Redon, Father Jean
1955, May 3
Date of Birth: 1873, April 5
Feast of the Epiphany
January 6, 1956
Fathers and Dear Confreres:
“It is only with a feeling of deep respect that we search for words to address a last farewell to the poor remains of one who we have venerated in life. Like the scent from a broken alabaster vase, the good odor of his virtues permeates our memories and fills the House of God which is the Church. Our worlds will be very inadequate to express, in the limits of this discourse, the sweet perfume of his life.”
So spoke Bishop Manning, Auxiliary to His Eminence, Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles, at the beginning of the sermon which he preached at the funeral of Father Jean Redon in the San Francisco Cathedral. I borrow the very words of His Excellency to convey in my turn the feelings I am trying to present today to you – the personality of this confrere, one of the most venerable and venerated in our Society.
Jean Louis Marie Redon was born at Langueux, Côtes du Nord, on April 5, 1873, in a deeply religious family. While still very young he heard the call of Providence, and at the age of eleven he entered the minor seminary of a neighboring diocese, Rennes, where he made the usual secondary studies. He went on to the major seminary in the same city. Because at that period students for the clergy were exempt from military service, he was just about twenty years old at the end of his fourth year. His bent for Philosophy had been noted during his earlier studies, so his bishop sent him to the State University of Rennes to specialize in that subject. After achieving his licentiate, Father Redon went back to the seminary and was ordained priest in 1897 by His Eminence, Cardinal Labouré. Called to St. Brieuc, for seven years he taught in the major seminary.
How did he know of St. Sulpice? Why was he attracted by the work of the sons of Father Olier? Father Redon’s habitual reserve as regards the secrets of his soul precludes us from answering those questions. Whatever were his unspoken reasons, he asked to enter the Society, and in October 1905, he was admitted to the Solitude. In spite of religious persecution and the uncertainty of the future, the Solitaires were numerous and happy. Several are still among us to say so: Fathers Besnard, Pressoir, Puaux, Pustienne, and Ricard. I can do no better here than to yield the pen to one of them whose still very vivid impressions will help us understand a bit of Father Redon’s impact:
“He seemed from the first meeting like the patriarch of the Solitude. His age – a little beyond that of his fellow-Solitaires – his tall height, his ascetic face, his keen look behind his glasses, all called for respect. But under these somewhat austere outward appearances, what a heart of gold! Although from a non-Sulpician seminary, he won over his fellow-Solitaires at once. He showed himself tolerant of the little pranks which resulted in the Solitaires’ experiencing the good feeling dear to St. Thomas, a must for peace of mind in those heroic days.
“The sermon which, according to the rule, he had to give had for its theme, ‘Spiritual Progress.’ The hearers who are still living still hear his introductory text, declaimed with impressive slowness and authority: “Qui justus est justificetur adhuc; qui sanctus est sanctificetur adhuc” [He who is just will still be justified; he who is holy will still be sanctified] …
“Serious and slow in his bearing, reflective and wise in his conversation, of faultless regularity, moreover thoroughly kind and obliging, he gave promise in this period of a fine Sulpician ministry.”
During the year of 1904-1905, with the separation of Church and State, the Society underwent dispersion. Most of the Solitaires returned to their dioceses, some asked to be sent to our houses in America. Fathers Puaux and Pustienne left for Canada, Father Redon for the United States.
To allow him to become used to the mentality of a country completely new to him and also to allow him to acquire a working knowledge of the English language, the Baltimore Superior left him for two years at the Catholic University in Washington, then appointed him teacher at St. Mary’s. All in all, Father Redon’s stay in the East of the United States was relatively short, and in 1914 he was changed to St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California. He was to stay more than forty years in that house and give himself completely to it both in the teaching of Philosophy up to 1939, and in the teaching of liturgy from 1914 to 1925 and again from 1939 to 1950.
