The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Venerable Francis Mary Paul Libermann

19th century portrait of Venerable François-Marie-Paul Libermann, artist unknown; Congregation of the Holy Spirit; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIn the liturgy of Good Friday the Church does not forget to commend the conversion of the Jewish people to the Heart of the dying Saviour. We may well consider as a proof that this prayer is not in vain the striking conversions of many distinguished persons of the last century – notably those of the brothers Theodore and Alphonse Ratisbonne, Emanuel Veit and Philipp Veit, Hermann Cohen, Francis Libermann, Dorothea Mendelssohn, and others. The honor of being the first Jewish convert with whose canonization the Church is engaged belongs to the Venerable Francis Mary Paul Libermann. But it was a hard road and full of thorns which Providence made him travel to win his part in this rare honor.

He was born at Zabern in Alsace on 12 April 1804, the fifth son of a rabbi. Jacob, as he was called before he was baptized, was the favorite of his father on account of his religious disposition and was therefore destined one day to assume his father’s office. So when he was thirteen he was sent to a superior school at Metz for the training of rabbis. Meanwhile the eldest son of the family, Samson, a physician, and with him his wife, became a Catholic. His example was soon followed by two of his brothers. But Jacob remained unconverted, publicly renounced his faith and became a rationalist. Chance placed the Gospels in his hands and the reading of them filled him with a great veneration for the person of Christ. The example and the direct influence of his converted brothers brought his noble soul even nearer to Christianity, although his father strove by every means against it. When Jacob went to Paris to pursue his studies in 1826, the work of his conversion was already quite accomplished. On Christmas day that year he received Baptism. The change gave him undreamed-of consolation and extraordinary enlightenment. From that day he was as profoundly convinced and as Catholic at heart as one brought up in the midst of Catholic surroundings.

After his baptism he vowed to consecrate himself to God in the priesthood. He was received without any difficulty into the seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris. The humble, mortified, and devout convert soon won the affection of every one.

A year afterward a dreadful trial came upon him. He was seized with epilepsy. For nearly ten years this dreadful disease sought to rob him of all powers of body and soul. The confidence in God and the resignation with which he bore this visitation, the glowing ardor for the cross it begot in his soul recall the most moving traits in the lives of the saints. Like so many others Libermann was made a saint by suffering.

Although there seemed little prospect of his ordination the superiors of the seminary were willing to keep Libermann. They well knew that by word and example he was doing much good among the candidates for the priesthood. He was soon obliged to keep up an extensive correspondence to counsel and assist others in their spiritual affairs. In 1837, the Congregation of the Eudists gave him charge of their novitiate at Rennes.

Libermann’s attention was directed to the misery of the Negro race by two zealous and congenial seminarists, Frederic le Vavasseur, a native of the island of Bourbon, and Eugene Tisserand, a Creole of San Domingo. The three friends – all suffering much in health, planted the foundations of a new missionary society for the conversion of the Negro. Libermann, with his ardent zeal and his fiery activity, was the soul of the enterprise. His letters excited in many clerics a desire for the noble work. But there were not wanting persons even in high positions who derided him as a visionary. At the beginning of 1840 Libermann went to Rome to beg support from the Propaganda. Here he was met with extreme reserve. He fell into the greatest want, but he did not waver in his reliance upon God. He was to win no victory save by suffering. And his patient waiting was rewarded. The Propaganda praised and encouraged his work as highly opportune.

Soon after his return from the Eternal City his health had so much improved that he was able to receive Holy Orders on 15 September 1841, and on the 27th of the same month, at Neuville, near Amiens, he opened the first novitiate of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Mary. The first beginnings labored under the severest privations, but the founder’s example and inspiring words, aided by his prudent direction, made these privations only sweet accessories to their beloved vocation. This same year Libermann sent his first missionaries to the Negroes.

In 1843 a heavy blow fell upon him. Of the first seven fathers who had been sent to the Guinea Coast there was only one living after the lapse of a year, and he survived only two years. Father Tisserand, who was shortly after sent to Guinea as prefect-apostolic, suffered shipwreck within sight of the shore and was drowned. But in this case, as ever before, sacrifice only exalted Father Libermann’s spirit and increased his own enthusiasm and that of his sons for the mission in that benighted land.

The young Society received new strength in 1848 by consolidation with the Society of the Holy Ghost, which had been in existence since 1705, but which after the Revolution had to struggle with many difficulties. Father Libermann became the first superior-general of the united societies and was commissioned to draw up new constitutions. But his earthly journey was nearing its end. Suffering remained his companion till the end. When he lay dying, the celebrated pulpit-orator, Father de Ravignan, said to a friend: “Come with me and we shall see how the saints die.” The same desire led others thither. At midnight of 2 February 1852, while in choir they sang aloud in the death chamber the words of the Magnificat, “Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles” – “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.” Father Libermann gave up his spirit. He had not yet completed his forty-eighth year.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916