“Monsieur Callo is too Catholic!” Such was the court judgment brought down against the 23-year-old French laborer from Rennes on March 19, 1944. As a result, the young layman, who was engaged to be married, was sent to the concentration camp in Mauthausen. He died there of exhaustion exactly a year later. In his native country he is often compared to St. Maximilian Kolbe. He made similar choices, for which. like the latter, he paid with his life.
To merit such a condemnation at the age to twenty-three, one needs to have given ample proof of one’s conduct beforehand, for the court did not condemn Marcel Callo for one or two offenses, a single deed or action. It condemned him for an attitude, a way of thinking, and this one does not acquire in a single day. And although he was nobody important and achieved nothing “great,” he would secure for himself yet another judgment—this one on October 4, 1987, when Servant of God John Paul II formally enrolled him among the ranks of the Blessed.
A son and a brother
Marcel Callo was born on December 6, 1921, into a family of farmers, which had left its meager acres in Brittany to settle in the city of Rennes. His father found employment in a chemical factory. Marcel had an older brother, Jean, who would later become a priest, and seven other siblings. (One sister died soon after birth.) He was a boy scout; and to help out the family financially he took up work at the age of twelve as an assistant in a printing house. As a scout, he learned the meaning of duty and service. His mother taught him the faith at home. From his earliest years, she inclined his heart to Jesus. When the youngster came home from work and bitterly complained of the lewd jokes he heard there and how his older workmates would try to “set him straight” on the facts of life, his mother taught him a short prayer of consecration to the Blessed Mother: “Dear Mother, remember that I belong to you. Watch over and protect me as your very own possession.” Marcel found his workmates’ jibes harder to bear than the lead matrices of the printing shop. When he tried to stand up to his colleagues, they would call him a “Jesus freak.” He confided himself to the Immaculate One, and from then on she took him into her care. And so, thus armed, he went to work and was no longer afraid or scandalized.
At his parish church, Marcel joined the Eucharistic Crusade, a children’s and youth movement. Its motto was, “Pray, receive Holy Communion, offer yourself up, and be an apostle.” Later, when he turned fourteen, he joined the Christian Young Workers’ Movement (Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne)—although not without an inner struggle, for in joining the JOC he had to resign his position as scout troop leader, a role he had grown to love and in which he felt very comfortable. But he knew that he was being called to be an apostle in his workplace, and for this he needed a more solid Christian formation. And so, he spent his evenings studying Catholic social teaching and organizing meetings of the JOC, where he soon became a highly regarded leader. The workers at the printing shop began to notice his abilities, honesty, and uprightness in the face of opposition and criticism. But for all this, he was a very normal young man who enjoyed organizing sports events after work, joint trips to the movies, and dance parties at the JOC center. On one occasion he even scandalized some parish stalwarts by suggesting a trip to the movies on All Souls’ Day. People began to murmur that on this evening young people ought rather to be attending church for the Mass for the Faithful Departed. The youngsters went to the movies anyway, but afterwards they went into the church as a group just before the beginning of the liturgy, so that everyone might see that they had not arrived late.
War broke out and Brittany shared the fate of the territories occupied by the Third Reich. Marcel continued to be active in the underground structures of the JOC. The youth felt they were like the first Christians in the catacombs of Roman times. It was then also that, at the age of twenty, Marcel fell in love with a fellow JOC member, Marguerite Derniaux. After a few months the young couple were engaged. They pledged that during the time of their engagement they would pray for their future family, attend Holy Mass daily, and receive Holy Communion as often as possible. Marcel would later confide that he deliberately waited until his twentieth birthday before declaring his love for the girl. He considered the event to be so important in the life of a person that he had to be adequately mature and prepared for it. “I knew I had to wait for real love. I had to perfect my heart before I could offer it to the one whom Christ had chosen for me”—he told a friend.
In March of 1943, one of Marcel’s sisters died in an allied bombing raid on Rennes. He recognized her by the shoe sticking out of the rubble. Shortly afterwards, the family suffered another great blow. Marcel was called up for forced labor in Germany. He was to go to Zella-Melhis to work in a rocket factory
there . For eight long days he struggled with his thoughts. He wanted to run away and hide; in the end, he decided he could not put the rest of the family in jeopardy. “I am going there not as a worker but as a missionary,” he told his loved ones. Despite the great pain that the prospect of parting with his dear Marguerite caused him, he found the courage to make the decision, for he knew that the forced labor centers in the Third Reich also needed his apostolic work. On bidding his fiancée good-bye at the Rennes railway station, he heard from her lips that he would die a martyr’s death. “I could never deserve such an honor,” he replied in disbelief. But both felt they would never see each other again. Marguerite remained faithful to her fiancé. She continued to be active in the JOC. Later she would become a post office clerk. She died in 1997.
