They say he was never handsome. In early infancy a victim of smallpox, the terror of mothers and the scourge of youth, he bore its lasting scar. Temporarily blind, he had but slowly recovered from this dreadful malady, not escaping entirely its hideous imprint. Pitted and extremely short in stature, he might be considered repulsive, yet those who knew him easily overlooked nature's defects, for in his grave countenance they saw reflected the kindness of Christ and the serenity of saints.
His Ministry of Teaching Other PriestsFor over half a century in Grenoble's Major Seminary, his priestly heart and mind had formed other priests to continue Christ's redeeming ministry. Loudly they praised their humble professor, truly a man of God. Eloquently the learned Gury styled him an intellectual giant, while Father Auvergne, his contemporary and historian, epitomized his life in the words once applied to Barnabas by Saint Luke: "He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith."
Beneath his rough exterior glowed the ardent fire of Christ-like charity, the purity of his Mother Mary and the tireless energy of his great model Paul.
Never formally a Missionary of La Salette, still we rightly refer to Father Rousselot as one of La Salette's intrepid champions, its valiant apostle, and its learned apologete. Varied occupations and advanced years would not permit him to join the newly-founded diocesan community dedicated to the service of Mary's shrine. Yet, although a sexagenarian at the time of the Merciful Apparition, his zeal for his Mother's cause was never wanting.
His Task – Investigate the La Salette ApparitionAt the request of his Bishop, with another companion he became the official investigator of the Apparition. With admirable Christian prudence and the cold reasoning of a philosopher he approached the problem of La Salette.
Painstakingly he gathered data which was to form the basis of his scrupulously accurate report, an immortal document embodying the strongest evidence. His gifted pen and deep learning convinced the incredulous while his ardent zeal communicated itself to countless souls and irresistibly drew them to La Salette. Fearlessly he met opposition and ably refuted adverse criticism to become Mary's loyal defender.
Challenges Surrounded Him
With his historian, let us briefly review the salient features in the life of this great missioner. Joseph Rousselot was born on April 12, 1785, on the frontiers of Switzerland, in the picturesque French village called Barboux, with a population always around 200 persons. From earliest infancy, he knew the pinch of poverty and experienced the bitter sting of suffering. His parents were poor but honest folk and sincere Catholics.
Of the father, the historian remarks that he was eminently religious, assiduous in prayer, and in frequenting the sacraments, a peaceful man, calm in the midst of adversity, discreet in conversation, and ever grateful for the least favor. These paternal characteristics were to be reproduced in young-
Like all normal boys, he enjoyed children's games. He especially loved to imitate the soldiery and to hear the ceaseless rumbling of drums as soldiers marched through his native village. In childlike innocence, he was the unconscious witness of the first scenes of the bloody revolution to follow.
France was in a turmoil. The seething volcano of hatred and greed was about to erupt. In large cities revolutionary mobs soon gained the ascendancy and had recourse to tyrannical measures to bring about the conversion of the peasantry to their political faction. Peasants were disarmed, their prayer-books burned, their priests despoiled of all material possessions, maltreated and exiled.
Fleeing to SwitzerlandIn Barboux, however, the majority remained staunchly Royalist and steadfast in their faith. Their unswerving loyalty redoubled the fury of the revolutionists. By day continually harassed, and by night fired upon by well-armed patriots, to save his life Joseph's father was compelled to flee to nearby Switzerland.
Gloomy indeed was the year that followed for the Rousselot family. Without means of support, Joseph was obliged to beg from door to door. Occasionally, under cover of night, the father would visit his family, but jobless, he could do little to alleviate their misery. It was finally decided that the entire family must leave their native land. On a dark night, not without risk of detection, they emigrated to Switzerland.
Joseph was placed in a school conducted by Trappist monks in the Monastery of Val Sainte Lambert. Only eight years of age, he already knew the austerity of monastic discipline. Yet peaceful days, even here, were short-lived. Like a malignant cancer, the French revolution spread even to this peace-loving country, and once again Joseph was an exile.
