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Cardinal commemorates first Moreau feast

John Tierney | Monday, January 21, 2008

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, D.C., headlined Saturday’s conference “A Great Cloud of Witnesses: Saints in the Catholic Tradition” with a glowing speech on the life of Father Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

The conference was held in honor of the first celebration of Moreau’s feast day Sunday.

Moreau is a man that the cardinal “would have loved to have known,” McCarrick said. “He has become a friend of mine. I hope that you too will become a friend of Basil.”

McCarrick described Moreau as “a very extraordinary man and a great man for our times.” He credited Moreau with helping to save the church in France following the anti-establishment movements of the French Revolution.

Moreau’s life from 1799-1873 should be viewed in context of the turmoil that then enveloped his native France, McCarrick said.

“France was a very interesting and confusing place,” McCarrick said. The revolutionaries “wanted to get rid of the Church and its power so that it could never come back.”

Despite the anti-Church movements of the early 19th century, Moreau’s family remained extremely Catholic. The idea of a vocation in the Church was presented to Basil at a young age.

When Moreau entered the seminary at the age of 12 or 13 years, his father walked him 60 kilometers from their home. When they arrived at the seminary, his father kissed him and then turned around and walked the 60 kilometers home. “This is a great story of family,” McCarrick said.

Family would prove to be extremely important in the religious order that Moreau would go on to found, he added.

After his ordination, Moreau went on to study personal spirituality in Paris and teach philosophy, theology and Scripture at the seminary for 13 years. However, at age 35, Moreau realized that “his call was a special one,” McCarrick said. “He realized he was called for the re-evangelization of France.”

Moreau was appointed superior of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and formed a group of auxiliary priests to preach missions from town to town. He later became superior for a group of brothers. Moreau combined the sisters, priests, and brothers into one religious family.

“Basil had a vision of religious life as a family,” McCarrick said.

While that idea may not seem revolutionary in 2008, Moreau was the first person to articulate it at that time, McCarrick said.

Moreau was characterized by his intense desire to “put things in order,” McCarrick said. “He had a willingness to change, but he loved to see things in order.”

Moreau’s priests, brothers and sisters numbered 278 members by 1847, but his bishop refused to support papal recognition of the congregation because of a prior feud dating from the bishop’s time as rector of the seminary. However, the triple congregation gained renown for their specialty in education of “the heart, the mind, and the whole person,” McCarrick said.

Moreau later sent members of his congregation on missions to Algiers, Algeria and Vincennes, Ind. In exchange for receiving papal recognition as a missionary congregation, Moreau also sent members to Bengal.

Despite his congregation’s success, Moreau became embedded in crisis when financial problems arose. When a fire at Notre Dame caused Father Edward Sorin to rebuild the campus without waiting for permission from Moreau coincided with a massive debt in the Paris operations, the pope blamed Moreau for the problems. However, when Moreau offered his resignation as superior general of his order in 1860, the pope refused the offer.

Even before the financial problems arose, members of Moreau’s order had begun a campaign to remove him because of his autocratic ruling style. This movement gained traction as the debts mounted, and the pope eventually accepted Moreau’s resignation in 1866. Moreau was effectively forced out of his own congregation.

Without his congregation, Moreau went to live at his blood sister’s home and resumed his work as a missionary auxiliary priest attempting to re-evangelize France.

McCarrick credits Moreau’s vision for Holy Cross’s success over the years.

“Moreau was a founder, an apostle, a spiritual giant, a workaholic and a sometimes crank,” he said. “But he had a vision that was so captivating that hundreds and hundreds of men and women joined his congregation. He had a vision of family, of caring and of total service.”