Georges de Nantes.
The Mystical Doctor of the Catholic Faith.
4. “ FOR ME, ISSY IS HE. ”
ON October 1, 1943, Georges de Nantes entered the major seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux with indescribable enthusiasm, and “ for four years would never again experience the slightest moment of disappointment or uncertainty. ” 1 Volume II of Memoirs and Anecdotes is an incomparable account of the state of the Church before the “ ruin, ” to speak as Our Lady of Fatima did.
Émile Poulat, a specialist in the history of the contemporary Church, wrote to our Father on the subject of the chapter on the JEC, saying that it was worth a whole treatise on Catholic Action. The same can be said for this account of the four years of seminary (1943-1947), twenty years before the Council (1962-1965). In it, we see Georges de Nantes with the soul of a disciple become captivated by the Church, Mistress of Truth, and preparing himself to become her defender in the most serious crisis of her history.
“ Prayer brought me immediately into its unfamiliar system. These two hundred young men, kneeling before their superior and God, responded with their strong, manly voices, in perfect rhythm, marking the caesurae of the sentences with an abrupt and total silence, then resuming together their recitation. I found there all that I love as living order. Yes, order ! Virility in prayer, discipline of the voice, attitude, and instincts which, far from constraining hearts, left them total freedom of inner converse and ardours of love for the sole Beloved One. I loved it ! Ah, how I loved this room, this group of confreres who were there with the same vocation as I, full of emotion ! ” 2
These years at the seminary can be divided into two distinct periods : before and after 1944, which marked a rupture in the Church of France that was spread throughout the whole earth twenty years later by the Second Vatican Council.
1943-1944 : UNDER THE SIGN OF LEGITIMACY.
“ I do not know what Issy-les-Moulineaux was like in the past ; I cannot imagine that it could be something other than what we experienced then and that seems to me to be an unchanging perfection. The future would teach me that instability can occur even in what we believe to be eternal, but during this first year, I entrusted myself to the Church as a child to his mother, in order to receive everything from her and from no one else. Yet – unforgettable wonder – she came up to my expectations, she adopted me as one of her own. I forgot that my father was paying board and lodging, I had an oblate’s mentality, and I was ready to accept everything. Later on, when I became aware of what was to follow, I considered this to be an inestimable grace.
“ Because I lived in and received my first Catholic heritage and my first clerical imprint from the Church of all time, in the absence of all contestation and division, I can say that I am the legitimate child, the truthful and faithful witness of this Church. Had I entered a year later, I would not have had this opportunity, and I would not be able to vouch for anything. From the start, I would have been the member of a party, of a faction, and necessarily against the others. Most certainly, to my masters I would have looked like an opponent. They would have discouraged or expelled me. Even if they had kept me, today I would still only be able to identify with one tradition, one school, one party in the Church, which would leave me without moral strength. As it is, I identify with the Catholic totality wherein I was born into clerical life in this year of 1943-1944, simply, peacefully vowed to the Church and accepted by her unreservedly. A certain party, which would soon dominate, may claim that it already existed and mistrusted me, but it was then ‘ clandestine ’. Nothing that is clandestine is Catholic, and there is nothing that is Catholic that must make itself clandestine in the Church. Its denunciation is thus null and void. ” 3
From the first Christmas of this same year 1943, the whole combat that lay before him was revealed to him and he received the necessary strength to bear it. 4
CHRISTMAS 1943, A PROVIDENTIAL CONVERGENCE.
