Author: ks. Mieczysław Piotrowski TChr,
The moment he stood in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and was touched by the love and joy of life that radiate from the mystery of the One, Triune God, it became clear to him that the fullness of truth revealed by God to humanity resided in the Catholic Church alone.
Journalist, author, philosopher, personal friend of John Paul II, member of the Académie française, and chief editor of France’s influential weekly, Le Figaro Magazine, André Frossard (1915-1995) was one of Europe’s most highly respected intellectual lights. In June of 1935, he underwent a sudden conversion, which, in an instant, transformed him from a militant atheist into a fervent Catholic. He would go on to become a brilliant apologist of the Christian faith.
As a child, André Frossard was raised in a spirit of atheist ideology that strove against every manifestation of religious belief, in particular the Catholic Church. His father, Louis Oscar Frossard, was a well-known French politician and atheist. It was he who founded the French Communist Party in 1920 and became its first general secretary. André’s mother was a non-practicing Protestant, and his grandmother was Jewish. Young André saw the Catholic Church as a bastion of ignorance and benightedness. When he was thirteen years old, he read Voltaire and Rousseau. From these writers, his heart and mind imbibed a caustic antipathy toward the Catholic Church and Christianity.
“Atheism takes many forms,” writes Frossard. “There is philosophical atheism, which, identifying God with nature, denies Him a separate personhood and places all things within the ambit of human intelligence; nothing is God, everything is divine. This form of atheism leads to pantheism in the guise of one ideology or another. Scientific atheism rejects the hypothesis of God as unsuitable for inquiry and strives to explain the existence of the world exclusively in terms of its material properties, but without inquiring as to the provenance of matter. The still more radical form of Marxist atheism not only denies God, but would send Him on a vacation even if He did exist, for His troublesome presence would interfere with the free play of the human will. There is also the most widespread form of atheism, which I know all too well — idiotic atheism. Idiotic atheism poses no questions. It considers as natural man’s existence upon a fiery ball covered by a thin crust of dry mud and spinning on its own axis at twice the speed of sound around the Sun — a kind of hydrogen bomb hurtling through space among billions of lampions (stars) of mysterious origin and unknown destiny.”
The mystery of conversion
In 1935, twenty-year-old André Frossard was working as an aspiring journalist in Paris. Though he was an atheist, he had nevertheless befriended a practicing Catholic, André Villemin, who tried unsuccessfully to lead him to a belief in God. On June 8, 1935, Villemin invited Frossard to dinner. They drove to the Latin Quarter in an old clapped-out car and stopped in front of a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was perpetually exposed. Villemin asked Frossard to wait a moment while he attended to some business in the chapel. After waiting a while, the impatient Frossard got out of the car and entered the chapel. Standing at the back, he ran his eye over the people kneeling inside. In vain he sought out his friend.
Looking over toward the altar, he turned his attention to the Blessed Sacrament which stood exposed for adoration. He had no idea what it was, for he had never seen a monstrance before. Suddenly, in a manner he could not explain, he felt a mysterious power outside of himself penetrate his heart. The power released him from the spiritual blindness caused by his atheism and enabled him to experience another world, a world more real than the one we perceive with our senses. “At first, the hint of the words ‘Spiritual Life’ came to me, as if they had been pronounced in a whisper next to me by one who saw what I was as yet unable to see.” Upon hearing these words, Frossard felt himself engulfed by a supernatural reality radiating directly from the Holy Sacrament.
“What I saw was an indestructible crystal of infinite transparency [from which radiated] a pale-blue light of almost unbearable intensity (one degree higher and I would have died). It was a world; another world of a radiance and brightness that in one stroke cast our world among the fragile shadows of unfulfilled dreams. From the dark shore upon which I stood, I gazed on this new reality and truth and saw the order of the universe. At its summit was the Self-Evident Nature of God who was both Presence and Person. A moment earlier I had denied Its existence. Christians call this Presence ‘Our Father.’ I felt all Its tender goodness and sweetness... a sweetness unlike any other, capable of breaking the hardest stone and that which is even harder than stone — the human heart. “The irruption of this reality of God was accompanied by a joy which is the exultation of one rescued from death, the joy of a shipwrecked man at the very moment he is plucked from the seas. Only now did I realize how mired in the mud I had been all this time. I was amazed I could have lived and breathed in such a state. At the same time I acquired a new family — the Catholic Church. Her mission was to lead me to where I had to go, for I had a long journey before me….The Church was a community; and present within her was the One whose name I would never be able to set down in writing without fear of wounding His love, and before whom I had the good fortune of being a forgiven child who wakes up to discover that everything is a gift” (Frossard, Istnieje inny swiat, 1991, pp. 39-40).
