There were doubtless many lay saints among the victims of the Nazi concentration and labor camps who will remain known to God alone. One whose records have been kept and whom the Church has already beatified was the young French printer and Catholic Actionist Marcel Callo.
Marcel was one of a family of nine children of Rennes, France (Rochester’s sister-city). The father, employed by the Department of Public Works, received a salary that barely covered the expenses of his large brood.
Marcel was one of the older children. Bright, cheerful, dutiful, a good companion and a natural leader, he willingly helped his parents with chores and with the care of his brothers and sisters. Having finished primary school at 13, he was apprenticed to a printer. He enjoyed learning this trade, not only because it enabled him to help family finance, but because he believed that honest work is pleasing to God.
One thing that did disturb the clean-minded teen-ager was the practice of his fellow apprentices to use bad language and tell improper stories. For that reason, he chose not to socialize with them but to seek his real friends among the Jocistes. “Jocisme” was the name given to an important form of Catholic Action developed in Belgium and France by the Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn. Applying the directives of Pope Pius XI to organize Catholic lay people into “unions” for apostolic action in society, Cardijn formed groups called “Young Christian Workers” (Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne, hence the “JOC”). He figured that lay missionary clubs like this, if furnished with religious instruction, good fellowship, and constructive activities, could help restore a more Christian spirit to the French working classes too often alienated from God.
Marcel became a very popular member of the local group. He was good at sports and at card games, as well as the more serious evangelistic aims of Catholic Action. It was in their society, too, that in 1941 he met Marguerite Derniaux, a lovely girl of equal piety. After a year they became engaged. Each agreed to recite the same prayers daily and to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion regularly.
But France was now embroiled in war, and on March 8, 1943, Rennes was badly bombed. One of the victims was Marcel’s sister Madeleine. Not long afterward, the German forces occupying France ordered Callo to report for service in Germany. If a person so commanded did not report, his family would be arrested. Before he set out for Germany on this forced journey, he told his aunt that he was leaving “not as a worker but as a missionary.” When he reached Zella-Mehlis, Germany, he was assigned to work in a factory that made rockets to be used against the French people!
Loneliness bore down heavily on Callo at first, and his inability attend Mass and receive the sacraments grieved him. Eventually, however, Christ made him understand that if he kept busy encouraging his friends, his good spirits would return.
As workers, the foreign labor units had a good deal of freedom. Taking advantage of this, Marcel organized games among the Christian Workers, and staged theatrical performances. He was able, finally, to arrange for a monthly Mass for them. Then they would pray together and he would say a few heartening words. It was just the sort of missionary work that Jocisme aimed at. This did not set well with the German officials, however. When they learned of his efforts, they arrested him on April 19, 1944. He was “much too Catholic” they said. He told a friend to write to his parents and fiancée that he had been “arrested for Catholic Action.”
Callo, imprisoned at Gotha, continued his life of prayer and his concern for his companions back at the factory. When officially accused of Catholic activities, he was sent to another prison at Matthausen. He had been ill before his arrest, and his condition worsened at Matthausen; yet, he found strength in prayer and continuing solicitude for his French comrades. Sickness took its toll and he died in prison on March 19, 1945.
Before he left France, Marguerite had said to Marcel, “You will be a martyr.” He had replied, “I will never be good enough for that.” Yet on October 4, 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified him as a modern martyr of Catholic lay action.
–Father Robert F. McNamara