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Home VIRTUAL LIBRARY VIRTUAL LIBRARY The Assumptionists. From Past to Present

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The Assumptionists
From Past to Present

By Lucien Guissard, A.A.


Bayard Publications

 

 

 Front Cover photographs (clockwise)

Emmanuel D’Alzon (1810-1880), Founder of the Assumptionists Assumptionist candidates, Mexico City Icon of Christ Pantocrator Sinai, 6th century Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Bayard Publications

For additional information about the Assumptionists contact Fr. John Franck, AA at (508) 767-7517 or visit the website:

www.assumption.us

© Copyright 2002 Bayard Publications. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission of the publisher. Write to the Permissions Editor.

ISBN: 1-58595-207-9

Printed in the U.S.A.

 

 

Table of Contents

Preface.......................................................................... 1

A Note on the English Edition....................................... 3

Introduction.................................................................. 5

Part One: Emmanuel d’Alzon, the Founder

1.    Christmas 1850...................................................... 9

2.    The Kingdom or the Novelty................................ 15

3.    The Time To Do Battle........................................... 18

Part Two: Sons and Their Heritage

1.    The Location. A Turning Point: 1923................... 28

2.    A Law. The Life of the Rule.................................... 34

3.    A Spirit. The Assumptionist Spirit....................... 37

4.    An Identity. The Rule of Life.................................. 39

5.    “Tell Us About Yourselves!”................................. 43

6.    “What Do You Do?”............................................... 57

Part Three: Areas of Ministry

1.    Teaching and Education........................................ 64

2.    A Case Study: the Alumnates............................... 71

3.    A Great Plan: the Unity of Christians.................. 78

4.    Reaching Out to the Faithful:

Our Lady of Salvation, Pilgrimages..................... 97

5.    A Catholic Publication Center............................... 104

6.    The Intellectual Life................................................ 114

7.    From One Continent to Another.......................... 131

8.    The Congregations of the Assumption................ 146

By Way of a Conclusion: The Test of Fidelity............... 149

Bibliography.................................................................. 162

Appendix....................................................................... 164

Notes............................................................................. 167

 

 

Preface

Memoirs are usually written at a ripe old age. An institute writes its history after a long time in existence.

Some observers of the Church and of religious life would say that they are both in decline. If the Assumptionists wish to write their history, it is not in this spirit. So, why even bother to do so? Is it to learn from the lessons of the past? Is it an attempt to discern the interventions of the Spirit in what has taken place? Or is it to rediscover and rekindle the “myths” that gave birth and life to the community and that still give it meaning and a “raison d’être”? Is it an attempt to shed light on its future path? In fact, wasn’t this all Israel’s intention in writing the book of Genesis?

The Assumptionist congregation has never been particularly tempted to write its own history. In the past, there were a few attempts, but these dealt specifically with the origins or with specific aspects of the life of this religious family.

This current effort starts with the origins and goes right up to the present day. It does relate facts and, yet, it is more than just a compilation or a chronicle. In attempting to clarify events and to engage the reader it takes its cue from the best classical histories. For example, by recounting the evolution of the Rule of Life, it reveals the charism of the Institute. The author’s intention is brought out clearly in the last chapter, “The test of fidelity,” in which he alludes to a new vitality manifested at the last General Chapter of the Congregation in May of 1999.

Father Lucien Guissard, a journalist, a literary critic, and the former editor-in-chief of La Croix, has presented a book remarkable for its style, deep analysis and rich content. He helps us to appreciate Assumptionists’ contribution to the life of the Church and to the culture of our various nations. We wish to express our gratitude for this lucid presentation of the past, which for his brothers sheds light on the way ahead.

Richard Lamoureux, A.A.

Superior General

August 28, 1999

 

 

A Note on the English Edition

In order to mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of our founding in 1850 by the Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon, the Assumptionists foresaw a short history of the congregation. Fr. Lucien Guissard accepted the challenge and has provided the present version. It was a daunting challenge that required serious research, sensitivity to significant events and influential individuals, a deep appreciation of the charism of the Congregation, and a great deal of discipline. Given 150 years of history, given the Congregation’s presence in so many countries over this century and a half, given the variety of motives which characterize individuals, and given the complexity of events both within the Church and in society in general, readers owe Fr. Guissard a debt of gratitude for his willingness to engage in this enterprise.

The translation of his text was not always easy, nor is it slavishly faithful to the original. Since the purpose of this history was to give our friends and co-workers further insight into our mission and identity by understanding our origins and development, those involved in the translation of Fr. Guissard’s text did not consider it a betrayal to adapt it in part for the sake of clarity and readability. Fr. Joseph Fredette, A.A. furnished an original translation that tried to remain as faithful as possible to the original. Subsequently Fr. Aidan Furlong, A.A. and Fr. John Franck, A.A. massaged the text into a more flexible, lively edition, hopefully not at the expense of accuracy.

The translators have also taken the liberty to correct a few historical inaccuracies and to add editorial notes either to explain certain references in the French text which required clarification or to expand on certain events, individuals, or items of historical interest to the English-speaking world for whom the translation is intended.

Finally, the translators would like to express their profound appreciation to Sr. Andrea Walsh, S.N.D. de Namur, the provincial secretary, who typed multiple drafts of the translation, had to decipher various styles of penmanship, and displayed extraordinary patience, competence, and humor.

Translation Team

Fr. Joseph Fredette, A.A.

Fr. Aidan Furlong, A.A.

Fr. John Franck, A.A.

December 25, 2000

 

 

Introduction

On Christmas Day 1850 Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon pronounced his religious vows with four of his friends in the chapel of the College of the Assumption at Nîmes (Gard). The novitiate had been inaugurated as early as 1845. A new congregation had been founded: the Augustinians of the Assumption, also known as the Religious of the Assumption and commonly called the Assumptionists.

A variety of initiatives have been selected for the celebration of the Assumptionist 150th anniversary to be held in the year 2000. Among these we find a “brief history” of the Congregation from its origin to the present day. This work has been written at the request of the author’s Superiors. They wanted a book that would not be lengthy so as not to discourage the reader. This request, a very legitimate one, can also create problems. We are dealing with a century and a half of history in French and international settings with a multiplicity of world events. But at the same time those years saw a multiplicity of apostolic activities take place in many countries and a great mobility on the part of religious communities.

I do not intend to be a slave to a chronological order or disorder of names, facts, and changes. A detailed chronology in itself would have been too long.

It is hoped that the reader will grasp and accept the method and the plan adopted here. They are based on two principles: first, to bring out the dominant factors that give to the Congregation its specific historical character by linking it to the charism of the foundation: second, to elucidate the most important apostolic undertakings (the forms of ministry) of the Assumptionists by narrating their evolution one by one. At least this plan will ensure clarity.

The narrator is not a professional historian. It was simply a question of gathering, organizing, and illustrating a life, that of a group called a Congregation, and of a specific group, the Assumptionists. Concerning the distant past, there are many official documents as well as the writings of professional historians which I have used as source materials.  For the more recent period, I have been able to use both texts and narratives from religious who were personally involved in these kinds of ministry.  I have also made us of my own memory, which is that of an elder who has been interested in the internal life of my spiritual family over a period of many years.

I wish to thank some of the witnesses.  Since it would not be feasible to name everyone, let me mention Fr. Jean-Paul Périer-Muzet, archivist of the Congregation in Rome, who gave me information quickly and precisely, and Fr. Noël Bugnard, archivist of the province of France in Paris, who allowed me to profit from his personal knowledge and an abundant documentation.

It was agreed that this little book would be written primarily for outsiders who did not know or who had only a fragmentary knowledge of the Assumptionists, for young people who contacted us in one way or another to evaluate their future calling in life or who already felt called to our way of life, and for lay people who are our friends and who share our apostolic responsibilities and would desire to go beyond a summarized version that they now have of the Congregation.

This will help you understand undoubtedly the personal tone taken at times in this overview.  It seems that a book of this caliber does not exclude the visible presence of its author since the many years lived as an Assumptionist have justified a certain direct approach, while keeping a certain distance.  This is only my way of expressing as an Assumptionist my attachment and my gratitude for all that I owe to the family of the sons of Emmanuel d’Alzon and the disciples of Saint Augustine.

Lucien Guissard

January 1999

 

 

PART ONE

Emmanuel d’Alzon:

The Founder

 

 

1

Christmas 1850

At the time our story begins, the French Revolution had taken place; human rights and the rights of citizens had been proclaimed. French opinion was divided between the partisans of the new regime and those with nostalgia for the past regime, among the realists who accepted the present situation, the optimists who hoped for a better future, and all the others.

In 1802, Chateaubriand published Le génie du christianisme, ou beauté de la religion. “I wanted to create a big stir,” he said. In fact, his book did have quite an effect. Many Catholics received it as a clear sign of renewal. Louis de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre campaigned in favor of the monarchy. Different schools of socialism promised to change the bourgeois and liberal society. In 1848, Marx published his Manifesto of the Communist Party, soon to be followed by Das Kapital (1867). Alphonse de Lamartine, a poet, brandished the blue, white, and red of the French flag as he announced the Second Republic. René Villermé, a doctor who is almost unknown today, published a disturbing survey in 1840 called: A Table of the Moral and Physical State of the Workers of the Wool and Silk Mills. Alexis de Tocqueville, by then considered a classical author with his works on democracy in America, wrote a classic on the Revolution and the Old Regime.

These few names evoke the cultural environment in which Emmanuel d’Alzon appeared. He was born in 1810 of aristocratic parents in the tiny town of the Cévennes called Le Vigan. During the seventy years of his life, France was to pass through a series of major events: the end of the First Empire, the revolution of 1830 that put an end to a form of monarchy over a thousand years old, the revolution of 1848, which toppled Louis-Philippe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, the defeat of 1870, the Communes of Paris, and the beginning of the Third Republic.

The city of Nîmes was far from Paris. It was there that, on Christmas Day 1850, history took place in a nation that, following the Revolution, still looked toward Paris as the center of power, just as formerly it had looked toward the King. Emmanuel d’Alzon was the son of a legitimist deputy (in favor of the monarchy) of the Hérault. In accordance with family tradition and in the projects he conceived, Emmanuel showed no inclination to distance himself from the world of affairs. He was to become well-known, even if he did not have the same standing in officialdom as other famous Catholics: Montalembert, Louis Veuillot, Lacordaire, Frédéric Ozanam, or Bishop Dupanloup. In their research, historians have encountered him in the arenas of political debates, education, the freedom of the Church and the lives of common people.

One cannot speak of him without speaking of his political ideas. It is through his letters, his speeches, his talks, and his activities at Nîmes and in Paris that one can see that the changing politics of France were a constant preoccupation for him, and that he had personal opinions. However, he did not have a set theory of politics, of power, or of government. He did not endorse a specific party.

He referred to himself as “a Catholic republican,” in accordance with the newspaper La Liberté Pour Tous, since he was one of its founders; but this meant: first a Catholic, and then a republican. If he foresaw the inevitable rise of democracy and did not favor a return to the monarchy, he conceived of a democracy that had to be Christianized as well as the whole social order. If he fought for liberty, while steering away from the liberal Catholicism of his friend Montalembert, it meant that he rejected individualism tied to liberty as the Revolution advocated. The conservative bourgeoisie did not satisfy his Catholic ideal. If he did not choose a certain party that his milieu and his education might have made him favor, it meant that he distrusted the use of religion by the parties who were playing politics. His vocabulary was not that of the strict politician. This is evident when his opposition to socialism is aligned against the revolutionaries or the secret societies that represent for him the model of both moral and social evils.

Let us beware of the vocabulary of the XIXth and XXth centuries. It has suffered modifications and deviations. So as not to fall into an anachronism by speaking of liberalism—let this example suffice—it is best to consult the writings of historians. The personality and the achievements of Emmanuel d’Alzon have been under the scrutiny of historians with all the archives open to them. This was to their great satisfaction and they have expressed their gratitude to the Congregation.[1]

Let me at least quote the following by René Rémond, a well-known political historian, “The simplistic distinction made between Catholics of the right and Catholics of the left does not take into account the whole situation.”[2] If we wish to categorize d’Alzon, let us do so in the language of his time. He was a man of his time in his perception of things as they were then and in ideas which may today seem outmoded, as we shall point out later.

At the age of forty in 1850, he had already been vicar general for the diocese of Nîmes for several years under Bishop Cart. He was to be a central figure in the diocesan structure under several bishops and he refused the episcopacy on three occasions. He was in charge of a college named before he took over, “Collège de l’Assomption.” It was in the chapel of this college on Christmas Eve that he pronounced his public vows of religion and then received the vows of his four friends: Father Henri Brun and Brothers Victor Cardenne, Hippolyte Saugrain, and Etienne Pernet.

This event did not make the news headlines, but it was noticed by the Catholics of the region where d’Alzon left his mark through an energetic and varied activity as teacher, preacher, lecturer, retreat master and organizer of the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul conferences. What was happening was quite remarkable. A new congregation was being born. The novitiate had already been inaugurated at the college in 1845. We must keep in mind that a foundation is not made in a day.

After the shock of the Revolution, the harassment inflicted on the Church, and the dispersion of religious institutes, an unexpected and noteworthy phenomenon took place. A large number of new institutes were founded before and after 1850,[3] uniquely marking the XIXth century.

In the history of the Church, founders have a special place. Each one is filled with a new spirit and claims to be inspired by the Spirit. Such a man or woman radiates and attracts a group of religious and has the perseverance to hold to an idea that he/she confides to God’s grace and which gives birth to a new social family within the great family of the Church: an order, a congregation, a fraternity of priests, etc. The founder is someone who creates. He renews the life of Christians. He believes in the ever-pressing actuality of the Gospel and he demonstrates that God needs people, needs new people. He has a gift for invention. He needs courage, initiative—d’Alzon was far from lacking this!—, perseverance, influence over others, a deep spirituality, discernment of vocations, not to mention another important, or better still, indispensable, quality: the ability to organize.

The witnesses as well as his biographers agree that d’Alzon was a man of elegant bearing on the moral as well as the physical level. The adjectives used to describe him are taken from the language of chivalry.[4] No one can doubt his apostolic zeal; he undertook so many things and was involved in so many projects, successful or not, that his qualities were seen as a fault. However, the qualities were also to guarantee the foundation.

The first religious took their name from that of the Collège de l’Assomption. They were known as the Priests of the Assumption or the Assumptionist Fathers (translator’s note: today simply the Assumptionists). It should be added that the name adopted does not make of the Assumptionists a Marian congregation in the same way that it does for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate or the Marists.

In his college, d’Alzon worked in collaboration with lay people. A similar relationship is sought today between religious and laity so as to share this Assumptionist spirituality. The founder lived it through the offices he held and his influence. In addition to the religious institute itself, he conceived the idea of a Third Order for lay people.

Order or Congregation?

In 1566 Pope Pius V required that all those who called themselves “religious” pronounce solemn vows. In doing so, he assimilated them to the members of the Orders that were formed mainly in the Middle Ages: monastic, mendicant, military, charitable, canons regular. As time went on, new situations called for the vitality of other Christians to meet the needs of the Church. As a result, numerous institutes were founded taking the name of congregation, society, association, etc. Were the members of these congregations true religious or simply a part of secular groups? This question was still being asked during the life of Fr. d’Alzon.

The Code of Canon Law published by Benedict XV in 1917 brought to a close a long period of incertitude, which had been cleared up in part by Leo XIII at the end of the XIXth century. Under the title “Of religious” canon 488 § 2 states that religious congregations and institutes are distinct from orders (with solemn vows) insofar as simple vows are professed. The current Code of Canon Law—published in 1983 by John Paul II—does not deal with this distinction, which is of little juridical consequence, but rather refers the reader to the history and tradition of each institution.

Order

Over the years, lay people, men and women, celibates or married, as well as priests or religious, have had a desire to live the spirituality of the Orders: Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, etc. As associates of the order and following their own rules or constitutions, they help by their prayers, their actions, and their donations, the activities of the members of the order or nuns (who form the second order). The Code of Canon Law (canon 303) states that the tertiaries also live “the apostolic life and tend toward Christian perfection” in the world.

 

 

2

The Kingdom or the Novelty

We need to speak of the charism. If we do so, it is not to proclaim in the style of the media that d’Alzon was a charismatic star. A charism is a gift of the Spirit to a person but bestowed for the good of the entire Christian community. It is directed towards preaching the Gospel and to sanctification. This word “charism” applies well to a founder for the simple reason that, among the gifts of the Spirit, the one who calls a family of the faithful to live in the Church for the good of all possesses a character that cannot be confused with others. Each founder brings something new to the practice of the evangelical counsels and to the following of Christ, which is the very definition of Christian life. One must always examine the originality of a new congregation, the reason for its very existence, the content of its charism, if one is to understand its place in history.

What was so original about taking as a motto, “Adveniat regnum tuum,” as Emmanuel d’Alzon did? Who wouldn’t agree with the ideal of working for the coming of the Kingdom of God?[5] D’Alzon asked himself this very question. He came up with an answer based on his study of contemporary society. His conclusion was categorical: there was a movement afoot to eliminate God from the society in which he lived. The guilty party has a name: it was called “the Revolution.” The origin of Fr. d’Alzon’s reaction and that of a Catholic majority lay in the anti-religious and anti-clerical movement, kept alive by the most radical adherents and dating back to 1789. But the energy with which d’Alzon attacked the Revolution—with a capital “R” to personify the evil—was aimed at the organized campaign of atheism, a project intended to upset the established order. “God is driven out of modern society,” he writes, “from States, from families, from morals; that is what is clearly visible every day”[6]

D’Alzon would never submit to this onslaught. God’s rights must be restored. Human rights can threaten these rights and those of the Church. D’Alzon would not embrace the philosophy of the Enlightenment but this did not mean any lack of respect on his part for the dignity of the human being. His pessimism may seem excessive to us; however, we shall be less surprised if we review the evolution of his thoughts and we follow the changing ideas that were being discussed concerning democracy, the republic and human rights. Fr. d’Alzon’s faith could not bow to the “Kingdom of Man.”

We will recognize that in choosing the motto of the Kingdom, his originality lay in his focus on what was essential. At the time that he lived, it would have been easy to adopt a specific devotion, a certain form of personal piety, or an aspect of theology. But this was not what d’Alzon did. May the Kingdom come in us and around us: this wish summarized the intuition of the founder.

I remember a young college student who used to write at the top of his homework and notebooks the Latin words, “Adveniat regnum tuum,” or would draw the initials as for an insignia. Today we would call it a “logo.” He was already an Assumptionist at heart.

So what was so new? Nothing, except that his emphasis went right to the heart of the message of Christ, to the uplifting limits of the Gospel. Is this banal? Is it commonplace? It is a call to open one’s heart to new horizons. This spirit is life-giving since men and women religious find in it their ideal of life even today. Longevity as well as fecundity bears the signature of grace.

Focusing on what is essential, the founder offered to his religious, as the basis of their spirituality, the love of Jesus Christ, the love of the Blessed Virgin and the love of the Church. He spoke of “the three loves.” The underlying theology is that of the Blessed Trinity in which a central place is given to the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

 

 

3

The Time to Do Battle

On November 6, 1869, Fr. d’Alzon was in Rome; he had accompanied his bishop, Most Rev. Plantier, who had chosen him as his theologian for the Vatican Council, which was to be solemnly opened on December 8.

During his stay in Rome, Fr. d’Alzon presented the text of the Constitutions of the Congregation to the religious authorities so as to have them officially approved.

For Emmanuel d’Alzon, to be in Rome was to be at home. Because of this we can call him totally Catholic: to love the Church was to love the pope and to defend Pope Pius IX whose temporal power and freedom was threatened.

Fr. d’Alzon was a man of the Church. As head of a college, as vicar general of his diocese, and as an untiring promoter of the apostolic life through word, deed and financial participation when necessary, with total generosity, he was at the service of what we have become used to calling the local Church. His claim to “Catholicity” placed him in harmony with the Church beyond all frontiers (while in Rome he met with Fr. Victorin Galabert, an Assumptionist pioneer of the Near Eastern Mission in Bulgaria who was accompanying his Bulgarian bishop), and for him Rome was the true place of universality to which his Catholic fervor aspired. An ecumenical council was its visible manifestation. Moreover, what was taking place at Vatican I, the proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility, met with his enthusiastic approval.

Being a French Catholic was not necessarily synonymous with being attached to the papacy. Gallicanism, as its name connotes, was a French characteristic, a variety of doctrines quite ancient and quite diversified regarding the power of the pope. Gallicans demanded a greater power in the Church for the bishops and dioceses of their country. Politicians either profited from it to oppose the Church and the pope or used it to foster national sentiment favorably. Fr. d’Alzon did not share this controversial way of thinking at all; he was in the ranks of the ultramontane, firm defenders of the pope against his political enemies and firm supporters of the papal mission according to the tradition of the Church. Lamennais, before breaking with the Church, had formulated this position: “Without a pope, there is no Church; without the Church, there is no Christianity; without Christianity, there is no society.”

D’Alzon was to do battle—by his writings, by his words, and by recruiting the pontifical Zouaves (soldiers) summoned to go to the aid of Pius IX—in favor of papal authority beyond the mountains, as the word “ultramontane” (here, the Alps) indicates. Whenever he asked people to pray for the Church when she was persecuted or to organize public activities, he never disassociated himself from the Church of the pope. Similarly, he did not question himself on the Church of Jesus Christ, as XXth century ecclesiology did in order to grasp what historical and spiritual links existed between the disciples grouped around Jesus and the institutional Church with its hierarchy and its operation as it existed in the XIXth century. It was clear to him that he belonged to the Church in its actual form.

It was exposed to anticlericalism, to the ideologies of the philosophers of the preceding century, and to the spirit of the Revolution. The situation was characterized by a conflict that continued to grow. The Catholics of that period have oftentimes been depicted as being in a besieged fortress; it was very easy to see that the tone of the quarrels was bitter with no concessions being made; the language used was excessive. Both sides shared responsibility; those “without-God” and those who were anticlerical made no compromises.

Even if the “besieged fortress” metaphor was exaggerated, there can be no doubt that Catholics were under attack.

After all, it was more important to think of the future. This presupposes that one reflects on the attitude to adopt. Persecution can have beneficial effects. It is with lucidity that one should face the irreversible movement of society: “The kings are gone, aristocracies have disappeared or are disappearing, the bourgeoisie is very weak before the invasive flood. It is clear that democracy is advancing day by day more vigorously, more irresistibly, unless according to some providential plan it is to be crushed by a form of extraordinary despotism. Must the Church despair of the future? No, a thousand times no. But, I cannot say it too often: we must meet the needs of everyone. That is why we must strive to make contacts with the people.”[7]

Frédéric Ozanam said, “Let us reach out to the barbarians.” Emmanuel d’Alzon who chose Saint Augustine as the patron of his Congregation evoked the figure of the bishop of Hippo faced with the attack of the barbarians against the Roman Empire. The comparison dramatized by romanticism was used to clarify but was not intended to depreciate the barbarians who were called to enter into the Church and to form a new world.

What would d’Alzon have thought of collegiality, the relevance and related problems of which were brought out following the Second Vatican Council? This was not an issue that he addressed. It is decidedly anachronistic since it is not related to the Gallican tendencies. Whoever wishes to understand what has evolved from council to council in the conception of the Church, even before the insistence on debating the primacy of the bishop of Rome, would do well to read with a meditative spirit the texts of Vatican II on the Church. He/she will discover, moreover, a new understanding of the place of the Virgin Mary in the community of the disciples of Jesus Christ.

