Jean-Jacques Morel was born in a village in the proximity of Fribourg in Switzerland on June 12, 1739. He came into the world after two years of marriage between his parents Jean Morel and Marie Elisabeth Maître. Jean Jacques’ spiritual and academic formation was undertaken by his uncle François-Joseph Morel, who was also the parish curate.
Father François-Joseph Morel, was sent to his native village of Préz-vers-Noréaz, and naturally Jean-Jacques went after him to Belfaux. In 1755 Jean-Jacques forged ahead with his studies at the Jesuit College of Saint-Michele in Fribourg. In this great city he lived with his mother whom the State employed her as a professional midwife at Fribourg. Jean-Jacques excelled so much in his studies that, on 28 July 1762, he was selected to engage in public philosophical debate.
Due to his aptitude for piety, as well as his consecrated way of life many thought that he would become a Jesuit. Nonetheless, the ending result was much different! In fact, on September 26, 1762, at the age of 23 years old, Jean-Jacques entered the Capuchin novitiate and was given the name of Brother Apollinaire of Posat, the city where he came from. When he finished this novitiate year and making his temporary religious vows he was immediately received for the sacred Orders. On 22 September 1764, Brother Apollinaire was ordained a priest at Bulle, exactly in his county of origin.
In the period between 1765 till 1769 we find him at Luzern, studying theology under the tutorship of Fr Hermann Martin von Reinach, where we find Fr Apollinaire excelling in his studies among his student peers, defending with great success his thesis publicly in Sion, in Vallese. The learned persons present had countless words of praise for Fr Apollinaris’ academic capabilities.
Thanks to his sound preparation in both piety and knowledge, for five years, between 1769 and 1774, Br Apollinaire gave himself to the itinerant apostolate. He served in different parishes and also in popular missions. His addressed altered between Sion, Porrentruy, Bulle and Romont. At the end of August 1774, a new ministry was entrusted to him, that of teaching and directing the Capuchin theology students in Fribourg. He frequently conducted catechetical lessons in the community. Six years later, in 1780, we find Br Apollinaire serving as a vicar in the Sion friary while assuming missionary activity for a year. After he was sent to Bulle friary, he also served as a vicar here. At the specific request of the local mayor who wanted to entrust his two children’s education to Apollinaire, the latter built premises by the friary to educate them. Other children joined in. However, the other friars lamented that this little school was violating the silence of the friary, and this, coupled with the other lay persons who were politically opposed to the school, the mayor closed it all down, and Apollinaire requested to be transferred once more to Altdorf, wherein his novice master, Br. Dionisio Zürcher was the local superior.
In 1785, at the small and quaint town of Stans, Apollinaire became the director of another school which was annexed to the friary (try and try again!). At Büren, a nearby village, his God-given talents of being a very effective catechist in explaining the faith in innovative way touched the heart of many people. Great was the number of people who joined his catechetical classes and went to him for confession. Following his midnight prayer in choir Br Apollinaire generally dedicated himself for study, prayer as well as meditation.
The more the light shines, the more the darkness tries to cover it. In fact the disciples of the Enlightenment, who advocated the supremacy and centrality of State law, tried to tarnish Br Apollinaire’s holy reputation by calling his catechism classes unorthodox and discrediting his school teaching through ridicule or weakening its moral character. Even if the mayor defended him publicly, the opposition he suffered from his enemies was so intense that he had not only to defend himself by an apologia but to save his brothers from further problems he, once more, requested to be transferred. On April 16, 1788, Br Apollinaire was sent to Luzern.
Upon hearing of these countless persecutions against Br Apollinaire, Br Vitorino de Rennes, the provincial minister of Brittany, suggested him to work as a missionary in Syria, with the French Capuchins. Br Apollinaire agreed and in the autumn of 1788 he was in Paris, in the Marais friary to learn the languages he needed to accomplish this mission. Divine Providence had other plans for Br Apollinaire. Paris was to serve for him not as a platform for missionary activity but as the altar of his ultimate sacrifice for Christ’s love.
