As with some beautiful plants, ideas and beliefs often flower most gloriously after seeming to die. It was like that with the Christian idea of the social reign of Christ the King. As long as it was living healthily in the minds of most men — as long, that is, as there was no government anywhere in the West except Christian government, usually with a prince at the head — it could be taken more-or-less for granted. There was no real need to formulate it in a detailed way. The situation became different — the idea seemed to have died — when men began undertaking to govern society according to their own will instead of God’s and started, in the process, dethroning the princes appointed by Him to serve as rulers. This was in the eighteenth century.
So it was that in the nineteenth, the idea of government with Christ as the ultimate Ruler of Society enjoyed a tremendous flowering and nowhere more, fittingly enough, than in France, the very land where the overthrow of Christian government first began in 1789. Beginning in 1809, when Joseph de Maistre wrote his Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions , no decade of the nineteenth century in France was without its champions of Christian government. Besides de Maistre, they included Louis de Bonald, François René de Chateaubriand, Louis Veuillot, Dom Prosper Guéranger, Edouard Cardinal Pie and, least known today even though the Church has recognized his holiness by declaring him to be among her venerabili , Fr. Emmanuel-Joseph-Marie-Maurice d’Alzon.
Of course, even as when the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of the family and conjugal relations had come under such severe attack that Pope Paul VI felt obliged to defend it by publishing to the world his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, by 1925, despite the exertions of its nineteenth-century French champions, the idea of Christ as Ruler of Society was so widely ignored or flat-out rejected that Pope Pius XI produced his encyclical, Quas Primas . Therein, His Holiness, knowing full well what was being said on every side, declared, “It would be a grave error to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs…. He is the author of happiness and true prosperity for every man and every nation…. If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.”
That there is even less reverence and obedience paid today than in 1925, let alone during the nineteenth century, is not our subject here. Nor is the result. What interests us is the flowering in nineteenth-century France of the idea of Christ as the Ruler of Society. More specifically, we want to see how that flowering found expression in the thought, life, and work of Ven. Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon, and especially in the activities of the religious order he founded in 1847 (it was formally approved in 1864) and headed until his death in 1880, the Augustinians of the Assumption, commonly called the Assumptionists.
Before we turn to the consideration of our subject, there is an aspect of it that ought to be mentioned. Precisely because the idea of recognizing Christ as the Ruler of Society exists in the minds of so few today, and especially in a nation like the United States founded on the very principle of government according to the will of the people instead of God’s, much that follows may seem not simply incredible to some readers, but may be unimaginable.
How unimaginable? He is here not speaking directly to the subject of Our Lord’s social reign, but try to imagine this being said by the head of a religious order, or any other notable Churchman, today:
We love Christ with the same kind of love as did the early Christians, because he still faces the same enemies he faced then. We love him with the love that made the Apostle say, ‘If anyone does not love Jesus Christ, let him be cursed’ (1 Cor. 16:22). This may not be very tolerant, but you know that those who love much tolerate little. Properly speaking, true love is revealed in the power of a noble and frank intolerance. In these days, with no energy left for either love or hate, men do not see that their tolerance is just another form of weakness. We are intolerant, because we draw our strength from our love of Jesus Christ.
That was Ven. Fr. d’Alzon speaking to the members of his order at a General Chapter in 1868. If a reader finds it unimaginable that a Churchman would so speak today, he ought to remind himself that Ven. Fr. d’Alzon spoke within the lifetime of men who were still living when anyone now over 50 was born. In other words, it really was not very long ago. This is a point to which we shall return at the conclusion of this essay. For now, and in order to develop a more complete picture of the mind of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon and also of his order, let us continue to look at his 1868 discourse. Since it was delivered at the first General Chapter, or meeting, of the Assumptionists, we should not be surprised to find that it is programmatic. Today it would doubtless be entitled “Statement of Goals and Guidelines for the Operation of a New Religious Community,” though in tone and style it is very far from the sociologese and woolly-headedness of typical modern documents with such titles. Clearly, these “guidelines” were not written by a committee.
Ven. Fr. d’Alzon begins, as he should, by stating the purpose of the order. It was
the coming of the reign of God in our souls, by the practice of the Christian virtues and of the evangelical counsels in keeping with our vocation, and the coming of the reign of God in the world by the struggle against Satan and the conquest of souls ransomed by Our Lord and yet still immersed in error and sin.
That statement of purpose is almost as unimaginable today as the passage of the discourse we have already quoted. It tells us that after seeking their own sanctification, which is the first duty of every Christian, the Assumptionists were to promote Christ’s reign in the world , and this by two means. The first was by fighting the prince of this world, and we may take it that the fight was to be political, social and cultural, as well as spiritual, since it is not by false religion alone that Satan endeavors to extend his sway and hold it.
The second means was by converting souls, and here Ven. Fr. d’Alzon shows that he understood what many today do not: that Our Lord did redeem all men, yes, but that does not mean all are saved. Trying to save as many as possible, whether at home or in other lands, is a missionary activity. In due course, we shall see how the Assumptionists became a missionary order. It will suffice for the moment to relate that when Ven. Fr. d’Alzon founded a Union of Prayer (it is one of four named by the old Catholic Encyclopedia in its article on such unions), he named it Archconfraternity of Prayers and Good Works for the Reunion of Eastern Schismatics with the Church. (There is more language that is unimaginable today!)