Deportation and imprisonment
The forced labor camp in Zella-Melhis in Thuringia was little more than a prison. Housed in crowded barracks, the deported laborers worked over twelve hours a day on starvation food rations. Still, they enjoyed more freedom than in the concentration camps. They could meet after work and organize their free time together.
For the first two months, Marcel went through a profound crisis. He fell into a depression, expressing his bitter grief in letters to his fiancée. He had trouble eating and was steadily losing strength. Then he met a priest who agreed to celebrate Holy Mass in the barrack where the French young people were housed. Having regained hope, Marcel wrote to Marguerite: “One day Christ answered me. He told me I was not to give in to despair; that I should take care of my fellow workers—and I found joy again.” The barrack inmates soon became a closely-knit community. They ate their meager meals around a common table, prayed together, and participated in the Holy Mass every month. Once again Marcel became the leader, just as he had been at the JOC meetings in Rennes. Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris even sent him a letter. “Thank you—he wrote—for the good that you are doing among your fellow workers. I bless your labors and pray for you.” The young men tried to conduct themselves prudently, so as not to draw attention to themselves. But you cannot hide your light under a bushel. On March 19, 1944, they arrested Marcel Callo for activities against the Third Reich. The Catholic witness of this frail young boy represented a danger to the powerful totalitarian regime.
Marcel was transported first to a prison in Gotha, then to concentration camps in Flossenburg and Mauthausen.
While in prison in Gotha, Marcel wrote a letter to his brother, who had just been ordained to the priesthood. * “Fortunately, He is a Friend, who never deserts me for an instant. He supports and consoles me. With Him, you can bear everything, even those terrible hours so filled with torment. How grateful I am to Christ. He has marked out the path for me, and now I am walking in it.” It was there also that about three months after his arrest someone secretly brought him his last Holy Communion. Marcel noted the event in his diary: “July 16. Communion. Great joy.” Our Blessed Mother, to whom he had entrusted his life as a child, had once more come down from Carmel to fortify her child with that best of all possible foods.
After his transfer to Mauthausen, Marcel’s stomach troubles became increasingly more severe. He also suffered from bouts of depression. Despite this, his fellow inmates remarked that he bore everything patiently. He continued to raise the spirits of others and urged them to pray with trust.
At dawn of March 19, 1945, Marcel, who was sick with dysentery, no longer had the strength to use the latrine unaided. The latrines were so constructed that weakened inmates used to fall into them. This happened to Marcel. Colonel Thibodaux helped carry the dying boy back to the barrack. Later he would remark: “There was a holiness in his eyes. I had never before seen anyone look that way!” Marcel Callo was arrested on the Feast of St. Joseph. He died on the same day a year later. He left the earthly mire to go straight to heaven. That day also marks the day of his liturgical remembrance.
The judgment of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints
This new judgment was quite different from the one the Nazis brought down forty years earlier. On October 4, 1987, in St. Peter’s piazza in the Vatican, Servant of God John Paul II formally declared Marcel Callo Blessed. This time his “excessive Catholicism” was not held against him. On the contrary, it was held up as shining example for today’s young people, who also have doubts and fears that their choice of Christ will be ridiculed by the milieu in which they live—a milieu so reminiscent, spiritually, of that printing shop in Rennes where the young Marcel worked.
“To all of us, laypeople, monks, priests, and bishops, [Marcel Callo] points out the universal call for holiness: that holiness and youth of spirit, of which our old western world stands in such great need, that it may proclaim the Gospel ‘in season and out of season’ (2 Tim 4: 2).” So said Pope John Paul II in his homily during the Beatification Mass, when in addition to Marcel Callo, he declared two Italian laywomen—Pierina Morosini and Antonia Mesina—as martyrs for the faith. He went on to say: “Marcel did not achieve evangelical perfection at once. Although he was talented and full of good will, he had to engage in a long struggle with the spirit of the world, with himself, and with the weight of people and things. But he was fully open to the workings of grace and allowed God to lead him by degrees—to the very point of martyrdom. His love of Christ achieved maturity amid trials….Having achieved eternal joy with God, Marcel Callo is living proof that the Christian faith does not remove earth from heaven. We prepare for heaven here, on earth, in justice and love. When we love, we are “blessed” (L’Osservatore Romano, Polish edition, no. 9-10/1987).
Marcel Callo was a witness to the end. To his last look—pure and beautiful like his love of Marguerite and Christ.
*Father Jean Callo, now 87 years old, is a priest of the Congregation of the Sisters of Christ the Redeemer (Soeurs du Christ Redempteur) in Fougères, France (www.soeurs-christredempteur35cef.fr).