Fr Vidal to Br Marie-Josue, Apia, September (?) 1873
CSG IV. 461-465
In his circular of 13 March 1874, Louis-Marie reports the death of ‘dear Brother Lucien, deceased at Apia, in the 59th year of his age, the 30th of his religious profession, and the 29th since his departure for the missions of Oceania.’ He was one ‘of those good Brothers, deceased in the service of the Reverend Marist Fathers, although always members of the Congregation of the Little Brothers of Mary’ (CSG IV. 459).’I want to share with you today’, the superior general continues, ‘some details, full of interest and edification, that Rev Fr Vidal, writing to his brother, dear Brother Marie-Josue, gives us of the saintly life and happy death of good Brother Lucien’ (ibid. 460-1).
Julien Vidal (1846-1922) entered the Society in 1869 and had been in Apia only a few months when Lucien died. His younger brother, Jean-Marie (b. 1854), received the habit at Saint-Genis as Br Marie-Josue in 1871, and was still there when this letter arrived, though he was to leave the congregation the following year. Julien, after 14 years in Samoa, was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Fiji, where he was to spend another 30 years.
There are several inaccuracies in the opening paragraph of the extract from this letter published in the Circulars. Firstly, Lucien entered St Paul-Trois-Chateaux in February 1841, over six months after Champagnat’s death, and so it was most likely Colin who granted his request to be sent to the missions. And it was on Wallis that he first set foot in October 1846, before being chosen for the new Rotuma mission at the end of that year (rf L 67). After his return in 1853, Lucien was appointed to Samoa where he worked at various stations until poor health forced his withdrawal to Apia, perhaps as early as 1866. It was probably for the same reason that he did not move, as expected, into community with the teaching brothers of his congregation when they arrived in 1871. Certainly Vidal leaves us in no doubt about where his loyalties lay .
Elloy says of him, ‘Lucien was a model of prayer, poverty, and work. So even when he was no longer aware of anyone, his lips continued to utter prayers. I officiated myself at his burial; and when I spoke some words to our converts on this occasion, I saw tears of affection flowing in memory of our dear Brother’ (Vie du Frere Louis-Marie, 224). He was buried in the little cemetery near the church in Apia. In 1919 his remains were exhumed with those of the other missionaries and reburied at Moamoa.
Text of the Letter
- It was Fr Champagnat himself who granted Br Lucien’s earnest request to be sent as a catechist to Oceania. He left on board the ship which was taking Mgr Collomb as far as Melanesia, and was put ashore on Rotuma.
- There, as in the various stations which were entrusted to his zeal, dear Br Lucien showed a truly apostolic spirit. He catechized, baptized, conducted classes, taught singing, and summoned the faithful to prayer and rosary, morning and evening. He spent twenty-seven years in the exercise of this apostolate, without ever forgetting, despite all his work, the exercises of Rule, especially the exercises of piety. He always knew how to wed in an admirable way the life of the religious with the life of the missionary, to maintain the zeal and courage the apostolate demands, by that fervour and joy provided by perfect fidelity to the Rule.
- His natural strength and vigour, however, had already for some time been drained by works and labours, sometimes over-excessive, and the good Brother had been called to Apia to take some rest. No longer able to exercise his zeal on so vast a scale, he now exercised it on those around him. Our coadjutor brothers will never forget the good example he gave them. They will never forget the punctilious regularity, piety, cheerfulness, frank joyfulness, which bring us to love the highest virtue.
- Dear Brother Lucien, in fact, had redoubled in zeal for his religious exercises. From my arrival in Apia, I was struck by his love of prayer which was evident in his whole conduct. At four o’clock in the morning he could be found in adoration before the Most Holy Sacrament, and his visits, during the day, were many and long. He had his exercises, his devotions so regulated that one could know, almost to the minute, where he was at any moment of the day. He truly had the spirit of prayer, and if he could be criticized for anything, it would have been for overloading himself with his exercises of piety.
- On his death, we found his prayer book full of various pieces of paper, containing a great number of prayers: prayers for the souls in Purgatory, prayers to the holy Angels, to St Joseph, St Michael, litanies for a good death, of the Sacred Heart, etc. etc. And this book was the envy of all. It had been the witness of so many acts of love, of so much longing for God, of so many generous resolutions, stained perhaps with so many tears drawn either by the love of God, or by zeal for souls. But his devotion par excellence, after holy Mass and holy communion, was the exercise of the Stations of the Cross. I do not think he passed a single day without doing it. At Apia he did it in the church; otherwise he used his little profession cross which was indulgenced for this.
- What can I say of his regularity in reciting the office of the Blessed Virgin? It was such that each day, at the fixed time, one was sure to see him recollect himself and offer his heart to God, praying him to purify him before undertaking the praises of his holy Mother.
- To this love of the Rule, he joined a deep attachment and sincere love for his Institute. Witness the happiness he felt on seeing it spread and grow without cease; witness again the religious care with which he kept the Circulars of his Superiors and loved to reread them. I found the complete collection of them in one of his cases.
- Finally, he lived in great poverty. He kept everything in perfect order, and made sure that nothing in the house deteriorated. He had an eye on everything. As for his clothes and his linen, he could not tolerate having to make provision. Two suits and two shirts constituted his wardrobe. A year ago the Father Procurator had given him five new shirts. They were found just as they had been given him.
- His poverty was not an eccentricity, it had its origins in a great depth of mortification. Judge from this incident. Fr Procurator had given each of the Brothers a very generous bottle of liquor so that, when they were exhausted, they might take a drop. Dear Brother Lucien was often exhausted enough, and yet the bottle was found intact at the bottom of his trunk; it had been there three whole years!
- But we come to the last days of his life. For a long time, dear Br Lucien carried the germ of the illness which has taken him from us. He had contracted it in the labours of the apostolate, but this germ did not appear serious enough to develop so rapidly. One day we observed that he appeared in more pain than usual. The next day, he was not at Holy Mass. This was a sign that he was seriously ill; for he was not one of those who say: ‘One mass more, one mass less, what’s the difference!’ He had too great a spirit of faith to sacrifice holy mass to a slight fatigue, too frequently exaggerated by negligence and sensuality. Dear Brother Lucien was not at Mass: so he was seriously ill, there could be no mistake about it.
- This was the 19th of September. His sickness, without seeming to be very serious, kept him in bed until the 23rd of the same month. That day, his condition worsening, we carried him into a room near mine so as to more conveniently attend to his needs. That very day he had a grave enough crisis to cause us to fear the misfortune which in fact happened a few days later. Fearing this, Father Superior asked him to get ready to receive the last sacraments. The dear Brother made his confession and received holy Viaticum with great expressions of faith, contrition, and love. After receiving the sacrament of Extreme Unction, he experienced a sensible improvement, but this did not last long. The dear Brother fell back into a great weakness and appeared at certain intervals, to lose feeling and the use of his senses. But even in this state, his beautiful soul was manifest. Bossuet says that death uncovers the secrets of the heart. If this is so, one can say that his was completely penetrated with the spirit of prayer. He prayed ceaselessly, even when he appeared to have lost all feeling. How many times he repeated the Salve Regina and the Memorare. Then he would interrupt his prayers to repeat the invocation, ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I give you my heart, my spirit, and my life. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, assist me in my agony.’ This last invocation I heard him repeat many times. He felt that the last hour was not far away.
- On September 25, his illness grew noticeably worse. Monsignor, who was anxiously following the progress of the malady, judged that day that the dear patient could not go further. So His Lordship recited over him the prayers of commendation of the soul and applied to him the indulgence of a good death. The good Brother could still respond to some invocations. His condition remained stable or at least it made imperceptible progress during the following day. But on the 27th we saw that the life of our dear dying one was ebbing away. In the afternoon, towards four o’clock, he was on the point of death.
- His Lordship finished reciting the prayers of commendation of the soul, applied to him once more the indulgence of a good death, and knelt down beside the bed to recite the Miserere which we chanted all together. About halfway through this prayer, without struggle or suffering, the dear Brother rendered to God his soul of a religious and an apostle, at five o’clock on the evening of Saturday, 27 September. His Lordship insisted on closing his eyes for him and conducting his mortal remains to their last resting place. Dear Br Lucien rests in a little cemetery near the church of Apia, a cemetery reserved exclusively for the Missionaries. Beautiful life! Happy death. Happier eternity! Who would not be happy to be a religious, to be a missionary, when one has been witness to an end so saintly and so consoling?
- Jacques Bossuet (1627-1704), bishop of Meaux, a famous preacher and writer who exercised a profound influence on French spirituality in the 17th and 18th centuries.
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