On February 2, 1852 at about 3:45pm before his 50th birthday and while the community is singing the Magnificat of the Vespers of the feast of the Purification, Fr. Francis Mary Paul Libermann slept in the Lord.
Birth and Family Roots
The joy of childbirth overwhelmed a renowned Rabbi, Jacob Libermann, as his lovely wife gave birth to a bouncing baby boy on April 12, 1802 in a Jewish ghetto in the Alsace region of France. An uncompromising Jew, Jacob Libermann named the baby boy Jacob. This is an indication that he wants his son to be like him in all ramifications especially religion-wise. As a Rabbi of great repute, the Talmud was Jacob Libermann’s total concern and decided his thought and action. He refused to take part in French political and social life, which he saw as a threat to the spiritual purity of his people’s Judaism. It was in this climate of strict and uncompromising Judaism that the boy Jacob grew up. He was 20 when his father sent him to Metz, France, to study Talmud more professionally.
As God would have it but to the utmost chagrin of Jacob Libermann, the young Jacob mastered Judaism only to end up embracing Christianity. Father hoped son would succeed him as chief rabbi; for he saw in the the young Jacob a model Jewish boy, destined to be great, like his father, in Jewish intellectual and religious life as portrayed in the Talmud. Young Jacob dared all threats from his father and went ahead to accept Christian baptism on Christmas Eve of 1826 at the age of 24. Henceforth, he will be called and known as Francis Mary Paul Libermann. His baptism attracted a crowd, some, no doubt, curious to see a Jewish convert baptized, the son of a famous Rabbi, known throughout France. It was no ordinary experience but God can never be mistaken for allowing such a transformation from Judaism to Christianity.
The ecstatic element in Francis’s baptism was strong. The most well-known description of what took place is the attested report of what he is supposed to have said about it: “When the holy water was poured over my forehead it seemed to me that I was in the midst of an immense globe of fire …things impossible to describe were happening to me” (ND 1.104).
It was not surprising therefore that Francis Libermann aspired higher than baptism. He entered the seminary of Saint-Sulpice but the onset of epilepsy seemed to close the door on his hopes of becoming a priest. Sometimes a feeling of rejection swept over him, he found it hard to accept the hopelessness of his situation. It took fifteen years before he was finally ordained on September 18, 1841.
Passion for Souls and Mission
While still on “probation” awaiting when or whether to be ordained, Libermann already formed a religious Congregation. Hence, nine days after his ordination, Libermann opened a novitiate at La Neuville, near Amiens, France. Within one year three of his men had gone to work among people of African origin in Mauritius, Réunion, and Haiti. Ab initio, Libermann had an amazing passion for the poorest of the poor. However, on September 28, 1848 Libermann’s Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary merged into the Congregation of the Holy Ghost (Spiritans), founded in 1703; and Libermann was duly elected its Superior General. This merger was necessitated by the similarities in mission goal (evangelization of the poor in Africa) in both Congregations.
His health as an epileptic coupled with the stress of running a congregation sapped a lot of energy out of Libermann. But in all this, his faith in the one and only God remained unshakeable. In fact, his zeal was so inspiring that when seminarians in France heard of the deaths of some of the first missionaries to West Africa, they lined up at his door to volunteer as replacements. His faith in God pervades his conversion, his life, his leap toward holiness. Holiness, he will later point out, is believing that the Holy Spirit draws us up into the being of God.
His Death and Influence
On February 2, 1852 at about 3:45pm before his 50th birthday and while the community is singing the Magnificat of the Vespers of the feast of the Purification, Fr. Francis Mary Paul Libermann slept in the Lord. He died a happy fulfilled person of great faith. His faith remained a constant his entire life, even down to his dying hours when he painfully breathed “God is all, man is nothing.”
Surprisingly, even though Fr. Libermann himself never went overseas, yet he inspired and empowered literally thousands of missionaries around the globe. He remains a visionary, a missionary, a profoundly spiritual man who has affected the course of history in the last 150 years. Francis Libermann was a pioneer of “inculturation” now recognized as a blueprint for modern missionary activity. He urged the Spiritans to “become one with the people” so that each group received and understood the Gospel in the context of their own cultural traditions.
His influence and that of his Spiritans, in the Church and in the emerging world has been inestimable. May God bless the Spiritan Congregation, and all of us, through the intercession of Venerable Francis Libermann.Advertisements