His qualities as a teacher are well described for us in an article dedicated to him by one of his old students, Father Aycock:
“Anyone who possessed Father Redon’s knowledge of Philosophy, his clarity of exposition, his teaching abilities developed in long experience, must continue to live a long time in the hearts of his pupils. It was a great advantage for teacher and students to spend two years together at their common endeavor. The Father could pride himself on awakening some minds eager for intellectual stimulation, eager in order to make themselves more fit to work fruitfully in the most sublime of vocations. … With great mastery, Father Redon influenced the most brilliant minds of the class and without any doubt some of the best teachers in our Sulpician family. Fathers Laubacher, Fenn, Rock, Wagner, Gratto, Gustafson, Cope, Taylor [I take the liberty of adding here the author of the article himself – Father Girard’s comment], without overlooking our lamented Father Harvey, all look back on his classes as a great source of inspiration and an encouragement to take up the duties of a teaching career.”
However, Father Redon was a teacher who stimulated not only the brightest; for he kept his interest on everyone in the class, attending to each one as if he were concerned only for him in particular. He knew how to give recognition to the slightest efforts of students less well-endowed and in his kindness, he would keep coming back to them to encourage them.
“There is something in what you say,” is an oft-repeated phrase which old students still repeat when they summon up the countenance of their teacher of yesteryear. His teaching, more solid and methodical than brilliant, based on the principles of Scholastic Philosophy, was not thereby less open to contemporary systems, whose good aspect he knew how to point out; for he wanted today’s priest not to be a stranger to the large trends in the thinking of his time.
Nonetheless it is customary in our American seminaries, even in the most crowded, to parcel out among the teachers of the major courses the less important subjects. So, when Father Redon in the fall of 1914 arrived at Menlo Park and presented himself to the Superior, Father Ayrinhac, Father Ayrinhac asked him to take, besides Philosophy, either Liturgy or Preaching. Our confrere later declared that he knew nothing about either subject, that he let himself be guided by his personal taste and chose Liturgy. He gave himself over to it with the sense of duty of state so characteristic of him, and it was not long before he became in the West of the United States a real authority on the subject. Perhaps the most noticeable impact made by him is the respect for the church drilled into the priests of the Pacific Coast who were trained at St. Patrick’s through the care that Father Redon brought to the atmosphere of the House of God and through the simple and impressive beauty of liturgical ceremonies. In both cases he could not keep hidden his deep religious feeling, and his example sufficed to arouse in the depths of hearts that very complex virtue which is called devotion.
In his person was seen stirring a zeal inspired by that of Our Lord in the Temple of Jerusalem. His directives as Master of Ceremonies, his attentive care to everything that concerned the chapel, were not in him the evidence of mere ratiocination, but a living and life-giving manifestation of his love of God.
Father Redon’s main work, however, was in the spiritual realm. In his direction of souls, in his judgments about vocation, his influence shone inside the seminary and outside it. Many were those who sought his spiritual guidance. Always simple and direct, welcoming with a smile which soon put the seeker at ease, he was quite familiar with the difficulties, external and internal, which the priest must face. He was very conscious of his duty to prepare his spiritual sons to confront them clearly and courageously. If his less than robust health did not allow him to engage very much in parish ministry, his priestly spirituality was not on that account a hothouse variety. His authentic holiness allowed him to enter into the problems of others and to understand them. “He was very human,” according to the testimony of one of his old penitents, today a bishop. The work of the seminary does not end on ordination day, and many priests – one-time penitents or not – came to him to turn over to him the care of their souls, grateful, over and above the wisdom of his counsel, for his availability as a confessor. They were always sure to find him in his room, ready to receive them.
In 1928 the Congregation of Seminaries asked Father Garriguet that in each of our houses, along with individual direction, spiritual direction for the whole community be made available through a priest especially appointed for the purpose. At St. Patrick’s, Father Redon was judged to be the most qualified to fill this delicate post, and he was to keep it up to 1950. Former students have given testimony to the doctrinal value of the teaching he gave them week after week, of the love for the humblest seeming saints which he inspired in them. Some have compared him to the eagle which flies over its nestlings to teach them by its example how to use their wings.
