Veronica O'Brien (1905-1998)
If Cardinal Suenens was the most renowned individual in the history of the FIAT Association’s development, it is Veronica O’Brien who was its mainspring. Here is a summary of her life, followed by a few tributes collected at the time of her death.
The Legion of Mary
Louise-Mary O’Brien was born in Middleton, Ireland, on 16 August 1905. She was the eleventh of thirteen children. Responding to a call from the Lord, she entered the religious congregation of the Ladies of St. Clotilde, who had run the boarding school near London which she attended. She gradually became aware that this form of life did not correspond to her vocation and that she was called to a direct apostolate.
After fourteen years of life in the convent, and upon the advice of her superiors and ecclesiastical advisors, she left the congregation and began to search for her way, while continuing to use her religious name, Veronica, which reflected her desire to be personally united to Christ in his Passion.
After much searching, she discovered the Legion of Mary, which under the impetus of its founder, Frank Duff, a compatriot, was undergoing a remarkable expansion.
Just before the Second World War, having attended a single meeting of a ‘presidium’ in Dublin (The presidium is the basic team of the Legion of Mary), she left Ireland for France on the last boat to make the crossing. Her intention was to start the Legion there. Veronica arrived in the town of Nevers at the beginning of its occupation by the Germans. Risking her life (her British passport raised suspicions that she was a spy) and those of the nuns of the convent of Saint-Gildard who sheltered her, she founded the Legion of Mary in Nevers in August 1940.
After the war, she traveled throughout France, where she founded more than 800 presidia. During 20 years she was a delegate of the Legion of Mary, which she also established in Belgium, Greece, Turkey, and in the former Yugoslavia.
Joint apostolate with Cardinal Suenens
In Memories and Hopes , Cardinal Suenens wrote that his meeting with Veronica O’Brien in July 1947 “would be a most remarkable date in his life.” Later, in The Hidden Hand of God, he explains: “During our conversation, she spoke to me of union with Mary as an openness to the Holy Spirit. I immediately perceived that she was speaking from experience, with a rare depth.”
This first meeting would not be the last. A second meeting occurred at Lourdes, in April 1948, and was the real starting point of a close collaboration in the service of the Church that would last a half-century. Having received a university education at Cambridge, Veronica knew Latin well. This was of great service to Cardinal Suenens during Vatican II. In 1966, the cardinal wrote to Dr. Kathleen Owler, Veronica’s sister: “Isn’t Veronica’s life marvelous, and to see how the Lord prepared this life, step by step, in order for it to be fruitful for the Church and the world. Without her, a certain number of things could not have happened during the Council.”
Cardinal Suenens wrote a considerable number of books in collaboration with Veronica. In all his writings, the same appeal is addressed to Christians: to participate in the essential mission of the Church : evangelization.
In the second volume of his memoirs, Cardinal Suenens describes the life of Veronica and their collaboration. Concerning the Renewal, he writes: “in the matter of the discernment of spirits, my task was greatly facilitated by the constant collaboration of Veronica. Her doctrinal certainty, enlivened by an unparalleled spiritual experience, helped me to distinguish the authentic presence of the Spirit and his charisma from excesses and deviations encountered along the way.”
Another encounter that proved decisive was with the Charismatic Renewal. It was through reading a newspaper article from the United States that Veronica first heard of the Renewal. Always tuned in to what was happening in the postconciliar Church, in 1972 she went, together with Yvette Dubois, to visit several university centers where this spiritual renewal, inspired by Pentecostalism, had arisen among Catholics.
She took an active part in the flourishing of the Renewal in Belgium, France and the United States. She played a key role in the elaboration of the doctrinal texts of the Malines Documents , which contributed to implanting the charismatic enthusiasm firmly within Catholic tradition, while warning against certain fundamentalist deviations.
She was a special counselor of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office (ICCRO) , the international secretariat of the Renewal, which had its seat first in Brussels at Cardinal Suenens’ residence, then later in Rome.
Apostle to the end
Veronica was truly an apostle to the end of her life. With great pedagogical skill she strove to turn each co-worker into a missionary of the Good News, maintaining all the while a great respect for the liberty of each person. Thus she founded the apostolic team that would work closely with Cardinal Suenens, and would become the FIAT Association.
In the words of Cardinal Suenens: “Unable, at her age, to offer herself to take the Gospel to the far corners of the earth, Veronica inspires and stimulates a variety of initiatives which make it possible to reach the same objective. One must love and serve, she says, not only with all our hearts, but also with all our imagination. Hence the initiatives of FIAT. These have as their goal the intensification of the spiritual life and thus of the apostolate of Christians…”
During the last years of her life, her advanced age confined her almost continuously to bed. It was there that she received the visitors whom she always prepared to receive in faith and in prayer. She asked God to give her the grace to be able to say a comforting word in a spirit of faith: “Only say the word and I shall be healed”, so that she might be able to give the word of comfort.
One day, during a time of sharing, she confided that she never wanted to say a single useless word. She was always oriented towards “the presence of Christ in the soul of the other”, even when her conversation was leavened with a sense of humour that made the most reserved people laugh.
Veronica wished ardently to enter the house of the Father
She received the Sacrament of the Sick for the first time on 8 September 1995, and to our great joy, her strength was revived.
After the death of Cardinal Suenens, on 6 May 1996, several bishops and priests came to celebrate the Eucharist at her bedside. She apologized to them for still being there. Despite her fatigue, she participated actively in the Mass, in the Divine Office and in praying the FIAT rosary.
On 11 February 1998, on the feast of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, she once again received the Sacrament of the Sick. Very weak, she entered eternal life on 19 February 1998, the day after the feast of St. Bernadette, surrounded by her loved ones.
Message from the Holy Father upon her departure from this world
…“The Holy Father assures you of his deep sympathy. He joins with all those who were close to her in thanksgiving for the service to the Church, the Marian apostolate and the spiritual radiance of this striking individual, who gave much to the faithful in several countries and especially in Belgium.
He asks the Lord to grant that she may enjoy forever the joy and peace of his Kingdom. Invoking the maternal tenderness of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary for Veronica’s intention, and entrusting to her those who continue her work, Pope John Paul II sends from the bottom of his heart his apostolic blessing to all those touched by this grief and united in prayer.” (signed Cardinal Sodano).
Other testimonies of bishops, priests and laypeople
…“I feel great gratitude and admiration for the work which the Lord entrusted to her to accomplish. I will join, from afar, in the Mass that will be celebrated for her at the chapel of the Miraculous Medal on the vigil of Palm Sunday.”
…“May we be able to pray with sufficient intensity that she may one day be recognized by the Church as someone who accepted the grace of the Lord and responded to it as fully as is possible.”
…“I cannot enumerate all that I received from her. Allow me to share that I always left your house, after a meeting with Veronica and after Mass, with a renewed zeal for evangelization. She never ceased, up to the last months of her life among us, to give Jesus to her brothers and sisters as Mary had given Jesus to the world, in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that human beings may know Love, God our Father.”
…“I did not know her very well personally, but every time I met her, I left with a greater apostolic zeal. She certainly had a special grace for our times. You know, the congregation had special ties with Veronica. She has not been forgotten.”
…“Will we ever find the exact words that can give sufficient thanks to God for this life of service, radiating and totally given over to the Lord, to the Blessed Mother and to our entire human and ecclesial community?”
…“If we can draw one lesson from Veronica’s life, it is perhaps that time is pressing. ‘The harvest is great, but the workers are few.’ Are we ready to follow her example in our own present milieu?”
…“We all know that Veronica is happy and blissful in the presence of the One whom she had so loved and whose apostle she became with great courage, perseverance, lucidity and such great faith. I will treasure my memory of Veronica’s profound gaze that searched the heart and that made the Lord seem so close. Her life will remain an example, and I pray that she may help me to become ever more of an evangelizer.”…