In occupied and occasionally bombarded Paris, the young seminarian Georges de Nantes thought about France, his friends, his brother who had been requisitioned to the STO (the forced labour instituted in France by the Nazis during World War II), his family, the clandestine tensions that he felt even in the seminary. Fear for the country also racked him, in a meditation that espoused the unfolding of the Christmas liturgy :
“ France is still extraordinarily calm, and nevertheless it is as though a thousand matches were being struck or grass fires in fields flaring up and going out, threatening to set everything ablaze suddenly in a gigantic fire. Yes, everywhere they are playing with fire ! We, in spite of the danger, confident and unarmed, we sing our psalms in this powder keg. ” 5
At about the same time, in Tuy, Spain, Sister Lucy of Fatima was suffering a veritable agony that deterred her from transcribing the vision of the Third Secret revealed on July 13, 1917. She succeeded in doing it with the help of Our Lady, Who appeared to her on January 2, 1944 :
“ At the left of Our Lady and a little higher up we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand ; it flashed and gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire… ”
The seminarian’s meditation corresponds to the prophecy related by the seer, reaching the real, supernatural substance of the course of events and their “ divine orthodromy ”, which mystical souls alone are able to perceive.
Sister Lucy continued : “ But they [the flames] were extinguished on contact with the brilliant light that Our Lady radiated against them with Her right hand … ”
For his part, the seminarian perceived the effect of this saving miracle in the light of the Christmas liturgy that celebrates the coming of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace :
“ Then I thought about France, in relative but holy peace, despite the opposing demons that were desperately trying to make her feel disgusted with it, so that she might lose it ! The armistice, even though violated by the conqueror, was observed by the conquered for the sake of survival and still protected us ; it saved us a bit of life by a kind of daily miracle and left us a future. The Marshal remained its prestigious guarantor for France. ”
Fear, however, once again prevailed, a holy fear of God and His judgements : “ If the armistice explodes, if the Marshal is taken from us, if this miraculous curb no longer restrains the fury of an enemy doomed to failure or the evil passions already blowing from the exterior on enslaved France, what then ? Then would be the moment, more than yesterday, to cry out to France : ‘ Take care not to lose your soul ! ’ No one, however, thinks to do it. On the contrary… ”
“ The Angel cried out in a loud voice : ‘ Penance, Penance, Penance ! ’ ”
“ It is the time for insistent prayers, while the last moments of this long protected night were passing by very slowly and the day of our salvation or of our ruin was dawning.
“ Is it order or disorder that will prevail ? It makes me shudder, and my passion for order, my hatred for rebellion under whatever name it is given, dates from that day, that holy Christmas Night. At that time the rebellion was called ‘ the Resistance. ’ I sense that it already appears beautiful in all parts to certain confreres. To how many of them ? I do not know […].
“ At this moment when my mind could founder, I love order as a divine good, because in the boundless absurdity of mankind, unleashed by war and defeat, it is order, even more than virtue and far more than intelligence, that saves what can be saved. On the contrary, all anarchy, dissidence, revolt adds its willful ills to the imposed ills that it claims to cure, and compromises the future by the weight of its impiety.
“ We will not prevent perverse men from following their criminal ways. May we at least let them exhaust themselves within an order that limits them and, when God so wishes, He will restore everything to peace. Such is the patience of the saints. ” 6
The seminarian Georges de Nantes, and Sister Lucy, the seer of Fatima, would have to exercise heroically this patience in the disorder forewarning the great apostasy.
THE INCOMPARABLE MASTER.
Georges de Nantes drew this patience for future combats from the intelligent, true and profound knowledge of Jesus Christ and His Church. It immediately assumed a name, a face : Louis Vimal, whom he would call “ his incomparable friend, ” 7 and to whom his heart attached itself from the first time he saw him celebrate the community Mass before the entire seminary.
“ I can see him now, and with the same delight : the meticulousness with which he observed the rites, his tense, almost painful, care not to miss anything and not to rush. His obvious detestation at being seen, observed or discovered during this Action made the Mass more mysterious than it is in reality, if that were possible. My heart was drawn to him from that first Mass, and my pursuit of him began.
“ I saw him during the first recreation after the retreat, and I was not the only one to seek him out ! It was not easy for he avoided groups. He had come down to the recreation because he was obliged to, but as soon as he was surrounded by three or four, he took them off with great strides down the Allée Saint-Jean, for he was only at ease when speaking with a small group. Then he would answer our questions with such verve, knowledge, precision and conviction that I firmly resolved never to leave him. He would avoid all such occasions, making the chase even keener. At least he was our prisoner for the few miserable teaching hours allocated to him by Fr. Enne who gave the greater part of the course with visible satisfaction. His protégé, on the other hand, took his classes with a timidity and confusion that was soon belied by the perfection of his diction, the solid truth of his demonstrations, and the order, clarity and unrestrained fervour of his personal comments.
