Salt + Light Television, our Catholic channel of hope from Canada, has been working on a beautiful documentary on the life of Brother André entitled God’s Doorman. (If you know nothing about S+L, I strongly encourage you to check out their web site and learn more about them. Although the documentary is currently racing toward completion, they just launched the website for it, which includes the trailer for what has been a real labor of love for the people at Salt + Light. Today we share with you some remarks that their CEO, Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., gave on Brother André in the context of a conference of vocation and seminary personnel in Milwaukee, WI, last week.
The last example I hold up for you is not a priest but a Brother of Holy Cross, André Bessette, C.S.C. Born Alfred Bessette on August 9, 1845, in Saint-Grégoire d'Iberville, Quebec, he was one of 12 children and suffered from a chronic stomach ailment that kept him out of school and often without work. A few years after his father's death, his mother died, but their piety and trust in God had deeply influenced young Alfred. When he reached the age of 18, he set out for New England in search of employment. He spent four years working in cotton mills and farms in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In 1867 he returned to Canada and sought the help of his childhood parish priest, Father André Provençal. The priest encouraged the young man to pursue his desire to enter into religious life.
When Alfred entered the novitiate, Father Provençal sent a letter to the novice master saying, “I am sending a saint to your congregation.” The Holy Cross brothers had initially turned the less than five-foot-tall André away from seeking a religious vocation because of his delicate health. In reference to his assignment as doorman, he once quipped, “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door.”
For more than 40 years, André contented himself with his humble tasks of welcoming visitors, cleaning the premises and running errands. He put himself at the service of everyone, especially the students, whom he would look after when they were ill. Many visitors would come to the college and ask André to pray for their loved ones who were ill, and many claimed they had been healed. News of his power to heal spread as people began to recover. In response to the many healings and conversions, Brother André would always insist it was the work of St. Joseph, not himself.
Brother André’s special affection for St. Joseph inspired him to build a church in his honor. Using the small sums he received cutting students' hair, as well as donations, the brother was able to build a modest structure in 1904, which he continued to expand as more funding became available. Brother André was named the oratory's custodian in 1909 as hundreds and then thousands of pilgrims made their way to Mount Royal to meet Brother André and pray to St. Joseph. Brother André died on January 6, 1937, at the age of 91. Between his death and burial, more than 1 million people came to pay tribute to him. Beatified in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, Brother André, the humble porter of Mount Royal will be proclaimed a saint on October 17, 2010 in Rome.
Brother André Besette is a gentle yet powerful witness who reminds us that in the midst of all of our pastoral endeavors, we must strive for humility, practice hospitality, and love the poor. Who can say why was André chosen? In a truly beautiful circular letter to the Holy Cross family earlier this year, former Holy Cross Superior General Fr. Hugh Cleary, CSC wrote: “But perhaps André was chosen, like Mary and Joseph, because in the eyes of this world he was no one; he possessed nothing, nothing possessed him.”
What struck me forcefully in the story of Brother André was the intuition and wisdom of his parish priest, Fr. André Provençal, who encouraged the young Alfred to pursue his desire to enter into religious life. Fr. Provençal sent a letter to the novice master saying, “I am sending a saint to your congregation.”
I hope and pray that we may never forget one of the most important duties we have: to discern, recognize and acknowledge holiness in the young men entrusted to us. We must be discerners of holiness, fishers of men and not keepers of aquariums. Our task is not only to teach and form future ministers, but to call forth saints for the new millennium.
Holiness is the calling card of the Church. It is the face of the Church as we have seen in the remarkable lives of Jean Marie Vianney of Ars, John Henry Newman of Birmingham, Angelo Roncalli of Sotto il Monte and the Vatican, Jerzy Popieluszko of Warsaw, Michael McGivney of Hartford, and André Bessette of Montreal. Each of these men did not get caught up in the quarrels, squabbles and passing things of their age. They based their lives on God’s Word, immersed themselves in the liturgy of the Church, drew strength from the Eucharist and the Sacraments, and put their devotion into practice through clear teaching, compassionate loving gentle yet firm shepherding, patient suffering, and generously serving the poor. They allowed God’s will to be done in their lives on a daily basis. The Lord worked through their doubts, strengths and human weaknesses to unite the Church. Their action on Jesus' behalf was all very positive, hopeful, courageous, and straightforward. Their active faith in him and their decisive following of him are the unchanging quintessence of the Church's vocation. They are the real heroes and role models for those who wish to serve the Lord in ordained ministry and religious life today.