The Venerable Francis Libermann
It is the delight of God’s sovereign Providence to use the weak ones of this world to confound the strong (I Cor. 1:27). When He comes upon a servant who is at once feeble and completely docile to His will, then He picks up the instrument in His own hands and wields it to work wonders for souls. Such was His work in using His Mother to destroy the empire of Satan. Such is His work to a lesser degree in the lives of His saints, of whom one was a diminutive, penniless, epileptic son of a rabbi, Francis Libermann.
His Cherished Malady
One day in the first half of 1830, Francis Libermann was in his spiritual director’s office, conversing on spiritual matters. He had received Baptism two and a half years previously, had entered the Seminary of Saint Sulpice, received Tonsure and the four Minor Orders, and now was on the eve of his ordination to the subdiaconate. But, suddenly, “as he stood before the fireplace, an instantaneous convulsion shook him from head to foot; his face was contorted, his eyes distended and lusterless, his pale lips frothed, and he fell gasping and breathless at the feet of his director, who bravely seized him in his arms and carried him to his bed.”1
It was his first major epileptic seizure, after a few years of minor crises of nerves. And it does not seem that it could have come at a worse time. What greater disappointment can be conceived for a convert aspiring to the Catholic priesthood? To stretch out one’s foot to cross over the line of eternal consecration to God’s service, and then to be struck down, indeed by God Himself. “What an affliction, what a misery, what an unbearable misfortune!” he writes in a letter to his brother’s family (also convert Catholics) …in order to portray the wrong attitude:
“Such, surely, would be the language of a child of the world, of one who seeks happiness only in earthly goods, and who acts as if there were no God for him. But quite other is the way of the children of God, of true Christians. They are pleased with all that their Heavenly Father sends, because they know that whatever He sends them is good and advantageous, and that if things could turn otherwise it would be to their very real hurt.
“The ills with which God seems to afflict us are really benefits, and woe to the Christian who has all according to his own desire: he is not filled with the blessings of his God. So, my friends, I can assure you that my dear malady is for me a great treasure, a treasure preferable to all the advantages which the world offers its friends” (pp. 57-58).
This cherished sickness both made and proved Francis apt for the great designs of God, as nothing else could. For God had not made a mistake; He never makes mistakes.
It was not long before Francis’s superiors had to draw their canonical principles to a conclusion and lead the seminarian to the door with his epileptic impediment. The messenger, Father Carbon, tried to soften the blow: they would help him find a position in the world, so as to support himself. Libermann merely asked the date of his departure and said, “As to the world, I cannot return to it: God, I trust, will provide for me” (p. 61). St. Sulpice’s rector, Father Garnier, was extremely restless that night and, on the following day, the directors judged fit to rescind their decision. The young convert had already shown signs of sanctity and supernatural favors; his acceptance of God’s will was certainly heroic. He would stay, more as a worker than a seminarian, and be provided for out of the seminary’s pocket.
A Novitiate in Limbo
Francis spent the next ten years in clerical limbo. He never retracted his unalloyed commitment to God’s service, yet his future always remained uncertain…in a sense. For God knew what He wanted and how He was to accomplish it. In this feeble epileptic He had a rare docile instrument in whom Providence could fully demonstrate Its sway.
The Sulpician superiors sent Francis to reside at Issy, the country house of the Paris seminary, where philosophy was taught. He would remain there from 1832-37, doing many practical services for all and sundry, but also exercising a spiritual apostolate. It would not be exaggeration to say that he rejuvenated the piety of a seminary life that had become too occupied with natural sciences and too imbued with a worldly spirit. At the same time, Libermann maintained an extensive correspondence with people of all walks of life. His letters were spiritual gold.
In short, the spiritual crucible that Francis was passing through gave him an immense supernatural influence. As a hot iron heats all that it touches, so too Libermann, on fire with God, enkindled that fire in all he encountered. Seminarians flocked around him at recreation to hear him speak of things divine. He organized pious groups that would go on walks to discuss pre-arranged spiritual topics. Such was the esteem in which he was held that both seminarians and superiors addressed the mere acolyte as “Father” Libermann.
