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: The quiet hours of Leonid Brezhnev

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On first meeting Dr. Andrzej Grajewski, you probably wouldn’t guess that this mild-mannered Polish historian is one of the world’s leading experts on the ecclesiastical Dark Side of the Cold War: the relentless communist assault on the Catholic Church. But he is, and his expertise comes primarily from years of patient combing through the Bad Guys’ secret intelligence service files. Some of those files went up the smokestack in 1989 (or are still locked down in Moscow), but many are now available to scholars. Grajewski’s recent research in that often-sordid underworld raises some interesting questions about the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981.

What do we know with certainty about that affair?

We know that, by the fall of 1979, Yuri Andropov, the highly intelligent, ruthless head of the KGB (the Soviet secret intelligence service) had concluded that John Paul II was a grave threat to the Soviet system, both internally and in the external Soviet empire. And we know that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party issued a decree on November 13, 1979, authorizing the use of “all available means” to forestall the effects of John Paul’s policy of challenging Soviet human rights violations.

We know that the assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a professional killer who somehow escaped from a Turkish military prison shortly after that 1979 decree was issued and received further training in a Syrian camp run by Soviet bloc intelligence services. We know that, after meeting with a Soviet intelligence officer in Tehran, Agca got into Bulgaria with the help of the Bulgarian security services and lived for two months in a luxury hotel in Sofia. We know that Agca’s finances were handled by a Turk, associated with communist intelligence services, who subsequently died in unexplained circumstances.

What we do not have is documentary evidence that all of this was done on the direct orders of Andropov, or Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, or both. But we do know that, as the Bulgarian spooks would have hesitated to change the brand of soap in their office washrooms without permission from Moscow Center, they certainly wouldn’t have run an operation against John Paul II on their own.

And now we know something else, thanks to an achingly dull, three-volume history of the schedule of Leonid Brezhnev, published three years ago in Russia.        Andrzej Grajewski plowed through these materials, concentrating on Brezhnev’s activities in April and May 1981 (shortly after Agca, by then in Zurich, met with several shady characters to complete the logistical and financial arrangements for the assassination attempt, which was set for May 13, 1981). Over the course of his reign as de facto head of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, Brezhnev did not meet all that often with Andropov, the KGB spymaster. But the tempo of their meetings increased dramatically in April and May 1981, as did the frequency of their phone conversations. Why this sudden intensification of contact between the Soviet chieftain and Andropov, at that precise time? Inquiring minds will wonder.

As they will wonder about Brezhnev’s schedule on May 13, 1981. That morning, Brezhnev met with a delegation from the Congo to sign several agreements. About 1 p.m., he came to his Kremlin office and worked by himself on documents; but the schedule does not indicate that he met with anyone that entire afternoon, nor did he make any phone calls. What was he waiting for? Was news anticipated? After 6 p.m.  — i.e., soon after Agca’s fired his shots in St. Peter’s Square — Brezhnev left the Kremlin for his residence in the Moscow suburbs. The next day he met in the Kremlin with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and on May 15, with Yuri Andropov.

Andrzej Grajewski’s careful but suggestive conclusion: “Does such a sequence of events prove that Brezhnev was informed about…the attack? We do not know that. Assuming that the idea of assassinating the Pope had arisen in the Soviet leadership, Brezhnev knew when it would happen. Of course, the records of [his] Kremlin schedule are not irrefutable evidence in this matter. However, they indicate that… May 13, 1981…was not a routine day for [Brezhnev]. His schedule shows that, during almost 18 years at the pinnacle of power, there was only one day, May 13, 1981, when Brezhnev’s attention was not absorbed by acting, directing, managing — but perhaps waiting for something to happen.”

Inquiring minds wonder.

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano