France and the Expansion of Buchman’s Faith
by Michel Sentis
Born in 1925, Michel Sentis graduated in engineering at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. After attending a session dealing with industrial tension in 1949 at Caux, he joined the young European team assembled around Buchman.
He was involved in relations between the French statesman Robert Schuman and Buchman, in the contact with the Catholic authorities in the Vatican, with situations of tension in several countries (Vietnam, Tunisia, Algeria, Quebec). Married with three sons and seven grandchildren, he lives with his wife Micheline in Burgundy near Taizé. He has written or participated in several books.
MANY religious leaders have marked their century by a spiritual radiance which enabled them to leave behind a large number of followers who in their turn became guides to the future; but at the same time they left men and women who were committed to secular activities which led their contemporaries to make social choices that enriched succeeding generations.
Someone like St Francis of Assisi left the long line of Franciscans and Capuchins, and his spiritual influence is indisputable. And a Jean Bosco, dedicated to providing education for poor children, inspired in the Salesian Order teachers who committed themselves to this pioneering work - his mark on history is equally indisputable.
So if I attempt to focus here on the practical outreach of Frank Buchman’s life, I have no intention of neglecting his remarkable spiritual influence - from which I personally benefited enormously. One cannot live close to a man conscious of God’s presence, not only in his own life but in the lives of those around him, without being powerfully marked oneself. Our different religious backgrounds could not block such a transfer from him to me (‘his effect on me’) precisely because the divine presence overarched us both. A lot could be said on this subject but I want to move on.
For me he was a teacher quite out of the ordinary. “Michel,” he said one day, “You need activities to keep you happy. You must learn to be happy doing nothing.” On one occasion, when I wanted to speak to him about something at Caux, I found him in his room watching the sun setting over the Jura mountains, with its beams reflected on the surface of the Lake of Geneva. He signalled to me to take a chair beside him. As he said nothing to interrupt his contemplation, I was obliged to follow suit. As the sun’s last rays disappeared, Buchman turned towards me and said, “Wasn’t that nice? Good-bye.” Contemplation was not my strong point, I had to admit.
Another time Buchman invited me to accompany him on a car trip leaving at 3 pm. I arrived three minutes late. Buchman had left but there was a message for me with a 20 Swiss franc note for my rail ticket, saying “We shall meet you off the train.” That particular lesson cost Buchman the 20 franc rail ticket, but it remained with me for life.
On yet another occasion when he was sending me on a mission of three or four days to another country, he asked me how much money I would need. Without much reflection I mentioned a sum, which he gave me. Twenty-four hours later I realised my mistake and my purse was nearly empty. A call came from Buchman: “Michel, how are you off financially?” “I’m very short, Frank,” I replied. “Yes, that’s what I thought; so I have wired some money to you. You will get it tomorrow morning.” Once more I was learning something - and he was paying.
He never set himself up to be a spiritual director: and yet he was often a valued counsellor. He never hesitated to make a transatlantic or a transpacific telephone call to help me when I was facing a delicate situation. When his perspective seemed to be different from what my conscience was telling me, he would give way, saying, “You know better than I do. I trust you.” And that, of course, forced me to take real responsibility as I was not just following his advice.
I shall mention one other lesson I learned a few days before his death. I was returning to Caux from a Muslim country where the Head of State had received me as Buchman’s envoy. I felt I must see Buchman immediately, even although he was already in bed, to convey the presidential greetings. The next day, hearing my voice amongst a group of people around him, Buchman called me. He said, “Michel, last night you came to see me. After you left, I tried to remember what you had said, but my only thought was: ‘Michel is full of himself’.” These were the last words he ever spoke to me as he died three weeks later. And he was right. I was full of myself.
What a friend he was - even though we were separated by fifty years.
A message well beyond the limits of his own culture
Having made these points to illustrate Buchman’s spiritual influence, I should like to focus on the more practical legacy he left. The brief period that Buchman spent in Grenoble as a young man was hardly enough to enable him to speak French, let alone absorb the Latin mode of thought. When someone has spent his whole life in what we French call ‘the Anglo-Saxon world’ - i.e. essentially in America and Britain, plus the countries in Europe, Asia and Africa which have taken these two countries as development models - it is not easy to adapt to the Latin mind. Yet Buchman’s contribution to the Latin world shows clearly that his message went well beyond the limits of his own culture. But many of his colleagues, coming from the same cultural background, had difficulty in the post war years in allowing his message to expand beyond that culture and take wings into a universal dimension.
