After a week of exploring the French Catholic roots of Indiana, we three pilgrims have finished this portion of our journeys and have returned home. The final two days of our journey saw us move beyond the main purpose of our trip to see a few other significant sites in the area – the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel; the D-Day beaches of Normandy and the American and German World War II Cemeteries; and the tomb and shrine of St. Therese, the Little Flower, in Lisieux. We also stopped by the birthplace of St. John de Brebeuf, an early Jesuit missionary to the Americas and one of the North American Martyrs. A highlight of these last days was the opportunity to concelebrate Mass on Sunday with the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem in the ancient Abbey Church of Mont Saint-Michel. It was a cold and windy day along the French coast, where the monastery sits on an island, and the unheated church was so cold that we could see our breath whenever we sang or prayed! And there was a lot of singing and praying during this beautiful chanted Mass in a holy and mystical place.
Having returned now from our pilgrim journey, I have begun to reflect on the lessons that we learned about the French roots of the Catholic Church in Indiana – and how knowledge of where we have come from might inform our lives as Christians today. A significant part of this reflection centers on trying to understand what inspired people like Bishop Simon Brute, St. Theodora Guerin, the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and other early missionaries to come to the wilderness of Indiana and live our their faith in this unfamiliar place. My initial thoughts center on two areas: one historical, the other spiritual.
Historically, the French Catholic pioneers of Indiana were all formed by the difficult days of the French Revolution. Bishop Brute witnessed first-hand the trials and executions of priests and those who harbored them; and he also witnessed first-hand the courage and resilience of the priests who hid in the Brute family home and continued to celebrate the sacraments in secret despite the danger this brought. Being a priest in the days of the French Revolution was a dangerous – and courageous – act. And young Simon Brute was called to be a priest. The two religious orders that settled in Indiana from France – the Sisters of Providence and the Congregation of Holy Cross – were both formed in the years after the Revolution. Religious orders had been suppressed during the Revolution, churches had been closed, priests and religious had been killed or sent into exile. When religious expression was once again legal after the Revolution, many new religious communities were formed to educate and serve the needs of the people, especially the poor. And so we have the Sisters of Providence and the Congregation of Holy Cross.
Spiritually, all of our early French Catholic pioneers who came to Indiana were formed by the French School of Spirituality, which focused especially on the writings of St. John Eudes (1601-1680). These writings particularly fostered devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary and were intensely Incarnational. People like Mother Theodore Guerin sought to be the presence of the love of the heart of Jesus Christ in local communities – to help Jesus become incarnate once again among the people he loves so much. I think, too, of Bishop Brute’s tireless pastoral work – visiting the sick and the dying throughout the enormous area of his diocese – in order to bring the Sacraments to those who longed for an encounter with the heart of Christ. Personally, I am not very familiar with St. John Eudes and the French School of Spirituality – but that means that I now have some new items on my reading list!
At the outset of this pilgrimage, my hope was to better understand the reason there is a fleur de lis on the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. I have always known that this is because the first four bishops of our diocese were French, as were many of the early Catholics in this part of the United States. But now I understand even more what this history means – all the many connections between the early Catholic pioneers of this area – and maybe even the beginning of some lessons for living our Catholic faith today, nearly 200 years after the founding of the Diocese of Vincennes. And I also am beginning to understand the significance of the fact that our early Catholic pioneers came not just from France, but from Brittany, the somewhat isolated and rebellious region in the far northwest of France that is so tied to the sea that its residents more readily sailed across the ocean to be courageous missionaries in a foreign land. We Catholics of Indiana owe them our gratitude. But we also seek their guidance and intercession that we, too, may offer courageous witness to the presence of Jesus Christ, incarnate in our midst.