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Venerable Francis Libermann

(Another very good biography of Libermann is available here.)

Throughout the centuries, there have been remarkable individual conversions from Judaism to Catholicism.  The story of  Francis Libermann is unique, for no other Hebrew convert was to exercise such a significant influence on the spiritual welfare of the African Continent, as this nineteenth-century descendant of Abraham.  He was born on April 12, 1804, at Saverne in Alsace and was given the name of Jacob by his father Lazarus, a zealous and pious rabbi who raised his children faithfully in the precepts of Judaism. Jacob grew to love his religion, studying diligently both Bible and Talmud. He grew up with a pronounced aversion based on fear of Christians, particularly clergy, and as a child fled at the sight of them, convinced – not always without reason – that they wished him ill.  Jacob was a delicate, nervous child and when his mother died, the ensuing grief aggravated his already precarious physical condition. Although pious as a child, during the adolescent years following his mother’s death he slipped into religious indifference, which finally ended in his total rejection of the Jewish faith. About this time his eldest brother embraced Catholicism, an event which plunged him into even greater religious confusion. One of his companions then loaned him a book, a translation of the four Gospels into Hebrew. He read it avidly, and was much impressed with the sincerity of its message, but found himself unable to accept the miracles of Christ. Further light was on the way, however, this time from a most unexpected source. Of all the books ever written, perhaps Emile of Jean Jacques Rousseau would be the least calculated to bring an inquirer to a knowledge of Catholicism. Astounding as it may seem, it was this condemned work which was to set our young on the right road in his religious quest. In one section of Emile Rousseau lists the arguments for and against the divinity of Christ, and Libermann found himself totally convinced by the arguments for His divinity. This was only intellectual conviction however. As yet, he was still a long way from theological faith. Then the conversions of two of his brothers to Catholicism shook his soul to its depths. Blanketed in darkness and distraught by anxiety, he set out for Paris to consult Monsieur Drach, another convert from Judaism to the Church. Drach decided that what Libermann needed most was some quiet spot he could think. Accordingly he arranged that Jacob should remain at the College Stanislaus for some time. Shutting himself up in his room the young man gave himself over to incessant prayer and reflection, restricting his reading to religious works. Piteously he pleaded with divine Providence for guidance. His prayers were answered. Light came and he believed absolutely.  He describes this experience thus:

“I believed all without difficulty. From that moment my great desire was to see myself plunged in the sacred font, and my happiness was not long delayed. I was at once prepared for the admirable sacrament and received it on Christmas Eve. Next morning I was allowed to approach the Holy Table.”

This was in 1826. At Baptism he took the name of Francis Mary Paul, the latter out of devotion for the great Apostle of the Gentiles. There was a prophetic touch to the choice, for in many ways he was to emulate the missionary exploits of his zealous prototype.

Libermann’s goal now became the priesthood, so he began studies at the seminary attached to the College Stanislaus. He donned clerical dress --what a change from the days when he feared the very sight of it! In December, 1828, he received minor orders. The way to the priesthood was now open and for this he began an intensive preparation. But the very day prior to ordination, he was struck down by epilepsy. Then as now, this disease constituted a major impediment to ordination. The way was hopelessly blocked, so he abandoned his plans. It was one of those seemingly senseless trials, with which God tries His faithful servants to bring them closer to Himself. That Libermann, from its onset, could accept it humbly and patiently, was positive proof of the power of that faith which had brought him, despite parental opposition, within the true fold.  The trial was, however, a heavy one; so intense was the resultant depression that he contemplated suicide by throwing himself into the River Seine in Paris, and he never kept a knife in his room, fearful that the temptation to kill himself might prove too strong.

Meanwhile, what was to be done? He could not hope to become a priest—at the same time he showed no desire to return to the world. The college authorities devised a happy solution. He joined the Eudists, taking up residence at a branch house of the Paris seminary which belonged to the order. No sooner did he reach their house than he was created master of novices. At last it seemed that his future was assured and that eventually he would become a member of this institute. But this was not to be. God had other plans in store for His faithful servant.