Given the purpose of the Assumptionists, as defined by their founder, it is altogether natural that they adopted as their motto, “Thy Kingdom Come.” (What is not natural, or is at least very strange, is that millions of Christians pray for the advent of His Kingdom every day and then do nothing about it. Do they not hear what they are praying for, or do they suppose God means to use only others as the instrument for the coming?)
After speaking of how the Assumptionists were to love Christ (with that “power of a noble and frank intolerance”), Ven. Fr. d’Alzon spoke to his priests of how and why they should love His Mother. This also is to be expected. After all, they had their name from one of her principal feasts. (Before long, they would be campaigning to have that feast made the national holiday in France in place of Bastille Day.) Still, which is the Churchman today who would say that her life “shows us the unrelenting demands that God imposes on chosen souls” and “demonstrates” love “by suffering and the power of sacrifice rooted in love”?
Ven. Fr. d’Alzon is speaking there very far from today’s notion of a Happy Jesus Who never asks anything of men but only gives joy. In speaking of the Mother as he does, he reminds us that the real Jesus has among His titles, on account of His own suffering and sacrifice, that of Man of Sorrows. How could His Mother — how can His followers in any age — be different in their love than He was?
Because the Assumptionists were supposed not to be, they were to cultivate, said their founder,
a kind of piety very far from the kind of devotion which, pretending to be tender is soft, and fearing scandal lacks energy, and whose concessions and daily betrayals dare show the cross only surrounded with flowers and perfumes, with Calvary hidden behind vague clouds of vapor.
The object of the scorn in those lines was a bourgeois, treacly, very sentimental kind of piety called saint-sulpicienne in nineteenth-century France after the neighborhood around the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris. (The neighborhood abounded with shops that sold the sort of articles — holy cards, pictures, a certain kind of literature — that were its manifestation.) In our own day Calvary remains hidden, but it has been by substituting celebration for sacrifice with attendant hootenanny Masses, hearty handshakes of peace, and priests who insist on being called Bob or Kevin.
Having spoken of the Assumptionists’ love of Christ and His Mother, Ven. Fr. d’Alzon next talked about their love of the Church, which was to be “supernatural, daring and disinterested,” and here he became very specific as to what the order was about. He began thus:
If ever the struggle between good and evil, truth and error, Jerusalem and Babylon, Heaven and Hell, the Church and the Revolution, has been made clear, it is certainly today.Listen to man repeat after Satan, “I will not obey. I will rise to the skies and will be like the Most High” (Is. 14:14). Man goes so far as to deny God, because he finds God a hindrance that imposes on him the yoke of conscience, duty, and virtue. The way man can break this yoke is to say, “God does not exist.” Before such blasphemy, we can only say, with the leader of heavenly hosts, “Who is like God?” Satan, in order to overthrow the Church, is trying to overthrow the entire social order. The fifty or sixty thrones that have fallen during the last century are the result of his latest efforts to overthrow the Throne of the Vicar of Christ on earth, because Satan is powerless to overthrow the Throne of Jesus Christ himself in Heaven.
As with other sections of this discourse of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon, we shall return to this one by the end of our essay, but we do not now want to interrupt the flow of what he says except to note that we can see here why the Assumptionists took up two particular causes — two political causes — in whose defense they became famous: that of the monarchy in France, and that of the papacy’s temporal power. (Except over the enclave of Vatican City, the temporal power would be lost soon enough. As for the other cause, in 1900, five years before all other religious orders, the Assumptionists would be expelled from France on the grounds they were raising money to fund the royalist overthrow of the Third Republic.)
Still speaking of the Assumptionists’ love of the Church, Ven. Fr. d’Alzon referred to the harlot described in Revelation 17:3-5:
Mystery! Babylon the Great, mother of all the filthy practices on earth. Can you find a more prophetic picture of the Revolution? This is the great enemy of God and His Church. Our love for the Church will find its measure in the zeal we bring to combating the Revolution. We love the Church because she holds all the treasures of the supernatural order which are entrusted to her by her heavenly spouse and which the Revolution hates.
To be sure, Ven. Fr. d’Alzon knew that many Catholics, including priests and bishops, were perfectly ready to compromise with the Revolution, not combat it. In his day, as now, they often justified their readiness by invoking prudence. “Oh prudent men! I suspect that you feared Jesus Christ terribly foolhardy when he risked the life of the Church by dying on a cross. The martyrs were crazy, too, and the Apostles insane, when they courageously gave witness to the resurrection of Christ, during the persecution by Jews and pagans.” (Persecution by Jews? In our day the Church’s very liturgy, as on Good Friday, has been changed to pretend that never happened!)
Ven. Fr. d’Alzon also knew that those who would fight Satan by combating the Revolution and seeking the salvation of souls would be calumniated. He wished, therefore, to remind his priests that epithets hurled their way (or toward others like them) — bigot, anti-Semite, preachers of hate — would be unjust:
The zeal we should have for God’s rights and the salvation of souls is the essential expression of our charity.
Finished with the subject of their love of the Church, Ven. Fr. d’Alzon next spoke of another of his order’s missions, education. He defined it: “Education is the formation of Jesus Christ in souls.” A little later we are going to look at the success of the Assumptionists in this field. Right now we want to hear our Venerable on another matter.
Love of the Blessed Virgin inspires us with another love that is spread in the world by the cult of the Mother of God. I speak of the love of purity and chastity. From the beginning, it has been one of the outstanding traits of apostolic men, and Church historians tell us that the immediate cause of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul was the constant effort of these two apostles to form virgins in pagan Rome and even in Nero’s palace.
