June 17, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Simon Bruté gives up a promising medical career
for priesthood

At age 20, the future founding bishop of the Catholic Church in Indiana moved from Rennes, the capital of Brittany, to Paris. It was a great change for Simon Bruté as he pursued his medical career. His mother had hopes that her son would become a great, indeed a famous, surgeon. If that were to happen, Simon had to attend the best medical school in France.

Madame Bruté was well aware that Paris had been the center of revolutionary frenzy. Also aware that the great city was a center of licentiousness, she wrote out in characteristic fashion a set of rules that Simon was to observe. Along with instruction for maintaining good health, Simon was advised not to become too involved in social affairs and not to fall in among bad company. He was dissuaded from attending the theater.

On the positive side, she encouraged her son to practice his religious duties, to find a confessor, and to read the Bible and the works of St. Francis de Sales. As for medical studies, a few subjects thoroughly mastered were better than many pursued superficially.

In its day, the College of Medicine in Paris was considered the finest in the world. At least four of Bruté’s professors would find a permanent place in medical history for contributions to the humane treatment of the insane, in the field of chemistry, in the study of anatomy, and in the field of surgery. Madame Bruté’s concern for Simon’s spiritual and religious values was well-placed. In the post-Revolution era, it was not uncommon for professors to consider it incumbent upon them as scientists and philosophers to disparage religion and the “superstitions” of the Catholic faith. Many of the young intelligent medical students readily mirrored the mind of some of their faculty members.

The cynicism and religious skepticism, however, was not embraced by all the medical students. Simon Bruté and some of his classmates formed a religious sodality and found a priest-moderator to assist them. Later Simon would write that the preservation of his faith in Paris could be credited to the influence of this priest-moderator and his association with like-minded peers.

He and his peers chose topics for their written theses that gave them the opportunity to affirm their Catholic faith. Apparently, this controversy in the medical school caught the attention of the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. His motives are not clear, but he is reported to have instructed the professors of the medical college to adhere strictly to the topics of their curriculum and to avoid criticism of religion.

During this period of medical studies, Simon’s characteristic concern for a colleague who was unfairly imprisoned for tending the medical needs of an alleged conspirator led him to intercede for his friend’s pardon. His intervention caught the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte. Simon was also credited with finding a group of disguised priests to be available to provide absolution at the scaffold for a Catholic prisoner condemned to the ­guillotine.

Simon emerged as a brilliant medical student. In 1802, just before he graduated, he won the coveted Corvisart Prize, awarded to the most outstanding medical student. The competition was open to all 1,100 students of the medical college and the winner was determined through a process of written and oral examinations. The prize guaranteed Simon Bruté a successful career as a physician in France. In fact, although he did not seek it, after his first internship, Simon was appointed physician to the First Dispensary, the major medical center in Paris. The appointment had the fingerprints of Napoleon Bonaparte on it. It seemed that it would only be a matter of time before he would win a position on the faculty of the college of medicine.

Simon Bruté, however, refused the ­government appointment. His mother was stunned. To everyone’s astonishment, Simon had decided that he wanted to enter the priesthood. He had persevered in his studies, and did so with honor and distinction. As a gesture of gratitude, he sent the Corvisart Prize to his first teacher and mentor in Rennes, Dr. Duval.

Madame Bruté had no idea that her son had been discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Eventually, he would try to convince her that if it was noble to become a doctor who cured illness of the body, it was even nobler to cure the illnesses of the soul. His mother was not convinced and vehemently opposed his decision to become a priest.

She had wisely counseled him to take measures to protect and nurture his Catholic faith in the culture of Paris after the French Revolution. She had worried about the anti-religious environment, not realizing that perhaps her own strong influence would unwittingly lead her son to pursue studies for the priesthood.

Next week: Despite his mother’s disapproval, Simon Bruté enters a seminary and studies to become a priest.

Local site Links: