Yesterday was the Feast of St. Jean Eudes, which makes this as good a time as any to talk about the French School of Spirituality.
The French School is a somewhat loose group of people (in France, as one would expect) in from the late 16th century to the early 18th century; it is we, looking back on them, who give them the label, since they would not have seen themselves quite as such. But there is a certain amount of coherence to the group, and the reason for this is one of the most important French bishops of the early eighteenth century, Pierre de Bérulle.
Bérulle was indeed one of the most important Frenchmen of the seventeenth century. Born in 1575 in Chateau Cérilly, Bérulle first rises to significant public notice as an assistant to Cardinal Du Perron in that man's debates with Philippe de Mornay, but his real influence largely comes from his having founded the Société de l'Oratoire de Jésus et de Marie Immaculée, more commonly known simply as the Oratory. The basic inspiration for such a congregation seems to have come from St. Phillip Neri's founding of his Oratory in Italy, but the two should not be confused, being completely distinct societies. The basic idea behind the Oratory was to reform the priesthood by cultivating a great focus on Jesus as the Incarnate Word of God. The Oratory spread, and through it Bérulle's influence on the theology of the day. On Bérulle's conception, we all come from God on the pattern of Christ, our sin shows our need for Christ, and we return to God through Christ. This is possible through anéantissement (abnegation or kenosis; the word derives from néant, meaning 'nothingness'). All throughout the French School one will find an emphasis on recognizing that we are nothing before God and that we are nothing without God; that Christ made Himself nothing for our sake, so that if we make ourselves nothing for His sake, we may be joined to Him. In short, we make ourselves nothing, by service to Jesus, so that Christ may fill us and be our All, by elevating us in our adoration of Him.
Besides writing devotional theology, Bérulle was one of France's great statesman; his Oratory was the major opposition to the Jesuits in France, and Bérulle was one of the few enemies of Cardinal Richelieu who at least sometimes managed to have his way in the face of Richelieu's steadfast opposition. Bérulle and his Oratory are also important for philosophy. When Descartes wishes to name-drop so as to support his credentials as a Catholic, he sometimes implies that he was on excellent terms with Bérulle. The precise details of this we don't know; they seem to have met at least once, perhaps several times, at a salon, and Descartes may have visited Bérulle at least once at the Oratorian House. According Adrien Baillet, the first notable biographer of Descartes, it was Bérulle who provided the initiating spark for Descartes: Descartes, having meditated and reflected on philosophical topics for years by then, attended the salon in question and gave several impressive arguments against skepticism, which was a worrying philosophical trend at the time. Bérulle was so impressed that he and Descartes started talking, and, having met several more times, Bérulle urged Descartes to withdraw into solitude in order to devote himself to philosophy. Descartes took this advice to heart and so left France, to which he never returned, settling in the Netherlands. So Baillet. Beyond the evidence we have that Bérulle and Descartes met at least once, there is no evidence whatsoever for this story, and it is almost certainly apocryphal. It's difficult to get around the fact, though, that it is pretty much the only semi-plausible explanation anyone has ever given for one of the big biographical mysteries of Descartes: why did a rising philosophical star suddenly and apparently without any reason leave France forever to settle in the Netherlands? So strong is Baillet's tale as a 'likely story' explaining this that even Baillet's critics tend to resort indirectly to Baillet: Richard Watson and A. C. Grayling both reject Baillet's claim that Descartes took Bérulle's advice, but they both steal from Baillet the claim that Bérulle was the reason for the move -- Watson claiming (with much less evidence than Baillet) that Descartes was turned off of France by the powerful Cardinal's fanaticism, and Grayling claiming (with somewhat less evidence than Baillet) that Bérulle, noting Descartes's association with the Jesuits, gave Descartes an ultimatum to leave France or face trouble. Of course, in both cases it is only Baillet in the first place who gives us any reason to think Bérulle had anything to do with the move, and Baillet's account at least has the advantage over these accounts that it is difficult to imagine that a proud man like Descartes would ever name-drop Bérulle if there were such tension between them at any point; and Descartes certainly was friends with certain Oratorians, most notably Fr. Condren. While the Oratory was never officially Cartesian (it tended to appeal in philosophical matters to Augustine), and had some occasional anti-Cartesians in its ranks, the Oratory was always relatively friendly to Cartesian thought.
