Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France


[Cette lettre en français]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Deze brief in het Nederlands]
[Esta carta en español]
[Aquesta carta en català]
[Questa lettera in italiano]
April 8, 2001
Holy Week


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«Technological society has increased our opportunities for pleasure, but has not succeeded in bringing about joy. Joy comes from elsewhere. It is spiritual. Often, money, comfort, health, or material security are not lacking; and yet boredom, pessimism and sadness unfortunately remain the lot of many… One may speak of the sadness of non-believers, when the human spirit, created in the image and likeness of God, and thus instinctively oriented towards Him as towards its supreme, unique good, remains without knowing Him clearly, without loving Him, and consequently without experiencing the joy that the knowledge of God brings—even when this knowledge is imperfect—, and the certitude of having with Him a bond that even death cannot break» (Paul VI, Exhortation Gaudete in Domino, GD, on Christian Joy, May 9, 1975).

Knowledge and love of God gladden the heart of man, and can lead him to joyfully give his life for the salvation of his brothers, as is shown by the example of Saint Just de Bretenières.

«I see the Chinese»

Just de Bretenières was born in Chalon-sur-Saône, in the Burgundy region of France, at the home of his maternal grandparents, on February 28, 1838. Several months later, his parents returned to the de Bretenières' chateau, the familial estate close to Dijon where they summered, spending the winters in Dijon. Anxious about her son's future, Madame de Bretenières placed him in the hands of the Blessed Virgin: «Queen of Angels, remember that you are the Mother of this child… I consecrate him to you forever!» At the age of six, Just was playing with his brother Christian, two years younger than him, in the park of the chateau. They were digging in the ground with their little shovels. «Quiet!» Just suddenly said to his brother. He bent over the hole that they had just made, and stood up, shouting, «I see the Chinese!… Oh, I hear them… They are calling me!… I have to go save them!» This episode left in Just's mind a profound mark which would never be erased. Some years later, when his brother remarked, «You are going to have the chateau someday, because you are the oldest,» he replied, «Oh, no, I won't have it; it will be for you, because I will be a priest.» Just found his greatest happiness in serving Mass, or censing the Most Blessed Sacrament. He zealously vied with his brother to give the most beauty possible to Mary's month, the month of May.

In the de Bretenières family, the children amply had the necessities of life, though there was no luxury or laxity. In October 1851, the two boys were placed into the hands of a 28-year-old tutor, Father Gautrelet. He had observed in Just a tendency to judge according to a somewhat exaggerated logic, which did not permit him to acknowledge moderate opinions; when it was a question of the practice of the virtues, in Just's mind, no imperfections or degrees should exist. His disposition was charming and habitually even-tempered. He gladly played, but rather to please others than to satisfy himself. However, one evening, Just complained because a card game that he liked very much couldn't be held. To punish him for his impatience, there were no games in the days that followed.

Nervous and sensitive, Just indicated from his earliest years an excessive fear of pain. But the desire for missionary life spurred him to endure exhaustion, heat and thirst cheerfully, to become used to burdens and to be content with little during hikes in the mountains during summer vacation. In 1856, he passed his high school exit exam in Lyon, then began a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, for his parents thought him too young to fulfill his vocation. In his plan to give himself to God, he thought of the Dominicans who ran missions in the Far East, though the monastic life likewise attracted him. But finally, on the advice of his confessor and his parents, he entered the Issy Seminary, in Paris. God's call to the missions was there confirmed: «We were speaking about the Most Blessed Sacrament one day,» one of his classmates would later say, «and we were full of regret when we saw how little room the memory of this benefit occupies in the lives of Christians.»—«To look at the consecrated Host,» Just said, «to hear His divine call which invites us to the distant conquest of souls, and to shrug it off—is it possible?» The young seminarian spent two years at Issy. He was given the tasks of organist and nurse. His liveliness made him liked among his fellow students. From time to time, he visited his parents, who had an apartment in Paris.

In May 1861, he decided to enter the Foreign Missions Seminary in Paris. Mr. and Mrs. de Bretenières accepted, but not without sorrow. On June 28, Just wrote, «I sense quite well that the road I am taking is rough and difficult. I am not deluding myself as to its obstacles, nor to its sufferings, nor to the dangers that I will meet there; but, again, I place myself entirely in God's hands.»

