Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon: ‘A Noble and Frank Intolerance’

Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon first caught my attention when I came upon the following paragraph from an address he gave to his religious congregation.

“We love Christ with the same kind of love as the early Christians because He still faces the same kind of enemies that he faced then. We love Him with the love that made the Apostles say ‘if anyone does not love Jesus Christ, let him be cursed.’ 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.”

Not a milquetoast, that French preacher! I was hooked.

His Formation

Emmanuel d’Alzon was born August 30, 1810, in Vigan (Southern France). He was of the nobility, his mother and father being a Viscount and Viscountess. In 1832, he entered the seminary of Montpellier. Dom Prosper Guéranger tried to attract the young cleric to his Benedictine monastery at Solesmes, but the invitation was politely rejected. Emmanuel opted instead to finish his studies preparatory to ordination at the Gregorian in Rome, where he quickly became disenchanted and felt he was wasting his time. He stayed in the Eternal City, taking private instruction from Rome’s most gifted professors, including the Rector of the English College, the future Cardinal Wiseman. Ordained a priest on December 26, 1834, he offered his first Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on St. Peter’s tomb the next day. In 1835, he joined the diocese of Nimes, France, and only two years later was made its Vicar General. This position he kept for 45 years under four bishops. Also in 1835, he founded “The Refuge,” a charitable work for wayward girls. In giving his permission for this new apostolate, Bishop Chaffoy ironically paid tribute to his Vicar General’s greatness: “Go ahead my son,” he said, “all founders are fools, and you have all the earmarks.”

The Educational Apostolate

As a young priest, Fr. d’Alzon became a much sought after confessor and spiritual director, spending many hours each day in the confessional, beginning right after his five o’clock morning Mass. In 1843, he and a priest-friend named Fr. Goubier purchased Assumption College in Nimes. While this was not the beginning of Father d’Alzon’s educational apostolate — he had already been instructing youth in various capacities — it marks his entry into formal education, which would become one of the works of zeal for which he and his congregation became most noted.

The year after the purchase of the college — 1844 — he made a vow to found a religious congregation which would “help Jesus continue his mystical incarnation in the Church and in each of the members of the Church.” Bishop Cart gave permission in 1845 for him to begin a novitiate with his first companions. They numbered six.

The Augustinians of the Assumption

In 1850, just after Christmas Matins, the first Assumptionists made public vows before the students and faculty assembled in the college chapel. (The full name of the congregation is the Augustinians of the Assumption, since they took the Rule of the great Doctor of Hippo as the basis of their religious life.) In addition to the regular vows, Father Emmanuel added a fourth (private) vow to dedicate himself to the education of youth and the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. The congregation was formally approved by Rome in 1864, by which time it had twenty four members in final vows. The next year, Fr. d’Alzon founded the Oblates of the Assumption, a congregation of women who would prove invaluable collaborators with the Assumptionists in some of their missions, particularly those in Bulgaria. The years 1869-70 saw Fr. d’Alzon active in the work of the First Vatican Council, which he attended as the theologian for Bishop Plantier. He worked with Cardinal Pie, Cardinal Manning, and others in preparing the decree on papal infallibility. The only session of the Council he actually attended was that wherein the Council fathers overwhelmingly approved that dogma. That mission accomplished, he left Rome the same day.

Apostolate of the Press

The year 1871 witnessed Fr. d’Alzon opening his first “Alumnate,” a tuition-free seminary for poor boys, which he saw as a solution to the shortage of priests. In twenty-five years these alumnates gave more than five hundred priests to the secular clergy alone, in addition to those who joined religious orders. The following years saw him active in three journalistic efforts. The first venture was the Christian Education Review , which had as its purpose to unshackle Catholic education from the tyranny of the Liberal state. The second, begun in 1877, was a weekly magazine called Le Pelerin (The Pilgrim), chronicling their extensive apostolate of organizing penitential pilgrimages across France, especially to Lourdes. Third, early in 1880 the fledgling congregation began publishing a daily newspaper, La Croix (“The Cross”). The name and the crucifix colophon on each issue were a reaction to the contemporary anti-religious atmosphere of France, where the use of crucifixes in classrooms and even on gravestones was forbidden. The paper, which still exists, was begun as a work to defend the rights of the Church, especially in the field of education. Until his health failed, Father Emmanuel had a column in each of this paper’s daily issues. Both Le Pelerin and La Croix were under the capable editorship of Father Vincent de Paul Bailly, a man who lived the Assumptionist ideal beautifully and whose cause for beatification is pending.

