Saturday, February 3, 2018


Almost  every month in the Magnificat, there is a homily by MADELEINE DELBREL, whom I find interesting, not the least because she was a mystic. The last weekend of January Pope Francis proclaimed her venerable.

Madeleine was born in Mussidan, France in 1904. Her father was of an artistic disposition, and Madeleine inherited his interest in and talent for writing. Throughout her childhood, she lived in several different places, and was never able to feel at home or make friends anywhere. Her parents were not religious, so Madeleine was an atheist by age of fifteen, experiencing life as absurd. At seventeen she wrote a tract titled: "God is dead--long live!" which expresses her view that death is the only certainty in life.

She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne  (where our foundress, Lady Abbess Benedicta Duss studied medicine) by day and impressed  friends reading from her writing in the evenings. She decided that if life were “more absurd by the day” and death was all she could count on, she should live her youth to its fullest. She and her friends threw extravagant parties, and she was engaged to a fellow atheist philosopher.

When her fienc√© suddenly decided to join the Dominicans and her father went blind, her life fell apart. At the same time she began to notice that life did not seem absurd to her Christian friends, who still enjoyed life as much as she did. Suddenly, God's existence did not seem a complete impossibility anymore. She decided to kneel and pray, and also remembered Teresa of Avila's recommendation to silently think of God for five minutes each day. Madeleine called the year of 1924 the year of her conversion.

In praying she found God—or as she felt, He found her. To her He was someone to love just like any other person. At first she considered taking the veil and entering the Carmelite order, but then felt called upon to be in touch with people and help them lead happier lives.

She describes her conversion: “By reading and reflecting, I found God; but by praying, I believed that God found me and that He is living reality, and that we can love Him in the same way we love a person.” And she loved people strongly. Her friends describe her as an empathetic listener, who was always quick to jump to their defense, engage in deep conversations or extend a maternal hug.

 She led a group of women in Ivry, a small working-class town, with the goal of simply caring, consoling, aiding, and establishing good contact with the people. She then took a degree in Social Studies and was employed by the city government of Ivry, where she worked throughout World War II and thereafter.

After her conversion, around the time that the Great Depression hit France, the new Venerable  founded a house of hospitality with two other working women in a predominantly communist suburb of Paris, where she lived until her death. This, along with her prolific writing and social justice work, often lead people to call her the “French Dorothy Day.”

Members of the new house promised chastity and simple living, and they worked primarily for workers’ rights and the unemployed while also evangelizing -  a difficult task in a city where Christians and communists often harassed one another in the streets.

Because of her social justice work Madeleine often found herself working side-by-side with communists, becoming close friends with them. After the war, the new communist mayor of Ivry asked her to continue working as Minister of Social Services. She pioneered the idea that Catholics could love communists while rejecting their ideology- an approach that was unpopular among French Christians as well as Americans at that time.

Her most important contribution to theology may have been her writing on the missionary role of the laity, which she first mentioned in 1933, years before the idea would be picked up by the mid-century ressourcement movement and then written into official church teaching at the Second Vatican Council (“Lumen Gentium”).

Her most popular book, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, outlines in detail how lay people can be missionaries in daily life. In one particularly lyrical passage, she describes how a lay missionary sees the world:
From a sand dune, dressed in white, the [traditional] missionary overlooks an expanse of lands filled with unbaptized peoples. From the top of a long subway staircase, dressed in an ordinary suit or raincoat, we [ordinary people] overlook, on each step, during this busy rush-hour time, an expanse of heads, of bustling heads, waiting for the door to open. Caps, berets, hats, and hair of every color. Hundreds of heads - hundreds of souls. And there we stand, above. And above us, and everywhere, is God.

For Madeleine, evangelizing did not mean giving someone faith, which she believed only God could do, but telling “people, who don’t know, who Christ is, what he said, and what he did—so that they do know order that they may know what we believe and what we are sure of.”

She died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage at age 60 in 1964, at her desk in the house of hospitality in Ivry. An effort is underway to restore her house in Ivry, and two communities named after her have been established in Franceone for young professionals and another for young men discerning priesthood.

She has been cited by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray as an example for young people to follow in "the arduous battle of holiness." 

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