Among those canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday, October 17, 2010 at the Vatican was Canadian Brother André Bessette, of the Congregation of Holy Cross. For nearly 40 years Brother André worked as a porter at the College of Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Coeur in the Montreal neighborhood of Côtes-des-Neiges. Speaking about his assignment as doorman, he once quipped, “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door.”
As porter of the College, Brother André lived in a small room located near the main entrance that also served as his office. He urged people who came to him to pray with confidence and perseverance, while remaining open to God’s will. He admonished people to begin their path to healing through commitments to faith and humility, through confession and a return to the sacraments. He encouraged the sick to seek a doctor’s care. He saw value in suffering that is joined to the sufferings of Christ. He allowed himself to be fully present to the sadness of others but always retained a joyful nature and good humor. At times he was seen weeping along with his visitors as they recounted to him their sorrows and difficulties. Word spread quickly when many of those with whom he prayed were healed. As Brother André was becoming known as a miracle worker, he insisted all the more, “I am nothing…only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.”
Brother André died in Montreal on January 6, 1937 without seeing the completion of his dream. It is estimated that over a million people visited his body during the week following his death. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 23, 1982 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On October 17, 2010, Brother André Bessette becomes Canada’s first male Canadian born saint.
Through Brother André’s efforts, suffering and faith, from a little chapel on a hillside of Mount Royal came forth a great Basilica that now dominates Montreal’s mountain and Canada’s spiritual landscape. St. Joseph’s Oratory is the world’s largest shrine dedicated to St. Joseph, built from a dream of Brother André Bessette. In this frail Brother of Holy Cross, God’s strength and might were revealed to the world. “Pauper, servus et umilis” are the Latin words written above his tomb at the Oratory in Montreal, meaning poor, servant and humble. They are also the words that are sung in the Panis Angelicus, the magnificent hymn about the Eucharist: poor, servant and humble.
Who can say why was André chosen? In a beautiful circular letter to the Holy Cross family earlier this year, former Holy Cross Superior General Fr. Hugh Cleary wrote: “…perhaps André was chosen, like Mary and Joseph, because in the eyes of this world he was no one; he possessed nothing, nothing possessed him. …God possessed him giving him what he cared for most, giving him fulfillment to the deepest longing of his heart.”
As an adult, Brother André stood just five feet tall. But he was a giant of faith and spirituality, whose shadow still hovers mightily over Montreal and Canada. He shows us what can be achieved through faith and love. In the humble porter’s own words, “It is with the smallest brushes that the artists paint the most beautiful pictures.”
Christ is the door to the Father, who knocks at the doors of our hearts, our homes and our Church. The Church, and especially St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, is the door to salvation, the portal of the Kingdom of God. Brother André was the porter of that blessed place. The Lord worked through his doubts, infirmities, strengths, perseverance and human ingenuity to build a Church and build up the Church.
Each day we enter and leave by so many doors without ever noticing. We all remember the stories of the days of our grandparents when “no one locked their doors.” We now live in an age of deadbolts and alarm systems. Gone are the days we once knew when the doors of our homes would open regularly and easily to relatives, friends and neighbors. The doors of our homes and Churches don’t seem to swing open quite so easily or as often as they used to. We must find ways to open the doors of our homes, our hearts and our Churches to all who need us.
In his day, Brother André was Montreal’s Porter and he is now one of Heaven’s special gatekeepers. He teaches us the importance of greeting each person as the Lord, himself. Some will come to our doors rejoicing, and others in fear; some will come healed and others to seek that healing. St. André teaches us to be sensitive and welcoming to all who knock on our doors. May he continue to inspire us to open doors and build bridges to the people whom the Lord sends us each day, especially those who are sick, broken, poor and lonely. May St. André of Montreal make us instruments of healing, friendship, joy and peace in our day.
St. André of Montreal,
Pray for us!
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation