Bl. Marcel Callo
Memorial: March 19
Saints come in all shapes and sizes. They even come looking like the quintessential nerd.
Case in point? Bl. Marcel Callo, a Frenchman who lost his life doing slave labor at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
Bl. Marcel was born December 6, 1921, as one of nine children in Rennes, which is in Brittany, northwestern France. His father was a failed farmer turned chemical factory worker. His mother served in the home.
After leaving school at age 13 to help his family pay the bills, Marcel became an apprentice printer. When his mother asked him why he did not enter the seminary like his brother, Marcel told her, “I do not feel called to the priesthood; I think I do more good by remaining in the world.”
And he did do good. Despite how one might judge his somewhat nerdy looks, he was a terrific leader. He had a great sense of humor, and while he wasn’t an athlete (he did play sports, though), he was very good at ping pong and cards. He liked going to the movies and dances.
Once he scandalized some adults by organizing a group outing to the cinema on All Soul’s Day. Despite his elders’ complaints, the group went. Afterward these youth not only showed up for Mass that day, they arrived early.
A friend later said, “We thought that in order to be a good Christian, all you had to do was your morning and evening prayer and go to Sunday Mass—not much else. Since Marcel taught me, I no longer just ‘attend’ Mass, I try to participate, coming not with ‘empty hands,’ but with something to offer from my life.”
Marcel was an altar server and a Boy Scout, and he was devout from a young age. In fact another group he joined was the Eucharistic Crusade, whose motto was, “Pray, receive Holy Communion, offer yourself up, and be an apostle.”
In fact Callo was so devout and took his faith so seriously, he wouldn’t hang out with his fellow workers at the print shop. Why? Because they cussed and said inappropriate things about women.
One day he came home and complained about the bawdy talk. His mother taught him that the way to fight them was not with words but with 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.”
Thereafter whenever there was a break, Callo would find an unfrequented part of the shop and kneel on the ground to pray this prayer.
To help with his efforts to be a Christian in the workplace, Marcel joined an organization that is prominent just about everywhere but North America, the Young Christian Workers. Founded by the late Belgian prelate and Servant of God Joseph Cardinal Cardjin, the YCW’s members, said Cardjin, had “a divine mission from God, second only to that of the priest, to bring the whole world to Christ.”
Callo realized that separating himself from his poorly formed companions might keep him pure. It wouldn’t, however, bring them “to Christ.”
Therefore he studied the Church’s social teaching so he could discuss the questions of the day from a Catholic perspective. He also resolved to be the hardest and best worker of the group. Soon his coworkers saw this and that he always respectfully stood up for himself and his beliefs and usually had good arguments.
“Marcel quickly understood that the ideal of the [YCW] was to help workers understand the dignity of their work, which they believed to be scorned, and to make them aware that they were all children of God. This required apostles who were proud to belong to Christ, who were pure, joyful, and triumphant. Some evenings, the discussions were acrimonious. Marcel, who had an uncompromising nature, knew his first head-on conflicts—nevertheless, his comportment commanded respect. Sometimes, when their words or wrongdoings shocked him, he did not hesitate to express his anger, without however losing respect for his opponents. Little by little, he learned to master his outbursts, and after saying all he had to in defense of the truth quickly found peace again.”
Marcel was by no means perfect. According to one source, “His main fault was without question stubbornness, but he recognized his faults. At school, he was reprimanded for his uneven work—yet, all in all, his teachers found him hard working …”
“We are often poor instruments in the hands of God because we have bad habits, bad inclinations,” he wrote. “Sin dampens our spiritual life, lowers us, and keeps us from being activists, from dedicating ourselves. It is in the measure that we put on Christ that we will work for the good of the community. Every day I must be a little more conformed to Christ.”
Before the Nazis invaded France in 1940, there was a steady stream of Eastern European refugees. Marcel and his YCW friends would go to the train station to give these struggling people assistance.
One of his partners in such endeavors, Marguerite Derniaux, he asked to be his partner in life. She said yes. She was the first girl he had ever dated. He had waited until he was 20 to start looking for a wife because as he later told a friend, “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.”
Because of the war, however, the two never married. They did attend Mass and receive the Eucharist together on a frequent basis, though, and they prayed for their future family.
When the Germans were conquering France, they bombed Rennes, including the building in which Marcel’s younger sister Madeleine was working. To his grieving parents he said, “If God has taken Madeleine from us, it is because He judged her ready for Heaven. Later, would she have had the same dispositions? Might she not have been lost? Providence knows better than us what must be done.”
On March 19, 1943, the Germans conscripted him for forced labor. For over a week, he debated whether to go or do like many young men of the time and head for the bush to join the French Resistance (the French word for the “bush” is maquis, and the Resistance was called “le Maquis” because they were guerrilla fighters who waged war from the bush). Realizing, though, that if he didn’t go, the Germans would exact revenge on his family, he reported at the appointed time.
At the train station, his fiancée told him he would die a martyr, to which he incredulously replied, “I could never deserve such an honor.”
The Germans sent him to Zella-Mehlis is a town in the Schmalkalden-Meiningen district, in the state of Thuringia, Germany. It was the site of the Walther Arms and J.G. Anschutz weapons factories. There he labored in a sweltering plant on his feet for 10 hours each day. After work, however, he helped coordinate Masses for his fellow conscripts, retreats, and other meetings. Soon he became head of the YCW in Zella-Mehlis.
A year and a month later to the day of his leaving Rennes, the Gestapo arrested him for his apostolate amongst his fellow prisoners. The arresting officer said his incarceration was because “Monsieur is too much a Catholic.”
The young man took his rosary, shook his friend Joel’s hand, and asked him, “Write to my parents and my fiancée and tell them I’ve been arrested.”
