On Saturday, October 15th, a group of 46 students from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana came to Toronto. It was the first day of a 5-day pilgrimage ending at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal. They arrived in the afternoon and visited the World Youth Day sites in the city. That evening, I gave a talk at the University of Toronto's Newman Centre at the request of their pilgrimage leader, Fr. Andrew Gawrych, a priest from the Congregation of Holy Cross. Fr. Gawrych was interviewed for the documentary “God's Doorkeeper”.
I shared my experience of Brother Andre while working on the film “God's Doorkeeper”. It has been a year since the film's release, and so I watched the film once again, looked through my notes at the time of production, and it all started coming back to me. I was able to talk not only about my experience during the production, but also what I've learned since then. There have been many blessings in my life since then, the greatest being the birth of my daughter Chiara Andrea. I was very happy to have both my husband Richard Valenti and our daughter present as I shared about Brother Andre in my life.
As Fr. Drew mentioned, I'm a producer for Salt + Light Television and last year, I worked on the film “God's Doorkeeper: St. Andre of Montreal”. This month, we celebrate the one-year anniversary of both the canonization of Brother Andre and the release of this film.
1) What did you know of Brother Andre prior to making the documentary?
All I knew of Brother Andre prior to working on the documentary was that he built Saint Joseph's Oratory in Montreal. I'd been to the Oratory twice before in my life before I began working on the documentary, and both were short visits with friends or family. There was no personal interest in Br. Andre then.
2) How did you encounter Brother Andre in the making of the documentary? What did you learn through those encounters?
I initially encountered Brother Andre in my research or pre-production stage of the documentary. I learned details about him from the writing and videos on him that already exist: in the CBC archives (the CBC is our national public broadcaster), in online articles, in DVD productions, and in a few books in English. It broke my heart to know that because of the language barrier, I could not read books written in French, the mother tongue of Brother Andre. These included such important material like eyewitness accounts and very early biographies. This was where the French producer working on the project with me, Sebastien Lacroix, would step in to fill in the gaps. Despite my limitations, I knew that God wanted me to work on this documentary. I just had to remember that all I needed to do was trust that everything would turn out for the best.
At this point in my work, Brother Andre was still just an important religious and historical figure. I didn't feel any connection with him. I would say that I first became excited about Brother Andre when I read Jean-Guy Dubuc's book “Brother Andre: Friend of the Suffering, Apostle of Saint Joseph”. The first chapter is aptly entitled “A Glorious Death”, and Jean-Guy Dubuc hooks us into Brother Andre's life by making us feel what everybody felt by his death: intrigued, moved, sad and yet hopeful, almost mesmerized by this simple and humble man who was both out of this world and yet was one of us. I felt exhilarated just reading this first chapter, and I wanted to read more. The rest of the book was just like the beginning, well-written, providing an intimate portrait of Br. Andre rather than just details and facts about his life. After reading this first chapter, I knew how I wanted to begin the documentary and what the feel of it would be.
But my encounter with Brother Andre only became truly personal once I met the priests, religious, and lay people of Holy Cross – those who were interviewed for the documentary. For the sake of time and to be absolutely picky, I will elaborate on only three people or instances:
i) Br. Fernand Bessette – I couldn't do a documentary on a contemporary saint without finding at least one of his family members or relatives. Br. Fernand is a distant relative of Br. Andre living in Montreal, and he ministers to sex offenders; you hear his story near the end of the film. I came upon Br. Fernand Bessette after following a few leads. Fr. Mario Lachapelle, who was the Vice-Postulator for the Cause of Canonization of Br. Andre, gave me his contact information. I called up Br. Fernand for a phone interview to “feel him out” and see what he could possibly contribute to the documentary. I spent about a half-hour to an hour just chatting with Br. Fernand. I remember feeling so spiritually happy. My soul felt fuller of God's presence. I felt Br. Fernand's compassion, genuineness, and humility over the phone. There was no question that I needed him for the documentary. I knew he would be the heart of the documentary simply because he understood and could communicate the heart of Brother Andre. I met Br. Fernand in person for the interview weeks later, and still felt the same about him. I'll say more about this interview later.
ii) Br. Jacques Berthiaume – he was the brother who was healed by Brother Andre and so he shares his healing story in detail in the film. Fr. Lachapelle also helped me find Brother Jacques' info. Brother Jacques spoke only French so I couldn't do a proper pre-interview over the phone with him. I just had to trust that he had a compelling story. My colleague Sebastien did the interview with Br. Jacques in Montreal. Once we arrived at his residence, Brother Jacques came up to us, dressed in the habit that Brother Andre would have worn. He also wore around his neck the cross the first brothers wore. He, too, spoke with humility like Brother Fernand, and I saw something else – an adoration of Brother Andre. Brother Andre was like the star in the sky that Brother Jacques kept his eye on in all the circumstances of his life. I could feel Br. Jacques' goodness and humility just being in the same room with him, hearing him recount in detail the encounters he had with Brother Andre. I was watching his face the whole time and I saw him tear up near the end. I found out later that he was saying at that moment that he had given his life to Brother Andre, and that he hopes to see him again one day. I was in tears during the interview even though I understood only roughly 2% of what he was saying. Again, it was the spirit of Brother Andre that I encountered through him.
iii) Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon – this was a lead from Fr. Edwin Obermiller of the Indiana Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Fr. Obermiller had been of enormous help in the filming we did in the United States. There were three places in the United States that we went to, and the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon was one of them. The Downtown Chapel ministers to those in need in the Portland area, in the spirit of Br. Andre. I had done extensive phone interviews with Fr. Ron Raab and some of his staff, and so I knew what I wanted to film: the washing of the feet, Mass and Anointing of the Sick, serving food to the hungry, etc... It was clear to me that these images showed how Br. Andre's spirit of service and hospitality remains alive today, particularly in the ministry of the Downtown Chapel. But it wasn't any of these scenes that I had already set up in my head for filming that touched me the most. It was the scene of Andy Noethe playing the guitar with one of the people the Downtown Chapel ministers to. What Andy was doing didn't look special objectively. He wasn't feeding the poor, clothing the sick, visiting the prisoner. He was playing his guitar with somebody else. But I was drawn to that moment and I immediately asked our crew to film it in detail because I felt Andy was doing what Br. Andre would be doing. Andy was just “being” with this man, just enjoying a moment with him. They were equal at this moment; not one was ministering and the other ministered to. In his lifetime, Br. Andre focused on the importance of “being”, of listening, of caring, and I felt that spirit of being, alive in that moment when Andy and this man played the guitar together.
