Year of Mercy: Bl. Jean-Joseph Lataste, OP
Jean-Joseph Lataste was born in Cadillac, near Bordeaux, in France in 1832. After his study, he became a civil servant. While working in various cities around Bordeaux, he was an active member of the Society of Saint Vincent of Paul. However, since he was a child, Jean-Jospeh was thinking about a possible vocation to the priesthood. During his study in Bordeaux, he got to know Lacordaire and turned to him when he started to deepen his vocation to religious life. Eventually, Jean-Joseph Lataste joined the Dominican Order in 1857, some 18 years after Lacordaire, who had re-established it in post-revolutionary France.
As a young friar, Jean-Joseph was trained for the priesthood in the Saint-Maximin priory, in South East France. On the occasion of the transfer of relics of Saint Mary Magdalene to the priory, it was revealed to him that the greatest sinners have within them everything needed to become the greatest saints.
In September 1864, he was sent to preach a spiritual retreat at the women’s prison in Cadillac, near Bordeaux. He went there with scepticism and all the preconceived notions one might have pertaining to the incarcerated. But during the retreat there was a transformation in him. He was the first to be converted by what he preached. While praying with the prisoners in front of the Blessed Sacrament, he came up with a radical idea for that time, to found a new religious congregation for women coming out of prison. The answer he proposed was called the House of Bethany. He wrote:
The Gospel tells us that at Bethany there lived two sisters: Martha of inviolable virtue and Mary Magdalene who had been a sinner. Jesus loved to come and rest in their home, where one served him and the other listened to his words. He made no distinction between them – or did he…? It is rather Magdalene who is preferred. Martha is surprised and Jesus answers kindly but still gives preference to Magdalene: ‘You worry and fret about so many things; yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the “better part” and it is not to be taken from her.’ (Luke 10:41). What was the better part? It was that Magdalene loved more. She who had been a sinner had advanced further in the way of divine love than Martha, the model of virtue. When God loves us and gives us his grace, he does not ask us what we have been; he is only concerned with what we are – not with how far we have fallen, but with how much we love. He judges us only on the strength of our love. Happy are those whose past urges them on to a greater love, and happy those others who, in a sort of rivalry, redouble their own efforts in order not to be left behind (Lataste, Les Réhabilités).
He preached another retreat in Cadillac in September 1865 and found the same prisoners who had remained faithful to his spiritual directions. He was able to say: “here I saw marvellous things!”.
The House of Bethany was founded on 14 August 1866 in Frasnes, near Besançon, in eastern France. Its originality is that the community is constituted by former prisoners and other women with an irreproachable past, living the religious life together, to the extent that it is not possible to distinguish between them. On Christmas day 1868, Jean-Joseph Lataste celebrated Mass in the House for the last time, and was blessed in giving the Dominican Habit to the first former prisoner, little sister Noël. But Jean-Joseph fell sick and died on 10 March 1869.
In his booklet, les Rébabilités, he wrote:
Now you understand our aim and the means by which it can be achieved. You have seen the problem and you have seen how it can be solved. These [prisoners] are worthy of your compassion. It is for you to give them some recompense for those long years of prison. Dishonoured in the past but long ago rehabilitated before God, they must now be rehabilitated before humanity. They must be saved, not only from the past dishonour, but from that inevitable return to crime; they must be saved, not only for this life, but for eternity; they must be saved out of love for him who said: ‘The Son of man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’
In the same vein, two chaplains of the prison of Norfolk, Massachusetts, inspired by the work of Jean-Jospeh Lataste, created a community among the prisoners, called Bethany-Norfolk. The community was instituted as a Lay Dominican Fraternity in 2005.
On 27 June 2011, Pope Benedict XVI approved the beatification of Jean-Joseph Lataste, which was celebrated on 3 June 2012 in Besançon.