Bresillac’s Missionary Life
Melchior de Marion Brésillac was born in Castelnaudary in the south of France on 2nd December 1813, into a family of social position and prestige which had suffered setbacks during the French Revolution. He was the eldest of five children. His father, Gaston, an engineer and inspector on the Canal de Midi. His mother, Josephine, discreet and attentive was to develop her oldest son’s sensitivity. His trouble-free education assured him a happy childhood.
Melchoir received his early education from his father. His father wanted him to have a military career, however, young Melchior at 19 years of age, decided to dedicate his life to God. In 1832, he entered minor seminary at Carcassonne to complete his secondary education and to realize his vocation to the priesthood.
Melchior had a strong desire to dedicate his life to the Missions. When he was deacon, in one of his sermon he presented missionary engagement as a duty of charity towards those who do not know Jesus Christ.
Melchior was ordained as priest on December 22, 1838. He was appointed curate in the Church of Saint Michel of Castelnaudry, his home town. Reflective and brilliant, he prepared his sermons with care, devoted time to the sick and taught catechism to the children with patience and understanding. This was a comfortable position that many others would have enjoyed. However, this dissatisfied Melchior and he began to discern his calling to mission. This was not easy as both his bishop and his father were stidently opposed to his desire to become a missionary.
In 1840, Melchior made a retreat for a few days with the Jesuits in Avignon. At the end of his retreat, he decided to follow a missionary vocation. His decision in becoming a missionary priest was greatly opposed by his father and his Bishop.
Melchior was sure of God’s call to him, he had courage to resist the heartbreak and grief that the tears of his mother and obstinacy of his father gave him. Eventually, his father accepted his greater calling. His father wrote him a letter and said, “Go my dear son. Go where heaven is calling you. Now, I recognize the voice that summons you. May he protect you. Be happy. I submit!”
Melchior wrote to his Bishop to allow him to be a missionary priest. He was refused for 3 times. But Melchior was not bothered: he trusted in the Lord. Due to his perseverance and faithful behavior, his bishop allowed him to become a missionary priest.
In 1841, he left his parish and entered ‘Missions Etrangeres de Paris’ (MEP), the Paris Foreign Mission Society.
While in Paris Foreign Mission Society, Melchior met Father Luquet, an aspiring missionary like him. Aim of the Foreign Missions expressed him, which is, “ To accelerate the conversion of Gentiles (non-christians) by proclaiming the Gospel to them, but also by providing for and raising to the ecclesiastical state those new Christians or their children who might be judged suitable for his holy state, so as to form in each country a clergy and a hierarchical order like the one which Jesus Christ and the apostles established throughout the whole Church.”
Melchior went through broad the rigorous training to be a missionary priest. He studied different languages like English, Tamil and Sanskrit. He attended theological courses, Sacred Scripture courses and mystical theology and astronomy courses. Further, Melchior was exposed to the difficulties that missionary comes across and which could end up in martyrdom and the unforeseen difficulties that can cause death.
This training allowed Melchior to become aware of the different implications of his missionary choice. He brought God every aspect of mission and missionary life and was nourished by his intimate dialogue with God. By waiting on God’s will in all things, in fear, enthusiasm and submission, he left it all up to God.
During this time, Melchior made a retreat and wrote down the following resolutions he desired to accomplish; i) to be a missionary from the bottom of my heart; ii)to neglect nothing that will advance the work of God; iii) to seize every opportunity of preaching the Word of God;iv) lastly, and it is for this above all that I implore Your blessing, to use every available means, all my strength, all my mind, towards the training of a native clergy.
In 1842, Father Langlois, Melchior’s Superior, announced his first mission in Pondicherry, India.
Melchior was not immediately appointed to a mission post but spent several months familiarizing himself with the country and its language, Tamil. The emancipation of the local population created tensions. In addition, the European missionaries did not manage to agree on what attitude to adopt in the face of national customs: the Indian Christians rejected the demands that people tried to impose on them in the name of their religion. Melchior realized that the missionaries were accepted begrudgingly because they wanted to impose a way of being and behaving that was influences too much by their European mentality.
The castes seemed to be the biggest obstacle to evangelization. They schematically divided the population and contact was forbidden between one and the other, hence the difficulty in creating Christian communities.
Melchior first area of apostolate was in the town of Salem and the “district” around it, at the centre of Tamil-Nadu. Melchior visited different Christian community and had difficulty in communication. A local clergy can only recruit as seminarians boys belonging to upper class. Moreover, majority of the missionaries believed that creation of a local clergy was a mere utopia. Despite all these, Melchior was happy with his contacts. He reported that the missionaries spent nearly all their time serving those who were already baptized and he regretted that the conversion of non-Christians was not an objective that was remembered or even imposed. He wanted a return to a simple evangelical preaching like that of the apostles.
The Bishop appointed Melchior as Superior of the Pondichery College Seminary. Melchior was apprehensive on the appointment. He was only 30 years old, had only been in India for a year and a half and was not yet fluent in Tamil. Yet, he was glad that the ideas he had held about the local clergy was not frightening to all his confreres.
