7 - In memory of Rene Voillaume 1905 -2003, Brother Rene Voillaume and the Second Vatican Council

2000 Rene Voillaume in his office2000 Rene Voillaume in his office

Brother Marc writes:

'There is a whole aspect of the life of Rene Voillaume that was not very well known by the brothers and sisters, and that was his work as a theologian and the influence of his writings on the work of the Vatican Council. Father Georges Cottier, a Dominican, has agreed to tell us about it. At the present time he is the theologian at the Pontifical House. At the end of the 1950's he was at the Dominican Studium in Saint Maximin, in Provence (France).It was there that he got to know the brothers and became a friend of Rene Voillaume.'

In these last few years I met Rene Voillaume at the fraternity of the Little Sisters at Tre Fontane each time he came to Rome. I have a very clear memory of our discussions. One subject preoccupied him greatly: the loss of the sense of the meaning of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass and also adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the ministerial priesthood. And there we touched on a mystery that was at the centre of his personal vocation, and of the vocation of the Little Brothers. His Testament enables us to gauge the depths of it. At Le Tubet, the Little Sisters were able to read the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia to him. That was probably a ray of light that brought him peace.

But in these few lines of testimony, I would like to say a few words about things that go back further in time - our meetings in Rome during the years of the Council. Father Voillaume was not an official or privy expert, but the friendship that linked him to a large number of Bishops justified his presence. He was certainly an advisor who was listened to by many. At that time Bishops travelled much less than they do today so the 'affectus collegialis' (the sense of collegiality) had fewer opportunities to express itself, even though the document 'Fidei donum' had already opened up new avenues.

Within the Church Father Voillaume was certainly one of the people who knew our world, its aspirations and its distress, best. Through the fraternities of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters that he had visited, he had been able to see for himself the conditions of extreme misery in which millions of human beings lived. In this way he played a decisive role in the awakening of conscience to the gospel requirements of poverty in the Church and of the love for the "little ones and the poor" which was linked to it.

Certainly, he was not the only one to show that he was aware of a way of life that would respond better to the nature of the Church of Jesus. He was in a communion of thought with Bishop de Provencheres of Aix en Provence. Mgr Ancel also, who belonged to Le Prado, contributed a lot to the reflection. It is true that in the inevitable bubbling of ideas that developed on the fringes of the Council, some people were speaking of poverty in a "prophetic" tone with a sort of romantic exaltation. A detailed historical study would probably reveal, here or there, a tendency to politicise the problem. "Progress-ism" exercised its seductive charm on some people. But that was not the principal thing. An informal group for reflection, in which several Bishops were involved and in which Father Voillaume played a determining role, was formed. It is not impossible - but on this precise point my memory is lacking - that the initiative for it came from him. He was listened to a lot because people were struck by his balanced judgement and his realism.

The Council did not publish a text on poverty. I remember that Father Congar, convinced of the importance of the issue, had drafted some modi to be introduced into the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. I have not been able to find out whether his proposals were retained.

It is to Father Voillaume that we owe the idea and the elaboration of the collective work called "Church and poverty" which was published in 1965 in the collection Unam Sanctam n. 57. The work is introduced by two Prefaces, one by the Patriarch Maximos IV, the other by Cardinal Lecaro. The choice of collaborators, among whom we find the name of Father Congar, Father Chenu and Father Regamey, to name but a few, was in large part due to Father Voillaume. He himself, with Father Henry and Jacques Loew, was in charge of the third part called "An enquiry into poverty in the Church", which analysed the responses to a questionnaire sent to the bishops and religious institutes of the entire world.

Why recall these things? They seem to me to be indicative of certain impulses given to the life of the Church which, without resulting directly in directives of the Second Vatican Council, are of prime importance. We can say that the gospel requirement for poverty deeply marked the conscience of the People of God. Certainly, like everything that is of the Gospel, it comes up against our resistances due to sin.

with Paul IVwith Paul IV

Let us think of some themes that have become familiar, like that of the Church as "servant and poor". Without this spiritual impulse, would Paul VI have had the idea of the symbolic action of divesting himself of the tiara? Would he have had the intuition to give us the encyclical 'Populorum Progessio'? We know that one of the principal artisans of it was Father Lebret, a friend of Father Voillaume. The Church's attention to "the little ones and the poor" could not avoid coming into contact with the political awakening of the masses of the Third World. The prestige exercised over certain theologians of liberation through what one called, in an uncritical way, "a Marxist analysis" led to some drifting, certainly. But that should not obscure what was perceived by many as a duty of solidarity with the poor. In this direction, John Paul II later spoke of a "preferential love for the poor" or of a "preferential option for the poor". But that relates to the years after the Council. I remember that Father Voillaume, who had the gift of picking up the deep movements of history, submitted to a few of us some reflections, with which we were still groping, on religious life and political involvement. He accepted our comments with a great simplicity. These few memories from the time of the Council enable us, it seems to me, to grasp the way in which, in the history of the Church, certain intuitions open up a pathway and then slowly come to maturity. The awareness of the requirements of gospel peace, as a life style of the Church, and of attention to the poor, are one illustration of it. Through his testimony, through his wisdom, through his lucidity, Father Voillaume made a contribution of primary importance. Some analogous observations could be made concerning the theme of peace.


'This is the final grace that I dare to ask you for. May they all have the faith of a child, the faith that permits one to have one's soul overtaken by the ineffable joy that is your own, Jesus, which springs up in the contemplation of the wonders of Love in your Kingdom.

Before your presence in the consecrated host, the child marvels and enters into the mystery, while the adult is tempted to try to understand it through his reason and thus reduces it to the measure of his natural intelligence. No human intelligence, no theology, is capable of penetrating a mystery which has the same dimensions as the mystery of the Incarnation of God and its prolongation in our history.

Jesus, on one occasion you gave thanks to your Father for having hidden these mysteries of the Kingdom from the wise and powerful and for having revealed them to the little ones. Lord, grant that we may all be among your little ones.'