Dom Luc Cornuau, osb
Abbot of La Pierre-qui-Vire (France)
DOM DENIS HUERRE, OSB
Liturgical Vigil – Friday, 11th March, 2016 –
Reading : Matthew 5.1-12
‘Blessed’ – a keyword in the Gospel and the whole Bible – perfectly sums up the life of our brother Denis. Blessed he was, and blessed he is today – such is our hope and prayer for him. Blessed are we too for having known and been close to him. That is certainly the reason why we have gathered this evening to remember him. We are glad to do this in the presence of his family, nephews and nieces, great-nephews and great-nieces, and also our brother abbots and monks from Belloc, Tounai, En Calcat and Landevennec, our brothers Andrew and Dominic of Thien Binh from Paris, Mgr Gilson and Mgr Stenger and many friends. This recital only adds grace to his life so rich and full. It should nourish our thanksgiving and gratitude to God for giving us such a father and such a brother.
Jean Huerre was born on the 17th August, 1915, in Paris. It was during the Great War. He liked to call to mind the firemen rushing down the Grandes Boulevardes to sound the alarm in expectation of air attacks. He was scarcely three years old. His father, a Breton from St-Malo, and his mother, a Provençal from Grasse, had five children, of whom Jean was the third, after Jacques, who became a priest in 1939. Family life was happy. Monsieur Huerre combined his job as a pharmacist between his office and the Hospital St Louis, where he conducted dermatological research. Jean was schooled by the Oratorians of Recroy St-Leon, then the lycée at Louis-le-Grand. Brother Denis loved to tell the community that he attributed his monastic vocation to a visit at the age of seven to his aunt, a nun at Caen: ‘It was the year of my first communion, a very serious, very intimate moment, never forgotten. We go to Vespers, and there is born in me a feeling I still experience at the monastic office, the desire for such a life. At the door of the church I told my parents, and it was as if I had spoken to God.’ This first impression was strengthened during a visit to La Pierre-qui-Vire at the end of philosophy studies. ‘I have found what I was seeking.’ He told his Sulpician confessor about his decision to become a monk, and was told to wait a bit and ‘do two years at seminary to reflect’. He did a year of university studying historical geography, then two years at the seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux. During this time he trained young people in the club of Nanterre, and then enrolled in the Social Teams of St-Owen, which brought his first acquaintance with the working class. While still young, he subscribed to the periodical Études and Sept (later Temps présent) of the Dominicans. At the seminary the superior could see him becoming a professor, and made him his assistant. To the study of theology he added a time of military preparation, ‘for it was clear to all of us,’ he said, ‘that war was on the horizon.’
Just before leaving for military service he spent four days at La Pierre-qui-Vire, which confirmed his desire to live there. In October 1937 he was registered at Paris as ‘officer cadet for Saint-Cyr’, then at Strasbourg, which he chose for his base. Living there were 5,000 officers in a rectangle 800m by 400m. Among his companions were the future priests Laurentin and Congar. Strong memories were the daily morning Mass before the morning call to duty, and, after the call by the Germans, the ‘Salute to France’, by standing in silence facing West. In 1943 he wrote to Abbot Fulbert expressing his desire to enter the noviciate, and received from Dom Nicolas Perrier an encouraging reply, which he took for an acceptance.
Thus it was that five months after the Liberation he presented himself at La Pierre-qui-Vire on 15th September, 1945. Just as he was receiving the habit, a fellow-postulant left. Dom Placid asked him if he too wanted to leave. His answer was immediate, ‘If you’ll keep me, I’ll stay.’ He did clerical studies and was put in charge of the sacristy, which he cleaned up, discreetly encouraged by Dom Claude and Dom Placide, by disposing of outdated rubbish.
In 1947 Abbot Fulbert asked him if he could write something on Dom Muard. He set to work for the book which would be published for the centenary of the monastery celebrated in 1950, after having been read in the refectory. He was ordained on 22nd May, 1948, with Brothers Angelico, Romuald, Anschaire, Jean Badré. Abbot Fulbert wanted him to be ordained before solemn profession in October 1949. For this he received permission from Cardinal Suhard that he should receive major orders on the fictive title of Paris, without waiting for the solemn vows which are, he writes, the authentic title for monks. With Dom Claude he went for a few months to Bec-Hellouin at the request of Dom Grammont, who had asked for help from La Pierre-qui-Vire.