Now, of course, purity and chastity are so little loved they are liable to be as absent from Caesar’s palace as they were in Nero’s day, as all Americans vividly learned a few years ago. This observation, like others offered here, can discourage us. Ven. Fr. d’Alzon wished to prevent his priests from falling into such a frame of mind, so he said to them in 1868:
What sadness and discouragement come from the immense ruins brought about by the sword and torch of an Attila or Genseric! Somehow it was God who was sweeping away a rotten society in order to prepare a new one. The bishops of Gaul [the name of France when she was a province of the Roman Empire] did not mistake it. Let us have the intelligence of our forefathers. They welcomed and transformed feudal barbarism; let us welcome and transform democratic barbarism.
Continuing in this vein, our Venerable asked, “Who will be our guide?” He answered his own question: “The Pope.” Elaborating on the answer, he also foresaw that the Assumptionists could fail at some of what they would be undertaking, as when the temporal power ended and they would be expelled from France, and he wanted to preserve them from despair at that time. So he found this language:
It can be said that since Phillip the Fair, politics has consisted of a massive conspiracy against the papacy. Kings wanted no Popes; today no one wants kings. Though power is necessary, it need not be concentrated in the hands of a king…. It is evident that the democratic tide is rising every day, and it is on the verge of spilling over into revolution…. The essential is to be confident in Jesus Christ, in Mary, in the Church, and to keep working. All the rest does not matter.
After the confidence, the work was the main thing because
we do all this work on one condition: that the material charity we dispense be the means for providing spiritual alms. We tend the bodies of people so that we might have the right to penetrate as far as their souls. The few coins we place in a poor man’s hand preview the great treasures of faith that can be poured into souls that thirst after truth.
Today, as we all know, missionaries are all too prone to stop as soon as bodies are tended and never to “penetrate” any soul. To penetrate would not be “ecumenical.”
Amazingly, Ven. Fr. d’Alzon seems almost to have foreseen that such a situation could come to exist, and why. In some of the most prophetic lines he ever penned, he wrote this to priests of his order in Nimes in 1870 at the time papal infallibility was being defined at Vatican Council I:
We should not hide from ourselves the fact that after the definition of infallibility the Church will find herself in an extraordinary situation. The Pope will be like a General of a huge army, whose regiments are led by Colonels in revolt.
Today, of course, there are even leading “Traditionalists” who lament the Council’s definition of papal infallibility. (By putting “Traditionalists” in quotation marks, what we mean to signify is Catholics who expend great energy in promoting the renewed celebration of Mass according to the principal historical rite of the Church in the West, the so-called Tridentine, but show degrees of concern varying from little to virtually none for safeguarding teachings of the Church, including defined dogmas like papal infallibility and the foundational one that outside her there is no salvation.)
Having formed for ourselves a fairly clear picture of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon’s thinking by an examination of the discourse he delivered to the priests of his order at their first General Chapter, we shall now lay out the main biographical facts concerning him. Some history of the Assumptionists will be traced as we do so.
Emmanuel d’Alzon was born near the city of Nimes on August 30, 1810. His family was noble. Because he was an only son, his father was very much opposed to his entering the priesthood. Overcoming that opposition, he began his studies at the seminary in Montpelier, and then finished them in Rome, where he was ordained on December 26, 1834. When he returned to France soon after, he was named Vicar-General of the Diocese of Nimes. Though elevation to the episcopacy would be offered him several times during his life, he always declined, remaining in the position of Nimes’ Vicar-General 45 years and under four bishops.
Since it is where he spent most of his life and had his career, a few words about Nimes are in order. It is a small city in the south of France to the west of, and not very far from, Avignon. It is best known for its ancient Roman remains, notably including the maison carree that Thomas Jefferson took for his model when he designed Virginia’s capitol in Richmond.
The Church has existed in Nimes for a very long time — long enough for local tradition to identify Scripture’s man “who was blind from his birth” as the city’s first Christian. (Numerous Christians from Palestine found refuge in Gaul during the Jewish persecution. They included, most famously, St. Lazarus, who became the first Bishop of Marseilles, and his sisters Sts. Martha and Mary Magdalene.) Nimes’ cathedral, which is not among the most beautiful in France, was consecrated by Pope Urban II during the same trip to his homeland in which he proclaimed the First Crusade.
During the wars of religion in the seventeenth century, armed Protestant bands roamed the area. In the early years of the eighteenth, they emerged again, launching a small-scale guerrilla war. It was never a real threat, not even locally, to the authority of the government of King Louis XIV, but the boy Emmanuel d’Alzon was scandalized by the stories he heard about it a century later. As a boy he may not have clearly seen the Protestants as the precursors they were to the revolutionaries against whom he and his order would fight. However, the reader is already sufficiently familiar with his thought to know that by the time he founded the Assumptionists he certainly understood that the notion of men being “free” to decide for themselves what is Christian teaching would easily develop into the idea of their having a “right” to live in society as they wish, regardless of what God wants.
The young Fr. d’Alzon’s first noteworthy achievement as a priest was the establishment of the College of the Assumption, a school in Nimes for the sons of aristocratic families. That is where his order was born four years later, although its first priests would not take vows until 1850. (We have already said the Holy See’s official approval came in 1864.)
The aim of the College, in its discipline as well as curriculum, was to produce a body of laymen at the pinnacle of French society who would be — no other word will do — virile in their Catholicism. (In this respect they would mirror Ven. Fr. d’Alzon himself. Contemporary descriptions of him often speak of his “manliness” and even “manly allure.”) The spirit of the place was not merely militant, but positively military. Thus, the students wore uniforms modeled on those of the Pontifical Zouaves, the international corps of volunteer soldiers within the papal army sworn to defend the Pope in his office as Sovereign of the Papal States.
