In the early 1860s, when he was 25 years old, Alfred Bessette applied to join the Congregation of Holy Cross as a religious brother. “I am sending you a saint,” his hometown pastor wrote to the community.
After a year in the novitiate, Alfred was turned away because of poor health. But the local archbishop in Montreal intervened, and he was eventually accepted into the community and given the name Brother Andre.
He was assigned to be the doorkeeper at Notre Dame College in Montreal, and also did the laundry, ran errands, and served as a sacristan.
“When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained 40 years,” he said.
With a peerless devotion to St. Joseph, Brother Andre spent time with the sick and prayed with them. A master of empathy — he was known to weep along with those who visited him — he also had a great sense of humor. It’s no surprise people were drawn to him.
After some were healed, news began to spread. Ultimately, four secretaries were hired to help answer the 80,000 letters Brother Andre received a year. “I do not cure,” he said again and again. “St. Joseph cures.”
Tension grew as his notoriety spread, and the community ultimately prevented Brother Andre from welcoming the sick at the college. So he met with them at the local tramway station instead.
Brother Andre died on January 6, 1937, at the age of 91. More than a million people traveled to Montreal to pay their respects. He was canonized by Pope Benedict in 2009, and today is his feast day.
Today’s traditional observance of the Epiphany is the perfect day to celebrate St. Andre and the way he welcomed thousands of visitors. On January 6, we celebrate the visit of the three Magi — foreigners who trekked across the Middle East to visit Jesus in the manger.
I often think about Epiphany from the perspective of the Magi themselves — “We Three Kings” is in the first-person plural, after all. But St. Andre’s feast day invites me to flip my perspective, and to approach the Epiphany from the Holy Family’s point of view. What would it be like to hear the Magi knocking at the door?
Exhausted from their travel and the birth in the manger, I can’t imagine that Mary and Joseph were feeling all that hospitable those first days of Jesus’ life. If I were St. Joseph, I probably would’ve chased the strange Magi away: “Who did you say you are again? From where? And you brought what for the baby? Mary and Jesus are sleeping right now. I’ll be sure to let them know you came by.”
But no, the Holy Family welcomes the Magi.
St. Joseph probably said something more like this:
“Oh, no, it’s not an inconvenience. Please, come in. I wish we had some real food to offer you. You’re quite some ways from home! And you brought gifts for Jesus? How thoughtful. The support from folks like you who we’ve never even met means so much during this confusing time!”
Hospitality is in Jesus’ DNA. It’s no surprise that few chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and Brother Andre were door-opening people.
Do we throw doors open wide when we hear knocking, or do we crack them open just a few inches, with a forced smile? Or do we pretend we didn’t hear the knock at all?
When a friend asks me for a ride to the airport, is my first instinct to come up with an excuse? When my elderly neighbor’s driveway is covered in snow, do I pull on my boots and grab a shovel? When I see a homeless man on the street, asking for money, do I make eye contact or look away? When church leaders invite me to call my Congressman to urge fair immigration reform, do I pick up the phone? Or do I explain my inaction away by telling myself that those phone calls don’t really mean anything?
This Epiphany, I ask Brother Andre to intercede for me and for our Church. Help us all to be more welcoming, no matter who shows up at the door.