The Spiritual Letters of Venerable Francis Libermann
Fr. Francis Libermann (1802-1852) the convert Jew from Saverne, France, was an unlikely choice to guide others in the way of Christian living. As a failed seminarian and epileptic living off the charity of others, he sought only the consolation of God's love. His brokenness lived with gentle serenity inspired those who knew him at the Seminary of St. Sulpice, Paris. Many would seek him out for spiritual advice, consolation and encouragement.
They found in him an attentive ear, a warm heart, and sure guidance in helping them discern God's plan unfolding in their lives. The attention he could give and the advice he offered flowed from his own conversion experience at the time of his baptism in 1826 and the ensuing long struggle with epilepsy that barred his path to the priesthood.
Libermann persevered with great gentleness and serenity along the path he felt sure God had marked out for him. Fifteen years later, in 1841, he was not only ordained but his desire to establish a missionary congregation was approved. He re-dedicated himself to the mission God had for him: to bring the Good News of God's Love to the most abandoned of his time, the redeemed slaves of the French colonies. Seven years later, in 1848, the congregation he founded joined with the already legally established Congregation of the Holy Spirit. Fr. Libermann became its 11th Superior General. He died four years later, in Paris, on February 2, 1852.
Following his death, many petitioned the Church to beatify this saintly man. The Archdiocese of Paris opened an investigation in 1867 and gathered information on the life and teaching of Fr. Libermann. This search included the gathering of his letters. Subsequently, a decree issued in 1886 by the Congregation for Saints in Rome approved of his writings. In 1910, Pope St. Pius X declared the heroicity of his life and named him ‘Venerable'.
Fortunately, we have today a rich resource of Venerable Libermann's spiritual doctrine offered not in abstract form but through letters addressed to particular persons in particular situations.
Venerable Francis Libermann's ministry of accompaniment of others continues today through the many letters he wrote to a wide circle of correspondents. With those, who first received these letters, we too can benefit from his wisdom, holiness, and guidance.
Fr. Walter van der Putte, C.S.Sp., edited and translated four hundred and forty-one of these letters for publication in five volumes of the Duquesne Studies, Spiritan Series (1962-1966). They constitute a correspondence to seventy-four lay people, clergy and religious. In some cases, there is only one letter; in others, there are many more.
Each correspondent is on his or her particular journey of discipleship and looks to Libermann to help them discern the Spirit of God at work in their lives. This he does with consummate skill and great devotion. As you read on you will draw closer to the spiritual treasure the letters contain and find in them a wisdom and consolation to accompany you in your way of Christian discipleship.
1. Louise des Loges: Trust in God and you will not be disappointed
Begin reading with Louise des Loges, one of five girls who heard God's call to serve in the new apostolate to the much-neglected peoples of the French colonies and along the West Coast of Africa. She consulted Fr. Tisserant, a member of Fr. Libermann's Holy Heart of Mary Congregation, about her missionary vocation. Following Fr. Libermann's advice Louise entered the Institute of the Immaculate Conception of Castres, a Society dedicated to the new mission outreach. She took the name of Sister Aurelia.
Libermann encourages Louise to open her heart to the Lord in perfect freedom and peace. "He who feeds even the smallest animals will provide what is necessary for those who desire to serve Him."
She is not to rely on her own efforts, which lead nowhere. Rather, she is to "cling to Jesus," the "bridegroom of her soul" in the confidence that he provides "sweetness, love, and peace" for those who desire to serve him.
Her weaknesses do not prevent her from sharing in God's love. Rather "true self-knowledge brings with it an increase of love for God."
In the power of God's love Louise will "leap over" all the obstacles holding her back from following the "impulses of grace" and walk confidently in God's love.
Read the nine letters Fr. Libermann wrote to her between 1842 and 1844 offering her encouragement to follow the call she had experienced.
Letters to Louise des Loges
In The Spiritual Letters of the Venerable Francis Libermann.
Volume One: Letters to Religious Sisters and Aspirants.
2. Rose Lapique (Sister Paule): Allowing God's grace to work in us
Rose, like Louise, also wanted to give herself totally to God in the service of those most in need through the new missionary outreach of the time of which Libermann was a leader. She sought direction from him. He outlined a daily timetable for her as she considered joining the Blue Nuns of Castres.