The Assumptionists would soon operate other schools quite different from the original College in Nimes. These were tuition-free schools where students from poor families could be educated for the priesthood. There were 20 of them when the order was suppressed in France in 1900. They can be seen as prefiguring the charitable and apostolic endeavors eventually organized by Ven. Fr. d’Alzon, ones he designed as a demonstration of Catholic solidarity with workingmen, too many of whom were then being lured from the practice of the Faith by socialism’s false promise of Heaven on earth.
During the 25 or so years these schools existed they produced more than 500 secular priests, and that at a time when the political and social climate could be, and sometimes was, literally deadly for clerics. (An Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy, was stood before a wall and shot by a Communist firing squad in May, 1871. Many priests were also killed in Paris that month. Most were shot. In one place, about a dozen were hacked to death by a mob that included women and children. Collectively, all these victims are known to French Catholics as the Martyrs of the Commune.)
What we need to grasp is that all during the years of which we speak, and to a very real extent even today, there were virtually two countries within the national territory of France. Toward the end of the nineteenth century they would be given names by the royalist intellectual leader and man of letters Charles Maurras. There was the pays legal (legal country), the one produced by the Revolution, and there was the pays reel (real country), the one that remained Catholic and, therefore, was mainly royalist in its politics. Division between the two countries could not be sharper. Violence between them sometimes erupted, as in Paris in 1871. Most of the time, however, they simply existed side-by-side but in isolation from each other, with the result that even as thousands might be on the kind of pilgrimage we shall soon describe, the rest of France could and did carry on as if nothing like it was happening. On occasion, the pays reel actually came into the ascendance, for at least a time. It was the case in the late 1870s when political commentators everywhere in Europe supposed that the Bourbon monarchy would be restored. It happened again in 1940, but that is a different and more complicated story. The point of our speaking of the two countries is that over against the citizens of the one, Ven. Fr. d’Alzon and the Assumptionists belonged very much to the pays reel . They did because they understood they were first of all subjects of Christ the King. The very purpose of their order, as we have seen, was to promote His reign in this world , to make it visible, to have it recognized, so that others would understand they, too, were His subjects.
To attain such an end meant having to move others to want His rule recognized, and that was an educational work. As Ven. Fr. d’Alzon told his priests in a passage of his 1868 discourse that we did not earlier quote, “I cannot desire what I do not know.”
It is to anticipate ourselves to relate it at this juncture, but the educational apostolate of the Assumptionists involved much more than running schools. Publishing was part of it. They called their publishing venture La Bonne Presse (The Good Press) and by means of it issued pamphlets, periodicals, books and newspapers.
Other religious have also been publishers, to be sure. In our own country, the Paulists began their publishing operation about the same time as did the Assumptionists in France, and in the 20th century there would be St. Maximilian Kolbe’s apostolate. There have been others. None, however, has met with the success enjoyed by the Assumptionists. At their height, two of the order’s newspapers, La Croix and Le Pelerin , had a combined circulation each Saturday of four million. The national population of France at the time was about 40 million. (By way of comparison, it would be as if every issue of the magazine now in the reader’s hands went into 18 million U.S. households. There is no American publication of any kind with that circulation, and there never has been.)
Such was the influence of the Assumptionists’ newspapers, it is no exaggeration to say that it was La Croix , together with Maurras’ Action Francaise , which shaped the views and also served as the voice of Catholic France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, a time when the division between the pays legal and pays reel was never more acute. Indeed, this is when the terms were coined. (Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, was court-martialed for espionage and sent to the penal colony on Devil’s Island in the Caribbean in 1894. After a heavily-financed and well-organized campaign on his behalf that is now usually remembered for novelist Emile Zola’s newspaper essay, J’accuse , he was pardoned and subsequently said to be “proved” innocent. A century later his case remained controversial. In 1994 the French army’s official historian was summarily dismissed from his post after suggesting in print that perhaps Dreyfus really did sell military secrets to Germany.)
If Ven. Fr. d’Alzon’s “manly allure” was bound to attract followers and associates, and it did, it must have been a God-given power of discernment that allowed him to see the gifts with which other men were endowed, for they often were deeply hidden, and his own genius that enabled him to bring forth those gifts — to draw out the best in others — and then channel them in ways that would redound to the good of the order, the Church, and, it was hoped, France and the world. Since our subject is the activities of the Assumptionists in the nineteenth century, as well as the life of their founder, it is desirable to speak of at least two other priests who rallied to the standard raised by Ven. Fr. d’Alzon and then became indispensable to the order’s successes.
One was Fr. François Picard. The other was Fr. Vincent de Paul Bailly. Both men possessed genius of their own, the first for organization, the second for words and how to make them march.
Fr. Picard, who eventually succeeded Ven. Fr. d’Alzon as head of the Assumptionists, was first dispatched by the founder to Paris to establish a headquarters of the order in the capital. From there he organized the pilgrimages that would be the chief means, in addition to their publications, by which the Assumptionists put their stamp on France at a time when the pays legal was bent on stamping out the Faith.
As for Fr. Bailly, he would have the title today of Director of Publications. La Bonne Presse was his bailiwick, and seldom in the past two centuries has the Faith been defended with a more “noble and frank intolerance” than by him. This is to the extent that today’s typical historian of nineteenth-century France, rather than consider their content in any other respect, will usually dismiss La Croix and Le Pelerin as simply and purely “anti-Semitic.”
