Foreword for New Book on Pere Lataste
Here is the Foreword of a new biography on Pere M. Jean-Joseph Lataste, OP, by the postulator of his cause for Beatification, Fr. Jean-Marie Gueullette, OP. The Foreword is written by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, a well known writer, speaker, theologian, and a former Master of the Order of Preachers. That's me holding his hand. He's standing between Alpha and Omega.
Foreword for the book by Jean-Marie Gueullette OP
I began to read this biography of Jean-Joseph Lataste with a little trepidation. For a long time I had admired him as a brave Dominican who opened his life and his heart to women in prison and founded the Bethany sisters. He was a sort of grandfather to one of my favourite Dominican fraternities, in Norfolk State Penitentiary. But when I read his life, would he turn out to have been quite so admirable? Would he emerge as someone so marked by another time and spirituality that he would seem remote? The great joy of this wonderful book, for me at least, is that I found him to be even more attractive and inspiring than I would ever have guessed.
Jean-Joseph Lataste was a deeply affectionate person. He loved, and he loved to be loved. The moving account of his young love for Léonide Cécile de Saint-Germain shows him to be a man with a heart, flesh and blood like us. This same desire to give and show affection is apparent when he enters the Order. He develops friendships with the brethren, and even after he had founded the new congregation, he was a brother who loved community. He belongs within the long Dominican tradition, from Thomas Aquinas and Eckhart until today, which sees our relationship with God in terms of friendship. God is the one who longs only to be accepted by us and welcomed into our lives as a friend. This warmth finds its most beautiful expression in his relationship with the women whom he met in the prison in Cadillac. His very first words to them are: ‘My dear sisters.’ All of his mission and life is given in those first affectionate words.
He was also deeply Dominican in his cherishing of happiness. St Thomas Aquinas believed that we are created for happiness with God. To seek happiness is not selfish, because we find it in being emptied out beyond ourselves in love. When he arrives at the noviciate, one has an impression that this young man, who had passed through turbulent years, finds deep joy. There is the wonderful scene of two young novices coming to wash his feet, and the obvious immediate affection that they feel for each other.
When he founded his first community of the sisters of Bethany, he cares for their happiness. The choice of ‘Bethany’ is significant. It evokes a home, and so a place where they can be at ease. He did not want a building that would even look like a convent, and which might suggest severity.
Any true love cherishes the dignity of the other person. A sense of his own early failures cures him of any false sense of superiority. Whatever he did in his youth was a ‘felix culpa’, ‘a happy sin’, in the words of St Augustine, which bore fruit in his sense of oneness with these women whom society despised and feared. Certainly, they had failed and sinned, like us all, but Lataste would not let them be defined by what had happened. He was shocked by the way that they were referred to by others, as thieves and so on. A prostitute came to share her sorrow with an English Dominican. She said, ‘Father, I am a fallen woman’. To which he replied, ‘No, my dear, you merely tripped!’
Lataste was baptised opposite a ‘house of correction’, where he would discover his mission, and where women were supposed to be reformed by severe discipline. But Lataste believed in a far more profound transformation produced by God’s grace. He often liked to say that the greatest sinners could become the greatest saints. It does not matter what one has been but who one is now. ‘God is the Being of the present.’ Grace transforms us, and that is why these women could be religious.
Lataste loved the saints who had lived through experiences of sin, but whom grace had raised: Mary Magdalene, the first patron of the Dominican Order; Peter, who had denied our Lord; Paul who had murdered the earliest disciples, St Augustine and so on. When he talked with women in prison he was bowled over to see the effects of grace in their lives, their readiness to forgive those who had often seduced them and destroyed their lives. When he held a night of adoration of the sacrament, he saw hundreds of these women coming to pray devotedly, and he cries out ‘I have seen marvels.’ Jean-Marie shows how this cry resonates with that of St Catherine of Siena, who after profound contemplation, shouts out ‘I have seen the secrets of God.’ But the moment of revelation for Lataste is given in the faces of those to whom he has been preaching. It is a spirituality of mission.
Lataste is shocked by the silence imposed on the women in prison. This terrible silence is broken when he hears their confessions in the sacristy. It is pierced by words of compassion, the words of their brother and the words that they are free to speak to him. And when he makes an unauthorised visit to the prison, and cannot speak with them, they know that he is there for them, faithful in his friendship. The Resurrection of Jesus is the speaking again of the Word made flesh, silenced on the cross. Our faith breaks the oppressive silences in which so many people are imprisoned.
He was also aware that his new foundation did more than offer a home for a few women who were called to religious life. His brochure, Les Réhabilitées, in which he described his daring project, which he believed was the work of God, was also a prophetic gesture, addressed to his fellow citizens. It touched on issues that were of public concern. Victor Hugo’s novel which comments on life in prison, Les Misérables, had been published recently. It remains a prophetic gesture which still speaks to our society, in which an ever higher percentage of the population finds itself imprisoned not just by walls and bars but by prejudice and contempt.
Blessed Jean-Joseph Lataste began this new foundation when he was extraordinarily young, and died when he was still in his thirties. He endured opposition, even sometimes from his own brethren, though supported by the Master of Order, Alexandre Vincent Jandel. This confidence in the young was typical of St Dominic, who sent out his novices to preach when other religious thought that they would never be seen again. We need this confidence in the young today, confidence in young people who find themselves in prison, and also confidence in our young brothers and sisters when they have brave new ideas. May blessed Jean-Joseph give us all courage to do what is new.
Timothy Radcliffe OP