Inspiration from St. André Bessette

Challenging us to pray again with humility and purpose

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RaabI remember the day as a young priest when my prayer life completely changed. I always thought that I wanted to live a life in God. That was one of my daily prayers even as I was discerning my vocation. Then one day, I realized, during my early morning prayer, that I was mistaken. What my heart was really asking was not to live my life in God, but to make enough room for God to live in me. I realized God does the inviting, the praying and the answering. I realized at that moment that God is God and I am not.

This shift in my prayer reflects the Christmas season. The Incarnation is a reminder that God lives in every aspect of our lives, in every decision we make as clergy and in every pain of our people. I need God more than ever in January. As pastors, Christmas brings us the gifts of sheer joy as well as days of exhaustion.

We may find our hearts on the empty side as we have listened to the loneliness of our people, the recent divorces or the death of a young child. On Christmas, we hold in our hearts as priests the pain of our people who have never found the love they have desired in life. Christmas is complicated; our lives are no different. I admit, by the time January comes, I never want to see another Christmas cookie or dead poinsettia.

The liturgies of January may help revive us as pastors, to remind us that God desires to make a home within our human and fragile hearts. The memorial of St. André Bessette on Jan. 6 (Jan. 7 in Canada) offers me particular consolation. He is the first saint in the history of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Alfred Bessette was born 30 miles from Montreal on Aug. 9, 1845, the eighth of 12 children. He was always sickly and became an orphan. He grew up in poverty and struggled to find his place in life. His mother had instilled in him a great love of Jesus and a special loyalty to St. Joseph. He was accepted into the Congregation of Holy Cross only after much prayer and discernment on the community’s part since Bessette was also illiterate and in ill health. As a religious, he was named Brother André Bessette, CSC.

Brother André was assigned to be the porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal because he did not really fit well in the mission of Holy Cross at the time. He welcomed people at the door for more than 40 years, welcoming their desire to find Jesus. He prayed with people the best he could. He would anoint them with oil from a lamp or rub their wounds with a medal of St. Joseph. Brother André only slept an hour or two because he spent the night praying for the people he had encountered during the day.

People kept coming back to see Brother André at the door because his faith and presence had healed them. He believed that St. Joseph healed people when they had the courage to ask Jesus to enter their need or sorrow. André’s prayer came from his suffering and God’s desire to make room in his heart. He received nearly 600 people a day. He founded St. Joseph Oratory, but did not see its completion. Brother André died on Jan. 6, 1937. He was canonized on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010.

His life in the Congregation of Holy Cross is ironic. Our religious community is best known for education. However, our first saint was illiterate, sickly and a porter. St. André has helped me make room in my heart for God. He reminds me not to find the meaning of my life outside myself, not in my position or possessions, not in my ego or self-reliance. He helps me live the shift in prayer I discovered years ago — that is, not to seek my life in God, but to allow God to live in me. I learn from St. André that God initiates all prayer.

St. André challenges me to pray again with this humility and purpose. He also offers me the strength to serve people who challenge me beyond my expertise. In January, when the Christmas decorations are packed up and stored in the church basement, St. André heals my heart for prayer and my life for service. 

FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Colorado Springs, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel in Manitou Springs and Holy Rosary Chapel in Cascade, Colorado.

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