Blessed Marie-Joseph CASSANT (1878-1903)
Portrait by Sr Anna-Maria, Vitorchiano
• Letter of Blessed MJ Cassant to his parents
• What does Fr. Cassant offer to us today? (D. Bernardo Bonowitz - OCSO)
• Some comments in order to prepare the beatification (P. Lode van Hecke)
O Lord. Glory of the lowly,
who inspired a burning love
for the Eucharist in Blessed Joseph Mary,
and led him into the desert
through the Heart of Jesus;
grant, we beseech you,
that by his intercession and example
we may prefer nothing to Christ,
that he may bring us to life everlasting.
Who lives and reigns..
Bl. Marie-Joseph Cassant
by Fr Lode van Hecke, ocso, 2004.
We sometimes know very little about the saints of our Order, and I wouldn’t want Fr. Joseph, who is in many regards very simple, to slip through the cracks.
But in what way is Joseph an inspiration for us? It is perhaps not obvious for people of today, especially the last generations. We are usually struck first of all by things which draw us away from him, and the list can be long.
Let us recall, first of all, that he had a very short life : March 6, 1878 - June 17, 1903, twenty-five years. Joseph, as a child, had many draw-backs, even if he came from a well-to-do family. Small and of a weak constitution, he had trouble following in class, to the point that his difficulty in studying was an obstacle to his admittance to the seminary : he so longed to become a priest ! Finally, he entered Saint-Marie-du-Désert on December 5, 1894. His life there was very ordinary, but it’s his vulnerability which strikes. He needs a Spiritual Director who must continuously reassure him against his scruples. He will never be given any position of responsibility. He is at times nerve-racking by his clumsiness at work. The “little way” as epitomized by Thérèse of Lisieux perhaps finds an even better candidate in Joseph in that he does not possess Thérèse’s natural gifts.
Furthermore, after 100 years, many things in his life have become dated. According to our standards, he was too young to be admitted to the monastery: a child of 16 years old. You will say that Thérèse of Lisieux was 15 years old and that Fr. André Malet – his Spiritual Director, of whom I’ll speak again – entered at 14! But at first glance, our Joseph is not a man of their stature. He will always seem fragile and dependent. He is, for example, haunted by the prospect of having to leave the monastery and face such an anti-clerical France. The “law on associations” which entails the expulsion of religious congregations comes into effect in 1901. The threat then is very real and the abbot orders the moving of part of the furniture and the library. We are getting ready to leave if necessary. Thanks to Dom Chautard’s intervention, the Trappists will never have to leave France, a fact little known to Joseph. But he is also obsessed by the idea of being abandoned by Fr. André, who continually calms his scruples and encourages him. He has such a great need of him. “The world” appears in his eyes as dangerous and hostile. It will take a good deal of personal work before he comes to progressively accept any eventuality. Thérèse of Lisieux lived at the same period (she dies the year of Joseph’s simple profession). But she, on the other hand, dreams of martyrdom and the idea of confrontation spurs her on. Joseph doesn’t have either the intellectual acumen of the Carmelite who was interested in studies beyond the strict minimum required. Joseph studies with a great deal of difficulty, notwithstanding his intellectual curiosity, which is limited to what is necessary to be a good monk and especially a priest. His difficulties in studies will remain his cross throughout. A last comparison with Thérèse : she would’ve loved to be a missionary and is interested in people to convert while Joseph’s interests did not go beyond the walls of the abbey.
