Our Lady's Dolphin
(A memoir of Father Emile Neubert S.M. during his final two years as Rector of the Marianist seminary in Fribourg, Switzerland. It was first published in The Marianist magazine in the May, 1955, issue on pages 1-4 and was written by Rev. Thomas A. Stanley, S.M.)
When the diminutive Father Neubert reads the title of this article, I know exactly what he will do. He'll squint at it, peer a little closer, shove his round, black-rimmed spectacles up on his forehead and peer closer still. Then without raising his head, he'll cock it to one side; give a bystander his Barry Fitzgerald grin, and say, "C'est drole, ca!" The best English rendering of this French phrase would be, "That's a queer title for an article about me!"
Perhaps the figure is a little unusual in biography, yet I cannot think of a better one to describe Father Emile Neubert, the most eminent authority in the Society of Mary on matters Marian and winner of this year's Marianist Award. In heraldry and early Christian art the dolphin symbolized diligence, love and swiftness in the pursuit of the Christian ideal, and these qualities are the acknowledged trademark of this elfin, scholarly saint.
I see that I am in trouble already. No, I am not trying to canonize Father Neubert before he dies. There are two senses in which the word saint can be taken. The first, Saint with a capital "s," means someone who is definitely in heaven enjoying the beatific vision. The second, saint with a small "s," means someone who prizes above all else the joy of seeing God and, to coin a word, is heaven-bent on getting that joy. It is in this sense that St. Paul applies the word to the first Christians, and it is in this sense that I use it to describe Father Neubert.
It is in this sense also that Father Neubert himself used it during the twenty-seven years he was rector of the Marianist International Seminary in Fribourg, Switzerland, in the warning he repeatedly gave the newly ordained. "Votre chain est fait," he would say. "Ou devenir un saint, ou etre un pharisien." In everyday English that means, "Your goose is cooked. Now you've either got to be a saint or you will be a hypocrite."
And Father Neubert was the living example of his own advice. He used to say, "Just give me ten truly unselfish priests, priests who are the saints they should be, and I'll convert any city in the world." And his listeners, having observed him at close range for years, never doubted but that ten men like Father Neubert could do it.
They say the appetite of a dolphin is voracious. He never seems to get enough to eat. Father Neubert is that way in regard to souls and devotion to the Blessed Virgin. And what may seem like two separate items to you are one and the same thing to Father Neubert. To him devotion to Mary means winning souls to Christ, and winning souls means promoting devotion to Mary.
It is astounding the antics a dolphin will go through to get a fish to eat and it is equally astounding the efforts Father Neubert will make to win a soul or lead it closer to God. He is never too busy to council someone in difficulty, to confess someone in sin. No weather is too foul to venture out in where the work of sanctification is concerned. Nothing is below his dignity or beyond his ability if it will increase knowledge and love of Christ and Our Blessed Mother.
A convincing argument in favor of Father Neubert's saintliness is the group of people who resent him, for he is not universally acclaimed. He has that terrible totalitarianism of apostolic men which makes him intolerant of and impatient with half-hearted work and duplicity in men supposedly dedicated to an all-out effort and simplicity of life. With such compromisers he can be very curt in his manner and cutting in his remarks if sufficiently provoked.
The prey of the dolphin is often rendered immobile by the directness and swiftness of its attack. Similarly, the evident earnestness, simplicity and sincerity of Father Neubert seems to stun and make easy victims of those whom he meets or lectures. He is not exceptionally clever or pleasing in his manner of speaking or preaching, especially now that age has added a slight rasp to his voice, yet whatever he says has about it a ring of conviction that captivates his listeners. More than that, his enthusiasm for his subject is contagious. He is an expert "con man" in the divine, upside-down game of selling the priceless treasure of grace for a meager bit of human effort.
Father Neubert is a Frenchman, born and bred in deeply-Catholic Alsace. He has the ability rare in Europe where our difficulties stem principally from overnight experts who think they know Americans, to understand our mentality and spirit. No doubt the fourteen years he spent in this country as a young priest had much to do with his sympathetic and understanding view of our strange behavior. Yet, I believe the deeper and truer reasons lie in the kindred between his simplicity and sincerity and the direct approach of Americans so impatient with fuss, fanfare and finagling.
Chesterton is quoted as saying, "A saint who is sad is a sad saint." No one is more heartily in agreement with this paradox than Father Neubert. Just as the dolphin, because of the peculiar curve nature has placed at the ends of its mouth, is sometimes called the fish with a built-in grin, so Father Neubert is most assuredly a man with a built-in smile. Whenever his face is not strained by earnestness, but allowed to follow its natural bent, it readily breaks into a winning cheerful smile.
It is a distinct pleasure to be in the company of Father Neubert. Not only is he pleasant in his manner, he is blessed as well with a ready wit and he enjoys nothing better than a gay exchange of clever repartee. His mastery of the American idiom and slang expression is amazing, and any verbal duel he enters usually sees him emerge victorious.
