Jacques Berthieu SJ
The Jesuit saint who wanted a small heart
The feast day of the French Jesuit saint and martyr, Fr. Jacques Berthieu (1838-1896), is celebrated on the 8th of June. Fr. Jacques was canonized in 2012. Fr. Tom Casey reflects on the vocation of this humble and generous Jesuit priest.
We instinctively like people with big hearts, who are full of life and passion, always ready to give a helping hand, and who reach out to others with compassion and love.
But what about someone who wants instead to have a small heart? Isn’t that a rather miserly way to approach life? Isn’t it a stingy way to live? And how could a saint, of all people, desire such a petty way of being for himself? Because that’s what the French Jesuit saint we celebrate on the 8th of June wrote about himself, that he wanted to have a small heart. Here are the precise words Father Jacques Berthieu used: “I don’t want to possess any land but a small heart…”
He wrote these words the very year he entered the Jesuit novitiate, the year he turned 35 years of age. He was already a priest at this stage, in fact he had been ordained a priest nine years beforehand. But after serving in his diocese for almost a decade, he felt it was time to test out his call to become a missionary, and so he applied to join the Jesuits.
If he only wanted a small heart, and that was the end of the story, his wish would certainly sound ungenerous. But crucially, Fr. Jacques added something else, because the words that I quoted just now only form the first half of a sentence, and the second half of the sentence is vitally important. Here is the whole sentence: “I don’t want to possess any land but a small heart to love people in the divine heart of Jesus.”
This is the full story: Fr. Jacques wanted to be small so that Jesus could be big, he wanted to be tiny so that the huge heart of Jesus could have the necessary space to be the driving force in his life.
Some words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux may help to explain better what Fr. Jacques was driving at. Thérèse was born the same year Jacques Berthieu entered the Jesuit novitiate, in 1873. She died in 1897, a year after he was martyred. These two saints never met – she was from Normandy, he was from the Auvergne. There was no contact between them, yet we know that this extraordinary young woman, who was later declared patroness of missionaries, constantly prayed and made sacrifices for all missionaries. Her prayers and sacrifices, therefore, would have also benefited Fr. Jacques Berthier.
Thérèse offered these precious words of wisdom: “To remain a child before God means to recognize our nothingness, to expect everything from God.”
I know that for my part, if I recognize my nothingness, I’m tempted to give up then and there. Why? Because I imagine I can do nothing, full stop. In other words, I forget the rest of Thérèse’s advice: “to expect everything from God”. I overlook this crucial point, and end up becoming anxious in the face of my own nothingness. But when I stop to think about it, I realize that nothingness isn’t something I should bother paying attention to at all. After all, I don’t even stop to think about insignificant things, so why should I pause to think about nothingness? Why look at nothing? Why get preoccupied by nothing? In fact, the point of recognizing my nothingness is not to become fixated on this nothingness, but to concentrate on God instead. God is everything, God is all, so God should get all my attention.
Thérèse realized this, and so did Jacques Berthieu. He didn’t experience spectacular success during his years as a missionary in Madagascar, and yet he wasn’t discouraged, because he knew it wasn’t about him, it was about God. He wrote: “The mission progresses, even though the fruit is still a matter of hope in some places, and hardly visible in others. But what does it matter, so long as we are good sowers? God will give growth when the time comes.”
Before he even left France to go on the missions, Fr. Jacques had made a special consecration of himself to the Sacred Heart at Paray-le-Monial. Because he relied on God for everything, he knew he would receive the grace to give everything, even if necessary, his very life. And that’s what happened in the midst of the menalamba (“red shawl”) uprising against French colonial rule. Because he was a foreigner and French, Fr. Jacques was targeted in this popular rebellion. He was captured on the 8th of June, 1896. Having been struck on the forehead with a machete, Fr. Jacques, bleeding heavily, was dragged on a six-mile trek by a group of armed men. When they reached the village of Ambohitra, they stoned him, then took the handkerchief from his bleeding head, soaked it in mud and dirty water, and wrapped it around his head, shouting, “Behold the king of the Europeans”. Uncanny echoes of Christ’s Passion!
A platoon of six men armed with guns was called in. Two of them shot at him, but missed. Then one of their leaders came over to the kneeling Fr. Berthieu and said: “Give up your hateful religion, do not mislead the people anymore, and we will make you our counsellor and our chief, and we will spare you.” When he refused, the men fired until they killed him.
Saint Jacques Berthieu and Saint Thérèse were not concerned about how their limited human resources might rise to the challenge of the huge mission to which they had been called. They knew that God was everything, and that the only thing he asked for was their yes, their fiat to his divine will. Once they said this yes, God’s grace entered their hearts and their lives bore and continue to bear unimaginable fruit.