D’Alzon was a man of his times; what is so surprising about that? A biographer wrote that one cannot understand d’Alzon’s life if his love of the papacy is not taken into account.[8] This love was synonymous with love of the Church of Christ. Fr. d’Alzon had to translate it into acts of unconditional fidelity; we can find examples of this in him or in his religious in the history of the apostolates that he founded or that were to come from his intuitions.

In the same manner that he took a stance against Gallicanism, he took a stand when faced with liberal Catholicism in founding a truly new intellectual family. Fidelity to the pope was at stake, since the problems being faced were of great importance to the Church. How was freedom to be understood? The freedom of persons, the freedom of the believer: there was an urgent need to protect both in a society dominated by revolutionary ideology. From the start, liberal Catholics (Lacordaire, Montalembert, and even Gerbet) were seduced by the revolution of 1830. Lamennais had published a newspaper, L’Avenir, with the motto: “God and liberty.” This movement favored freedom of conscience, of association, of the press, of religion, of teaching, and foresaw the day of separation of Church and State. In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI with his encyclical Mirari vos condemned this liberalism against which the Syllabus was written. It took aim at Lamennais’s conception of the relationship between the spiritual and the temporal, the altar and the throne. Rome condemned him after his publication of Paroles d’un croyant, which incited people to revolution in the name of the Gospel. Fr. d’Alzon, let us remember, did not reject the Republic or democracy, even though he had religious objections to both. In conformity with his allegiance to the papacy he broke with Lamennais, while retaining his friendship with him. It was a question of principle for him: “Work with Rome, sometimes without Rome, but never against Rome.”

During the last years of his life (he died on November 21, 1880), Fr. d’Alzon found himself confronted more and more by conflicts between the Church and the lay republic. Anticlericalism and militant secularism were no longer satisfied with political speeches. Anti-religious laws were specifically aimed at certain congregations. Those in government demanded that they request an authorization to exist and that they sign an act of deference and loyalty to the State. Fr. d’Alzon, in obedience to Rome, accepted to sign a declaration to appease matters. But this would not stop the course of events. In January of 1900, the “trial of the Twelve” was held; Fr. Picard, the successor of Fr. d’Alzon as superior general, Frs. Vincent-de-Paul Bailly and Saugrain, and nine other religious had to appear before the tribunal of the Seine as “monks in league” whose activities were a danger to the public order and to the Republic, all the more so because the newspaper La Croix exercised an influence that was judged seditious. The tribunal dissolved the Congregation. The Assumptionists were banished. In order for the Congregation to survive and develop, religious had to go into exile except for a few who would no longer wear their religious habit. In its place, they wore the cassock of secular priests.

“Until the banishment” writes Fr. Gervais Quénard, former superior general,” the Congregation had remained strictly French, even in the Near East and in Chile (where it had already spread). It would now become international. Without realizing it, this forced exile would sow the seed of future provinces in new countries just as the storm scatters the seed.”

Those in exile were welcomed according to the disposition of the local bishops in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, the grand duchy of Luxembourg, Spain, England; the expansion had already reached the United States as well. The Congregation was putting down its roots. There was remarkable vitality; and trials, as so often happens, only strengthened the congregation’s spirit. Although Assumptionist activity in France met at times with reservation and even opposition on the part of some Catholics, a majority encouraged them and showed them esteem. Outside of France, the situation of these religious was known, and from the very beginning of the legal humiliations orchestrated by the French government, the bishop of Liège, Belgium, Bishop Doutreloux, had expressed an unqualified sympathy; at Louvain, the future cardinal Mercier, at the time director of the Maison Saint-Thomas for seminarians in philosophy, received the Assumptionists with friendship. He called them, “the victims.”

Dispersion became the new lot of the Congregation, and there existed for many years an internal bulletin or newsletter called Letter to the Diaspora (and later, Letter to the Family). But this was not a dispersion that took place in disorder or bitterness. The beginnings in non-French lands were to see some improvisations because of precipitous events, but the objective was clear: the Congregation continued to function. From 1900 onwards, what took place marked the beginning of a history, not the end of an era. That history had yet to be written. For other religious institutes it was the same story.

 

 

PART TWO

Sons and

Their Heritage

 

 

As expected, the Assumptionist Congregation had its birthmarks. It was born in a France that had been transformed by the Revolution of 1789 and in a traumatized Church that was experiencing a renewal of monastic and religious life. The whole nation was pursuing a laborious and slow balancing of the new with the old, as well as a difficult coexistence between the Republic and the Church, the civilian and religious societies, political life and Catholic undertakings. After the harsh intervention of Rome (an action deemed controversial by historians), Lamennais, the source of d’Alzon’s early inspiration, chose politics; d’Alzon chose religion and his life’s ideal became none other than to be totally Catholic. His immediate successors followed exactly this same line of thought. Outside of France, this has not always been easily understood.

It is important to underline these origins if one is to have a true and balanced understanding of the founder, of those who succeeded him, and also of their country and its longstanding traditions. It was from that country’s heritage, from a history that had proved itself in the doctrinal field, in apostolic dynamism and from institutions rooted in faith and charity, that the inspiration for founding this congregation, the Assumptionists, was drawn. This is a fact that needs to be recognized no matter where we come from, no matter what our differences of culture are, or even the theological orientations and divergences that appeared with time, as traits proper to each region become conspicuous. It is to be hoped that the French contingent of the Congregation, the most numerous, might justly authenticate the origins and guarantee fidelity to the Founder; it has had to watch over the spiritual identity of the Congregation without giving the impression that it was interfering in other domains.

Strength of numbers has continued to favor France. The result has been a greater representation in the electorate, such as at general chapters. French Assumptionists had to be willing to consider the impact of this weighted majority. But this would only come about slowly after some seventy years of the Congregation’s existence and thanks to the new contributions in recruiting that were the result of exile.

 

 

1

The Location. A Turning Point: 1923

In 1917 Fr. Emmanuel Bailly was succeeded by Fr. Joseph Maubon, with the title of Vicar General. There followed a period of very serious crisis within the Assumptionist congregation. In this short book it is not possible to give a detailed account of such a complex story.

In 1923 three decrees were issued by the Congregation for Religious, created in 1906 by Pope Pius X. The first approved the Constitutions of the Assumption; the second named a new superior general: Fr. Gervais Quénard, as well as the members of the general curia; the third erected provinces in the institute and reserved to the general curia the governing of those houses and apostolic activities that were not integrated into a province.

The second decree came following events that are not clear even to us and it was a severe judgment by the Vatican on the internal life of the Congregation. The superiors that had been named previously were accused of not having respected the normal procedure for elections at the General Chapter in Rome (April 1922), and they were blamed for a climate of discord that ensued.

By an order dated January 2, 1922, the Congregation for Religious had set up a direct consultation of all the Assumptionists so that each one could designate, personally and in secret, the candidates of his choice as superior general and members of the curia. A letter dated February 6, 1923, notified Fr. Gervais Quénard that he had been appointed Superior General.

Fr. Gervais, a man of imposing stature and of proven religious caliber, was thus called upon, at a time of conflict, to assume the leadership of the congregation. No Assumptionist among those who knew him personally would doubt the intellectual and religious depth of Fr. Quénard. He is remembered for his broad view of the world, his enthusiasm, at times tinted with idealism, his convictions as a spiritual son of Fr. d’Alzon to whom he referred constantly. He is also remembered for his influence on young religious when he would speak of his travels, his experience in the Christian Near East, or the great possibilities in distant mission countries. He didn’t hesitate to speak of “the miracle of the black Churches” in referring to what was then known as the Belgian Congo. This is the title of one of his books, written in a spirit of encouragement and promise.

His appointment, which resulted from the crisis and the Roman intervention, was a blessing for the Congregation. This was so even taking into account the differences of opinion concerning French politics that existed between Fr. Quénard and some of his religious. This uncomfortable situation and the fact that he had been appointed were complicated even more by personality problems, as happens in the Church and elsewhere. What seems to have been at the root of these problems was the fact that the Congregation was made up of communities speaking different languages, spread over diverse countries and several continents, but also the tension that existed between regional authority and central authority. The institute had, at the time, 65 houses in 14 countries with about 660 members.

Three complaints were formulated by the Congregation for Religious: an excessively centralized government, the risky practice of repeatedly naming the same men as superiors and, thirdly, a system that was “too French.”[9]

Even before 1914, linguistic or national minorities had begun to surface. This phenomenon was inevitable and it happened in all religious congregations. Controversy among the Assumptionists arose. Some argued that Fr. d’Alzon himself had foreseen a division into provinces and, following the vote of the General Chapter of 1876, had organized three provinces;[10] others argued that he had emphasized the role of central authority. But then there was the position of Rome, which, fully aware of the weight of French predominance, issued clear instructions that, in accordance with Canon Law, allowed no exceptions: provinces must be set up everywhere.

Even if there was unspoken protest on the part of some religious, the international character of the congregation became more of a reality as a result of this creation of provinces and has continued to become so to our present day when it is accepted as fact.

The General Chapter of Lumière (Vaucluse, April 1918) had already adopted the principle of a regional system. Six regions were set up: North America; South America; the region of Switzerland-Italy-Spain; the region of Belgium-Holland; the region of France; the region of the Near East with Fr. Quénard as its superior. The regional system was chosen, rather than that of provinces, to protect the Congregation in “its unity of spirit and government.” It was foreseen that the novitiates, the houses of studies, the houses of retreats or retirement would not belong to any region but would depend directly on the Superior General. It must have been noticed that the notion of regions over that of provinces would not pass as a simple formality. Fr. Pierre Touveneraud summarized the debate as follows: “Provincialism and federalism on the one hand; regionalism and centralism on the other. The old quarrel of the Girondists and the Jacobins (ultra-radicals of the French Revolution) reorganizing powers and territories.” Once again it was copying a history that was very French. But the problem would still remain because it had to do with the relationship between authority and those subject to it.

At the Chapter of 1918 the provinces became the principal issue, given their independence from each other on the one hand, and on the other, their dependence on the Superior General. Dom Etcheverry, who had been chosen by the Vatican as president of the Chapter of Rome, stated the problem to this chapter, which had become essentially “a committee” charged by the Congregation for Religious to correct and reform the Constitutions of the Assumptionists.

Four provinces were established: France was divided into three provinces, and to these were attached the houses of Spain, North and South America, Italy, England, and the Near East. A fourth province consisted of the houses of Belgium and Holland with Fr. Rémy Kokel as provincial. A certain number of houses, such as the scholasticates, the common novitiate, the house in Jerusalem and the General Secretariate dealing with the Holy See in Rome (where the general curia would reside henceforth), remained extra-provincial.

Some of the apostolates of the congregation, the most notable of which was the “Bonne Presse” in Paris, came to be known as “apostolates of the generalate.” Since the Assumptionists acknowledged as their vocation the call to serve the “interests of he Church,” it was felt that these forms of ministry were justified as being at the service of the Church. There was a conviction that they responded to the desires of the Church and were forms of “Catholic action.” The administration of these apostolates would be under the direction of the Superior General with his council. At least that is how the chapter of 1922 saw it. But the Roman decree of March 25, 1923, adjusted this view: these apostolates would be administered by delegation from the Superior General with the agreement of the provinces concerned. These apostolates, all of them French, were: Our Lady of Salvation, the “Bonne Presse,” and Our Lady of Vocations. Neither the Third Order nor the Institute for Byzantine Studies was part of this arrangement.

From 1958 there existed a “quasi-province” for those apostolates which transcended any geographical territory. In 1969 a single French province was created and those apostolates became its responsibility. The task of gaining acceptance for the regrouping of provinces had been lengthy and arduous; the ensuing adjustments were delicate and even painful. Just as when, earlier on, there had been a generation of creating provinces, there was now opposition that could be overcome only by determined persuasion and by seeking agreement among the religious. A more satisfactory style of relationship between the centralized authority of the province and the religious desirous of a more personal approach with superiors was achieved.

The setting up of territories, if one can call it such, should not make us think that internal matters of laws and politics constituted the core of this history. A crisis of growth as well as problems stemming from the sensitivities of people and the demands of national minorities did in fact bring about situations capable of unsettling a congregation that was still young. These trials gave rise to a fear that splits would occur, but this never happened. As a matter of fact, as a result of these trials the life of the congregation benefited in a profound way. The fear of irreparable damage helped to strengthen bonds and solidify the spiritual base. To say that the Assumptionist congregation survived would be inexact; rather, it entered into a life that was at one and the same time more risky and more orderly. Faith had not given way to human prejudices.

 

 

2

A Law. The Life of the Rule.

The body needs a soul. The founder saw to it right from the beginning. Although he was an apostle who was always active regardless of problems of health and financial difficulties, he would not have sacrificed the soul for the sake of organization. He worked hard to ensure a law for the burgeoning congregation, but not a juridical one or one of a simple legislator. As early as 1855, he wrote the First Constitutions with the title of “Rule of the Assumption”; in 1865, a new version came out: “The Constitutions of the Augustinians of the Assumption, preceded by the text of the Rule of Saint Augustine.” A spiritual guide, Le Directoire, was added to these two texts. Let us make it clear that the founder intended the Constitutions for the religious, as a whole, with practices and observances, and that Le Directoire, which often just restated the Constitutions, was addressed to each religious with regard to his spiritual life and his approach to personal sanctification.

Several versions of the Constitutions followed one another until 1923. At that time Rome imposed the “Constitutions of the Congregation of the Priests of the Assumption, called Augustinians of the Assumption.” This text had the force of law from that moment until 1969. In that year, the Congregation, acting on the directives of Rome after Vatican II and its impetus to update the whole Church, proceeded to revise the Rule. The version that is in force today was approved by the Chapter of 1981 and officially accepted by the Holy See in 1983.

It is called the Rule of Life. This name was intentionally chosen to temper the images of dryness and formalism which the word “rule” can conjure up and to underline, rather, the vitality of this document. A Rule, if it is to be alive, cannot be confused with a set of rules having no other purpose than conformity. The corpus containing the Rule, the Constitutions, and the “capitular rules” promulgated by the general chapter of 1981 concludes in this way: “This book is our Assumptionist Rule of Life. With the Rule of Saint Augustine, it points out the road on which we want to walk together. By our profession of vows in the Congregation, we take upon ourselves to put this Rule of Life into practice. We shall follow it united to Fr. d’Alzon. We shall review it prayerfully. We shall listen to it in our community. We shall live it with the help of our brothers. Thus, it will free us so that we can love Jesus Christ and extend His kingdom.”

What of the Congregation’s link with Fr. d’Alzon? This is a crucial question and it has to be admitted that there has not always been a clear answer. For a number of years, the evocation, or rather the invocation, of Fr. d’Alzon’s name was a kind of ritual that expressed an undying love of the founder and fidelity to what he stood for. But then came a period of reappraisal and even of reticence (not to use too strong a word) with respect to this 19th century figure and to his brand of “Catholicity.” This was not the case for the majority, but it was there, strong and active. This brings to mind the testimony of Fr. Hervé Stéfan, former superior general, to the audience of the colloquium of historians already mentioned, when the discussion centered on the heritage of Fr. d’Alzon and the way in which this heritage was received and perceived: “For ten years, possibly fifteen years, after the Council there existed in the Congregation a zone of silence with regard to Fr. d’Alzon. I personally experienced this with all of my brothers in various communities. Foreseeing the centenary of the death of the Founder (1880), the General Chapter had said: ‘The centenary must be celebrated.’ My feeling is that the Chapter acted reasonably and logically, although it was not very convinced and it didn’t know what would happen. Neither did I, to be honest. All I felt was that Fr. d’Alzon was a very great man. Then, little by little, I was able to surmount the problems of language. It took me two years to get used to this, to learn how to read these words so as to get to the ‘core’ and become the brother of that man, as we would say today, and to discover his capacity to inspire and to say something to the Assumptionists of today. That is how the work started. What happened responded to a profound need throughout the Congregation. But it was nevertheless a rediscovery of the man that the Congregation made, a new reading, a new communion with him.” And Fr. Stéfan added: “It is not so much the texts that are the basis of our foundation, but the man.”[11]

 

 

3

A Spirit. The Assumptionist Spirit

To express the original, authentic charism of the Congregation one must always return to the inspiration of the founder. Therefore, instead of an analysis of texts, which consists in another type of research and has already been attempted in other essays or feature articles, this account will explore the spirit of the founder rather than the letter of the Constitutions.

Spirit or spirituality? Let us not waste our time in a discussion of words; enough has been said already. Let us not require from Fr. d’Alzon a well-organized manual of spirituality in due form, a synthesis frozen once and for all. As Fr. George Tavard has suggested, we should not look for “a body of doctrine that is well organized by Fr. d’Alzon. He is not a theorist. Before being a theologian, he is a pastor and a spiritual guide and he avoids speculations. He is both a man of action and a contemplative. Concerned with the total Christian experience, he wants to make it flourish, since doctrine must be lived.”

An effort has been made, and justly so, to gather and, as far as possible, to put in order the various stages and the fundamental themes of Fr. d’Alzon’s spirituality. Fr. Athanase Sage[12] did just this and his attempt at a synthesis can still serve as a guide. But, in all such attempts, one thing must be made clear: Fr. d’Alzon gave to the first chapter of the Constitutions the title “The Spirit of the Assumption” (In the 1935 edition it became “The Goal and the Spirit of the Assumption”). There we read, “The Assumptionist spirit is summarized in these few words: the love of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, His mother, and of the Church, His spouse.” Moreover, in #4 of the Constitutions, we find an enumeration of the traits to be given to our religious life and “that consist in the spirit of the Assumption.” These traits must distinguish the Assumptionist heart and soul. Dictionaries say that a spirit “is the ensemble of ideas and sentiments that direct the action of a collectivity.” This definition can be further refined. The word “spirit” suggests the dynamic ideas of breath, source of life, and shared values, which are the undercurrent of every human society. Under the direction of Fr. Claude Maréchal, superior general, and of his curia, a collective work was published in Rome in 1993 with the title “L’Esprit de l’Assomption d’après Emmanuel d’Alzon” (The Assumptionist Spirit according to Emmanuel d’Alzon.) Fr. Tavard’s reflection, quoted above, is based on this work.


4

An Identity. The Rule of Life

The sharing that takes place among the members of a religious congregation over a long period of history results in a similarity of ideals and attitudes and even, to some extent, externals. It goes without saying that “spirituality,” for want of a better word, is a major source of unity, but less so in what concerns the day to day life of a society than in the prayer and interior life of its members. The permanency of a spirit flows from this spirituality and it comes from what sociologists call “wanting to live together” or “belonging,” or more mysteriously, “identity.”

In 1995, a session took place in Nîmes on this theme. Once again, it was a self-examination as if the religious themselves were still uncertain of who they were as a group. The brief period of estrangement from the founder, because of a period of time that was too remote, was accompanied by skepticism concerning their identity. This meant that they were not able to grasp clearly how what they were doing was distinctive from other religious institutes within the Church; there was doubt about the charism. This was to be a more insidious, though less spectacular, trial than the one of 1922-1923. However, it was far from being a mortal one. In fact, it led to a reformulation of the Rule of Life, in answer to a strong desire to do so on the part of religious.

This willingness to engage in self-examination and questioning became the signal for recovery. Even more significantly a consensus was reached on a principle that has stood the test of time, namely that any group must decide for themselves what they wish to become. Apostolic priorities, therefore, came to be redefined and “our mission one hundred and fifty years later” was expressed in new language. In practice it is the mission that says what a congregation stands for; it is the mission that validates the “desire to live together.”

For a long time, there was a strong identification with the Congregation’s elders: the founder and his successors. This was translated into the Assumptionists’ faithful imitation of the past and by the belief in a model that could be reproduced and that had to be copied as such: in spirit, in observances, in language, in apostolates, in ideology (even politically). Religious had been taught to love their congregation, but that meant loving an intangible organization, monastic in character and burdened with fixed patterns of how to live and how to pray. This system prevailed and formed many religious who were proud of their religious family. It gave life to their pastoral work in the various areas in which they became well-known, and it offered a solid motivation for being part of the Congregation. But the result was an Assumptionist congregation closed in on itself, with little openness to the world and even to the universal Church, even though it claimed a great love for it.

The next phase, after 1945, accelerated by a Council, by the events of May of 1968, and by a general revision of cultural acquisitions, was a lively one. It finally ended up with general and sincere agreement, although a few resisted the changes that would mark the updating of the Rule as requested by the Council.

It was quite clear that many religious had difficulty in coming to terms with the Assumptionist past, as well as the past of the Church of the XIXth century. This phase was critical since no person or group in search of its identity can do away with its past as it was lived. To break with this cultural inheritance, to deny it under pretext that one has nothing to do with it or that it is all outmoded, is to compromise one’s heritage and to claim that the only history that matters is what is yet to come. Such an attitude is unhealthy and unacceptable.

A critical reexamination of where the congregation stood was necessary if its development was not to be stunted. Professional historians, therefore, were consulted for an honest and objective assessment. Their evaluation of d’Alzon as a person and of his undertakings and achievements was positive and appreciative of the role he had played in the Church of his time. They could not have been expected to give the whole picture, but there was enough for the Assumptionists to pass the test of history with flying colors.

It should be added that some religious were not very concerned at the time with the events that have just been described. They were either too taken up by their work or too little inclined to such re-evaluations to be aware of what was really happening.

It was important to have an Assumptionist spirituality, but that no longer necessarily meant having to be completely different from everyone else. The emphasis on originality, therefore, became less pronounced as religious accepted pastoral and doctrinal work that others were engaged in: teaching, pilgrimages, parishes, foreign missions. The personality of a congregation develops with time. What is happening within such a congregation and the spirit with which it carries out its apostolic mission leave their stamp upon it. This is what happened with the Assumptionists. For many years they were known especially as men engaged in defending the kingdom against the enemy. No longer. Since the 1950s an evolution has been in progress, giving a new look to the congregation, which, it can safely be predicted, will not be easily discarded.

People not infrequently ask: “Who are you?” and “What do you do?” As Assumptionists we cannot leave these questions unanswered.

 

 

5

“Tell Us About Yourselves!”

To the request “tell us about yourselves” an Assumptionist religious has only to offer by way of reply a little book, the Rule of Life. This is not a book that appeared spontaneously; rather it is the product of a history. That history comprised: a Rule that had been lived, the various stages of its predecessor, the constitutions, the successive versions and, finally, the point reached by religious in their prayerful reflection on their state of life and the legislative work of general chapters.

The procedure was a legal one. But once again, it must be recalled that everything depended on the spirit that reigned in an assembly such as a chapter, which is not a parliament. The chapter’s only desire was to express a common way of thinking and to work for the spiritual improvement of an international community.

Among the texts of Vatican Council II, there is one designated by the first two Latin words: “Perfectae caritatis.” The document declares: “In conformity with the documents of the Council, the following need to be adequately revised: Constitutions, Directories, traditions, books of prayer or ceremonies, and other similar books, rejecting all that is outmoded.”

The Congregation was keen to follow these directives, and in 1969 a general chapter meeting in Rome proceeded to compose a new text of what was to be called in the future “the Rule of Life,” rather than “Rule” or “Constitutions,” since the latter sounded too legalistic. This text was to be the basic law of the Institute for twelve years. This was a liberation from the old habit of seeing in the traditional books the unchangeable family way of speaking, the guarantor of continuity. Yet there was the risk, as in any such text, that it would justify a routine and repetitive style of life. At times the chapter questioned whether the inclusion of certain fixed and frozen formulae might be required by tradition.

