Blessed Andre Bessette was born during the pontificate of Pope Gregory XVI on August 9, 1845 into a family of twelve in a small village a half-hour southeast of Montreal. As a young child he was imbued with a deep love for the Holy Family and for the Church. One night he had a dream of a magnificent church, unlike he had ever seen before and he never forgot that vivid image. At the age of twelve young Andre became an orphan when his parents died. Instilled with the faith by his mother and father, he overcame feelings of self-pity and even gave of himself so much to forego his own education in order to help care for his brothers and sisters by working in mills and farms in New England before returning to Montreal in 1870. At the age of 25 he joined the Holy Cross Order as a Lay Brother. Never educated and of poor health, Andre did not let that deter him from fulfilling God's Will in the simplest of ways. Though he was first rejected by the Holy Cross Fathers after his novitiate, the Bishop of Montreal intervened and suggested that he become a lay brother with the Congregation.
Though he was disappointed, he was an obedient soul and rather than feeling sorry for himself committed his life to God. For the next 67 years he devoted himself to the menial, but spiritually rewarding jobs of porter and gardener as a Holy Cross Lay Brother. He also set about making that dream he had experienced as a young boy become a reality. Through the grace of God it did and also through the grace of God those who came in contact with this holy man were cured and word quickly spread of his fame. While he was helping build the shrine to Saint Joseph in Montreal - St. Joseph's Oratory, he contined as porter at the College of Notre Dame in that Canadian city. For 40 years he held this responsibility until demand was so great for Brother Andre to be at the shrine that the Holy Cross Order transferred him over there.
Millions of pilgrims flooded the shrine with countless cures physically and spiritually occurring regularly when they came in contact with this holy, humble man of God. They flocked to him for spiritual direction and he constantly told the faithful, "It is St. Joseph who cures. I am only his little dog." But he and all those who were drawn to him realized that God reveals His Power and lets it shine through our human frailties. He received over 80,000 letters a year and insisted on corresponding with the people, but could not read or write and so he dictated the letters, many through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to a plethora of secretaries hired to handle the phenomenal responses to Blessed Andre. Through word of mouth and devotion, this shrine has since become the most well-known shrine to the protector of the Blessed Virgin Mary and foster father of Jesus in the world.
Today, this magnificent monument to Saint Joseph, which took 50 years to build, remains the highest building in Montreal rising high above the skyline on the outskirts of the cosmopolitan city of Montreal and serves not only as a shrine to Mary's spouse but as a concrete reminder of the fortitude and dedication of a simple, uneducated lay brother who was the best he can be for the Lord. When asked by the media upon its completion how he did it, he humbly replied, "Personally, I am nothing. God chose the most ignorant one. If there is anyone more ignorant than I am, the good God would have chosen him." In actuality, it is doubtful God would have found a more obedient, humble soul than Brother Andre.
It was already the best known in North America when Brother Andre succumbed of old age at 92 on January 6, 1937 during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI. Reports are that over one million mourners, both French and English-speaking Canadians, ascended the steep slopes to St. Joseph's Oratory for his funeral in the snow and sleet of a bitter January day to pay their homage to this living saint who had won the hearts of all Canada and much of America. Eighteen years after his death in 1955 Pope Pius XII allowed the Oratory to be solemnly dedicated and declared a minor basilica. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 23, 1982 and his canonization is expected within the next ten years. When he does become a saint it will be no surprise to those who remember his miraculous ways and no surprise to all those he helped get to Heaven who are, no doubt, helping the angels prepare a higher place in Heaven for this special saint to-be. Knowing the way Blessed Andre lived his life, he no doubt will turn down a higher mansion, happy to just be in the presence of the Holy Family forever.
The second great event is Saturday when we commemorate the 21st anniversary of the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as the 264th successor of Peter. No man in the history of the world has met or been exposed to more people than John Paul II. Consider these staggering numbers provided by the Vatican: At least 300 million people have seen him in person throughout his 7,650 plus days as Sovereign Pontiff either in Rome or during his 88 papal visits outside Italy or 137 papal trips in Italy covering over 2 million miles! By the end of this year and the completion of his trip to India and Pakistan this month, plus Iraq and Egypt this December, he will have traveled, as the ZENIT News Agency reports, "the equivalent of three times the distance between the Earth and the Moon." And this doesn't even include his upcoming "Jubilee Journey" in 2000. Talk about saving up frequent flyer miles! For his private and public audiences at the Vatican or Castel Gondolfo over sixteen and a half million have obtained tickets for these special moments with the Holy Father. Add to that the Sunday Angelus appearances and those numbers jump to five times that or roughly 83 million who have seen him in person in Rome or his summer residence. Those figures are astounding. In addition, he has personally visited with parishioners of 286 of the 320 churches of Rome and with only 34 to go has expressed a desire to be the first Vicar of Christ to visit and meet the faithful of every parish in Rome. With his track record, who's to argue?!