Since we have already heard something about the work of La Bonne Presse, and will soon glance in that direction one more time, let us speak now of the pilgrimages conducted by the Assumptionists.
Nowadays, a group of Catholics will take a plane to Rome, board an air-conditioned bus, check in at a nice hotel, take a hot shower, eat an excellent meal, board the bus again, attend one of the pope’s general audiences, and call what they have done a “pilgrimage.” Of course, not every pilgrimage, not even nowadays, should be referenced with quotation marks. Very notably there is the annual Pentecost pilgrimage in France, a three-day march from the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres that involves sleeping on the ground and blisters on the feet. In recent years something similar has been attempted in upstate New York with the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville as destination. If only because they cannot be undertaken without some effort and even discomfort, these pilgrimages are closer in spirit than others to the ones led by the Assumptionists. That spirit is penitential. Pilgrims enter into it by means of fatigue and any pain they feel. The penance they do, if they are American, might be for the killing every day in this country of 4,000 preborn babies. The thousands on pilgrimage with the Assumptionists did it for the sins of liberalism and the Revolution. This is why the Assumptionists’ pilgrimages were called national. They consisted of thousands of French men and women sacrificing in expiation for ghastly sins committed in their name by the society of which they were members.
(There may not be much sense of it in a nation become so “diverse” that legally-sanctioned homosexual marriage is no longer unthinkable, but social sin exists. Indeed, it can be said that no sin is ever entirely private, no more than any crime is ever entirely “victimless.” Its effects will always touch others, it will always be in some way “social.” This is why one day there will be a general Last Judgment. Each individual soul will be weighed and rewarded or condemned at a personal Judgment, but at the Last One, the social Judgment, our sins will be revealed to everybody so that everybody will see and know what we have done to them through our misdeeds. [Doubtless one of the worst features of Hell is the unceasing cacophony produced by its inmates endlessly screeching at one another, “You led me to this place! You are to blame!”] )
Pilgrimages certainly did not begin with the Assumptionists. St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, unearthed the True Cross while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the fourth century. Pilgrimages have also always been undertaken in large measure for penitential reasons. In medieval time they even figured in what we today call the criminal justice system. That is, miscreants would atone for crimes by going on pilgrimage — an arduous one. With the coming of the Revolution, however, other dimensions of pilgrimage emerged more strongly than in the past — without the penitential side of the happening ever being lost. This is because the Revolution could be and was seen by Catholics as at once promising punishment from Heaven for its evil and as itself being a punishment for sins already committed. (In Considerations sur la France , de Maistre would describe it as both satanic and providential.) Thus, even as penance was performed by means of pilgrimage, the event also provided an occasion for large numbers of the faithful in a state of grace to offer prayers for divine mercy, to beseech God to stay His hand from inflicting further pain on the nation.
There was still one more dimension to pilgrimage. As the Revolution consolidated its power during the nineteenth century, pilgrimage in France also became a medium for social and political protest — simply by taking place. Anyone who has marched to Chartres in recent years knows this side of pilgrimage still exists.It is made most visible by all the young men — there are always many of them — carrying the banner of the Revolution — the red, white and blue Tricolor that has been France’s national flag for two centuries — but emblazoned with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
(Devotion to the Sacred Heart was never promoted by the Assumptionists or most any other religious order as it used to be by the Jesuits and Sisters of the Visitation, so it is somewhat extraneous for us to speak of it here. However, since the royalist rising of Catholic peasants in the Vendee in the 1790s, the Sacred Heart has been the insignia of the Counter-revolution in France. This is why it was inevitable that when French Catholics built their national shrine in expiation for the Revolution on the summit of Montmartre in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century it would be consecrated to the Sacred Heart. Even today, the young Frenchman who wears a Sacred Heart pin on his lapel does it in very much the spirit of an American who sticks a decal of the Confederate battle flag on the bumper of his truck. It is a protest against things as they are, and to that extent, yes, a sign of a certain nostalgia for what once was; but as that sign, it is also an expression of hope that something like what formerly was will be again. Inasmuch as some courage is required to wear the pin or sport the bumper sticker, doing either also doubtless signals a personal willingness to do ones part in bringing about that something, even if it is only by wearing the pin or showing the flag.)
The first Assumptionist pilgrimage, one led by Fr. Picard, was to La Salette in 1872. It did not go well. A pilgrimage the next year, one consisting of 5,000 men and led by Ven. Fr. d’Alzon himself, was more successful. It was a pilgrimage of about 30 kilometers from Nimes to the Shrine of Notre Dame de Rochefort. That same year, 1873, there was a still more successful pilgrimage. Fr. Picard was again the leader, and the destination was Lourdes.
The dates should be noted. These first Assumptionist pilgrimages soon followed France’s disastrous defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, a defeat that precipitated the fall of the Second Empire of Napoleon III. This was when a revolutionary government that called itself the Commune took power in Paris, murdered Archbishop Darboy, burnt the Tuileries Palace and the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), and perpetrated other horrors. It took what was left of the French Army to put down the Commune. Thousands died. Not since the Terror and its aftermath nearly eighty years before had the nation been through a worse nightmare. The time for prayer and penance — for pilgrimage — was right.
