Georges De Nantes
The Mystical Doctor of the Catholic Faith
2. THE VOCATION
GEORGES de Nantes, was born, lived and died enveloped in the Church’s holiness, the source of which is the Holy Eucharist. The first volume of Memoirs and Anecdotes is literally impregnated with the fragrance of this sacrament from cover to cover, from the “ naive impressions of early childhood, where already the white Host and the gold chalice shone with an alluring and mysterious brilliance ,” to daily Mass, “ an instant, an emotion, an action, a fresh mystery every day. ”
This was so much so that, for our Father, writing his Memoirs amounted to discovering that, in fact “ by threads more or less visible, my whole life – my morning, my midday and my evening – has always been attached ” to the Holy Sacrifice of Mass. “ Yes, I now see that deep down, because at all ages, in all places and in every state of soul, the Mass has been the principal object of my life, by far the most considerable, and it soon became the reason for all the rest.
“ The other elements, work, friendships, cares, interests have been those of a season, of a place or a period, little dramas forgotten and negligible. The Mass, however, has always been there, as far back as I can go, everywhere, always and still, I hope and pray, to the end of my days. ” 1
In the keen memory of the young Provençal, imbued from his early childhood with the gift of knowledge, the holidays of Chônas were inseparable from the parish priest’s daily Mass that he loved to serve. The Mass and the priest specified his essential vocation : to become “ the man of Jesus ”, “ the Word incarnate among the poor country folk, ” in a parish. 2
THE PARISH PRIEST OF CHÔNAS.
“ Yet another gentle radiance exerted its attraction over me, so calm that I was not even aware of it, so profound that I still feel it as solidly planted in my heart as though it were steel. It was that of Fr. Fresnay or Frainet – I do not know how to spell it ; I never read it in any newspaper, any book, and I never wrote to Him – our parish priest. As with his church so with him ; there was nothing to arouse enthusiasm in children incapable of deciphering the mystery of grown-ups. I can still see his face with his white hair and pince-nez, his calm and gentle smile, his simple language spoken a little haltingly, possibly due to shyness. We never saw him in our home, or at least so seldom that I have forgotten it. It may have been because of the condemnation of Action française or because it was the manor house. Anyway, it was not his style. He knew his place as parish priest, which was to be apart and above with discretion and dignity. He lived in his church, in his presbytery and in his garden, which he tended and cultivated with obvious pleasure, dressed in the same kind of smock that we wore and a straw hat.
“ How is it that he made such an impression on me ? It is inexplicable, ” unless it was through that grace of predestination of which we have spoken. “ I was much closer to the Marist Fathers, the Jesuits of Brest and the Christian Brothers of Puy, all very able religious who taught me much more. With him, however, – dare I say it, admit it ? – it was simply the image of the priest. It was his way of doing things, of living, of talking to us ; it was his humble, honest, dignified bearing, his affability towards us with just a touch of deliberate reserve. That was the portrait I was to make for myself, of the priest after God’s heart, whom someday I would imitate. I loved the priest. I could not explain it any more than that, for beyond the fact of his being a priest I knew nothing else about him. It was only much later that I truly gauged his secret hold over my soul when, having first attained my ideal at Anceaumeville and then duly installed as Parish Priest of Villemaur, I began to live like Fr. Frainet in something of a sure and delightful imitation that was all my joy and glory.
