Before the seventeenth century, few rural French laymen knew basic prayers, let alone many tenets of the Christian faith, but by 1800 almost every child in France had access to some form of religious education. Boys as well as girls were expected to recite the entire catechism as a condition for first communion—and the could. ... By 1800, though ... Bishops took personal responsibility for educating the young laity, selecting a catechism and distributing it in increasing numbers. During the bishops' visitations, the curés were required to produce children who could recite that catechism perfectly.This history lesson was particularly interesting to me, because I have just started reading John S. Kennedy's Light on the Mountain: The Story of LaSalette.
La Salette was a Marian apparition that took place in France in the 19th century. Here's an excerpt from the account from the Catholic Encyclopedia
On 19 September, 1846, about three o'clock in the afternoon in full sunlight, on a mountain about 5918 feet high and about three miles distant from the village of La Salette-Fallavaux, it is related that two children, a shepherdess of fifteen named Mélanie Calvat, called Mathieu, and a shepherd-boy of eleven named Maximin Giraud, both of them very ignorant, beheld in a resplendent light a "beautiful lady" clad in a strange costume. Speaking alternately in French and in patois, she charged them with a message which they were "to deliver to all her people". After complaining of the impiety of Christians, and threatening them with dreadful chastisements in case they should persevere in evil, she promised them the Divine mercy if they would amend.The story of the rise of religious education in France is useful background for understanding Kennedy's emphasis on the seers' religious backgrounds.
What prayers did Melanie, who had had not a day's schooling, know? The "Our Father" and the "Hail Mary" in patois, for she ahd just scraps of French. These prayers her mother had taught her, that perpetually worried woman who distractedly wondered what would ever become of her scrawny little ones. A few bits of the catechism, too, Mme. Mathieu had drilled into her daughter at long intervals. But they were no more than odd bits, which Melanie could repeat only laboriously and understood hardly at all. She had been to church but a few times in her life. Wasn't there the begging to be done, or the duty demanded by closefisted employers who considered Sunday simply another day of work? Fourteen years old, almost fifteen and she had not yet made her first Communion. How could she have? That had to be prepared for, at length in catechism classes conducted by the curé of Corps, M. Mélin, and he had not so much as set eyes on this professional herder, generally so far from home.