Having worked with Buchman from 1950 till his death in 1961, I can attest that, even if he was not always fully conscious of this need, he was still driven by a natural impulse springing from his own spiritual life, which led him to welcome all those who could help him to accomplish this wider mission.
A brewer like Louis Bouquet; the Cardinal Achille Liénart, Bishop of Lille; the trade unionist Maurice Mercier; the Socialist militant Irene Laure; the statesman Robert Schuman; the representative of the employers’ organisation in Northern France, Robert Tilge; young men from the French Resistance like Maurice Nosley and Armand de Malherbe (and I am only giving a small sample of French men and women) enabled Buchman’s message to penetrate into the Latin world.
This was not an easy task. The activities of the Oxford Group and of Moral Re-Armament had spread from one country to another in a continuing stream of acquired experience. When it launched into Europe in 1946, the team which Buchman had built up on the American continent found itself confronted by historical realities which reshaped it profoundly. It became aware of the diversity of European culture. Robert Schuman wrote a preface to Remaking the World, the book containing the principal speeches of Frank Buchman, with the aim of making his message understood throughout France. But the poor quality of the translation of the speeches, in frenchified English, undercut the objective. Another team (of which I was a part) had to immerse themselves in Buchman’s way of thinking, not just his words, to express it in French. Buchman gave it his approval and in this way the French vocabulary of his message came into being. Schuman’s clarity and precision of language was preserved: “To provide teams of trained people, ready for the service of the state, apostles of reconciliation and builders of a new world”. Nothing else has better described Buchman’s goals.
As he acknowledged, Schuman took advantage of an enforced convalescence, brought on by his heavy work schedule, to read Buchman’s complete texts and immerse himself in them. When one re-reads his preface carefully, one is struck by the way the text clearly draws out the universal significance of Buchman’s message. This message, reflecting its author’s religious roots, is closely bound up in the text with his own spirituality. This typically Latin distinction between the spiritual and temporal spheres acquired growing importance as one got involved, first in Catholic countries, then in the Muslim, Buddhist and Indian worlds and also in the spiritual life of aboriginal peoples.
Schuman wrote as a statesman concerned about world problems. Buchman identified himself completely with his text because he totally shared Schuman’s perspective. When European statesmen set out to describe the society they have to build, Buchman finds himself completely at one with them. The temporal challenges which unite them are clarified by the spiritual factors which might seem divisive at one level but which converge when it comes to state-management. Such a claim is being vindicated in the 21st century, for all religious leaders now endorse it, or at least do not dare to contest it. In 1946 the spiritual insight of Buchman was needed to drive home this point. One has to acknowledge that the spiritual convergence of the three Catholic statesmen - Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi - helped him to launch out. The global dimension of his message began to get recognised. But his task was not made easier by those who deliberately put obstacles in his path.
The end of the Second World War left the world polarised between the United States and the Soviet Union. The latter was counting sooner or later on tipping the peoples of Europe one after another into its camp. It deliberately focused on that end. Though it was able fairly easily to draw into its orbit its neighbouring countries or those occupied by its armies, it had more difficulty when it tried by every device to achieve its goals in France and Italy. For Moscow the dividing line between the Anglo-Saxon and Latin worlds appeared to be an exploitable fault-line which could turn the Mediterranean into a new ‘mare nostrum’. But Buchman’s penetration of the Latin world might undermine that plan. So to accuse him of belonging to the Protestant American camp might be a way of blocking his access to the Catholic Mediterranean countries.
Baseless reports appeared portraying Buchman and his co-workers as an American sect threatening Catholicism and they were taken seriously in certain authoritative quarters in Rome. As a result Moral Re-Armament was banned from the diocese of Milan, then in Belgium, and was tainted with suspicion in a number of other countries.
However, Buchman’s work was ultimately judged not by these tendentious stories but by its fruits. That is where all the work done by Moral Re-Armament to improve industrial relations in Northern France became so important. This work, which had been watched and encouraged by Cardinal Liénart, who went to Caux himself in 1947, grew into a real social transformation involving factory owners and trade unionists. There is not space here to go into all the details of the profound changes of attitude that affected not only the textile industry of Northern France but several other economic sectors of the country (the coal mines, the chemical industry, railways, etc).