“ Like him, I would be the first in the church, reciting my breviary beneath the only lighted lamp, then casting a fatherly eye over the bustling of the altar boys, letting them wake up the whole countryside with their bell ringing and shouts of laughter in the belfry. Was it I or was it not rather the parish priest of Chônas who would chide Roland for always lighting the candles a quarter of an hour too soon, or who would take Philip or Michael to task, as he used to scold “ my little Georges, ” for the same peccadilloes :
“ ‘ When you hand the burse to the priest, you lean your elbows on the altar ! The altar is sacred. And you cross your legs as though you were holding your bicycle. That is not the right thing to do. ’
“ Or again :
“ ‘ Eric, I have already told you that you are touching the chalice at the ablutions. Just be careful ! ’ ” 3
This altar boy had but one dream : to imitate his parish priest whom he admired intensely. In his eyes, he would always represent the model of the French clergy of the Ancien Régime, I mean of the clergy before the Second Vatican Council. These pages give off a perfume, a sweetness, “ an indefinable something, ” all the suavity of Our Mother the Church, without ostentation, in all its truth. It was this incomparable charm that he in turn exerted on his pupils, disciples and Phalangists, when the time came to defend Holy Church from the criticisms of so-called Reformers !
AT THE SCHOOL OF THE BROTHERS.
He has never lost his fondness either for the Marist Fathers of Toulon or the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Puy, his heart never became detached from them since he had inherited the gift of filial piety. “ I am too much the son of these Fathers and the little brother of these Brothers to be able to forget or deny what they taught me. 4 ”
The boarding school! In Memoirs and Anecdotes, you can read a colourful description of this institution before the deluge. This hive of activity, “ completely, profoundly Catholic, ” was energetically administered by absolutely devoted, paternally maternal religious. Its centre was Jesus the Host present in the tabernacle. “ Where God is served first, all other riches abound […]. It was a protected world where the best in us could blossom, where nascent evil was fought and the attractions of the world warded off, lessened. These large communities of pious and chaste religious, faithful to the Rule of their Order and entirely devoted to their students, became the unshakable foundation of my vocation. The thousands of minor facts or words, remarked by the child but pondered by the man I have become, make me throw myself to my knees before these forgotten masters who were saints in both God’s eyes and also in our most inattentive but loving eyes […]. If my heart were to be opened, the name of my tenth grade professor, Mr. Bardel, Brother Nestor in religion, could be read in it. How he loved me ! How I made him suffer ! ” 5
“ The brothers would supervise our recreations, making us play and go for runs on very cold days. They would accompany us on long walks in formation, three by three. They were always themselves, simple and fraternal, sometimes a little tense from fear of some disorder or insolence, and perhaps from fatigue or cares we never imagined. What incredible devotion !
“ I could no longer, as I did in the time of my former laziness, cross out the blank page of my exercise book explaining that ‘ I didn’t understand the rest. ’ Here, they could not be made to swallow that. We had to work. I got down to it with a lot of ground to make up. For these farm boys applied themselves ! – like true natives of the Auvergne who know what it costs, who want to succeed, and who will succeed. Often there was an Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at the end of the day. It was always my secret joy, my quarter of an hour of ecstasy and tenderness.
“ On coming out of class we relaxed before reaching the forecourt, in formation along the vestibules and down the stairways. At a strategic point from which all the passages – the entrances and exits onto the two courtyards and the town, and the three staircases – could be observed, there stood Mr. Cuminal, whose nickname I shall not tell you. He was a small man, with a round rosy-cheeked face, eyes of extraordinary rectitude, and strong wrists. He was the Brother Deputy Headmaster, besides teaching Greek, Latin and anything else you care to name. He was there watching out for the delinquent, knowing the backslider and hounding the hideaway. Then suddenly there would be a resounding click of the fingers and a sharp summons : ‘ De Nantes, chatterbox ! ’ One had to join the immobile line in the middle of the hall and lose one’s recess without knowing what detention or punishment would follow. Brother Cuminal was of an absolute justice, of an infectious regularity, and of a supercelestial serenity even when meting out the most dramatic of repressions. I wonder now whether he was not much amused by this whole spectacle. Yet when he was not on supervision, he was a great conversationalist, enjoyed a laugh, was a learned humanist and so pious that it was he, for our good fortune, who directed the Sodality of Our Lady. Without realising it, he fixed in our memory the image of a strong and indefatigable man, of a just severity and total abnegation. It was he with his ‘panoptic’ discipline who made the whole place run. Ah, what masters they were ! ” 6
As for his friends, the author paints a portrait of them with a pen so lively that he brings them to life, one of them in particular, Auguste Bach, with whom he struck up a marvellous friendship :
“ Some of the local boys, as I have said, wore their smocks loose, coming down to the level of their trouser pockets, whereas we wore ours buttoned up over our jackets and belted. One of the day boys would always arrive with a leap and a bound like a will o’the wisp, his smock never buttoned up but flying out behind him like a sail or a flag. He was naturally hilarious. He would always join the largest group and always had a story to tell. Of all the day boys, he was the most popular. He was funny and often disconcerting [...].