In any case, the most obvious connection between the Oratory and philosophy is through the major Cartesian, Nicolas Malebranche, who was himself an Oratorian priest, and whose philosophical work has a number of notable analogies to Bérulle's thought. These have not, however, ever been worked out properly; one of the many tasks that awaits students of seventeenth century philosophy.
So that's the Oratorian branch of the French School. Bérulle is also partly responsible for another, somewhat independent branch of the French School, the Discalced Carmelites of Paris. The Carmelite Order in France was due largely to Barbara Acarie, later known as Bl. Marie of the Incarnation, who had a vision in which St. Teresa of Avila appeared to her and urged her to found French Carmelite convents. Having received permissions from Henry of Navarre, Acarie met with Bérulle, St. Francis de Sales, and a number of others in order to found the Reformed Carmel in France in 1602, which was recognized by Pope Clement VIII the next year. Acarie was herself one of the influences on Bérulle in the founding of the Oratory, since he seems to have asked her advice on the matter, and she, Bérulle, and St. Vincent de Paul were involved in the actual foundation. The Carmelite branch of the French School is sometimes tossed in with the Oratorian branch; but, despite many beneficial relationships between Oratorian priests and Carmelite sisters, they really are distinct. In the Bérulle and the French School volume of the Classics of Western Spirituality series, the Carmelite branch is represented by the writings of another notable French Carmelite, Ven. Madeleine de Saint Joseph.
Jean-Jacques Olier was encouraged to become a priest by St. Francis de Sales. He considered monastic life and was also offered a court chaplaincy, but he decided instead to devote himself to the poor and sick, and with the assistance of St. Vincent de Paul had a ministry of catechizing vagrants and beggars and engaging in various other missionary endeavors. Eventually his story links up directly with the Oratorians, because Charles de Condren, who had become the director of the Oratory after Bérulle's death in 1629, became his spiritual director. He seems shortly afterward to have had a major breakdown in health, lasting a couple of years; after a major religious experience in 1641, however, he seems to have recovered considerably. Partly under the influence of Condren, he founded a seminary in 1641, moving it to his own parish, Saint-Sulpice, the next year. In 1645 the Society of Saint-Sulpice was officially founded, and with it the Sulpician branch of the French School was born. The Sulpicians went on to found a number of important seminaries throughout France, French Canada, and the world, including (in 1791) St. Mary's in Baltimore. Like the Oratorians, they were a reform movement for priests; but they were highly focused on education of clergy, and many of the great manualist theologians of the nineteenth century were either Sulpician or influenced by them. Olier himself wrote a number of a major works of devotional theology which were widely read.
And this brings us to St. Jean Eudes, who lived right through the most flourishing period of the French School, having been born in 1601 and dying in 1680. He knew Bérulle, Condren, and Olier personally, and became an Oratorian himself. Like Olier he had a strong interest in seminary education and, leaving the Oratorians, he founded his own congregation, the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, and thereby began the Eudist branch of the French School. Eudes was one of the two major factors leading to the rise of the devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary (the other being St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque); he was, prior to St. Louis de Montfort, its major theoretician and was the major figure in obtaining official approval for the devotion to the Alliance of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He also founded a number of other societies and congregations.
These four branches -- the Oratorian, the French Carmelite, the Sulpician, and the Eudist -- constitute the 'French School' in the narrow sense of the term. Using the term more loosely, we could also included branches deriving from Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul. In general, the French School tends to emphasize personal relationship to Jesus, cultivation of religious sentiments, and a highly devotional approach to theological education.
One of the things that becomes notable in studying the French School is that many things that we consider stereotypically Catholic are, in fact, rooted in the French School: the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary as well as many other Catholic practices are due to them. It was, perhaps, inevitable: the Oratorians, Sulpicians, and Eudists trained generation after generation of priests and founded missions all over the world: most people's sense Catholic life was, directly or indirectly, due to the seminaries and missions of some branch or other of the congregations and societies that grew out of, and to some extent carried on the views of, the French School. Because of this, there's an argument that the French School was the most significant element of the late Counter-Reformation, one that has shaped Catholicism, and views of Catholicism, for centuries since, and perhaps centuries to come.