The seventeenth-century reconstruction of the French church after its devastation during the Wars of Religion has often been compared to the proverbial rise of the phoenix from the ashes. Next to the crown and the bishops, the protagonists of the religious dynamism of the grand siècle were the congregations of secular clergy among which Vincent de Paul’s Congrégation de la Mission is arguably the most striking and successful example. Alison Forrestal’s excellent new study contextualizes Vincent de Paul’s trajectory from unknown, benefice-hunting priest to member of the highest-ranking royal council responsible for the appointment of French bishops towards the end of his life. Exploring a wealth of regional archives next to those of the Congrégation de la Mission, she is the first to deliver a critical historical study of Vincent de Paul and the Lazarists outside hagiographic parameters and which is fully embedded in the current historiographical horizon of the debate on Catholic Reform and French social and political history. The arch of the book is chronological, but as she follows Vincent de Paul’s career, she thematically tracks the Salesian and Ignatian underpinnings of his spirituality as well as the strategic turning points that marked the institutional anchoring, establishment and diversification of the missionary project. What emerges is a portrait of a man of extraordinary resolve, pragmatism and organizational capacity. Although de Paul initially tapped into the lay activism of the dévot, often ex-Ligueurs, circles, he managed to transcend this background and to secure wider political and financial support for his projects. The congregation’s aim was ‘mission’ to the rural areas to reduce and combat Protestantism by bringing frequent confession to every last peasant parish. To do so, Vincent de Paul did not found a new religious order as others had done in the sixteenth century, but a congregation of secular priests. The anti-Protestant agenda was pushed forward not by grand theology and controversialist debate, so characteristic of the more flamboyant Jesuits for example, but with an ostensibly humble demeanour and with a pastoral focus that combined hands-on charity with clerical formation, preaching, catechesis and taking confession. De Paul’s capacity to skirt any engagement in theological controversy remains stunning, given that the nature of the sacrament of penance and the practice of confession was such a highly charged and controversial matter throughout the seventeenth century, especially in France. And yet, de Paul’s soft-spoken and anti-polemical stance started to erode at the end of his life. When the Jansenist controversy emerged, he felt compelled to speak out against the elitism of the new spiritual movement, which, in denouncing frequent confession, targeted the backbone of his ministry. There cannot be any doubt, however, that the generally anti-controversial and unacademic stance that he managed to uphold across the growing membership of the Lazarist congregation and its many supporting satellites of confraternities and charitable organizations, made his project supremely congenial to the needs of the French monarchy engaged in reaffirming its political and religious foundations. As Forrestal shows, this convergence of interests was exemplarily displayed in the 1640s, when the Lazarists were officially put in charge of ministering to the Catholic minority in the frontier area of Sedan with its overwhelmingly Protestant population. The spiritual and political re-conquest of these areas should rely not on aggressive proselytism and confessional confrontation but on pacification and reconciliation. On de Paul’s instruction, the members of the congregation were therefore embarked into supporting the royal strategy of seduction and persuasion, and their involvement was visible as they spearheaded the civil ceremonies of taking vows of fidelity in Sedan. In return, the Lazarists were rewarded with substantial royal patronage. The congregation’s strength and growth, however, did not exclusively rely on the royal and episcopal support; another pillar was de Paul’s capacity to interlock and cooperate with the religious active laity in the many confraternities across the kingdom and in particular with female activists like the Daughters of Charity. These alliances went beyond the merely strategic and it is interesting to see how highly de Paul valued their contribution as a ‘spiritual motherhood’, considering even that women should be worthy of becoming deaconesses and teachers in the church. Forrestal’s exemplary study closes with an appendix of tables that detail the establishment of the Lazarist houses along with their endowment and patrons, Lazarist mission activities and donations to Lazarist works. They are a vivid illustration of de Paul’s spiritual entrepreneurship and of the material and social foundations on which the Lazarists’ lasting influence on the re-shaping of French Catholicism rested. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
French History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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