Yet his humor is not of the incisive variety, meant to sting and to hurt. Rather it has the charm and playfulness of a dolphin entertaining a shipload of transatlantic passengers. "When I first came to your country," he often told Americans, "I landed in New York and as I walked about I thought to myself, 'What a wonderful land! Look how they have numbered their streets in honor of Our Blessed Mother’s rosary: 1st AVE, 2nd AVE, 3rd AVE.'"
I remember one evening during the weekly informal conference he gave his seminarians he read a review of one of his recently published books. It was taken from a French newspaper and French reviewers are usually severely critical and hard-to-please, but this particular one piled adulation upon adulation, was unsparing in the use of complimentary adjectives, and urged a rapid and wide distribution of the book. He looked up, and seeing the amazement on our faces, confessed, "I wrote this review myself. I don’t think Our Blessed Mother will mind."
Besides representing the individual Christian in his diligence and love and swiftness in attaining conformity with Christ, the dolphin is also sometimes used to represent the diligence and swiftness of the author in the pursuit of knowledge. And in this way too it is an apt figure of Father Neubert. During the long period he served as rector of the Marianist seminary, many brilliant men were trained under him and their almost universal high regard for him was not simply based on the sanctity of his life. He was noted as well for his learning and his penetrating grasp of nearly every phase of sacred science. His title of Doctor of Sacred Theology is not an empty one.
Every day during even the busiest period of his life, he set aside the morning hours of nine to twelve for research and writing and he had a note on his office door proclaiming the inviolability of those hours. Unfortunately, during my early days under his tutelage my French was extremely weak and, misinterpreting the notice on the door to mean that his office hours were nine to twelve, I deliberately made it a point to conduct my business with him during those sacred moments. It is a high tribute to the saintly patience of Father Neubert that I never realized from anything he said or did the crime I was perpetrating. It was only when my French improved sufficiently to read correctly his notice that I became aware of my misdemeanor.
Because of diligent persistence and this daily reservation of time, Father Neubert produced a treasure of books and pamphlets of the Blessed Virgin and Marianist spirituality. It is a strange, though, that men, who listened with avid attention to Father Neubert's sermons and conferences, often find his writings insipid. The vigorous sincerity of the man gave luster to his spoken words and burned them into the minds of his listeners. Somehow his books lack that fire. Undoubtedly the same simplicity and sense of urgency admired in his personality has made him relatively indifferent to style and polish in his writings, convinced that solid truths have their own compelling appeal. And when you glance over the wide distribution of his works, their many translations and reprints, what can you do but admit his point?
Father Neubert's father was a bookbinder. He taught that trade to his son who kept it as a hobby, extremely practical for a writer, all his life. This close attention with the physical aspects of literary production seemed to instill in him a very functional attitude toward books so that he never regarded them as monuments to his ability or as a source of revenue, but rather as a means of satisfying his passion to propagate Marianist devotion and Catholic doctrine.
This attitude will explain why his books run the gamut of readers from his authoritative Marie dans I'Eglise Anteniceenne (Mary in the Pre-Nicean Church) for the theologian to his sugary Votre Maman du ciel (Your Heavenly Mother) for the child. It is for this reason too that Father Neubert is tireless in promoting the sale of his own books, of arranging for their translation and wider distribution. To this end he has wormed his way into the heart of Mr. Duffy, the founder of the Legion of Mary, who promotes the sale of his works in Ireland, and Father Maximilian Kolbe (to whom, except for the beard, he bears a remarkable physical resemblance), a priest-hero of the Nazi concentration camp, who translated his book on filial piety into Polish and published it at the famed City of the Immaculate (see February, 1955, The Marianist).
"Of all my writings on the Blessed Virgin," Father Neubert once said, "I consider only three to be truly great." The first is My Ideal, Jesus, Son of Mary. It has been published in fifteen different languages in more than thirty-five editions. The second, fruit of his long years as rector of a seminary, is entitled Marie et Notre Sacerdoce (Mary and Our Priesthood) and concerns the influence of Mary in the life of a priest. It was published just last year and is soon to appear in English. The third book, which Father Neubert holds to be the greatest of the three, was fifty years in preparation. It is called La Vie d'union a Marie (The Life of Union with Mary) and is just off the press.
Father Neubert is a remarkable man and like all remarkable men he cannot be summed up in one sentence. I believe the man who came closest to it was a priest of wide and varied experience who once said of him that he was "the only man he ever knew who could speak incessantly of the Blessed Virgin and always have something informative and interesting to say." And that, I believe, is the theoretical aspects of Mary's privileges. He is especially a man who has seen her practical connection with every single phase of our faith and our daily lives and has set himself to the task of diligently, lovingly, and speedily conveying this information to the world.
1878, May 8. Birth at Ribeauville (France)
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