A truly holy priest who was devoted to bringing children to love the Eucharist! Ask his help for your group! He is a dear friend of mine.
Have you ever noticed the halo of light that surrounds holy priests and illuminates all those in their presence? They bring about such transformations by the silent preaching of their holy life! How many imitators they draw in their wake, attracting them by their priestly ideal! May Jesus favor us with entering into contact with such a priest!» The author of these lines, Father Edward Poppe, (1890-1924)—whom Pope John Paul II beatified on October 3, 1999—could not imagine that these words would be applied to his own life story.
Edward Poppe (Eduard Joannes Maria Poppe) was born on December 18, 1890, into a profoundly Catholic Flemish family. His father, Désiré, and his mother, Josefa, lived in a modest home in the small city of Temse, close to Ghent, Belgium. In his profession as a baker, Désiré worked hard to support his family. In his trials, he had the custom of saying, «We must always be satisfied with the will of God.» Josefa displayed in her household both warm affection and firm discipline. She attended Mass every day, as much as she could, for the family grew quickly. Eleven children would join the family circle—three would die at an early age, the two sons would become priests, five daughters were to become nuns, and one daughter alone remained at home with her mother.
A mischievous and stubborn child
From his early youth, Edward manifested an equally happy and hyperactive disposition. He was, however, not an easy child—he knocked everything over, at the risk of breaking a good many things as well as hurting himself. Mischievous and stubborn, he would not leave his sisters alone. These would take their revenge by mussing his hair when they discovered him combing in front of a mirror. Edward went to school willingly, but preferred staying at home, where his exuberance could be given full rein more easily. A big eater, like many children, Edward frequently devoured treats from the bakery.
Nevertheless, people noticed in him candor and cheerfulness. At the age of twelve, he made his First Communion and received Confirmation. Then, under the beneficial influence of the sacraments, Edward became more serious—practical jokes and teasing became more rare.
In the spring of 1904, Mr. Poppe introduced Edward to his business expansion plans. He hoped to see his son enter an apprenticeship as a baker. Edward remained silent at first, for he had resolved to become a priest. He finally replied to his father that he didn’t want to become a baker. Some time later, a priest friend expressed to Mr. and Mrs. Poppe a favorable opinion on Edward’s vocation. Mr. Poppe said to his wife: «I prefer what God wants. Besides, let’s not be selfish. God has not given us our children for ourselves.» Thus did the son leave that fall for Saint Nicholas Minor Seminary in Waas.
On January 10, 1907, Mr. Poppe died of exhaustion. Edward, who was 16 years old, considered leaving his studies for a short time and taking over the bakery, but his mother told him, «Before he died, Papa made me promise to let you continue with your studies. I want to keep my promise.»
In September 1910, Edward was called to military service, in the university company, where he could begin his philosophy studies. In the barracks, the others quickly learned of his desire to enter the priesthood, which brought him mockery and provocation. His companions’ vulgarity and debauchery became unendurable to him, «a hell,» as he said. In addition, he could not attend Mass and receive Communion each week. This privation deeply pained him. On the other hand, the experience of military life enlightened him on human misery, and was useful to him when, in 1922, he was entrusted with the care of seminarians and religious fulfilling their military service. After several months, he found serenity again and drew from the Eucharist, which he was again able to receive, the strength to transform trials into opportunities for the apostolate. He now better understood life and the difficulties of soldiers and placed himself in the service of all. He observed the degree to which strong-minded men need friendship; thanks to his kindness, to his helpfulness and his good humor, he succeeded in opening hearts and bringing souls to the spiritual life.
One day, he discovered the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: «This book,» he wrote, «has given me more pleasure and benefit than any book of philosophy; in it I have learned things that years of study could not have shown me.» He was charmed by the young Carmelite’s way of understanding contemplation, which corresponded so well to his tastes—a simple, practical prayer, embracing the twists and turns of all events and occupations, becoming an integral part of life, becoming life itself and sanctifying everything. The conflict between prayer and work thus disappeared. Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort brought him Mary’s maternal smile, but it seemed that Edward’s favorite saint was Francis of Assisi, because of his love for the Cross of Jesus.
