Continuing with our posts on the lives of exceptionally courageous and holy priests [see HERE, HERE and HERE] who have yet to be raised to the official calendar of Saints of the Catholic Church, today we have the poignant story from ‘Venite Prandete’ of Father Jacques who was martyred by the Nazis. The last part of his life was portrayed in the award-winning 1987 film, “AUX REVOIR LES ENFANTS”.
We have characters presented to us as ‘heroes’ by our unfortunate popular culture – one-dimensional personalities, possessed of superficial bravery or worldly qualities that are socially esteemed, who grab our attention momentarily but whose stories fail to provide a standard of any depth or lasting value. And yet, right in front of us, we have real people in our Catholic history who provide to us an example by which we have profound and lasting guidance on how to live a rich and fulfilled life – how to strive to attain the best of ourselves. Pere Jacques is one such person, a man whose inspirational character and Christ-like love for his fellow man grew in adversity, in the horrors and evil of World War II, with all its attendant cruelty and human failures, a man possessed of incredible bravery – a courage that was founded, not on worldly qualities, but on an abandonment of self and a focus on the eternal, the presence of God in all circumstances, not ‘even’, but especially, in the most cruel and inhuman landscape of the Nazi concentration camps.
Born Lucien Bunel, in Normandy in 1900, Pere Jacques was inspired by the deep Catholic faith of his working-class, and financially struggling, parents in a family of seven children, a context in which the outlines of his personality were formed and the contours of his faith established.
Father Francis J Murphy, his biographer, states;
To his elders within the family and the town, [his] spiritual qualities came as no surprise. They remembered vividly how as a year-old boy, given up to death by the doctor, Lucien had been remarkably cured and instantly restored to health. When his mother had no hope for his recovery except for her trust in God, she made a novena to Saint Germain, at the suggestion of a devout old lady in the parish. Completion of the novena was to be marked by a pilgrimage to the outdoor shrine of Saint Germain in a field seven miles into the Norman countryside from Barentain. The ninth day of the novena came on a Sunday. [His mother], Pauline, now five months pregnant, and [his father], pushing the carriage with little Lucien inside, set out on their pilgrimage despite a wind-driven rainstorm.
As they knelt before the statue of Saint Germain, Pauline pleaded with the Lord: ‘My God, leave him with me until he is twenty; after that, take him, for he is yours, but grant me the joy of offering him to you when he has grown up,’ Suddenly, little Lucien stirred in the carriage and then smiled at his parents, who fell on their knees in thanksgiving at the sight of their son, now revitalized before their very eyes. Lucien related this experience to his religious community years later and did not hesitate to call it a miracle. His mother never forgot her vow on that rainy day. When over forty years later, she received news of Lucien’s death, she knelt down again and said: ‘My Lord, I promised him to you. You have left him with me longer than I could have hoped. Your will be done!’
He was ordained a diocesan priest in 1925 to serve the Diocese of Rouen. He had considered becoming a Trappist monk before his ordination and, even though he had abandoned this desire in order to serve in an apostolic role, he nevertheless still sought to integrate an intense life of contemplation with the active requirements of a life of service to others, always maintaining a deep interior life of prayer. There was a conflict between his desire for contemplation and his undeniable gift of preaching, the effectiveness of which was said to be founded, not on any human brilliance, “but rather a sense of the divine so powerfully present in his sermons”.
His contemplative understanding of the spiritual journey was accompanied by a strong Catholic sense of social justice. His hard-working father provided an example to him of a faith lived in daily life. He challenged complacent, comfortable Catholics in the pews with his strong insistence on social justice as a fundamental component of Christian holiness. He once began a sermon in a prosperous parish in Le Havre with these words: ‘I come to you as a worker and the son of a worker to speak to you about Jesus, the worker.” He taught in a local Catholic boys’ school and was so effective and inspiring that his educational methods, based upon a true recognition of the dignity of the student, based in Christian principles, were renowned.
In July 1927, Abbe Bunel first heard the personal call of Carmel. The atmosphere of silence and prayer that permeated Carmel captivated him. He explained his experience at Avon to the Carmelite nuns at Le Havre: ‘There, for me, is the ideal of religious life-to live in solitude, in intimate union with God; then, to leave the cloister to bring him to souls, to make him known and loved….and then to return to total recollection in order to be immersed in prayer.’ His request to the Archbishop to join the Carmelites was rejected twice, which he interpreted in a letter to the Mother Superior of the Carmelite sisters, Mother Marie-Joseph: ‘I consider these developments to be directed by Divine Providence and to be destined ultimately for my spiritual growth.’ Then he added self-effacingly: ‘My fiercely proud character needs such humiliations.’
