An Introduction to Blessed Basil Moreau and the Motto of the Congregation of Holy Cross
By Zach Rathke, CSC
The political environment of the United States frightens me. Our past presidential election is proof enough. However, what I have seen on the news about Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton is not the most disconcerting. It´s the social media. My Facebook feed contains an ever-expanding flood of attacks of the “opposing side,” along with triumphalist claims of one´s own political perspective. Yet, a sad reality lies beneath the surface. We place so much hope in our own political ideology—in its ability for a reform that might really “Make America Great Again.” Yet, we have little hope in the possibility of realizing it. We know intuitively that the expanding divide in our political system will not allow it.
There seems to be a similar experience here in Peru. We are bombarded with claims from politicians about dismantling corruption, eliminating violence, and bridging the divide between the rich and the poor. We are so tempted to place our hope in them. Yet, we know intuitively that even those that seem to be the best of candidates can fail us. Kuczynski is evidence of this (the previous president of Peru who resigned in March due to threats of impeachment), and so also the recent stream of news of Keiko (the other major presidential candidate in the past election who now faces criminal charges).
This may be a strange way to introduce Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross and a 19th century French Catholic priest. However, I think Basil Moreau has something profound to say to us in our present circumstances. He was born in the wake of the French Revolution, which was driven by its own political idealism that, like our own, hoped to return France to greatness. The revolution not only ousted the monarch, but also executed him, replacing the monarchy with a constitutional republic.
With the new government in place, the priests and vowed religious loyal to the universal Church were exiled from the country. One of the revolutionary mottos, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” points to a fundamental reason for this. The revolutionary ideology sought liberty not only from the control of the former monarch, but also from foreign influences such as the Vatican. That is, authority was to be grounded in themselves and their own ideology. The problem at its most basic level, then, was this: Catholic priests and vowed religious loyal to the universal Church were committed most fundamentally to Rome, not to France.
All of this began the so-called “Reign of Terror” in France. As many as 40,000 were executed without trial based on the slightest hints of treason or counter-revolutionary ideology. More than 16,000 died under the infamous guillotine. The new government fractured in the face of the atrocities. With the old traditional ideologies ousted, the country was left with a flood of political perspectives vying for control (like our own countries today). In 1804, the chaos eventually led the country back to where it started: the rise of another emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Though he spread liberal reform across Europe, he did so with an incessant ambition for war and empire. Like Revolutionary France before him, his empire also collapsed in 1815.
Moreau, who was born in 1799 and ordained in 1822, responded from the midst of the tumult in France with a prophetic message. Drawing from a medieval hymn, the motto for his new religious congregation founded in 1837 was to be “Ave Crux, Spes Unica,” “Hail the cross, the only hope.” Governments will inevitably fail. Our worldly pursuits will come to an end. Yet, the love revealed on the cross is eternal. We are to place our ultimate hope in this love of Christ, therefore—not in governments, not in political ideologies, not in candidates, and not merely in our own selves.
Yet, our hope in the cross is not some depressing fascination with a gruesome death. It is a hope that through the cross comes Resurrection. It is a hope that through uniting ourselves to the one who offered Himself to us on the cross, we too may experience His Resurrection.
Here is a key point for Moreau. In order for us to unite ourselves to Christ on the cross, we must offer ourselves in sacrificial love in return. For this reason, Moreau frequently speaks of conforming ourselves to Christ. We, too, are to cultivate a willingness to offer ourselves to God and to our neighbor (even our enemy) despite the cost. We are even to place our hope in such sacrifice, for we believe that resurrection always follows after our crosses. In fact, when we make sacrifices in this life, we begin to experience resurrection now in the love that sprouts from the sacrifices we make for others.
Moreau had to face the cross in his own life. He set out to renew the Church and educational institutions not only in France, but wherever the world needed it. Yet, after years of devoting himself to God and to the Congregation of Holy Cross, he was rejected by his own community, eventually resigning from his post as Superior General. He then lived out the rest of his life on difficult terms with the community, which seemed to be on the verge of collapse due to financial troubles. However, Moreau had an unwavering trust that divine providence would bring resurrection from the crosses of his own life and those of the congregation.
Moreau´s hope in the cross was not in vain. From the midst of the seeming collapse of Holy Cross during the time of his death, the congregation now flourishes. We consist of well over a thousand priests, brothers, and sisters, and we serve all over the world—in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. We have not only cultivated renowned educational institutions, but we also continue to renew the Church, spreading hope in the cross especially among the poor. The history of the Congregation of Holy Cross itself is proof of the resurrection that comes from our crosses.
One last crucial point: I do not mean to say that we should abandon our pursuits to better our society out of a despair from the tumult of this world. Instead, we must first place our hope in Christ and his Cross. From there, when we face inevitable failures in our society and in our own efforts, we need not despair. Instead, like Moreau, our hope in the cross will fill us with a peaceful trust—a trust that divine providence can bring resurrection from even the greatest of failures and the greatest of sacrifices. Was not the cross a radical sign of this? For in the cross of Christ, God transformed the vicious cruelty of the Roman and Israelite authorities into the salvation of the world.