A More Loving and Lovable Church: Madeleine Delbrêl (1904–1964)

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Diego Fares SJ

 Diego Fares SJ / Church Life / 4 August 2021


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To write about Madeleine Delbrêl, Cardinal Martini said, is to write about “one of the greatest mystics of the 20th century.”[1] It was the same cardinal who said that “the Church is 200 years out of date. Why doesn’t it wake up? Are we afraid? Are we fearful rather than courageous?”[2] Yet when we read about Madeleine’s life we can affirm that in this daughter of the Church, in the testimony of  her life and her thought, the Church was already ahead by 80 years.

When Martini spoke of being out of date, he was mainly referring to the Church in Europe and its institutional dimension. He said, “In affluent Europe and America the Church is tired. Our culture has grown old, our churches are big, our convents and monasteries empty, the church bureaucracy bloated, and our religious rites and the vestments we wear are pompous. Do these things express what we are today? […] Wealth weighs heavily. We find ourselves like the rich young man who went away sad when Jesus called him to become his disciple. I know that we cannot leave everything easily. At least, however, we could look for people who are free and closer to their neighbors. […] Where are the individuals full of generosity like the Good Samaritan? Who has faith like the Roman centurion? Who is enthusiastic like John the Baptist? Who is venturing on the new like Paul? Who is as faithful as was Mary of Magdala? I recommend that the pope and the bishops look for twelve people outside of the norm for leadership positions. People who are close to the poorest and who are surrounded by young people and who experience new things. We need confrontation with those who are on fire so that the spirit can spread everywhere.”[3]

Madeleine is one of those great women who embody the fidelity of Mary Magdalene, the boldness of Paul, the generosity of the Good Samaritan, and the faith and enthusiasm for Jesus and in Jesus of so many Gospel characters. Many of her proposals for  the Christian life in the midst of the world, indeed, one may say all of them – especially in places on the geographical and existential periphery, as her Marxist Ivry was 80 years ago – are those that Francis today brings into focus in his gestures and official writings. 

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