3) What guided you in the making of the documentary? It does not seem like your standard, linear historical documentary with those modern day vignettes. What was the idea behind those? What was the message or the Good News you were trying to proclaim?
As I mentioned earlier, I work for Salt and Light Television, and this documentary was not my initiative but Salt + Light's. We wanted to do a documentary on our first Canadian-born saint in the year of his canonization. Salt + Light CEO Fr. Thomas Rosica had asked me to make sure that the English documentary on Br. Andre would not merely be historical but relevant today. He wanted me to ask myself, Why should we care about this person? What is their significance to the modern person, to the modern dilemma? A saint becomes a saint because they lived the Gospel in their present moment. They understood that the Gospel was meant for them in a personal way. And by the Church holding them up as saints, the Church is saying that they are an example for us of how to live the Gospel TODAY. We should approach all saints knowing that we can speak to them REALLY, that they live among us TRULY. We just have to open our hearts to their presence in our lives. In the case of “God's Doorkeeper”, Br. Andre's hospitality was made tangible through the work of the Downtown Chapel, and Br. Andre's compassion was made tangible through the ministry of Brother Fernand Bessette.
4) What led you to your most surprising or inspiring encounter with God during the making of the documentary?
I'd like to touch on now on my most inspiring encounter with God during the making of the documentary. It happened during my interview with Brother Fernand Bessette.
First of all, it is rare that the raw footage of an interview would hold my attention completely for every minute of it, especially if it is an hour long. Brother Fernand could have talked and talked and talked for longer, and I would have listened to every word. It wasn't that Brother Fernand was a dynamic public speaker. He spoke softly, slowly, and reflectively. He shared his vocation story with me, his experience working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa's sisters, his love for those who suffer. His eyes revealed the tenderness he felt for the prisoners he was ministering to. He said many profound things, but I will always remember him talking about how in French, the heart is made of two oreillettes, two little ears. And that this is no accident that the heart has two little ears. God wants to make sure that we hear in our hearts his profession of love, when he says to each one of us, “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, and I am pleased to be with you.”
When I look back on why I felt God so deeply in my encounter with Brother Fernand, I can only reason it like this. If God is Being, then the more we share in being, the closer we are to God. In being completely in the moment, in listening to the person talking to us 100% with heart and soul focused on them, in doing our work at the present moment as if nothing else mattered, we are closest to God. Brother Fernand revealed so much of his heart during his interview. His being present to me alone spoke to me of God. It was truly a God-experience that remains the strongest of my time working on the documentary.
5) How has Saint Andre and the making of this documentary affected your faith and your life? Is there a way that he has impacted you?
The documentary has been released a year ago already. And since its release, Saint Joseph and Saint Andre have been slowly working on my heart even more.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation has become more important to me than ever. This Sacrament was so important to Brother Andre. He listened to so many confessions, the unburdening of so many souls, as a Brother of Holy Cross. Confessing my sins to a priest is like me saying to God, You are my Father, and his ear is right next to my lips. I understand the sacrament of Reconciliation now to be a moment where I say to God, I am sorry I wasn't completely there for you in the present moment, either because I wasn't completely there for my spouse or my child or my friend or my family. Help me to be fully there for you. Help me to be fully present in each moment.
Related to this, I also now value, tremendously value, listening – I find listening to be a challenge today. Our world values multi-tasking ---- we praise people who can do ten things at once, as if the more things you can do in your time, the better person you are. But is this true? If we are human beings --- shouldn't we be focused on the “being” part? Shouldn't we be saying that it's a great achievement that I spent an hour just listening to my friend and being there for her, or that I spent a whole afternoon sitting with my grandmother?
I had begun working on the documentary in June of last year. I remember going to the Oratory that month to iron out some details for later filming. I had a bit of time to myself, and so I lit a candle by the image of St. Joseph, patron of families, praying for a child. My husband and I had been hoping for a child since we got married in October two years ago, but it was proving to be difficult for us. But on that particular June over a year ago, God heard our prayer. Because nine months later, a baby girl was born into our lives. We named our daughter Chiara Andrea --- Chiara for St. Clare of Assisi and Bl. Chiara Luce, and Andrea for St. Andre. Because working on the documentary coincided with my pregnancy, I became closer to St. Joseph and to St. Andre. I have to admit that since I've given birth, I haven't been in communication with St. Joseph and St. Andre in the intense way I had been while working on the documentary. But I definitely have a heightened understanding of being, especially now that I have a baby. I have been so used to thinking my value or my excellence came from my work, the number of things I can do. And now I am learning to be content just to “be”. And it could be just holding my baby in my arms while she sleeps. Or singing songs with her for half an hour. What memories will my daughter value of her childhood? I'm sure they'll be similar to what I love about my childhood – my dad spending time with me at the park or my mom spending quiet afternoons with me at home. “Being” is the most wonderful thing we can do for and give to the world. And this is what I learned the most from Brother Andre.