“ From the first day, I had found my Master. I have always been lucky in life, it is true. This good fortune, however, was among the greatest, the greatest no doubt, for what I loved so passionately and immediately about him was his knowledge and his way of knowing. By what grace, by what inclination of the heart, by what divine instinct was I drawn to him ? I was so taken by his way of knowing that his knowledge became imprinted on my mind, waking it to the higher life where words are truths and where truths reveal their luminous mystery. In this way I advanced with giant strides as though I were at a never ending recreation, a recreation full of love […].
“ Thus he opened to me who as yet knew nothing and who only a month before had still been in the Lumber Camps at Bois-Barbu and at Valchevrière, the realm of thought, revealing to me its approach roads, meeting me at its crossroads, putting me back on the right path when I strayed, encouraging me to pursue my enquiry and my reflection still further, luring me on by the joy of the promised result. Instead of flitting from book to book, as empty-headed and as stupid as before, I advanced along a straight path with his advice and the books he lent me in hand. From the study of one book to the next, I saw the enchanting landscape of natural science and divine wisdom stretching out before my eyes, in the company of my irreplaceable guide who became on this excursion, my incomparable friend, the memory of whom is the light of my four years of ecclesiastical schooling at the seminary of Issy. For me, Issy is he. ” 8
FATHER VIMAL’S DAZZLING DISPLAYS.
Fr. Vimal’s providential work consisted in establishing a solid basis for the Faith, the “ apologetic ” proofs, with the greatest scientific rigour. He immediately became the venerated master.
“ My first dissertation focused precisely on the titles given to Jesus in the Gospel. I had chosen it from a whole list of others and took delight in doing it. To read the Gospel, to note down the beautiful names of Messiah, Lamb of God, Son of David, Son of man, and Son of God given to Jesus, to dream, pray, love, in order finally to jot down the thoughts, or rather the fiery feelings that these sublime and mysterious words aroused in me : Ah ! What delightful moments ! I got a very bad mark. Apparently, it was insubstantial daydreaming. I was expected to try to understand, by means of the general and particular biblical context, what these traditional terms evoked very precisely at the time that they were uttered and in the minds of the inspired witnesses who used them in their accounts… ”
Thus, “ Jesus ceased to be an idealised image, a soft, conventional Jesus – and everyone painted Him in his own style ! – and became a scientific problem. What a disturbing, unpleasant moment ! Then He became an enigma, another difficult stage, breathtaking and fraught with pitfalls and temptations that had made so many others founder, like Renan, Loisy… There was reason to fear ! Finally, He remained, in the proven authenticity of the basic documents and in the striking truth of His historical, physical and moral Being, an incomparable and fascinating mystery.
“ The decisive moment of this scientific progression is unforgettable for me, all the more so because our professor seemed to attach great importance to it while we only laughed about it. The name Couchoud was funny, and his system stupid. Did he not claim to solve all the difficulties by affirming that Jesus had never existed ! What absurdity and what blasphemy ! That day, I scarcely listened while our pens scratched on our notebooks, writing down, to be learned, Couchoud’s tortuous train of thought, and the lesson that our professor advised us to draw from it. Twenty, thirty years later, one fine day, we understood ! Couchoud, the radical rationalist, what a surprising acolyte for the Christian Faith ! The indispensable, providential Couchoud ! I am ashamed to recite today with an intense intellectual satisfaction a chapter of the course that I laughed at stupidly when I heard it long ago.
“ An implacable rationalist, Couchoud assailed all his predecessors, more liberal than himself, who claimed to reconstruct, each as he pleased and as he saw fit, the ‘ Jesus of history, ’ an ordinary man whom the Church later on slowly, silently, transfigured until she had made him a god ! Nothing but nonsense ; our man showed that none of it stood the test.
