Elisabeth Leseur on the societal duty of Christians
Just as important, every Christian woman has a responsibility to society. Because of your education, you will be able to accomplish more and must work with all your strength to improve the material and moral condition of others, especially of the dispossessed masses that, though often deceived and taken advantage of, are, nevertheless, still good hearted and are the great reserves of the nation and of the church. You see, we must never forget the tender words spoken one day by Jesus on seeing the crowd gathered around him, "I have compassion on the crowd" (Mark 8:2).
Like him, let us be compassionate, and love these people...
Two notes here:
(1) Elisabeth mentions here a second, practical purpose of education ("you will be able to accomplish more").
(2) This is an important reminder not to look down on the masses, the crowd, what we often call today the "mainstream." We often mistake "deceived" and "taken advantage of" for "stupid", "hopeless," and "bad."
Let us go to them as brothers and sisters, not as superiors or benefactors, and show them
- that real equality is found only in the teachings of Christianity, which recognizes the same human dignity in all people, assigns to them the same end, and promises them the same happiness.
- ...that the church alone carries out the ideal of fraternity and imposes it as a law upon her children, and
- that she alone, according to the sayings of Jesus assures us true freedom: "You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will make you free" (John 8:31).
(Yeah, I see what you did there. Liberté, égalité, fraternité.)
Quite soon... you will be able to share to a greater degree in the social action that is emerging everywhere, choosing those [activities] that are at the same time the most spiritual and the most practical....Never be one of those who want to be the command and not an ordinary soldier, who want only to participate in the good projects they create and only recognize as good anything that is done in their particular way according to their own procedures. Here, as elsewhere, you should have a broad mind and generous heart; put up with the contradictions and difficulties that are the price of success; work day by day without looking for results, but be confident that God will make something of your efforts.
This is all quite practical advice about working with and for others on visible things out in the world. Don't be a control freak; be broad-minded and generous; expect hardships to result even from successes; don't get discouraged if the payoff is smaller than you wish.
Remember, however, that... during this period of transition through which we are passing, in order to work to bring about a new Christian social order, you must prepare yourself by making a serious study of these very difficult problems, bringing to any attempt at their solution very great prudence together with Christian courage.
I confess I am not exactly sure what "period of transition" she is referring to exactly. At the time, there would have been public controversy and debate that several months later would culminate in the 1905 "Law on the Separation of Churches and the State." I suspect (based on some cursory Wikipedia research) she is writing to counter a notion that French Catholics must be monarchists á la Action Française. Wikipedia says: "The Dreyfus Affair gave some Catholics the impression that Catholicism is not compatible with democracy." But Elisabeth says:
Catholics are not afraid of democracy; they know that the church baptized, transformed, and civilized barbarians, and that the masses of our people still retain a rudimentary seed of Christianity, capable of growing and developing into a tree with spreading branches. Catholics love these sister souls and long to make them Christian.
Even if they make themselves liable to be thought to be socialists or revolutionaries by their embittered opponents,
-- and here, my amateur analysis makes me think Elisabeth is thinking of opponents who would be right-wing monarchist Catholics, not the left-wing anticlericals (her husband Félix included) which were angling to get rid of the establishment Church --
they would continue their work of social progress, saying to themselves that after all they are content to be socialists in the company of Saint Thomas Aquinas, or revolutionaries with the fathers of the church,
Love that! Elisabeth seems here to be outing herself as a political progressive -- progressive not in spite of her orthodox Catholic beliefs (which are at this time popularly associated with the French right wing) but because of them. She invokes Aquinas and the church fathers and implies that Catholic tradition is -- or at least can be interpreted as being -- on the side of democracy.
(At the same time, don't forget that she earlier urged her niece "to bring about a new Christian social order." Maybe she foresees the defeat of antidisestablishmentarianism*, and already envisions a transformed French church, no longer protected by the state but also no longer in thrall to it. If that's the case, maybe she would say to those faithful Catholics who are disappointed with the political situation in the U.S. today, Take heart.)
Repeating myself for clarity,
after all they are content to be socialists in the company of Saint Thomas Aquinas, or revolutionaries with the fathers of the church, and that only the people who do nothing at all can hope to avoid being called unpleasant names.
At this cost, what Catholic worthy of the name would want to avoid such epithets?
Sounds to me like Elisabeth subscribes to the political doctrine that if you're pissing off both the left and the right, you must be on the correct track. I can drink to that.
+ + +
The very next letter in the collection is written about a year after this one, and to a young man -- "A Little Essay on the Christian Life." Like the one we've just gone through, this letter was composed by Elisabeth for the occasion of a god child's first communion. This time the godchild is her oldest nephew, André Duron. The editor has noted that although Marie was Elisabeth's only niece, she had several nephews, and she intended to further develop the thoughts in the latter essay as her other nephews came of age.
The second letter is not called "on the Christian life of men," but simply "on the Christian life." I think it clear that in the later letter she meant to give general, non-gendered advice; and indeed the letter contains good advice for either men or women; but it still has a masculine sort of tone, a frankness to it, which I appreciate very much. I will take a look at her letter to André next time.
*It's taken me a long time, but I finally managed to use this word in a blog post.