But I am nevertheless struck by his qualities, less spectacular, but solid: his faith and his confidence, his uprightness, and his good sense (he is not stupid), a good discernment, a will of steel. He reads assiduously: he feels the need to feed his mind, even during mental prayer (otherwise, he falls asleep or his spirit wanders!). He writes a great deal: he makes note of important passages, prayers and reflections. I will mention only this one: “What’s the point of religious life if one does not change himself?” It’s a good formula which implies a great deal of faithfulness. The verb in French is not usually used in that reflexive way. To change oneself (“se modifier”), for Joseph Cassant, implies on the one hand, to remain true to self – you cannot become completely different - , but on the other, that a real transformation (which is sought out) is in order – otherwise it is stalemate. Important question which I can ask from time to time: do I really change myself? Fr. Joseph probably applied it only to himself, but the question can be extended (the expression “religious life” points in that direction): does my community transform itself, and the Order? In that sense, changing oneself is simply part of life.
What is his specific grace? I believe that it is his “innocence,” to be child-like, which most of us lose, except some rare exceptions like him, and never get back. We see it on his face in a picture that was taken in 1897. (Of the rare pictures that we have of him, it’s by far my favorite.) What makes this innocence real is his peasant good sense which keeps him well-grounded and an exceptional strength of character which made him go forward regardless of the obstacles. If Joseph is not very muscular, he is nonetheless a lumberjack. He is clear-sighted not only for others but also for himself. Recognizing his limits, he has learned to accept them without withdrawing into himself. All of these qualities make him a rather sturdy individual. But at the same time, his child-likeness makes him disarming. But one can push this even further. Because of his devotion to the Sacred Heart, with his sense for the Eucharist, he is truly on a mystical quest. He has been ordained priest on October 12, 1902. His motto “Everything for Jesus,” in his case, should be taken strictly to the letter. There is no question of sentimental devotions or superficial spirituality. Through this slant – together with his child-likeness -, he reaches back to a tradition which dates back to the 12th century, even to the Bible. How could he be other than a man of heart, and loved by everyone: everyone? Except for a member of the community, a professor of theology (no less), who later became his infirmarian: this brother never missed an opportunity to humiliate him. The heroic virtues of Joseph start here and will cumulate in his terrible death from tuberculosis, incurable at the time and detected much too late. It is, of course, this last trial which places him above any form of sentimentality or head in the clouds. Joseph lives up to the situation and proves himself to be of the caliber of a little Thérèse. “To live only of love and for love” could’ve been written by Saint Bernard or the Little Thérèse: no, it was written by Joseph.
To synthesize the teaching of Father Joseph, I readily take the words of Dom Bernardo Olivera during his homily at Sainte Marie du Désert, June 17, 2003 :
- Joseph was : a simple man who accepted himself as such ; a disciple of Jesus who let himself be instructed ; a young monk who accepted direction ; - Joseph knew : how to seek peace and pursue it ; he was able to forget himself to server others; he managed to renounce his self-will in order to follow that of his Lord ;
- Joseph is : a lover, who let himself be crucified ; a thankful individual who let himself be transformed in thanksgiving (Eucharist); a priest of Christ who sacrificed himself on the altar.
I cannot but mention the important role of Fr. André Malet, his Master of Novices, Spiritual Father, and professor of theology - he will later become abbot of the community - a figure of high stature, a guide without compare. Without him, Joseph would not have been what he later became. Father André will know how to discern an austerity sought for itself and how to direct it towards a spirituality which is more monastic and even mystical. The danger was that penitence would smother contemplation. The point is to love; the rest has its place, but subordinate. He will communicate to Joseph devotion to the Sacred-Heart – very popular at the time – and a keen sense for the Eucharist. You have the impression that everything was already there in the first sentence that Fr. André said to Joseph when he first came to the monastery: “I will help you to love Jesus.” In the spiritual adventure in which they shared, Joseph became an example of confidence and obedience; Fr. André will become a model of spiritual discernment. Finally, the disciple will precede the master. The latter understood this very well when he said that he hoped, one day, to be buried at the foot of his disciple.
We therefore understand that the Abbot General, every chance he gets, loves to speak of our little brother as a patron for our times and for our Order. At a time when precariousness is found everywhere, Fr. Joseph can be a help to those who suffer from the limits they must endure. He is an example that holiness is within their reach