A well-directed seminarian
Freed from military service, Edward took the cassock with profound joy at the Louvain Seminary on March 13, 1912. He valued the Superior’s instructions: «According to the divine plan, action must be fed with prayer. The interior life is the wellspring of the apostolate… Do not believe in the slogan, ‘The priest is sanctified in sanctifying others’—it’s an illusion. The real formula is, ‘Sanctify yourself so as to sanctify others.’ » But his ideal of sanctification was not shared by all of his confreres. One day, he heard, «Your enthusiasm is common among young seminarians. Everyone starts out as if the fervor will last forever. After ten years of priesthood, the reality of life completely extinguishes this illusion.»
These thoughts deeply disturbed Edward, who wrote to his sister Eugénie, who had become a nun, «Is it true that fervor is only at the beginning of life as a priest or religious, when the difficulties are still unknown to them? Is it true that I will someday become an ordinary priest, having lost all my supernatural strength? I can’t, and more that that, I don’t want to believe it. Better to die than serve God by halves.»
But the discouraging remarks he had heard plunged Edward into incertitude and doubt. Was the ideal of holiness a fantasy? Prayer became difficult for him, dryness overcame him, even when he invoked the Blessed Virgin. He saw only selfishness, weakness and vain sentimentality in his life, even in his prayer. «How can I believe that God loves such a base creature?» And he who had meant to become a saint! By a good impulse, he revealed his thoughts to his spiritual director, who answered him, «Say often: ‘Lord, I believe, but help me.’ Above all, don’t become discouraged. Look at the crucifix—you will find there the joyful peace of sacrifice.» Edward followed this precious advice and, little by little, under the merciful influence of Mary, the thick fog which surrounded him disappeared. In contemplating the crucifix, he vividly felt the need to share in Christ’s sufferings, and guessed at the mysterious relationship linking suffering to love.
In September 1913, he began his theological studies at the Ghent Seminary. The First World War broke out and, on August 1, 1914, Edward was called to serve as a nurse. On the 4th, he was in Namur, where the battle was raging. On the 25th, the Belgian army withdrew to the south. Exhausted with fatigue, Edward was placed half-dead in an ambulance van. In the village of Bourlers, the priest, Father Castelain, took care of him until December. This priest had a limitless confidence in Saint Joseph. Edward wanted to try it. One day, the Germans captured a dozen young men from the village. Edward appealed to Saint Joseph for them to be freed that same day. A few hours later, they returned home, with the exception of a Frenchman. Edward renewed his request, and again he was heard. From that day on, Mary and Joseph became inseparable in his heart. Father Castelain also made known to him the poor and exemplary life of Blessed Father Chevrier.
After many sudden changes of fortune, he obtained, thanks to Cardinal Mercier, a dispensation from his military duty, and returned to the seminary in April 1915. Edward was ordained a priest on May 1, 1916. Intense were his emotions and his meditation—he offered himself to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus as a victim with Him for sinners.
Seeking out lost sheep
On June 16, he was named vicar of the parish Saint Collete of Ghent, in a working-class neighborhood. Just recently founded, this parish was not exactly flourishing—good Christians were few and far between, and religious practices were very much neglected. The parish pastor had retained from his service in the army a certain rigidity. Nevertheless, under this rough exterior, he hid a generous heart, a profound piety, and great kindness. Edward would always love him as a father.
The warmer season allowed Edward to begin his apostolate in the street. He was amiable, gave holy cards to the children, and greeted workers in the evening as they returned home from the factories. «They will get to know me; they should feel that I love them,» he thought. Little by little, the number of conversations increased, and he entered homes, especially the most squalid. His heart broke when he saw the poverty of these people—the war had created tragic situations. He opened his purse and gave all that he could. Before his obvious benevolence, the anticlerical bias of the poor fell away, and he could speak of Christ and give renewed life to the ancient Christian roots. He was happy, full of hope and eagerness.
But the redeeming cross visited him often. One day, his pastor told him, «I don’t like it that you visit those people there. You are too young to expose yourself in that way. And anyway, it’s useless—you are deluding yourself and wasting your time. Save your strength for the care of faithful souls.» Edward was, however, allowed to visit the sick and the dying, where he did wonders. His pastor’s decision, to which he had submitted himself, dismayed him. «Humanly speaking,» he wrote, «it’s discouraging for the heart of a priest… Oh! My God, help me!»