The Holy See’s representative in France, Monsignor Guiseppe Roncalli, took a special interest in various spiritual initiatives going on in the country (the Taizé community, the protestant-catholic dialogue at the Trappist monastery of Les Dombes, the prayer week on Christian Unity initiated by Abbot Couturier), and so he did not fail to appreciate what was happening between bosses and workers in France. When he was appointed Pope as John XXIII, he had no hesitation in distancing himself from these baseless rumours.
Nor can one separate what happened in Italy from the French experience in this field, for the same sequence of events occurred. Buchman’s efforts to help Italy when she was threatened by communistic pressure were hampered by opposition from the same quarters. When Monsignor Giovanni-Battista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) was appointed Archbishop of Milan, he received Buchman in the chair of his cathedral for the solemn New Year Mass of 1956 to show his respect for the work done in the communistic suburbs of Milan. By this gesture he dispelled the warnings left by his predecessor.
It should be remembered that a similar attempt was made in the Anglican Church by certain individuals with dubious motives to put a brake on the work of Buchman in Britain.
“Overcoming the prejudices which separate classes, races and nations”
If I have featured Buchman’s efforts on the French industrial scene, it is because it seems to me that they had the widest repercussions in facilitating the global outreach of Buchman and his co-workers. It was not a question of the personal influence of an eminent preacher in the spiritual domain but of the initiative of someone concerned about contemporary problems who was seeking how to influence things in the secular and spiritual world. In the precise wording of Schuman: “What we need is a school where by a process of mutual teaching we can work out our practical behaviour towards others; a school where Christian principles are not only applied and proven in personal relationships but succeed in overcoming the prejudices and enmities which separate classes, races and nations.” What better definition could there be of the relationship between spiritual and secular from the standpoint of a statesman like Schuman?
Having got rid of the Protestant American label, which some people wanted to hang on him, Buchman’s work could be adapted to the Muslim and Buddhist worlds and to the peoples who have preserved their own original spiritual values - a work that continued after Buchman’s death and continues today.
But there is another no less important contribution which Buchman made to Europe: with the support of the three Catholic heads of state already mentioned, he took up the great task of European reconciliation to which the name of one French woman Irene Laure is forever attached. Many books have been written about her and we shall not go into them here. But we have to recognise that Franco-German reconciliation, to which Caux contributed so much, has become today a source of hope to millions around the world. “If the Germans and French can do it, why can’t we?” That is the thought stamped on millions of human hearts which undercuts the arguments of those who champion division by exploiting ethnic and racial hatred. Even if Franco-German relations are not always what they should be, that page of world history will stand as a reference point for generations to come. In saying so, I have a picture in my mind of the Mufti of Zagreb speaking in the great hall of his mosque, which was full of Christians and Muslims, and inviting Irène Laure’s daughter to relive that page of history for them.
The impact of Buchman’s message on the Latin world
However, we have so far hardly scratched the surface of the theme raised at the outset: the impact of Buchman’s message on the Latin world. The arrival at Caux of the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic existentialist, intrigued Buchman. At the outset he was surprised by Marcel’s long preface, entitled Letter to three anxious friends, which became a classic in philosophical writing and appeared as the introduction to Un Changement d’Espérance, a book collecting many instances of change brought about by Buchman’s work. The subtle nuances of the French philosopher were not characteristic of his style of thought, but he trusted Marcel and the preface contributed greatly to the Latinising of Buchman’s work in many countries.
Thanks to Gabriel Marcel, Edmond Michelet, Minister of Justice and Garde des Sceaux in General de Gaulle’s government, went to Caux in person, hoping to make contact with the head of the provisional government of Algeria who had himself previously turned up there. Even though this gesture had no concrete result, it was significant that in the midst of the Algerian war Caux should be thought of as a meeting place between the Northern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean. (Let me say in passing that Michelet and Robert Schuman are two statesmen whom the Catholic Church is considering as candidates for Beatification, the first step toward sainthood.)
I would offer another illustration. Central to Buchman’s message was the practice of silent listening to one’s inner voice and then of sharing or exchanging the intimate thoughts that came in the silence. These habits, in a Latinised form, became part of the regular practice of thousands of families around the world, thanks to Abbé Cafarel who went to Caux along with two couples who had adopted this discipline. They stimulated a movement of Christian couples known as Foyers Notre-Dame who practise what they call ‘the duty to sit down’, time which couples set aside for listening and sharing. The thousands of homes which adopted this discipline in Latin America and Europe did not even realise that they were indirect beneficiaries of the spiritual life of Frank Buchman.
