Easily the best biography in English of Francis Libermann, the Second Founder of the Spiritans, was written by the late Dutch Spiritan priest, Adrian van Kaam, in 1959. Significantly, the title, “A Light to the Gentiles”, is a direct quotation from the Gospel of Luke which is always proclaimed on 2nd February, the Feast Day of the Presentation of the Lord. 2nd February also happens to be the day on which Libermann, a convert from Judaism, died in 1852 aged only 49.
Simeon, holding the baby Jesus in his arms, thanks God that he has been allowed to live long enough to set his eyes on the Saviour who will be “a light to enlighten the pagans”. Simeon then told Mary and Joseph that their child would be destined to be a “sign of contradiction”.
Spiritans can also thank God that we were given as a Second Founder someone who was to generate so much light in the darkness of peoples’ lives in many parts of the world. Someone who was also a “sign of contradiction” – the son of the Rabbi of Saverne who himself spent the first half of his life preparing to be a rabbi and yet ended up as a Catholic priest; the introvert who wanted nothing more than a life of quiet solitude and seclusion in a religious enclosure but whom Providence thrust to the forefront of leadership of a missionary congregation; a cleric who saw himself ministering in rural France and who ended up organising missions to West Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean; a man wracked with physical pain for most of his life, first as an epileptic and then as a victim of continual migraines, yet who worked 16- hour days and wrote thousands of letters of spiritual advice to comfort and console others in their challenges.
Libermann had to cope constantly with darkness and failure. His itinerary through life was consistently derailed, peppered with detours and disappointments, and plagued with illness. But his fundamental experience was that, no matter what, he was loved by God, and that often the breakdown was the breakthrough! He knew that God writes straight with crooked lines. He realised that God is the “God of Surprises” who comes to us in all the ups and downs, all the zig-zags of our lives. He learnt how to wait for “God’s moment”. He was able to find God in the practical issues of everyday life and turn them into prayer. He learnt how to discern what God was asking of him in any situation by his openness and serenity and by his listening to the whispers of the Spirit. He taught us to be docile and open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, like a feather being directed by the wind.
Lord, we thank you for giving Francis Libermann to the Spiritan family and to the Universal Church. You inspired him with great love for the poorest and most abandoned. His burning desire to bring the Good News of God’s love to those who had not yet heard it inspired him to found the Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary and to rejuvenate the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.
At the beginning of this New Year of 2024, may the example of Libermann’s life be a light to all God’s people in the darkness and contradictions of today’s world as we each continue our own mission with joyous serenity.