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: Searching for wisdom in a confused world

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Jordan Peterson became an overnight celebrity with the success of his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House, 2018). A viral interview from January of this year with Kathy Newman of England’s Channel 4 News brought immediate attention to Peterson’s newly released book, which has sold over two million copies since its release. The interview proved emblematic of Peterson’s popularity for attempting to retrieve common sense and to push back against the ideology overtaking our society.

Why has Peterson proved to be so popular?  A clinical psychologist, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson addresses issues that people care about: finding meaning, relationships, parenting, and gender, to name a few. People are looking for a guide, they desire wisdom — knowing how to order and make sense of reality — and Peterson has offered some needed insights. He tells his readers, “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being” (63).

This quote illuminates both the allure of Peterson’s writing, helping people to seek definition for their lives, but also its limits, as the definition of self he recommends lacks mooring. Writing from the viewpoint of secular psychology, Peterson can help us to reflect, but his 12 Rules for Life can come across as sophisticated self-help devoid of deeper wisdom. He engages the Western tradition, including the Bible, and offers a fresh, but ultimately unsatisfying, reflection of the stories that define our tradition. He does bring needed common sense, such as “stop doing what you know to be wrong,” (which should not even need to be said) but fails to provide answers to the ultimate questions that define meaning and identity (157).

Greater depth and wisdom can be found in Leon Kass’ Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter, 2017). Kass, a Jewish medical doctor and bioethicist, draws from his lengthy experience in science and teaching the Great Books at the University of Chicago to take us deeper into the human condition and point us toward a richer understanding of the human person — body, mind and soul. Kass, like Peterson, does not write from a religious perspective, but engages the same general themes and classic works, such as the Bible, though with a more convincing explanation of their meaning.

Kass’ book has four major sections, treating themes of love, human dignity, education and our higher aspirations. Kass guides us to reconsider the importance of the foundational goods of life — finding meaning in work and married life — as well as calling us to “the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own” (256). We pursue this liberation by entering into the great tradition of Western thought, which provides an “education in and for thoughtfulness. It awakens, encourages, and renders habitual thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good” (ibid.).

The thoughtfulness encouraged by Kass is needed more than ever to address the key concerns he raises: a collapse of courtship and marriage, biomedical challenges to the integrity of human nature, and a decline of citizenship. The first two themes share a common source in the “the rejection of a teleological view of nature,” which finds no intrinsic purpose in the human body or even life itself (54). Speaking of the threat of biotechnology and transhumanism, but in a way applicable to gender as well, he relates that “only if there is a human givenness that is also good and worth respecting — either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself — does the given serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone” (149). We must learn to appreciate and cultivate the good of our nature, rather than manipulating and controlling it to our own demise. The same is true of our nation, as Kass, drawing on Abraham Lincoln, points to the need for “enhancing reverence for the Constitution and its laws” (377), as we appreciate, preserve and advance the heritage of our country.

Kass, drawing on his unique background, guides us through an integrated discovery of the good and points us toward the wisdom we need to live a worthy life.