Catholic Action, a movement of pastoral ministry with the desire to save the world, was flourishing in the 1960s. Its language was easily recognizable: it spoke of “being involved,” of “the mission,” of “witnessing,” of “an incarnation,” of “social action” and of the importance of politics. It focused attention on worldly realities and the human person. It was active in a climate of a renewed ecclesiology. The Church had been thought of as an unchangeable institution rather than as a living body with a history. Even before the Council, there had been a movement to present the Church in a more positive light as living, incarnate, missionary, attentive to the realities of the world, and concerned with people living in society. So, we cannot say that the Council deserved all the credit for this renewal.

The revised Rule of 1969 was marked by this renewal. Even though the vocabulary may have been dated it was still meaningful. After twelve years, the time came in 1981 to evaluate its richness, to recognize its limitations, and to review it, while taking into account the experience and the mentalities of religious in the Congregation. Fr. Hervé Stéfan, the Superior General, held a consultation of all the religious in all the communities of the Congregation which resulted in a widespread desire that the Assumptionist identity be better expressed and justified. This call confirmed the sentiments that had been revived at the time of the centennial celebration of the death of Fr. d’Alzon (1880-1980). Religious still believed in the Rule and in its relevance. Fr. d’Alzon was becoming known as the man he really was rather than as the subject of idealistic portraits. It could be shown, where necessary, that the new insights did not fail to maintain continuity with the original ideas of the foundation; that those ideas were more than a memory; that there was to be no watering down. There was no wholesale rejection of the past. To the contrary! Religious still had deep faith in the dynamism of the Adveniat regnum tuum, the motto of the Congregation. They believed in an Assumptionist mission and in a family resemblance dating right from the beginning but with no illusions of a cloudless future.

As a member of the 1981 Chapter this present writer can testify to two things. First, warnings were not lacking concerning the temptation to use big words, to make fancy statements, to use triumphalistic words. They had been contradicted in the Congregation’s past by its visible failures and painful moments. Secondly, a common desire arose for a re-affirmation and a re-formulation of an identity, to the extent that a collective text could do this. Flights of excessive enthusiasm could be toned down without casting doubt on the charism and its capacity to unite.

Here is not the place to give a detailed commentary of the text: “Take and read.” It suffices to bring out a few of the principal ideas that help us to measure the progress made.

“Who are you?” This is a question of identity. The Rule of Life answers this question right from the first lines of Chapter One entitled “the Assumptionists.” This chapter is at the same time a gateway to and the doctrinal summary of all that will follow: “Assumptionists, we are religious who live in apostolic community. Faithful to our founder, Fr. d’Alzon, we choose as our primary objective to work, out of love for Jesus Christ, for the coming Reign of God in ourselves and around us.”

The link to the founder is immediately established. His second motto: “Propter amorem Domini nostri Jesu Christi” completes the main one, “Adveniat regnum tuum.” The horizon of the Kingdom is right before us, a clear illumination of the charism, according to our authentic tradition.

But even more than the institutional tradition, it is the evangelical spirit that illuminates the Rule and is its foundation. A Rule can never be more than a commentary on the gospel; it can never replace the Word of God. Certain spiritual books have been blamed for their lack of biblical foundations or for having exploited the Bible with pious fantasy. The Rule of Life does not have extensive Gospel quotations, yet it claims no other source than the very spirit of Christ discovered in the Gospel. It is clear that the proclamation of the Kingdom and the numerous references to it, more numerous in this text than in its predecessors, attest to the purity and fullness of its source. It is there that religious life finds its reason for existence and the Assumptionists their grace of state. To be a sign of the Kingdom; to live for the Kingdom; to be witnesses of Christ until He comes; to establish among humankind the kingdom of justice and peace; to prepare the day “when God will be all in all”: these are all ways of affirming the vocation and the mission and what is essential for faith and action. But the claim is not made that the Kingdom will be immediately seen by people thanks to the Congregation’s apostolic activities, its community life and religious vows. Religious bring a message; they point the way to the Kingdom. But while they strive for its coming, that Kingdom remains a mystery beyond all good intentions.

Following the founder, a religious commits himself to the cause of the Kingdom: “The kingdom of Jesus Christ, the greatest of all causes,” d’Alzon wrote. Christ is not distinct from God. He is at the center of one’s life. He is the One that we want to follow just as the Gospel invites us. He is the One who gathers a religious family together, just as it is in Him and through Him that the whole Church is assembled.

Our times are very sensitive to the question of human rights, more so than at the time of the founder. The Revolution instilled fear; its protagonists were accused of wanting to supplant God. The Rule, by contrast, calls for service of the great causes of God and humankind, of God and of man because he belongs to God.

The Kingdom gives a meaning and a lofty purpose to the demands of religious life. The community exists for the Kingdom, present already here below. The choice of religious life “is meant to remind us of the final goal of human realities and make us servants of the Kingdom.” The three vows declare that the goods of this earth, while being good things, are not the final word regarding our relationship to the world, to happiness, and to being free.

The possession of riches, which is a general aspiration of humankind, even at times to the point of making them into an idol and subjecting man to their tyranny, is called into question by the evangelical priority of allegiance to God, “our true treasure,” and by our solidarity with the poor through detachment and sharing. All of this takes flesh in a voluntary discipline imposed on the natural desire that we have for material things and in a style of life that is both communal and personal. It must constantly be re-evaluated and purified, since we live in a society that encourages consumerism and that exalts well-being and comfort.

Human love, precious as it is, is not the only and ultimate fulfillment of our capacity to love. There is a love that is more demanding, more idealistic. It unites us to God who is Love and to our neighbor and it places us in the freedom required by apostolic service: “to be all to all.”

Freedom of the person, another common and noble good, is not compromised by religious obedience. By this vow, we imitate Christ in His obedience to the Father and we witness to “the true freedom in the Spirit.” Obedience “gradually transforms our inclination to dominate into a desire to serve and to promote the good of others.”

Religious profession of poverty, chastity and obedience has a long tradition and is today as meaningful as ever. The word “profession” is to be understood as in “a profession of faith.” A point that could easily be missed is that worldly values, as respectable as they may be, are not absolute to the eyes of faith.

Let us now try to summarize the changes that came about in recent years: new emphases, new options, and new words.

1. A deeper understanding of the gospel of the Kingdom

A contemporary reading of the Gospel message, with the help of biblical exegesis and in the light of current apostolic demands, has opened our eyes and ears to the Gospel and deepened our understanding of that message. We no longer bring to it our political prejudice or think of God’s reign in terms of worldly royalty or power. We do not expect God to intervene in the government of society in the manner of a national monarch. The message of the Gospel is preserved, but freed of ambiguities.

2. The cause of man

The change is blatant when compared with the texts of the Rule before 1969. Let us take a look at the text: “The spirit of the founder impels us to embrace the great causes of God and man, to go wherever God is threatened in man and man is threatened as image of God.” For the Christian, it is understood that you cannot speak of God without referring to man, but neither can you speak of man without referring to God. There is no place for a wordy “anthropocentrism” which glibly speaks of man with a capital M, that is to say, for a secularized humanism.

3. Fraternal life

In previous texts, the idea of community life is almost absent. In the index to the Écrits spirituels, referred to earlier, the word “community” does not appear; the expression “life in common” is found only once. In praising the Rule of St. Augustine Fr. d’Alzon writes just a few lines on “the excellence of life in common.” He comments on the “cor unum et anima una” of the first Christians according to the Acts of the Apostles, the establishment of communities of faithful in the primitive Church, and the role that the great founders of monastic life played, especially Saint Augustine. Augustine’s Rule opens with these words: “Above all, live ‘unanimously’ in the monastery, having ‘only one soul and one heart’, turned toward God. Is this not the very reason for your coming together?” Fr. d’Alzon does not refer directly to this Augustinian precept. As food for reflection on the relationship between community and evangelization he offers only crumbs.[13]

From these Augustinian roots it follows that the new emphasis of the 1981 text is fully justified. There were new words (once again) and new themes presented in language that echoed the Gospel: “community,” “life in common,” and going still further, “fraternal life.” Assumptionists had become more aware of the Christian value of community. It had not always been appreciated but now it was, both in theory and in practice.

In the 1960s, prominence was given to the rights of the rank and file and to words such as democratization, dialogue, co-responsibility, communication (all of our favorite words!), communion (used of the Church). Young people felt a great need for human relationships lived in a group. There was a movement away from huge institutes and from complex structures. There was an attraction to small communities. The memory of the Pauline communities resurfaced more than before. This climate of rediscovery played a part in the tone and content of our Rule of Life, which at times was considered a bit idyllic. The renewal of religious community living was welcome, for the sign that a community was meant to be would lead nowhere if reduced to “exercises of the community,” to use a well-worn phrase, observed in an atmosphere of formalism and routine. Sharing one’s worries, joys, sadness; fraternal meetings; helping one another; being attentive to one’s brothers; a family spirit rediscovered, all these became ways of witnessing to communion, the image and anticipation of the Kingdom. Such are to take place without forgetting for a moment that every religious is human.

Finally, the Assumptionist lives in an “apostolic” community. One is not an apostle all alone. Apostolic work is shared with one’s brothers and adopted by them. It is hoped that the community “witnesses” before humankind to this consecration.

4. Prayer and action

The temptation to lapse into activism and the human satisfaction that comes from it lie in wait for all apostolic institutes. To their benefit, the members of the 1981 Chapter referred to this temptation more than once. The call to a better balance between action and contemplation, between apostolic action and prayer, was also timely.

Right from the very beginning, a delicate balance existed between two requirements that Fr. d’Alzon wanted to harmonize. In day-to-day living there is a certain imbalance that threatens prayer. The tension created by this imbalance often finds its resolution in favor of action. That is why the Rule of Life, even though the incentive toward prayer had not been neglected previously, wished to give a new impetus to the spirit of prayer. It was to be prayer in common and personal prayer; first of all, the prayer of the Church, but also a time reserved for personal meditation, which is indispensable for the one who is a religious, for his spiritual life and vitality. The difficulties encountered in prayer were taken into account, but now the religious was placed face to face with his ultimate destiny, which is the experience of God, the search for God that Saint Augustine so highly prized, an encounter with God, an intimacy with God.

Let us note that praying is not seen as an escape from the world, but rather an exercise of bringing the joys and sorrows of human beings into it; it consists also of uniting prayer and apostolate.

5. Distinctive traits of the apostolate

We read in the Rule at #5: “Faithful to the will of Fr. d’Alzon, our communities are at the service of truth, unity, and charity. Thus they herald the Kingdom.” Truth, unity, and charity are the three pillars of an Augustinian spirituality. So that the apostolate might translate them into commitments and actions, three qualities were articulated. “All our undertakings will be quickened by a doctrinal, social, and ecumenical spirit” (#16).

It remains to be seen in the history of Assumptionist apostolates how this triple spirit would be understood and how it would be adapted to new demands as well as to changing ideas.

6. Family portrait

In families, children resemble their parents, and they resemble one another. It would be interesting and even somewhat amusing to ask outsiders who have the occasion to observe us and to see how we live our lives, if they notice among Assumptionists any traits of resemblance. Lacking reliable research on this point -and the means to obtain it—we find in the texts and in the collective memory clues to an ideal portrait of an Assumptionist. Qualities, virtues, and apostolic attitudes are required of him even by the founder. He is identifiable through these as well as by a “theological grounding” that we have previously sketched. Let us call this the family portrait, the traits of a family. In the Rule of 1969, they had almost been eliminated, possibly since they were seen as outmoded words...

Nevertheless, Fr. d’Alzon’s call continued to be heard in words often repeated: “Be bold, generous, and selfless.” Other qualities serve to complete the ideal portrait: frankness (frankness in the affirmation of one’s faith), initiative, cordiality in human relationships, simplicity of life, apostolic zeal, audacity in the work undertaken, love of work, and a family spirit.

That these qualities and virtues were to be preserved no one denied, and they found their place in the book which defines the Congregation’s reason for existing, the Rule. But the compatriots of Fr. d’Alzon, his French heirs, were less interested in formulating this exercise than were their brothers from other lands. This is a matter for reflection when it comes to understanding different aspects of a tradition in which present and past had to be welded or re-welded together. Religious called to active ministry bear certain common traits; that this should be recognized and valued was no longer something to pass over in silence. Those traits exist; that is obvious. And if one looks for many, one will find at least a few!

7. In favor of the poor

“The orientation toward the poor is not a passing phase. It goes right to the heart of our Assumptionist vocation.” This is a declaration of the General Chapter of 1987, which had in its program three basic orientations: faith, communion, and justice. This declaration deserves our attention. In fact, the period during which the Chapter was held was marked by a discovery, or at least an inventory, of situations of underdevelopment, of poverty, and of material misery in the whole world and especially in what was called “the Third World.” There existed a certain “atmosphere of the time.” Today, we still benefit from this discovery and are even more deeply aware of these situations. That a text would carry the imprint of its time should not be a surprise to our predecessors or to us. In this case, it is the urgency of solidarity that demands “the preferential option for the poor,” or, if these words seem to be too exclusive, a resolve that was firmly motivated because of an apostolic spirit to be “on the side of the poor.” The Rule of Life is even more precise when it adds “and of those oppressed.” In these simple words, as in the call to solidarity with those who embark on a crusade against injustice and its structures, we can recognize the actualization of this message. We recognize that the Assumptionist voice has changed its tone under the pressure of facts and the convictions that flow from these facts in the light of the Gospel.

“The richness of our Congregation,” wrote Fr. d’Alzon in Le Directoire, “must consist in the most absolute detachment from material goods,” and the founder reminded his religious that Christ was “destitute of all things.” He was the first to give the example of a voluntary poverty that was sought without regard for the comforts that his aristocratic origins could have obtained. He preached respect for the poor and he put it into practice; he defended the poor; he encouraged and helped the institutions that served the poor in his native city of Nîmes and beyond.

The following words, still full of meaning today, show how his thought and action were in advance of his time:

“We hold firmly to the practice of poverty. We believe it to be indispensable for the present time, and we see it as a form of protest against the current morality.”[14] And again: “Evangelical poverty will be for us as it were the external proof of the practice of Hope” (Constitutions of 1855).

The religious of today who is on “the side of the poor” shows special concern for those who are materially and humanly poor. The Rule expresses itself in the following way: “Our communities wish to share the joys and the hopes, the sorrows and the anxieties of the men of our time, especially the poor and all those who hunger and thirst after justice. In solidarity with their aspirations and their struggles, we participate in the building of a world that is more just and more fraternal.”

It should be made clear, however, that it is not the policy of the Assumptionists to have all religious involved in the field of social poverty and in activities pertaining to it, since this would constitute a radical about-face in Assumptionist history and would cast all their apostolic endeavors in the same mold. The 1981 Chapter asked “that each province have some communities involved with the poor and that each religious and each community let themselves be questioned by the poor.” Orientations, published as an extension of and development from the Chapter’s reflection, declare that it is necessary to share one’s experiences so as to sensitize, other than by exhortations, the whole religious family to situations and to apostolates as they are experienced “in the trenches.”

Even though the daily lifestyle of religious requires a regular control of the use of goods and money, it is not meant to be one of extreme poverty or deprivation. Rather, its guiding principles must be: simplicity, modesty, and sobriety. These criteria cannot be calculated or strictly measured. It is the religious spirit and the Assumptionist spirit that must spell out for communities and for one’s personal needs what is necessary for a well-balanced human existence, a balance that requires avoiding both severe asceticism and bourgeois laxity in a social environment th0at is neither that of the ancient monks nor that of the XIXth century when the industrial civilization and the desire for progress were born. Here both a sense of history and the religious spirit come into play.

 

 

6

“What Do You Do?”

“What do you do?” That is the second question that is asked of a congregation when seeking its identity. Who hasn’t had to answer it, and even more frequently than the first, “Who are you?” It is clear that the answer to the latter will be abstract, complicated, and unclear, given that when we ask of someone, “Who are you?” we usually just expect the person’s name. Yet, an answer to the former presupposes more information.

People want to know what the Assumptionists do and what the Congregation has done in the past so as to get an idea of its role in the Church. What kinds of apostolate distinguish it from other congregations? Faith is judged by works and religious by their apostolates, just as citizens are judged by their jobs. Its charism becomes clearer in the measure that the Congregation is perceived as being able to justify the reasons for its activities based on the original intuition, the gift handed down from the founder.

It must be admitted that the multiplicity and variety of apostolates initiated by Emmanuel d’Alzon, both those he himself engaged in and those undertaken by his sons over one hundred and fifty years, do not, at first sight, give the impression of coherence. There was no specific specialty such as teaching, youth formation, foreign missions or anything else that one finds in other congregations. The spirituality of the Kingdom had enough breadth, inspiration, and flexibility to unite closely the strands of a rich and varied apostolic history.

A time came when Fr. d’Alzon saw the necessity of making a list of the activities that would define and identify the Congregation (he also called it: the Society or the Order). So he drafted a program based on this list. It varied both during his life and after his death. It varied, moreover, with regard to forms of apostolates, the priorities, and the vocabulary used to define each one of them. The question of vocabulary is important, as will be discussed later when dealing with expressions that are familiar today.

We turn now to a summary of both the programs and the apostolates included by the founder in the first two versions of the Constitutions in 1855 and 1865. Many forms of apostolate remained distinctive during our history. A stable core in the different lists shows this clearly. Even though there are variations, exclusions, adaptations, and additions, this enumeration was preserved until recently. I shall treat this topic in a third section of our brief summary of Assumptionist history.

Fr. d’Alzon, man of prayer and faith that he was, asked this question before God: “By what means can the Congregation best serve the coming of the Kingdom of God?” He also needed to question himself before his first followers so as to ensure a common vision and present a unified apostolate. The major activities foreseen were:

•          teaching

•          the publication of books

•          works of charity

•          ministry to individual persons

•          foreign missions

•          works “for the destruction of schism and heresy.”

In 1923, during the important General Chapter that we mentioned above, there was promulgated a new version of the Constitutions which became the Rule for forty years. Here is the list of apostolates that appeared there:

•          teaching

•          pastoral ministry including parishes

•          publications and faith sharing of all kinds

•          the conversion of infidels, the return of dissidents, and the unity of the Churches (note the change in vocabulary)

•          charitable institutions, popular or social

•          any work that the Sovereign Pontiff asks us to undertake.

Let us quote the significant commentary that Fr. d’Alzon added to the text on “the works of charity,” in 1865. He stated: We are to prepare young people to fulfill their duties as Christians in the world. We cannot deny the fact that in the heart of the poor there is a great hatred for the rich. It stems either from the loss of faith among the lower classes, or because of the scandalous use that the upper classes have made of their goods. To repair this, as much as we can, we shall try to persuade those who have been placed in our care to have a love and a respect for the suffering members of Jesus Christ, and to inculcate in them the obligation to help them not only by giving alms freely but also by their words, advice, encouragement, and reassurance.”

Aware of the spiritual and social needs of society, he wished to respond to them by the apostolic work he chose. He acted on what he discerned. He did not establish a movement for social action with a structured program. On this score, perhaps, he could be faulted or at least it might appear so; and some might see him as a man trying to do too much with too little. His religious, the men and women who were with him, were indeed few in number.

One urgent need that he perceived was that of the collaboration between religious and laity in the same Catholic commitment. This was the premonition already at the heart of the founding of a Third Order. His Congregation was born among the lay teachers of his Collège de l’Assomption. Of course clergy come from the laity, but it is through lay people who remain such that the Kingdom advances in the midst of the realities of the world. Even though the Third Order grew out of an older mentality, its main intuition remains pertinent today and the whole Church has become aware of this reality as a result of current events and apostolic needs.

This brings us to the program of the Assumptionist Congregation in our own day. The Rule of Life presents this program first by defining its priorities and general goals in the perspective of a missionary Church, and secondly, by enumerating the activities which are specific, if not exclusive, to the Assumptionists. (Rule of Life: #16 and 18):

1. “We work to build up the Church by proclaiming Jesus Christ. We give priority to education in the faith, to training responsible lay people, to awakening and affirming of Christian vocations, particularly religious and priestly vocations.”

2. “From the very beginning our apostolate has taken on various forms, in particular, teaching, ‘understood in the broadest sense of the word,’ study, communications media, pilgrimages, ecumenism, parish ministry, organizations for the lay apostolate, social work, and service to the younger Churches.”

It is easy to see that ways of thinking and expressing oneself have changed. We no longer speak of schism or heresy, as before; publications become “communications media”; works of charity are called “social work”; “service to the younger Churches” has replaced “foreign missions” and “missionary conquests.” Words enable us to cross the distance of one century to another.

Retracing that history, we are able to discover in what ways and exactly how the charism took flesh. We can see that there are three fundamental elements: the intuition of the founder, the desire to live together, and the apostolates. As far as our friends or those who observe us are concerned, the last two elements may be more easily understood than the charism. But this is not a reason to let the meaning of the charism be devalued, since that would be to ignore the very source and to abandon the movement of the Spirit.

In Fr. d’Alzon’s lifetime there was no rapid growth of his institute, and its accomplishments were few. The latter, however, were not negligible. The Collège of Nîmes was flourishing; the “Near Eastern Mission” had begun; in Paris, the residence at rue François Ier became the initial headquarters of the “Maison de la Bonne Presse”; there was an orphanage at Arras with Fr. Halluin as director, which in the founder’s mind was an example of meeting a social need; and the alumnates[15] had been opened. But there were also lacunae: few new members; certain initiatives with no follow-through; a small college in Paris that barely lasted ten years; a fleeting foundation in Australia into which, as Fr. Quénard wrote, “an Irish bishop has imprudently enticed” the budding Assumptionist congregation.

A survey of the apostolic work undertaken, as communities were established in a number of countries, gives a picture of “Assumptionist geography.” Such a wide distribution was remarkable, given the relatively small number of religious. Even when the number reached almost two thousand and the Oblate Sisters of the Assumption were working with them, the geographical reach in relation to the numbers continued to be noteworthy.

Using the order found in the Constitutions and the Rule of Life, we shall describe in some detail the various apostolic activities undertaken by the Congregation. Taking an historical approach we shall try, rather than enter into a detailed analysis, to explain how the Assumptionists understood the mission of the church and their part in that mission. With time came “modernization,” slowly at first, then more and more quickly after the last World War. This was happening on a large scale in all areas of life. The Assumptionists, however, with the Church in general, could not allow themselves to be swept along in the flow of modern ideas. Theirs was the responsibility to translate their past into the present.

 

 

PART THREE

Areas of

Ministry

 

 

1

Teaching and Education

“Teaching is one of the most powerful ways of fulfilling the desire to make the Kingdom of Jesus Christ come.” These words are from Le Directoire, the spiritual guide for religious that Fr. d’Alzon began to write in 1859. He had already been teaching for many years and had also been the director of a college.[16] This was his favorite work. Teaching and education ranked as his second most important pastoral task after his work as vicar general of the diocese of Nîmes. Concerning the teaching and religious formation of youth he knew what he was talking about. His college, which was known outside of Catholic circles, was, thanks to the high standard of its studies, its own advertisement. Some of the teachers at his college had taught at universities. He was deeply committed to a personal and generous involvement in the cause of Catholic education. It was an expression of his faith. D’Alzon fought to protect private colleges from interference by the State and from the constraints of the public university system which he strongly accused of banishing God from the classroom and from the lives of young people.

