French Catholic Bishops Open Beatification Cause of Dominican Priest
Father Marie-Etienne Vayssière is a model of holiness.
The French Catholic bishops have approved the opening of the beatification cause of a little-known-but-quietly-influential Dominican priest.
The bishops made the announcement regarding the cause of Father Marie-Étienne Vayssière (1864-1940) at the end of their plenary assembly on March 26.
Although he is relatively unknown in the Catholic world nowadays, partly because of the lack of available written works about his life and spiritual legacy, the French Churchman remains a revered figure among the Order of Preachers, as well as in the south of France, where he spent his life.
The model of holiness embodied by Father Vayssière, according to those who knew him or had access to his writings and correspondence, is that of total self-abandonment to God’s will, of a life lived in a spirit of complete self-denial for the benefit of others, especially the many people he accompanied spiritually along his earthly path.
“Like many of my Dominican brothers, I have a special admiration for Father Marie-Étienne Vayssière, who had a profound influence in the region of Provence in the 1940s and whose spiritual doctrine has inspired a lot of people,” Dominican Father Serge-Thomas Bonino, secretary of the International Theological Commission and dean of the faculty of philosophy of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, told CNA.
Born on Oct. 29, 1864, in Saint-Céré, Occitanie, Toussaint Vayssière (as he was initially known) became an orphan at the age of 4 and was raised by his aunt. He received his first call to priesthood at the age of 10, while serving as an altar boy during a funeral.
He entered the neighboring minor seminary of Montfaucon and then the grand seminary of Cahors, where he decided to join the Order of Preachers, touched by the missionary fervor of St. Dominic.
Vayssière received the habit at the Dominican Convent of Toulouse, where the Order of Preachers was founded by St. Dominic in the 13th century, taking the religious name of Marie-Étienne. This took place in 1887, when he was 22 years old.
The unspeakable joy he gained from his vocation and his theological studies, however, was rapidly darkened by a terrible ordeal that would change his life forever. In 1888, he was diagnosed with cerebral anemia, a condition that plunged him into a state of physical and mental fatigue and affected him considerably until his priestly ordination in 1892.
“This ordeal, which took the form of a deep depression and fatigue, broke him at the beginning of his religious life, which could have led him to scrape by, to live in a very basic way,” Father Bonino said.
“On the contrary, it spurred him to fully accept the trial and to try to turn it into a gift of love for the Lord.”
Father Vayssière was appointed guardian of St. Mary Magdalene’s Grotto of Sainte-Baume, in the department of Var in Provence, in 1900. It was there, where he spent more than 30 years, that his true spiritual stature emerged.
Reduced to a hermitic life of prayer and solitude, although he had always wanted to dedicate his life to preaching, he chose to embrace his situation of great poverty and destitution.
His attitude, according to Father Bonino, reflected a sense of the absoluteness of the primacy of God:
“In the great Christian tradition of abandonment to divine Providence, he adhered with all his heart to God’s will, convinced that it was the only way to make his life fruitful and that we can commune with God through every event of our life, that nothing happens outside of Providence.”
Father Bonino added that, although his condition didn’t enable him to develop a systematic teaching, Father Vayssière would recover enough strength over time to become a great director of souls.
During his three decades of service at the grotto, in addition to being a moral and spiritual point of reference for countless laypeople and clergymen, Father Marie-Etienne enriched the site through several large projects. He also founded the nearby spiritual retreat house, Nazareth du Sacré-Coeur, in 1929. In addition, he helped to inspire the creation of a secular institute, L’Oeuvre de S. Catherine (“The Work of St. Catherine”), which would become Caritas Christi in 1937.
In this sense, he is considered one of the inspirations behind the rise of lay orders in the 20th century and, more generally, one of the pioneers of the universal call to holiness, as he was convinced that holiness was for everyone and used to grant a great spiritual freedom to those he accompanied.
“He had the sense of the greatness of religious life, but for him, holiness was this union of every moment with God’s will and that laypeople can do it, too,” Father Bonino commented. “Then Vatican II emphasized that, but it was far from being obvious at that time.”
Another prophetic trait, according to Father Bonino, was Father Vayssière’s constant remembrance that God had to remain at the center of every human action.
“It is comparable to what Cardinal Robert Sarah wrote in God or Nothing one century later: Christianity can produce great things in the intellectual or social field, but these things are vain if one forgets that nothing is more important than God,” he said.
“It sounds a bit steep, but it is necessary to recall it these days.”
Father Vayssière’s exemplary life led him to be elected Dominican provincial of Toulouse, first at the 1932 chapter and then for a second mandate in 1936. At a crucial and very sensitive time in the history of France and the entire world, on the eve of World War II, he devoted his last energies to his brothers and the development of his province, before taking his last breath on Sept. 15, 1940. His writings, which were all published posthumously and have long been out of print, have been partly republished in recent years. New publications are expected to accompany his cause of beatification.
Solène Tadié wrote this article for CNA.