June 3, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Summer series will focus on life of Bishop Simon Bruté

One of the secrets of holiness that had a powerful impact on Catholicism in Indiana can be found in the life and ministry of our first bishop, Simon Bruté.

He was intellectually gifted, one of the first significant theologians to guide the leadership of the Church in the United States. He had been a restless soul through the years of his vocational discernment and continued to struggle during his years of teaching in the United States. He wrestled with a desire to become a missionary in the Far East. The case can be made that he found peace of soul after he became the founding missionary bishop of the territory that encompassed Indiana and eastern Illinois.

For the 2005 summer series of my columns, I plan to focus on the life and ministry of our first bishop, who was born on March 20, 1779, and died on June 26, 1839. Elements of his life and ministry can serve as a framework for reflections on the meaning of his virtues for us Catholics some 160 years later. I truly believe he is a blessing and a grace for our local Church.

Most of you are aware that because of this conviction I have initiated the beginning stages of the cause for canonization of Bishop Bruté. You also know that I placed our seminary house of formation at Marian College under his patronage.

I hope to frame my reflections around the stages of our founding bishop’s life. Tentatively, I see the articles for the series unfolding as follows:

1) A childhood shaped by life during the French Revolution—Gabriel Simon Bruté was born in affluence, but even as a child was forced to live his Catholic faith with extraordinary discretion.

2) Gabriel Simon’s academic and medical background—He was an outstanding student and became a distinguished medical doctor.

3) Vocation to the priesthood and missionary aspirations—Only later did Gabriel Simon Bruté de Rémur discern a vocation to priesthood—in spite of his mother’s strong and vociferous objections.

4) Missionary to the United States: Priestly ministry in Maryland—Father Bruté wrestled with the desire to be a missionary to the Far East like St. Francis Xavier, but as a Sulpician priest he was sent to the United States instead. The focus of his ministry was that of theologian and teacher.

5) Ministry at Emmitsburg, Md.—During his sojourn at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, the spirituality and holiness of Father Bruté caught the attention of Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was later canonized for her holiness and charity. Father Bruté had become her spiritual director.

6) A Pastor at heart—While he was highly respected as a theologian by the first bishops of the United States, Father Bruté was sought out for his sacramental ministry, pastoral wisdom and spiritual direction.

7) Status of the Church in Indiana in 1834—Of the roughly 1 million people living in Indiana and Illinois, an estimated 25,000 Catholics were spread over the large territory. Chicago had the largest number. Conditions were primitive. The Ohio and Wabash rivers were main arteries for travel. The first missionaries traversed most of the territory on horseback.

8) Bishop of Vincennes, 1834—Against his protestations and efforts to refuse his appointment as bishop of Vincennes because of what he considered severe pastoral, spiritual and physical limitations, Simon Bruté was named bishop of Vincennes in 1834. He had only two priests and one on loan to help found the diocese.

9) Five years of effective ministry—As we will see, our first missionary bishop found peace of soul and accomplished extraordinary results in ministry in a short five years.

10) The poverty and holiness of Bishop Bruté—A friend, Bishop Benedict Flaget of Bardstown, said: “An American missionary had to be able to live on nothing and cook it himself.”

11) The illness and death of a simple bishop—Bishop Bruté was buried in borrowed clothes. His last words were those of Jesus on the Cross: “Sitio. (I thirst).”

12) The process for the cause of canonization—On Dec. 4, 1891, while visiting Vincennes, Cardinal Gibbons said: “Worthy citizens of Vincennes, you need not go on pilgrimages to visit the tombs of saints. There is one reposing here in your midst, namely, the saintly founder of this diocese, Right Reverend Simon Bruté.”

My sources for the life of Bishop Bruté are:

Simon Bruté de Rémur by Sister Mary Salesia Godecker, O.S.B., Ph.D., published by St. Meinrad Historical Essays, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1931.

The Reed and the Roc: Portrait of Simon Bruté by Theodore Maynard, published by Longmans, Green and Co., N.Y., 1842.

Frontier Bishop: The Life of Bishop Simon Bruté by James Roosevlet Bayley, edited by Albert J. Nevins, M.M., published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. Huntington, Ind., 1971.

Next week: Simon Bruté’s childhood and the French Revolution

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