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St. André Bessette and company

Saints banners on St. Peter's

Six new saints were declared by Pope Benedict XVI during the weekend of 17 October, but one in particular stands out. Brother Andre Bessetté, CSC has been a familiar name to me since Notre Dame, and his story I had known something about even before then. In fact, throughout my four years of service on the altar at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Litany of Saints always concluded with a robust “Blessed Brother André… Pray for Us!”

Those years of prayer are ‘paid off’ today, in the official recognition of the Congregation of Holy Cross’ first saint – though rumour is the cause of CSC founder, Father Basil Moreau may be ready as early as 2012. Brother Andre is also the first native-born male saint of North America, having been born and raised in Canada.

Notre Dame pilgrims for canonizations

He was a simple porter, a door-keeper, not educated enough for presbyteral ordination, but a man gifted with healing and a particular devotion to St. Joseph in a time when Marian piety defined Catholic spirituality. One man’s simple prayer to see a small shrine to Our Lord’s earthly father near the school where he served lead eventually to the impressive St. Joseph Oratory of Mount Royal, in Montreal, Quebec. The oratory offers a biography of the new saint here.

A delegation of Holy Cross brothers and priests, Notre Dame students, alumni, and faculty converged on Rome along with thousands of Canadians and others devoted to Brother André. About two dozen of us participated in a program offered by ND’s Center for Social Concerns. On the eve of the canonization day, these pilgrims filled the church of St. Andrea della Valle to standing-room capacity, about five thousand by estimates I have seen.

One of the Domer alumns from the states was my friend and classmate Julie Fritsch, who i literally picked up from Leonardo DaVinci airport as i dropped off Simone. From pro-life marches in D.C. to canonizations in Rome, it is nice to know you can share the journey with friends over the course of decades!

We got to participate in the vigil at Sant’Andrea della Valle, the canonization mass at St. Peter’s, the premier of Salt and Light’s  documentary of his life, “God’s Doorkeeper”, and a presentation by ND Professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings on the process of canonization.

Julie and I on Ponte Sant'Angelo

Leading up to the weekend, the only names of the soon-to-be saints i knew were Brother André and Australia’s first saint, Sr. Mary MacKillop, founder of an order of women religious and contemporary of St. André.  The program on the morning of the liturgy described the six thus: One priest (Stanisław Kazimierczyk, Polish, 15th cent.), one religious (Br. Andre), and four “virgins”. IN addition to Mary MacKillop, there were two Italian sisters Giulia Salzano and Camilla Battista da Varano and Spanish nun Candida Maria of Jesus.

Why the four women were not identified as religious, as sisters, or even the three as founders of orders, i do not know. While chaste virginity can be holy (as can chaste marriage or celibacy) it seems to mischaracterize their vocations. After all, none were consecrated virgins, so much as religious and founders. Giulia and Candida were educators and catechists, Camilla was a princess turned nun, an example of the wealthy giving up materialism for service to the poor. Mary has been championed by some as an example for those persecuted by ecclesiastical authority for remaining true to the Gospel rather than “obedience” to abusive leaders.

Four of the six were all born in the 1840’s: André, Mary, Giulia and Candida. The other two were born mid-15th century.


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