“ He used to play the clarinet in the band and was among the first in everything : an athlete in sports, not through strength but through sheer suppleness, an actor, a born actor for tragi-comedy, which he could produce from our everyday life. He was full of life, laughter and an enthusiasm always new and always free, as symbolised by the smock always flying behind him, in the midst of our heavy rigidity. Did he share my ideas ? It is that, I believe, which made our friendship deeper and more solid. Our endless conversations initiated me into those mental gymnastics during which all my family acquisitions were questioned and his dialectical resources were brought into play, just as a sportsman gradually limbers up all his muscles ” for the great fight of his life.
“ As for him, after the perpetual fun that he poked at ridiculous people in the society of Puy-en-Velay, at the comical side of life, and at the frightened seriousness of the brothers, he was astonished to find himself entering a little more each day into my fervent love of the Church, of France and of the King – even then ! – and to see my principles escape from his universal criticism and shine with a dazzling brilliance [...].
“ His was a deeply sensitive soul shot through with very strong cross currents. Light and darkness played in him : the conflict of the heaviness of a dark world – an external set that was inaccessible to me – and of grace, in which our wonderful friendship shone with happiness. It was one winter evening – it must have been in February 1938 – that we went to the grande premiere, the first night for Le Puy, of Leon Poirier’s film, The Call of Silence. 7 ”
FATHER DE FOUCAULD.
This deeply moving account of the showing of a film that would determine his vocation – and thus ours ! – is must reading.
“ In 1938 Father de Foucauld was doubtless unknown to me. I search but I can find no trace of any previous memory, not that that means much because the event to come would blot out everything with its dazzling light. It was in the boarding school’s recreation room one Sunday afternoon in winter. The day boys were there and Norbert Rousseaux, Bishop of Le Puy, was honouring this exceptional film show with his presence. It began with Leon Poirier making a speech about his film, which was unusual. The beginning of the film seemed to drag a little : Strasbourg, the birth of Charles, the death of his father and of his mother, his grandfather Morlet at Nancy [...].
“ I remember better the scandal produced when the gay would-be Viscountess de Foucauld disembarked at Setif and all the amusing misunderstandings that followed [...] ! After that I remember it all down to the last detail. The scene in Evian on the steps outside the hotel. Foucauld telling his chatterbox lady friend that Bou Amama is stirring in the South Oranais, is rousing the rebellious tribesmen that his regiment, his friends, are fighting [...]. It is the Army that led him to his first conversion. All that was caricature disappeared and the theatrical style of this period film was forgotten. My heart was seized. There were war scenes in the Atlas mountains... we saw Foucauld listening to the museum curator of Algiers, Mac Carthy, telling of his dreams of exploring the desert. Mac Carthy was never to go, but Foucauld entered into this fever of exploration and heard the call of unknown lands, of the forbidden back of the beyond. There followed wonderful scenes of exploration in Morocco where Arabs and Berbers, especially the great Berbers of the desert, were waiting for the French and guessed that this ‘ rabbi Joseph ’ was a French officer on reconnaissance and that his presence amongst them heralded the colonisation that would deliver them, as it had the Berbers of Algeria, from the yoke of the sultans and from anarchy. Yes, that time was to come and it was to go again, alas. At that moment, however, I could not have imagined it.