As the Superior of Pondichery College Seminary, he provided direction in all areas, spiritual and temporal. He himself taught science courses in the upper classes and coordinated the teaching in Philosophy and Theology. “ A missionary from the bottom of his heart”, he was determined not to demand anything from the students that went beyond accepted customs.
Ideas evolved among the missionaries and a movement in favor of a local clergy was put in place. Melchior reminded others that they should not demand that people change its civic customs and that the capacity of Indians was in no way inferior to that of other nations. For him, respect for their customs went without saying. But during this time, middle of 19th century, Melchior’s ideas were radical. Melchior did not get full agreement from his Bishop on the way he ran the seminary. He did not get enough support to be able to work in a completely serene manner.
Fr. Luquet, the friend of Melchior and who had the same ideas and beliefs with him, went to Rome and reported the state of the mission in southern India and to disentangle the complex question of different jurisdictions. He proposed to increase the number of vicariates and a new Apostolic Vicars would be needed. In the letter to Propaganda he stressed the value of Melchior’s generous soul, extensive culture, faith, Christian simplicity and good manners. Melchior was appointed Pro-Vicar of Coimbatore and later Vicar Apostolic of Coimbatore. In October 4, 1846 at Karumathampathy, Melchior was ordained as Bishop and took charge of the administration of Coimbatore Vicariate.
At Karumathampathy, his new assigned vicariate, Bishop Melchior noticed the great poverty of the population. The church was in a barn and the priest’s house consisted of 3 comfortless little rooms. Bishop Melchior appreciated the place as retreat and peace. He visits his district and his heart is often heartbroken for he saw the churches resembled shacks and his moral authority over the people are often contradicted by his own fellow workers.
Almost immediately de Brésillac set about attempting to inculturate the Gospel into the local culture; he believed that unless Christianity could weave itself into the local tapestry the Church would always be foreign to the people. Above all the he wanted to establish an indigenous clergy at all costs. He was outraged at the caste system where a person’s worth was determined by birth, and became more impatient with the slowness of change and the lack of clear directives on these issues from Rome.
Bishop Melchior wrote to his missionaries and exhorted to them not to look down to the Indian priests, not to give priority to European customs, not to allow themselves to become disaffected by a sometimes thankless ministry, to be gentle and good shepherds and to encourage the communities to take charge of themselves.
Frustrated at the slowness of change, Bishop Brésillac came to the conclusion that he could no longer remain in charge. In 1854 he came to Rome and presented his resignation which was accepted. This was painful for him. Right through his life the one thing he wanted above all else was to do the will of God. Even after much soul searching and prayer he could not be sure he had done the right thing: ‘Have I been faithful in obeying You? It is in obedience to you that, after long years spent in India, I am now furling my sails … or have I listened to myself?’
After his resignation, Bishop Melchior went back to his family in France. He felt restless. He wrote to the secretary of the Congregation for the Missions in Rome, asking that he might become an active missionary again that God was calling him to be a missionary to Africa, “to go to the most abandoned.” His request was accepted in principle but Rome did not want him to go alone; they wanted him to found a society of missionaries for this work. On 29 February 1856, Rome gave him their permission to found a Society.
With this permission in his hand he left Rome to begin now the work of finding men and the funds to bring the dream to fruition. In this time too he drew up the laws governing the members of the Society – chief among them was that those who would join the Society would have to commit themselves for life to the service of the African people.
On December 8, 1856, Bishop Melchior with six (6) other priests made the pilgrimage to the Shrine of Notre Dame de Fourviere, near Lyons in France and there established the Society to the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Each in turn took an oath: “… ere and now I offer mylife to God, H Here and now I offer my life to God, accepting in advance and with joy, for His greater glory … the pains and privations, the hardship… the suffering of persecution, and even martyrdom, should God deem me worthy to bear witness to the faith by my death…”
In November 1858, there were first three (3) SMA priests left for Africa at Freetown, Sierra Leone. In May 1859, Bishop Melchior with two (2) other SMA priests set out from France to the join the first three priests. During this time, there was a Yellow Fever outbreak in Freetown, Sierra Leone. One by one of the SMA priests came very ill and died. On June 25, 1859, Bishop Melchior died a painful death from Yellow Fever. One of the SMA priests, Fr. Louis Raymond who was able to return to France very ill, was able to administer the Last Rites to Bishop Bresillac. Two (2) days later, Fr. Louis Raymond died leaving only one (1) SMA priest, Fr. Augustine Planque and some seminarians back in France to continue and manage what was left of the Bishop Bresillac, the founder’s vision.
Now, members of the Society of African Missions, it’s seminarians and countless people in the different African countries where SMAs have worked over these years, have indeed cause to give thanksgiving to God for the life of de Brésillac. It is our earnest wish that one day this great servant of mission will be raised to the Altar of Saints of the Church.