PERE JACQUES – The Christ-like French Priest (Part 1)

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”.

Image from the film by Louis Malle, “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.

To be continued…..

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1 Response to PERE JACQUES – The Christ-like French Priest (Part 1)

  1. I had just finished an early afternoon Saturday dinner and sat down to read while listening to some Wang Chung music from the movie sound track “To Live and Die in LA,” a place I had lived for some time moving there alone to be with the movie industry but was the place I had a huge epiphany that told me get out of here which I wrote a blog about!
    This is the selection I’m hearing as I read your article:

    As this selection of the music just began I saw this new blog article of yours in my mail cue and it was the first I had to click! I don’t want to paraphrase so much here but would rather just first quote the very first portion of this marvelous and outstanding article of truth and awe; as it struck me in my heart like a freight train with passion and emotion; it made me cry.

    “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.”

    This is a piece of literature to me that digs deep into the inner mind and soul because of the gripping truth is other worldly and spiritual for some reason aside from the subject matter of WWII and the horrors that occurred during that war and how much suffering along with to me what any human with a heart and soul should find incomprehensible death, that actually happened, because of human weakness and evil that has a grip on this world and many people in it; which is always looking to manipulate and orchestrate conflict and hatred as from he start with Cain and Abel, to bring agony to human beings. I was involved with the Movie Industry over the years in a few capacities so I still maintain some interest, mostly in studying older classic films and some of the better ones made over the last 40 years, especially cognizant of the musical scores; so I have a wide array and collection of that kind of music but interesting to me was how that music from “To Live and Die in LA” was playing as I read this article crying still. But then another movie opening score starting playing which was about a “transformational journey” for a man who was so mean, filled with rage, while quite material in his lifestyle or mindset, as you mention here of how some people live for power and recognition or material wealth. This man ends up killing his brother in a rage but then later in the story after realizing what he is sees God’s light and he goes through a physical journey that is both dangerous and necessary; for him to face his inner demons in order to go on and become what will be pleasing to God and not just living for himself, to make an offering of himself to God in order to express his great sorrow and admit his wrong not even just for forgiveness but as much to repay God in a sense; to reflect appreciation for God having given him this second chance to do right in God’s eyes with the miracle of life that was provided to him out of pure love; as God always did and still does. The movie is, “The Mission;” a movie and story about epiphany and I’m crying again.
    This fits so well how this unfolded to this music and theme in this moment in time; God’s will be done. The composer is one I love a top of my favorites, Ennio Morricone who has produced some great musical scores for some very memorable films! I’m including this piece of music here that was playing as I finished reading and wrote this! Thank you and God bless you.
    Amazon lists it this way:”This is my favorite Wang Chung song as well as the best thing about the movie. It has an amazing mix of hope and despair, tension and release, running throughout it. Whether to satisfy 80s nostalgia or to provide a driving beat to accompany one’s own internal struggles, this is a good song to put in the queue.”

    The Mission composer Morricone was mentioned this way by:
    Francesca M; Gabriel Coronado says; on YouTube: “In Italy we are used to have a free concert on May 1, usually in Rome is the biggest. Some years ago, maestro morricone was the ending act of that concert. He conducted the orchestra. My friends decided to leave, they were not interested. I stayed. Don’t know how to express how I felt. Alone in the crowd with the music that really stroked me. It was absolutely breathtaking. At least, I can say I have once enjoyed his timeless art. Have a good journey maestro, we all will miss you so badly.”
    Gabriel Coronado says;This is probably the most beautiful movie theme ever written (and the idiots of the so call Academy did not gave him the Oscar. Unbelievable). Rest in peace, GENIUS!😢
    Giorgio Fedeli says;Thank you, Morricone.I’m a nurse, i’m workin 12 hours every day against this Corona virus. And Morricone’s music help me to feel better after a very hard day in hospital.
    Jan Windels says; No war, no sickness, no evil can destroy this… This music is food for the soul! Thanks Maestro.
    Killer Queen says;This is how heaven might sound like

    God does work in mysterious ways and we must never lose hope that He is present in our daily lives loving us so tenderly wanting for us to do our best to hold on to this hope so we can be with Him for eternity in Paradise!
    God bless you. Amen
    Lawrence Morra III
    Reblogged @ lawrencemora.com Zero Lift-Off

    [A CP&S moderator – Thank you, yet the first video works and the second one although private it links you to You Tube where it can be heard. Therefore we have removed your second comment.]

    Liked by 1 person

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