La Croix’s fight for the liberty of the Church was an uphill battle, one that exhausted the last months of the venerable founder’s life. Fr. d’Alzon could see that his congregation would soon be expelled from France. He therefore began making preparations to disperse his religious to Spain and England. The year was 1880, his last in this vale of tears, yet it still witnessed his tending to the spiritual formation of his novices, feverishly working in the apostolate of the press, and fighting like mad for the future of his congregation. On November 21, Fr. d’Alzon went to his reward, surrounded by his brethren, and dying in the most edifying of dispositions. At the time of his death, the Assumptionists had some eighty five perpetually professed members.

The Triple Love”

Part of the Assumptionist vocabulary of devotion is the “Triple Love,” an idea the founder first heard from his spiritual daughter, Blessed Marie-Eugenie of Jesus , the foundress of the Religious of the Assumption. The Triple Love is the love of Our Lord and all that He loves — first Our Lady, then the Church. “The spirit of our Congregation,” he says, “can be expressed very briefly as: love of Our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, His Mother, and of the Church, His Bride.”

Here is Fr. d’Alzon on the love of Our Lady: “If Mary is my model, she is also my mother, for she adopted me on Calvary, at the foot of the Cross. She accepted me as her child, when, so to speak, she was still drenched with the blood of Jesus which was poured forth for me. And in spite of the revulsion she must have had for me, since it was for my sins that her Son died. From now on I am her child. … What a debt of tenderness and gratitude do I not owe her?”

His love for the Church was based on the Scriptural doctrine that all Jesus did was for the Church and that, by the will of God, the Church is the conduit through which His children receive supernatural life. He saw the antithesis of the Church in “The Revolution” (with a capital “R”), a personification of all those elements that oppose the Church, as embodied in the Masonic French Revolution.

Regarding the Church and the Revolution, Venerable Emmanuel said this: “Everything has been done for the elect, who subsist only in the Church… We love the Church because she holds all the treasures of the supernatural order which were entrusted to her by her Heavenly Spouse and which the Revolution hates….” “The Church,” he says in another place, “is what is dearest to God, for God can love nothing more than he loves his Church. The more I will see the Church being persecuted, the dearer she will be to me. Her humiliations will bring me sorrow, to be sure, but at the same time they will be the strongest motive to surround her, on earth and as my weakness allows, with all possible glory.”

His Fortitude

Father d’Alzon, besides being an edifying model of charity, was also a sterling exemplar of a virtue very much needed today: fortitude. The man exuded Christian manliness. Look at his picture: that determined face was not just a pose. Christian courage was a subject he both lived and wrote of with an arresting vigor, as in this passage:

“My third piece of advice” he says in an address to his religious, “is that you slough off a certain prudence, which is often the refuge of shameful laziness. ‘Prudent’ sometimes means faint-hearted. Now more than ever is the time to repeat Bossuet’s saying, ‘Faith is daring.’ Let us have the boldness of faith, even though some might call it foolhardiness. Real prudence is the queen of the moral virtues; and a queen commands, acts, and, if necessary, fights. Some have transformed prudence into a frightened old woman. Such prudence is in bed slippers and a dressing-gown, with a cold, coughing a lot. Conventional prudence, I do not want. You must not heed such prudence. As far as I am concerned, I always want to trust madly in God’s Providence, even though, abandoned by all, I end up dying in a hospital.”

Unrequited Charity

Saint Paul told the ungrateful Corinthians, “But I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls; although loving you more, I be loved less” (2 Cor. 12:15). Such a spirit of loving service amid ingratitude was a mark of Venerable Emmanuel’s work. In 1900, the Assumptionists were given a great cross and a great distinction: They were expelled from France by the Masonic Third Republic. This was a full five years before the expulsion of the rest of the nation’s religious Orders.

Not surprisingly, Father d’Alzon is still hated by the enemies of the Church in France and elsewhere. Secularists who would marginalize the Church’s influence on society routinely vilify him, as they do other courageous priests of character. David I. Kertzer’s 2001 book, The Pope Against the Jews , recklessly attacked the entire Assumptionist congregation: “It was the lower clergy that played the leading role in the development of the modern French anti-Semitic movement and among the priests involved by far the most influential was the small religious order of the Assumptionist Fathers.” A Google book search reveals numerous such passages from the pages of anti-Christian screeds.

So, the Assumptionist “Triple Love” had its price. But, as with the Great Lover Himself, the Assumptionists proved their true charity with their blood. In 1952, a Communist kangaroo court found three Augustinians of the Assumption guilty of crimes against the state for laboring to reunite Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Christians with Rome. Fathers Kamen Vitchev, Pavel Djidjov and Josaphat Chichkov were shot by a firing squad at Sophia, Bulgaria, during the night of November 11-12, 1952. These triple martyrs who testified to their “Triple Love” were beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 26, 2002.

God be praised for their “noble and frank intolerance”!

There is little available in English concerning our subject, and very little on the web. To learn more about Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon, the reader is referred to the article by Mr. Gary Potter, Thy Kingdom Come. Brother André Marie gave a talk on him entitled “The Intolerant Lover.”