So passed in the peace of Menlo Park the best years of Father Redon, so fruitful from the priestly virtue which he practiced to a rare degree; in particular: goodness, kindness, humility, and regularity.
His health was never very robust, but the mildness of California’s climate allowed him to be in the best condition to resist as long as possible the erosions resulting from seminary life. Nevertheless, physical trials did not wait for old age to afflict our confrere. In 1938 he was stricken with a very violent asthma attack, which obliged him thereafter to give up the teaching of his much-loved Philosophy. But he continued to be no less interested in everything that concerned it, and he was an assiduous reader of the Bulletin du Comité des Etudes [Bulletin of the Committee on Studies], a publication whose aims he prized and encouraged. From then on, too, he led an almost hermitlike existence, taking his meals alone and leaving his room only to go to the chapel or the classroom because of the arrangements to which he had to submit, and which were incompatible with full participation in community life.
In 1947 he celebrated his golden sacerdotal jubilee with a Mass sung in the presence of His Grace, the Archbishop, in St. Patrick’s beautiful chapel. Present were a number of the clergy who came to pay homage to the jubilarian. It was his last pleasure.
Three years later his heart failed, and Father Redon had to resign as Spiritual Director and as teacher of Liturgy. At the beginning of 1955 his strength ebbed, and he was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco where he stayed several months, now better, now worse. He peacefully gave his soul to God on the night of May 3rd/4th, having preserved to the threshold of death the simplicity of the spirit of spiritual infancy in the spirit of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus for whom he had always shown a great devotion.
His funeral was celebrated in the Cathedral, and his mortal remains were buried in Holy Cross Cemetery instead of in the little cemetery on the grounds of St. Patrick’s, where the remains of Father Ayrinhac and his first co-workers lie.
I can make no better conclusion than to borrow the last portion of the letter which his former student, Bishop Robert J. Dwyer of Reno, sent to his subjects on the death of our confrere.
“Something of him still lives in those whom he trained. That cannot be shown with the charity and the particular mildness which were his personal endowment, but it is a part of the way of thinking, of acting, of willing, of hundreds of priests who now serve the Church in the West of the United States. In this sense he deserves, without any doubt, to be considered as one of the best educators of our time and of this region. Very few men can boast of having exercised an influence so wide and so deep. The priest in his parish, in his community, has an influence which cannot be measured; what then is to be said of the priest’s priest!
“So ends the life of one of the last of that noble company, the French Sulpicians, who since the time of Archbishop Carroll down to the first decades of this century have come to our shores to work for the training of our clergy. They were animated with a devotion containing no self-interest, and with an ardent zeal. They have been a precious tie between the very tumultuous present and that past which was the golden age of the Counter-Reformation. They have brought to the young American clergy a sense of tradition and stability. They have left us as heritage something of their own interior peace in the midst of upheavals and tempests.”
Like His Excellency, the Bishop of Reno, Monsignor Griffin in his eulogy paid a like homage to the activity of our compatriots in the United States.
“Let us not weep merely because his place among us is empty, but also because he is the last of a long line of those devoted priests of St. Sulpice who came from France to us to begin our tradition of clergy-formation, and whose names are in benediction from the East to the West of our country everywhere their old students gather together. We can never pay the debt of gratitude we owe them. They are now close to God, and those who knew and loved them are privileged.”
In agreement with Father McDonald, we resumed in 1953 this venerable tradition going back to Father Emery, by sending one of our young members, Father Baron, now teaching at the Provincial Seminary of St. John in Detroit. The rapid growth of the houses of our American confreres requires more and more workers. In these circumstances I pledge that the Province of France remains associated to these houses and will furnish some successors to the French Sulpicians who for nearly two hundred years – not without real heroism, at least in the outset – have worked hand in hand with the local clergy and under its authority in the training of American priests.
Once more I recommend to your prayers Father Redon’s soul, and I renew to you the assurance of my very affectionate sentiments in Our Lord and Our Lady.
Pierre Girard, S.S.
Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice