The secret of these priests who stood firm

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Our columnist Michel Cool pays tribute to the old priests of his diocese who held firm in the storm and who knew how to remain young, always looking to the future, connected by their fraternity in Christ.

The joy of my week: having shared two short days of reflection with around fifteen priests from my diocese. They came from different rural, urban or maritime sectors. Most of them were already advanced in age. But always on a good foot, in spite of bodily and temporal vicissitudes. Looking them in the face, listening to them attentively, I felt far from the caricatured comments often circulating about them. I thought of their undeniable courage. Their admirable perseverance, to be exact.

Young, they had hoped for a spring”>Vatican II »>Vatican Council II . And they reaped the storm. Many of their colleagues took their cliques and their slaps and joined civilian life. They remained in their parishes . They lasted. They served as best they could. When they hear themselves reproached for having “messed up everything” and “emptied” the churches, they cringe. They grumble. But their hearts bleed. “ingratefulness is a deadly beating. Yes, these men deserve better than these insults. Because they carried, relieved, gave more than was necessary while a profile of Church and society collapsed around them. Even when the hurricane or the devil tried to rush through their window, they held on. They knew how to keep their little light on.


I thought about this during the round table where everyone expressed the reasons for their personal enthusiasm. For the nonagenarian of the group, “tested” so to speak, it was his arrival in a residential home: he appreciated his new neighborhood and was delighted to have more time to devote to the listen and get to know the young priests. Great enthusiasm for 90 years! Another, younger and a parish priest, testified to the “fire of God” that the feeling of being the simple instrument of “Someone who wishes us well” sometimes gave him. Not only was it beautifully said, but his heartfelt cry expressed — it was almost palpable — an enormous sympathy for the world and a tremendous spiritual humility. This round of discussion was free of any nostalgic lament. On the contrary, I had the impression of hearing gardeners – to whom one of them compared himself – who were talking to me about their sowing preparations for the coming spring.

Do these priests possess a secret of youth? I don’t know. On the other hand, I know their hyphen. They are all members of the Charles de Foucauld Priestly Fraternity . Born in France in 1951, she offers diocesan priests the opportunity to live their ministry in the light of Brother Charles, proclaimed a saint in 2022. They meet regularly in their dioceses, in small fraternities, for a time of sharing life, of reflection and common prayer. The testimony of Charles de Foucauld, “missionary hermit” in the Hoggar desert, inspires them to lead a simple life oriented by their desire for proximity with people marginalized in society or in the Church. And by this other desire for spiritual closeness with Christ maintained by Eucharistic adoration and the recitation of the prayer of abandonment of the “Universal Brother”.

Basically, the secret of rejuvenation of the priests with whom I spent a handful of hours in an abbey nestled in the Canche valley, in Pas-de-Calais, is perhaps what we call fraternity: the simple elbow-to-elbow of people linked together by the ineffable Presence of “Someone who wishes us well”. A Presence that lightens all burdens. A Presence that helps to lift mountains. A Presence that can work miracles… 

Walk with Christ

This meeting reminded me of an admirable page by André Malraux. Returning from a trip to the Sahara, he recounted a scene that had become for him an icon of fraternity, in a letter to his friend and former Resistance chaplain, Canon Pierre Bockel. Here it is, as a tribute to the priests and religious who draw their enthusiasm from the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld:

“Behold, in the vastness of the Sahara we see three small points on the horizon.As we approached, these dots became three advancing silhouettes.Arriving at their height: three smiling faces… and what a smile!The desert comes alive, comes to life, because three little sisters walk lightly in the sparkling vibration of limitless space, as if animated by a mysterious presence which communicates to them strength, gentleness and joy.We stop and invite them to get in the car.They thank with extreme kindness and apologize for having to give up our hospitality: “It’s not very far anymore,” they say.In fact, a good fifty kilometers to reach Hoggar, whose strangely shaped mountains stood beyond the shimmering sands […].We set off again, and through the cloud that our machine raised, we saw this: the little sisters placed their heavy bags on the edge of the track to immediately resume their walk […].No doubt they were thinking of some poor Tuaregs who would pass by.Where were they going?After all, their destination does not matter, since their destiny was to walk with the Christ that they carried deep within themselves” (quoted by Pierre Bockel,L’Enfant du laughter, Grasset, 1973).

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