At the Missions Seminary, in the fall of 1861, Just was greeted like a long-awaited brother: «Last night, while leaving the refectory,» he wrote, «everyone embraced me. Our Lord spreads extraordinary charity here. We are more than brothers, we form one being, with just one heart, just one soul.» The year began with a retreat according to Saint Ignatius' Exercises. Just completed it, filled with fervor. He wrote to his brother: «The most important thing I have to tell you is and will always be what Saint Ignatius said and repeated to Saint Francis Xavier working hard to acquire knowledge in Paris: What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul (Mt. 16:26)… To arrive as soon as possible to find the place Providence has destined you for, remember this and never lose sight of it: everything that you think capable of satisfying you, outside of God, will never satisfy you. Everything is vanity, except to love Our Lord.»

A proverbial cheerfulness

At the end of the year, Just was expecting to receive minor orders, but he was not among those called. He did not know that the seminary rules required a full year before receiving orders. Believing then that the superiors considered him unfit for the missions, he felt a deep sense of bitterness: «The past two days,» he wrote to his brother, «I have been living with the result of this decision which seems inexplicable to me, for, in examining my heart, I have not been able to doubt of my vocation. Yet, before asking my director and entrusting my sorrow to him, I want to sacrifice my aspirations entirely to God, if needs be, and place myself again in service to His will. At night, I can't sleep; but when I feel too upset, I begin to gently sing some hymn or another to the Blessed Virgin, into whose hands I have surrendered my interests. This has done me good and has given me courage.» Soon, his superior, Father Albrand, reassured him that he was indeed called to missionary life.

The years passed in prayer, study, and the work of sanctification: «There are some points that concern me more than the prospect of missionary life,» he wrote, «and they are the self-perfection that is necessary to every priest. This is what I have to work most towards and to put a great deal of effort into.» The assiduous study of the works of Saint John of the Cross showed him the path to follow. Each morning, he devoted a lengthy amount of time to prayer. Through the day, he strengthened his faith by prolonged periods of adoration before the Tabernacle; indeed, his devotion to the Eucharist would sustain him throughout his life. So as to imitate the poverty of Jesus Christ, he applied himself to living as the poor— in his clothes, in the fixtures in his room, etc. He fervently devoted himself to the service of the poor in his area, to whom the seminarians were sent. His preferences ran towards the most humble tasks, and he seized every opportunity to humble himself in the eyes of others. Out of obedience, he submitted everything he did to the approbation of his Superior. Despite his austere practices, his cheerfulness was proverbial—he made his fellow students laugh in class. He loved to joke and delightfully imitated a rooster's crow. More than once, he put the courtyard in a commotion, simulating the daybreak «cock-a-doodle-doo» in the middle of the night. His exterior joy was the fruit of an intense spiritual life.

He knows he is loved

«For the Christian, as for Jesus,» wrote Pope Paul VI, «it is a question of living, in thanksgiving to the Father, the human joys that the Creator has given us… Because Christ experienced our human condition in everything but sin, He welcomed and suffered the emotional and spiritual joys as a gift from God… But it is important here to grasp well the secret of the immense joy which Jesus had as something proper to Him… If He spread such peace, such cheerfulness, such availability, it is because of the inexpressible love with which He knew He was loved by His Father… The disciples, and all those who believe in Christ, are called to participate in this joy (… ), the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which consists of the human spirit's finding rest and an intimate satisfaction in the possession of the Triune God, known through faith and loved with the charity that comes from Him» (GD).

However, continues the Pope, «spiritual joy in this life will always include, to some degree, the painful trial of the woman in labor, and a certain apparent abandonment similar to that of the orphan—tears and lamenting, while the world displays a bitter satisfaction. But the sadness of the disciples, which is in accordance with God and not in accordance with the world, will promptly be changed into a spiritual joy that no one may take away from them (cf. Jn. 16:20-22)» (GD). At times, Just suffered profound sorrow. He sometimes felt dispirited at the thought of the virtues the missionary must have and of the sufferings his predecessors had endured. One day, unable to take any more, he went to the Father Superior. «I can't stay here any longer. My conscience is forcing me to go back to my family,» he said with sadness. Father Albrand listened to him, smiling: «Is that all you have to tell me?»—«Yes, my Father.»—«Well, go back to your room and don't think about it any more!» Immediately, the temptation was dispelled.

