He had only thirteen years of active ministry, but he became one of France’s most important nineteenth-century missionary voices.
Jagel Libermann, a descendant of a Polish Jewish family, was on his way to becoming a second-generation rabbi when he was converted to Christianity. He was influenced by David Drach, a leading Parisian Jewish intellectual, who had converted to Catholicism. On November 12, 1825, Libermann too was converted and was baptized a few days later.
He took the name François for Francis of Assisi. Although he studied for the priesthood, Libermann was plagued with epilepsy and was not ordained until 1841 at age thirty-nine. He had only thirteen years of active ministry remaining, but in that time, he became one of France’s most important nineteenth-century missionary voices.
Shortly after his ordination he opened a novitiate for the Society of the Holy Heart of Mary to send priests abroad. The new priest had long been interested in France’s black colonial world, having carefully questioned former missionaries who had served in Reunion, Madagascar, and Haiti. Initially only three missionaries appeared. Haiti and Mauritius became off limits for political reasons, and the long-established Holy Ghost Fathers claimed francophone West Africa as their territory.
Meanwhile, Rome, in response to the antislavery movement, created the Vicariate Apostolic of the Two Guineas extending five thousand miles along the West African coast. Fr. Libermann contributed seven priests and three lay workers, who set out for Cape Palmas in 1843. As was often the case, death and disease decimated the missionary ranks. It was not until September 28, 1844, that the first permanent station was founded as St. Mary of Gabon. The site was called Libreville, the French counterpart to Monrovia, Liberia, and became a base against the slave trade.
In 1848 Libermann broke the impasse with the Holy Ghost Fathers. His order and the Holy Ghost Fathers merged. Libermann became head of the new Congregation of the Holy Ghost. The agreement included supervision of a seminary to train colonial clergy and – the most controversial point – plans to train an indigenous African clergy. Between 1869 and 1910 twenty-two Africans were ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Writing to his priests in Dakar and Gabon on November 19, 1847, Libermann enumerated his ideas about the missionary role of Christians in language paralleling that of St. Paul. In particular, he stressed the need for kenosis, the self-emptying of a person to stand in poverty and solidarity with Africans. Libermann drew on a passage in Philippians (2:5-11) that Christ, in entering the world, did not establish himself as an equal to God, but came as a servant. As such Christ was willing to be humiliated and suffer death on the cross.
Here is Libermann’s fullest statement of kenosis in a missionary setting: “Empty yourselves of Europe, of its manners and mentality; make yourselves black with the blacks, then you will understand them as they should he understood; make yourself black with the blacks to form them as they should be, not in the way of Europe, but leaving them what is their own; behave toward them as servants would behave to their masters, adapting to the customs, attitudes and habits of their masters.”
Wracked by migraine headaches and the return of epilepsy, Libermann died in early February 1852. Although only fifty years of age and active in the mission field for little more than a decade, his prodigious energy, deep spirituality, and wide-ranging interests made his achievements among the most lasting in French missionary history: he championed an indigenous church with a carefully trained indigenous clergy and hierarchy; he advocated separation of the church from the French state; he exemplified personal holiness, lived out in a religious community; and he was a leader in a wider civilizing effort, the “mission civilisatrice” of French colonial officials. (Frederick Quinn)