Thus, it is not surprising that when the superior of the Eudist novitiate in Rennes wrote the rector of the Issy seminary in 1837, asking for a director of novices, he received the reply, “Take Father Libermann. He is only in Minor Orders, it is true, but he’s as good as a priest” (p. 103). As a result, Francis found himself leaving Issy to take up a most uncomfortable role, that of an epileptic, acolyte, convert Jew directing a crowd of clerics in major orders. This humiliating experience coupled with an extreme desolation of soul seemed to complete his spiritual preparation for his great work. At the same time, it gave him an intimate familiarity with the Eudist spirituality that would later be such a useful reference point for him.
During his three years at Rennes, several Sulpician seminarians attached to “Father” Libermann became increasingly insistent that he lead them in a grandiose project: the founding of a missionary order for the conversion of the black races. At first, Francis encouraged their zeal without considering himself as being called to that apostolate. Over time, however, he felt obliged to consult those whom he called God’s “most wisest servants, those most zealous for His glory” (p. 145), and all unanimously declared that God wanted him to devote himself to the black mission.
Priest, Founder, and Re-Founder
As 1840 dawned on the world, the road to Rome witnessed this preposterous sight: an epileptic acolyte and a young French priest headed to the Holy See to propose the beginning of a mission society to evangelize the black races. They obtained an audience with Pope Gregory XVI on February 17, and submitted a memoir to the Propaganda on March 11 stating their purpose.
However, things quickly took their necessary Providential downturn: Libermann’s companion abandoned him, several priests that he consulted ridiculed him, and an Archbishop of the Propaganda told him that he needed to be a priest before thinking about starting a mission society. “As if to make the work very evidently of Heaven, human aid was almost entirely withdrawn” (p. 165).
What was acolyte Libermann’s response to this situation of human hopelessness? It was for him to take up residence in a miserable Roman garret costing one dollar a month, where he “drew up the Rule, formed members, counseled aspirants, and made provision for the Institute’s life and work far into the future” (p. 173). These were not the actions of an insane man, but rather one whose calculations are wholly supernatural—he was convinced that the work was the will of God.
His confidence was rewarded when, after a three months’ wait, he received a letter from the prefect of the Propaganda encouraging his project and also expressing the wish that he be provided sufficient health to receive Holy Orders. In fact, his epilepsy had been consistently waning and over two years had passed without a seizure. Francis would now enter a period of reaping rich fruits from his long patience with God’s hand, as he went from success to success in the decade remaining of his short life.
Father Libermann without quotation marks emerged from a chapel in Amiens on September 18, 1841, and that same month he established the novitiate of the Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary in a suburb of the same city. Newly-formed priests of the newly-formed Congregation soon were pouring out into Haiti, Mauritius, Bourbon, Australia, Guinea, Gabon, and Senegambia.
As the new order grew and a wave of missionary fever spread through France, Rome turned to Father Libermann to solve a difficult problem. The Holy Ghost Fathers, founded in 1703 for the same sort of missionary work, had suffered terribly from the French Revolution, and were now fading out of existence. Would it be possible for the new order to save the old by becoming one with it? The practical difficulties were great, but in the end Father Libermann accomplished the merger while holding on to two indispensable conditions: regular community life for his missionaries and their exclusion from diocesan parish work.
Three years after this triumph of Providence, on February 2, 1852, Father Libermann, Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, made the final submission of his will to God by breathing forth his soul. He was almost 50 years old.
Clearly, the defining aspect of the Venerable Libermann’s life was his habitual deference to the will of God. It was by following but not preceding that Will that he was able to accomplish sanctity and the great fruits that flowed from it. May we not see in his founding of a priestly missionary society at the insistence of seminarians a great work of faith, and also a great testimony for his sons? Should we be surprised that his seventh successor as Superior General, 120 years later, should himself found a priestly missionary order, in very unlikely circumstances, by faithfully following Providence? No, in retrospect, we simply see the consistency of God’s ways. He alone Who pleases to confound the strong by the weak could have been directing these two great men of faith, Francis Libermann and Marcel Lefebvre.
1 Cited in G. Lee, The Life of the Venerable Francis Libermann (Fort Collins, Colorado: Roger McCaffrey Publishing, 1911 edition), p. 53. All page numbers are taken from this book.