Frossard would subsequently learn that what had been revealed to him in this special way, the Catholic Church had formulated and proclaimed centuries earlier. “I found myself in a bizarre situation — as if Christopher Columbus had returned from America only to have Queen Isabella’s ancient cartographers (who had never left their ateliers) explain his discoveries to him in the minutest detail, right down to the precise locations of the villages and plantations” (Frossard, p. 144).
Only God exists; everything else is mere hypothesis
André Frossard would describe his peculiar encounter with supernatural reality on several other occasions, for he was keenly aware that the human tongue was, in this respect, a poor and clumsy instrument. In his book, God and Human Questions, he presents other aspects of his extraordinary experience. “I walked into the chapel an atheist. A few minutes later I emerged a Christian — and I was a witness to my own conversion, full of wonder, which endures even now.”
He stresses that his was not an intellectual discovery. Rather it had the characteristics of a physical experience — almost a laboratory experience. “I was… an atheist when I entered through the doors, and remained so even inside. In the dim light of the chapel the people were mere shadows among whom I sought out my friend in vain. Something shone like a sun in the depths of the chapel. I did not know it was the Blessed Sacrament. I had never known disappointment in love, or metaphysical anxieties, or even what it was to be curious about such things. Religion was an old delusion, and in terms of historical evolution Christians were a species doomed to extinction...
“I can still see the twenty-year-old youth I was then. I can remember his stupefaction when, from the recesses of that humble chapel, there suddenly appeared before him a world, another world of unbearable splendor, of tremendous cohesion, whose light both revealed and concealed the presence of God. Just moments earlier, the youth would have sworn God existed only in the human imagination. At the same time, there washed over him a wave of sweetness mingled with a joy of such power as to soften hearts; the memory of it would never fade, even in the worst moments of his life — moments not seldom filled with fear and misery. From then on, he would set himself no other task but that of testifying to that sweetness and that excruciating purity of God, who revealed to him that day, by way of contrast, the kind of mud out of which he had been fashioned….The light which I saw with my bodily eyes was not the light that shines or causes skin to tan. Rather it was a spiritual light, i.e. a light that enlightens the soul — the searing glow of truth, as it were. It restored, once and for all, the order of things. From the moment I saw it, I could say that only God existed for me; everything else was mere hypothesis….Again I stress: this was an objective experience, bordering, as it were, on the realm of physics, and I have nothing more of value to convey than this: that beyond the world around us, of which we are particles, there exists a reality infinitely more substantial than the one in which we normally place our trust. It is the ultimate reality, before which there are no longer any questions” (Frossard, 1991, pp. 21-24).
From the moment of his conversion, worshiping the God of Love and Mercy became Frossard’s chief, most important and urgent task. There was but one real hope in this world, and that hope resided in Jesus Christ: of this he was convinced. Hence the need to proclaim it from the rooftops.
How is it possible?
“How is it possible,” Frossard asked himself, “that a young man raised in a spirit of atheist prejudices hostile to God, Christianity, and the Church, could in a single moment become an ardent Catholic?” He thoughtlessly entered a church in which the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, and when he came out, he was filled with the tremendous joy of having discovered the truth about God’s existence; zealous to share this discovery with the whole world. It was an experience of the real presence of the mystery of God who is One in Three Persons, the sole source of all reality, maintaining the universe in harmonious existence and imparting to men the ability to think and feel beauty.”
Frossard stresses that this was not a dream or an hallucination, but an objective experience, without the mediation of the imagination and its image-making faculties. Many years later he would observe: “Joy washed over me, irresistibly and gently, like a wave of light….Accompanying my conversion was a sense of wonder that endures even now.” This sense of wonder would remain with him to the end of his earthly life.
André Frossard’s sudden conversion was the more striking in that he had never known the teachings of the Catholic Church. He had been a complete ignoramus in this area. And yet the moment he stood in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and was touched by the love and joy of life that radiate from the mystery of the One, Triune God, it became clear to him that the fullness of truth revealed by God to humanity resided in the
“That day,” writes Frossard, “I became a Catholic from head to toe, a Catholic beyond any doubt — not a Protestant, or a Muslim, or a Jew. On leaving the chapel I was as shocked to find myself a Catholic as as I would have been had I walked out of the zoo a giraffe. No institution had been more alien to me than the Catholic Church. I would even say: no institution had seemed less sympathetic….The Church was as far from me as the moon or the planet Mars. Voltaire had told me nothing good about her, and since I was thirteen years old I had read practically nothing apart from Voltaire and Rousseau. Suddenly I found myself devoted to the Church, committed and entrusted to Her as to a new family, with an injunction to live the rest of my life on her account” (Frossard, 1991, pp. 18-19). After his conversion, Frossard saw the entire world around him — every event, every person — as an instance of God’s language and self-revelation.
Life after conversion
After leaving the chapel on that memorable June 8, 1935, Frossard met Villemin and earnestly told him of his extraordinary experience. Overjoyed, Villemin wasted no time in taking him to house of Anita and Stanislas Fumet where a group of young converts to the Catholic faith used to meet and pray. Most of these people were of Jewish origin. All of them had discovered, at one point in their life, that Christianity was not a system of ideas or moral injunctions but the Person of the Risen Jesus Christ, who lives and acts in His Church. All of these fresh converts had had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and experienced His love, just as had the disciples on the way to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-21). At the meetings they spoke about nothing but Christ, since every other subject struck them as dull and meaningless. That summer they traveled together for a day of recollection at the Shrine of La Salette, where the Mother of God had appeared in 1846.
After his conversion, Frossard continued to work as a journalist; but the world now held little interest for him. “The miracle lasted for a month,” he writes. “Every morning, to my delight, I discovered the same light before which the light of day simply paled, the same never-to-be-forgotten experience of tender goodness which ordered my entire theological knowledge.” In time the intensity of God’s light began to diminish almost to the point of going out; but André was not left alone. He received the gift of truth in another way: having found God, he would come to know Him increasingly by way of faith. After being baptized, he found himself in the happy state of child-like innocence. He took Anita Fumet to be his godmother. The grace of conversion and the sacrament of baptism turned him into a child in spirit; something, he admits, he never had been before. It was Jesus Himself who said, “unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). The faculty of delight and wonder are peculiar to those who are children in spirit. It became obvious to Frossard that if one excluded the existence of ineffable beauty, one could not find God. Only in the spirit could this beauty be found; and only in the spirit could it be experienced.
Eventually, coming to terms with his son’s Catholicism, André’s father invited him to write a column for his newest newspaper. Meanwhile, André continued to seek his place in life. He explored the possibilities of religious life, but after a brief stay at the Trappist Monastery at Cîteau, he discovered he had no vocation to community life.
On September 1, 1936, André joined the French naval service. He was appointed secretary and assigned to the Naval Ministry in Paris. He lived the life of a monk in the world. Early each morning he attended Holy Mass at the Church of St. Madeleine. During free moments at the Ministry he read the breviary. At noon he adored the Blessed Sacrament at the Church of St-Roch, and then had lunch at a small restaurant. In the afternoon, during a break at work, he prayed the rosary, which always seemed too short for him. After work, he read Holy Scripture or the works of St. Teresa of Avila. Every day this young man devoted six hours to prayer; and the rest of his free time he devoted to spiritual reading. He considered matters dealing with God and the spiritual life to be his natural element. “Does a fish complain that it swallows too much water?” This was his answer to those who told him he was overdoing it with prayer.
When WWII broke out, he was called to service on the mail steamer “Cuba,” which made the run between Marseilles and the Antilles. After France’s capitulation in January of 1941, he returned from Porte-de-France to Marseilles. Thanks to his father’s patronage, he found a post as branch director of a forwarding company in Lyons. He also became involved in the resistance movement against the Nazis. At this time he met a young woman in Lyons. They fell in love and were married. In 1943, less than a year after he was married, the Gestapo arrested him as a member of the underground and detained him in the German prison at Fort Montluc. During those nightmarish months spent behind bars, he came to realize that no one could deprive man of his spiritual freedom. He was one of the few prisoners to survive the war. He was liberated in the spring of 1945.
Truth exists, and that Truth is a Person
When André Frossard entered the chapel on that memorable June day of 1935, he was a carefree youth, a self-assured Marxist atheist. He had known neither metaphysical angst nor disappointments in love. In a single moment, he was totally transformed in spirit. He felt, as he put it, “the exultation of a man rescued from death, the joy of a shipwrecked man at the very moment he is plucked from the seas.” Gazing at the Blessed Sacrament, he encountered the person of God, whose existence he had denied until a moment ago. Only then did he see the depth of sin, the shameless conceit and ignorance in which he was mired. How he could have lived and breathed in such a state stupefied him. In the glare of that mysterious divine light radiating from the Eucharist, he saw himself in all his wretchedness; and with genuine contrition he entrusted himself to Divine Mercy. He understood that of all God’s manifold gifts, the greatest and the most astonishing of these was His merciful love, a love that embraced all people, especially the most hardened sinners.
After the war André Frossard went on to become one of Europe’s most celebrated writers and journalists. He would remain silent about his extraordinary conversion and experience of another world until the year 1969. Only after thirty years of intense professional work did he make bold to describe his conversion in his book entitled, Dieu existe, je l’ai rencontré (God exists, I have met Him). He was rightly convinced that thanks to the high respect he had gained by this time, his account of his conversion would not be perceived as the ravings of a madman. And so it happened. His book Dieu existe, je l’ai rencontré at once became an international bestseller. Upon reading it, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla met the author, and from that time on he and André Frossard became intimate friends. Early in his pontificate John Paul II invited Frossard to conduct an interview with him.
Shortly after the appearance of his book God Exists, the author of this article also had the pleasure of meeting André Frossard. Frossard went on to write a book on life after death, Il y a un autre monde (There is Another World) as well as a book on the existence of the devil, 36 preuves que le diable existe (36 Proofs of the Existence of the Devil).
“What can I do, since God does exist, since Christianity is true, and since there is life after death?” asked Frossard in an interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. “What can I do, since Truth exists and that Truth is a Person, who wants to be known, who loves us, and whose name is Jesus Christ?” I do not make this claim on the basis of hypotheses and logical arguments, or on the basis of hearsay. I make it on the basis of experience. I saw. I do not know why I should have been chosen to be an eyewitness of that which lies hidden by the appearances of this world. All I know is that I am duty bound to witness to it. I am condemned to speak. I am driven, gently but insistently, by the need to recite the lessons that God imparted to me during that shattering encounter during the summer of 1935 in a humble chapel in the center of Paris. When you know that God exists, that Jesus is His Son, that He awaits us in that other world, that there will never be another hope in this world apart from that offered by the Gospel; when you know all this, you have to speak out. I have done this, and will continue to do this, until the moment I go to contemplate forever what I was given to see during those moments when for me time stood still” (Messori, Pytania o chrześcijaństwo).
André Frossard courageously witnessed to his encounter with God until his death on February 2, 1995. On that day he entered forever into that reality of which he had had his first taste some sixty years earlier; of which we read in the Holy Scriptures: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
Fr. Mieczyslaw Piotrowski SChr
Frossard, André. Istnieje inny świat, Wrocław, 1991 (original: Il y a un autre monde, 1976); Messori, Vittorio. Pytania o chrześcijaństwo, Kraków, 1997 (original: Inchiesta sul cristianesimo, 1987)
The above article was published with permission from "Love One Another!" - April 2016