“ Jesus did not only half exist or two-thirds or three-quarters exist : a preacher but without miracles, or a healer without prophecies, prophet and thaumaturgist full of illusions, a divine man but not God… It is all or nothing. The Gospel must be taken literally or be completely rejected. The Scriptures recount to us a God made man. You have to believe them and become fully Catholic, that is the only acceptable reconstruction !
“ Otherwise, they would have to be understood in terms of mythology and the conclusion would be that Jesus never existed. In this hypothesis, it would only be a question of a god to whom the magicians of the word would have given human characteristics, thus composing from one to the other, throughout generations, this extraordinary painting of ‘ God made man ’, assuredly incomparable. Our professor wanted us to reach this logical extremity so as to cure us of all easy but insubstantial liberal exegesis. Then, once we had reached this state of radicalism, which in itself is untenable – for if it were so, the Church would have been born clandestinely from a total deception ! – our professor wanted us to hasten to the other extremity, to the solution that was henceforth unavoidable : to believe in the Scriptures, to believe the witnesses who had their throats slit, to proclaim that this Jesus is Christ and Lord, He Who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, was buried and nevertheless was raised from the dead on the third day for our justification.
“ Now that I have recreated its climate by the mysterious game of reviviscences, our Sulpician seminary appears to me to have been entirely steeped in this knowledge of Christ that existed in profusion thanks to both science and faith. This knowledge governed our whole being : intelligence and heart, body and soul, present and future. The apologetic classes that demonstrated its truth were much more involved, if I dare say, in our communal life and in this whole centuries-old institution than were Fr. Enne’s discourses that caused anxiety. 9 Christ could not have been, even at that time, the principle and foundation of everything, absolutely everything, for these hundreds of young men and of the priests, their directors, without Him being conceptualised there, without Him being loved there and without Him being adored there as the surest and most certain of all beings, full of grace and truth. ” 10
After the knowledge of Jesus Christ, totally true, totally lovable, Whose authentic Holy Face 11 our young seminarian had constantly before his eyes, came “ the demonstration of both the divine institution and the miraculous conservation of the Church by Jesus Christ, by His Holy Spirit. She too was fully implicated in the order, discipline, fervour and cordial unanimity of this Seminary of St. Sulpice. We had the feeling that it was, very consciously, a living element, a life-giving organ of this great Church which is, as had been demonstrated to us, nothing other than ‘ Jesus Christ diffused and communicated ’ (Bossuet). ” 12
Thus, our Father was able to say about his professor : “ I entered the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice, well educated by my parents. I found my master, my best master after my father, Fr. Vimal, the Sulpician whom I call my incomparable friend. He was an incomparable man, in his simplicity, in his perpetual joy, in his pugnacity and in this whole immense field of religious life, of the life of the Church. I always received from him the right, the profound answer that made me what I am, however little I may be, with a joy that freed me from all the difficulties of our time and made me penetrate this soul, who was more, or as much, Roman as he was Christian. ” 13
(1) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. II, p. 9.
(2) Ibid., p. 13.
(3) Ibid., pp. 30-31.
(4) Il est ressuscité no. 26, September 2004, p. 30.
(5) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. II, p. 36.
(6) Ibid., p. 39-41.
(7) After his death on October 26, 1998, our Father said about him :“ I am sorrowful even to death because I have lost my father… ” (CRC no. 350, October 1998, p. 35)
(8) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. II, pp. 364-367, published in CCR n° 251, October 1992 pp. 14-19.
(9) Cf. infra, pp. 59-60.
(10) Ibid., pp. 77-80.
(11) Thanks to “ The Unique Model ”, a collection of sentences from the Gospels, composed by Fr. de Foucauld. Its first page, illustrated with the Holy Face revealed by the Holy Shroud of Turin, was open on his worktable. Georges de Nantes took it as his ordination image.
(12) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. II, p. 81.
(13) Logia, August 17, 2002.