The courage, conviction and zeal of a missionary

Last May, Pope Francis recognized the ‘heroic virtues’ of the SMA Founder, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac. Each year, SMAs gather to pray for him on the anniversary of his death in Freetown, Sierra Leone, just six weeks after his arrival in Africa. Bishop-emeritus Patrick J Harrington SMA, during his time as the SMA Superior General, formally began the process for the Cause of the Canonization of the Founder. On the 25th of June last he shared some thoughts about the Founder with his confreres in the SMA community, Wilton, Cork. An edited version of his homily on that occasion is presented here. 

Today, we celebrate the 161st anniversary of the death – and birth into heaven – of the Venerable Melchior de Marion Brésillac – founder of the Society of African Missions (SMA).

The facts of his life are well-known to all of us here today. It was a life which was completely dedicated to the mission ad gentes – right up to his untimely death at the age of forty-six in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the 25th June 1859.

On the 27th May 2020, the Vatican Press Office formally announced that Pope Francis had signed a decree on the “heroic virtues” of Bishop de Brésillac. The letter of our Superior General, Fr Antonio Porcellato, (dated 28th May 2020) assures us that “In doing this, the Church gives us the certainty that following his example and his teaching, we are also on a true way to holiness. It is an authoritative invitation to be ever more – and ever better – a family faithful to its missionary charism in today’s changing and complex context”.

I expect that some SMAs will begin – or renew – examination and discussion on what these “heroic virtues” of Bishop de Brésillac are. There is a wealth of written material available for this research. What I wish to do today is to present just a few of the “heroic virtues” that I see in his life and which are reflected in his writings.

The first virtue (or trait) that I wish to mention is Courage (or Fortitude). It took courage for a young diocesan priest to leave his home and status, to go off into the unknown as a member of the Paris Foreign Missions [MEP]. It took insight – and above all – courage to document the difficulties he encountered in the Mission in Southern India, and to confront the problems locally with his MEP confreres – rather than going along with the status quo. And later – when in a position to do so as a Bishop – he felt that some of these problems needed the attention and decision of Propaganda Fide (The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome). As we know, the authorities in Rome – with their customary restraint and measured tempo – preferred to wait before taking a definitive stance on the issues presented to them. Bishop de Brésillac waited for two years. He then presented his resignation as Bishop of Coimbatore. After a further two years, he was authorized to leave India.

His courage blended in with “the other side of its coin” – namely zeal. At forty-three years of age, the Venerable de Brésillac was far from being content with becoming a decoration around France. He was deeply convinced of his calling “to be a missionary from the depths of my heart”. He offered himself to go to Africa. In the middle of the 19th century, this certainly took courage, conviction and zeal.

We know the rest of the story – vigorously seeking personnel and finance around France to support the work; the dedication of the tiny group of seven to Our Lady of Fourviere as the Society of African Missions (1856); de Brésillac’s untimely death (and most of his companions) in June 1859, and the subsequent flourishing of the Society which he founded.

These are but a few illustrations of his courage and zeal – virtues that are also regularly referred to in his writings. The following is an example taken from the Retraite aux Missionnaires (1849):

Courage…. yes, it is necessary…. in order not to give way under the continuous attacks…. which harass us on all sides. Courage is necessary in order to fight against the flow, and to always make progress even when we do not realize that we have taken a step forward on the road. Courage is necessary in order not to allow oneself to get “fed up” when one carries the burden of the heat and of the day alone” [1]

Zeal. “The zeal which the Lord Jesus has entrusted to us is only a continuation of his own….” he states, quoting the text:  “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled.……”  (Luke 12:49).

Bishop de Brésillac felt that all missionaries are participants in that zeal of Christ – and that is one great reason for following the exhortation to “Go out into the whole world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation..”(Mark 16:15). But, as de Brésillac points out, the zeal of the missionary must be true zeal which rejects the wisdom of the wise according to this world, and the prudence of the age…. It is a zeal that is faithful to the wisdom and prudence that comes from God. It is a zeal which is in accordance with God’s wisdom…. and this is inseparable from good order and peace.[2] 

Other heroic virtues which our Founder lived and wrote about include:  

  • Confidence in God’s Providence. “The future is in your hands Lord, and I don’t know very much about the beach the wind is pushing us towards at this moment. Whatever happens to me, Lord, may you be the only motive for my actions, the only end of my undertakings, the only object of my desires. Make us docile instruments of your mercy towards the people who are poor….”
  • Faithfulness in the Ordinary things of daily life. Great works are rare; the most illustrious men have had the occasion of doing them only from time to time. But what makes saints – what makes the greatest saints – what establishes the most good on earth – that which conserves and perpetuates it and that which builds solid, durable foundations – is the ordinary works of each day – works which are small in appearance, but which faith super-naturalizes and makes grow, works done in the humility of the home, in the silence of a hidden life, in submission, in patience, in the exercises of community life. Jesus Christ could not miss out in giving us this great lesson – and He did it for thirty years of his life”.[3]  These words were written in 1849 – some twenty four years before the birth of Thérèse of Lisieux – the great Saint of the Little Way.

There is much more one could say about the heroic virtues which the Venerable de Brésillac practiced and wrote about. However, I will now conclude by quoting the prayer and the greatest wish that he had for all missionaries:

The joy that I wish for you and which must be the fruitful companion of our work is the joy of the heart; the joy of a pure conscience; the joy of a servant who loves his Master and who rejoices in working for him. It is the joy of a vocation that makes us feel at home wherever the Lord sends us. It envies nothing, desires nothing; and regrets nothing – because it has only one desire in the world: to do what God wishes and nothing else”.[4]

May the Lord bestow this grace on all of us, and may the Society of African Missions – through the intercession of our Venerable Founder – respond with faith, hope and love to the complex needs of the African people – both on that Continent and beyond. Amen.

[1] Retraite aux Missionnaires 1985: page 244. 

[2] Ibid. pages 218-19.

[3] Cf. Retraite aux Missionnaires (1985 page 39)

[4] Ibidem (page238).