In defending the truth, in teaching it to all regardless of age, and in communicating it to the greatest number, Fr. d’Alzon held to his basic principles. These went hand in hand with his fighting spirit as a citizen. The basic value was self-evident: it was freedom. The academic successes of his college made him even more persuasive in his demand for freedom. Among the first recipients of a baccalaureate degree were Anatole de Cabrières, a future cardinal, and François Picard, a future Assumptionist and the second superior general. After French legislators passed the Falloux Law in 1850 on freedom of education, Fr. d’Alzon in his capacity as director of the college was named a member of the National Board for Public Education. But being faithful to his convictions and to his demands for freedom, he resigned from it later on. It 1851 he founded the Revue de I’enseignement chrétien, which was to be, with his newspaper, La Liberté pour tous, his initiation into the world of the printed word and journalism. These publications did not last very long. But, just as in the case of the slow growth of his “little Congregation,” d’Alzon never lost hope; his was a strength that kept moving forward.

His perspective was very broad. In the Assumptionist program of education, no levels were left out. He foresaw it as “education understood in the fullest sense of the word, that is to say colleges, alumnates or apostolic schools, seminaries, graduate schools, and in certain circumstances, even primary schools.”

He dreamed of a Catholic university. He dreamed of higher studies with Christian teachers who shared his vision. His dream never came to pass in France or elsewhere in Europe.

The Assumptionists have a real tradition of running schools that are truly Catholic, especially in countries where the Church confronts a secular State. This tradition upholds Christian ideals and, at the same time, the values of classical culture. It promotes the study of “the humanities,” a field in which the Jesuits specialized as the undisputed masters. Assumptionists share Fr. d’Alzon’s convictions and those of others more involved, as teachers, in worldly issues. For the Congregation, education is an apostolic priority. This was taken for granted in the past and it entailed the hiring of a great number of teachers. A succession of Assumptionist teachers worked over the years in secondary schools, especially in France. These schools, however, failed to provide the Assumptionist vocations that were expected. This was the case at Agen, Nîmes (where the school is now under the direction of the Oblates of the Assumption), Perpignan, Tarbès, Toulouse, and Villefranche-sur-Saône, all of which had well known Assumptionist schools. This was contrary to what happened for other teaching congregations. The “formation of responsible Christian lay people” was a reality, but it is only the testimony of alumni and their involvement in the Church and society that would allow us to measure their value and their numerical importance. It is a pleasure to recall, for example, how Michel Serres, philosopher and writer, praised his Greek teacher at Agen, Fr. Tréhorel.

A strange phenomenon occurred after World War II. Like many institutes that had schools, the French Assumptionists gave up their schools one after the other because of a lack of available personnel. There were no longer teachers among the religious, or almost none. For one thing, lay people, who were equally competent in all aspects of education, including religious education, were replacing them. Moreover, the younger religious were showing a preference for other activities: foreign missions, parishes, ministry to special groups, associations, youth ministry, etc. Until then apostolic priority had been given to education that was, in the spirit of Fr. d’Alzon, religious in the broadest sense of the word. Now the need was felt to restructure the work of religious and to shift their attention to new areas of apostolate.

Elsewhere, in North America and in Belgium, the apostolate and visibility of the Assumptionists were mainly concentrated in the field of education. Their choice was deliberate. It was made not only because of the circumstances but also because of a different understanding of education as an apostolic mission.

Today in French-speaking Belgium there are two colleges that had formerly been alumnates. In each the administrative staff includes at least one religious with a position of responsibility. The direction, the management and the teaching are mainly in the hands of lay people. The situation is similar for North Belgium. Four colleges in Belgium (Bure, Gosselies, Kapelle-op-den-Bos, and Zepperen), two in each language area, were updated with the help of laity by means of an “educational and pedagogical project.”

The Assumptionists in the United States have taken a different position and have given a privileged place to education, linking it expressly to the idea of the founder. Assumption College in Worcester, near Boston (Massachusetts), functions on the university level, and in so doing it fulfills the dream of Fr. d’Alzon: to have a Catholic university. With an educational system that is different from that of European universities, it maintains a Department of Theology among others and it sponsors an Ecumenical Institute. Assumption College has a lengthy history, founded in 1904. Assumptionists crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the United States in 1895. They eventually founded a French-speaking apostolic school in New England where a French-speaking population coming from Canada had settled. These immigrants are commonly called “Francos” (for “Franco-Americans”). The religious, among whom there were some Belgians, took to heart (some say “too much so”) the spreading of the French language and literature. However, in the early 50’s the English language, because of a strong Anglo-Saxon culture, began to replace the French language spoken by a minority. In time, the American religious came to see that the French influence was too limiting and distanced themselves from it in large part, without at the same time removing every trace of the past.

In England there are no Catholic colleges of the American type. The Assumptionists there, however, ran two fine boys’ grammar schools (for pupils aged 11 to 18). The Becket School in Nottingham became one of the best schools of its size in the country. In 1948 its Assumptionist headmaster, Fr. Andrew Beck, was, at the age of forty-four, named bishop in a London diocese. He soon became recognized as one of the country’s most gifted bishops and from 1964-1976 he served as Archbishop of Liverpool. He was one of the principal architects of the Catholic school system of England; it is very largely due to his prolonged negotiations with the government that Catholic schools in England are financed for the most part by the State. Beck’s immediate successor at the Becket School was Fr. Bernard Rickett, who for over forty years was a gifted teacher and headmaster both in England and, for a few years, in Malta. Another Assumptionist, Fr. Roger Killeen, having taken First Class Honours, was immediately invited to teach at the university. Despite the prospect of a brilliant career, he became headmaster, first at the Assumptionist school in Hitchin, then later at the Becket School. When in 1977 the school passed to lay administration, Roger Killeen opened Emmanuel House (named in honor of Fr. d’Alzon) as a Day Center in Nottingham for anyone who had nowhere to go. It remains open all day every day of the year as a place where needy people can find shelter, food and friendship.[17]

It is said that when the Assumptionists arrived in Manchuria—this was in 1935 before the great upheavals—a rumor had preceded them in the Catholic mission milieu: “What are these religious coming here for? They are journalists and pilgrimage organizers.” In reality, they were coming to build and staff a major seminary, and there was even the thought of adding a secondary school for languages. Four years later, one of the religious wrote to a friend in France: “They will see that we know how to train good priests, at least as well as others.” A bishop would go so far as to compare them to the Sulpicians, well known for their competence in the formation of seminarians.

While being responsible for colleges, the Assumptionists did not become a purely teaching institute but gave evidence of competence in most situations. Some educational foundations, it is true, lasted only a short time or were somewhat risky operations: in France (Briey and Redon) and in the Ivory Coast. But it must be said that the Assumptionists exercised a superb mission of teaching and education. Their zeal led to the opening of technical and professional schools in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), to meet the needs not met by the State, and to help the country develop. And this work is far from finished.

Schools and colleges also had their place in Spain, Colombia, Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, Turkey, New Zealand (thanks to the Dutch Assumptionists), Tunisia, Algeria and elsewhere.

Indeed a few are still in existence.

Schools and colleges are usually established at the request of a local bishop or after an agreement is reached with him. Such an agreement is not always easy to negotiate or to maintain. It is the same for all pastoral ministries that come under the aegis of a bishop, but schools hold a special importance for education in the faith and the intellectual formation of the laity. That is why bishops watch over them carefully.

Colleges formed just one part of a province’s apostolic commitments, but to staff them many teachers are needed. One of the difficulties lay in finding teaching personnel that were sufficient and competent. In order to meet the competition, to show competence, to fulfill certain government requirements, it became necessary to permit an ever-growing number of religious to earn diplomas and to become familiar with pedagogical methods. A policy of more intensive university studies took root with more conviction than in the past.

In certain provinces of the Congregation, teaching has lost some of its prestige. The Rule of Life, however, has maintained education in first place when it lists apostolic activities. And this is not simply a case of honoring the founder.

 

 

2

A Case Study: The Alumnates

High up in the lovely mountain region of Beaufort-sur-Doron there stands the site of a uniquely symbolic Assumptionist foundation. Its story must be briefly told if one is to grasp something of the heroic spirit of the Congregation’s beginnings. It is a story deserving of admiration but which is not without its humorous side. Perhaps only an Assumptionist who has shared community life as it was lived in that remote spot can fully appreciate its significance both for those early days and for what was to grow out of them.

On this site, there was a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin: Notre Dame des Châteaux (Our Lady of the Castles). When Fr. Emmanuel Bailly had purchased it from Most Rev. Gros, the bishop of Tarentaise, with the chapel and the tiny property that was next to it, there remained only the ruins of an ancient estate of a lord. By tradition, the new owner became prince of Beaufort. Fr. d’Alzon, in his letters to his future successor, would jokingly call him by this title. As far as castles go, it was not too comfortable but it was finally inhabited and it became a foundation the likes of which had never been seen. On August 28, 1871, the feast of Saint Augustine, Fr. d’Alzon came to celebrate Mass there with five boys of secondary school age. This was the official opening of the house; the first alumnate was founded. In this hidden corner of the Savoyard Mountains, a religious adventure was beginning in conditions of poverty, austerity, and discipline, as well as enthusiasm that we cannot even imagine. The superior of this unique school was Fr. Pierre Descamps, a figure that was not to be forgotten. Fr. d’Alzon had brought back this son of a French father and a Greek mother from Constantinople in 1863. Fr. Descamps worked for many years with I’oeuvre des vocations (“vocation ministry”), which was founded at the same time as the alumnate; he also worked to found other alumnates in France and Belgium.

Fr. d’Alzon had a disappointing experience as far as his college in Nîmes was concerned. He expected many vocations for his Congregation, but he was mistaken. His very first disciples came from the college, but their example was not followed, or very little so. The founder had to accept the evidence. It was not enough to found a congregation; it had to attract vocations. Other founders of the same period were more fortunate in this respect than Emmanuel d’Alzon. He regularly gave a talk to his college students on Saturdays. One Saturday in March of 1871, he declared, “Since so few of you fulfill the desire that we had conceived for you, namely, to enter into the ecclesiastical state, we shall address ourselves to the poor. Since you judge yourselves unworthy, we shall turn toward the Gentiles.” Obviously he did not mean that they would turn toward pagans, unless we understand the word in its Latin sense of “peasants.” There would be many sons of peasants, in France and elsewhere, among the students of his alumnates. He was making a point: the children of the bourgeois or the aristocratic circles that went to the Collège de l’Assomption were not in a hurry to enter a congregation whose future was uncertain, nor would they become clergy in the Church. Other careers attracted them. It did occur to Fr. d’Alzon to question his own motivation in approaching the lower class. Was it only to get more recruits, as one says in the military? There is plenty of evidence that he had concern for ordinary people, but he had even greater concern to give to the Church of France priests of quality, worthy Assumptionists, men of the Church as well as men of God, “an elite,” as he would say. In a circular letter to his religious dated July 13, 1874, we read as follows, “The young man ready to enter the novitiate who does not burn with the love of Our Lord, who is not enthusiastic for the battles of the Church, may become a good priest, pious, orderly, modest, mediocre, and ordinary; he will never be a true Assumptionist.”

In creating these schools, the alumnates, Fr. d’Alzon was inspired by his total commitment to the Church. He was thinking of the Church in France as he saw it at that time: in peril from without, threatened by mediocrity from within. His Congregation would have no other purpose than to serve that Church. The Congregation was to be made up of men of special quality. There was no room in his thinking for recruiting mediocre subjects. This is evident from reading the requirements for the alumnates and the alumnists. The boys were to have a piety practiced “with great simplicity and openness”; they were to live “an austere and rough life”; Christian studies “must have an almost exclusive place, especially the two tongues of the Church, Latin and Greek”; manual labor must be done “to prepare for work as future missionaries”; the ceremonies of the Church will be their “great joys.” Fr. d’Alzon requires “an above average intelligence,” application to one’s studies, a deep feeling of the greatness of this vocation”, and “joy in God’s service.” “Their solid vocation will enable them to become fervent and useful priests, holy religious, in a word, truly apostolic men.”

Clearly what Fr. d’Alzon had in mind was a purely clerical formation and the program of studies was designed within this perspective. It included and emphasized liturgy and the Prayer of the Church, known in those days as the “Divine Office,” and it borrowed certain elements from the monastic life.

The alumnates remained faithful, if not to all the practices, at least to “the alumnate spirit,” a concept that like “the Assumptionist spirit” meant much to the brothers and to friends of the Congregation. Starting right from the alumnate, the young boy would be introduced into the Assumptionist family, and he knew this.

It was made clear, in accordance with the founder’s wishes, that when a boy left the alumnate, he was free to make a choice. If he chose the priesthood he could ask to enter the Assumptionists or apply to a diocesan seminary or to another order or congregation. This provision was clear evidence of Fr. d’Alzon’s devotion to the Church, and on the part of his sons, of their disinterestedness, even if in fact a majority of alumnists chose the Assumptionists. This characteristic, moreover,—and there were others—distinguished the alumnates from the minor seminaries, the juniorates, or the apostolic schools run by other institutes.

There were many alumnates, too many in fact judged by the rapidity with which some were opened, the brief existence of others and, in certain cases, their geographic location. But the many that lasted, and indeed their quality, have a unique and cherished place in the Congregation’s history. For Assumptionists they have always been a precious and fruitful part of their heritage, an apostolate in which a great number of religious were involved, for the most part willingly so.

There is no need here for statistics, which in any case would be only approximate for the different countries. But any count of the vocations fostered from 1871 to the 1950s, at which point this form of clerical formation could no longer be continued, gives great credit to this apostolate founded by Fr. d’Alzon. It was the source of many priests for local Churches and religious for other institutes who, even if they went elsewhere, never forgot that they were alumnists. As far as the Assumptionist congregation is concerned, without the alumnates it would never have become what it became, and most likely it would have disappeared some time ago through lack of men. There is general agreement on this in the Congregation and it is seen as having been a good thing. If Fr. d’Alzon had been mistaken in expecting many vocations from his college, he did not make a mistake when he predicted that the alumnate would be the future of his Congregation. He was not mistaken in putting his trust in the faith of religious such as Fr. Pierre Descamps or Fr. Édouard Bachelier, an astonishingly gifted and colorful character, who spent forty years teaching. There are as well many other superiors and teachers whose names come to mind when the necrology is read during the Eucharist. One has the same feeling as when the martyrology is read with the names of the apostles and of the saints. This writer remembers one of them, a soldier in the First World War, a peaceful and soft spoken son of the land, possessed of a wisdom he was unaware of. He did not pretend to be an intellectual since he was not and he artfully hid a kind, fatherly heart under cover of a severe mien. His name was Nestor Craisse (what a first name!), and almost no one, except the rare survivors of that era, would remember the fine features of this religious and native of Ardennes.

Does our memory tend to dress up the past? It does happen, but at times it is just the opposite. Criticisms have been leveled at the alumnates, just as at all residential religious schools (but also at boarding schools in general). We are familiar with them. There exists a literature on this subject which is nostalgic or emotional, or full of rancor and rejection, or a settling of scores with the Church or one’s childhood. In the alumnates, everything was not idyllic. The spiritual demands of the founder inevitably came face to face with the reality of things, with people and with the failings of the time. Let it be clear that we do not hide any of these complaints. But it is only fair to let history pass judgment on them. The most insidious charge was that these adolescents were being brainwashed by a clerical conditioning which was harmful to their freedom. In all honesty, accepting that each person is responsible for himself and also that each vocation is a matter for one’s conscience, let us see what former alumnists who are still alive have to say. They alone are able to give true testimony. A Congregation, as dynamic as the Assumptionists, showed that it was on many occasions and in many trials, capable of reviving, when necessary, the spirituality of the Kingdom, in fidelity to its founder. This Congregation is around to attest that authentic personal involvement is not an empty word, and that among its best sons there is a modest but very effective presence of not a few former alumnists.

Almost alone, they created the family portrait. Without resorting to theory, they discovered how to live a community life that was sound sociologically and that respected the personality of each person. They developed a style of human relations among themselves as men and as religious. It was rooted in their peasant origins and in their shared poverty. The spirit of their communities was rightly called “l’esprit de famille” (a family spirit), which was dear to the heart of Fr. d’Alzon. Yet, at the same time, they spoke to one another with respect. The same spirit and the same characteristics are encountered wherever in the world Assumptionist communities are to be found.

Eventually the alumnates were closed, one after the other, the last being that of Scherwiller (Alsatia). The first alumnate, Notre Dame des Châteaux (Our Lady of the Castles), closed in 1903 after thirty-two years. There had been alumnates as far apart as: Koum-Kapou (Turkey) until the expulsion of the religious for “crimes of the congregation” (1899); Elorrio (Spain) that became a college; Mendoza (Chile); Bure (Walloon Belgium) that became a college and which celebrated its centennial in 2000; Miribel-les-Échelles (France); Zepperen (Flemish Belgium); Boxtel (Holland); Bethnal Green (England)—to name only a few. The record is of a series of births, transformations and disappearances. There would be enough material to write “a meditation on the walls” of the houses founded, then abandoned, or of those that had to be closed because of war, material poverty, or the re-ordering of means and policies. As they moved forward, Assumptionists learnt from those walls what the Kingdom really means: that here below we have no lasting dwelling. To settle down can be deadening, to move on is a sign of life.

A page, and a long one, had been turned. It has recorded an edifying story of faith and perseverance. The last alumnists are now quite old. The hope of the Assumptionist Congregation now lies with the new young men who are entering. But one thing is certain: the memory of the alumnates, open to the poor, will live on.

 

 

3

A Great Plan: The Unity of Christians

The “end” of Protestantism

When Fr. d’Alzon was ordained to the priesthood on December 26, 1834, at Nîmes, one third of the native population belonged to the Reformed Church. He would have wanted to start working immediately against Protestantism: “We believe that we have the truth,” he declared, “we believe that you are in error.” If his bishop had not called him to serve his diocese as Vicar General, he would not have delayed in taking up this challenge. All error must be fought. Since in his mind he possessed the truth, nothing seemed more logical. The Catholic Church had to be vindicated, but it was also essential to confront the “separated brethren” and the “heretics” and to uproot their heresy.

Since he believed that Protestantism was near its end in France, as in England and Germany, he was even surer of himself and of his crusade for the Catholic Church. He was convinced that Protestantism was bound to fall apart since it possessed no unified doctrine or leader such as the Pope; instead, under the influence of liberalism and ideas spreading from Germany and Switzerland, there was the anarchy of individual opinions and the logic of free choice. D’Alzon questioned whether those who “mutilate” the Bible and deny the authority of Church “ministers” were still Christians. Some would go downhill along the slippery slope of decadence into a religion that no longer deserved the name; others, faced with the inevitable end, would have but one solution: to return to the one Church, the Catholic Church. These must be welcomed with open arms.

An historian has remarked that, at the same time, somewhat ironically, certain Protestants thought that France was becoming reformed. More and more Protestants were getting involved in civil affairs and taking on responsibilities. Opinions can contradict themselves; predictions are no more accurate than analyses. Fr. d’Alzon’s faith, unquestionably motivated by sincerity and honesty, drove him, regardless of his responsibilities, to preach and to advocate coordinated actions by Catholics, first and foremost, with a view to establishing Christian unity. This was the goal of the Association of Saint Francis de Sales. It also sought to convince, first of all, Catholics themselves that the time had come to seek Christian unity. In 1853, in the cathedral of Nîmes, he gave a series of conferences with this in mind. Another series was planned for the following year but not given. There was no apparent result among Catholics.

D’Alzon’s desire was to make converts, nothing less. But he did not attack persons, except on one occasion in a polemical article against a pastor in a review published in Languedoc. He was not in favor of taking to the streets. He founded an orphanage for young Protestant girls. He encouraged Catholics to study everything, including Protestantism, but he explained it in his own way. He was glad to hear that in England, Anglicans were converting to Catholicism. He was familiar with the Oxford Movement, grouped around Wiseman, Newman, and Manning, all converts whose influence was to be considerable.

Originally the word “ecumenical” was used of a General Council of the Church in the sense of “universal.” The word “ecumenism” was introduced much later. The ecumenical spirit of today, which many in the Church strive to nurture, makes some of the language of the 1923 Constitutions sound embarrassing. That text spoke of the “conversion of infidels” and of the “return of the dissidents.” Fundamentally what is at issue in the document is in fact the “unity of Christians” but Fr. d’Alzon would never put it in those terms. He could never conceive of the Reformed Church as belonging in any way to the one, true Church. That true Church could never be a federation.

The Congregation as such did not inherit from its founder a special vocation to engage in debates and dialogue with Protestants. In France only a small number of religious were interested in ecumenism: in parishes, in ministry to special groups or by way of specialized studies. The picture was different in mainly non-Catholic countries such as Holland and the United States. Attitudes on both sides have greatly evolved. Mutual respect intellectual understanding, and occasions for common prayer are a measure of the progress that has been made. As I write (1999), an Assumptionist, Fr. Bruno Chenu, presides over the Group of Dombes a forum for theologians whose assiduous scholarship in major areas of doctrine is directed towards growth in ecumenical understanding.[18]

The encounter with the Orthodox

For the Assumptionists another horizon beckoned, one usually known as “the East.” This name, however, is very imprecise from the geographic point of view. It does not cover the Far East nor that part of the world that includes Palestine and Lebanon. But the Balkans and Russia were part of it, as was Turkey. The Assumptionists with their strong oral and written traditions continue to speak of “the Near Eastern Mission” (Mission d’Orient). Their memory is still filled with “exotic” places beyond Western Europe, some that are difficult to pronounce and are therefore mispronounced! Among older Assumptionists the names of these places sometimes provoke a smile, but one that does not conceal a very real admiration for what was so audaciously attempted. This is no less so because history has had the last word and because the dream of proselytism proved to have been ill-advised. What was attempted was inspired by faith in the Church. It lives on. It has survived the worse effects of wars and political tyranny in Eastern and Central Europe.

The word “mission” is inappropriate today in the present context. It offends Orthodox Christians who feel, rightly so, no need to be evangelized as if they were pagans or unbelievers. The word conjures up for them the image of a Church, the Catholic Church, whose power they fear and whose Roman system they reject. In their eyes the Pope is at the center of the oldest divisions, more visibly so even than the theological controversies. Nonetheless, the term “Near Eastern Mission” persists for want of a better one.

In 1861, Fr. d’Alzon welcomed children to Nîmes exiled from Syria, following a revolt by the Druze and bloodbaths in the country. This gave him the idea of founding a seminary for the Maronite (“Eastern” Catholic) clergy that he hoped to establish in Jerusalem. He had the financial means to do so because of his family inheritance. But things went in another direction. The Assumptionists remained interested in Jerusalem, but the attraction of Fr. d’Alzon for the Near East would have to be realized in another country that was much closer. He was in Rome in May of 1862 on a pilgrimage with Most Rev. Plantier, his new bishop, and seventy-seven priests of the diocese. On May 27, Pope Pius IX granted an audience to the bishop. Before he entered with his bishop into the hall where they were to be received, Fr. d’Alzon was approached by Msgr. Lavigerie, the founder of the White Fathers, and two other members of the clergy who had agreed to dissuade him from pursuing the Jerusalem project and suggest that he consider Bulgaria. The pope did the same and blessed his apostolic work “in the East and in the West,” even before the “Mission” was opened.

Why Bulgaria?

Certain groups of Christian Bulgarians were seeking closer links with Rome for religious motives but at the same time so as to free themselves from the religious and political pressures of Constantinople. This movement had a nationalistic tone. Pius IX wanted to give to the Bulgarians a well-trained clergy, loyal to Rome, but at the same time desirous of preserving the riches of their special religious traditions, avoiding personal or separatist designs. The pope knew that he could count on the total cooperation of Fr. d’Alzon. He was favorable to the seminary project. He left the choice of the site to the Assumptionists, although he guided them toward Bulgaria.

As early as August 1, 1862, on the occasion of the distribution of awards in his college, d’Alzon gave a talk on “the Bulgarian project.” His father made a generous donation for this work. On December 20, a religious left Rome for Constantinople, where Fr. d’Alzon would go the following year, in order to prepare the foundation; he was Fr. Victorin Galabert. That name is still well known today both to the Assumptionists and to the sisters, the Oblates of the Assumption (missionary Oblates) founded in 1865 by Fr. d’Alzon to collaborate with the religious in Bulgaria.

Victorin Galabert was a physician before entering the Congregation. He was a theologian, a canonist, and a true friend of Bulgaria and its people. It was said that he had “the soul of a Slav.” There is a well known photo of him featuring a large, bald head, a long black beard, and the cincture on his Augustinian habit. He was to become the vicar general of Most Rev. Popov, bishop of the Bulgarian Uniates (united to Rome), whom he accompanied during his pastoral visits throughout the country. He also accompanied him to the Vatican Council in 1870 and tried to stop the Orientals from joining those bishops who thought that papal infallibility was inopportune. In the history of the Congregation he was a forerunner, a man of the Church, with one purpose: to defend its name and to promote its growth. He was a precursor of the ecumenical spirit.

“The Slav project” (this is the expression that was formerly used) began in Bulgaria with a primary school at Philippopolis (Plovdiv), a club, a house for young men thinking of the priesthood, and parish activities. These were the beginnings and would continue to be the three main apostolic areas of the whole “Mission”: education, formation of clergy, and parishes.

In 1884 at Plovdiv the College Saint Augustin was opened. This school was to take a prestigious place in Bulgarian national life. It was open to Catholics and Orthodox and frequented by an influential middle class. The same can be said of the college of Varna. In these two localities, just as at Yamboli in Adrianopolis (Edirne), to be more precise, in a suburb named Caragatch, the apostolates of the religious men were divided among teaching, the formation of youth, and parishes, while those of the sisters included teaching, charitable works, and parochial assistance to there religious.

The Assumptionists played a significant role in major and minor seminaries where they had to handle the administration and recruit the professors among the religious. This was neither always easy nor satisfactory. But the apostolic zeal was strong. There was a Bulgarian seminary at Caragatch, a Greek seminary at Koum-Kapou in the Stamboul quarter of Constantinople, and an Armenian seminary at Phanaraki (Constantinople, on the Asian coast). Already at this time we can see a moving away from Bulgaria to Turkey.

In the 1920s, houses were opened in new countries in Central and Mediterranean Europe, among them Romania and Yugoslavia. In Fr. Picard’s time, there had already been talk of a foundation in Romania, but it was not until 1923 that the Congregation accepted the offer made by the bishop of Blaj. He wanted an alumnate for his diocese. The bishop of Lugoj made the same offer in order to favor a renewal of religious life. The Oblates of the Assumption opened a house at Beius in 1925. The Assumptionists opened a novitiate under the care of an English religious, Fr. Austin Treamer, and it was hoped that this would expand the Congregation thanks to the vocations coming from the Romanian people. Young Romanians went to France for their studies.

At Bucharest, the capital, a house had been opened. That is where the scholarly team of the review Échos d’Orient took refuge when, with the arrival of a new regime in Turkey, now a secular republic, the departure of religious became inevitable. From Cadi-Keuy/Kadikoy, near Istanbul, the editorial staff of the review went to Bucharest. From Bucharest it eventually had to move at the same time as the Institute for Byzantine Studies with the help of French political authorities; it was transferred to rue François Ier, Paris, in 1949. Nevertheless, Assumptionist Byzantine scholars, under the direction of Fr. Vitalien Laurent, were able to continue their work peacefully in Bucharest during the war before the arrival of the Communist régime that expelled them.

Beginning with teaching, the diffusion of French culture, supported by the civil governments of the Third Republic, was part of the activity of our Eastern missionaries. In Yugoslavia, something else happened, which is not unrelated to other historical events. During the First World War a Franco-Serbian friendship was formed. The French and the Serbs fought together on the Salonica front. Serbia remembered the help that France had given, which put an end to Ottoman domination. This friendship facilitated the Assumptionist presence there. The first Oblates arrived in Turkey in 1925 after their schools in France had been closed. The Assumptionists came not long afterwards. The first to arrive was Fr. Privat Bélard, formerly the founder of the college of Varna (Bulgaria). He built a church, a hall for activities, and a school. The religious taught catechism. Some traveled all the way to Bor, a mining region, to give spiritual help to the Franco-Italian colony and the Yugoslav workers. Fr. Privat Bélard started to build a memorial church in honor of the soldiers of the Eastern front. The Second World War exploded. After international hostilities, Josip Broz Tito, who established a Communist regime and who later withdrew from the Moscow alignment, seized power. Fr. Bélard was expelled. For the Assumptionists, freedom of religion was nothing but an empty phrase. They were accused of obstructing the official policy concerning youth. Today, there are no longer any Assumptionists in the former Yugoslavia.

The Balkans Crucified

Before the collapse of the Communist Empire in 1989, the Assumptionists in Bulgaria and Romania were isolated from the rest of the Congregation and obliged to live underground. For years there was no news of them, even though what was happening there was, in a general way, well known. Superiors were not free to contact them. It was “the Church of silence.” Most of the religious in both countries experienced prison, hard labor, and concentration camps.

What was not fully understood was that of all the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria’s was one of the harshest. On November 11, 1952, three Assumptionists were shot to death: Fathers Kamen Vitchev, Pavel Djidjov, and Josaphat Schiskov.[19]

The professional filmmakers, Marie-Ange and Claude Sauvageot, produced a documentary film, The Balkans Crucified, which was first shown at a meeting of Assumptionists in 1996. Its subject is the activities of the three priests and their trial and condemnation. Their charges were the usual ones: spying for the Vatican, plotting against the government, and acting as servants of capitalism. The film is upsetting to watch; it is hard to listen to the testimony of those Bulgarian religious who were imprisoned and came out alive but forever traumatized. One of these was Most Rev. Stratiev, Exarch emeritus of Sofia. One priest in a strong and fearful voice repeats twice: “We thought that we would crack up.” A Carmelite nun narrates with an astonishing serenity how the “police” tried to destroy consciences and make the innocent feel guilty so that they would end up by giving false witness. The film takes viewers to the spot—a veritable hell—on an island in the Danube, unknown to the rest of the world, where political prisoners were held. Everyone is familiar today with the published records of sinister trials held under totalitarian regimes, but the present writer needs to say here, “As I watched this film it moved me with overwhelming sadness, as if until then I had been incredulous and needed these irrefutable voices to assure me that such horrors had happened to my own brothers, falsely put to death as spies.” Their cause for beatification as martyrs has been introduced in Rome. They died for their faith and they did so as religious. No one can deny that they were simply loyal patriots (editor’s note: they were beatified by Pope John Paul II in Plovdiv on May 26, 2002).

The Congregation is still present in Bulgaria. The college of Plovdiv, which the State had confiscated in 1948 to make it into an official university, is still used as such. But at Plovdiv, there is now a community on the site of the foundation of the “Near Eastern Mission.” In Romania, besides the community of Margineni (Saint Augustine’s House), there is a house at Blaj, another site that bears witness to Assumptionist history.

In these two countries, reinforcement, not numerous but appreciated, was provided by the provinces of Belgium (Flemish) and of France, and the region of Italy. This is a sign that bears a message: the Assumptionists never forgot the Near East. Their heart was there throughout the “Cold War,” with our Bulgarian and Romanian religious. Assumptionists everywhere wanted to show their solidarity with these witnesses, that “the Mission” had never ceased living, regardless of the small number and slow results.

Toward the Russian Revolution

At the time the “Mission” was founded in Bulgaria, Fr. d’Alzon had long been thinking of Russia. In a note dated March 30, 1878, destined for the Vatican, he explained that, ever since Pius IX had suggested Bulgaria, his views had extended “much farther”; “Russia has become my great preoccupation,” he wrote. He opened his heart on this topic to the Pope, who gave him “his blessing.” Russia had been the object of his reflection, more than once, on the international scene. This reflection had been quite personal, even categorical: “The Church has three great enemies: the Revolution, Prussia, and Russia, and Russia is not the least to be feared.”[20] Or again: “Russia and its schism are one of the great dangers to the Church. The papacy is caught between two pitfalls: the Revolution and the Oriental schism”[21] (November 19, 1869). He encouraged his sons to go and “conquer” Russia.

What would he have said if he had lived to see the Revolution of 1917, which installed a Communist regime in Russia, professing materialism and militant atheism? By 1917 the Assumptionists had already been in Russia at Odessa and Vilna for twelve years and in Saint Petersburg for fourteen years. They took care of Russian and French Catholics at Petrograd, Odessa, Kiev, and Vilna (Lithuania). A period of unbelievable upheavals had begun. In 1905, an aborted revolution had only delayed the onset of the Bolshevist Revolution. The USSR (Union of Socialist Soviet Republics) was formed in 1922. Catholic religious pursued their apostolates in a Russia that would no longer be the same, in which the future of Catholicism seemed to be compromised.

Once Fathers August Maniglier, Evrard Evrard, and Gervais Quénard had left Russia, the Assumptionist “Mission” there lay in the hands of one man, Fr. Pie Neveu.[22] He exercised his ministry in the mining center of Makeyevka (Donetz region), and he managed to remain there. He refused to abandon his church and his Christians. He had entered the Assumptionists in 1895. After his studies at the seminary of Orleans, he wrote to Fr. Picard in 1901, “The unity of the Churches has become my only thought. I shall go toward these poor separated brothers without letting myself be carried away by an illusory enthusiasm, but nevertheless with a generous spirit. It is especially for the Russians that my heart beats.” Fr. Picard sent him to Romania; Fr. Emmanuel Bailly transferred him to Russia. He showed a determination that was more than admirable, that neither police and army searches nor isolation could discourage. “I shall hold on to my post right to the end,” he wrote to Fr. Joseph Maubon, vicar general of the Congregation, in 1921, four years after the Revolution. Pope Pius XI wanted to maintain the Church’s presence in Communist Russia, but there were no longer any Catholic bishops there. In 1926, therefore, he named Fr. Neveu bishop with the title of Apostolic Administrator of Moscow. He was consecrated bishop in secret on April 21 at the church of Saint Louis-des-Français in Moscow by Bishop d’Herbigny, who himself had been consecrated by Bishop Pacelli, the future Pius XII. The event and its background are graphically described by Patrick Croghan (see previous footnote). What was in fact placed under Bishop Neveu’s care was the whole Catholic Church in Russia! Upon returning to France and after having attended the consecration of a bishop, he wrote in a letter, “It was so beautiful! I could not help comparing the consecration of yours truly with what took place in the age of the catacombs. I had come to Moscow wearing a chauffeur’s overcoat having no idea that I was to be consecrated bishop in five seconds and in secret, in a locked church and in the presence of a man and a woman, the only witnesses of the ceremony.”

The Soviet authorities had granted him a visa to leave the USSR, but refused to grant him a return visa. He had spent thirty years[23] in the country that he loved and whose régime and ideology he so clearly analyzed. This writer saw him at a profession ceremony at the novitiate. He was clearly a hero. Had he not shown heroic faith and endurance in resisting the threats of the police and the cruelty of the régime?[24]

In 1954 another Assumptionist, Fr. Jean (Judicaël) Nicolas returned from Russia to Paris. His steps faltered and he looked like a broken man, just like a Franciscan who had escaped from Buchenwald and who came to speak at our house in Louvain; one could hear the suffering in his voice. In 1943, Fr. Nicolas, who worked in Romania, had been encouraged by his superiors to leave for Odessa, taking advantage of the advance of the German armies to which some Romanians belonged. There was a strong minority of Russian and French Catholics living in Odessa. Once the Soviet troops returned, Father Nicolas was arrested. He fell into the hands of the GPU (Soviet Secret Service) and was imprisoned in the notorious Lubianka Prison (which happened to be in the same street as the church of St. Louis mentioned above!). There he was interrogated and then deported first to Kazakhstan, then to a newly exploited mining region at Vorkouta, beyond the Arctic Circle. He narrated his story, finding the courage to do so with a certain humor, in a book entitled Eleven Years in Paradise.[25] He used the word “gulag” before it became popular here with the work of Solzhenitsyn.[26] Surprisingly the French press at the time gave very meager space to this man’s moving testimony. It was the period of Stalin’s reign of terror, of iniquitous trials and of the closure of religious buildings.

Since 1934, as a result of the Roosevelt-Litvinov Agreement, Fr. Leopold Braun, an American Assumptionist, had been in Moscow primarily as chaplain for the American Catholics in the country.[27] He lived alone. His story too is impressive. Without having met him and without knowing very well what his situation was there, a young theologian wrote a play in which Fr. Braun was the hero. Chaplain for the United States embassy in Moscow, he kept the Vatican informed, at his peril, of the situation there. After he left, this post was held by Assumptionists, except for an interruption of four years. Like Fr. Braun, they were Americans (Franco-Americans) and former students of Assumption College in Worcester.[28] One after the other represented the Assumptionists there until the collapse of the USSR.[29]

Today, in Moscow, the Assumptionist congregation has revived its painful past in more peaceful conditions than one could have ever foreseen. Fr. Bernard Le Léannec, a journalist for several years at La Croix and “a convert” to the ecumenical movement, familiar with Orthodox theology and conversant in Russian with his natural gift for languages, is the pastor of the Church of Saint Louis des Français. Fr. Adrien Masson, another Breton who speaks English and who had previously worked in Jerusalem, is now with him. Russia has become their adopted country and they have a particular interest in welcoming the young and of awakening, if possible, vocations to the religious life. The new régime has its share of political and moral problems. The new direction that history has taken has not removed the barriers of entrenched attitudes, traditions, prejudices, distrust, and bigotry. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that relationships between Orthodox and Catholics have not been transformed overnight. It’s a matter of centuries.

In the Land of Islam

Everything had its starting point in Bulgaria. From there, the Assumptionists were sent to “conquer” Russia, then to the Balkans and on to the neighboring country of Turkey. Adrianopolis (Edirne), over which there was a quarrel between the Balkans and the Turks, was returned to Turkey. The Assumptionists had made their debut as “Orientals” there. Today they are still in the land of Islam. Another of Fr. d’Alzon’s dreams would be realized, at least for a time.

He dreamed of a foundation in the old Christian City of Chalcedon, where, in 451, one of the great councils had been held. Cadi-Keuy/Kadikoy is situated right there on the banks of the Bosphorus, across from the modern-day Istanbul. What brought them there? Pope Leo XIII, who was preoccupied with the return of the “dissident Orient,” had called upon the Assumptionists and given them parishes in Stamboul (a part of Constantinople) and Cadi-Keuy. Their mission was to establish whatever apostolic works they deemed necessary, including a seminary. This latter would be opened at Cadi-Keuy, under the patronage of Saint Leo, the Pope of the Council of Chalcedon. Recruits for the seminary came from Assumptionist houses at Phanaraki (another area of Constantinople) and at Caragatch (Bulgaria). Young Assumptionists in formation elsewhere joined them. But, as early as November 16, 1914, Turkey went to war aligning itself with the Germany of Wilhelm II, and the Assumptionist houses had to be closed. The French were no longer welcome.

It was envisaged that ancient Chalcedon would become a historical center. Leo XIII had given as a directive the teaching of regular school subjects but Oriental culture as well. In the same year as this pontifical brief, 1895, Fr. Louis Petit, who was to become Archbishop of Athens, founded the house of studies of Cadi-Keuy and, in October of 1897, he launched the review Échos d’Orient. We shall speak of this important event later. At present, it is sufficient to note the double goal of the “Mission”: direct and spiritual apostolates. As early as 1863, Fr. d’Alzon had asked that study of the Near East be pursued at the same time as pastoral activity. Turkey is not a land of Orthodoxy as are Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia. The Assumptionist congregation implanted itself in a surprising manner in this country that was almost totally Muslim. Where weak Christian minorities did exist, the “Mission” entered into close contact with them. There is an old map of Bulgaria and Turkey showing the locations of no less than thirty-seven Assumptionist houses or simple “posts.” It takes one from Constantinople to Angora (Ankara, formerly Angora); to Konya (Iconium in the Acts of the Apostles), the main center of Turkish Islam; to Iznik (Nicea); to Caesarea (Kaisarieh, former capital of Cappadocia); then on to Ismidt (Nicomedia), Brousse (Bursa), Eskisehir (Doryleus), Gallipoli, close to the Dardenelles, to mention but a few.

After the War of 1914, some religious returned, but the situation became increasingly uncertain. Kemal Atatürk proclaimed the secular republic and exercised a strict control over religious schools. In 1925, there were only some thirty religious and Oblates there. In 1926, Fr. Quénard, who was visiting the “Mission,” could still count several hundred students studying with the religious and the sisters at Koum-Kapou and Haidar Pacha; but he was concerned about the future. When the schools closed, the “Mission” was reduced to very few religious and activities.

Turkey, which was formerly called Asia Minor, was, after Palestine, a land of nascent Christianity. Fr. d’Alzon thought of it when he thought of Chalcedon. The Assumptionist traveler from Europe, moved by the memory of the journeys of St. Paul in those places, recalls the communities founded by d’Alzon that have now disappeared or are unrecognizable. He sees today only a very small flock of Christians there. Barrès with lyric words in his Survey of the Levantine Country paid tribute to the missionaries and, in so doing, paid respects also to what is in fact a graveyard for churches.

There is still an Assumptionist presence in Turkey today. For the first time, an Assumptionist is apostolic vicar of Istanbul, Bishop Louis-Armel Pelâtre. He has a long experience of the country, of the Christians scattered throughout the population, and of the Muslim world that is its environment. Another Assumptionist, Fr. Xavier Jacob, has specialized in the study of Turkish Islam. He had been living at Ankara with Fr. Xavier Nuss, who has translated liturgical texts into Turk. Recently, for lack of personnel, the Assumptionists handed over their work in Ankara to the Jesuits.

Inter-religious dialogue in Turkey remains no more than a hope. The Assumptionists hadn’t planned to become immersed in Islam, to undertake a study of it or to engage in a structured dialogue, as the White Fathers had. However, many religious have had real contact with the Muslim milieu. Such was also the case when houses were founded in Tunisia and Algeria. For the most part, Turkey is a totally different situation. North Africa is an Arab land. The Congregation arrived there as these countries were about to seek independence. France was not aware of this; otherwise it would probably have hesitated to introduce new French institutes to those countries. The Assumptionists went there readily, but it was to be a short-lived experience with the dawn of independence in Tunisia in 1956 and in Algeria in 1962. For the Assumptionists that meant thirty years in Tunisia (1934-1964) and only fourteen in Algeria (1949-1963).

It should be emphasized that, in North Africa, Catholics were but a small minority. In the years 1950-60, this minority consisted mostly of Europeans, especially French. The apostolate first consisted of a very modest parish ministry in Tunisia inaugurated in 1934 (Tunis, Gabès). Ten years later a school, the College Saint-Louis, was opened at Sidi Driff and in 1950 it was moved to LaMarsa, not far from Carthage with its memories, precious to Assumptionists, of that great North African, Saint Augustine. Another encounter with the Congregation’s patriarch would take place when in 1951 the College Emmanuel d’Alzon was opened, first at Bugeaud, then at Bone (formerly Hippo and today Annaba). In 1955, some fifty religious, of whom many were teachers, were working in North Africa.

The wisdom of the Congregation’s decision to enter the Maghreb, especially in Algeria at that particular moment of political history, has been questioned. Praiseworthy as the commitment of these religious was, their departure proved quite painful. They built and then they left. Only God knew what the harvest would be. The same thing happened at other times in the Congregation’s history. A worker’s reward is the quality of his labor; he doesn’t always see the end results. One thing is certain: these missionaries did not present themselves as conquering proselytes. A half-century later we are still deeply moved when we recall the sacrifice of blood of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine[30] and of the underground presence of the few Christians of North Africa.

From Istanbul to Athens

The Assumptionists circumscribed the Mediterranean, which is Christian and Muslim. At its center is Greece, another land of Orthodoxy. In 1912, Fr. Louis Petit, whom we already met in Turkey, was named Archbishop of Athens where he inaugurated the presence of the Assumptionists in Greece. He was the founder of the review Échos d’ Orient, from which was to come the Institute for Byzantine Studies. Bishop Petit left Athens for Rome in 1925. Among his accomplishments, too numerous to record, were: the publication of the Acts of the First Vatican Council, the foundation of the Congregation in the Near East and of the Oriental Institute, and the elaboration of the Oriental Code of Canon Law. He was convinced that it was essential for religious to have an intellectual formation appropriate to their apostolates. A scholarly colloquium honored him in 1997 in Rome.

His former secretary, Fr. Gregorio Vuccino (Gregorios Voutsinos) A.A., succeeded him in the episcopate and became the bishop of Syra. A Greek, Fr. Antonios Varthalitis, A.A., was archbishop of Kerkyra (Corfu).

The Congregation has maintained its presence in Athens, where there was an alumnate and where, for several years, a center for studies existed that was linked to the Institute for Byzantine Studies. Today, a small community is in charge of the parish of Saint Theresa. The religious have acquired a deep experience of the Orthodox milieu. Through them, the Congregation receives, when the occasion arises, direct information on an “Oriental” Church that has not known the political upheavals of Russia or the Balkans and that presents a very special face of Orthodoxy.


4

Reaching Out to the Faithful:

Our Lady of Salvation.

Pilgrimages

Popular apostolates, evangelization of the masses, and a “pastoral activity that would touch people”: how many times Emmanuel d’Alzon would come back to the urgency that he felt to reach out to the faithful. For him that meant the whole population of France, which extolled secularism in its political institutions and shunned God in its public activities. It banished Him from schools and the university, persecuted the Church, and attacked those who belonged to “congregations.” As we have seen, Fr. d’Alzon’s judgment on this militant Republic was unmitigated; that of his immediate successors was not more conciliatory on the question of ideology. The defeat of 1870 (Franco-Prussian War) and the bloody events of the Commune of Paris were seen as a humiliation for the country and a punishment for the sins of a nation. It was hoped that our apostolates would bring France back to a respect for the rights of God and of the Church. Action catholique (“Catholic Action”), undertaken by Catholics in the social and political spheres, was necessary within France, while externally the missionaries of the Near East and other places would assure the Catholic vocation of the Assumptionists.

