On August 4, 1916, Br. Frédéric Janssoone died in Quebec City, Canada, after having been at the service of the Custody for 40 years. Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, the Franciscan could soon be canonized “for his love of the Holy Land.”
The Custody’s website, on the occasion of the centenary of his death, published an abridged version of an article in Terra Santa Magazine, the French-language bimonthly publication put out by the Custody of the Holy Land.
“Fr. Frédéric could be the patron saint of peace talks in the Middle East and especially peace in Israel-Palestine,” said Fr. Roland Bonenfant, vice postulator for his canonization cause, who said he could also see Br. Roland as an intercessor in favor of ecumenism and in inter-religious dialogue.
Br. Roland hoped Fr. Frédéric’s canonization would take place this year but after an administrative problem, it will have to wait once again. Until when? Fr. Bonenfant is not worried and he answers “when God wants it to happen.”
Frédéric Janssoone was born in Ghyvelde, France, in 1838. He entered the Franciscans in 1864 when he was 26 years old, and after 14 years of religious life in France, he was sent to the Holy Land in 1878 at his own request. After not even eight months of serving the Custody, he was elected Custodial Vicar.
Br. Frédéric’s service in the Holy Land lasted ten years, and during those ten years, he gave of himself whole-heartedly. Not only did he work, preach and listen to people’s confessions at length, but he lived out his Franciscan poverty in a radical way. At this rate, many times he was overworked to the point of having to stop working entirely. Twice he thought that he was going to die of exhaustion. Stomach cancer eventually prevailed over him in 1916.
Throughout his stay, Fr. Frédéric traveled throughout Jesus’ land. He became one with the Holy Land so as to become one with Christ. He acquired such knowledge of Jesus’ land that Fr. Bonenfant said he could also see him as the patron saint of pilgrimages. A knowledgeable tour guide, his sermons were what attracted people to him the most. His preachings on the Way of the Cross could last up to four hours and the pilgrims were always wanting more. For Fr. Frédéric, the Holy Land was a privileged way of meeting Christ. And in all his preaching, he liked nothing more than preaching about the Passion and the Cross.
An anachronistic saint
If the expression of his spirituality is marked by his time studying, the holiness Fr. Frédéric is surprisingly modern. Br. Guylain said Br. Frédéric was “anachronistic.” And in fact, in the nineteenth century he behaved in a way that was unthinkable at the time. He said that the Jansenism that still was popular at his time was the devil’s greatest invention. He had one word on his lips: “mercy.” God has mercy. God forgives. God loves. He preaches to free people from sin.
He was especially anachronistic in the way in which he lived out his relationship with Muslims and Christians of other denominations. He entered into dialogue with these groups, which was entirely uncommon for his time and for most religious.
Nonetheless, he never denied what he was: Latin Catholic, and for the Custody, guardian of the holy places and defender of Catholicism. Whenever anyone tried to deny Latins their rights, Fr. Frédéric defended them. But the faithful guardian intended to live in harmony with his surroundings and forged friendships with Orthodox religious.
Another “anachronistic” friendship that he had was with the son of the Pasha of Istanbul; Fr. Frédéric advised him as to how to convince his father to reinstate the practice of the Cross through the streets of the old town. Fr. Frédéric had the desire, and not a week passed by when he decided to write the Pasha in order to claim this right that had been interrupted for two centuries because of an alleged scuffle. The Pasha’s son said roughly: “Do not expect my father to allow a Christian to preach his faith in the street. Do it and you will see the reaction of the city.” And Br. Frédéric began preaching of the Way of the Cross. A few complaints were heard initially complaints, but the Ottoman police watched without intervening. And the right was thus restored.
“He did not attribute anything to himself. Everything that he obtained in different fields, he attributed to others,” said Br. Guylain. He is the one who built the current St. Catherine’s Church in Bethlehem, and the one in Jerusalem inside of Saint Savior’s Monastery.
At the end of his term as vicar, he was sent to Canada. He founded the commission that was in charge of fundraising for the works of the Franciscans of the Holy Land. He traveled across that vast country preaching the Fifth Gospel of the Holy Land. Like the missions of that time, he brought with him relics from Jesus’ land. They listened, and asked him to intercede; he was asked to visit a sick person and many miracles took place. The religious friar gave all of the credit to the relics.
In the words of Br. Guylain, the life of “the good Fr. Frédéric,” as he was called, “was another chapter of Acts of the Apostles.”
In Canada, the festivities surrounding the centenary of his death began last March, and crowds gathered for them. In this country, the witnesses of the graces obtained through his intercession keep coming.
“Fr. Frédéric is missing a contemporary biography,” laments Br. Guylain. “We should pay tribute to his modernity. Because there is much more to say than what has been said [about him]. Much more! He can show us how the Christian faith can open up; it can be solid and it can be spread, even in an anticlerical context, in which Fr. Frédéric grew up in France and despite which he developed a beautiful faith. It is this faith that goes against the current that we need today in the West.” It is this faith that comes from the Holy Land and that still needs to radiate throughout it.
(1) As part of the studies for the beatification and canonization, Fr. Frédéric’s tomb was opened in 1948 and then in 1988. Fr. Frédéric’s body is intact and in an exceptional state of preservation, according to witness statements.» custodia.org