A year after becoming abbot, Dom Placid asked him to replace Dom Paul as novice-master. He writes, ‘For me it was the beginning of a new monastic life. The noviciate and juniorate were numerous and the spirit of faith among the brothers bowled me over.’ Only a year and a half later, after the accidental death of Dom Placid, he was elected abbot of the community on 10th June, 1952.
In 2006 he wrote, ‘I cannot sum up the years 1952-1978. I love La Pierre-qui-Vire and each of the brothers, God knows, and I put myself in his hands for forgiveness of everything that went wrong for me and, because of me, for the brothers’ Nevertheless, I must mention some aspects of our life at La Pierre-qui-Vire which, under his abbatial care, experienced some notable developments.
Dom Denis played his part in the missionary endeavour of the community by supporting the foundations in Vietnam and Cambodia, then in 1954 by founding Masina Maria in Madagascar and in 1958 Bouenza in the Congo. After the 1960s, with the movement and decolonization and the war, this support for foundations experienced a host of difficulties. Dom Denis visited these houses several times, though giving the appointed priors real independence. He wrote to them every week.
From the very start of his abbacy he handed back to the bishops of the neighbouring dioceses the parishes with which they had entrusted the monastery. Vézelay, entrusted to the Abbey in 1944, was the last, and was given to the Franciscans.
The Abbey School
It was closed in 1961. The law of 1961 and pedagogical developments directed more firmly to the sciences, in which the monastic teachers had less competence, combined with internal difficulties, to lead Dom Denis to take this decision, difficult though it was for some of the brothers.
The years 1950-70 saw an evolution from a rural economy based essentially on farming to a more industrial economy, with the development of Editions Zodiaque and the printing-house. Under the leadership of Dom Angelico a good part of the community worked hard and succeeded in providing the community with a sound economic base. The construction of the canal and the hydroelectric plant kept the younger brothers busy between 1963 and 1969.
With the whole Church the community underwent an important evolution after the Council. Dom Denis’ wisdom brought into the community an understanding of the changes, and enabled them to adopt these naturally, without force. He put questions well in advance to one or two members, and then took them up again later, leaving time for everyone to make their own journey, for example when it was a question of changing the Office from Latin to French. The change was made gradually, starting with Compline and then extending to the other Offices, with consideration for susceptibilities, and maintaining the unity of the community even though there were some objections.
Daily life and human relationships
Dom Denis quickly distanced himself from any reductive reading of the Rule of St Benedict, which prescribes that the abbot should be like Christ. Little by little certain marks of respect previously due to the abbot were abandoned in favour of a simplicity which seemed more true to the Rule. Even in fraternal relationships a distance was gradually reduced, permitting, for example, the use of the singular second person, but also bonds of affection between brothers. With regard to the second person singular, Dom Denis recalled that once on a walk, seeing a brother in difficulty, he asked him what the trouble was. The brother spontaneously replied, ‘I no longer know where I stand.’ Without a moment’s thought Abbot Denis asked him whether he would be more comfortable if they moved from plural to singular. The immediate answer was ‘Yes’, and without any obligation or recommendation the custom of using the singular crept in, liberty being left to each individual. In the same way, the idea of groups came to him when he realised that the brothers could have better relationships with outsiders than with their own brothers. Eight groups were established in 1974, making possible a regular exchange of ideas led by an appointed brother. On other matters also, such as questions of celibacy, sexuality, friendships between brothers and sisters, Dom Denis took to heart the need for openness of reflection to help each and all to grow in humanity, both by his own openness of heart and in his teaching during the morning chapters and the weekly Sunday conferences.
Dom Denis was touched by the appeal of Paul VI to the Jesuits to study and go out to meet the world of disbelief. He wrote, ‘It seemed to me important for our community, although it is by no means a Jesuit institution, to seek to understand a world which was shared between ourselves, our guests and new monks.’ Several brothers were sent for formation in France but also abroad. They grew more open, and helped the community to open itself to contemporary questions. ‘Exchange of letters is very frequent and visits to our absent brothers has made this intellectual adventure a time which, in its own way, has strengthened mutual attachment and enriched the community,’ he noted.
These points are not exclusive, but suffice to show the profound work which Dom Denis accomplished, alert to the community, but also questioning our rapidly evolving world. A brother told me that he had intuitions which he verified by dialogue between members of the community, letting them mature, and then one day he would propose them as a way the community should go. In this way he had a real prophetic charism. In the same way he was able to develop the role he played as Abbot Visitor of the French Province between 1970 and 1978, notably to improve the relationship and collaboration with nuns, who were invited to the meetings of abbots of the Subiaco Congregation.
In 1977 the brothers were touched to find their abbot sharing with them his project to retire from his position, and asking their advice. He sensed that he had ‘sung his song’ and that he should allow the community to move into a new phase with a younger superior.
‘I felt a real desire for basic monastic life which I had never lived except for a few years before 1952. There was also real fatigue. I concluded from this that I needed a spiritual pause. When Dom Braso [at that time Abbot President] died in January 1978, and when I went to Montserrat for his funeral, all the Abbots Visitor asked me to fill the gap until the General Chapter of 1980. The idea filled me with horror: monastic life was being stolen from me. I could not accept, and refused’.
On 25th February, 1978, he left La Pierre-qui-Vire, ‘not without great emotion’. For a year he re-discovered the joy of ‘basic’ monastic life at the Abbey of Tamié, where he received practically no visitors, answered letters only if they were urgent, leaving the abbot to open them and make the decision. After that he lived for a year at Vanves, studying and forming himself intellectually.
In September 1980 he was elected Abbot President of the Congregation of Subiaco. For eight years he passed half his time meeting communities, devoting special attention to those of the young Churches. To come closer to the communities and to the brothers he formed the custom of writing two letters a year, each raising some aspect of monastic ‘conversion’. As President of the Congregation he was close to the Abbot Primate of all the Benedictines, and as his vicar expecting to be bound to replace the Abbot Primate should he, for example, become a bishop!
While he held this office, he pretty well completed the labour of a revision of our Constitutions. During his Roman exile he lived a fairly austere existence, but one of his joys was to welcome twice a year one of the brothers, sent by Dom Damase for a week’s visit. Together they strode over the city according to the tastes and expectations of the visitor.
At the end of his period, in 1988, he hesitated to come back, not wanting to be a burden to the Abbot and community. At the insistence of Dom Damase he did come back, joyfully, in a truck driven by Brothers Antoine and Pascal. He simply took his place as a brother among brothers. He worked in the library with Brother Matthew in cataloguing books and periodicals. In the afternoon he always did a stint of manual labour, at first in the grounds, and in latter years right up to the present cleaning the library and dusting the shelves. With zeal and joy he continued his intellectual researches to improve his understanding of our monastic life in this world, to understand better what the monk is in his relationship with God and with others. In 1988 he wrote:
I always keep in mind the great essential data of human life: history (life conceived as a journey to a goal), desire (life welling up from within, from roots and seeking their fruit), liberty (another name for conscience and personality), sociability (forming a group). But especially since ’87 it is the Trinitarian aspect which dominates when I study these four human characteristics, Trinitarian life, a new name for human life.
He led many sessions and retreats, which were the occasion to share his researches. Articles also echoed them. Reading, often very difficult works (Moingt, Theobald), nourished his reflections and his prayer. He met visitors who asked his advice, and often went away strengthened – as the number of letters received daily testifies.
I would add that Dom Denis devoted a good part of his time to composing biographical notices on each of his deceased brothers. He liked examining the career of each one to see how each had gradually become a monk. These notices, at first only a few pages, rapidly expanded to 10 or 15 pages. Some months ago I asked him to make a summary in 5-10 lines of each notice written since the beginning of our foundation, which could then be read in the refectory. Very recently he shared with me his amazement at the lives lived, often in complete obscurity. On Tuesday morning, the day of his death, he still went to work at his desk. The computer is still open at the file of these notices.
I am going to stop to leave him the last word, written after the attack of pleurisy which had isolated him for a time in 2007:
I do not know what I have been able to give to this community, but I know that this community has given me the life which I asked of it. I love the common life, monastic life, in short ‘life’, and I hope that it is truly preparing me for eternal life. I am aware that I owe a great deal to La Pierre-qui-Vire, and for this I thank God.
We can only add our own thanks to God.