August 19, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Simplicity and prayer were hallmarks of Bishop Bruté’s life

Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of Bardstown said: “An American missionary had to be able to live on nothing and cook it himself.”

When Father Simon Bruté first came to America as a seminary teacher and missionary at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md., he was entitled to a salary of $50 a year, which he rarely collected because of his desire to live a simple life. At times, he gave some of what little clothes he owned to the poor. Once, he gave his coat to a beggar. He borrowed ill-fitting clothes from the seminarians. The small sums of money received from his mother or his brother were not kept for himself. To save money, he would walk to Baltimore rather than take the stagecoach. In 1839, when he died as the bishop of Vincennes, he was buried in borrowed clothes.

Because of his simplicity, Bishop Simon Bruté, although a highly educated priest from France, was called “the Silent Power” of the Church in its infancy in the United States. He was praised in those words because of his missionary vision and love for the larger Church; he was respected for his prudence and admired for his holiness.

With the eyes of faith, he was a man of hope. Bear in mind that when he began as the bishop of Indiana and half of Illinois, including Chicago, he had three priests to assist him in truly trying circumstances. Yet he could write to a bishop friend: “Generally my troubles are more on the surface and there is peace in the depth of my heart where dwells a pure and simple abandonment to God alone.”

The restless longing for the missions in India faded with his arrival in Indiana.

Bishop Bruté’s spirit of hope in the wilderness and his ability to abandon himself to God’s will were rooted in the spiritual depth of prayer. He had been the spiritual director for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for many years. Once, he wrote to her: “Pray, pray, pray continually for the Church especially in America, and for this diocese.”

When he was named bishop of Vincennes, he wrote to Mother Rose White, the superior who succeeded Mother Seton, “Pray, pray for Simon.” His exhortation to pray echoes down the years.

No pastoral ministry was too difficult. One bitter winter night, Bishop Bruté was called to attend to a dying man who lived several miles from Vincennes. After walking a short distance through deep snow, his guide began to complain and then refused to go any farther because his feet were freezing. Bishop Bruté, who was saying his rosary, said to the man, “Walk in my footsteps.” So the man did—and all was well.

“Follow the footsteps of Bishop Bruté” is still a cogent invitation in those times when we might be called to trudge through deep snow in what may seem to be a dark night.

Before becoming our first bishop, Father Bruté was best known as a seminary professor at the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris and at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md., and as president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. History records his deep concern for the effective teaching and the integrity of the Catholic faith in a pioneer milieu in which the Church was finding her way. His concern and his theological expertise were appreciated by the first bishops of the Church in America. He was their pre-eminent theologian. Concern for the purity of doctrine of our faith is a worthy heritage from our founding bishop.

Bishop Bruté went on foot in deep snow to bring God’s love and mercy to a dying man. Throughout his life, he was sought as a spiritual director and confessor. His witness—even as he himself was being consumed by tuberculosis—inspires us to hunger for the sacraments and for holiness, whether convenient or inconvenient.

When Bishop Bruté died, one of his priests wrote: “Bishop Bruté set the example of the most brotherly affection. When he was with us we did not feel our weariness; nothing was hard to us and we scarcely knew we were poor although deprived of almost every necessity of life.” It is of the essence of being members of the Body of Christ that, like Bishop Bruté, we can be with each other “so that nothing seems hard—and the feeling of weariness is lifted.”

Bishop Bruté was humbled whenever he presided and preached at Mass. Despite his brilliance and education, he was unable to master the English language. It was difficult to understand him, and he was embarrassed because, in the primitive circumstances of his time, he had lost all his teeth. Yet, we can look at his priestly life and see what God can do. Our founding bishop carried on with faith and hope. How grateful we are as beneficiaries of the rest of the story.

(Next week: The Catholic Church in Indiana grows rapidly under Bishop Simon Bruté’s guidance.)


Local site Links: