Life of the Venerable Francis Libermann|
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Son of a rabbi becomes a priest, converts thousands of Africans to Christ|
You won’t see that story in any Hollywood feature film -- but it happened over a century ago, and now Francis Libermann is up for canonization. Here’s his electrifying story, based on volumes of his inspiring private letters. Fr. Francis Libermann’s conversion was only the beginning of an epic spiritual journey marked by terrible trials and reversals, spiritual and even physical. The following capsule summary can only hint at the continual high drama of his story:
- He was born Jacob Libermann in 1804, fifth son of a rabbi, Lazarus Libermann.
- As a child, his zeal for Talmudic studies and his abhorrence of Christians, especially of clergy, delighted his father, who looked forward to his son inheriting his position.
- At 20, he was sent to the city of Metz to complete his rabbinic studies. But he fell into religious indifference -- then a complete loss of faith. The miracles of the Old Testament “were repulsive to me, and I no longer believed them.”
- At 22, living poor and alone in Paris, he explored the claims of Christianity, and soon felt moved to pray for God’s guidance. The answer came quickly: “I was at once enlightened; I saw the truth; faith penetrated my mind and heart. ... I believed all without difficulty.”
- On Christmas Eve, 1826, he was baptized and received Communion. Libermann instantly became conscious “of an invincible courage and strength to practice the Christian law.”
- But his father was enraged, railing against his choice in letter after letter. Francis held firm, even pleaded that his father become Christian too. Thenceforth Francis was in exile from his home.
- In 1827, through the charity of friends, he began his studies for the priesthood with the Sulpicians of Paris. The “poor little Jew” had little to recommend him beyond the interest awakened by his conversion; but he was a saint in the making, and soon began to exercise a profound influence on other souls.
- But a terrible setback was in store for him. He became subject to violent epileptic fits. He was asked to withdraw from the seminary, but was given a job at another seminary. So extraordinary were he insights that he became a spiritual guide of seminarians, even of priests.
- In 1837 he was appointed master of novices for the Eudist fathers at Rennes. Fervor among the students “began almost immediately to increase to a white heat.”
- Meantime he had become the natural leader and director of an organization that was taking shape among the friends of his early seminary days. Zeal for the most abandoned souls, especially blacks, inspired them to establish the Society of the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart.
- He traveled to Rome on a quixotic quest for permission to form, and direct, the new religious congregation. While there, he had an audience with Pope Gregory XVI, who, upon touching his head in blessing, uttered the words, “Sara un santo (he will be a saint).”
- Vatican approval of the new order was granted. And on Pentecost, 1841, Libermann was finally ordained a priest, having been the only male religious founder to start a congregation before his ordination.
- The community life of the new order was formally commenced in France with Fr. Libermann, one other priest, and one novice. Others filled with apostolic zeal quickly joined them. In 1843, seven Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart departed for Africa.
- Missions were soon offered to the society in Mauritius, Bourbon, Haiti and especially Africa. Father Libermann’s priests were the first since the downfall of the North African Church centuries before to penetrate deep into the Dark Continent.
- Most of the first missionaries --including six of the original seven -- paid for their heroism with their lives, but others filled their places. Fr. Libermann was the heart and soul, the father and model of the young community during its seven years of independent existence.
- By 1848 it was numerous and flourishing, and was merged with the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, which had become almost extinct. Fr. Libermann was chosen superior general of the two societies, enjoying a reputation for the highest sanctity. Tens of thousands of souls were successfully evangelized by the united order in the following decades.
- Around 1850, Fr. Libermann’s maladies multiplied and became more acute. “His sufferings must, according to what medical science tells us, have been a martyrdom.” He died in January 1852, whispering the names Jesus, Mary and Joseph. In June 1876, Pope Pius IX declared him Venerable.
What gives flesh and life to this biography by Fr. George Lee is its constant reference to, and liberal quotation from, Fr. Libermann’s own writings -- which include as many as 1,711 letters, “and so are trustworthy guides to his mind and character.” More details and insights are gleaned from the many extant reports, memoirs, and instructions from his journals or by his colleagues.
In 1911, when this volume first appeared, two reviews rejoiced that Fr. Libermann had finally received the biography he had deserved:
“Long overdue ... few lives of holy men are so full of incident and so charged with storied interest. The hero stands out conspicuous for his simplicity -- in the best sense of the word -- sincerity, common sense and intense spirituality. His letters, of which there are three volumes in French, evince deep knowledge of asceticism and the keenest insight into the complexities of the human heart. He is quite one of the most stimulating figures amongs the great Catholics of the 19th century.” -- Month
“Of exceptional interest.... The history of the saintly founder is complete.” -- America
Prominent feature: Fr. Libermann’s spiritual reflections, which number well over 100.