Tuesday, January 6, 2015

An Open Letter to St. André Bessette

Dear Brother André,

I salute you across time, and from earth to heaven. I greet you on your feast day. You died on this date in 1937, fourteen years before I was born, and you were canonized in 2010, when I was nearing sixty and two years a Catholic.

Chances are I will not be canonized.

But we are separated by more than years and dimensions and holiness. Your life, which began in 1845 in the tiny Quebec village of Mont-St.-Grégoire, is almost unimaginable to me. Let me count the ways.

You were orphaned and poor and, some said, not terribly intelligent. You wandered and worked into your twenties, sometimes joining French Canadian communities in New England while laboring for your daily bread. A priest in St.-Cesaire, Quebec, was struck by something about you and recommended you to a religious community in Montreal. He all but pinned a note to your shirt that read, “I am sending you a saint.”

The community you joined, the Congregation of the Holy Cross, was skeptical. After all, you didn’t know how to read or write. You almost didn’t make the grade. Finally, in your late twenties, you took your vows and were received into the community as a lay brother.

You were given the lowest job of all, portier in a boys’ Catholic high school. Like the English word porter, this meant that you sat by the porte, the door, and opened it for guests. You were a sort of no-count concierge, who ran errands and did the odd janitorial job.

I forgot to mention that you were sickly all your life long. You didn’t improve your physical health by following a personal rule of Work as much as you can and eat as little. Often you dined on bread soaked in milky water. Somehow you survived to the age of ninety-one.

Meanwhile, visitors began arriving at your door. They didn’t want you to admit them to the school. They wanted to talk with you. You seemed to know what to say. You recommended them to the help of St. Joseph. When they prayed as you told them to pray—sometimes after you had rubbed them with “St. Joseph’s oil”—many reported miraculous cures.

So many came to see you after a few years that your superiors became annoyed and moved you from the door of the school to a little shed by the train line. This change of address only increased the traffic at your door.

You laid everything to St. Joseph. You called yourself his little puppy dog. Eventually, you came up with the idea of building a small chapel to St. Joseph but your superiors declined permission. So for several years, you wandered a wooded area on Mount Royal distributing St. Joseph medals on the forest floor. In your shed, you turned a small statue of St. Joseph toward Mount Royal, telling the saint confidently that this was where his chapel would be built.

Finally, you received permission for a small chapel. When it was built, it was too small. A second chapel, capacity 100, was built, and for the first mass in that second chapel 700 worshipers came to hear mass. You addressed this problem with your usual aplomb. Throughout your seventies and eighties, you continued raising money for a suitable shrine to St. Joseph. Doing so, you revisited French-Canadian communities in New England that you had known in your youth.

By the time you died, the Oratory of St. Joseph of Mount Royal was well under construction. The world’s largest shrine to St. Joseph was completed in 1967 in time for the Montreal world’s fair known as Expo 67.

Oddly, 1967 was the only time I have ever visited Montreal. Until next June, that is, God willing. By then I hope to be completing a pilgrimage on foot from my home north of Boston to the Oratory that you inspired and helped build.

At that time, I hope to visit you where you lie. In doing so, I will be imitating medieval pilgrims who believed that physical proximity to the remains of a saint confers a blessing on the pilgrim. Those pilgrims sometimes went so far as to steal relics to bring the blessing home with them.

I promise not to steal your heart, Brother André. Already you have stolen mine.

May God bless you in all eternity. Humbly beg St. Joseph to pray for me.

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