An Italian Jesuit, Father Franco Lombardi, impressed by the spirit of Caux, even tried to copy Buchman’s initiative by creating near Rome his own centre called ‘Il Mondo migliore’ (The Better World). He invited Buchman to the launching of his project. After attending, Buchman expressed doubts to me as to whether the initiative would prosper but it is interesting that his dynamic example made its mark in Rome.
Another young priest went to Caux in the 1950s and celebrated one of his first masses in the Caux chapel. A few years later he told me of the deep impression that his conversation with Buchman left on him. Today he is a cardinal.
It was not easy for Buchman to feel that in Rome he was regarded with suspicion by certain individuals simply because the opening to ecumenicalism had not yet happened. Nevertheless Eugene Tisserand, dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals and Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Church (and in this capacity worried about the injustice done to the Syriac Catholic Church in Kerala) appreciated Buchman’s constructive efforts to restore religious tolerance there. Tisserand always gave Buchman a warm welcome.
Buchman’s determination to come to grips with world problems made him undertake a trip through the Far East in 1956, to Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. He was received in Saigon by President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic who was then head of the South Vietnamese government. Buchman, after sending me a short note with the President’s greetings (as a group of us including Irene Laure and her husband had visited him earlier in 1956) made sure that I would receive a full report of the visit. The fact that a Catholic head of state would lean on Buchman’s experience to find how to deal with a population composed of many different religious communities made its mark on my contact in the Holy Office in Rome, the very body which had harboured most reservations about Buchman’s initiatives.
A different mentality began to operate
adly it was only after Buchman’s death that certain personalities who had displayed most hostility acknowledged to those who were carrying on his work that they had been victims of a grave ‘misunderstanding’. From talking with some of the pioneers of ecumenicalism, Brother Roger of Taizé in particular, I came to understand that the reservations encountered by Buchman were largely due to the fact that he was ahead of his time and in a way the victim of the slow pace at which that venerable body, the Catholic Church, was ready to value his pioneering spirit.
In the year after Buchman’s death, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. A different mentality began to operate. Cardinal Franz König, Archbishop of Vienna, became a regular visitor to Caux and organised there one of the first colloquies between scientists “and political and religious leaders” on the future of the planet. He was coming to grips with the problems of the world exactly as Buchman would have done!
That having been said, I have no wish to hide the fact that certain leaders of the Catholic Church would have liked to help Buchman to understand better the role of spiritual authority which they wished to preserve and which they were not ready to hand over to him. Working among Christians of all denominations, Buchman - without wishing to - had been led by his co-workers to assume some of that authority. Monsignor François Chauvin, Bishop of Fribourg, Lausanne and Geneva, the diocese in which Caux is situated, assured Buchman of his unqualified paternal support but sought at the same time to pass on this Church’s message which Buchman was disposed to accept, as I can testify. One can legitimately ask whether this issue of spiritual authority was not more a problem for Buchman’s entourage than for Buchman himself. The older he got, the more other people took over an authority which they should not have had.
I cannot finish this study of Buchman’s influence in the Latin world without mentioning Maurice Mercier. Shaped in the doctrines of trade unionism from a young age by the French Communist Party, and having helped to create the great French trade union movement, Force Ouvrière, Mercier became one of the pioneers of ‘paritarism’, i.e. the spirit, in his case inherited from Buchman, which enabled managerial and trade union movements to co-operate in running the great social organisms of France. Fifty years on, one realises that, even if that spirit has sadly disappeared, these institutions still shape French social life. Mercier - who remained outside all religious bodies until his death - seemed to me to be a symbol of Buchman’s extraordinary outreach. What did they have in common? Remove from Buchman his religious side, his beliefs, his faith, his spirituality, and what remains? Mercier found even then in Buchman someone who understood him, who shared his vision of a more humane and just world, a lover of truth, someone with faith in mankind.
For those of us who since 1989 have seen so many Soviet citizens, steeped in eighty years of atheism and lacking any spiritual background, find at Caux something they have been seeking for years, it is like finding more Merciers, as millions of them do exist in the world.
Buchman’s great merit is to have shown the way by which such atheists could find access to a faith which they discovered through silence at the very roots of their being.
So let us learn to be silent.