The greatest testimony to the presence and power of God and His Holy Spirit is the transformation of lives from wantonness and misdirection to virtue and meaning. The encounter with God that many have experienced may prove nothing more than an interesting passing moment unless it impacts one’s life. While this may not always be a dramatic turn, there are those examples of men and women whose lives have been genuinely transformed, even to the point of being unrecognizable from what it was before.
Charles de Foucauld
Born in Strasbourg, France, Charles de Foucault was orphaned at six. He and his younger sister went to live with their grandmother. After a few months, however, she died of a heart attack, leaving the two children utterly alone. An intelligent boy, he read everything he could get his hands on, but in adolescence, Charles abandoned his faith. “At seventeen,” he wrote later, “I was totally selfish, full of vanity and irreverence, engulfed by a desire for what is evil. I was running wild.” An inheritance at the young age of twenty allowed him to enjoy a life of dissolute living. Over the next several years, he lived the life of a playboy and earned the nickname “Fats Foucauld” from his peers. “I sleep long. I eat a lot. I think little.”
His laziness and habits of self-indulgence almost caused him to fail to graduate from the military academy. But, in 1880 he was sent by the French Foreign Legion to Algeria, which he loved. He lost his position, however, because he refused his superior’s orders to give up his mistress. From 1883 to 1884, he took part in a bold adventure through Morocco, which at that time was closed to Europeans. Disguised as a Jew, he was able to travel over 3000 kilometers in eleven months, writing about his experiences, including a number of occasions when his identity as a “Christian” was discovered and he was nearly killed.
Returning to France and to his family, Charles was received warmly by them. This, in turn, warmed his heart. “At the beginning of October of the year 1886, after six months of family life, while in Paris getting my journey to Morocco published, I found myself in the company of people who were highly intelligent, highly virtuous and highly Christian. At the same time, an extremely strong interior grace was pushing me. Even though I wasn’t a believer, I started going to Church. It was the only place where I felt at ease and I would spend long hours there repeating this strange prayer: ‘My God, if you exist, allow me to know you!’”
He was especially impressed by the example of his cousin, Marie de Bondy, a devout and deeply spiritual woman. Charles wrote to God, “You then inspired me with this thought: ‘Since this soul is so intelligent, the religion in which she believes cannot be folly. So let me study this religion: let me take a professor of the Catholic religion, a wise priest, and let me see what it is about and if I should believe what it says.’” De Foucauld found his wise priest in the person of one Fr. Huvelin. He asked for religious instruction. But, “He made me kneel down and made me go to confession, and sent me to communion right away. … If there is joy in heaven over one sinner who is converted, there was joy when I went into this confessional! … How good you have been! How happy I am!”
Charles de Foucauld was transformed. “As soon as I believed in God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone.” He first joined the Trappist in France, then in Syria. He lived with the Poor Clares in Nazareth. Finally, after being ordained a priest in 1901, he made his way back to Algeria, where he spent the rest of his life living among the Tauregs people. He desired to be among those who were, “the furthest removed, the most abandoned.” He lived among them as a brother, never trying to convert them from their Muslim faith except by the example of his love for them. “I would like to be sufficiently good that people say, ‘If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?’” He put together a rule for a religious community that he called the Union of the Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The community never became a reality during his life. On the night of December 1, 1916, Charles de Foucauld was murdered by a gang of marauders who had dragged him from his hut. He never succeeded in converting even one person to Christ.
Charles de Foucauld died alone. The love and grace of God, however, had transformed the life of this man from one of debauchery, laziness and self-absorption to one of living completely for the sake of God and others, so that his life and writings have led many others to Christ over the century since his death. He is the inspiration for numerous religious communities across the world, from the Central African Republic, to Canada, to Vietnam and, of course, the United States and France, including the Little Brothers of Jesus, the Little Sisters of Jesus, Jesus Caritas and the Little Brothers of the Gospel. De Foucauld believed that his life’s calling was to love: “Let us concern ourselves with those who lack everything, those to whom no one gives a thought. Let us be the friends of those who have no friends, their brother. The love of God, the love of men, that is my whole life, that will be my whole life, I hope. When we can suffer and love, we can do much, the most that one can do in this world.” Charles de Foucauld was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
Elisabeth and Felix Leseur
Elisabeth Arrighi and Felix Leseur were married on July 31, 1899. Both came from wealthy Catholic Parisian families. Shortly before their marriage, however, Elisabeth learned that Felix no longer practiced his family’s Catholic faith. This was not an obstacle for her, however, since they shared a strong personal bond, and her own Catholic faith at the time was more one of social convention than deep conviction. Felix was a medical doctor, well known in Paris as the editor of an atheistic newspaper.