Further, the apparitions at Lourdes had taken place just fifteen years before, in 1858. The outside world certainly knew about them by 1873. Louis Veuillot had written about them. Empress Eugenie, the Spanish spouse of Napoleon III, had stopped by the famous grotto during a tour of the region. The grotto had been beautified. A statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, the one with which we are all familiar today, had existed since 1864 and was already accepted as the standard representation even though it bore no resemblance to the child of about her own age and size who appeared to the 14-year-old, diminutive St. Bernadette Soubirous. (To her dying day the saint remained irritated by the misrepresentation.) Finally, pilgrimages to Lourdes were already taking place. Still, they were not on the scale, nor had they the character they developed once they belonged, so to speak, to the Assumptionists.
The character is again different today, of course. Today, no one thinks of Lourdes in any terms except healing. It is a place where miraculous cures happen. They happened; there was also healing in the time of the Assumptionists: healing and care, care of a kind that is one of the incredible and nearly unimaginable features of the Catholicism practiced by the nineteenth-century Assumptionists and others, when that Catholicism is compared to what exists today. To understand the meaning of this care, words of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon which we have already quoted ask to be recalled: “We tend to bodies of people so that we might have the right to penetrate as far as their souls.” They are words that imply mutual obligation, do they not? They say, in effect: “I do this for you — I am bound to do this for you — so that you will allow me to do something more.”
They also imply something else, and it is what is missing today: hierarchy and the acceptance of it as natural.
If I do this for you, it is because I am in a position to so do. Further, inasmuch as I am in the position I am, it is my duty to do this for you, lest I be unworthy of my position. Your duty is to accept what I do. If you do not, or if you accept with ill grace or ingratitude, the failure is yours, not mine.
(The failure would lie in not seizing on the opportunity to practice Christian humility.)
The mutual obligation we are here talking about, this obligation of someone in a position to assist to do so, and the obligation of someone not in a position to help himself to accept the assistance offered, was at the heart of what used to be called noblesse oblige , nobility obliges. The obligation referred to was not, as is often fancied in our egalitarian age, that of a social inferior to perform services for a noble. It was the obligation of the noble to perform services for persons lower in the social hierarchy than himself. The willingness to perform the services, and then actually to perform them — i.e., to fulfill the obligation that was his by birth — is exactly (apart from birth) what rendered him noble, and entitled him to his privileges, even if (by birth) he was a bastard. (Think of Don Juan of Austria, natural son of Emperor Charles V, who performed the service for all Christendom of commanding the victorious forces at Lepanto.) Of course there were nobles who failed, who lived as if nobility did not oblige, but they were far fewer than two centuries of democratic propaganda would have us believe. In our own history or, more precisely, the history of the American South, the principle of noblesse oblige was embodied by the Master’s wife who wore herself out tending all night to the ills of sick slave children or seeing to it, if the Master’s family was Catholic, that the same children knew their catechism. On the Assumptionists’ pilgrimages to Lourdes, it was embodied by ladies of the French aristocracy and upper middle class, summoned first by Ven. Fr. d’Alzon and then by his successor, Fr. Picard, tending to the sick or infirm poor and who thereby were seeing to it that no one’s catechism — especially its lessons on charity — was forgotten.
The ladies doing this charitable work constituted a body, the Association of Notre Dame de Salut (Association of Our Lady of Salvation). They took their name from a legendary statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary believed to have been sculpted at the behest of King St. Louis IX for installation in the crypt of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Presiding over the Association at its inception, and typifying the members, was Madame de la Rochefoucauld, Duchesse d’Estissac. Known affectionately as “la bonne Duchesse” (the good Duchess) by the countless orphans, sick and poor whom she helped financially or for whom she personally cared at a hospital she funded, her devotion to the Immaculate Conception was such that she built a replica of the Lourdes grotto in the park of her chateau near Orleans.
The ladies of the Association worked alongside the Little Sisters of the Assumption, a congregation of female religious within the Assumption family that was co-founded in 1865, on Ven. Fr. d’Alzon’s inspiration, by Fr. Etienne Pernet and Mother Marie de Jesus (Antoinette Fage), the crippled daughter of a seamstress who was abandoned by her husband. “Worked alongside,” we say, but worked at what? In terms of the national pilgrimage to Lourdes, what we are talking about is trains, trains bearing pilgrims from all corners of France, thousands of pilgrims, and among them hundreds of sick and dying men and women, and assisting these malades , giving them medication, washing them, dressing their sores, praying with them, were the ladies of the Association and the Little Sisters. Assisting the women at some tasks, especially lifting and hauling, were some of the Assumptionist priests and also laymen, Brothers of the Association of Notre Dame de Salut.
What numbers were involved? The first contingent of malades , a group of about 50, joined the Lourdes pilgrimage in 1875. Two years later there were 366 malades out of 1,200 pilgrims. By 1880 there were seven trains bearing 4,500 pilgrims and 700 malades .
Perhaps these figures may seem slight if compared to the numbers that can be carried by fleets of modern jumbo jets, but moving 5,000 persons in several trains across 1870s France in a trip that lasted a week for some was a logistical triumph. Besides, as the pilgrimages continued so did the numbers grow — right up to the Assumptionists’ expulsion from the country. In addition, the order began publication of Le Pelerin (The Pilgrim ) at this time. It chronicled Lourdes and other pilgrimages organized by the Assumptionists, including those to Jerusalem, so that the spirit of these undertakings was communicated to hundreds of thousands who would themselves never be able to travel anywhere.
Here are a few lines from one report in Le Pelerin (the month was August, and air-conditioning did not exist):
The heat was overpowering. Almost all the carriages contained patients who were unconscious, while around them prayed their fellow travelers, who had become their relatives and friends. Everyone suffered.
