Madeleine Delbrêl: The Missionary and the Church

Authored by Mary Ann Wiesinger-Puig in Issue #6.2 of The Catechetical Review

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By the time Venerable Madeleine Delbrêl was 20, she had converted to Catholicism from the strict atheism of her youth. Nine years later, in 1933, she was living as a missionary with two companions in Ivry,  “the first Communist city and more or less the capital of Communism in France.” She decided to live in this community because she remembered the pain of not knowing God; her goal was not simply to evangelize them, but to befriend them. She lived there until she died in 1964.

The more the world into which we enter is without the Church, the more we have to be the Church precisely there. Mission exists only in Her. And She enters the world through us.[1]

Venerable Madeleine Delbrêl had an exceptional love for the Church and perceived that there was a profound link between Christ, the Church, and evangelization. “The work of the Church is the salvation of the world; the world cannot not be saved except by the Church.”  In our current atmosphere of skepticism towards structures of authority and of the Church herself, she is a voice that reminds us how to love the Church, and how to bring Christ to the world in and through her.

Madeleine considered each person in the Church to be an essential part of the Church’s mission; there was no one who did not have a part to play. “We are not the Church unless we are the whole Church: each member belongs to the whole body.” Each person’s part was specific and vital: “And we are not the whole Church unless we are in precisely the place meant for us in the Church, which is the same as saying that we are precisely in our place in the world, where the Church is made present through us.”

These words are comforting and hopeful, but we always seem to struggle to find our purpose and direction. Delbrêl’s view is that we do not have to go crazy finding exotic projects: “Mission means doing the very work of Christ wherever we happen to be. We will not be the Church and salvation will not reach the ends of the earth unless we help save the people in the very situations in which we live.”  These situations, these people where we live, have been entrusted to us. When we don’t take this mission seriously, the world suffers.

Her words profoundly challenge me. I am often dreaming of my next “important project,” but fail to see the people and the situations that are very truly before my eyes. This week, my husband’s co-worker, Paul, picked up a woman off the street. She was eight months pregnant, had a two-year-old, and had only had an apple for food that day, which she shared with her daughter. My eyes bulged when I heard that Paul and his wife were taking her home so she could shower and eat. I could only think of all the things that could go wrong.

I was deeply grateful that he asked my husband and me to help him, since he did not speak Spanish. We ended up helping her find shelter with the Missionaries of Charity; and while my husband drove to downtown Houston, we listened to her story. Unexpected circumstances had rendered her with no home; and she had been travelling for two months, managing the best that she could. The morning that Paul had found her, she did not even have 25 cents in her pocket and she had made her last prayer of desperation to God.

Our friend had eyes to see. He allowed himself to be moved by this woman’s need, and in so doing, had allowed himself to be a channel for God’s personal love. This brought Madeleine’s words again before me: “What is extremely important is that we first focus on those who are our actual neighbors, or members of our family, or coworkers, or people we exercise, or camp, or vacation with - in a word, those people we did not decide to get to know, but whom God willed or allowed to be in our lives.” The outposts of our lives (yours and mine!)—this is where people are to encounter God and his Church.

But Why the Church?

Why was her connection to the Church so vital? Madeleine saw the Church as her Mother. “When the Church gives birth to our Christian life…it is like a seed, a beginning. All of the grace that we receive throughout our human life is given to us constantly by the Church; it is she who constantly nourishes it, develops it, and reproduces it.” This deep filial relationship became a vital aspect of her faith life: “Our Christian life, that which was transformed in us at our baptism, that which is Christian at the heart of everything we do, comes from the Church, and remains a part of the Church.” 

picture of migrant mother with childBut we are not simply recipients of goodness and nourishment, we also have a responsibility towards the Church. Madeleine says, “There ought to be a certain family resemblance with the Church that shines through our lives.” This light is urgently needed in a world that is increasingly anxious and in despair. “We must continually strive to make the Church loving. Her love is to a great extent in our hands.  ‘It is in her souls that the Church is beautiful,’ says St. Ambrose.” Thus, the story of the Church is not only told by the priests and bishops, it is also told by the laity (you and me!) and how we live, how we speak, whom we befriend—all of these shine forth Christ’s love in the world.

Delbrêl continues to address us, “We are called to be the visible body of Christ in the midst of the human body of society. For this, we too must sacrifice everything.”  We don’t fulfill our Christian duties simply “with a prayer said at Mass, with a devotion to a priest or to a movement. We don't even make good on [them] with a faithful life of the sacraments, or with a fervent life of prayer, but rather by carrying our sacramental life and our prayer life wherever they must go, all the way to the end for which they were made.” Here again I think of Paul and his wife, who extended their home and their food to a woman whom they did not know, and with whom they could hardly communicate—a move that was a risk. But for that woman, that risk meant everything.

A Prophetic Challenge

When we (you and I) do not take up our mission and our place within the Church, the world suffers. Madeline challenges us, “An atheistic world does not grow up next to Christian communities without these communities being at fault to some extent, at least guilty of blind selfishness.” We must honestly ask ourselves: Is it the core of my parish’s culture to extend Christ’s genuine friendship and sacrificial love among the members of my parish? To those outside of the Church? And if that question seems beyond my reach, are these things at the core of the culture of my own heart, as a small cell within the Church?

Reports and statistics will tell us that the numbers of people who are leaving the Church outnumber those coming in, and that the percentage of young people who do not affiliate with the Church is on the rise. But we must not be afraid to be a people who believe, who offer their prayer and suffering, who lift up our gaze to see the person who has been placed before us. She reminds us, “The evangelization of the world and its salvation is the Church's task. She strives constantly towards the world, like flame that seeks stubble.”

Life: Our School of Applied Faith

We trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church and will help us to become who we were created to be. The “appearance of a faith too weak to be able to endure contact with atheism has to be eliminated,” says Delbrêl, for “faith was made to conquer the world - and where it seems, by contrast, to be the victim rather than the victor, what we are dealing with is not the faith itself, but the way we live the faith, a life that has distorted or left something essential out of the faith.”

Madeleine Delbrêl’s faith was forged in Ivry; it was there that she became a mystic, there that she began the road to sainthood. She said, “Ivry was my school of applied faith - for thirty of the sixty years of my life. In this Marxist city, my teachers and trainers were the living relationships I had with Communists.”  Far from destroying her faith, her faith held fast and grew strong in that atheistic milieu. We take courage in her example and trust in her intercession, that we might bear the love of Christ and his Church to the people that have been entrusted to us!

Mary Ann Wiesinger Puig is a missionary, speaker, and consultant. She works for Franciscan University's Catechetical Institute, Evangelium Consulting, and is a senior regional missionary for St. Paul Evangelization Institute. She is married and lives in Houston, TX. She enjoys Cuban coffee, kayaking, and good stories.


[1] Madeleine Delbrêl. We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, Ressourcement: Retrieval & Renewal in Catholic Thought, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2000), Kindle Edition. All subsequent quotations are from this text. Emphasis mine.

This article originally appeared on pages 41-42 of the printed edition. Art credit: public domain image from

This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting

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