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Marist Bulletin - Number 261


Brother Jean-Paul Desbiens (1927-2006)

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Brother Jean-Paul Desbiens, his religious name being Pierre-Jérôme, from the Province of Canada, died at Château-Richer (Canada) at the age of seventy-nine. He was known under the pseudonym of “Frère Untel” in his writings as editor of “La Presse” for two years. Doctor of Philosophy, thinker, an impeccable presenter, author and initiator of pre-university studies, he was one of the fathers of the “tranquil revolution” of Quebec. He fought courageously and sometimes daringly to give Quebec an education of quality. He was Provincial and Director-General of the Campus of Notre-Dame-de-Foy. He was awarded the national order of Canada and was proclaimed laureate of Quebec. He left new generations a rich literary and educational heritage. In this Bulletin we print the homily given by Cardinal Marc Ouellet during his requiem mass.

Co-heir with Christ

Brother Pierre-Jérôme, Marist, Jean-Paul Desbiens! Hail! The men and women who knew, admired and loved you greet you one last time in this patrimonial church which symbolizes the profound values of your life. You have gathered here people of all categories, people whose religious, political and literary credos are very diversified. And yet, in the presence of your mortal remains, we acknowledge ourselves to be one and the same family, united to your earthly family of Metabetchouan and to your Marist family, which are your dearest roots, matured and assumed, according to your own words Under the Sun of Pity.

This big family is the symbol of Québécoise society, which you loved, criticized and helped to step into the modern world. Your genius as educator and writer is widely recognized, as well as your prophetic role at the turn of the Sixties, and your contribution to the establishment of a new system of education in the decades which followed The Insolence of Brother So-and-So. You wanted to improve not only the quality of the French language but also the quality of education at all levels, an education founded on stable and profound values which are the strength and pride of a people. In saying adieu to you in the name of this great family, I salute in you a courageous son of the land of Lac Saint-Jean, a man a-thirst with justice and liberty, and especially a disciple of Jesus, a son of the Church, heir of God and co-heir with Christ, in the words full of hope of the Apostle Paul to the Romans.

I leave to future historians the work of measuring the importance and the scope of your work as educator, writer and philosopher at the great turning-point which marked the passage of Quebec from an epoch of Christianity to the present epoch of a pluralistic and democratic society, free of Church control. The judgments of historians will no doubt be various and contrasting, but one thing seems to me definitive: the symbolic value attached to your cry for liberty at the dawn of the quiet revolution. That cry did not call to rebellion against established order but to a jump-start of dignity and pride to conquer the mediocrity tied to the French Canadian mentality of the conquered. What followed showed the relevance of your Insolence, all the more so because you seized the opportune times to invest the best of your critical spirit and sense of pedagogical organization in the service of the society you dreamed of opening up to the world by a better education to liberty. The democratic reform of education, with which you intimately collaborated as Counselor to the Ministry of Education, was highly necessary, even if one can question certain results in the field of language and certain later evolutions in the religious field which no longer guarantee the deep values to which your life witnesses.

Like the servant in the Gospel who is alert to open the door to his master returning from the wedding, you stayed on the ramparts and resisted the temptations to money, power, and rebellious liberty in the face of civil or Church authority. Your life teaches us unshakeable attachment to our own roots, rigor of thought and expression, and serene fidelity to promises made once for all. The presence of your mortal remains in this church, the beautiful Gregorian liturgy which you wanted and especially the witness of your sixty years of religious life challenge the entire Québécoise society on our cultural and religious heritage. What are we going to do with our Christian roots and the Catholic culture handed down to us? How are we going to cultivate, hereon in, its memory and extend its fruits and institutions?

The matter of living religious patrimony illustrates Brother Jean-Paul Desbiens’ ever present message and the relevance of his multiple interventions. For the religious heritage of Quebec is no doubt the most delicate matter in the epochal transition evoked above. Does not the rapid and radical secularization of our society justify for some the popular saying that we have thrown out “the baby with the bath water?” The Clergy’s excessive control on society is one thing, the substance of the Christian faith is another; it cannot be exculturated from our life style without grave consequences for our collective identity and our future.

Brother Jean-Paul Desbiens knew well how to distinguish the outdated attitudes and structures of an epoch from the fundamental values of our cultural and religious patrimony. While firmly maintaining his adhesion to the values of faith, liberty and democracy, he criticized vigorously and justly the weaknesses of systems of education in civil matters and in religious communities. He maintained firmly his belonging to a religious community which can be proud of having given Quebec a first-class model educator, who highlighted the contribution, too much unknown, of these great educators and generous missionaries.

At the end of The Insolence of Brother So-and-So the author speaks unequivocally to his young Marist brothers: Men need men-rocks. Men designated once for all. They need to know that there subsist, in spite of the passing of all things, islets of fidelity and absolute affirmation. The greatest service we can give to the men of today is to affirm the absolute. The negation of the absolute is the great modern sickness. Men need to know that there are men who do not pass away.

Jean-Paul Desbiens was a man of our land, a man deeply rooted, configured by his Catholic faith pushed right to the unfailing witness of his religious state, cemented by a philosophical reflection and pedagogical wisdom received from his Marist teachers. A man-rock! An image comes back to me, occasioned by the flood of July 1966 in Chicoutimi: The little white house which resisted the raging waters because it was built on rock. What an exciting image, become the symbol of the courage of the people of Chicoutimi to take charge once again in the face of adversity. An image also which expresses the witness of Jean-Paul Desbiens, this man-rock whose life was founded on faith in Jesus Christ and love of the Church. This man calls us to hope, he shows us the way of courage and wisdom, he returns us to greater than himself. May God welcome him to His heavenly table where, as the Gospel promises, He makes Himself the servant of the faithful He called.

Living God, Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, You listen to the prayer of your children, especially the poor; You reward infinitely the men and women who stay at their post and watch, awaiting the coming of Your kingdom. In Your mercy receive our brother Jean-Paul and make the heritage of his faith and fidelity bear fruit a hundredfold. Give us the grace to welcome the last word of his life which is his silent presence among us, announcing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Amen!

Marc Cardinal Ouellet
Funeral Mass of Brother Jean-Paul Desbiens
29 July 2006

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