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2- In memory of Rene Voillaume 1905 -2003, Life of Brother Rene (funeral address)
To begin this series of articles on Brother Rene Voillaume, who was one of the first to take Brother Charles de Foucauld as a guide for living the Gospel, we are including here the words with which Brother Marc Hayet, Prior of the Little Brothers of Jesus, welcomed the people who had gathered for Brother Rene's funeral on May 17, 2003, in the Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence.
'We are gathered today to give thanks; to give thanks for the life that God gives us and to give thanks for the life of our brother - and our father - Rene Voillaume.
In the name of his family and in the name of our various Fraternities, I would like to thank each one of you who are accompanying us today, those who are in this cathedral, some of whom have come from very far away, all those who would have liked to be here, and all those who have sent us messages of fraternity. Truly, a big thank you.
I would like to say two special 'thank-yous' as well: the first is to Father Claude Feidt who is welcoming us into his cathedral. This is one further link with the diocese of Aix to which the Fraternities already owe so much: we do not forget that Mgr de Provencheres1 was one of the surest and most faithful supports and counsellors to Father Voillaume and Little Sister Magdeleine, and also that it was at Aix that the first worker fraternities of Little Sisters and then Little Brothers of Jesus were founded. The second 'thank you' is to the village of Cepie (which welcomed Father Voillaume for 28 years and from which a delegation is with us) and Father Despierre, bishop of Carcassonne, who was unable to come but has sent us his vicar general. A big thank you.
To evoke the life of a person in just a few minutes is not easy - and even less so when that person is Rene Voillaume. So I will just bring out a few striking traits from his life after having recalled a few dates.
Father Voillaume would have been 98 on July 19th this year2. At the age of 16, in 1921, reading the life of Charles de Foucauld by Rene Bazin was the beginning of a long friendship with Brother Charles. A little earlier ‘a secret and totally interior event’ caused him to understand that, in his own words, Christ ‘wanted me to consecrate myself wholly to him and to his Eucharist’. This led him to the priesthood on June 29, 1929.
On September 8 1933, at Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, after years of reflection and preparation, Rene Voillaume and four companions took the habit of Father de Foucauld and went to live in the Saharan oasis of El Abiodh Sidi Cheik. In was from this fraternity that the Little Brothers of Jesus were born.
In 1938, in the course of a pilgrimage to the tomb of Charles de Foucauld, at El Golea in Algeria, he got to know the woman who became the founder of the Little Sisters of Jesus. This encounter later bore many fruits through the bonds created with Little Sister Magdeleine of Jesus, and a close collaboration totally at the service of the life and development of the Fraternities.
At the end of 1950, he published Au Coeur des Masses. It was this book, sub-titled ‘the religious life of the Little Brothers of Father de Foucauld’ that made him known in the Church of our times.
When one thinks of the life of Father de Voillaume, the first trait that comes to mind is, of course, that he was a founder. After having given an orientation, a structure and a strong spirituality to the Little Brothers of Jesus, he then did the same for the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of the Gospel, and likewise he was very involved in the birth of the Secular Fraternity and the Secular Institutes. He always felt concerned and ready to help each time a new group took inspiration from the life and message of Charles de Foucauld.
But above all he was a founder by setting himself to listen to the Holy Spirit and allowing himself to be guided by Him. And the Spirit, starting with a call to leave for a contemplative and missionary life, caused him to open up new paths for religious life and led him much further than he was able to see or plan for at the time. Like every founder, he was given the ability to be both ahead of and in harmony with new needs and deep movements that the Spirit was arousing in the Church. That is probably why generations have recognised themselves in what Au Coeur des Masses3 expresses.
