June 24, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Despite many obstacles, Simon Bruté is ordained a priest

When the future bishop of Vincennes, Dr. Simon Bruté, decided he was being called by God to become a priest, his mother vehemently opposed the idea. So did some of his friends. After all, he was a distinguished member of the medical profession in France.

His mother, for practical reasons as well, wanted him to assist in financing the medical studies of his brother, Augustine. Eventually, he was able to convince his mother that he needed to respond to a different calling, and he went back to Paris at the same time that Augustine entered the college of medicine. In November 1803, Simon began private seminary studies.

For 10 years during the French Revolution, houses of religious formation and seminaries had been closed. The shortage of faithful clergy was severe, and young candidates for the priesthood were responding to the need for ministry of those who had remained faithful. Diocesan seminaries were reopened by bishops and, in October 1804, Simon entered the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris. At this time, he came into contact with the superior general of the Society of St. Sulpice, Father Jacques-André Emery, one of the stalwart religious leaders throughout the Revolution, even while imprisoned and under threat of the guillotine.

Simon’s connection to Father Emery would chart the course of his future. The superior general had already communicated to the first bishop of the United States, John Carroll of Baltimore, that he was willing to send priests to America to start a seminary.

The future seminary professor began his own seminary studies unaware of the commitment to Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore. With a scholar’s penchant, Simon Bruté began studying philosophy and theology. Natural scholar though he was, a nephew would quote him as saying, “I did not come to the seminary to be a scholar but to be a saint.”

At 25 years of age, the new seminarian was older than his peers. In fact, most seminarians were being ordained at his age. Bruté also differed from other candidates for the priesthood in that he was a physician. The tie to Napoleon Bonaparte reappeared at this time. About to be crowned emperor, Bonaparte appointed Bruté master of ceremonies for the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. While Simon did not seek advancement, the appointment provided a stipend that he could contribute to the payment of his brother’s medical education.

During his seminary career, Simon Bruté began building a library for which he would become noted in his future ministry in the United States. The collection of books would be the only thing he really ever owned.

Madame Bruté’s opposition to her son’s vocation to the priesthood resurfaced during his seminary years. Several times during this period, she tried to intercede with Father Emery to intervene with her son. She could not be deflected from her conviction that he would be an excellent physician and that was his destiny.

The Sulpician general superior agreed that Simon would make an excellent physician, but he reminded her that in no walk of life could he be of more service than in the priesthood. She conceded the point, but continued to hope that perhaps he could find an appointment that would allow his medical talent to flourish.

Meanwhile, Simon Bruté was wrestling with vocational concerns of a different sort. He became preoccupied with the desire to become a foreign missionary to India. As such, his medical credentials could be a valuable asset. He also struggled with the possibility of becoming a Sulpician priest.

Finally, on June 10, 1808, he was ordained a priest. He joined the Sulpicians after ordination, and he was loaned to the Diocese of Rennes to teach in the seminary there.

Just after his ordination, Napoleon offered Father Bruté an appointment in the imperial chapel. Simon refused the appointment, and once more his mother’s ambition for her priest son was thwarted.

Simon’s Sulpician superior, Father Emery, was concerned with the new priest’s zeal that apparently appeared excessive at times. He counseled Father Bruté to be prudent in his early ministry. Not surprisingly, the desire to be a missionary continued to weigh on Father Bruté.

Two facts from this period of our first bishop’s life are familiar in our day as well. It is not uncommon for parents to discourage a son from pursuing a vocation to the priesthood and for reasons that are similar to those of Madame Bruté. Yet, there is no greater opportunity to touch the deepest meaning of people’s lives than through ministry in the priesthood.

Secondly, the zeal of new priests is refreshing and keeps our Church young in our day, too. Yet the wisdom of the older Sulpician superior helps on the path to holiness as well.

Next Week: Father Simon Bruté’s dream of becoming a missionary is fulfilled, but with an unexpected twist.

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