He ultimately was permitted to join the Carmelite order, taking the religious name of Frere Jacques de Jesus. His novice master, Father Louis of the Trinity, directly supervised the seven candidates, giving special attention to all aspects of their being, physical as well as spiritual. In 1932 Father Louis of the Trinity was appointed provincial of the re-established province of Paris and eventually served as Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, one of General Charles de Gaulle’s closest companions in the Resistance.
The distinctive, unique characteristic of the Carmelite vocation has been well captured in these words: ‘One enters Carmel, above all else, to find God and to have the personal and living contact that is achieved by the most intense prayer.’ For Frere Jacques such periods of uninterrupted prayer were blissful. Whether in the solitude of his cell or in the communal chanting of the Office in Chapel, prayer was the first priority and greatest source of joy. He also welcomed the strict rule of Carmel. The silence and the fasts facilitated his spiritual growth, although initially he often found himself quite hungry, as he later admitted. Spiritual reading in one’s cell was a staple of Carmelite spirituality and a source of both insight and inspiration.
His humility (and his awareness of the reality of the difficult journey to sanctity) was apparent in a letter he wrote in February 1928 in which he expressed his spiritual self-evaluation; He was convinced of the need for the austere obedient life of a monk in order to ‘crush the immense pride’ to which he was prone. His experience as a diocesan priest, however, had obliged him humbly to acknowledge that God had given him ‘a special talent for preaching.’
When he was approved for profession, the prior, Father Etienne, spoke simply and summarily: ‘His holiness overflows the cloister.’
While he was preparing to take his final vows in 1934, his superiors suggested that he found and run a school for boys. This was accomplished by him, with the founding of the Petit College Sainte Therese de l’Enfant-Jesus in Avon, Seine-et-Marne.
As educator and guardian of the spiritual, moral and physical development of the young students, together with a need for prayer and spiritual replenishment, his punishing schedule demanded extraordinary self-discipline. On a human level, his self-discipline was built by training the will. He considered mastery of the will to be an acquired moral trait which he stressed in his personal spiritual life as well as in his educational philosophy. On a spiritual plane, self-discipline was for him a basic requirement of the ascetical life and ultimately the prerequisite for fully embracing God’s will.
In practice the two levels of self-discipline merged; at the end of a long day teaching, when he might have legitimately prepared for bed he would use this time to perform voluntary tasks – visiting students in the infirmary every night. When one student was hospitalised for a month, he travelled to Fontainbleau each night to visit him and then went back to write a daily letter to his parents, informing them of his progress.
His educational philosophy took as the starting point the dignity and freedom of each student. The teacher’s role, in his mind, consisted essentially in stimulating students to an ever and always better use of human freedom. In order to be convincing, however, the teacher’s actions had to resonate with trustful respect for each student. Only in such an environment could a student’s potential be fully realised.
For him this educational ideal had deep spiritual implications. Its implementation presupposed a believing, mutually supportive community. The goal of the students’ development was not so much pious practices as ‘putting on Christ’ in the phrase of St Paul, on whose writings he frequently meditated. The formative years of the students presented an unrepeatable opportunity to develop character and conscience in such a way as to prepare a young man for a virtuous life and ultimately for saintliness. Truth, justice courage and compassion were not merely abstract concepts but living principles that could be realised in each person’s life and cultivated in the life of the community.
He served as headmaster and teacher until the outbreak of World War II, when he was conscripted into military service. He was billeted by the French army in a home in which he set up a room where he said Mass, heard confession, read, and prayed – an experience which he termed his “Duruelo’ after his inspiration, St John of the Cross. This experience brought home to him the ability to take the contemplative space with him, to create a haven of communication with God in any environment.
When the French surrendered to the Germans in June 1940 he was initially imprisoned as a prisoner of war but was ultimately released from military service and returned to the school, where both he and his provincial, Father Philippe, together with the mayor of Avon became active members of the French Resistance, a role for which his experience as a soldier and as a prisoner of war had equipped him. His reputation reached the high command of the Resistance movement, the National Front, who invited him to join the board. Upon consultation with Father Philippe, both agreed that the potential risk of reprisals against the students of the Petit-College, if the headmaster should ever be captured, made it too hazardous for him to accept the position. As provincial, Father Philippe could fill that role with more facility and less danger to the students. So the provincial, not the headmaster, joined the board of the French Resistance.