Wandering Across Europe
Through the rigors of winter and the scorching heat of summer, the Trappists, with some sixty students, wandered about Europe. In rough covered wagons and sometimes on foot they saw numerous cities and passed through many countries. On make-shift barges they sailed down the Danube and on horse-drawn sleds they crossed the frozen waters of White Russia. Occasionally, in wayside stables, or in poor abbeys, they found temporally lodging, but political unrest never permitted them to tarry long in any determined place.
A Prayerful Life on the RunFor five years, in their painful journeys by land or by sea, the severe rule of the Trappists was in no way mitigated. They rose at a fixed hour, together recited the canonical hours, assisted at daily Mass, and every day convened to say the entire Rosary. The youngsters kept up with their studies as best they could. When they reached their destination, sometimes rather late at night, they would go to the nearest church and sing the "Salve Regina" while Lay Brothers prepared a supper according to the Trappist rule, with no meat, no fish, no eggs, no wine. Each afterwards received his blanket and often slept on the hard ground. In this school of rigid spirituality, Father Joseph Rousselot was trained.
Having returned to Switzerland he found a much-needed respite. In Fribourg he followed courses in Philosophy and Theology, and for some time taught in the monastery where he had received his early education. Yet but a few years passed when a stern Napoleonic edict closed all Trappist monasteries in the French Empire. The students were sent to their families, but Joseph fled to a kindly parish priest who recommended him to the diocese of Grenoble.
Studying to Become a Priest
The year 1813 was a supremely happy one for Joseph Rousselot. His joy knew no bounds, for his youthful dreams were finally realized. Formed in the crucible of penance and prayer, he had been found a worthy candidate for priestly honors. To the Diocese of Grenoble he proved invaluable, and for over half a century expended all his priestly zeal and apostolic energy in the spiritual and intellectual formation of "Other Christs."
For fifty-three years he taught theology in the Grand Seminary of Grenoble. Gifted with a prodigious memory, he had acquired vast erudition. It is said that he was a living library of information. Sound in judgment, of unswerving loyalty to Rome, unshakable in his faith, eminently pious, paternally kind, and almost infinitely patient, he endeared himself to his students. His priestly zeal was limitless.
Notwithstanding his all-absorbing work as professor, he was also a promoter of the Propagation of the Faith, founder of a Catholic library, Spiritual Director of a religious community of Sisters, editor of a Catechism of Perseverance, Vicar-General of the diocese, Canon of the Cathedral, and favored counsellor of the Bishop.
A Prudent Advocate for Our LadyIt would seem that Our Lady of La Salette herself had prepared this priestly soul to become her chief advocate before her people. Who, indeed, could be more qualified to be her champion than he who already exemplified in his life the main teachings of her sorrowful discourse, penance, prayer and zeal?
But no lover of religious novelties, patiently he had waited for developments. He was not among the first to write on La Salette. Several months after the apparition, there had appeared writings by Bishop Villecourt of La Rochelle, later elevated to the ranks of the cardinalate, as well as by Father Bez and by Laurent Hect. News of the apparition had rapidly spread throughout France and beyond its borders, in Germany, Italy and Spain.
Carefully Hesitant to Accept the Apparition
However, Father Rousselot, as a member of the Cathedral Chapter and as a professor at the Grand Seminary, had decided with his colleagues that one must temporarily abstain from any decision, that there could be no harm in delay, that Christian prudence even suggested this until all available evidence was at hand. Like Gamaliel of old he would say: 'If this work is of human origin, it carries with it the seeds of self-destruction; if it is of God, it cannot fail."
An Extensive Examination Was MadeIt was some six months after the wondrous apparition at La Salette that Bishop Philibert de Bruillard officially appointed Father Rousselot and Father Orcel to inquire diligently into the miraculous event. Both men were prudent, both were learned, both were amply qualified for this responsible task. Together they covered nine dioceses in the southern part of France, visited the Holy Mountain, had many conferences with the inhabitants of Corps and La Salette, scrupulously interviewed the children, and scientifically examined the reported miracles according to strict rules formulated by Benedict XIV.
Only after mature reflection was his official report – irrefutable evidence of the genuineness of the Marial Apparition – submitted to a specially appointed Episcopal Committee. Needless to say, it created a very favorable impression. It was carefully read and discussed in various meetings and became the basis for the future definition by Philibert de Bruillard in 1851.
