Blessed Marcel Callo: The nerd’s alternative to Pier Giorgio

Melissa Keating

Blessed Marcel Callo just needs to be more famous. His story is equal parts Pier Giorgio, Maximilian Kolbe,  Romeo Montague, and something that is uniquely his own. He also totally looks like a French Urkel, which I think we can all agree is amazing. In honor of his feast day on October 4, here is his life in blog form:

That kid at youth group

Marcel as a Boy Scout. Image from the Diocese of Fresuj-Toulon

Marcel as a Boy Scout. Image from the Diocese of Fresuj-Toulon

Marcel was the second of nine children. His family was French and poor, but happy, and raised him in the faith. He started working when he was 13, which is when we get one of my favorite insights into him: He was kind of an obnoxious Christian.

His coworkers would make jokes about women, so Marcel refused to have anything to do with them. He also refused to date, saying, “I am not one to amuse myself with the heart of a lady, since my love is pure and noble,” among other things that kind of make me want to take his lunch money. Most of his (very few) biographers try to pass this off as piety, but I think he was just your typical overzealous young Catholic. He would have been the modern equivalent of the teenager who wears 50 saints medals at once and has the techno remix of “Oceans” as their ringtone. He even spent all of his time with his equivalent of a youth group, the Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne (JOC), or Young Christian Workers.

The JOC is where Marcel learned to stop being so obnoxious. They stressed the importance of community and intellectual formation, as well as a robust prayer life. Marcel played sports through them, and began to spend 15 minutes a day in quiet prayer and went to Confession every other week. He still wasn’t perfected, as he was known for losing his temper with people who questioned Church teaching. And yet, as he became a leader within the JOC, he started to lighten up. For example, he shocked many elderly parishioners when he and his friends decided to go see a movie on All Soul’s Day. The older people thought the JOC should spend the day in prayer. However, Marcel and his friends managed to see the movie and still get into the Church before the liturgy started.

A very long engagement
Marcel and Maurgerite. Photo from Blessed Marcel Callo Parish in the Diocese of Arras.

Marcel and Maurgerite. Photo from Blessed Marcel Callo Parish in the Diocese of Arras.

However, the JOC wasn’t just a place for Marcel to sass old ladies. It was also where he met the love of his life, Marguerite Derniaux. He waited to ask her out, because he said, “One must master his heart before he can give it to the one that is chosen for him by Christ”. They were engaged, but World War II and his subsequent martyrdom prevented them from ever getting married.

Rennes was bombed on March 8, 1943. Marcel and his JOC friends volunteered to recover bodies and help the injured. Marcel was sifting through the debris of an office building when he recognized his little sister’s leg and shoe sticking out from a pile of debris. He had to break the news to his family.

A few weeks later, Marcel learned that he was being sent to a forced labor camp in Germany. His family would be arrested if he resisted, which would have been especially horrible since his older brother was about to be ordained a priest.  So he went. He told his family that he was going as a missionary, because there was an urgent apostolate waiting for him in the barracks.

Jesus in the barracks
jeuneMarcelCallo3_ptt

Unfortunately, the reality of forced labor was harder than he had anticipated, but this last round of suffering was what made him a saint. He was sent to a town without a single Catholic Church and forced to help make rockets that were used against his countrymen. He went three months without his family, his fiancee, or the Eucharist, all the while living on starvation rations and recreating the weapons that had killed his own sister. In other words, legalistic lip-service Christianity wasn’t going to work. He developed infected teeth, boils, and headaches from the deplorable conditions.  He sunk into a deep depression.

And then, just when everything seemed hopeless, he encountered Christ. Marcel discovered that Sunday Mass was offered in an obscure room of the barracks. He received the Eucharist for the first time in months and appreciated it like never before. He wrote to Marguerite, “Finally Christ reacted. He made me to understand that the depression was not good. I had to keep busy with my friends and then joy and relief would come back to me.”

Marcel the Missionary
Marcelsolo

And that’s exactly what he did. He rededicated himself to the prayer life he and Marguerite had established before the war. He also began to organize JOC-inspired activities for his friends in the barracks. They would play sports and cards, perform plays, and pray together. He found a French priest to say Mass for them once a month. In short, he stopped looking at his awful life and instead focused on choosing to love his God and his community. His hope and joy came back and spread to his fellow prisoners.

The S.S. also noticed the change in Marcel. They arrested him on April 19, 1944. While the officers search through his belongings, his friends asked for a reason for his arrest.  One of the officers replied, “Monsieur est trop Catholique” (translation: He is too Catholic).

Martyrdom

The Germans interrogated him. He admitted to being a part of the JOC, which the Germans had banned as a clandestine organization. He was sent to the concentration camp at Mathausen. The conditions were even worse than in the forced labor camp, but Marcel knew how to keep his joy. He continued to pray and encourage his fellow prisoners, even as he suffered from bronchitis, malnutrition, dysentary, fever, swellings, and generalized weakness, all in addition to his previous ailments. One prisoner had smuggled in a box of consecrated hosts and was able to give him his final Eucharist, also known as Viatacum.