Speaking of track records, Saturday this Polish Pope's pontificate becomes the tenth longest in the history of the Church. Amazingly the Vicar of Christ who was Pope the longest remains the first Pope Saint Peter from 30 to 64 A.D. The second longest is Pope Pius IX, the Pontiff who proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception and whose papacy lasted 32 years from 1846 to 1878, and his immediate successor Pope Leo XIII who spanned the the 19th and 20th century from 1878 to 1903. Fourth on the list was Pope Pius VI, whose 24 year reign from 1775 to 1799 was during the French Revolution and the American Revolution, then Pope Adrian I (772-795) and Pope Pius VII whose pontifical reign lasted from 1800 to 1823 and included the tumultous, nearly diastrous period when Napoleon took the Pope hostage. Pope Alexander, who ruled from 1159 to 1181, and Pope Saint Sylvester I, whose 23 year pontificate benefited from the Edict of Constantine from 314 to 335, are seven and eight on the list for longevity. It's interesting to note that half of the list are from the past two and a half centuries. The Pope directly ahead of John Paul II is Pope Saint Leo I who stopped the barbarians at the gates of Rome when Attila the Hun turned away rather than ravaging Rome. He, like his counterpart Pope Saint Gregory I are known as "the Great."
Both Leo and Gregory are also Doctors of the Church. Which brings us to a point. As we have referred to earlier here, no man in the history of the world has personally touched more people than John Paul II. We believe with all our heart that our present Pontiff will someday go down in the annals of history as John Paul the Great. And why not? Who else has had such an influence spiritually, politically, morally, sociologically, or geographically? Leaders have come and gone, countries have risen and fallen, evil empires have crumbled during his pontificate. Leo the Great only had to deal with Attila; John Paul the Great has had to deal with the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Leonid Breshnev, Mikael Gorbachev, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Khomeini, Moamar Khadafi, Idi Amin, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Saddam Hussein, Suharto, Jiang Zemin, Slobodan Milosevic, B.J. Habibie and countless others who have sought to change the course of history without taking into consideration the inherent gift of life for all. Gregory the Great reformed the liturgy and started the Church on a brilliant liturgical renaissance that we still cherish today. But consider how John Paul the Great has balanced a Church in great upheaval when he became its chief shepherd in 1978 to guide her through the rough waters of schisms, apostasy, rebellions and mounting martyrdoms in Africa, Asia and South America. Through it all he has never compromised, steering the Barque of Peter with an admirable admiralship toward the safe harbor of the two pillars by his emphasis and undying devotion to the Eucharist and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Many of the historical events over the past two decades can be directly attributed to his influence. Consider also that he has completely revamped the face of the College of Cardinals with 94 of the 106 cardinals eligible to vote in the Sacred Conclave having been hand-picked by him. But consider even further his impact on global society. Not only has he been named "Man of the Year" by many organizations, most notably Time Magazine's nomination in 1994, but is even under consideration as "Man of the Century" by many publications and organizations. We have had numerous e-mails asking if John Paul II is the TOP 100 CATHOLIC OF THE CENTURY and all we can say is you'll have to stay tuned, but we will give you a hint: you won't be disappointed! Yet, despite all these honors, "man of the year" or "man of the century," even "man of the millennium" are not the only considerations for this phenomenal leader of our time.
