Br. André's example for us all

  • February 25, 2010
{mosimage}He was a small man, poor, sickly, uneducated and with no discernible skills or talents. He had little more than the clothes on his back and his faith when he showed up at the door of the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal some 140 years ago. At first, he was turned away, but later told to come inside.

That simple act of welcome set in motion an unlikely life of healing and service that culminated in the Feb. 19 announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that Blessed Brother André (born Alfred Bessette) will be canonized Oct. 17 in Rome. He follows St. Marguerite d’Youville as just the second Canadian-born saint.

Reading the life story of this incredible man, it seems likely Br. André would be embarrassed by all the fuss. His was an extraordinary life of simple kindness, faith and humility. He scoffed at suggestions that he was a miracle worker. “I am nothing,” he once said. “Only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.”

Yet people flocked to see him and the crutches they left behind are testament to the impact he had on many lives. When he died in 1937, newspapers reported that more than a million people came to pay their respect and, over the years, more than 10 million pilgrims signed a petition supporting his sainthood.

Br. André was a charismatic figure in the noblest sense of the word. Strangers were drawn to him not because he had money or power or movie-star fame. He could barely read or write and aspired to nothing more than giving an honest day’s work as a porter and messenger, helping his fellow man and serving God through devotion to St. Joseph. He embodied kindness, honesty, generosity and good humour. He spurned material comforts. He was uneducated but wise.

Yet people flocked to him. He spent several hours a day with the sick, the poor and the lonely. Those were his people and he had been one of them. Orphaned at age 12, he was forced to leave school but, due to poor health, was unable to hold even the most menial of jobs. When he finally asked the Congregation of Holy Cross to take him in he was 25 with nowhere to go.

Today, Montreal’s spectacular St. Joseph’s Oratory overlooks the city as a testament to the life of its founder, Br. André. Construction of the Oratory had several starts and stops but, through Br. André’s perseverance, eventually rose atop Mount Royal. But he left behind much more than a magnificent shrine.

His simple, holy life reminds us that greatness is not measured by what we take from the world, but what we give back. Br. André gave generously of himself and his life affirmed the enduring power of faith and prayer. That is the legacy of Canada’s newest saint.

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