But the founder also thought of those who were placed in unjust situations because of rapid population growth and who were pushed toward the “Revolution,” socialism, social struggles, and moral decadence. There, also, the diagnostic had not changed. The “Catholic” answer could only be evangelization, christianization. Fr. d’Alzon wrote to his novices, “We must become all things to all people. We must strive as much as possible to come into contact with the people. We must in every way possible get involved in popular forms of apostolates. It is by the evangelization of the poor that the evangelization of the world began. With this in mind, let us be faithful to our vocation” (1869).[31] To evangelize means to raise moral issues as well, to invite social classes to reconciliation, and to recognize the causes of people’s unrest. It would be an error, however, to think of Fr. d’Alzon’s teaching as clear cut. Speaking to the Conferences of Saint Vincent de Paul, he remarked, “How is it that from one end of France to the other, the envy and jealousy of the proletariat against the rich escalate in fury and that seeing this, the big bosses of industry, even though they give generously to charitable works, seem to foresee a civil war? The poor, the working class, is dissatisfied; ‘they are full of hatred.’ It makes no difference that we inscribe on our monuments: equality, liberty. For the worker, fraternity does not exist; he rejects it.”[32] And d’Alzon concludes that there was certainly a “worker problem.”

The Association of Our Lady of Salvation was born from these reflections and from a search for spiritual solutions. Fr. Picard and Fr. Vincent-de-Paul Bailly, with the consent of Fr. d’Alzon, inaugurated it on January 24, 1872. Most Catholics questioned the existence of a “workers’ struggle,” and, all the more so, a “class struggle.” The purpose of the Association was prayer and apostolic activity. It did not create associations for workers, but it did help those that existed already: circles of workers, youth clubs, schools, religious publicity, and even “social studies.” This Association had as a goal the “salvation” of people through religious means, under the patronage of a Virgin who smiled: Our Lady of Salvation. It organized public prayer services and addressed petitions to the civil authorities. It called for Sunday to be respected as a day of rest for workers. It helped to create schools. As early as 1873, the Association had been established in seventy-four dioceses.

Today, apostolates in blue-collar neighborhoods and the other social sectors are not conceived in the same manner. Assumptionists proudly support those who are concerned with specific needs of society, so as to make it clear that this tradition has not been lost. Recall Fr. Halluin and his remarkable orphanage in Arras, Fr. Pernet, the founder of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, Fr. Hamon and the “mission of the sea” dedicated to Christian involvement with sailors, etc.

As some people would suggest nowadays, Our Lady of Salvation is, for many, synonymous with pilgrimages; these early Assumptionists gave new impetus to them and popularized them. Imitated by others, they became specialists thanks to their ability. But it was almost by pure chance that Fr. Picard got involved in the pilgrimage to LaSalette, which triggered the movement in 1872. He was asked, as was Our Lady of Salvation (NDS), to take charge of a pilgrimage organized by a priest from Savoy, “a pilgrimage for the conversion of France and the triumph of the Holy See... a Catholic protest.” It was to be a huge affair and one that was fully in keeping with Assumptionist ideals at that period of history.

Fr. Picard did not accept to get involved without hesitations, nor did Fr. d’Alzon. The latter was used to local pilgrimages with students and teachers such as Our Lady of Rocheford (Gard). To go from there to taking part in a revival of pilgrimages on a grand scale was another matter. “Ultramontane, yes, he was totally so, in order to place God and the Church back at the heart of the social structure, but, as far as he was concerned, not by pushing for public religious manifestations, too open to the risk of doctrinal deformations.”[33] Nonetheless, Fr. d’Alzon’s notion of “Catholic Action” did include making people sensitive to the faith. Moreover, a public affirmation, expressed by a crowd, would give back to religious a visibility that too many were trying to confine to the sacristy. “The Church,” Fr. d’Alzon wrote, “through the pious travels of its sons, has truly taken possession of public places and the open air; it does not hide away.” After LaSalette, which Leon Bloy exalted with ardor, pilgrimages were made to Lourdes, to Jerusalem and, of course, to Rome. The pilgrimages were conceived as gatherings with a national dimension and a national significance. They prayed for France and asked for its official conversion. Elected politicians were involved in religious activities. Lourdes was to become the site reserved for a national pilgrimage, the “National,” as it came to be called.

The president of the Republic, Adolphe Thiers, in order to calm certain members of Parliament worried by the matter of LaSalette (in the chamber, there were hostile cries, but also signs of solidarity), stated: “Pilgrimages are no longer part of our tradition.” He was mistaken. But even some Catholics were critical of this form of prayer and penance in which they sensed a combative spirit and which they judged to be ostentatious and out of touch with the pastoral ministry of the Church. Old methods, the waning of the spirituality of the XIXth century and its lack of doctrinal content brought about a renewal which was especially urgent for the “National.” There was greater participation by young people, a more mature spirituality, an updated vocabulary, doctrinal themes related to the Church’s mission and more emphasis on liturgical celebration, to mention only some of the improvements of recent years.

President Thiers did not foresee that the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans would go to Lourdes or that Emile Zola would be present at the departure of the “White Train” in 1893 and would go to see and hear Fr. Picard. He did not foresee the rapid expansion of these voyages and of group tourism. The travel agency NDS[34] and the Association met with competition. Dioceses claimed their place at Lourdes as part of their general pastoral ministry. Travel agents dreamed up trips called “cultural.” Congregations and associations organized pilgrimages. Creativity was put to the test. The quality of the “product” had to be constantly improved. Searching for a public was a necessity and they relied on publications (La Croix, Le Pèlerin, Prions en Église, Notre Temps). Le Pèlerin (“The Pilgrim”), a weekly published by the Assumptionists, launched subscription campaigns for people who could not themselves afford to join the pilgrimages. Religious did not go simply as guides in the tourist sense but as spiritual leaders, and there were never enough to meet the need.

If Our Lady of Salvation carries on its effort today, it is not merely to observe a tradition. There is a conviction that therein lies a certain answer to contemporary spiritual needs. Who would have thought that people would once again take the route to Compostella and that students would go to Chartres every year? A pilgrimage can and has to be an act of the Church, a stage of evangelization, in places where the Gospel was lived. It must be a time of encounter and prayer, a discovery of people and their faces, an initiation into other cultures, even if one only passes through the lands of Islam and Orthodox Churches; and finally it must be a call to conversion. This was always the bottom line, ever since the faithful began to travel to “holy sites” or to the shrines of saints. But the reality of the conversion has to be tested when one returns home.

The Land of Jesus

A very special destination for Assumptionist pilgrimages was the Holy Land. Fr. Picard insisted forcefully that the needs of the nation had to be prayed for in the land of Jesus. In 1882, two ships carried more than a thousand pilgrims to the land of Jesus, in epic conditions. The organizing religious decided that the daily life of participants would be governed by a rule that was quasi-monastic and which entailed obedience to the pilgrimage director!

For Our Lady of Salvation, Israel remains one of the main destinations among all the others that have multiplied over the years. Ships have returned to the scene today. There are now cruises—one should say pilgrimages—organized in a modern way. After much trial and error, religion, culture, and social elements have been fitted into place. On these journeys everything depends on the spirit: either it is there or it isn’t. It manifests itself in the liturgical celebrations that most travelers never have the opportunity to witness, a spiritual animation linked to the sites visited: the Holy Land and the places where Saint Paul founded his Churches. There is a variety of “services” from community prayer to Bible groups, liturgical formation, and religious and cultural conferences.

Encouraged by the success of their pilgrimages, the Assumptionists built a huge hotel in Jerusalem: Our Lady of France. Before 1914, it housed a scholasticate. During and after the first Israeli-Arab war (1948), it was occupied for the most part by Palestinian refugees. Since this building became too much to handle for the Congregation, it changed hands after several juridical episodes and the intervention of the Vatican, which is ever vigilant concerning the use and the fate of ecclesiastical property in the Holy Land. Today there is an Assumptionist community still residing on the site of Saint Peter-in Callicantu, near Mount Zion. The Patriarch of Jerusalem consecrated the reconstructed shrine in 1931. Recently, the site underwent a spectacular renovation under the supervision of an American religious, Fr. Robert Fortin, made possible by the generosity of many benefactors, especially one American friend.

Fr. Robert Fortin was chosen to be General Secretary for the Office of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 in the Holy Land in charge of preparing the celebrations. Over the years, the number of pilgrims has varied according to the ever-changing history of the State of Israel. Travel agencies include St. Peter’s more and more in their itineraries as a result of these improvements. The religious of the community assume responsibility for hospitality, animation, and collaboration with the Christians of Jerusalem in a sector that is mostly Palestinian.

At times the dream has been expressed of having an international community for young religious living in this house. This has not yet been possible because of political and administrative difficulties. Nevertheless, over the years, older religious from different provinces have been able to complete their studies in scripture or in matters concerning the Eastern Churches.

 

 

5

A Catholic Publication Center

Just as they did not invent the pilgrimage, the Assumptionists did not invent the Catholic press, if we are to understand by that a press catering to the needs of Catholic readers or for those who sympathize with positions that are considered to be “Catholic.” To give just two examples, L’Univers and Le Monde came earlier. The former had made its reputation thanks to the brilliant and aggressive style of Louis Veuillot. Fr. d’Alzon read this newspaper, although he did not agree with it on all points. Le Monde was distinguished by the abundance of its religious information, and this feature would remain characteristic of any daily that claimed to be Catholic.

Fr. d’Alzon was not a journalist, but he had written articles for various publications. He saw in the press another means of reaching the people, of restoring God to a place of honor and of defending the Church. He found a lack of depth in certain newspapers, e.g. La Liberté pour Tous, which in his words “contained errors it was not even aware of,” the Revue de I’Enseignement Chrétien and the Bulletin des Oeuvres Ouvrières, “in which some of our people pour out floods of ink and eloquence.”[35]

In July of 1873, the Central Council of Pilgrimages, founded at LaSalette, produced a small pious bulletin, Le Pèlerin. Our Lady of Salvation took it over and transformed it. Fr. d’Alzon published articles in it, but the tone of Le Pèlerin did not always please him. He felt it could be “very negative,” without an overall plan. He said that he was unable to keep up with all of the projects of Fr. Vincent-de-Paul Bailly. However, this did not prevent him from continuing to collaborate and to giving his advice.

These fledgling efforts gave birth to the Maison de la Bonne Presse. For a long time everyone called it “la Bonne Presse,” a name not invented by Fr. d’Alzon but by the personnel of the enterprise itself. Seeing the potential there made d’Alzon long for more. Aware of other Catholic initiatives of this nature and of the success of the weekly Le Pèlerin, he wrote: “We need more, much more. The only problem is that we are not strong; we want more. Is there nothing to be done? Oh! If only we had a newspaper.”[36]

A giant step forward was taken when La Croix, at first a monthly review, became a daily newspaper under the forceful direction (at times reckless, but always earnest) of Fr. Vincent-de-Paul Bailly in 1883. This daily was different! It met the need for a people’s daily that was cheap (one cent). In 1882, there were 90 Parisian dailies and 252 provincial dailies.[37] How was one to grab a piece of the pie? How was one to find readers who were not satisfied with the existing press? How was one to communicate as a Catholic through the printed word? How was one to avoid remaining on the sidelines or being old-fashioned in a context that was secular and anti-clerical? And finally, how could one survive? It was a gamble on being creative, prompted by faith.

The uniqueness of La Croix lay in the fact that it was not created by professional journalists. Even though, without any doubt, Vincent-de-Paul Bailly (pen name: Le Moine[38]) had a natural talent as a popular journalist—too popular, according to some—the matter was still fraught with risk. Self-taught individuals had to prove themselves in a profession in which generally there was no shortage of enthusiastic amateurs at the time. Among the Assumptionists no one had yet specialized in this field.

A decision to begin publication had been taken on May 24, 1883, the day after Don Bosco[39] had visited the community of rue François Ier. It was the year Louis Veuillot died.

The first issue of La Croix appeared on June 16. At the top of its front page was the image of a crucifix (“croix” in French) and it was to remain there every day for many years of the paper’s history. The first editorial, signed by Fr. François Picard, made no apology for engaging in journalism. The founders did not have an overly high esteem for the press of their day. This impression strengthened their apostolic zeal and their urge to use the press as an apologetic tool even more. François Picard wrote: “At present, study is no longer possible: the review has killed the book; serious journalism has killed the review; the newspaper has killed serious journalism.” But now a new daily had been launched, one that was informative and whose style was popular yet serious, serious at least in the goal it pursued.

The challenges were there to stay; they entailed writing in a popular style for a cause that was far from popular and of imparting information that would help to nourish readers’ minds. There were different objectives that had to be reconciled. In the long run La Croix never became a popular newspaper in the sense of reaching the masses, even though its mature style of writing did allow for lighter touches here and there. Two writers, among others, who could handle information with sparkle were Le Moine himself and Pierre l’Ermite. The latter, whose real name was Father Loutil, wrote a pithy daily column for the front page for many years.

A comprehensive history of Bayard Press[40] has yet to be written. When it is written, an inventory of all its publications will have to be made as well as a study of the part played by the religious in their creation. The “Bonne Presse” displayed an impressive creativity guided by the ideal of diffusing Catholic teaching in everything published. Religious magazines were the priority, but curiosity and an inventive spirit gave birth also to scientific popularization (Cosmos), literary and artistic culture (Le Mois littéraire et pittoresque), slides and the burgeoning cinema (Le Fascinateur), everyday concrete life (La Maison), and all of this presented with an anecdotal touch. In the wake of a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1893, Fr. Vincent-de-Paul Bailly conceived the idea of a periodical for children and gave it the title: Le Noël (Christmas). His initiative led to the launching of a children’s press, which added illustrations to its publications. Later, Fr. Claude Allez transformed Le Noël into a magazine for young girls, with the goal of developing religious and human culture. He signed his articles: Nouvelet. A movement sprang up from this, the “Noelist movement,” that Fr. Allez, gifted with human and spiritual talents, fostered as its founder.

The daily newspaper, La Croix, together with Le Pèlerin, came face to face with the political life of the country, although it affirmed that it was nothing but “Catholic, apostolic, and Roman.” But this claim of being a-political could not last. The paper could not express opinions only to have to revise them later; nor could it always fit its journalistic views and electoral leanings under the umbrella of a “Catholic” party or a “Catholic” politic. This brought about interventions, direct or indirect, on the part of Rome, which did not wish to confront the government directly or to be seen as placing Church and Republic in opposition. In the annals of La Croix, two dates are to be noted at the end of the century: 1890 and the toast given at Algiers by Cardinal Lavigerie asking Catholics to rally to the Republic; 1894 and the Dreyfus Affair, which drove the newspaper even more in the direction of a virulent anti-Semitism. It is true that the paper’s positions did echo the majority opinion of conservatives and nationalists. Since 1870, the national climate had been passionate and excessive. But, it must be said, La Croix was not warmongering, nor did it flatter the rich, the large industries, or even the conservatives.

In 1900, after the dissolution of the Congregation, a new phase opened up. The Assumptionists were no longer authorized to direct La Croix. A layman, Paul Feron-Vrau, saved the newspaper and the Maison de la Bonne Presse. One could foresee that collaboration between religious and laity would be the rule not only for articles, but also for policy and administration. In the paper’s history great credit is due to lay journalists and other employees.

The Oblates of the Assumption worked with the religious, especially in publications of particular interest to women. From these modest beginnings a publication center became established, one in which a religious congregation would have the last word. No other existed anywhere.[41] It might be compared, to a certain degree, to an enterprise of the Italian Catholic Press, under the direction of the Pauline Fathers and centered on the daily Famiglia Cristiana, which has a large readership.

The part played by laypersons was generally little known. It was believed that all those who wrote for La Croix were religious and that it was the religious who gave all the orders. The priest journalist, like the priest professor, was held in high esteem, but not every French Assumptionist worked for the press. In fact many did not. Today, the publishing house, now named Bayard Press (after the street where it stands), employs about ten religious. One of the religious together with three lay persons forms the executive or decision-making body, with one of the laypersons acting as president. In addition, one of the assistants of the Provincial Superior of France serves as a liaison with Bayard Press.

In 1927 an event occurred that was to decide the future of La Croix and the direction of the enterprise. L’Action Française was at its peak; the newspaper and the movement, animated by Charles Maurras and Léon Daudet, had a large audience among Catholics, beginning with the clergy. Royalist tendencies, nationalism, and the ideology according to which Catholicism had to be proclaimed as a distinctive trait of the French nation thrived in a country with a strong tradition where the Revolution had not won over all of the people. At La Croix there was support for certain of Maurras’s ideas. But Pope Pius XI condemned L’Action Française in 1926, as Pius X, in 1910, had condemned Le Sillon of Marc Sangnier, which was in favor of Christian democracy. This was a new opportunity for the congregation to show that obedience to the pope was not just a question of words. The submission was not clear-cut overnight. As had been the case in 1923 with the naming of Fr. Gervais Quénard as superior general, in 1927, following the instructions of the papal nuncio, Msgr. Maglione, Fr. Merklen, who was in charge of La Documentation catholique,[42] was named editor-in-chief of La Croix. He was often received by the nuncio; this enabled him to overcome any opposition and to take advantage of the confidence of Rome in order to give to the newspaper, as well as to the “Bonne Presse,” the desired direction. His policy for the paper was clearly defined especially in the support it gave to Catholic Action advocated by Pius XI. This appointment was of great significance in that it opened up a new current of history and already prepared the evolution toward the Second Vatican Council. This Roman intervention placed the rudder in the hands of a man whose role was to be a determining factor. It saved the newspaper. What would have happened to a Catholic newspaper floating in the waters of nationalism and being dragged along by ideologues that were not in the best position to understand where the Church stood and how it expressed its faith? The basic option taken was a difficult one, unpopular, and going against the current of the extreme right and a good part of Catholic opinion; but we now know that there was no other solution. The temptation was to remain frozen and unable to move forward. The naming of Fr. Merklen (who signed his articles: Léon Merklen) came at the right moment to bring out and underline clearly that religious editors-in-chief of the major publications of the “Bonne Presse” played a major role in giving doctrinal direction. The influence of some of those men can be explained by the freedom that their superiors gave them, their intellectual and other individual gifts, the very personal manner in which they exercised authority and the difficulty for the congregation to control in detail the policy of the publications, even if it had wished to do so. The most prominent of the editors was Léon Merklen, and subsequent history has shown that his position became more and more central, as he stood his ground in the face of the congregation’s authorities. The ideas that he shared with his fellow religious and with which he sought to challenge them, in long and passionate meetings, became the philosophy for the whole enterprise, in politics (such as the war in Spain, Nazism, Communism) as well as in the analysis of the life of the Church. It was not that he always had unquestioning support, but the editor-in-chief of La Croix was the master thinker. He was named doctrinal director of the Bonne Presse in 1929.

During the Second World War he was there at his post. He made decisions with the lay board of directors. La Croix moved to Limoges as early as June of 1940, and it decided to shut down only a short time before the Occupation. Fr. Merklen, wanted by the Germans, had to go into hiding while not losing contact with his writers, some of whom took part in the Resistance. It would be well for someone to retrace the events of the years at Limoges and the painstaking tactics employed by the newspaper under Marshal Pétain’s régime. It did not change its name. After the Liberation, it was allowed to reappear under conditions that have been studied only recently.[43]

Fr. Merklen died on September 10, 1949. Fr. Gabel, an Alsatian, succeeded him. He was a man of open and penetrating mind and determined character. To him is owed the continuation of the “direction” set by Fr. Merklen. He was a theologian, who was familiar with Catholic Action groups, but his journalistic style was less preachy than that of his predecessor and he was more knowledgeable in modern information science. He wished to defend the freedom of the journalist and, at the same time, to keep intact fidelity to the Church as well as giving a voice to Catholic public opinion. He had the paradoxical merit of never having been trained for this profession and yet of having imbued with professionalism a team of writers used to the routines of their trade. The reform of the Press was a priority for him and he gave much thought and attention to it. Before his death in a plane accident on March 5, 1968, he had become general secretary for the International Catholic Union of the Press (ICUP).

Meanwhile, Fr. Roger Guichardan was directing, with quite paternalistic authority, the team of the Pèlerin (which would become Pèlerin Magazine). He loved literature and wrote detective stories and editorials in the best popular style, with a slightly provocative touch. For many years, he was one of those rare journalists, of whom it is said, “they can feel their public.” Before the war, Joseph-Girard Reydet, a nephew of Fr. Gervais Quénard, had launched a periodical for teenagers, A La Page. He was in charge of Prêtre et Apôtre, a review for the clergy. He was of the same stamp as the other editors-in-chief, sole master on board. Fr. Joseph Richard was in charge of Bernadette, a weekly for young girls. Fr. André Sève was director of Bayard, a weekly for boys, and Rallye-Jeunesse for teenagers, before going on to be a review for adults, Panorama chrétien (at present, Panorama). Fr. André became known as one of the best journalists of the Christian press and as the author of books on spirituality greatly appreciated for their lively and practical style.

The assignment of the various religious editors-in-chief came slowly. They were sluggish at times in adapting themselves to new situations. Giving lay people responsibilities and giving them over fairly and fully became standard procedure in the Church. In 1969, after modifications had already been effected by the directors, the position of editor-in-chief of La Croix was given jointly to a religious and a layman; Antoine Wenger became the Assumptionist editor at this time. The same renewal happened at the Pèlerin. Lay people took over the position of publishing director, executive director, and editorial director. The laity could take credit for a new infusion of creativity at Bayard Press in the domain of magazines for children and teenagers, which met with great success.

At rue Bayard the Assumptionists employed several hundred people and installed the most up-to-date printing machinery. Besides the many periodicals produced,[44] there was a publishing house for books (Éditions de la Bonne Presse, then Éditions du Centurion, and then Bayard Éditions). Although it was the founder and owner of the enterprise, the Congregation did not feel called to manage a large business alone and directly. Authority for the enterprise needed to be shared in an organized manner and its philosophy needed to be clearly articulated. The Assumptionists, therefore, defined and redefined the goals. These goals were set in written editorial policies and prospective editors were invited to decide if they shared these goals and objectives, of La Croix in particular. They were defining the goals of a Christian press in today’s world, aware that those goals would be the responsibility of the editors.

A general policy document, entitled 2010: Bayard Press Commits Itself, drafted in 1998 by the Board of Directors with the Congregation’s cooperation, contains the following statement, “Our history is also in part that of our only shareholder, the Augustinians of the Assumption, an international religious congregation of the Catholic Church. From its very origins, communication through the press has been one of the major fields of its apostolate. This involvement ensures the continuity, freedom and independence of the enterprise, while fully respecting its stated goals.”

In an article of La Croix, Mr. Alain Cordier, then president of the Board of Directors, summarized the spirit of the enterprise: “Our passion is that of a press that brings together people of every kind and promotes their growth by our choice of information, comment and opinion.”[45]


6

The Intellectual Life

The history of a congregation is written by its members and what they do. It is shaped by the formation of its young men (or women). Twenty years after the death of the founder, under the generalate of Fr. François Picard and then, Fr. Emmanuel Bailly, the young Assumptionist congregation had moved beyond the borders of France and was confronted by a crucial challenge, the training of the men who were entering and of the other young religious. A congregation watches over its novices with special care (in the novitiate) as well as its houses of formation (the scholasticates and the major seminaries). This is easy to understand. The preparation and the choice of future religious and future priests depend on the quality of studies as well as on their spirituality, which, in the case of this congregation, is enlivened by the Assumptionist charism.

The war of 1914-1918 intervened in our history, as it did in that of every other institute. It changed and even disorganized the ordinary course of events. It is estimated that about half of Assumptionist religious were on the battlefield or in the service of the French army. Some thirty of them were killed in the hostilities. In Belgium, some religious were called up to be stretcher-bearers, whereas in France as a result of the military law of 1889 the clergy, or “kit-bag priests” as they were called, were mobilized as soldiers. There was an exception to this law for recruits who accepted to work outside Europe for ten years. The Assumptionists took advantage of this exception to create a novitiate in Turkey (Phanaraki), for example. This novitiate was added to the very first novitiate, which had moved from Spain to France, and finally to Belgium. During the war, it was located in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

Three houses of study played a major role in our history. From 1900 on, there was a large Assumptionist student community of various nationalities at Louvain (Belgium), close to the famous university there. One of those students who stood out as a brilliant personality was Pierre-Fourier Merklen. His exceptional gifts were recognized by students and teachers alike. He was a man able to forge friendships but he also made his enemies. Later on, he became editor-in-chief of La Croix. At Louvain he launched a new review, La Revue augustinienne. Students who had not yet completed their studies wrote articles for it, but this endeavor provoked strong resistance. This review seems to have been forgotten, regrettably, because it reflected an intense intellectual activity in theology and philosophy and an enthusiasm on the part of the Assumptionists to engage in research. The scholasticate of Louvain trained many of our theology students of various nationalities.

Another important house of studies, that was to some extent a competitor with Louvain, was that of Jerusalem (until 1914). There Fr. Joseph Germer-Durand, a figure as prestigious as any other, made his mark. His father had tenure at a university. He himself had been Fr. d’Alzon’s assistant. He had a great talent for writing and journalism and distinguished himself by archeological work in Jerusalem and in Transjordan. We are indebted to him for a reconstruction of the topography of the Holy City and the discovery of the remains of a shrine on the site called Saint Peter-in-Gallicantu (in galli cantu: at the crowing of the rooster or the cock-crow), where the memory of Saint Peter and his repentance before the Passion of Christ is commemorated.

The study houses of religious congregations found themselves on the front line during the Modernist crisis. Church authorities watched over the teaching of controversial subjects very closely: biblical exegesis, the interpretation of dogmas, the origins of religious convictions, and the necessity for the Church to “modernize” its doctrine. Louvain was not exempt from suspicions, a common occurrence of that time, or from hasty condemnations or, indeed, from enthusiasm for new ideas. At the General Chapter of 1912, Fr. Merklen was called upon to explain things and justify himself with regard to the teaching given at the scholasticate. La Revue augustinienne had stopped publication. An in-depth historical study would be necessary to clarify what was going on at that time.

At the end of the 19th century, a third house of studies had been set up in Rome. Fr. Emmanuel Bailly made it clear that if it was a good idea to send young religious to Jerusalem so that they would become familiar with the Bible and the Holy Land, it was no less desirable to send some to Rome. The “International College” became official in 1929. A tradition was created of choosing students who would follow the cycle of theological studies at the Pontifical University of the Dominicans, called the Angelicum, in honor of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor.” This tradition has been maintained, even if for more specialized studies (notably Oriental theology).

In 1934, the French Assumptionists left Louvain to return to their own country where they set up a scholasticate at Longpont (Lormoy), which would later be affiliated to the Catholic Institute of Paris. That same year another scholasticate was opened at Layrac (Lot-et-Garonne). In 1959, one at Lyon-Valpré was inaugurated; it was built so that each French province would have its own house of studies. The house at Louvain was bombed in May of 1940. The students regrouped at Saint-Gérard (in the diocese of Namur, Belgium) where the Assumptionists lived in the ancient abbey of Saint-Gérard-de-Brogne, which had first sheltered an inter-provincial novitiate before becoming an international scholasticate for philosophy, and then, during and after the war, the scholasticate of philosophy and theology for Belgium. The Dutch religious had returned to their country because of the war and had set up their scholasticate at Bergeyk in the diocese of s’Hertogenbos (Bois-le-Duc).

In France, Belgium, and Holland, the Assumptionists opted for autonomous scholasticates, one for each province. This policy was not without problems: the need for sufficient Assumptionists to teach the courses, the organization of the studies and the cohesion of the intellectual and spiritual formation—a demanding challenge given the “esprit de corps” that existed in the congregation.

The scholasticates have disappeared but not the novitiates. A new style of intellectual formation has been adopted centered on universities. However, there is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire) an Assumptionist scholasticate on the classical model; Madagascar and East Africa have centers for students of philosophy and theology.

Advanced Oriental Studies

As we have seen, there was in Paris a daily newspaper in 1883 and the beginning of a press center; in Constantinople (Cadi-Keuy), in 1895, there was a review, Échos d’Orient, on the cover of which were the words, “Published by the Assumptionist School for Advanced Studies.” These undertakings may seem surprising, coming from one and the same congregation. Where was the coherence? A simple answer is that any congregation of this kind is committed to multiple activities by its very foundation. But the real answer lies elsewhere. It is to be found in a dynamic vision of the Kingdom and in the opportunities that history itself offered it.

The press came as a result of an apostolic desire to reach the masses. The Review for Oriental Studies was born from the great plan for unity among Christians. Intellectual apostolates were meant to accompany and complement pastoral activities. This was clearly explained in the June 1898 issue of the review, founded by Fr. Louis Petit. In an article by Fr. Edmond Bouvy, of whom it was said that he was the initiator of the first “Byzantines” of the Assumptionist congregation. It must be quoted, since this text presents a program in which one can discern a spirit close to that of ecumenism today. Its field of interest was to be threefold: prayer, study and action. As far as studies go, here are Fr. Bouvy’s ideas, “The Near East is at present more ignored than India, China, Japan, the Klondike, and Alaska. It is confused in the mind of almost everyone with an Islam that oppresses. This neglect is extremely unjust and, as Christians, we know that the history of the Near East is in a certain way the very history of religion, that its literature during eight centuries has entered totally into our dogmatic tradition, that its theologians have been the oracles of our faith at the Councils... that its liturgy still preserves the same sacramental efficaciousness as ours; finally, to ignore the Near East is almost to ignore the Church. Our prayer is that Hellenists would come motivated as much by apostolic zeal as by personal taste, sympathy or current fashion.”

The review, Échos d’Orient, did not appear suddenly and was not an isolated creation. “It is inscribed within a general movement of interest in the Christian Churches of the Near East and their rites. The inspiration came from Pope Leo XIII who very ably took advantage of the Eucharistic Congress of 1893 in Jerusalem to promote his plan. The practical organization of the Congress was largely due to the Assumptionists. It dealt with the question of Oriental rites which became legitimate despite opposition from those in favor of the Latinization of the Near East.”[46] The Échos d’Orient was presented at first as a follow-up to the Échos de Notre-Dame-de-France de Jérusalem, a review whose goal was to maintain contact with the pilgrims to Jerusalem, who had been guided by the Assumptionists. The Échos d’Orient became the Revue des Études Byzantines after 1937, at which time the French Institute for Byzantine Studies was installed at Bucharest. In 1949, it moved from there to Paris.

Would Fr. d’Alzon have approved the academic approach articulated by the review right from the start? He did not preach specialization or a professional formation; but, when there was question of religious knowledge, he wanted religious to have a sound basis, and, in general, he insisted that studies were absolutely necessary for all religious. One of his best known statements is the following, “Studies are not the only condition for salvation; but we can say that, when we shall no longer study in the Congregation, it will be a sign that it has had its day and has received the curse of God.”[47]

D’Alzon conceived studies as an obligation, a way of working just as the poor work. Study was necessary in order to become, through and through, “men of the Church,” a good that was part of his dream. He considered studies as the radical remedy to laziness, which, he said, brought about the decadence of many monasteries. He cautioned against “learning that puffed up” and against the “frenzy” of knowledge. But the marriage between action and the formation of the spirit, of which he gave the example, is a fruitful legacy of his heritage as founder.

The movement that Fr. Louis Petit and the review Échos d’Orient launched produced results that were recognized by the international community of scholars. A number of Assumptionists excelled at basic research and specialization of the most rigorous kind. This is an historical fact deserving of admiration, for it was not a given that the congregation, which had been sent on a “mission” to the Near East, would have in its ranks so many scholars—and so many eminent ones—in the service of the Oriental Churches and Byzantinism. A majority of them, who did not themselves have university training, came to be recognized by universities and academic societies.

I recall living under the same roof as several of these “Byzantinists” in Paris. I can picture Fr. Venance Grumel whose humility was as deep as his learning; Fr. Raymond Janin, a man of austere countenance; Fr. Vitalien Laurent, for a long time director of the Institute for Byzantine Studies, a true Roman and one known for his refined language and his uncompromising authority. Fr. Jean Darrouzès was as good a handyman as an amazingly gifted specialist in epigraphs, a lover of literature, a virtuoso in ancient languages, and a free and honest spirit. These men, who did not highly esteem the more popular profession of the journalist, intimidated some of us who were into the press, both of us living in a house sheltering two communities. But they would read what we wrote and recognize that theirs was not the only kind of talent in the house!

Other names associated with this “school” of research on the Christian Near East were: Martin Jugie, Sévérien Salaville, Joseph Germer-Durand, Jules Pargoire, Romuald Souarn, Fulbert Cayré, and Siméon Vailhé. The Revue des Études Byzantines was too specialized to be given any fuller mention in these pages; and the same is true for other published works, such as articles for dictionaries or encyclopedias, collections, collective works, etc.; such go way beyond the scope of this present book. There was also a review destined to a wider public that would appear under the title, L’Union des Eglises.

The review, Échos d’Orient, was not spared accusations of modernism. It was a period of obsessive fear. In 1898, in number 6 (February), the review published an article in which Fr. Siméon Vailhé permitted himself to engage in a literary criticism of an episode of the Bible. The reactions by his superiors were quick and to the point. “Reckless researchers” and “the independent intellectual spirit” were incriminated. These superiors referred to the guidelines of the Holy See in matters of theology and Sacred Scripture. The Congregation’s position was that nothing must be written or taught that might be interpreted as conflicting with obedience to the pope. In 1907 Pius X condemned a series of errors, under the label of “modernism,” in his encyclical Pascendi. Fr. Siméon Vailhé made honorable amends and became, later on, professor of theology at the scholasticate of theology at Lormoy and the quasi-official biographer of Fr. d’Alzon.

It did not take long for the review to be noticed at the university level. Msgr. Battifol, the rector of the Catholic University of Toulouse, wrote two years after the first number, “For some time now, some excellent articles have been appearing in different reviews and they come from the same center. It seems that the center, where the work produced follows the strictest rules of research, has resolved to commit itself to the ancient Christian Near East. We are very happy to bring these studies to people’s notice, for they point to an awakening. A vigorous trend is clearly making progress in the Church, and it will not be one of the least surprises of the end of this century... to see young congregations like the Assumptionists set the example of such rapid progress.”[48]

The director of the French School of Rome, Reverend Duchesne,[49] who was also highly suspect in the eyes of the “integralists” of traditionalist teaching of theology, wrote, on March 24, 1900, to Fr. Louis Petit, “I am very happy to congratulate you on your review. Your erudition and your spirit please me. There is a page signed Pargoire or something similar that I would have liked to have written myself.”

This generation of giants has disappeared. However, if there is no longer a team of reinforcements to take over, as this scholarly work would require, the page has not been absolutely turned. The link between the past and the present has not been erased. To give just one example, Fr. Daniel Stiernon, by teaching in Roman universities, has followed in the footsteps of Fr. Martin Jugie. And it is not only a question of France. Fr. Stiernon is a Belgian. Holland, as we shall see, has been part of the scholarly tradition of the Congregation with equal competence.

The Institute of Nijmegen

Outside of France, it was in the Netherlands that the Assumptionists established a second important center for Near Eastern studies. In this country with a majority of Protestants, the ecumenical climate had fortunately become more favorable. Fr. Frans Wijnhoven, an Assumptionist, has left the memory of being an ecumenical apostle. In 1948, the year that the World Council of Churches was set up in Amsterdam, a review was launched, Het Christelijk Oosten (The Christian Near East). An international group of Assumptionists had participated in its foundation: Fathers Vitalien Laurent (France), Jérôme Cornélis (Belgium), Adulf van der Wal and Garcia van den Berk (Holland). The headquarters of the review was set up in Nijmegen, a university town. Between the two wars, the first editor-in-chief was Fr. Olaf Hendriks, former professor at the scholasticate of Louvain.

In 1950, a group of Dutch religious left to found a mission in Charfé (Lebanon). They became responsible for a major, and then a minor, seminary for the Catholic Syrian Patriarch. It was there that, until they left in 1958, these religious trained ten priests, of whom five are actually bishops and one the patriarch. They made photocopies of Syrian manuscripts, which became the basis of the collection of ancient documents in the library at Nijmegen. The religious used them as primary sources for their research.

In 1952, the editorial team organized itself and formed the Institute for Byzantine and Ecumenical Studies. The religious involved belonged to the communities of Nijmegen, Charfé, and Boxtel. For their work they followed the model set up by the French team, to which they were affiliated. The official date of the foundation of the Institute was 1955. There was a double goal: scientific (studies, teaching, publications) and pastoral (conferences, Near Eastern liturgy, information), so as to sensitize people who were familiar with only two of the parties of ecumenism, Catholicism and Protestantism, and who were ignorant of the third, Orthodoxy. Fr. Olaf Hendriks was succeeded by Fr. Edward van Montfoort, who in turn passed on the reins to Fr. Arno Burg, until 1991.[50]

From 1962 to 1971, Dutch Assumptionists lived in Jerusalem (Saint Peter-in-Gallicantu) to accompany pilgrims and to engage in studies on the “Lesser Eastern Churches”; they learned Near Eastern languages and also set up a library. One of the most renowned members of the Institute of Nijmegen, Fr. Patrick van der Aalst, was named professor of Near Eastern theology at the University of Nijmegen. He taught there from 1966 to 1986. He also taught in Poland at the University of Lublin.[51]

After the war the Dutch province had so many religious that it sought openings abroad. Today, however, as in France, they lack personnel; nonetheless there was a desire to see this particular work continued. There were close contacts with the theology faculty of Nijmegen. In 1990, a fusion took place and the Institute for Near Eastern Christianity was created (Instituut voor het Oosters Christendom). In liaison with the university, its goal was to safeguard the nature that was proper to an Institute for the study of the Christian Near East. This would entail teaching, research, maintenance of the library, publishing the review, and information. The Institute had its headquarters at the university and was staffed by a director, two assistants, a secretary, and a librarian. Three Assumptionists (or people chosen by them) are on the board of directors. The official opening of the new institute took place on November 15, 1991.

The review Het Christelijk Oosten, while maintaining the required erudition, has a more flexible formula for its content and at times extends its focus of interest beyond the Christian Near East, as long as the subject matter is linked to it. For example, in an issue of 1995, we find an article on “Christian themes in modern Arab literature.” The review has respected its major objective: to present the spiritual research of other Christian traditions.

The scholarly inventory of the Assumptionists, especially in the Byzantine domain and particularly in France, where much work was done over a long period, raised sensitive questions that called for reflection. Areas that needed attention were: the pastoral usefulness of specialized studies, taking into account past experience; the time and the energy that research demands of religious as of any other scholar; the tendency of research to become a goal in itself; the lessening of interest in research in favor of other forms of intellectual apostolates, or any apostolate, for that matter.[52]

At the school of Saint Augustine

Fr. d’Alzon had dreamed of establishing a Saint Augustine University, but this project was never realized. In 1902, as we have seen, the house of studies at Louvain created the Revue augustinienne.[53] In 1921, Fr. Fulbert Cayré, whom we saw editing the Échos d’Orient, launched this new work with two collections: Bibliothèque augustinienne and Études augustiniennes. In 1943, in the house of studies at Lormoy, the Center for Augustinian Studies was created under the direction of Fr. Cayré. He also founded the review L’Année théologique and became well known for his writings on the Fathers of the Church. In 1956, the Center became the Institute for Augustinian Studies according to the Law of 1901 on associations, and the official title specified that it specialized in “the study of the Byzantine Empire and the late Middle Ages, more specifically of Christian writers, and especially Saint Augustine.” The Institute published the Revue des Études augustiniennes and was directed by Fr. Georges Folliet.

Once again, it is not possible to list all of the publications. We should at least mention the collection, Bibliothèque augustinienne, which presented a translation of the works of Saint Augustine (Latin text, French text, introduction, and notes). When the writings of Saint Augustine joined the prestigious literary collection La Pléiade (at Gallimard) in 1998, a new translation of the Confessions was included in the first volume. The opportunity was taken to underline the fact that two Assumptionists translated this masterpiece of autobiographical literature, Fathers Tugddual Tréhorel and Guillem Bouissou.

Fr. Goulven Madec, a well-known specialist of the works of Saint Augustine, supervised another collection of translations. He is currently the director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). He has taught at the Catholic Institute of Paris, where he replaced another Assumptionist, Fr. Jérôme Beckaert. The latter held the chair of the history of patristic philosophy, a chair first held by Fr. Fulbert Cayré in 1945.

The Assumptionists no longer had the personnel or the financial means to insure the management and the vitality of such institutes. The Augustinian Institute left rue François Ier in May 1979. The core of its library, built up over many years, now belongs to the Institut Catholique in Paris, which is now the home of the library of the Institut Byzantin as well. This latter collection remains the property of the Assumptionists and thus fulfills the desire of the Congregation to see to it that cultural riches remain with a Church institute.

It should be pointed out that the study of Saint Augustine is not reserved to the province of France. Credit is due especially to the American Assumptionists, for example, Fr. Edgar Bourque who, with others, drew from St. Augustine the inspiration for what has been called “re-founding.”[54]

A Policy for Intellectual Work

How does the Congregation, conscious of the vacuum created by the change in the status of these institutes, intend to promote studies in general and specialized studies in particular? Fr. Claude Maréchal has the merit of having asked the question honestly and effectively. In reality, it is a double question. On the one hand, it is addressed to the small number of scholars at present within the congregation; on the other, it concerns every religious. If all are not called to specialized studies, all, without exception, must give their attention to ongoing formation and respect the wishes of Fr. d’Alzon in favor of studies.

In preparation of the General Chapter of 1999, Fr. Maréchal organized a five-day meeting in Rome in 1997 on the theme of specialized studies. He wrote a report with the title, “Towards an Intellectual Policy for the Assumptionists.” The content of the report is reflected in its title. It outlines a policy or program of action, something which did not always exist in the past, when scholars were solitary workers. The fact that new situations have arisen with reductions in personnel and apostolic re-orientations is not a reason for the Assumptionists to forsake their ambition. Their Rule of Life has ratified the three characteristics of its apostolates: doctrinal, social, and ecumenical. It must not minimize the first for the sake of the other two, whose impact indeed depends on the first. The tradition has a long history in which those three characteristics were more than slogans. There were times of crisis and times when the brakes had to be applied. History bears this out. But the direction is clear and it cannot change without weakening the congregation’s fidelity to its triple and integrated mission. Such a policy must necessarily suggest methods and means, taking into account the situation one hundred and fifty years after the foundation of the Congregation and one hundred years after the foundation of the Échos d’Orient.

To this policy, the report assigns objectives: a profound knowledge of Church tradition, sound presentation of the doctrines of the faith, ecumenism, and inter-religious dialogue. Saint Augustine is the master together with Saint Thomas Aquinas, two figures unequaled among Christian thinkers.

The choice of specialization is to be made according to the needs of the Church and the intellectual heritage of the Congregation. In fact, specialization is not limited to philosophical speculation or university methodology. It is also the fruit of experience and of hands-on ministry: social communication, organization of pilgrimages, retreats, teaching, research, meeting social needs, and so on.

Without prejudice to due modesty, the Assumptionist congregation can take every satisfaction that it has specialists in the fields of biblical exegesis, theology, philosophy, patristics, catechetics, history, music, art, the press and communications, and ecumenism. The tradition of serious study persists, thus honoring the explicit wishes of the founder. “No specialization unrelated to the faith,” we read in the report. Nevertheless, this does not limit us to theology: Without an intellectual life the Congregation is without vigor.

A Catholic University[55]

As mentioned earlier, Fr. d’Alzon always desired to found a Catholic university. Although he failed to realize this dream during his life-time, some of his followers met the challenge in a way and in a land Fr. d’Alzon would have never imagined. In 1904, in the small American city of Worcester, Massachusetts, a group of French Assumptionists opened a school known as the “Apostolic School of Our Lady of Consolation” to respond to the needs of French Canadian immigrants who had moved to the region known as New England in order to find work. From modest beginnings (there were seven students in 1904), the university, which also maintained a high school until 1970, grew steadily and now enrolls over 2,000 full-time undergraduates and nearly 1,000 students in its continuing education and graduate programs. Undergraduate majors are offered in 25 disciplines including the traditional liberal arts, business, the social sciences, and social and rehabilitation services. Masters programs exist in business, education, psychology, and social and rehabilitation services. The university’s motto, “Until Christ be formed in you,” was the very one d’Alzon had intended to give the university he hoped to found himself

As was the case for Bayard Press, the Assumptionists of the North American Province changed its governing structure after the Second Vatican Council in order to encourage greater lay participation. Although the chairman of the Board of Trustees is the provincial ex officio, the president of the university has been a layman for over 25 years. Approximately ten Assumptionists work at the institution in a variety of academic and administrative positions. As sponsors of the institution, the Assumptionists maintain special responsibility for the Department of Theology, the Office for Mission and Campus Ministry.

In addition to its academic programs, the university proudly sponsors the Ecumenical Institute, a center which organizes seminars, lectures, and study weeks, gathering scholars and simple lay people from a wide variety of denominations. The Institute has sponsored lectures by such world-renowned scholars as Cardinal Willebrands, Raymond Brown, Jaroslav Pelikan, Martin Marty and Jerome Murphy O’Connor.

The College also sponsors the French Institute in order to maintain its roots and to promote matters French (French-Canadian and Franco-American.) In addition to seminars and lectures (e.g. Paul Claudel and Jacques Maritain), the Institute houses a magnificent library and an impressive collection of other resources. The Institute is considered to be one of the most prestigious of its kind in the country.

Since 1985 the Religious of the Assumption (R.A.s) have served with the Assumptionists at the university. Half a dozen sisters teach, work in campus ministry and other offices, and serve on the Board of Trustees. The collaboration between the two congregations in the area of education, which their founders encouraged, has not only enriched the university, but the religious communities as well.

 

 

7

From One Continent to Another

The geographic contours of the Assumptionist world have already been sketched in narrating the history of the congregation’s main apostolic activities over a century and a half the intentions of which date to its founder, Fr. d’Alzon. But the picture merits a closer look in order to identify places of special significance worldwide, even if a complete inventory of activities and individual commitments cannot be covered in such an overview.

The parish, everywhere

The first fact to note is that in every country to which Assumptionists have gone they have exercised parish ministry. Very often the first foundation was a parish, which became the home of one or two religious or of a community, and the base for other activities, either to serve the local Church or to welcome young people who might be interested in religious life.

In France there were and are parishes which, in terms of their duration or of their pastoral effectiveness, would be called symbolic: Saint-Christophe in Paris; Sainte-Thérèse in Montpellier; Notre-Dame-de-Salut in Bordeaux; others in La Rochelle, Toulon, Angoulême, Marseille; in the barely Christianized countryside of l’Aisne, where Belgian religious worked, or of the Meuse, where there was a group of Dutch Fathers. These are only examples. Outside of France, there was Bethnal Green in London; in Brussels, La Madeleine in the old city but next to the all-new “European” hotels and the central railroad station; in Madrid, a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in a blue-collar neighborhood. In Belgium (Walloon), a group of religious living in parishes forms a “regional community.” In Germany a Dutch group does the same.