“ There followed an interlude in Paris. The salons were excited over every new invention. The cinema had been invented in 1886 ! The vanity of that world, of all those worldly people, contrasted sharply with the silence of the desert and the solitude of the disguised explorer, to which I subscribed, with which I identified. I fervently cast myself in the mould – is not that the distinctive character of the theatre, its hold and often its great danger, though in this instance turned to good ? I melted into this character who came away from the parties held in his honour weary and uneasy, avid for the light he did not have. Then when his aunt Moitessier and his cousins showed him such discreet, intelligent and gentle care, I was filled with admiration and burning to see their care lead to its proper conclusion. I loved them, especially Marie, who until the very last day would be the best loved soul. Now here is the confession scene and the Communion which followed so unexpectedly at Saint Augustine’s, with no concession to cinematographic art [...].
“ The film carried us on, in its own rhythm, which is not that of real life : Our Lady of the Snows, Akbes in Syria, and Nazareth. There the Viscount de Foucauld became the gardener to the Poor Clares, delighted to live in the very places where Jesus lived, his contemplation during the long nights and the warm daylight hours and his humiliations. It was an entire spiritual itinerary, to which we would untiringly return among ourselves and which we imagined and wished to relive, that was being unfolded in that darkened room at the all too quickened speed of a film one would like to stretch out or stop.
“ When Brother Charles of Jesus returned to the Sahara as a priest, we were conquered, burning with the desire to follow the hermit in the white Trappist’s cowl marked with a red heart and a cross, with a big rosary hanging from his belt, and that unforgettable smile of goodness. ‘ I have found my vocation, ’ I could have said with St. Therese of the Child Jesus had I known those wonderful words at that time... I shall be a monk-missionary, a hermit in the depth of the desert, an adorer of Jesus the Host, a living and silent presence of the divine Charity for the poor pagans of the Sahara.
“ My heart, soul and memory were filled with every scene of this film, which was passing too quickly ! Since then, I have learned nothing of this venerable Father that I had not already perceived. Everything was converging, like the swift chapters of the Gospel, towards the Passion, towards the Cross, towards his martyrdom reconstructed in every detail. ” 8
All the youth in the Catholic schools at that time were deeply moved and galvanised by the figure of Fr. de Foucauld as a Crusader gone to reconquer the African continent for Christ.
Thus, at fourteen years of age, the young Georges de Nantes received his vocation, and from that day the boarding school became for him the school of the monk-missionary that he wished to become, like Father de Foucauld. Among the Brothers, he pursued his formation with perpetual enthusiasm, joining the sodality of the Children of Mary, the scouts, and even the JEC, which almost spoiled everything.
TEMPTATION : THE JEC.
“ JEC came to me indirectly during the happiest time of my second year at Le Puy ; I was working better, I was getting on perfectly with my friends, and my great fervour delighted in all the retreats, ceremonies and conferences that filled our lives as boarders. One day, during recreation, Bonnet asked me if I would like to join the JEC that he and a few day boys were starting up at the school, after having attended a few of their meetings at the high school in Le Puy where it had been in existence for a short while.
“ ‘ What’s JEC ? ’ I asked. ‘ Young Catholic Students ? ’
‘ No ! Not Catholic : Christian. ’
‘ What’s the difference ? ’
‘ It’s so that the Protestants can join. ’
‘ Oh, good. And what do you do there ? ’
‘ The Apostolate. It is to change the attitude of the boys in the school. Come to this evening’s meeting : you’ll see, you’ll like it. ’
“ Right away I was taken with the idea and, in turn, tried to bring my best friend along. Alas, at the very first words he burst out laughing :
“ ‘ It is all right for you. ’ he said, ‘ You love all that sort of thing. But you want me to go in for the apostolate ? Can you see me preaching to Grangeon and Juilliard ? They would tell me to preach to myself first. ’
“ In short, he refused to have anything to do with it. JEC would have needed fighters of his kind, but the very thought of the JEC made them burst out laughing.