The Eucharist: sun of his life!
To find the strength he needed, Edward spent a great deal of time before the Tabernacle. Sometimes he sighed, «Oh, Jesus, how little men love You! At least, the two of us love each other.» On the eve of All Saints’ Day, after a long day of confessions, a friend found him close to the Blessed Sacrament. «Edward, what are you doing there?»—«Oh! I’m not doing anything, I’m just keeping Our Lord company. I am too tired to talk to Him, but I’m resting next to Him.»
From his arrival in the parish, the young priest had been seen busying himself with youth groups. His goal was to keep the children busy during the summer vacation. At the end of the school year, he went to the school of the Brothers of Charity and spoke to the students: «Summer vacation is upon us. You are surely going to have fun, and that’s good. But don’t forget Our Lord. He is so good, and He loves you, during vacation as well as during the school year. Show Him that you have courage—each morning at the seven o’clock Mass, and in the evening at Benediction!… I am going to see who among you are the brave ones, and for those, there will be a raffle.» He gave the same speech at the Sisters’ school. The next day, thirty children answered the call. Then, each day that followed—fifty, one hundred, two hundred…
Father Poppe gave them little lessons, with stories and amusing remarks here and there. Then, he gave them a short invocation to repeat often during the day. To prevent commotion, he gathered together the most boisterous children and appointed them the ones responsible for order.
In his goal to sanctify children through the Eucharist, he conceived the plan of a League of Communion which would be «an association of children who love Jesus and wish to sanctify themselves in mutually supporting one another and showing a good example everywhere.» In the League’s meetings, which his pastor permitted him to establish, Edward started from the principle that children must not have a watered-down, half-Gospel preached to them, as some priests do for fear of rebuttal, but the full Gospel, Christian perfection. For that, each can count on the grace that comes to us especially from the Eucharist. In June 1917, the Children’s Communion League counted 90 members already. Piety flourished again in the parish. Edward was overjoyed. For the Feast of the Sacred Heart, 21 children
aged 5 and 6 made their First Communion. They came from poor families, and the mothers wept with joy.
At the end of the month of July, exhausted by his unfailing work, Edward was at the limit of his strength. He was ordered to complete rest for a month. He spent it at the Sisters of Charity of Melle. Upon his return, he took up his usual ministry, but his pastor, concerned for his health, discharged him from the Communion League meetings, from youth clubs, and from the catechism lessons. Edward obeyed, his heart broken. Without him, the groups would slowly fall apart. He would later write, «Suffer and obey! Is the servant greater than his Master? We are intelligent, we understand how to conceive and organize our works, we have foresight and initiative; and we even burn with zeal. But Jesus was more intelligent and more zealous, had more foresight, and understood more than do we! His zeal was a consuming fire. He knew how to order His life much better than we do… And yet Jesus obeyed Joseph and Mary in everything. He left the last word to authority—over the course of thirty years, He recognized
and taught the value of authority. The price of obedience rises beyond all estimation when we think that Jesus, who submitted Himself, was God. His entire life, as a child and as a young man, His mission and His death—a death on the Cross—was a great act of obedience.»
The eloquence of example
Despite the workload reductions and care provided him, the young vicar became weaker. He was forced to reduce his work more and more. Following the good advice of his spiritual director, in July 1918, he asked his Bishop for a change of post. On October 4, he was named director of the house of the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul, in the village of Moerzeke. The house was composed of nine sisters, some elderly persons, several sick people, and numerous orphans, altogether about fifty residents. Edward’s mother and two of his sisters, Marie and Suzanne, came to live permanently in Moerzeke. At the village parish, Father Poppe was reunited with a classmate from the seminary, who had become the vicar. By common consent, they made an hour of adoration together before the Most Blessed Sacrament every Thursday night in the convent chapel. Drawn by their example, the residents of the house joined them; then the priests attracted the children who, in turn, brought along their parents. Soon the chapel was
full, and Father Poppe took advantage of it by delivering a short homily, to which readings and songs were added.