He who said that he was timid and not very communicative received audacity and courage, and a kind of impressive inner assurance for fulfilling his mission, travelling the whole world and meeting all kinds of people. We often forget that the man who directed the little group that was born at El Abiodh was only 28 years old at the time, and had fragile health. Through this openness to the Spirit, Father Voillaume was, profoundly, a man of the Church. Not in the sense in which one speaks of an ecclesiastic, nor primarily because he was in contact with a large number of officials in the Church, but because he ‘felt with the Church’. In order to foster his plans, he knew how to listen to and bring into dialogue the most diverse currents in ecclesial life: the tradition of Carmel and Chartreuse, the militants of the JOC and the worker mission, Jacques Maritain, Marguerite Taride, Bishops, other religious.... The list of those with whom he dialogued is long and very varied.
I should also mention the special link he had with the Church of Algeria in its dialogue with Moslems, his great openness to the Churches of the East and to the diversity of their traditions, his friendship with Brother Roger and the Taize community, etc. Right up to the end of his life, he involved himself closely in what was being born in the Church and in the new movements with, in addition, a simple and classic instruction:
‘When you do not know what to think about a question, begin by looking at what the Church says about it.’
If anyone had asked Rene Voillaume to define himself in a few words, he would surely have stressed the fact that he was a priest. We often found it hard to understand why this was so important to him. I believe that it was profoundly linked to his conception of his vocation as both contemplative and missionary: it is not us who give life to the world, it is Jesus; and he does so by giving his life, at Nazareth, on the roads of Palestine and finally on the cross. One only participates in Jesus' work of life and salvation by entering into the same dynamic of gift of self. For Father Voillaume, being a priest and celebrating the Eucharist was certainly, at the same time, both to unite oneself with the re-actualisation of this mystery of Jesus who gives himself, offers to the world the best of what he has which does not come from the world, the very source of life, and also to renew the offering of his own existence. Towards the end, he was no longer able to celebrate, and that certainly cost him a lot. One of the last times that I visited him he said to me,
‘There is a form of active prayer, and there is a passive form in which one can only offer the hours, which are long, and dependence’, another manner of self-giving...'
He did not speak about himself very much, nor about his personal life, but one guessed that he was, before all else, a man of prayer. This was clear on the level of his talks and teaching, of course. He launched us into a life at the heart of the world, where relationships have a large place; but he always came back, with insistence, to this dimension of faith which should open every relationship to a mystery that transcends us.
But mainly one felt that for him faith was a personal commitment, doubtless no easier for him than for us, questioned by life and in particular one that was never ended. He often said that today he saw things with a new view, that old age was causing him to discover new perspectives and that he still had things to decipher. His way of communicating himself was in writing, and just a few weeks ago he said to us:
‘I would like to write something about the faith’.This aspect of a faith that always needs to search is certainly the point on which we feel that he is closest to each of us.
Today we are rather like orphans. Not distressed like little children who will lack paternal support; but in peace instead, like adult sons and daughters who see their father leaving after a very full life and not knowing how to say thank you to him: ‘Thank you for having launched us into the adventure; thank you for having equipped us for the journey; and thank you for having let us walk at our own pace and made our own discoveries. Take care of us now and continue to help us.’
At the end of his last book (written at the age of 93), Rene Voillaume wrote:
‘At the point I have reached in life, I cannot prevent myself from feeling a sort of astonishment full of gratitude for the life that God has made for me and embarrassment over so many infidelities and errors committed. One feels very little and in peace, in the merciful heart of Jesus. My life being over and my mission ended, I no longer have to question myself about an earthly future which no longer exists, but to anticipate another existence in the Kingdom of Christ.’
Now that this new existence has opened for him, let us give thanks together and ask the Lord to fill him with his life and the joy of his presence.'
1-Mgr de Provencheres was Bishop of Aix-en-Provence and took the risk of accompanying the fraternities of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus from their beginnings, and taking them under his protection. He remained a special friend to us right up to his death.
2-He was born in Versailles on July 19, 1905.
3-‘At the heart of the Masses’, published in English as ‘Seeds of the Desert’.
From the Testament of Rene Voillaume