On May 21, 1864, Just was ordained a priest. «Ask for the grace of martyrdom for me,» he wrote to a friend. Now he had only to wait for the order to leave on mission. The aspirants to the missions did not know the place of their destination until the last minute. They had to be ready to accept from the hand of God the mission to which they would be sent, no matter what it might be. Having made a total sacrifice of himself, Just remained perfectly indifferent. On Monday, June 13, his Superior called him: «Which mission would you prefer?»—«I don't prefer any.» —«All right, I'm sending you to Tibet. Are you happy?» —«Very happy, my Father.» —«No, you are going to Tonkin.» —«As you wish.» —«Are you really so indifferent?» —«Yes, my Father.» —«Now, let's speak seriously… You are going to Korea.» Just immediately wrote to his former tutor: «I believe that Our Lord has given me the best portion… Three cheers for Korea, the land of Martyrs!» Indeed, the blood of Christians had flowed abundantly on Korean soil for a century.

On Tuesday, July 19, 1864, Just and nine of his confreres embarked in Marseilles for the Far East. They succeeded in entering Korea, secretly, on May 29, 1865. Just lived in Seoul, the capital, close to Bishop Berneux: «Here I am, a citizen of Seoul, the 'city of delights.' But do not let yourself be dazzled by this magnificent name. Imagine an immense area built up with earthen huts, pressed up one against the other, not allowing by way of streets between them anything but little alleys where two people can scarcely meet. These alleyways serve as sewers at the same time… I am leaving you to think what you are obliged to step in!»

Under his hat

He stayed in a Christian home, in a very poor room—for a chair, he had the ground; for a table, he also had the ground; for a bed, he had but a simple bit of wood under his head. When he left, only at night, because of the persecution, he put on his mourning clothes, with «a hat like a dovecote's roof, such that it envelops you and goes down to the knees, a good way not to be seen by anyone and not to see anything yourself—you can pray under your hat like this!» Prayer and study of the Korean language filled his days. At the end of six months, thanks to the help of a young Christian, the missionary was able to make himself sufficiently understood in Korean to preach and hear confessions.

The catechumens came from far away (150 km and farther) to be baptized or to receive Holy Communion. «I've seen,» wrote Just, «women in their seventies come 240 km to receive Communion. Poor souls who see a priest but one day a year, and who are so thirsty for the Word of God! And to think that in Europe, the faithful have these riches in abundance and they don't always benefit from them as they should!» Under the name Father Païk, Just was happy to be able to begin to help his fellow missionaries. In the last months of 1865, he heard confessions, prepared and baptized at least 40 adults, blessed numerous marriages, sometimes gave Confirmation, and often administered last rites. The conversions were many.

But the storm was on its way. After a period of calm, the persecution against Europeans and against Christians was renewed with vigor. Betrayal by one of the Bishop's servants brought with it many priests' arrests. Bishop Berneux was captured on February 23, 1866. On the morning of the 26th, soldiers burst into Just's room just as he was preparing to celebrate Mass, and took him away, tied with a red rope, the distinguishing symbol of serious criminals. Upon his arrival in court, he was overjoyed to see his Bishop—with profound humility and great respect, he prostrated himself before him, before going to take his seat at the chair that had been prepared for him. To every question asked, Just ceaselessly replied, «I came to Korea to save your souls. I will happily die for God.»

He then submitted to the «shien-noum» torture, in which the victim, who is tied to a chair, receives blows on the shins and feet with a triangular-shaped stick. For four successive days, the missionary appeared before various authorities. After each interrogation, his body was lacerated with a pointed stake the size of an arm. In his sufferings, the martyr prayed silently. Every evening, he was returned, exhausted, to his prison, where his wounds were dressed with oily paper. Just, Bishop Berneux, and Fathers Beaulieu and Dorie were tortured, then condemned to death.

Jumping for joy

Their love for souls had led them to the point of the ultimate gift of themselves. In 1862, Just had written to his former tutor, who, although zealous for the salvation of souls, feared the renunciations that the missionary vocation would impose on him: «Oh! He who knows the price of a soul, and who values nothing more than working to save it, does not even consider how much one is obliged to do for it; he would laugh in amazement if someone came to tell him: 'But think that you have your regular habits of drinking, eating, getting up, going to bed, and that you must abandon these habits.' Would it even occur to the missionary that in leaving all that, he is leaving something?… The love of the welfare of souls takes these thoughts away; he crosses the seas without thinking of the dangers he runs; he will jump for joy if God leads him to a place where everything threatens his life; he will not be able to hold in his songs of joy if he finds himself in danger of persecutions, threatened by the sword, constantly on the verge of dying of hunger, of exhaustion, of destitution, of fear; and with all that, he will believe that he is not suffering enough, because there are souls before him, still deaf to grace.»

