Venerable Fr. Francis Libermann
Fr. Francis Libermann’s unlikely journey from rabbi’s son in Alsace, France to recognition as “Venerable” by the Roman Catholic Church is a model of persistent faith and offers us a spiritual roadmap for these troubled times.
Fr. Libermann faced incredible obstacles. But his faith knew no bounds. He pursued his vision of founding a new missionary endeavor to newly freed slaves in Africa and the Caribbean. Today his spiritual descendents, 3,100 Spiritans, serve the economically disadvantaged on five continents. In 12 states in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, the Spiritans administer three dozen parishes, a university and a high school; American Spiritans labor abroad in Mexico, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and South Africa.
Venerable Francis Mary Paul Libermann was born Jacob Libermann in Alsace, France in 1802. His father, Lazarus, was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, and Jacob was studying to follow in his father’s footsteps. But, during his studies he heard the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which led him from the Old Testament to the New. He was baptized and converted to Catholicism in 1826. With a new name and new faith, Francis entered the seminary in Paris. The path was not a smooth one.
Epileptic seizures, brought on by the stress of his alienation from his father and the break with his religious roots, delayed his ordination for nearly 15 years. During this time he wasn’t idle; rather, seminarians saw him as a leader and came to him for spiritual guidance. Francis also developed a deep and personal faith in the Holy Spirit, whom he spoke of as the “director” of human affairs. His approach to “practical union with God” helped him and others find the divine in the everyday and to face life with confidence and faith.
Francis’ cure from epilepsy and his ordination in 1841 were considered signs of divine approval of the small religious community he had formed to minister to newly freed slaves in Haiti, Reunion, and Mauritius. His charismatic leadership and visionary approach attracted many new members, and the Vatican asked him to merge his fledgling group with the older Congregation of the Holy Ghost, known as the “Spiritans.” The Spiritans were founded in France in 1703 and had a parallel mission to serve the poor and marginalized. The infusion of Fr. Libermann’s rejuvenating enthusiasm led the Spiritans to regard him as their “second founder.”
The Spiritans under Fr. Libermann’s guidance recruited and educated thousands of ordained and lay missionaries. He was a pioneer of strategies now recognized as a blueprint for modern missionary activity. He urged the Spiritans to “become one with the people,” so that each group received and understood the Gospel in the context of its own traditions. Fr. Libermann’s zeal was so inspiring that when seminarians in France heard of the deaths of the first missionaries to West Africa, they lined up at his door to volunteer as replacements.
Amazingly, the man who inspired so many missionaries never went overseas himself and died on February 2, 1852, just shy of his 50th birthday. Fr. Libermann’s legacy of persistence, faith, and evangelization stretches around the globe. It encompasses a growing number of indigenous vocations in Africa and Latin America. And, it’s here in our ongoing service to underserved populations in the United States.
Today, we remember and salute Fr. Francis Libermann with every missionary step we take, putting our lives in the care of the Holy Spirit who inspires and directs us still!