Following the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the revolution spread like wild fire throughout France, soon with the suppression of Religious Orders as well as the closure of some three thousands convents, friaries and monasteries. All the while, Br Apollinaire was asked to care for more than five thousand German speakers in Paris. He became vicar of the German speaking Christians in the parish of Saint-Sulpice and chaplain to the incarcerated in Tournelle. Lay people gave him accommodation due to the closure of Marais friary. Since all the property of the friary was confiscated and the Constitution of the Clergy published, the priests of Saint-Sulpice publicly rejected the oath which, as the post on Blessed Andre Gasset makes clear, would have made the Church subservient to the State. Among the priests who refused to swear this God-less directive, was Br Apollinaire, ven though the calumny that circulated around was that he had embraced the oath.
When he heard about this blatant lie Br Apollinaire wrote to the editor of L’Ami du Roi on 23 October 1791, condemning the false accusation. With great courage from above Br Apollinaire even affirmed that he would rather die a thousand times rather than appear to have made the oath to the new Constitution. In his small work he wrote entitled: Le séducteur démasqué he confirmed that obedience to the Church is on the same lines as obeying the Holy Spirit who expresses himself through the Church hierarchy. He also said: And we must listen to the Church and not the Paris Town Hall. It is eternal wisdom which commands us!
From now on Br Apollinaire became the number one enemy of the French revolutionaries. He left the church of Saint-Sulpice on April 1, 1791 and started to minister in hiding. After returning from Meudon, outside Paris, he went to the city again and wrote to the abbot Valentin Jann of Altdorf on 27 April 1792. The letter details his fearless and mystical sentiments on the eve of his martyrdom and his exultant joy to suffer for Christ: Rejoice with me, join me in glorifying the Lord. We are amid insurmountable difficulties, but we do not succumb; we are exhausted, but do not despair; persecute, but not abandoned; beaten, but not lost. Do not weep over me therefore. I am the wheat of Christ. It is necessary that I be ground by the teeth of the wild beast to become pure bread.
On the night between 13 and 14 August Br Apollinaire helped a dying poor man. After celebrating the morning Mass he wrote in a letter that he celebrated Mass to prepare himself, to courageously fight the battle of martyrdom. When he presented himself to the commissaries of Luxemburg and said that he never made the oath, even if he was not a conspirator, he was immediately arrested and became one of one hundred and sixty recalcitrants packed together into the Carmine church.
A detainee who managed to escape and saved himself from the 2 September massacre gives us the following impressive witness about Br Apollinaire:
Father Apollinaire arrived in that prison with a contentment and joy that surprised those who were already shut away there. From that moment he was the edification of everyone. Most went to him for confession. He was continuously busy either praying or giving heart to anyone who was down and to encourage anyone who longed for martyrdom. He did not spare himself in anything. He tried to make himself useful to everyone, whether in preparing the beds, that often were only crates, or to set the tables placed in the middle of the church for meals. He sought to do the lowliest tasks like sweeping the church, the only space allowed, or to empty the tubs placed in the side chapels for bodily needs.
Br Apollinaire was executed with another hundred and thirteen martyrs. The commissary who took charge of the barbarity at Saint-Germain-des-Prés and of the other remaining prisoners in a church who were butchered mercilessly by sabres and daggers, said with alarm: I do not understand anything any more. These priests went to their deaths with the same joy of someone going to a wedding! It was a clear victory of Christ over the Paris Town Council and the cruel justice minister Danton who later was himself executed!
This zealous Capuchin disciple of the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus, months earlier prior to his death ostensibly spoke about his near death and prophesied a re-flowering of the Christian spirit in France:
There is a baptism I must receive and I look forward to the time of its arrival. If the seed of grain does not fall into the earth and die, it remains a single grain … As a man, I am afraid. As a Christian I hope. As a religious I rejoice. As shepherd of those five thousand souls I am jubilant because I have not taken the oath at all. We can do everything in him who strengthens us. All my enemies, my persecutors present, past and future, I embrace them and give them the kiss of peace as my greatest benefactors … Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! In truth, in truth I tell you, soaked with the blood of so many martyrs France will soon see a re-flowering of religion on her soil.
Pope Pius XI declared Br Apollinaire blessed, together with another 190 martyrs of the French Revolution on October 17, 1926.
O Lord, help us to love your Church with filial devotion for whose defense the Blessed Apollinaris, strengthened by your grace, faithfully fought till his death. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever.