By Tania Mann
They gave the newborn Joseph Alfred Bessette no more than a day to live. They were wrong. Instead, Brother André – as he was later called – would persevere until age 91, continually beating the odds and giving hope to others that miracles really do happen.
An orphan from age 12 who was frequently ill and barely literate, Br. André’s life was riddled with suffering. But in the nearly 40 years of his work in the Holy Cross Congregation as a doorman, he found meaning and healing in Christ and helped those he encountered to do the same.
“When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door”, Br. André is known to have said kiddingly of his job as the porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. Joking aside, however, the Holy Cross Congregation had in fact once turned André away, thinking his poor health would impede his ministry. Rather his humble work of hospitality carved a path of holiness that has now extended all the way to Rome. On Sunday, 17 October, Br. André became the Congregation’s first Saint.
Fr Edwin Obermiller, CSC, Assistant Provincial of the Indiana Province, was one among the thousands of pilgrims who travelled from across the globe to Rome for Br. André’s Canonization. After the ceremony on Sunday, he said: “My experience today took me back to the heart of why I became a Holy Cross religious: that sense of hospitality and care for those among us, especially for those who are in need of not only physical but also emotional and spiritual healing”.
The Holy Cross Congregation was established in 1837 by Fr Basil Anthony Moreau, who Benedict XVI beatified in 2007. Today the legacy of both Bl. Moreau and St Bessette lives on through the Congregation’s presence in 16 different countries.
The Order runs several universities in the United States, for example, including the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. In his homily during Opening Mass this fall, the institution’s President, Fr John Jenkins, CSC, emphasized a need to learn from Br. André’s example: “André has something to teach us”, Jenkins said. “He did not make great plans, but simply watched the door, and waited… He saw each visitor as a call from God to respond with compassion, attentiveness, and faith. And, remarkably, miraculous healings occurred”.
Indeed, André came to be known in his day as the “Miracle Man of Montreal” – a nickname to which he objected. He pointed instead to St Joseph, the patron of the Holy Cross Congregation.
In addition to fervently encouraging prayer for Joseph’s intercession, the doorkeeper also emphasized a view of the Lord as one who is near to us and always listening. He was known to say, for example, that “when you say to God, ‘Our Father’, he has his ear right next to your lips”.
This intimate relationship was what bolstered André’s faith in God’s aid. “André’s own innate trust in Divine Providence” – explained Fr Andrew Gawrych, CSC, Associate Director of the Office of Vocations in Indiana and the Eastern Provinces — “was so nurtured in Holy Cross that it empowered him to persevere in building St Joseph’s Oratory despite all the setbacks, famously asking for a statue of Jesus’ foster-father to be placed inside the unfinished shrine so the Saint himself might do the final fundraising. And he did!”.
Br. André was to work 16-hour days in the Oratory as its guardian, welcoming the pilgrims who flocked there and praying with them for healing. Often, those prayers were said to be miraculously answered. Today, St Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal is the third-largest basilica of its kind in the world and draws close to 2 million visitors a year.
Aside from running the Oratory and several top-tier universities, the Holy Cross Congregation is also dedicated to serving the poor. One of their best known efforts in this vein is André House, which serves the poor and homeless Arizona, U.S.A. Gawrych, who was recently stationed there, described the House as one way that André’s charism “continues to flourish in the community’s ministry today”.
With André’s official recognition as a Saint comes an invitation to the universal Church to participate in carrying on his legacy. It is a call to “search for God with simplicity, in order to discover him always present at the core of our lives”. as the Holy Father said in Sunday’s Canonization Mass Homily.
“Canonization allows people to see that they can make a difference in the world,” said Obermiller. “We begin to realize the capacity we each have to effect change in the world. Looking to St André, who didn’t even have a sixth-grade education, we can start to imagine the kind of potential we have to give back to the Church – to show the face of Jesus to others, in compassion, understanding and support”.
© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 10/20/2010