Rose should begin each day by consciously opening her heart in love to God. "Offer Him your day and prepare to serve Him faithfully . . . remain recollected and at peace. Avoid being tense and over-eager."
Sr. Paule needed to develop patience. This would come from a growing trust in God's love for her. "Remain in your lowliness before God and accept with gratitude, like a beggar, whatever He wishes to give you."
Libermann identifies self-love as the source of her anxiety. She is not to force herself to be holy. God will bestow this upon her, if she can only let go of being over-concerned with her progress in her spiritual life. "If he leaves you spiritually dry, accept this as His holy Will."
God is the primary agent in our quest for holiness. She is to allow the good Master to lead her. He will accomplish great things in her. "Do not make efforts of mind or heart to remain recollected or to produce affections for, or good sentiments towards Our Lord."
Read the six letters Fr. Libermann wrote to her between 1842 and 1847 both before she entered the convent and while in the convent preparing to go on mission to West Africa.
3. Letters to Missionary Sisters: Preparing for Mission
Libermann wrote three of these letters to Sr. Aloysia. The other is written jointly to the four sisters at Castres (Paule, Aurelia, Aloysia, and Cecile) preparing to go on mission to Guinea, West Africa where, Libermann warns them, they will encounter many trials and difficulties. They are not to be in a hurry, but rather, take care to prepare themselves well for the challenge ahead of them.
They are to be at peace in themselves and train themselves in all the religious virtues. They are not to force God to accept their services as they would wish, but rather, serve Him as he desires. "He is the Master, you are the servants . . . It belongs to Him to give the orders; it is your task to obey."
The best way they can prepare themselves for Africa is to grow in holiness. "The holier you are, the greater will be our capacity for serving God and saving souls." They open themselves to God's grace through practice of the virtues, particularly, "humility, mildness, charity, the spirit of prayer, and crowing all, obedience."
They will strengthen the spirit of their vocation by loving the Lord with all their heart and with generosity. "Sacrifice for Him all that is agreeable to you. When troubled by pain or temptation, bear them with love, peace and patience."
They are to remain calm and peaceful in God's loving embrace. Their hearts are to be attuned to the divine heart and only desire what God desires. Libermann warns, "When we allow our desires to drive us on forcibly, we rarely have peace of soul and our intention is rarely pure."
Read these four letters written between 1844 and 1847 while the recipients were preparing themselves for the West African mission of Guinea.
4. Mother Marie De Villeneuve: A Saint Rebuked
Mother Marie founded the diocesan congregation of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (the "Blue Nuns") at Castres in 1836 to "go where the voice of the poor calls us." Fr. Libermann's first communication with Mother Marie was in relation to the missionary vocation of Sisters Paule, Aurelia, Aloysia, and Cecile (see correspondence above) who were among the first sisters to open a convent in Africa, at Dakar, in 1849.
The Duquesne Collection provides the translation of 19 spiritual letters by Libermann to this saint written from 1842 to 1847.
Facing many trials in the establishment of her community St. Émilie sought encouragement that Fr. Libermann could provide. "As a rule God's works unfold and develop gradually, little by little. You have started the building. It does not belong to us, weak creatures, to finish it, but to Our Lord. He has placed you there as the first stone and it is possible that you may not know exactly what He has in store for you. This is God's way, usually..."
Fr. Libermann advises that the language of Jesus is acquired through silence. He advises against adopting too many devotions though they are holy in themselves. Silence is the preferred language of God. "If we want to speak the language of grace well, we must forget the language of our fallen nature."
Fr. Libermann speaks of Mother Marie's role as superior. "One all-embracing rule is that we did not come to be served but to serve. You are the first servant of your community. ... Mildness and humility should therefore be the characteristics of your rule. ... You are a domestic servant in the house of Jesus Christ, and are charged with seeing that the children carry out His will."
Fr. Libermann counsels patience with those who are weak and a willingness to admit to mistakes. "Do not be so unbending. ... We should humble ourselves and remain in our nothingness before God,... for the sake of serving the spiritual good of those whom we ought to love and treat more tenderly than others." He chastises himself for his harshness towards those struggling in the way of Christian holiness and warns, "When we devour sick sheep, because we are seeking our own advantage, we are truly wolves."