March 8, 1866. Incapable of standing up, the condemned were carried to the place of execution, each tied to a chair. As criminals of the State, they were to be executed on one of the large sand beaches about 5 km from Seoul. Four hundred armed soldiers kept the crowd at bay. To several onlookers who insulted them, the holy Bishop firmly replied, «Do not mock and do not laugh; you should rather weep. We came to teach you the way to Heaven, and now we can no longer do so. You are to be pitied!» During the trip, the carriers stopped many times. Bishop Berneux made the most of it, talking with his companion martyrs. Joy, this gift from God to those who forget themselves and sacrifice themselves for Him, shone on their faces and amazed the pagans. «Dying is sweet!» Just said, turning towards them, his face glowing with peace. «The world—which is not fit to receive the Spirit of Truth—perceives only the surface of things. It considers only the disciple's affliction and poverty, while the disciple always remains joyful in the depths of his being, because he is in communion with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ» (Paul VI, GD).

Just was called second, after his Bishop. Set on the ground, he was stripped of his garments. Each of his ears, folded down on itself, was pierced with an arrow. Under his arms, tied behind his back, they passed a long, thick stick. Two soldiers raised him and, holding him up in this painful position, began a long, spiraling march to show him to the assembled crowd. He was then set on the ground, kneeling, his head bent before him. Upon the signal from the mandarin, six executioners performed a dance, circling around the martyr while brandishing their sabers and letting out savage cries: «To death! To death!» Finally, they released their blows, and the head fell on the fourth. For the spectators, everything was finished; but Just's soul was already in endless joy in Heaven. He had lived 28 years on our earth of trials. At the news of his son's death, the father's profound sorrow made him shed copious tears. The mother, however, did not cry, but her face expressed intense suffering. They both fell to their knees, and thanked God, for their son was in Heaven.

Fallen to the ground

From a human perspective, Just's death, interrupting such a short apostolate, appears to be a failure. But faith assures us that if the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit (cf. Jn. 12:24). During the canonization of 103 martyrs of Korea—among whom were Just de Bretenières and his companions—on May 6, 1984, Pope John Paul II said, «The death of martyrs is like Christ's death on the Cross, in that, as with His, theirs becomes the beginning of a new life. This new life is manifested not only in those who have endured death for Christ, but it has also been extended to others. It has become the ferment of the Church as a living community of disciples and witnesses to Jesus Christ. 'The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians'—this expression from the first centuries of Christianity is confirmed in our sight.»

Indeed, the Catholic Church in Korea has experienced astonishing growth, and is still experiencing it today. Every year, more than 100,000 catechumens receive Baptism. From 1990 to 1996, the number of Catholics in Korea increased from 2.7 million to 3.5 million, representing 7.7% of the population. Korean priests number more than a thousand, and are led by 18 bishops. The President of South Korea, elected on December 18, 1997, is a practicing Catholic. On October 18, 2000, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Korea's evangelistic drive is shown in its sending more than 200 missionaries (priests and men and women religious) abroad; in addition, 60 priests have volunteered to go evangelize communist North Korea, as soon as circumstances allow.

The martyrs have not shed their blood in vain. They «have entered into the joy of Mary who, at the foot of the Cross, joined in the passion and death of her Son and Savior. The Queen of Martyrs rejoices with us!» (John Paul II, Ibid.). «After Mary,» wrote Paul VI, «we find the purest, most burning expression of joy, where Jesus' Cross is embraced with the most faithful love, among the martyrs, whom the Holy Spirit inspires, in the midst of trial, with a passionate expectation of the Spouse's coming» (GD). Let us ask Saint Just de Bretenières to obtain for us the joy of the Holy Spirit, even during the most painful trials of our lives.

May this joy be given to you and to all those dear to you.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

To publish the letter of Saint Joseph Abbey in a magazine, a newspaper, etc., or to reproduce it on the internet or on a home page, permission must be requested and obtained through e-mail or through http://www.clairval.com.

Index of the Letters  - Home Page

Webmaster © 1996-2017 Traditions Monastiques