“ When I recall my sudden entry into JEC, I am struck by the way the decision was taken. I did not have to ask anyone’s authorisation, it required no effort on my part and no proof of good will. In the hierarchical society in which I lived, where we were submissive and dependent in everything, in this boarding school where the dear Brother Headmaster decided everything, regulated the daily life of prayer, work and play, and where the Sodality of Our Lady grouped together the more pious pupils, nominated by Brother Cuminal, who himself took the meetings, this was something new and surprising. A modest boy of real virtue would doubtless have written to his parents asking advice and permission. I, however, accepted straight away, flattered to have been invited, all keen at the idea of doing some apostolate, and perhaps at the feeling of being someone, of playing a ro1e among my friends and making decisions for myself ! Taste of forbidden fruit ? Hardly. Taste of fruit offered, of advancement and of something new in the monotony of a boarder’s life. It was, as I see now, my first democratic act, my evasion from the authoritarian setting that had been mine up till then and my entry into the unknown of a free egalitarian, fraternal movement. It was a movement of spontaneity and quest that we were going to establish there, among friends, in order to change the spirit of the school. ”
One might say the spirit of reform.
“ I went to the first meetings. It was quite pitiful, which is what made me return because I did not want to seem to be a deserter. Those four or five day boys mumbling a prayer and badly singing the JEC hymn, brought up short by the discussion. If it was a question of praying, singing and of livening things up, I was in my element. I stayed. Thus it was that the JEC had me. ” 9
That lasted until the day when, at home, “ our conversation turned to the JEC, and I told my parents how surprised I had been at the vast enquiry started at the beginning of the new school year [war was declared on September 3, 1939] in the JEC magazine “ Messages ” on Nazism. The questions rapidly slipped from Hitler to Maurras, from Rosenberg’s pagan racism to the integral nationalism of Action Française, as though they were one and the same thing. The lesson to be drawn was insistently given : the war made it a duty for young Christians to be on guard against all forms of racism, paganism and exaggerated nationalism. More than ever, the fascist hydra made Christians understand that democracy was the only true evangelical ideal for our day, etc.
“ My parents showed no surprise at this base manoeuvre. They had always known that Catholic Action had inherited from Sangnier’s Christian Democracy a hatred for Maurras, the master of the counter-revolution, and that its partisans would pursue their quarrel at every opportunity in order to avenge their condemnation by Pius X. In the thick of the war, however, how was it that they did not hesitate to compromise sacred unity ? And how could one believe them when Action Française alone had never ceased reminding Frenchmen of the danger of an ever renascent Germanism, whilst Catholic Action never stopped singing the praises of good, peace-loving Germany and calling on France to disarm ?
“ It sickened me, and I found myself on my parents’ side, happy and proud of their clear-sightedness and their patriotism. In one go, a veil was torn from my eyes – the veil of religious hypocrisy. I returned to Le Puy on January 3, 1940, my heart heavy with anguish for our country, which, as my father had seen, was ill-armed, ill-governed and doomed to inevitable defeat. By then, I was already very much out of love with my JEC, den of treason and of civil war. 10 ”
(1) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. I, p. 33, published in CCR no.°144, March 1982.
(2) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. I, p. 98, published in CCR no. 120, March 1980, pp. 8-10.
(3) Ibid., p. 93-95, published in CCR no. 120, March 1980, pp. 8-10.
(4) CRC no. 6 ( suppl. ), mars 1968, p. 16. h
(5) Ibid., p. 16.
(6) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. I, p. 149, published in CCR no. 157, March 1983, pp. 18-19.
(7) Ibid., Vol. I, p. 159-163, published in CCR no. 161, November 1983, p. 19.
(8) Ibid., p. 165-172, published in CCR no. 163, January 1984.
(9) Ibid., p 191-193, published in CCR no. 167, May 1984.
(10) Ibid., p. 208-209, published in CCR no. 168, June 1984.