Au Revoir, Father Jacques

Père Jacques: Resplendent in Victoryby Francis Murphy (Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1998, 200 pages, $10.95)

Père Jacques: Resplendent in Victory is the well-written and captivating biography of a French Carmelite friar who defied the Nazis, and paid full price. The life of this extraordinary man inspired the film, Au Revoir Les Enfants. For his efforts in sheltering three targeted Jewish boys, Père Jacques de Jesus is honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Jewish community. For his personal holiness of life and fruitful apostolic ministry, he is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church.

Born Lucien Bunel on Jan. 29, 1900, Père Jacques was the third of six children. That God had special plans for the boy is evident from an event of his infanthood. Little Lucien, at age 1, was sick to the point of death; the doctor gave up on him. But his mother did not. She “pleaded with the Lord; ‘My God, leave him with me until he is 20; after that, take him, for he is yours, but grant me the joy of offering him to you when he has grown up.’ Suddenly, little Lucien stirred in the carriage and then smiled at his parents, who fell on their knees in thanksgiving at the sight of their son, now revitalized before their very eyes.”

Lucien began his vowed service of the Lord not as a Carmelite, but as a diocesan priest. He studied at St. Romain Seminary in Rouen, France, 10 miles from his hometown. An ebullient and talented young man, he became a Catholic educator of renown. While his unconventional methods evidently raised some eyebrows, he was a great success with his pupils. He brought the same vigor and spark to his preaching, and became known and loved in this capacity as well.

In Father Bunel's heart, however, other things were stirring. At first he thought he wanted to become a Trappist; their austere way of life struck him as the closest possible way of following the Lord. But through his contact with Carmelites and through his reading of the Carmelite saints, he began to see that this was the spirituality to which he was called. Reaching Carmel was a bit of a difficulty for him, however.

The bishop would not agree to release him. He needed Father Bunel's talents at Avon, the boys school where the young priest was serving as headmaster. Again and again Father Bunel asked to become a Carmelite, and in the same way was rebuffed, yet always given the hope that it would happen eventually. It did, but Father was over 30 when he came to Carmel at last and was given the religious name, Père Jacques de Jesus. He said that he liked his new name, except that it made no mention of the Blessed Mother.

Père Jacques plunged into Carmelite formation with the same enthusiasm he always showed. He became totally immersed. That is why “he was totally unaware … of discussions taking place among his Carmelite superiors at that time, and their implications for his future.

The Discalced Carmelite friars' Paris province in 1932 revealed clearly that the community was small in number and advanced in age. A partial solution to the problem, according to the highest leadership of the order, would be to establish a … secondary school devoted to preparing students for the seminary and eventually the religious life. … The province was fortunate indeed, Father Louis realized, to have an already experienced, highly respected educator in its ranks.” When the decision was taken to start the school for certain, Père Jacques was volunteered for the job.

He accepted this assignment with his characteristic “spirit of enthusiasm,” but also with “a touch of irony. Had he not left diocesan service as an educator precisely to lead a more contemplative life? But he was also well aware of both the needs of the Order and his own suitability for the work.” In April 1934 he moved to the Carmelite community in Avon, and took on the formidable task of opening a school the following autumn. The Petit-College, as the school was called, flourished under Père Jacques' direction and drew more students each term. In all of this, Père Jacques never wavered from the belief that the Lord was in charge, and knew what was needed most.

He did not know at that time, however, the form the Lord's will would take for him. It was through the Petit-College that Father's incarceration at Mauthausen would come. As the Nazi shadow stretched over Europe, “it was the Jewish community in general and Jewish children in particular who evoked the deepest response from Père Jacques. Theologically, they were God's Chosen People; spiritually, they were his brothers and sisters. His outrage at Nazi treatment of the Jews brought Père Jacques into contact with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion in neighboring Melun. Mother Maria, the superior of the convent, often sought the help of Père Jacques in finding Catholic families with whom escaping Jews might be sheltered secretly.”

It was Mother Maria who made known to Père Jacques the plight of three boys for whom no other place could be found. Without hesitation, Père Jacques welcomed them into the Petit-College itself, passing them off as Gentiles. “In order to forestall any untoward inquiries or conjectures,” however, “Père Jacques took what could have been an ill-fated step. He confided the true identity of the newly arrived students to the three upper classes.

His confidence in the maturity and trustworthiness of the older boys proved well placed. Not one student violated the confidence and all strove to make their newly arrived classmates as welcome as possible.”

It was after one of the older boys had graduated, tried to flee the German occupiers, and was captured that disaster struck. Only under Nazi torture did the student betray his beloved headmaster. Having obtained the information they wanted, the Nazis came to the Petit-College at once. They arrested the three Jewish “students” and Père Jacques himself in front of the whole student body. As the boys waved, “Au revoir, Pere,” he called back, “au revoir, les enfants” — “goodbye, children.”

It was indeed their last goodbye. The three captured boys were deported to Auschwitz and “executed immediately.” Père Jacques went to camps Compiegne, Neue Bremm, and finally Mauthausen, experiencing declining health and escalating Nazi horrors all the way.

In all the camps, Père Jacques exhibited heroic fortitude and charity for others. He ministered as a priest as long as he could (which under the circumstances was not very long). He shared his meagre rations with others and visited the critically ill, though increasingly debilitated himself. His health held out until American troops liberated Mauthausen on May 5, 1945, but not much longer. Père Jacques perished on June 2, 1945, having poured himself out to the last.

Père Jacques: Resplendent in Victory also includes some selections from the writings and letters of this holy priest. The subjects, including education, spirituality, and the “art of living this war” humanly, all contribute to an appreciation of his life. Amid the darkness of 20th-century challenges, Père Jacques was resplendent in the victory of Christ.

Helen Valois writes from Steubenville, Ohio.