The context is this: The infamous war criminal and SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner had signed a document titled, “Activity of French Catholic Action among the French civilian workers in the Reich.” It created in the Reich Main Security Office the “antikatholischen Dezernat” (anti-Catholic Department) as part of the Gestapo section dedicated to eradicating “politschen Katholizismus” (political Catholicism) and anyone seen as promoting it, regardless of nationality. This is largely what started the concentrated persecution of Catholics and the subsequent martyrdoms across German-occupied Europe.
Part of what triggered this was an effort by the French bishops. After the Germans started conscripting French labor, the Church deployed priests to minister to these men. As such in 1943, they secretly sent 26 priest to Germany posing as conscripted workers. Supporting them in this were members of the YCW, people such as Bl. Marcel.
In fact, when Marcel had left in 1943, he said, “I’m leaving not as a worker but as a missionary in the service of my companions—there is so much to do to make Christ known,” although it wasn’t until November 1943 that former Carmelite seminarian Jean Tinturier recruited him in Germany for this purpose (Tinturier would later be arrested for his “work for Catholic Action amongst the French, while serving compulsory labor, as a danger to the German people;” he died at Mauthausen three days before Marcel)
It was around the same time as he been approached by Tinturier that Callo got to go to Mass, something he had not been able to readily do since leaving home. Up to this point, he had progressively grown more and more depressed and was losing weight.
He wrote Marguerite, “The two months after my arrival were painful and hard. I had no interest in anything. I had become insensitive, I felt I was going slowly … But suddenly Christ made me react. He made me realize what I was doing was not proper. He told me not to give in to despair. He told me to take care of my friends, and the joy of life came back to me.”
This was necessary because as Callo’s cellmate in Gotha Fernand Morin recounted, “Many young people—cut off from their usual habits, their families, in the middle of this forced exile—found themselves disoriented, and soon their lower instincts emerged. The YCW, Boy Scouts, seminarians and of course priests responded quickly and got them regrouped …”
He described Callo as a lively, jovial sort, who was warm and always writing his family and fiancée on whatever scraps of paper he could find.
“He lived on the memory of his fiancée,” says one source, “about whom he spoke often, which forestalled some of his fellow workers’ bawdy talk. He only needed to arrive on the scene for the tone to change, for simply his presence inspired respect.”
In addition to times of prayer and spiritual reflection, Marcel also organized card games, theater presentations, and sports.
That Marcel achieved all of this in the labor camp is remarkable. Making his efforts even more impressive is that he suffered from boils, stomach pains, skin burns, infected teeth, and headaches.
Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, archbishop of Paris somehow heard of his efforts and wrote, “Thank you for the good that you are doing among your fellow workers. I bless your labors and pray for you.”
The Gestapo received the Kaltenbrunner document on December 3, 1943, beginning the persecution of the no-longer-secret priests and their YCW cooperators. The wave of persecution reached its peak in spring 1944. While some of the activists got sent back to France, the majority—including Marcel—got placed in concentration camps.
On October 7, Callo first got sent to Gotha. There by God’s providence he and his companions were all housed in a single barracks they called “The Upper Room.” The guards called it “The Church,” because an Evangelical pastor had once been imprisoned there and had preached to his fellow inmates. With them was a priest with a missal. Another man had a rosary. Another had woven a cross made of flowers. (It has survived to this day. In 2005, Fernand, his roommate at Gotha, donated it to the French Church.)
Here he wrote his brother, “Fortunately, [Jesus] 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…. This painful separation will enable me to understand life a bit better—it is in suffering that we become better.”
On July 16, he received Communion. It had been 88 days since his previous reception. He did not know it would be the last time. He wrote in his secret diary, “Communion. Great joy.”
Then Marcel was moved to Flossenburg. Finally on October 20, the Germans took him to the Gusen I and Gusen II satellites of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, about 25 miles away from Linz.
Early in its history, Mauthausen had morphed from a mere prison for run of the mill convicts into an “extermination by labor” camp, designed for the Nazis’ political and ideological enemies. The Germans in the Reich Main Security Office nicknamed it Knochenmühle – the bone-grinder (literally bone-mill). Its purpose was to force men to labor for 12 hours each day. In Marcel’s case, he labored in B8 Bergkristall, the code name for an underground aircraft factory for the mass production of Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters.
After a few months the inmates would become “Muselmänner,” that is, too sick to work. If not already dead, they might be left to die in the infirmary, killed by lethal injection, or placed inside a gas chamber that could hold 120 people.
Marcel died on March 19, 1945, from various diseases. He had become one of Muselmänner, having contracted tuberculosis, a painful skin condition, and dysentery. He actually did quite well, in a certain respect. The average inmate coming into Mauthausen at this time survived only three months. He had survived roughly five.
His fellow inmate, French Resistance officer Col. Albert Tibodo says that on the day Marcel died, he had crawled to the pit that served as a toilet to relieve himself yet again … and fell in. Tibodo pulled him out.
Knowing the 23-year-old was dying, the colonel later recounted, “Then I saw that he was not a normal boy … he had only one look. His eyes were seeing something else … His eyes expressed the deep conviction that he was going to happiness … “
At Callo’s beatification inquest, Tibodo declared that this look “was an act of Faith and Hope in a better life. Never have I seen on another dying man—and I have seen thousands—a look like his. He had the look of a saint. It was a revelation for me.”
One report says that for some reason he was not cremated but buried in a mass grave. In any event, his remains have never been found.
Interestingly it was not the French bishops who proposed his beatification but those of German and Austria as a means of reconciliation and promoting Franco-Germanic peace.
His beatification took place on October 4, 1987, in St. Peter’s square. During his homily, Pope St. John Paul II told the congregation, “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).
He continued, “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.’”
A quick note about Marguerite. She never married. She became a postal clerk and died in 1997.