Their religious differences eventually became a trial for Elisabeth. Her husband would attack her Catholic faith, conventional as it was. This inspired in Elisabeth a desire to know more about her faith. As a result, at the age of thirty-two, she experienced a religious conversion. Her faith was now firmly embedded in her heart and soul, and she regarded the conversion of her husband as her primary mission. Elisabeth became concerned about the plight of the poor. She gave her time and money to charitable efforts to relieve their misery, though her own poor health (she suffered from hepatitis for most of her life) often made it difficult for her to be personally involved. Unbeknownst to Felix, she kept up an extensive spiritual correspondence with friends. She gave herself to prayer, spiritual reading and writing, and the life of the sacraments. Her health continued to deteriorate, and in May of 1914, Elisabeth died from cancer.
After her death, Felix came upon a note she had written him prophesying his conversion and his becoming a priest. Undeterred in his atheism, Felix made a trip to Lourdes, the site of St. Bernadette Soubirous’ visions and of miraculous healings. He intended to expose the healings as a sham. Instead, he experienced his own religious conversion. Felix began studies with the Dominicans and was ordained a priest in 1923. He dedicated much of his life as a priest to publishing his wife’s spiritual writings and preaching on her story and his conversion. In 1924, Fr. Leseur served as the spiritual director on a retreat in which a young Fr. Fulton Sheen participated. Sheen, of course, would later become famous for his own writings and his television series, Life is Worth Living. He often told the story of Elisabeth and Felix Leseur. Fr. Felix Leseur was instrumental in getting started the cause for his late wife’s canonization. In 1934, she was given the title Servant of God.
It would have been almost a miracle had Matt Talbot avoided becoming an alcoholic. Born in 1856 into a family whose father and all his brothers (except the oldest) were hard drinkers, Talbot began working at a wine merchant’s store in Dublin, Ireland, where he would imbibe on the merchant’s wares. By age 13, he was addicted to alcohol. He was a hard worker, but he would spend his money on drink, then borrow or beg from others when his cash ran out to keep his habit going. He pawned the clothes off his back and the boots off his feet to indulge his alcoholism, and even stole the fiddle from a street entertainer, selling it for cash to buy more drink.
In 1884, out of money and credit, Talbot waited at the door of a pub, hoping someone would invite him in for a drink. When no one did, he went home to his mother and announced he was going to “take the pledge.” He went to Holy Cross College, a local Catholic seminary, and there vowed to avoid drinking for three months. At the end of three months, he renewed his pledge for six months. Finally, he vowed to give up the drink for life. By all accounts, the first seven years of sobriety were a great trial for Talbot. He kept his pledge through prayer, daily Mass and religious study. He came under the discipleship of Dr. Michael Hickey, a professor of philosophy at Clonliffe College, who guided Talbot in his reading of the Scriptures, St. Augustine and St. Francis de Sales. Talbot was a hard worker, and he eventually earned enough to pay off the debts he had accumulated during sixteen years of slavery to alcohol. He even tried to find the street entertainer whose fiddle he had stolen to pay him back. When he failed, he gave the money to a local parish to have a Mass said for the man’s benefit. Along with paying his debts, Talbot became a generous man who, though poor himself, gave of his little to the support of his parish and those in need. He lived humbly in a small apartment, sleeping on a plank bed with a piece of timber as his pillow.
On his way to Mass on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 1925, Talbot collapsed from a massive heart attack at the age of 69. When he was stripped at the local hospital, chains and cords were found wrapped around his waist, arms and legs. Talbot wore these as a symbol of his devotion to the Blessed Mother. He who had once been chained in slavery to alcohol now gave himself willingly in slavery to the Mother of God. Many have found inspiration in Talbot’s life to overcome alcoholism, and numerous addiction clinics around the world are named in his honor. “Never be too hard on the man who can’t give up drink,” Talbot said. “It’s as hard to give up the drink as it is to raise the dead to life again. But both are possible and even easy for Our Lord. We have only to depend on Him.” In 1975, Pope Paul VI declared Matt Talbot venerable.
Gary Cooper was the epitome of Hollywood style and grace. Ruggedly handsome, soft-spoken and unassuming, he attained the pinnacle of success in the film industry, garnering not one, but two Oscars as best actor for his roles in Sergeant York and High Noon, as well as being immortalized as baseball’s great hero, Lou Gehrig, in Pride of the Yankees. But, Cooper also fell victim to the temptations of Hollywood. Even after his marriage to Veronica “Rocky” Balfe in 1933, Cooper engaged in a number of not very well concealed affairs with some of the most famous actresses of the middle century – Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Tallulah Bankhead, Anita Eckberg and, most infamously, Patricia Neal. His affair with Neal, which began during their filming of The Fountainhead in 1948, lasted more than two years. Neal became pregnant, and Cooper convinced her to have an abortion, after which the affair ended. (Neal regretted this for this rest of her life. Four months before her own death in 2010 she converted to Catholicism).
Cooper and Rocky separated in 1951, though Cooper didn’t want a divorce because he feared losing the respect of his daughter, Maria. The Cooper’s reconciled in time for Rocky and Maria to join “Coop” for a 1953 international tour promoting the film, High Noon. It was during that tour that the Coopers met Pope Pius XII. Though Rocky was a Catholic, Cooper was a lapsed Protestant for whom religion had little influence, but the pontiff made a huge impression on the famous actor.
Even after reconciling with his wife, Cooper still strayed. His affair with Anita Eckberg, and Rocky’s frustration with him, seemed to awaken something in him, however. He became aware of the stress his affairs caused for his family and was dis-satisfied with the way he had been so selfish. After Mass one Sunday, Rocky and Maria were joking about the pastor at their parish, Fr. Harold Ford, and his humorous homilies. Cooper expressed an interest in meeting Fr. Ford, and a visit was arranged. Rocky had hoped the two might discuss religion, but they found more to talk about over their mutual interest in hunting and sports. Over the weeks, the two became great friends, and eventually religion made it’s way into their conversations. Finally, Gary Cooper took the plunge and entered the Catholic Church. According to Barry Norman’s book, The Hollywood Greats, Cooper said of his conversion: “I’d spent all my waking hours, year after year, doing almost exactly what I, personally, wanted to do; and what I wanted to do wasn’t always the most polite thing either. … This past winter I began to dwell a little more on what’s been in my mind for a long time [and thought], Coop, old boy, you owe somebody something for all your good fortune. I’ll never be anything like a saint. … The only thing I can say for me is that I’m trying to be a little better. Maybe I’ll succeed.”
Cooper did succeed in putting an end to his affairs. He never cheated on Rocky again. More than that, however, his transformation was in the joy and happiness that faith brings to a life that had been filled with empty searching and stress. Like the song, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places,” Gary Cooper had spent his energies trying to find fulfillment in Hollywood fame and the adoration and attention from women. Now, he had found a true fulfillment that allowed him to face his last few years with contentment and peace.
In April, 1961, it was announced that Gary Cooper had cancer. His home was deluged with visitors. Many commented on Cooper’s attitude in his last days. His home was cheerful and happy, rather than sad and gloomy. Cooper seemed composed and at peace. He found comfort in his new faith, in the sacraments, and in books by Bishop Fulton Sheen. Cooper said, “I know that what is happening is God’s will. I am not afraid of the future.”
Claudia Koll is the stage name for Claudia Maria Rosaria Colacione, a popular Italian actress. In the 1980s, she left her home, where she had been raised by her devoutly Catholic grandmother, to pursue an acting career. She also left behind her Catholic faith. In 1992, she became famous for her role in the erotic film Cosi fan tutte (“All Ladies Do It”), directed by Tinto Brass. She continued to take roles in erotic films until her career hit a slump in the mid-90s. It was rejuvenated, however, in television, when she took the lead role in the series Linda e il brigadier (Linda and the Brigadier) alongside Nino Manfredi. Koll proved versatile as an actress and popular with her fans. Inside, however, she was in torment. “In particular,” Koll says, “my love life was bleak: many short stories, not really ‘important’, but many betrayals and few certainties.” Her internal anxieties began to impact her work. At this time, a friend invited Koll to accompany her to the Great Jubilee in Rome in 2000. Koll agreed out of friendship. But, when she walked through the Holy Doors at St. Peter’s, she instantly felt a change had taken place in her life.
“One day there was this dramatic situation that needed to be resolved and I did not know how to handle that at all. I remember being desperate. I walked the room up and down, and just simply in one moment I started to speak to God. I prayed the Our Father and I was squeezing in the palms of my hands a little crucifix that one of my friends gave to me a few days prior to that. In those moments, my whole being was turned toward the God, I felt as I was tied close to the Cross and I was able to feel complete liberation. I felt as I was immersed in something like a deep peace. And I rested in that feeling. No longer was I worried, nor afraid; it felt as there was only one feeling of deep silence, something unknown to me prior to that particular moment. It was that silence that spoke to me about God. I did not see Him, but I was able to feel Him. I asked Him, ‘Why did You do that, why did you console me? I do not deserve that.’ Then I said, ‘You are my Father, I prayed to You in the prayer of Our Father and I told You that I would like to meet You!’ That was my prayer!”
Today, Koll dedicates her life to work for the poor, to spreading devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to giving her testimony of conversion, encouraging young people to faith and prayer.
The experience of lives transformed is not likely the sort of evidence that will turn the heart and mind of an aggressive atheist to conclude for the existence of God. Never the less, for those whose minds are open to the transcendent, the example of those who found in God’s grace the courage and fortitude to turn their lives around is powerful testimony. A transformed life, after all, is not merely that of one who encountered God and ultimate truth and enjoyed a brief moment of happiness, sublimity, or peace as a result. Rather, it is a life both turned and sustained in the confidence and comfort that there is more to life than what this world has to offer.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.