It was 10 years ago on this date, October 17, that Br. André Bessette was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, his making this humble religious brother the first canonized saint of the Congregation of Holy Cross.
“We believe many of our priests and brothers have lived virtuous and holy lives through our 183 years, yet Saint André’s canonization assures us that true holiness is possible for us if we abide faithfully according to our Constitutions and Statutes, our rule of life sanctioned by the Church,” wrote Fr. Robert L. Epping, C.S.C., Superior General of the Congregation in a letter to all Holy Cross religious on the occasion of the anniversary. “The whole Congregation has been blessed abundantly because the Lord has raised up a remarkable man in our Brother André.”
The early morning of Sunday, October 17, 2010, in Rome was “dreary, cool, and rainy,” recalled Br. Chester Freel, C.S.C., the former Provincial Superior of the Midwest Province, who was one of the Holy Cross religious who attended the canonization in Rome.
“The schedule for the day required us to arrive at the Vatican Square two hours early, and initially it seemed that it was going to be a long, cold wait until the 10:00 start time,” Br. Freel continued, “but as the pilgrims filled the square, their enthusiasm became contagious, and the excitement warmed the wait. By the end of Mass and related ceremonies, the dampness had disappeared, and the sun shined warmly, all as if Brother André and the other just-proclaimed saints deemed it should be a glorious day and a memorable experience for all who came to celebrate with them the glory of God.”
The pilgrims filling St. Peter’s Square literally came from all over the world, as there were six people canonized that morning in Rome. St. André himself drew an international crowd of worshipers. While there was of course a large contingent from his native Canada, they were joined by people from around the world, including all the countries in which Holy Cross serves, who also came to celebrate and give thanks for God’s grace working through this humble religious brother.
Among them was Fr. James Gallagher, C.S.C., of the United States Province of Priests and Brothers. He was leading a group of pilgrims in his role then as the Province’s Director of Vocations. Fr. Gallagher had been to Rome leading pilgrimages before, but this was his first experience of a large Vatican event.
“It left an impression on me of how big the Church is and how small it is all at the same time,” said Fr. Gallagher. “It is big. There were people from all around the world there to celebrate St. André. There were people from around the world celebrating the other saints being canonized that day as well. It is small—well maybe small is not the word for it … intimate, communal, connected. We were there as a part of the same family, celebrating members of our family, celebrating together in a way that binds us all together and transcends all that separates us.”
“It was a big family celebration,” described Br. Thomas Dziekan, C.S.C., who at the time was the Congregation’s Vicar General and First General Assistant, in addition to serving as the Vice Postulator for Holy Cross’s various canonization causes. “The number of Holy Cross from around the world who showed up added to the excitement. They were supplemented by many friends and partners in mission from around the world as well.”
For most of the pilgrims present that day, one of the most moving moments was seeing the tapestry of St. André Bessette hanging on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“The tapestry of Brother André adorning along with other saints at the side of the central door of St. Peter’s facade spoke volumes about the holiness of the doorkeeper in the sight of God!” said Fr. Roy Thalackan, C.S.C., who at the time was the Congregation’s Second General Assistant. “The fluttering banners, flags, and caps worn by thousands with the caption ‘André: Friend, Brother, and Saint’ spoke of the exuberance and joy of being with a saint who has touched the millions.
“The emotion of joy was beyond explanation and it flowed through drops of tears to the realization that one of our own is being raised to sainthood! It was a moment that I will cherish forever,” Fr. Thalackan said.
In gazing on the banner of St. André Bessette, Fr. Gallagher said he came to the insight that “here, receiving one of the greatest honors of the Church, is a man who during his early life no one would have thought much of. He was of poor health, he was uneducated, he was wandering from job to job—who would think that his life would bring so much good to so many? Here then was the image of this simple fellow now hanging from the façade of St. Peters.
“The key to it was that he did not get to that point by pursuing honors from the Church,” continued Fr. Gallagher. “He was there because he pursued relationship with God, relationship with the Passion of Christ, relationship with St. Joseph, and relationship with the lowly ones who were struggling.
Several Holy Cross religious served in liturgical roles during the Canonization Mass, including as lectors, offertory gift-bearers, presenters of the reliquary, and con-celebrants. One of those was Fr. Thalackan, who was “humbly honored” to carry the gifts of water and wine to the Holy Father.
“Offering the gifts, I uttered a few words of gratitude to the Pope for recognizing the sainthood of Brother André and sought blessings for our Congregation. I am not sure if he understood what I said. My English may not have been up to the mark for the German Pope! His twinkling eyes and the gracious smile expressed a sense of communion more than his words of ‘thank you,’” recalled Fr. Thalackan.
Although it has been ten years now from the canonization, St. André’s legacy and his grace-filled intercession on behalf of God’s people, especially the poor and the sick, are only increasing. Since his canonization, many chapels, parishes, schools, and charitable works throughout the world have adopted his name to have this faithful servant as their patron. A number of those apostolates do not belong to Holy Cross, giving strong testament to how this humble religious brother of Holy Cross has truly fulfilled his mission and heart’s desire to be a brother to all.
In this spirit, the Catholic Church in Canada recently declared St. André Bessette as the patron saint of caregivers.
“At a time when we are experiencing one of the worst medical and health crises of this century, this important mission that Brother André had given himself to be the servant of the poor and the sick calls us prophetically,” said Fr. Mario Lachapelle, C.S.C., who was the Congregation’s Vice-Postulator when the miracle for St. André’s canonization was approved. “Let us not forget to pray to him to ask him to inspire us in the answer we will give to the glaring needs of our brothers and sisters who are suffering.”
“I believe that the legacy of Saint André for the Church and the world today is to give thanks for the gift of life, taking care of the life of each person and especially of the poorest,” echoed Br. Joaquin Parada, C.S.C., of the District of Chile-Peru, who was also in attendance at the canonization in Rome.
The global pandemic is not allowing the Congregation to celebrate and give thanks this day for its Brother, St. André, as it had original hoped and planned. While there are many celebrations throughout the world today marking the anniversary, most of those are more intimate events among Holy Cross religious.
At the same time, as Fr. Epping pointed out in his letter to the Congregation, the purpose of this anniversary is much bigger than simply hosting a celebration to recall the life of St. André Bessette and to give thanks for him. It is about answer the same call from God to humble service and holiness in our lives that St. André answered.
"In a simple, humble, and low-key way, let each Holy Cross Religious give thanks to God for his or her vocation and the vocation to Holy Cross of our Brother, André Bessette, and ask Saint André to mentor each of us to achieve the primary raison-d’être of Blessed Basil’s foundation, holiness through the Congregation of Holy Cross,” wrote Fr. Epping.
That call to holiness, especially through the example and legacy of St. André, extends to all of God’s People.
“The point and goal of any Christian life is not honors or monuments or accomplishments, the goal and point is communion with God in heaven,” said Fr. Gallagher. “While the majority of Christians may never have their image hanging from the front of St. Peter’s, all people have the doors of heaven within the scope of possibility. We are all made to be saints, we all have the capacity to be saints; may we all follow St. Andre’s example and pursue that first of all and then see what else may come of it.”