Proof Beyond Doubt of the La Salette Apparition
The news was received jubilantly when Father Rousselot published his well-documented and scrupulously accurate report on La Salette in a book entitled "The Truth on the Event of La Salette." With the accretion of further positive evidence corroborating the authenticity of La Salette, he felt compelled to write another book entitled, "New Documents of La Salette." He also published his "Month of Mary," "The Pilgrim's Manual," "A New Sanctuary to Mary," "A Brief and Clear Resumé Which a Catholic Has to Believe in the Genuineness of Mary's Apparition at La Salette."
In scholarly fashion, he demonstrated the veracity of the Marial Apparition at La Salette by clearly showing that the children could not possibly deceive nor have been deceived. This in turn he proves from the circumstances of the event, the character of the children, their native ignorance, their quick and unhesitating replies to subtle objections proposed by learned theologians, the nature of the fact and its moral and miraculous consequences, and from all these in their ensemble he drew the inescapable conclusion that deception was impossible and unthinkable. Future apologists could but amplify but never deviate from Father Rousselot's rigid argumentation, his factual presentation and his logical conclusion.
Defending the ApparitionCertain hostile newspapers bitterly opposed the apparition. What supernatural fact is ever accepted without contention? In learned and remarkably solid articles, he ably refuted calumnious reports and answered objections. This he did through various newspaper syndicates throughout the whole of France. He always took this opportunity to present a factual exposé of the miraculous event.
So identified indeed did he become with La Salette that it was not long before he was personally attacked in anonymous brochures and in certain degrading songs circulating about Grenoble. But bravely he stood up under the acid test of opposition and never wavered in his loyalty to Mary.
Urging that a Basilica Be Built
His indefatigable zeal in the cause of La Salette is also made manifest in this particular incident. After Bishop Philibert de Bruillard had officially declared the Marial Apparition at La Salette as indubitable and certain and worthy of all belief, it was his intention to erect a modest chapel on the site of the apparition. This he deemed imperative since a large concourse of people regularly flocked to the Holy Mountain.
But on a given occasion Father Rousselot, with all due respect, implored the Bishop to construct, not a chapel, but a basilica. Astounded at such a proposal, the good Bishop inquired where he would find the necessary money to finance such a huge undertaking. But filled with faith and ardent love for his Blessed Mother, the holy priest replied that within a short time he would obtain 200,000 francs from the hands of Divine Providence.
In the summer months that followed, he toured France, Belgium and Holland and obtained the needed amount to begin the large construction. Assuredly he was not alone in this great work, but his was the driving power, the tireless energy that brought about the realization of this cherished dream.
Defending the Apparition Before Pope Pius IXIn the interests of La Salette, twice he journeyed to Rome. He it was who presented Pope Pius IX, of revered memory, with the secrets confided by Mary to the two fortunate witnesses; he it was who obtained from the Holy See, as an emissary of the Bishop, those rich spiritual blessings and indulgences for the pilgrimages conducted on the Holy Mountain, and for the Confraternities already erected in honor of our Weeping Mother.
La Salette had become his chief concern. Everywhere he preached La Salette, he lived its salutary teachings in his priestly life, and in, his writings his lucid and convincing arguments, converted the incredulous to Mary's cause and drew a large number to Her Sacred Shrine.
Prepared to Become Mary’s DefenderFormed in the austere traditions of the Trappists, his priesthood was the living symbol of La Salette, for it was the perfect exemplification of penance, prayer and zeal. He prudently reserved his judgment on hearing of the wondrous event of La Salette, but after a thorough investigation his zeal knew no bounds. He dedicated his life to its cause.
At the advanced age of eighty, this true Son of Mary, her valiant apostle, breathed his last to merit the blissful perpetual vision of God in union with her whose cause he ever championed. A galaxy of saintly men and zealous missionaries have followed in his footsteps and the seed of conviction which he so bravely planted in the first days of the apparition these other heroes have spread across the earth to all her people. La Salette has now grown into a mighty oak with its branches reaching the farthest corners of the world.
(Reprinted with permission from The Our Lady’s Missionary, June, 1940, pgs. 131-133)