If the ardent apostle took an interest in a soul in danger, he first addressed himself to the individual’s Guardian Angel, reminding him of his mission, and drawing up with him his battle plan. When he entered a school or assembly, he greeted the Guardian Angels of those present. But it was with his own Guardian Angel that he spoke most of all. Seeing in him the messenger who joined his soul to Jesus and Mary, he named him «little Gabriel,» the name of the Angel of the Annunciation.
On May 11, 1919, he suffered a cardiac arrest, and received Extreme Unction in great peace. «I have never asked the Lord to live to be old,» he told a friend, «but only that men love Him and that priests sanctify themselves.» Contrary to all expectations, he recovered, and the doctor authorized visits—Edward’s room was always full. On June 8, he suffered another attack, more serious than the first, which laid him low; no more visits, no more Masses. This time his health recovered again, but he remained between life and death, waiting from one day to the next for the end. During his periods of respite, he took up his apostolate again, as much as he could. He had a board put across his bed so as to be able to write, especially to his brother priests. He kept up-to-date on social questions which had always aroused his zeal, and occupied himself with the workers’ faith and religious practice, offering sufferings and prayers for them. He strove to make one of his friends, who had become a member of Parliament, understand the importance of his role in finding an equitable solution to the problems of the workers. «I ask God,» he wrote, «to grant you to bring your political and social convictions in harmony with the Gospel. I would be happy if even just one Parliament member depended on God to obtain a worthy result of his efforts.»
For several months, his health improved, but he remained weak. His illness itself contributed to the Mission, as the Holy Father said during the beatification: «Father Poppe, who knew suffering, has a message for the sick, reminding them that prayer and love for Mary are essential to the Church’s missionary commitment.»
The apostle of Mary
On January 1, 1924 came another heart attack which, after a lull, was followed by a more serious relapse on February 3. In a letter addressed to his priest friends, he revealed the secret of his heart: «Mary will cover you with Her shadow, and you will remain calm and confident. She will start the journey with you and lead you by secret shortcuts. You will not be spared suffering, but She will make you hungry for it, as if for an essential food. Ah, Mary! Mary! Her name will be like honey and balm on your lips. Mary! Mary! Ave Maria! Who can resist it? Tell me, who will be lost with the Ave Maria?»
Little by little, Edward understood that his mission on earth was complete, that Jesus wanted to take him from this world, and that he had to die, to sacrifice his life for his sheep, just as the grain of wheat thrown to the earth that bears much fruit. From then on, he calmly prepared himself for the supreme testimony of death perfectly accepted, and asked the Sister who cared for him to repeat these words to him often: «I do not know if God is content with me; I abandon myself to Him. Oh! How sweet it is, at the final moment, to think of nothing, not of one’s sins, nor of one’s virtues, but solely of Mercy! This truly is the death of the little victims of love.» His last days thus illustrate these maxims written at the beginning of his ministry: «Brothers, we have but one life that goes by. We are travelers; and it is foolishness to wish to seek here on earth our dwelling and our repose.»
In spring, despite Edward’s weakness, many people came to see him. Sometimes they had to wait at length for their turn, but they were never let down by his cheery reception. On June 10, while getting up in the morning, he was hit by a final stroke. He received Extreme Unction, then his half-opened eyes cast a final glance at the statue of the Sacred Heart, his hands opened as if for a final offering; he then rendered his soul to God at the age of 33.
May we keep in mind this prayer gone out of his priestly heart: «Remember Your sufferings, Jesus. Remember Your love, and the innocence of the little ones! Send us Your priests!»
This prayer was echoed by the Holy Father during the homily of the World Youth Day Mass (August 20, 2000): «May every community always have a priest to celebrate the Eucharist!… The world must not be deprived of the gentle and liberating presence of Christ living in the Eucharist! You yourselves must be fervent witnesses to Christ’s presence on our altars. Let the Eucharist mold your life and the life of the families you will form. Let it guide all life’s choices.»
In these thoughts, we pray for all your intentions and for those dear to you, living and deceased.
Dom Antoine Marie osb.