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This unknown martyr is turning out to be popular at WYD

Closeup of the face of Blessed Marcel Callo

Archives Oeust-France | Fair Use

Cyprien Viet - published on 08/04/23

Activities centered on Blessed Marcel Callo are a great success at the WYD in Lisbon, with attendance far exceeding expectations.

Blessed Marcel Callo, a young Christian activist who fell victim to the Nazis in 1945, became one of the patrons and a “rock star” of World Youth Day, 78 years later… who would have thought?

Word of mouth about the “Marcel’s Treasure Show,” organized by his home diocese of Rennes (France), has been so positive that the organizers have been forced to turn away some of the audience. On a scorching hot Wednesday afternoon, the 600-seat auditorium was unable to absorb the 1,500 pilgrims who formed a queue that stretched far out into the street near the church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The event is being publicized by an effective advertising campaign, and is aimed at the French public as well as international pilgrims, with translations into English and Portuguese.

Multiple activities

In addition to the show, there is an exhibition, round-table discussions, and film screenings about the French patron of the WYD.

Marcel Callo was a deeply Christian young man who left for Germany to evangelize the working-class world. He was persecuted due to his efforts, and he died in the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945.

A plaque in the exhibition commemorates the 650,000 young French workers who were requisitioned for obligatory work service by the Nazis. To the astonishment of the German authorities, this forced labor became a place of evangelization and spiritual resistance, led by priests as well as young scouts and Catholic Action activists. After a 1943 order forbidding any apostolate, some were deported, and 51 were killed.

In the hot, festive atmosphere of the WYD, some pilgrims — at first puzzled by a story far removed from the concerns of their time — are showing interest in this moving history they are discovering. 

A World War II martyr, an inspiration for today

Fr. Nicolas Guillou is the parish priest of the Rennes parish where the French Blessed lived. He finds it “fascinating” to see in this martyr of the Second World War a figure for today, with his commitments to the three movements of his time and generation: the Eucharist Crusade, Scouting, and the Young Catholic Workers.

“My life enlightens my Mass and my Mass enlightens my life,” wrote the man who was beatified by John Paul II in 1987.

Fr. Guillou saw in him “a model of complete commitment,” particularly when he left for a missionary work camp in Germany. The French officer who witnessed his death said he saw in him “the face of a saint.”

Today, Blessed Marcel Callo can “guide young people in their commitment to the Church, following Christ, with a desire to let Christ enter their lives,” explains Fr. Guillou. He invites us to reread Marcel Callo’s letters to his fiancée Marguerite, texts “of great beauty” and spiritual density. 

He sees the large number of pilgrims as a “wink from God,” showing that “Marcel speaks to young people today.”

This conviction is palpable in the enthusiasm of pilgrims Maylis, Laure, and Oriane. They are impressed by the fact that in Germany, Marcel Callo had the courage to “set up a prayer group in a prison” and was “punished for it.” These young women were moved by his letters. “He’s from our town. He’d also lost his sister in the bombings,” they recall, happy to find in him the figure of a simple layman with whom they can identify.

The diocese of Rennes, energized by Blessed Marcel

Emmanuel, a volunteer from Rennes, appreciates Marcel Callo as a “relevant figure” who inspired his diocese to mount a complex operation. “There are 70 of us volunteers, with actors, musicians, logisticians, a lorry driver, a full bus specially chartered for the team, a video, sound and light team… Everything has been deployed for the WYD!” he says with enthusiasm, while trying to contain the influx of pilgrims.

The Diocese of Rennes is thus experiencing a “founding moment,” benefiting from the selection of Marcel Callo as one of the patron saints of the WYD. Mentioned by Pope Francis in Christus Vivit, the young martyr not only embodies “the history of France,” but also provides inspiration for “young Christians” in search of meaning and roots.

SaintsWorld Youth Day
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