the poor, carefully protecting them from legal oppression, sometimes even representing indigent clients in other courts, paying their expenses, and visiting them in jail. His reputation as a judge among all parties was one of fairness and impartiality, and he would not accept the judicial bribes that were then common, nor did he ever accept fees for representation of the indigent. As a result of his actions, Ivo gained the informal appellation “Advocatus pauperum” (Advocate of the Poor).
St. Ivo, Defender of the Poor
Ordered by the Bishop of Treguier to return to his home diocese, 5Ivo was ordained a priest over his initial objections in 1284. There, he proceeded to discharge the duties of that vocation just as virtuously and enthusiastically as he did his work in the law, often traveling throughout the diocese to preach at different parish churches, sometimes as many as seven times in a single day, with crowds sometimes following him from town to town. He arose nightly at midnight to pray the Office of Matins, and lay prostrate in prayer before the tabernacle before celebrating the Mass, at which he routinely shed tears of joy. His austere life style continued and even deepened during his priesthood, as he engaged in bread and water fasting several times per week year round, as well as throughout Advent and Lent as noted earlier. He continued his abstinence from meat and wine, celebrating high feast days by adding a couple of eggs to his regular spare vegetarian meals. Whether Saint Ivo ever took the habit of the Franciscan Third Order is disputed, according to Butler, with Gonzaga holding that he did so, but another ancient historian, Papebroke, denying that claim. Source.
On the legal side, he continued in the same capacity as at Rennes, advocating for the poor without remuneration when not serving as judge in his own court, and frequently prevailing upon litigating parties to settle their differences amicably. On one occasion, unable to convince a mother and her son to drop a particularly unpleasant legal dispute, Saint Ivo offered up a Mass for their reconciliation, whereupon they settled immediately. In another instance, Ivo saved a widow from being fleeced by two con-men, when he saw through their scheme and forced them to reveal their chicanery in open court.
In addition to his work before the bar and at the altar of the Holy Sacrifice, Ivo undertook to compile in one volume a record of all the various customary laws of Brittany, which was then “a welter of all sorts of unwritten and conflicting traditions as to tenure, dues, privileges, and the like.” Source. This book did not surface until about 20 years after St. Ivo’s death, but most likely proved quite useful to the legal profession and others for many years thereafter.
Saint Ivo died at the age of 49 on May 19, 1303, perhaps weakened by his hard work and severe fasting. His death was widely mourned in the region and throughout the country, with the cause for his canonization being championed by many, including John, Duke of Brittany, as well as King Philip and Queen Anne of France.
A commission was convened to examine the cause in 1330, which is reported to have heard a total of 800 witnesses: 500 at one sitting in the local church, and another 300 who were individually deposed.
Over 100 miracles were attested to by these witnesses, among which was the following account: A woman who lived in Treguier, after having discovered that her home had been robbed, prayed at the tomb of Ivo seeking his intercession. As she prayed, she heard Ivo’s voice speaking the names of three burglars. Two were apprehended and much of the missing property recovered; however, the third had apparently escaped. He, however, suddenly went blind and, believing he was being punished by God for his crime, returned to Treguier and gave back what he had stolen from the woman. His sight was instantly restored. This man himself was one of the individual witnesses before the commission.
Another miracle was attested by the Duke of Brittany, who averred that after praying for Ivo’s intercession, he had been cured of a “distemper” which his physicians had been unable to treat successfully.
The evidence taken by the commission ultimately resulted in the canonization of St. Ivo by Pope Clement VI, on the anniversary of his passing to glory, May 19 in the year 1347. Although not recognized as a feast day by the universal Church, the date is celebrated by the several dioceses in the Brittany region, and the Saint is listed in the Martyrologium Romanum for May 19: “In Brittany, [in the year 1303,] the holy Priest and Confessor Yves, who for the love of Christ pled the cause of orphans, widows, and the poor.” (Source). In addition, the University of Nantes, in the south of Brittany, once placed itself under his patronage, and the chapel of Kermartin is named after him, as are two churches in Rome, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and Sant’Ivo dei Bretoni.
According to a 1991 article in the New York Times, local legend relates that the soul of St. Ivo approached the gates of Heaven along with a group of nuns. St. Peter asked the nuns to wait in Purgatory because there were already plenty of nuns in Heaven, but he told the Saint “You can enter immediately. We don’t yet have a single lawyer.” Another reported local saying about St. Ivo is “Advocatus sed non latro, res miranda populo,” or “A lawyer yet not a rascal, a thing that made the people wonder.”
The admiration shown by the people for Ivo has been shared also by many in the legal profession over the centuries, and even today brings lawyers and judges from around the world to the annual celebration of the Saint’s festival, the “pardon” (or pilgrimage) at Treguiers Cathedral, which contains an elaborate and beautiful cenotaph. (See photo below.) Visitors and locals also pay homage to the Saint at the church he endowed at the nearby suburb of Minihy, where his original tomb was located.
The Lesson of St. Ivo
As stated earlier, the saints provide us with many types of wisdom and inspiration by their examples as well as their written works. Unfortunately, we have no written opus of St. Ivo from which to benefit, except for his compilation of Breton common law, which presumably did not also contain his own commentaries. What we do have, of course, is his sterling example of a life of service to his fellow man, as a priest, lawyer and judge. I daresay his virtuous conduct of these vocations would meet with universal approval today as well as in his own time, and well it should.
But perhaps an even more timely lesson might be drawn from St. Ivo’s ascetic life, with his frequent fasting and his lifelong abstinence from meat and alcohol. Indeed, his asceticism was so pervasive that it arguably shortened his earthly life, though it undoubtedly hastened his passage through purgatory and into the Divine Presence. In today’s society in which, even in the Church, worldly matters seem to take complete precedence over any concern for death, judgment, Heaven, and hell, a man who showed such disdain for creature comforts would be scorned and ridiculed. Of course, that is how most of the world today reacts to all faithful Christians, even those of us who do not engage in the strict disciplines followed by St. Ivo. But the lesson remains, which once was, and ought now to be, urgently taught in every Catholic home, school and parish: the present world is but a proving ground for the world to come, the new Heaven and the new Earth, the promise of Christ to all His faithful disciples. We are to live in this world but not be of this world. To lose sight of this is to lose sight of Christ Himself. Let us pray that our Church regains its bearings and returns to this first principle.
1 Or Ives, in English, or Yves, in French
2 Marx & Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter II, p. 27, Marxists Internet Archive (marxists.org) 1987, 2000, 2010.
3 Secular education at public expense became mandated in France in 1882 as a result of legislation advocated by Jules Ferry, then Prime Minister of the Republic, who helped to continue the French renunciation of its Catholic history begun by the Revolution of 1789.
4 Unfortunately, as of this writing the web archive of the Holy See includes only one document from the papacy of Clement VI, who canonized St. Ivo, and it is not the bull of canonization. Additionally, there seem to be no historical studies of the Saint extant in English. Thus, not being fluent in French, we are constrained to rely chiefly upon Butler’s and Wigmore’s narratives for most details of the saint’s life and canonization.
5 The diocese was suppressed and combined with another by the Concordat of 1802 between Napoleon and the Holy See.