Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses by Régine Pernoud is one of those books that lingered on my bookshelf for over a year. Because it’s a review of all the historical records about St. Joan of Arc’s life, trial, and death along with commentary, I expected the book would make for rather dry reading and so avoided it for some time. Recently, though, I was inspired to pick it up and was amazed to discover that Pernoud’s work is actually a gripping page turner—not because the historical records are necessarily that fascinating but because the person of Joan is fascinating. Her personality, her boldness, and her holiness leap through the pages and force their way into your heart.
Though historical records are not my favorite thing to read, it’s appropriate to center a book about Joan around them. For if it weren’t for the fact that actual records exist about her life one might think Joan’s story were some made up fantasy. How did a young, uneducated, peasant girl from the fifteenth century manage to school kings and generals with such relentless bravery, prophetic boldness, and tenacious audacity? Pernoud does not try to explain the mystery around Joan, but she does examine the truth around many of the explanations proposed throughout time in attempts to dispel the mystery. Some people suggested that Joan could not have been a peasant and must have been the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Orleans, the brother of the king of France. Others even claimed she never was burned at the stake. With the patience and detail of an experienced historian, Pernoud examines these claims and disputes their historicity with convincing detail.
The entire book is fascinating, but the chapter on Joan’s trial of condemnation was particularly lifechanging for me. I had previously read Joan’s trial transcripts several times before taking up this book and each time I was impressed and moved. But after reading the trial in the context of other surrounding historical documents about her life, I was even more impressed. Struck with wonder at the details of her life, I found myself continually asking, “How did a young, uneducated woman lead armies to victory and gain the trust of a king?” Unfortunately, Joan’s unlikely feats did not engender the same wonder in the clergy and theologians who questioned her at her trial. Blinded by political partisanship, these men considered Joan a threat rather than a miracle and questioned her mercilessly.
Joan was remarkably bold and brave in battle but perhaps her greatest act of heroism lies in her behavior during her unjust trial. Several people who witnessed the trial would later marvel at how remarkably prudent Joan was in all her responses. Seeing the reality of her situation and the clear hopelessness of stating her case, she nevertheless responded to learned theologians with astounding clarity and firmness. One of Joan’s most striking responses is in reply to one of the many times her interrogators tried to trap her by asking whether she accepted the Church’s authority. While sitting in front of a panel of men of God, many of whom wanted her dead, Joan repeatedly affirmed her trust in the authority of the Church and at one point declared, “I abide by God and our Holy Father the pope.”
In this response, Joan of Arc is a model for us today. In the modern world, we are faced with a deluge of information about the failings of the Church. The abuse crisis. Financial scandals. The failures of prominent priests, religious, and lay people. How can we, like Joan, continue to see the spiritual reality of the Church in the midst of such darkness? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once reflected on what enabled Joan to do so:
In Jesus, Joan contemplated the whole reality of the Church, the “Church triumphant” of Heaven, as well as the “Church militant” on earth. According to her words, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing.” This affirmation, cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 795), has a truly heroic character in the context of the Trial of Condemnation, before her judges, men of the Church who were persecuting and condemning her. In the Love of Jesus Joan found the strength to love the Church to the very end, even at the moment she was sentenced.
Joan of Arc maintains a startlingly pure ecclesiology and love for the Church in the midst of hypocrisy, lies, and sin because her soul was pure. She was not naive and blind to the weaknesses of the men before her, but she gave greater credence to spiritual realities and the power of God.
Joan’s example speaks powerfully to me as a woman and a religious, but it can speak powerfully to us all. Like St. Joan of Arc, we always can be confident that the light of Christ’s love in the Church will always overpower the darkness of evil. If Joan could conduct herself so heroically amid the chaotic, unjust, and horrific circumstances of her trial, we can do the same in the midst of confusion, evil, scandal, and division. When we are asked the same question Joan was asked at her trial—“Do you believe in the authority of the Church?”—we too can respond in faith. How? If we believe, like Joan, that the Church and Christ are “one thing” then we will find our answer in our love for Christ.