Rorate Caeli

Father Ernest (Emmanuel) André and a Lesson for the Contemporary Church

For many years I have been receiving the excellent newsletter of the monks of Saint Joseph de Clairval Abbey. It always focuses on the life of a particular saint, often very obscure ones, and what we can learn from their life and teaching and the times in which they lived. 

The March 2015 letter features a priest of whom I had never heard: Père Ernest André (1826–1903), who later took the name Emmanuel as a Benedictine monk, the originator of the devotion to Our Lady of Holy Hope. 

What I found most striking is how tirelessly Father André worked to catechize his rural flock, which he found in a state of unbelievable ignorance, error, and apathy. Here are his own words, explaining his policy, which was to preach and teach the unadulterated Catholic faith, week in, week out:

For Christian behavior to be reestablished, true notions of Christianity must first be reestablished in people’s minds. All of Christianity consists of knowing and recognizing in practice what we lost in Adam and what we have received in Jesus Christ; the doctrine on original sin and its consequences on one hand, and on grace and its necessity on the other. 

What glorious simplicity! What admirable emphasis on the two fundamentals that modern man wishes to ignore and even contemporary leaders in the Church wish to downplay or qualify! Maybe Adam did not exist, they say, and original sin is an outdated theory; maybe grace is something everyone automatically gets, whether they believe in Jesus or not! After all, God is Love, and love never says no, right? Fr. André would have had no patience or toleration for such absurdities. He preached the true Gospel—the one that clearly teaches us that man, all by himself, is in a state of sin and under God’s just wrath, and that the mercy of God is revealed in calling man to faith in Jesus Christ, to worthy fruits of repentance, to a life of obedience to God’s commandments—and, by this rugged path, to eternal life!

Grasping well the modern situation, Fr. André once said:

Here [in Mesnil-Saint-Loup] as elsewhere, almost everything has been invaded by a cold and base naturalism that does not allow man to elevate his thoughts about his feelings. Here as elsewhere, human reason—and what reason!—has prevailed over divine reason, that is to say, over faith. The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ was a sublime unknown.

Does this not capture perfectly what has happened in the Church after the Second Vatican Council, in a more subtle and virulent form than it did in the France of Fr. André day? Do not naturalism and rationalism, with their attendants of sentimentalism and secularism, constitute the very atmosphere within which theology is conducted today, and serve as the unspoken premises of pastoral practice from coast to coast, continent to continent?

Fr. André was famous for saying:

I need Christians as Baptism made them. … I will not tolerate the mixing in of the spirit of the world that deforms, diminishes, and even sometimes, under religious pretenses, kills the Christian. 100% Christians, Christians of the Gospel, Christians who, far from cloaking themselves in deliberate ignorance, seek the light in order to be wholly one with the light—that is my aim.

The newsletter of the good monks then comments:

To accomplish this, Father André began Sunday afternoon classes; his constant concern was to instruct his faithful, to enlighten their faith. He taught on the books of Holy Scripture, the liturgy, the sacraments. He even went so far as to teach them the rudiments of Latin, so they could understand the chants of the Mass and the Psalms—for on Sundays and feast days, many came to the church to chant a part of the Divine Office (Lauds, Vespers, and Compline). . . . Conversion was also reflected in modesty of dress. The pastor waged war against vanity and immodest attire.

A model pastor, who rather than watering down the Faith or dumbing down its practices so as to make it all easier, more accommodating, more accessible, shows that he truly honors his flock by raising them upwards to the heights of the Church’s wisdom and ways. Instead of taking their ignorance for granted and tolerating their vices as incurable, he gave them the bread of instruction and challenged them to live the life of virtue.

How great a difference it would make if the clergy preached real doctrine that makes real demands on our intellect and will! If they insisted relentlessly on a respectful silence before and after Mass, and on dressing with modesty! Some people will say with a shrug: “We have such huge problems in the church today, we can’t bother about such little details.” But that’s exactly the wrong way to go about it. Start with the details, and watch how God works out the larger problems on His own. People are drawn back to Our Lord by small meandering paths, not by paved highways. Start with the silence, the reverence, the modesty, and see if there is not, slowly but surely, a movement towards renewed faith, a growing thirst for holiness. Christians need to be provoked out of their slumber by being challenged: “You say you are a Christian? Are you willing to give up this little comfort or convenience? This chit-chat in the pews? This expression of self-will?” Some will be offended and leave; but for some, this will be the wake-up call that inaugurates their real conversion to Christ.

It was also striking to read in the biography of Fr. André: “In 1853, despite the opposition of some parishioners, an altar to Our Lady of Holy Hope was erected in the church.” As gentle and patient as he was known to be in his dealings with people, Fr. André still knew when the time had come for action—and he was willing to take the risk of offending some in order to bring about a greater good. The Church militant is not for the already perfect, thanks be to God, but it is for the sincere of heart and those who are looking for the truth that saves, not for a mirror that reflects their own opinions and desires.

Now more than ever, we need heroic individuals who, like Fr. André, preach the Word of God in season and out of season, no matter what persecution comes, even when it comes from inside the Church (as Cardinal Ratzinger candidly acknowledged in the case of Michael Davies -- see the Cardinal's message, reproduced at the bottom of this post). When the big shepherds are drunk with worldliness, it is the responsibility of the little shepherds, the humble curates like Fr. André, to stand firm in the deposit of faith and to bless their flocks with the gift of Truth—the Truth that sets men free from their slavery to internal passions and worldly fashions.

Dear bishops, priests, and deacons who are loyal to the law of Christ and the tradition of the Church, in whatever church Divine Providence has entrusted to you, in whatever role He has bestowed on you: the faithful salute you, thank you, love you, and pray for you. Do not flee for fear of the wolves. Like Fr. André, keep up the good work of reestablishing Christian behavior by reestablishing the truths of Christianity in people’s minds, preaching Adam’s sin and Christ’s redemption, and opposing naturalism and rationalism with all your might. The Lord whose Gospel you preach will never fail to sustain you with His grace, even (and especially) when He invites you to a deeper share in His Passion.

Le Père Emmanuel André after his passing