Mother Marie sought Fr. Libermann's advice in directing her sisters. He urges her to distrust her own opinion in some measure. If he were guiding one particular sister, "I would try to forget what you have told me and I should distrust everybody no matter how wise, for I feel certain that prejudices greatly influence us either for or against a person ... It is so easy and comfortable to reach to other and to urge them to do what we ourselves fail to do."
Fr. Libermann and Mother Marie were in regular correspondence with the last recorded letter written to her on November 19, 1851. Libermann died the following February. Mother Marie mourned his passing in a letter to his successor, Fr. Schwindenhammer, "I have not been less sensitive to the news of the death of him whom we also regard as our father. He was so good for our congregation! It is to him that we owe our dear missions; the lights that God has given us; and the spirit he asks of us. Also, I feel, as one of you, the sacrifice that God has just asked of you."
Mother Marie died two years after Libermann on October 2, 1854. Pope Francis canonized her in 2015 according to her baptismal name, St. Jeanne-Émilie de Villeneuve.
Read the 19 Letters to Mother Marie, St. Jeanne-Emilie de Villeneuve
5. Jenny Guilllarme: Discernment of Spirits
Jenny Guilllarme who had left the convent, became a seamstress and was resolved to live a saintly life. Well known as a holy person in Paris she was associated with the recovering and restoring of the medieval relic of Christ's Holy Tunic of Argenteuil. She was member of a Saint Sulpice prayer group and sought direction from many priests. She corresponded with Fr. Louis Marie Caverot who later became bishop of Saint-Dié in 1849, and Cardinal Archbishop of Lyon in 1876.
The introduction to the letters tells us "her imprudence and indiscretion had frightened off several priests who had tried to direct her soul." Libermann's 19 letters written over two years (1843 - 1845) offered Jenny sure guidance. In his direction, he focuses on discerning the working of God's Spirit in her life. Sensitive to the interior movements of Jenny's soul - thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions - he helped her to reflect on them, understand where they came from and where they were leading her.
Jenny worried that she has sinned. Fr. Libermann assures her that in all that she shared with him "there was no mortal sin in anything you told me, nor was there even a serious venial fault. Your conduct, my dear child, was a little imperfect, and that is all." He encourages her, "You will not lose your soul. Jesus is your guardian and who can then steal it?" He urges vigilance. "Vigilance that is mild, holy, peaceful and loving in the presence of Jesus and Mary."
Jenny felt let down by others. Would Libermann similarly abandon her? He replies, "I hope, through the Mercy of our good Master, that I will not abandon you no matter what others might say or do. I am the servant of all who belong or wish to belong to Jesus, my Lord. I will not commit the injustice of abandoning or refusing to help anyone in order to seek some personal advantage, or through fear of others."
Jenny wonders how many crosses she is to bear and how long she is to suffer. Fr. Libermann advises her. "Do not set limits to the crosses you are willing to bear. Accept all that come as so many precious gems and be afraid to let any escape from your grasp. ... Have courage and be filled with divine love. Jesus must triumph in you. He can do so only through the Cross. He has to take you and break and crush you."
A Jansenist spirituality (emphasizing original sin, human depravity, and predestination) confuses Jenny. Libermann warns her: "They are truly ravenous wolves, wearing the mask and using the language of piety, but there is not even a shadow of devotion in their hearts. ... They maintain that they are the elect few and that the entire Church of Jesus Christ is lost. ... Cling with all your heart to Jesus and His Church."
Jenny approaches many priests for advice and gives many reasons for being attached to them. Libermann admonishes her that she is to "stop being a slave" to others and "be a spouse of Jesus instead." The Lord does not want her devotions or mortifications. "He wants your hear, your whole heart without reserve, and you will not find rest nor have a truly interior life, until you have sacrificed all your affection for creatures, all your desire to live for others and to find your joy in them."
Jenny is not to "assume an air of humility before others, but be humble in the depths of your soul ... always accept, with peace and love, whatever divine Providence sends you. All that God does is done well. He knows better than anyone else what you need and He will give it to you."