Here are a few more lines (they are from a report of a train stopping in Orleans to take on sick and dying passengers):
The charity of the pilgrims intensified their devotion and tact. At the porters’ cry of ‘Make way for the sick,’ the most zealous gave way with fervent respect. Lay persons worked with priests to alleviate the suffering of the sick, society hostesses carried stretchers like the merest working women, railway employees of every status and rank joined with the directors of the Charity to prepare the train, carry the poor invalids and place them in the carriages.
There was more. The work of the Assumptionists and of the Association of Notre Dame de Salut and of the Brothers of the Association did not stop with pilgrimages. By the time of the order’s expulsion in 1900, chapters of the Association existed in 80 French dioceses. Ladies and gentlemen of the chapters sponsored Catholic schools, Catholic workers’ aid societies, vocational training for youth and still other social programs, all designed by Ven. Fr. d’Alzon and then superintended by Fr. Picard so that some of France’s poorest citizens would be brought into direct contact with many of French society’s most privileged members, so that the privileged could assist the poor, so that the poor could benefit (not least of all from the example being set), and all of it, as we have heard our Venerable say, for “the conquest of souls ransomed by Our Lord and yet immersed in error and sin.”
It was a tremendous record of practical achievement, a record that is virtually unknown today, and one we would trace further if space allowed, and if only to honor the early Assumptionists and their founder as they merit. As it is, we are going to be able barely to mention, before our conclusion, one more very important work of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon and the Assumptionists. This was their missionary work.
In 1863, Blessed Pope Pius IX sent our Venerable to Constantinople, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The empire was Mohammedan, but within its borders lived millions of Orthodox Christians and Eastern-rite Catholics. Our Venerable’s assignment from the pope: to found Assumptionist missions to bring succor to Eastern Catholics and for the conversion of the schismatic Orthodox.
It was but one sign, but a telling one, of these missions’ success that within a few years there would be public processions of the Blessed Sacrament, guarded by Turkish soldiers, through the streets of the Ottoman capital. By the turn of the century, there were 300 Assumptionist priests and brothers and 400 sisters (Oblates of the Assumption) at work in Turkey proper, in Bulgaria and elsewhere in the empire. Apart from their 22 churches, they ran schools, hospitals, orphanages. In Jerusalem they had a Hostelry of Our Lady of France to accommodate pilgrims. It was the location in 1893 of an international Eucharistic Conference.
It all began in 1847 in Nimes with Ven. Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon, and 122 years after his death not a great deal of it remains. Certainly our Venerable’s vision hardly does, hardly among today’s Assumptionists (of whom there are about 1,000, with 70 in the U.S.), and hardly in the Church as a whole. This brings us to our conclusion.
There are two points to which we earlier said we would return. One has to do with the overthrow, starting two centuries ago, of Christian social order. It is certainly true that Satan is powerless to overthrow the Throne of Jesus Christ Himself in Heaven. However, he has been highly successful at dethroning Him in the minds of men. This is to the degree that if we speak of Christ as the King of Society to very many Catholics, including “Traditionalist” ones, they will answer, “But His kingdom is not of this world.” Evidently they do not see that if He rules over nothing but Heaven, He simply is not God. Having His rights as King of Society recognized should be as imperative for Catholics today as it ever was for Ven. Fr. d’Alzon.
As for the other point, we touched on it when we observed that it was really not a very long time ago that Ven. Fr. d’Alzon lived and worked. This is important for us to realize because Catholics who cling to Tradition are forever being told that “you cannot turn back the clock.” Apart from the fact that accepting this dictum makes us slaves to the passage of time, as if men were not free to reach out and adjust the hands of any clock, this one ought to be seen in correct perspective. We ought to see it as representing the past 2,000 years. If we do, it should be obvious to us that our own day, that these past two centuries and especially the last 50 years, are an aberration; that when Ven. Fr. d’Alzon spoke as he did at his order’s first General Chapter, it was with the voice of the Church as she has existed during all the rest of Christian history. If we see that, we should know that all the adjustment of “the clock” that is needed amounts to no more than a couple of minutes.
“What goes in is what comes out,” we say of computer software, and also of the knowledge of the men who design the programs. Sometimes we abbreviate the idea: “Garbage in, garbage out.”
Before computers, writers were familiar with the principle that is evoked by these sayings. It is why their chief occupation, when they are not writing, is reading. How would they know what to say, or how to say it, if they did not read? Life, even lived to the hilt, can provide only so much experience. To rely on nothing but one’s experience will guarantee a short writing career, or a career spent repeating oneself.
It is much the same with priests and religious. To be sure, they receive special graces at ordination or when they take their vows, and there are those who could never be called “intellectual” and yet are very good or even great at what they do. The Cure d’Ars immediately comes to mind.
Still, all of us today are all to familiar with priests whose experience of life is shallow to begin with, and then who read nothing after a very poor formation in what has passed as seminary training these last several decades. Give them a pulpit and they will talk about a television show or movie they saw during the past week. That’s what they know: how Bruce Willis handled the issue of race in Hart’s War or how we see good versus evil in Lord of the Rings . A grown man struggling with a problem of conscience would never look to one of these priests for guidance in the confessional. He might as well talk about the problem with his teenage son.
Ven. Fr. d’Alzon was extremely aware of the importance of learning to a priest, which is to say he knew what would result, in most cases, if a priest fails to take the time to keep learning. That priest will be good for nothing beyond confecting the sacraments. Accordingly, when he told the members of his order — men who would be very busy running schools, publishing newspapers, conducting pilgrimages that amounted to mass political demonstrations and otherwise combating the Revolution — that “I cannot desire what I do not know,” he went on to say, “To be loved, Jesus Christ must be known. We must study him.”
If Ven. Fr. d’Alzon were writing today, he might italicize the word, if only because there is now so much less of the activity it signifies, at least among adults, than there was in 1868. But where study Him?
Where else but in books? Ven. Fr. d’Alzon said it should be “especially in the inspired books,” by which he meant the books of the New Testament, but these were not the only ones. He named some others specifically. Seeing as how the priests to whom he named them were officially Augustinians of the Assumption, it should not surprise us that the ones he prescribed were all by that greatest of the Fathers and, some say, of the Doctors. They were: On the Trinity ; Against the Academicians ; On Free Will ; Letter to Volusian ; and Letter to Dioscorus .
Now, priests and religious are not the only Catholics who should read and study. So should laymen. It is how they may come to know Christ, and thereby love Him. Listening to tapes while driving to work is fine, but is no substitute for spending time every day with a book, spending enough time to finish the book eventually, taking some notes as you read, and then reviewing the notes so that if someone asked you questions about the book or its subject, you can answer them. This is what a student — one who studies — does. It is what all of us did when we were students, and in today’s world all of us were at some point in our lives.
Why did we stop being students at age 18 or 22 or 25 or whenever it was we left high school or college? There are usually two excuses. We say either that our “responsibilities” do not allow us the time for study or reading, or we fear doing it on our own — doing it without direction or guidance, lest we fall into error.
The latter is no excuse at all. It is crazy for someone to fear falling into error or being misled if he reads the truths in St. Augustine when he thinks nothing of exposing himself to the lies of the New York Times , Washington Post or CNN. Besides, study circles exist, or one can be formed. Men and women reading a great book together will not simply reassure anyone who fears solitary study, it can help ensure that the book will be read to the end.
As for time, quite a lot can be saved for study if less is spent on the New York Times , Washington Post or CNN, if you have that vice. We can also try getting up a bit earlier in the morning — a half-hour or even fifteen minutes — preferably before anybody else, if we have a family. (Studying at the end of the day when the kids are finally in bed can be problematical. On the one hand, fatigue militates against good study. On the other, grappling with, say, St. Augustine’s On Free Will can militate against getting to sleep. Besides, some part of the day needs to be spent with the spouse.)
But, yes, actually managing to read in their entirety the five books Ven. Fr. d’Alzon recommended to his priests can be hard to do. Fortunately, alternatives exist. Try finding, for example, a copy of The Political Writings of St. Augustine , edited by Henry Paolucci and with an interpretive analysis by Dino Bigongiari. It was brought out by Henry Regnery in a Gateway Edition in 1962. Professor Bigongiari, a medievalist who taught at Columbia University, also edited a book, The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas , that was published by Hafner in 1953. Comparing the ideas of Augustine and Thomas will be worth anyone’s time. The point is that these books are not about their ideas. Rather, they consist of extensive extracts from the writings of the two Doctors and that is what is wanted: getting giants like them under our belt. If Ven. Fr. d’Alzon thought it was desirable, anybody wishing to be serious about leading a Catholic life, let alone hoping to help others do the same, would be foolish to think otherwise.
The best stuff in, good stuff out.
Ven. Fr. d’Alzon’s Cause
The cause for the beatification of the Servant of God Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon was opened in 1931 after the Church declared him to be among her venerabili . This was during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI, the supreme pontiff who was author of Quas Primas , on the Kingship of Christ, probably the most widely ignored of all major modern papal encyclicals.
That the cause of Our Lord’s social Kingship now languishes as it does suggests that the cause for the beatification of one of that Kingship’s most notable nineteenth-century apostles probably will not be advancing very far anytime soon. The liberalism prevailing in our egalitarian age would seem to preclude it. Of course, surprises occur: Who would have foreseen that a quarter-century after General Franco’s death there would be the beatification last year of the Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, including very many known Carlists? Then there was the earlier beatification of Fr. Miguel Pro, a development that was not without political significance in Mexico. On the other hand, the elevation to the Church’s altars of Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary that supposedly was to take place a few years ago did not, and who can say when it will, though his cause has surely been one of the best organized and widely supported of any in recent decades? That of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon seems to have nobody behind it except the Assumptionists, and probably not all of them, or not all of them in an enthusiastic way.
There may be some who have never heard of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon before now, but who would now care to add their prayers for his beatification to whatever others are lifted Heavenward. To be sure, there are reasons to pray for a Servant of God besides his beatification. Apart from favors we hope to obtain through his intercession, the Servant of God may have qualities we lack, or lack to his degree and may seek through prayer. For anyone attempting to do any kind of apostolic work, or simply wishing to be more than lukewarm, this prayer for Ven. Fr. d’Alzon’s beatification would seem to recommend itself:
Father in Heaven, we thank you for giving Emmanuel d’Alzon a fiery love for Jesus Christ and His loves — Mary, His Mother and the Church, His Spouse. As father of the family of the Assumption, he engaged legions of apostles, religious and lay, all dedicated to the coming of the Kingdom. Inspired by his example, we ask for his gift of an ardent love and tireless zeal. Glorify your Servant and extend your Reign by granting us, through his intercession, the favors we now ask, to confirm the Church’s recognition of his holiness. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Anyone who obtains a favor through the intercession of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon should notify:
512 Salisbury St.
Worcester, MA 01609