His joy and hope were present to the end. The latrines at Mathausen were designed so that weaker prisoners would fall into them. Marcel nearly drowned in one, but was pulled out by a Colonel Thibideux. Marcel was too weak to even speak at this point. However, the colonel remembered that even covered in human waste and dying, “there was a holiness in [Marcel’s] eyes. I had never before seen anyone look that way!”

Beatification

Marcel died on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1945. It was exactly two years after he left France.  The last time he had seen Marguerite was at the train station, when she told him he was going to be a martyr. He told her that he would never be good enough for that. St. John Paul II disagreed, and declared him a martyr for the faith on October 4, 1987. The pope said that like Christ, Marcel “loved until the end, and his entire life became the Eucharist.

“Received into the everlasting joy of God, [Marcel] testifies that the Christian faith cannot separate Heaven from Earth. Heaven is prepared on Earth through justice and love,” the pope said.

“Nourished by prayer, the sacraments, and apostolic action….he built the Church with his brothers, the young Christian workers. It is in the Church that we become Christian, and it is with the Church that we build a new humanity.”***

A man for our generation
Marcel

And that’s why I love Marcel. He started off as the kind of Christian so many of us are early in our conversion: overzealous, obsessed with vocation, and more interested in looking Catholic than cultivating a deep relationship with Christ.

But then he was stripped of absolutely everything. His little sister was killed, his vocation was snatched away, and he was forced to take the place of German workers who had killed his family. He couldn’t even maintain the prayer and sacramental schedule of his former life. Yet his response was simply to find Christ already present in those dismal surroundings and dedicate himself to bringing others to the Lord. He offered his sufferings for the sake of his brother’s mission as a priest. Even when he was too weak to speak, he changed something in the colonel just by looking at him.

You don’t get that kind of radiance from simply following the rules. It comes from falling deeply, irrevocably in love with Christ, and knowing that his peace and joy are available no matter what happens to you. That’s the kind of twentysomething our world needs.

***My translation; not official

COMING UP: Relationship, not sacrifice is at the heart of Lent

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When we began Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Lord said to us, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13).

During Lent we strive to unite ourselves with Jesus’ experience of conquering temptation in the desert and pursuing the Father’s will, so that we can fully experience the joy and victory of Easter. The Scriptures and Fathers of the Church consistently recommend three forms of penance that help us on this journey: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But before we can fruitfully carry out these forms of purification, we must rend our hearts. In the Jewish tradition, ripping one’s garments – known as keriah – is done when mourning a relative who has passed away. Today, some Jews specifically rip their clothes over their hearts if the deceased is one of their parents. The Scriptures mention this expression of grief several times, including Jacob mourning his youngest son Joseph when he thought he was dead, or King David rending his garments at hearing that Saul had died.

Even more important than this outward expression of grief is returning to God with our whole heart, tearing it away from any unhealthy desires and attachments. In his 2018 message for Lent, Pope Francis offers some insights into the ways people develop unhealthy attachments today by reflecting on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus warns, “Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12).

The Holy Father echoes Jesus’ warning that there will be many false prophets who lead people astray. One kind of false prophet, which he calls snake charmers, are those “who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others … with momentary pleasures” like dreams of wealth or the belief that they are self-sufficient and don’t need others. Pope Francis also alerts us to “charlatans” – people who offer “easy and immediate solutions to suffering that soon prove utterly useless.” Their traps include drugs, disposable relationships and the temptation of a “thoroughly ‘virtual’ existence, in which relationships appear quick and straightforward, only to prove meaningless!”

But despite these snares laid by the Devil and his false prophets, God the Father declares through the Prophet Joel that he is “gracious and merciful … slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13). God’s mercy and love for us can transform our hearts, if we are willing to open them to him and deepen our relationship, especially through the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

When it comes to prayer, pursuing a deeper relationship with God means going beyond our first inclination, which is to make ourselves the focus of our prayer and to even boast of our accomplishments. Instead, we should ask God to help us know him better, to experience a greater intimacy with each person of the Trinity. The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila, calls this kind of prayer “mental prayer.” “In my opinion,” she said, “mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

If we pray in this way, then our fasting and almsgiving will naturally flow from us as acts of love for Christ in others, rather than being a set of tasks or Lenten requirements to fulfill. Our hearts will be rent, and not merely our garments.

Fasting is another way for us to draw closer to God. Saint Augustine observed this when he wrote, “Fasting purifies the soul. It lifts up the mind, and it brings the body into subjection to the spirit. It makes the heart contrite and humble, (and) scatters the clouds of desire … .” By denying our appetites and giving up distractions, we can more clearly hear God’s voice and place ourselves at his service.

The final practice of Lent that conforms our hearts more to Jesus’ Sacred Heart is almsgiving. Pope Francis notes in his Lenten message that almsgiving “sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone.”

This other-centered approach will help us to draw closer to the heart of Christ, particularly if we follow the advice of Saint Mother Teresa. “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving,” she was known to say.

As we seek to rend our hearts this Lent in preparation for Jesus’ Resurrection at Easter, let us remember that God desires to draw each of us closer to him. He is waiting for us to seek him out so that he can pour out his mercy, love and kindness upon us.