Among the many students with whom Libermann had come in contact, two were to exercise a profound and permanent influence upon him. The first of these was Frederick Le Vavasseur, who came from Bourbon, an island in the Indian Ocean, annexed by France in 1645.  The other young man was Eugene Tisserand, whose mother was a daughter of the exiled General Beauvais, former governor of the island of Haiti in the West Indies.  Eugene was horn in Paris, but he had learned much from his mother about the deplorable conditions of the Negroes in Haiti. Both these young men had often conversed with one another about the religious destitution of the Negroes in their respective areas. For a long time they had wished to help them, confiding their desires to Libermann. The latter had listened to their accounts with sympathetic attention, but declined to become further involved. The two did not give up, however, and eventually Libermann became convinced that his true vocation lay along this path. He went to Rome seeking approval for his plans. A year was spent in the Eternal City—a period of difficulties, disappointments, prayer, discussions with Church officials, and pilgrimages to holy shrines. One anecdote of his sojourn has been preserved for us. On February 17, 1840, he was presented to Pope Gregory XVI. Laying his hand on the visitor’s head, it was that the Holy Father was visibly moved. “Who is he whose head I touched?” inquired the Pope after the meeting. An account of Libermann was given, which having ended, the Vicar of Christ said: “Sara un santo -- He will be a saint !” Libermann’s new institute was in due course approved under the title: “Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” By now the epileptic fits had completely disappeared and on his return he was raised to the priesthood. At last he could go forward in all humility to consolidate the main work of his life!  The novitiate opened with three members: Libermann himself, Le Vavasseur and a deacon named M. Collin. By the end of 1842 there were a dozen in residence and the next year this number doubled. 
One of the most zealous confreres to be accepted by Libermann at this early period was Father Jacques Desire Laval.  Hearing that Libermann planned to send missionaries to the Negroes, he applied for admission and was accepted. When Bishop Collier requested help from Libermann, the latter appointed Father Laval to go to Mauritius, the first member of the congregation to leave for fields afar. So fruitful were his labors on the island that he has earned for himself the title “Apostle of Mauritius.” His beatification cause was introduced in 1918.   Father Le Vavasseur left for Bourbon in February 1842, and Father Tisserand for Haiti soon after. But unfortunately they were unable to continue their labors in either place, the British prohibiting mission work on the former island, while on the latter, the French did likewise. These were severe reverses, but they did not dampen Libermann’s ardor. On the contrary, it continued to glow even more fervidly. From this time forward he began to think of establishing missions on the African mainland itself. After extensive negotiations with the bishop and the French government, all difficulties were resolved, and on August 31, 1843, the missionaries of Libermann—seven priests and three brothers —left the motherhouse at La Neuville for Bordeaux. Their way led through Paris, to the shrine of Our Lady of Victories, that hallowed spot which loomed so prominently in the history of his congregation. On September 13th, the contingent sailed for the west coast of Africa.

After the usual voyage, the ship docked at Gabon, an island some miles off Dakar. Here the missionaries spent a few days, during which they visited the mainland then resumed the journey, reaching Cape Palmas towards the end of November, much later than they had anticipated, the delay being due to heavy tornadoes. Sunday, December 3rd, feast of St. Francis Xavier, the great apostle of the Indies, was celebrated with special ceremonies. A solemn procession was held during which Exsurgat Deus and Magnificat were chanted. The missionaries preached through an interpreter, as though to let it be known that paganism was still in the ascendant and was determined to remain so, a fetish sacrifice was being conducted within earshot of the proceedings.

Things seemed to be moving smoothly enough until the fevers started. All three of the brothers caught malaria; two recovered and were able to staff missions in Africa, but the third died. All of the seven priests who had made the voyage also caught malaria, only two were able to stay on as missionaries in Africa; a third had to return home to France, and the other four died of the fever. One of those who died, Father de Regnier, wrote Libermann from his death bed: 

“Tell my family and my friends that I am happy to have left all for our Divine Master. If I had to do it again, I would do it a thousand times, and I would not change my position for all the honors in the world. Courage, my dear Father, when all seems lost! Then will Mary show her power and save everything. ‘Whether we live or die: we belong to our Lord and Mary.’”

How did Libermann react to these tragedies?  The following extract from a letter which he wrote at this time gives us an insight into the thoughts and emotions that surged through him on learning of the deaths of his missionaries.

“We are in need of much consolation, for great misfortunes have befallen us in Guinea. The blows our Lord rains down upon us are too heavy not to make us see in them an extraordinary act of His Providence. Everything gave hope for this mission, so vast and so abandoned. Reports from every quarter indicated that with some slight losses we might firmly establish ourselves. But God has judged differently. He tries us most severely. His holy name be blessed!”

Bowed with grief but unbroken in spirit he still continued to nurse hopes for the future. The Guinea coast had been entrusted to him for evangelization, and he was determined to carry on, come what may. Conversing one day with a friend he said:

“I have sad news to give you about Guinea. Do not be cast down. Adore the Divine Will and remain peaceful. The losses are heavy, but from I hope for the salvation of that immense region. If God demands that for His glory we should all perish we must prostrate ourselves before Him and let Him act!”

Father Tisserand was now appointed prefect apostolic of Senegambia, but he never reached his destination, for the ship on which he was outward bound foundered during a violent storm off the African coast and all were lost. Not daunted by this new catastrophe, Libermann left for Rome where he succeeded in having two ecclesiastical territories, Senegambia and the Guineas, erected into a single vicariate, a jurisdiction running a distance of almost 5,000 miles! Bishop Truffet was to administer this vast area. He was a man burning with zeal for souls, and high hopes were entertained for his future.  But Bishop Truffet was only six months in Africa, when he too was struck down by death.

No news had been heard of Father Bessieux, who had been one of the original seven priests to go to Africa, and he was presumed to have succumbed to fever along with the others.  Great was the delight of all when, like a bolt from the blue, a letter arrived from Father Bessieux describing his trials and requesting more missionaries!

Libermann dispatched three new missionaries to Father Bessieux. A letter from the first of these describes the condition in which he found Father Bessieux:

"Father Bessieux himself came out in the same canoe to take us off the Caiman. He was so worn and pale as to be hardly recognizable. On landing, our first visit was to the chapel which occupied the center of a miserable wooden hut. An empty gin box, lined with calico and with a stone slab to cover the aperture served as tabernacle. An old herring barrel covered with muslin formed a pedestal for a little statue of the Blessed Virgin. Three or four children, who already knew a few words of French, and some catechism, formed the whole hope of the mission. The “treasury” was empty except for a few lengths of cheap muslin, some leaf tobacco and a half-penny."

Soon after this Father Bessieux was nominated vicar apostolic. Prospects seemed brighter, and from this period onward, coordination, consolidation and expansion began to characterize the effort. Libermann was to prove himself well-versed in mission strategy and tactics, never forgetting that the paramount necessity was personal holiness in the priest. He wrote:

“Let them always be mindful of a great maxim, a fundamental one for all those who wish to work for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. It is this: we must always work for our own sanctification, and that not only by never losing sight of it, but even by making it our only care. As a necessary consequence, all those who work seriously at becoming men of renunciation, interior men, men living only in the love of God,
dead to themselves and alive solely and fully to God and in God—such never fail to do important and efficacious work for the salvation and sanctification of souls—but their great occupation is their own progress. They seek only to please their divine and adorable Master, and this with all their power. Hence, they do all that is agreeable to Him and, thereby, while hardly seeming to aim at it, they procure the sanctification of their brethren, with a zeal and efficiency of which many others together would be incapable.”

He was also a staunch advocate of the basic missiological concept of adaptation. On this subject he expressed himself as fo1lows:

“Become Negroes with the Negroes… Act towards them as servants towards their masters. Adopt their customs and manner and habit, as servants do those of their master. Perfect them, sanctify them, show them their lowliness and make them, slowly but surely into a People of God. That is what St. Paul refers to as becoming all to all, to win all to Jesus Christ.”

In 1840, when the proposa1 had first been made to establish Libermann’s congregation, it had been objected that an institute for the conversion of the black race was already in existence. This was the Congregation of the Holy Ghost founded by Claude Francis Poullard des Places, a young French nobleman. As time wore on, priests of this institute were to be found not only at work in France itself, but also in Canada, India, China, South America, the West Indies and Africa. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, like every other religious community in the country, was suppressed; the government confiscated its property and its members  dispersed. Only one confrere, Fr. Bertout, survived. Ecclesiastical authorities in Rome were well aware of these difficulties and in the interests of maximum efficiency, decided in 1848 to fuse the respective institutes founded by both des Places and Libermann. The latter was created superior general, while the retiring head of the Holy Ghost Fathers was named vicar apostolic of Madagascar. The newly-joined societies became known as: The Congregation of the Holy Ghost and Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The persistent worries attached to his office, as well as the physical labors involved, always weighed heavily upon Libermann. His health had never been robust, considering his nervousness as a child and epilepsy when a young man, and about 1850 serious symptoms began to show themselves. Stomach trouble worsened and medical examination revealed that ossification of the liver had set in. At the start of December, 1851, he took to his bed, but an improvement enabled him to return to Paris. Here he had a relapse and this time he lay down, never to rise again. With the liveliest dispositions of faith and love he waited for death. Towards the end of January he received the last sacraments, offering up his sufferings, which were those of a martyr of charity, for the missions and his priests, lie died on February 2, 1852, while Vespers were being chanted and precisely at the words: “Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles. He has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the humble.” His remains lie within the enclosure of Notre Dame de Gard, in a simple tomb, hewn out at the foot of the cemetery cross, a modest monument being the only decoration. Pius IX declared him Venerable in 1876.