There are some men who immediately command admiration and wonder, not because of the fear they inspire but rather the fear that God seems to inspire in them and which establishes them forever, despite their grandeur, in a mysterious spirit of littleness, such that—as we get to know them—we will never be afraid of being disappointed by them but rather of disappointing them. Father Marie-Dominique was one such person.
The first time I met him, when I was seventeen, was during a Mass he was celebrating. I was very intimidated at the thought of the meeting I was to have with him after the celebration of the Eucharist, but intimidation was then transformed into awe of such fervor, recollection, attention in the way he celebrated the Holy Mystery. I had never seen anyone celebrate Mass with such intensity, respect and emotion. So much so that the questions I wanted to ask him during this first meeting suddenly seemed very ridiculous and incongruous. I nevertheless dared to submit them to him, and it was with a big and loving smile, maybe even a laugh, that he answered me. He did not knock down what might have remained of my objections; he rather gently laid them down with such kindness as though they were nothing too serious… How many times did all of us not experience this almost strange feeling that everything was simplified in his presence !
I deeply believe that Father Marie-Dominique was a man who feared God, a God-fearing man, and it is perhaps this influence of God upon him that made him so lovable and attractive to us yet at the same time so elusive, as if we could feel that it was totally useless to think we could get hold of him. There was something in him that eluded us, something of the same destiny of Jesus and which is perhaps the hallmark of men who belong only to God: « But passing through the midst of them he went away. »
Father Marie-Dominique was both completely given to us yet seemed to be already before us on the other “sea shore” such that it was impossible to stop or to possess him. When our meeting with him was over, it was with extreme delicacy yet full efficiency that he showed us to his office door. While it was unthinkable—yet so desirable for some persons, especially for certain female persons—to get hold of him, he absolutely did not have a possessive attitude towards us either. « My vocation is to impoverish, » he once told an old friend. Fearing God, Father Marie-Dominique was a poor man, who carried within him and carried us within reach of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the Kingdom that we felt when we nestled for a moment on his father’s heart and experienced a paternity with a tender and open gesture. It seems to me that, since he was so poor, Father Marie-Dominique could hold us close to his heart in such a way that we were hidden there as in the « open heavens. »
On this subject, I think that those who have dared to look into what they termed the « shadowy areas » of the life of Father Philippe, have crossed the cursed limit once overtaken by « Cham the father of Canaan” son of Noah and have drawn away from the welcoming shade into much darker areas—those of their accusations and perhaps their own bad conscience. Shadowy areas… Yes, it is true that Father Marie-Dominique seemed to live in the shadow—the shadow of Someone. He lived in that shade about which St. Bernard said it was « the light of God. » It is the sun that makes the shade! And it will never be « the postmodern need for transparency » that will shed even the smallest light on what the life of Father Philippe was. Since he was poor, he was hidden; but the spirit of the world does not like what is hidden: « For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly… For even his brothers did not believe in him” (John 7: 4).
But for those who were not afraid of admiration and for all who were a bit lost, the little, the poor and the thirsty, Father Marie-Dominique, by his life and his words, showed us those secret places where the hidden sources are found. To go see him to listen to him, draw near to him, pray with him, receive him, understand him and simply admire him as a son, because he is free and can do it, was certainly to discover a source—the source of the Gospel, of the Word of God contemplated by him and given to us ungrudgingly, as an overflowing ever fervent source.
Fervor was also so profoundly a characteristic of the limpidity (a word he loved so much) of his father’s heart. He had such a desire for his children to have this grace of fervor, in which he saw faithfulness to the first love to which he tirelessly exhorted us to return. A love that gives everything without reserve and rejects any fatigue, any turning in on our selves, any excuses.
We have to evoke all these reasons why Father Marie-Dominique became for us « Father. » This familiar and spontaneous name could appear to some as excessive or inappropriate. Perhaps it was, but how much was it also rich with meaning for all those who had come to know, close to him and thanks to him, the paternity of the Father of the Holy Trinity.
I was able to admire this grandeur of Father Marie-Dominique one last time on earth before his death, a few hours before his death. I went to St. Jodard and was able to remain alone with him for a long time while he was already in his dying agony. To see then what littleness, what abyss of poverty, Father Philippe let himself be led into to enter through the narrow gate with the Blessed Virgin, was a kind of testament, in the form of a call to follow the path traced by him for his children. How we would now want to bless him and embrace him, to thank him and praise the Father of the Most Holy Trinity for having spoiled us so.