Consider the encyclicals he has written, the many, many documents he has released, the emphasis on the dignity of man and stress for the Sanctity of Life in the face of the growing culture of death. Don't forget he had a hand in many of the excellent documents for Vatican II as well. What other Pope, or for that matter, what other person has published best sellers (v.g.,"Crossing the Threshold of Hope") and had a solid gold CD such as "Abba Pater"? When one weighs all the evidence of this man's writings and impact, one would have to seriously consider John Paul II as a future candidate for Doctor of the Church as well. It is not as farfetched as it seems for over the past twenty-one years he has imparted solid teaching and expanded on the Fathers and Doctors of the Church to bring the teachings more into focus in a light many had not understood before. From his first encyclical on March 4, 1979 Redemptor hominis less than half a year into his pontificate in which he elaborated on redemption and human dignity to his masterpiece on the Mercy of God a year and a half later on November 30, 1980 Dives in misericordia; from his May 18, 1986 encylical Dominum et Vivificantem on the Holy Spirit's important role in the life of the Church and the world to the encyclical of March 25, 1987 on Blessed Mother Mary's role in the mystery of Christ and her active and exemplary presence in the life of the Church with Redemptoris Mater. It was in the mid-nineties that he published two of his most important works on the Sanctity of Life with Veritatis Splendor on August 6, 1993 regarding fundamental questions on the Church's moral teaching and Evangelium Vitae, called the "The Gospel of Life" on the value and inviolability of human life, on March 25, 1995. Both were extensions of Pope Paul VI's excellent and controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae. That same year he released Ut Unum Sint - "That all may be one" - on the Church's commitment to ecumenism and last year turned his attention to science and academics with his deep and fascinating encyclical on "Faith and Reason" called by its Latin term Fides et Ratio.
And, in the spirit of Robert Frost, this Pope has "miles to go before he sleeps." Many are speculating that before the millennium breaks the Holy Father will issue another encyclical on the End Times, clarifying the Church's position that the new millennium will not be the end of the world - as many have been scared into believing - but the end of an era, a cleansing time and the beginning of a new life of grace and the intrinsic message of Our Lady at Fatima. He has been working on this document throughout the summer. When all is said and done, we truly expect this Pontiff to mirror the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII in length. Consider that Leo was elected in 1878; John Paul a century later in 1978. Leo's pontificate lasted until 1903. Considering the stamina of our beloved Polish Pontiff, three plus more years are not too much to expect and hope for. We would, of course, pray for longer tenure, possibly to challenge Pius IX and even Peter, but we also have to be realistic. His health has been suspect because of his age for he will turn 80 next May 18th. But, as he has pointed out so many times in his talks and writings, God is the only One Who gives and takes life and we suspect God isn't finished with His Pope-son from Wadowice, Poland yet. When the Father finally does call His faithful servant of the servants home, we can only hope and pray that his successor will strongly consider waving the five-year period of waiting and allow the beatification process to begin for this 264th successor of Peter and soon after his canonization can become a reality and then he can be accorded the deserving honor of not only being called venerable, blessed and saint, but also John Paul the Great, Doctor of the Church.
There are about 33 canonized saints that have been named "Doctor of the Church." Only three of those are women: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena and very recently, St. Therese, the Little Flower of Lisieux, France, also a Carmelite. Saints are proclaimed "Doctor of the Church" when their writings or preachings have been outstanding for guiding people in the spiritual life and their walk to God.
From childhood, Teresa loved to read the lives of saints. They inspired her to the point that one day she left home with an elder brother to go to Moorish lands, hoping to die for their faith there. They were met on the way by an uncle who made sure that they were sent home to their parents.
At the age of 20, Teresa did enter a Carmelite order, but after a few years, she became very ill (perhaps malaria) and was given up for dead. Her grave was even dug. The ailment left her an invalid for three years and she endured the effects of paralysis for about 12 years.
Convent life in those days was very lax. Teresa preferred to spend much time visiting with people in the parlor rather than pray. It wasn't until she was 42 that she came to realize the danger of neglecting her prayer life and so she returned to the regular practice of private prayer. At this time she read the Confessions of St. Augustine and thereby experienced a powerful conversion.
From that time on, her vocation was very strong and she began to have visions and other mystical experiences, such as the amazing mystical piercing of her heart by a spear of divine love and levitating.
Contemporary canonized saints of her day include St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits; St. Peter of Alcantara, who became her spiritual director in 1557; St. Luis Beltran, who was also her spiritual director for a while; and St. John of the Cross, for whom she served as spiritual director.
Teresa established 17 Carmelite convents in Spain and France. She was a very able administrator, while at the same time being very kind and warm. She had a tremendous sense of humor, was very witty, and used to pray that God would spare her from "sad saints."
The convents which she established, however, were quite austere. The nuns hardly spoke (a good way to keep peace in a household), wore coarse habits, and sandals instead of shoes. This is what the term "discalced" means: "without shoes."
Among the books Teresa wrote were: "Interior Castle" and the "Way of Perfection," in which she writes of prayer as "loving" rather than "thinking."
Though quite short in stature, Teresa became a big saint. She is even referred to as the "big St. Teresa" as opposed to the "Little Flower."
If you can, purchase one of her books and let it seep into the soil of your soul like gentle rain on dry earth. You will assuredly be enriched.
God bless you!