In Florence, Italy, there is, not a parish, but a shrine dedicated to Saint Mary-Magdalene of Pazzi. It was the meeting place of the French colony; it is also where the faithful of the neighborhood and interested tourists come to admire a magnificent painting by Perugino. On the shores of Lago Maggiore, Italian religious served the diocese of Novarra by staffing mountain parishes; the Assumptionists also ran a guesthouse at Cannero Riviera.

In New York the Assumptionists ministered to the Hispanics of the city (Spanish-speaking immigrants) at their church on 14th Street until 1999. This apostolate spawned a mission in Mexico City in 1947, where a church in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, was built. It in turn gave birth to a vocational/formational community in the southern section of the world’s largest metropolis, a community which is still active.

Montmartre Canadien in Quebec is a shrine in honor of the Sacred Heart, named after the great basilica on the hill of Montmartre in Paris. The apostle of this devotion to the Sacred Heart was Fr. Marie-Clément Staub. He obtained from the Canadian Parliament a charter setting up the Congregation as a “civil corporation,” empowered to found charitable works. His dream of a basilica overlooking the Saint Lawrence River was realized, although he never saw it. A second shrine to the Sacred Heart located in Beauvoir, near Sherbrooke, was given by the Assumptionists to the care of the Marist Fathers in 1996.

Catholic Action

Words change their meaning, and this is true of the word “Church.” In Fr. d’Alzon’s time a certain concept of the Church that could be described as “unidimensional” was dominant. It would cede its place at the Second Vatican Council to a new understanding. Fr. d’Alzon vigorously encouraged involvement in “Catholic Action.” He envisaged lay people acting in society and Christianizing it. He also imagined lay people united in a Third Order, but under the indisputable direction of the clergy. In 1922, Pope Pius XI published the encyclical Ubi arcano, setting up Catholic Action as a way for the laity to participate in the apostolate of the church. Lay people have their own vocation as baptized persons. They have the right and indeed the mission, to share in the apostolate.

The Assumptionist Chapter that was held in the wake of World War II called upon religious to take part in Catholic Action: “In order to remain true to the spirit and the intentions of our founder, Fr. d’Alzon, and to meet the requests that the Secretary General of the JOC[56] would address to us, or that other movements might make, the Chapter asks that the Assumptionists participate officially in Catholic Action, in an organization proper to each province.”

Each province interpreted this clear directive according to its needs and its pastoral objectives. A French initiative deserves to be mentioned here. On October 9, 1946, the worker mission, Saint-Étienne, was opened at Sèvres in a Parisian suburb, next to the Renault factory. Plans for the foundation stipulated that the residence would house three religious participating in the JOC, that they would earn their own living, and, in part, from the salary that the movement offered them. They were to live in a situation of poverty and austerity that they felt normal and necessary for an apostolate with the people. The mission was called “Mission Saint-Étienne” in memory of Fr. Étienne Pernet, the founder of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, a model for religious who lived simply. He was full of insight and wanted to place religious sisters on the side of the working class.

At the time, a book by Henri Godin and Yvan Daniel entitled France, Mission Country? was popular and many commentaries were written about it. Specialized segments of Catholic Action were organized and Catholic Action for the working class was affirmed. The word “mission” no longer meant just far away places. People were getting used to a missionary Church, to the mission of all baptized persons, and to the responsibility of everyone in the evangelization of all sectors of society.

A life of work, a life in a neighborhood, a life in community, and a missionary life, these were the choices of the three Assumptionists among whom was Fr. Paul Charpentier who was to become Superior General. From Sèvres to rue Bourret (Paris), there can be no question that the French Assumptionists gained from the priest-worker movement a certain sensitivity to the working-class. But it went further; they began to hear the questions that working people were asking of the Church, questions that arose from a mentality of unbelief, indifference or hostility toward the Church and that spoke of social justice and of human dignity.

The option taken by our “missionaries” was not only accepted from the beginning; it became and remains part of the history of a Church “in mission country,” and it was one of the examples of searching for another community life-style, a community that was more clearly recognized as a sign of service and evangelical practice.

From Lourdes to the Favelas[57]

The picture of an Assumptionist Congregation caring for people living in material and cultural poverty is one that is faithful to its founder. There is a striking convergence if we compare our commitments in Europe with those in Latin America. (I remember a parish in Sao Paulo, Brazil, staffed by our Dutch religious. I visited a home for young handicapped persons. These boys and girls had been found abandoned in the streets. They were doubly deprived: by poverty and by abandonment. I can picture them as I write.)

In Madrid, Fr. Luis Madina founded the “Ciudad de los muchachos” (Boys’ Town), a residence and a technical school which also provides a high school curriculum. This religious extended his reach to include children of several Latin American countries. At Cali, in Colombia, the educational center “Mi Casa” is named after him.[58] They take in some of the most disadvantaged children of the city. They are taught to take responsibility for their future, in a societal context eroded by guerilla warfare and Mafia violence. There religious and lay people who work with them share a very difficult situation and, more than anyone else, are responsible for young people who are the constant target of drug dealers.[59] Several youngsters have been assassinated. In 1985, Fr. Daniel Gillard, a fifty-year old Belgian religious, was killed in circumstances that remain suspicious.

Belgian Assumptionists founded the mission in Colombia. The first two religious arrived in Cali on October 4, 1946. It seems that they knew very little about the country they were entering or its language. The Assumptionists were responding to a call from the Little Sisters of the Assumption, whose activities were already coming to people’s attention. These Assumptionists assumed tasks that were quite limited: parish ministry direction of a minor seminary, and even a periodical, La Voz católica. A new contingent soon arrived from Belgium. Besides Cali, they established themselves at Manizalès (a mission they had to abandon in 1952) and at Bogotá, where they remain today. There they minister to a population that is socially diverse. At their high school, Colegio d’Alzon, in order to cater to the poorest pupils, school hours and pedagogical methods were at one point adapted so as to accommodate these students as well as their traditional clientele. Fr. Albert Henri became friendly with the indigenous people of the region and his articles in the Belgian press received much attention.

Let us move to the south. Because a Chilean bishop noticed French Assumptionists at work during a national pilgrimage in 1890, today one can see a full-size replica of the grotto of Lourdes in Santiago. The Assumptionist presence in Chile, originally sustained by religious from the former province of Bordeaux, France, is already more than one hundred years old. It is the door through which the Congregation entered the sub-continent. To visit Santiago is to feel at home in a special way. There, Assumptionist history may be read on headstones. But that history continues today in various parish centers (Santiago, Valparaiso, Rengo, Lota) with a population that is truly poor. The novitiate is situated near the capital in Pomaire, a village of pottery workers of Indian origin.

In Argentina, the founder was Fr. Romain Heitmann, who died in 1941. He administered the parish of Belgrano within greater Buenos Aires, where he founded Saint Ann’s School, Instituto d’Alzon, and Saint Theresa’s Academy. To the boys’ high school was added the Instituto Saint-Romain, inaugurated in 1959. The Assumptionists built a Lourdes grotto at Santos Lugares, just as they had done at Santiago in Chile. Until recently, they also staffed the parish of Saint-Martin-of-Tours. The political history of the country affected them very painfully: three religious, two brothers and a priest, disappeared, as tragically happens under dictatorships.

The mission in Brazil began in 1935. It was also founded by the religious of the province of Bordeaux, who felt a special kinship with Latin America, a feeling shared by the French Assumptionists as a whole.

A special feature of this mission is that the provinces of the Netherlands and of France came together. Dutch Assumptionists found immigrant compatriots to care for spiritually and morally. They took charge of parishes in the states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais. At one point, the diocese of Jalès was created, its first bishop was a Dutch religious, Most Rev. Arthur Horsthuis (1912-1979). The Brazilian mission consisted of a Dutch region and a French region until 1993. In that year the regions became one vice-province, with, in some houses, a majority of Dutch religious. The mission also had a region covering Rio and Eugenopolis. The mission became a Province in 1999 with Portuguese, the language of the country, as the link between the various nationalities, Brazilian, French, and Dutch.

Founded with a devotion to Mary (which has not been abandoned), the Assumptionist itinerary has led to involvement in “base communities” and it has not been able to avoid the backwash stirred up by “liberation theology” (or more correctly, theologies). Popular devotion has been and still remains a delicate area of renewed pastoral ministry. A rapid review of its apostolic ministry would allow one to conclude that the Assumptionist congregation has kept an open-minded and balanced approach. It took no part in revolution but it confronted and questioned certain structures and methods that were at odds with events in society and with Vatican II’s understanding of the Church as “People of God.” Assumptionists live close to the “favelas” or the slums, and at times within them. An example is that untiring Breton, Fr. Paul-Henri Riou, in Rio de Janeiro; where he was, there was no Lourdes grotto but rather a destitute neighborhood for a long time unknown to Europeans. At Campinas, where the Assumptionists staff a parish and maintain a formation center, one goes from church to slums in a few minutes. In Sao Paulo, one leaves the Assumptionist parish (formerly there were two) and walks on the edge of a favela in the process of growing (!) under a highway viaduct right in the heart of this giant, congested urban center. And one thinks of the people that Fr. d’Alzon would have liked to have reached. It’s another world entirely.

In Asia and Oceania

For Assumptionists today, it is hard to imagine that their Congregation was present in Manchuria for seventeen years. It was mentioned earlier but it must not be passed over without recording the unprecedented historical upheavals that awaited China. Once more Assumptionists set out, this time in 1935, only to meet political maelstroms. Without realizing it, they were destined for a short sojourn.

Assumptionist missionaries, sent in large numbers to the Near East, were forced to return to Western Europe. The opportunity to go to the Far East presented itself unexpectedly. The apostolic vicar of Kirin, Bishop Gaspais, asked the Assumptionists to come and help the Foreign Mission Fathers, who were overwhelmed by their work in a country three times as large as France. The Congregation accepted and built a seminary at Chang-Chun (Hsing-King) for the formation of an indigenous clergy. It also took charge of mission posts deeper in the country.

From 1931 to 1945 the Japanese occupied Manchuria. The Chinese Communists liberated it and our religious experienced this turbulence as well. They finally established their headquarters in the city of Harbin in the north. It would have to be rebuilt after vandalism and looting. Maintaining the seminary became uncertain; in fact it did close its doors for a year and a half. When it reopened on September 17, 1946, its future as a school of higher education depended on the new government, which was threatening to mobilize the youth. The “D system,” the resistance movement of the youth, and the determination of the religious only prolonged the inevitable. The end of the seminary was close at hand. The Fathers ended up allowing themselves to be evacuated. There were still three religious in “the bush”: Fathers Austal Anselm and Livier Pierron near Harbin and Father Sylvère Pellicier at Kirin. The last ones to leave Manchuria were Austal in 1953 and Livier in 1954. The latter spent six months in Communist prisons. That was the end of the Assumptionist presence in China, which had been the object of our dreams, as it had been for the entire Church.

In 1991 the Congregation returned to Asia with three religious, two of whom, a Belgian and an American, still live in South Korea. With the collaboration of the Oblate Sisters of the Assumption, they have the weighty task of representing the Assumptionists in the Far East. These religious had to learn the language, not a minor obstacle for Westerners. They hope to help the Korean Catholic Church, which has great vitality, to become more open to a Church that is truly international. The archbishop of Kwangju has entrusted to them care of a parish with three missions, one of which is a leper colony.

In 1952, after reaching an agreement with the archbishop of Wellington and the bishop of Roermond, three Dutch religious, following the immigrants of their country, went to New Zealand. Early on, their ministry was that of helping Dutch Catholics with their problems as immigrants. In 1953, they opened a house of their own. They published a monthly newsletter, a link between themselves and their compatriots. Eventually their apostolate radiated from four centers: Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin; in 1966, a high school was built in Porirua, a town near Wellington.

At the service of young Churches

Two distant missions are inscribed in our history as apostolic areas of great importance: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo, then Zaire) and Madagascar.

King Leopold II of Belgium had made the vast territory of the Congo a colony of his country, and it was from Belgium that the first Assumptionist missionaries were sent there in 1929. However, they were hardly prepared for this mission. The Assumptionists replaced the priests of the Sacred Heart in an enormous region along the shores of Lake Edward and Lake Albert. At the end of 1935, Oblate Sisters arrived to work with them. The number of missionaries grew. They entered a mission that needed dynamism and organization and they did so with a faith and courage that deserve to be remembered. The Holy See established the mission as an apostolic vicariate in 1938. The religious devoted themselves to the parishes in the bush as builders, teachers, directors of seminarians or Congolese religious in native congregations, and educators in the technical and professional fields. In these apostolates they enjoyed the help of lay people, many of whom were catechists.

Over the years Assumptionists from other countries joined the ranks of their Belgian brothers in the Congo, notably the Dutch and the French. From their small number, the English province sent four, the first of whom was Fr. Kieran Dunlop who spent seventeen years there. More recently, the region of Italy has lent a hand.

Of those missionaries, one who played a very special part was Most Rev. Henri Piérard, a Belgian, who became the first apostolic vicar. He opened the way for indigenous clergy. Pope John XXIII set up a diocese under the care of Bishop Piérard. From it came a vibrant local church and an Assumptionist province, supported by the second bishop, a native Congolese, Emmanuel Katoliko, a reward for the efforts of the pioneers who had been there well before the independence of the country. As time went on, it became very clear that the Europeans had to prepare to pass the reins over so that responsibilities could be placed in the hands of the Congolese secular clergy and native Assumptionist religious. This has now been accomplished. The Assumptionists of the Congo together with those of Kenya and Tanzania comprise the province of Africa with an African Provincial Superior. In 1988 the provinces of North America and England answered a call from the 1987 General Chapter to found a mission in East Africa in response to an appeal from the Religious Sisters of the Assumption. Under the leadership of Fr. Richard Brunelle, an American, they opened a community in Nairobi. In 1998 this region was integrated into the Province of Zaire, which had collaborated in its growth; the new province is now called the Province of Africa. In addition to a house of theology in Nairobi, the Assumptionists now maintain three houses in Arusha, Tanzania: a house of philosophy, a parish, and a novitiate. The East African mission continues to draw the interest of foreign missionaries, even some octogenarians, as in the case of two Americans, Frs. Alexis Babineau and Oliver Blanchette.

The province of France is very active in Madagascar. That country, which lies about 260 miles from the S.E. coast of Africa, is one of the largest islands in the world, covering over a quarter of a million square miles. There the diocese of Tulear was erected in 1957 and placed under the care of the Assumptionists in the person of Bishop Michel Canonne, who was the “leader” of the founding team of the mission who arrived in the early 50s. The Vincentians had formerly administered the territory, which would come to be placed under the care of the Assumptionists. The Assumptionists expanded their ministry to other posts and, in a country beset by economic and social problems, they built an active mission with the help of benefactors. Schools, staffing of mission posts, youth ministry, preparation for religious life, sanitary and social works, and the catechetical training of people in the city and the country are the basic activities. In 1998, Madagascar obtained the status of vice-province.

Foundations and Re-foundations

There is something that might be called the paradox of small numbers. Fr. d’Alzon got involved in too many projects for such a small number of religious. Something of that remains in his Congregation which today has fewer religious than it did forty years ago. However, this does not mean that recruiting has withered. While the Congregation has had to close some communities, it has been able to open others: in Korea, Russia, Romania, Kenya, Tanzania and in Ecuador, where religious from Latin America have founded a joint community at Riobamba in the altiplano. These initiatives may seem surprising. There has been a cutting back in certain traditional areas that were seen as priorities and representative of the Congregation. At the same time the risk is being taken of expanding elsewhere in the conviction that small numbers and all too worldly calculations must not have the last word. Current commitments require careful evaluation, to be sure. But new projects are clear evidence of the will to live and to go forward for the sake of the Kingdom. The Congregation trusts that God holds a future for them that involves more than a lifeless resignation to present realities.

In the history of a congregation, there is founding and there is re-founding. The “Near Eastern Mission” has opened up again. There is a novitiate at Margineni, Romania. But an emotional attachment to the past would never justify a return to Bulgaria, Russia, or Romania. Rather, the motivation was clearly spelt out by the General Chapter of 1993, “The Assumptionist mission in the East has to be recreated. It still consists in working for the unity of the Church, but in the spirit of Vatican II.” Basing himself on the encyclical of John-Paul II, Ut omnes unum sint (“That they may be one”), Fr. Claude Maréchal declared before a group of religious meeting at Plovdiv that he considered ecumenism as “a determining trait of the Assumptionist identity in the East, an essential aspect of the mission.” He added, “I am aware of all the problems in the countries where you are, and I suffer as you do from hardening of positions and unjustified criticisms. I can imagine the great amount of patience and faith that is needed to persevere. But the words of the Pope, who is well informed and who knows the difficulties involved, are clear. We must advance resolutely in that direction. If we, as Assumptionists who have been deeply marked by the Christian East, do not make of this encyclical our point of reference, who will do so?”

These foundations and re-foundations have in common the fact that the communities are international; this development is something quite new. It is, as we saw, the case in Korea. In Kenya, the religious are Congolese, American, Kenyan and Tanzanian, and earlier, an English brother, James Conlon, was one of the “founders” there. The number of Congolese Assumptionists enables them now to send missionaries to another country, Tanzania, to serve a “young Church” just as the “old ones” from Europe did in the past. In Ecuador, there are French, Colombian, Brazilian, and Chilean religious, one from each country. These are only small communities and we are still in a period of uncertainty and seeking clarity; however, their make-up shows that the Congregation’s missionary strategy is no longer that of each province having its own territory and furnishing almost all the religious. Internationality, lived in a common missionary commitment, is an aspect of the cultural evolution of a Congregation. Language, usually the first obstacle in these situations, is dealt with in one way or another, as it should be. Mentalities meet and get worked out in the daily realities of life.

In general, young religious today are more open to this phenomenon than their predecessors. They also request international meetings where they can share with each other their insights as Assumptionists as well as promote among themselves the Catholic mentality dear to Fr. d’Alzon. They also wish to reflect on the world and ideas of his day so as to develop for themselves those lessons which have evangelical universality.

This brings to a close our survey of Assumptionist geography. However, we should add that individual Assumptionists are involved in numerous chaplaincies with students, prisoners, members of various organizations, the hospitalized, seamen, Catholic action groups, the elderly, and in retreat work, which has become a new form of ministry for many male and female institutes. Much of this work is done in specific spiritual centers for retreats, sessions, and seminars.

 

 

8

The Congregations of the

Assumption

Assumptionists have always thought of their congregation as a family and within this family there are other families, congregations closely linked to the Assumptionists. Briefly, in chronological order of foundation, the names and the essential traits of each one follow.

The Religious of the Assumption (RA) were founded in Paris, in 1839, by Saint Marie-Eugénie de Jésus (Anne Eugénie Milleret de Brou, 1817-1898), under the supervision of Reverend Théodore Combalot (1797-1873), a friend of the d’Alzon family. Fr. d’Alzon was the spiritual guide of the foundress, who called upon him for help after she found it necessary to break with Reverend Combalot. St. Marie-Eugénie and Fr. d’Alzon maintained a close friendship throughout their lives. “Adore and educate” is the motto of the RAs.

The Missionary Oblates of the Assumption (OA) were founded at Nîmes, in 1865, by Fr. d’Alzon and Mother Emmanuel-Marie de la Compassion (Marie Correnson, 1842-1900) to support the Assumptionists in Bulgaria. Later Fr. d’Alzon opened up to them new fields of apostolate. The cooperation between them and the Assumptionists has been constant in their common history. With time, they gained autonomy while safeguarding their close relations with the male branch. Their goal is missionary, ecumenical, and social.

The Little Sisters of the Assumption (LSA) were founded in Paris, in 1865, by Fr. Étienne Pernet, one of the first companions of Fr. d’Alzon, and Mother Marie de Jésus (Antoinette Fage, 1825-1883), for a social apostolate in favor of the disadvantaged, especially families in need of support.

The Orants of the Assumption (OrA), founded in Paris, in 1896, by Fr. François Picard and Mother Isabelle de Gethsémani (Isabelle de Clermont-Tonnerre, 1849-1921) is the contemplative branch with a missionary spirit.

The Sisters of Joan of Arc (SJA), founded in 1914, in the United States and Canada, by Fr. Marie-Clément Staub (1876-1936), work for the service of the clergy and parish pastoral ministry.

A congregation of brothers, Les Frères de l’Assomption, was founded in 1951 at Beni, in the Congo, by Bishop Henri Piérard, for the service of the Mission, especially by means of practical work. Most Rev. Piérard, desirous of promoting an African clergy, wanted Congolese to be called to religious life, and he founded, for this goal, a second congregation, this time for women: the Little Sisters of the Presentation of Our Lady, founded in 1952, at Beni, to work with women and families and to help the working class.

Fr. Jean-Paul Périer-Muzet has made an extensive study of the history and spirituality of the diverse congregations linked to the Assumptionists. In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of a former archivist, Fr. Pierre Touveneraud, now deceased. While acknowledging that the common sources of inspiration are at times difficult to discern clearly, he has identified a “central core of common traits,” “the common Assumptionist ground.” He has focused on traits that are dear: the relationship of the Rules of Life; the central place held by Christ; the love of the Church in the service of evangelization of the human person; the great causes of God and man; missionary involvement; devotion to Mary; the Augustinian inspiration; the insistence on certain human qualities (frankness, simplicity, cordiality); the three basic elements: prayer, community, and mission; and finally, collaboration with the laity.

 

 

By Way of a Conclusion:

The Test of Fidelity

“What fulfills the promise depends on faith” (Romans 4:16)

One hundred and fifty years, barely two life spans, is a short time in the history of the Church and of its religious orders. But in the context of this present history it has been long enough to create a past, a tradition and many treasured memories. Listing all of them would be a lengthy endeavor. Such a full-scale inventory would be inappropriate in concluding this short historical survey. Let it suffice to make a few observations that could, with today’s insights, shed light on tomorrow’s path.

Fr. Gervais Quénard, who governed the Congregation for thirty years and whose international vision was exceptional, liked to speak of “our little family.” This language pleased some but annoyed others, who saw in it a grandfatherly outlook lacking ambition. But the same Fr. Quénard did not hesitate to express pride, at times complacently, in the accomplishments of his religious. The “little family” accomplished great things, and the young men of the newly established provinces in those bygone days were fired with enthusiasm.

The Assumptionist Congregation had in the past and has today a special place in the Church among religious institutes, thanks to forms of apostolate that it alone created or in which it has specialized. Other apostolates are the traditional ones, such as parish ministry. While this work is typical of active institutes, Assumptionists endeavor to nurture in their parishes and in the communities that care for them their own characteristic spirit.

From early on, there was great diversity in the Congregation’s activities, all the more so because of personal initiatives and preferences that were expressed. This diversity was not perceived by all in the same manner. Some, in search of a too rigid specificity, difficult to formulate, have wryly suggested that what was original was the absence of originality. But a majority, and certainly a number of young religious giving their reasons for joining the Congregation today, acknowledges that this diversity has the merit of providing options, that it allows one to change “careers,” that it leaves room for personal preferences and exemplifies the richness of a spirituality of the Kingdom. It is the “Assumptionist Spirit” that makes the difference. This spirit does not attract everyone for the same reason. It varies from one religious to another.

The diminishment of the “Mission of the Near East” due to the political history of Eastern Europe, the closing of the alumnates and the withdrawal from high schools reduced this diversity. Teachers and pastoral ministers were freed so that they could work elsewhere. The distribution of religious depended on their number and the priorities that were retained by the Congregation, in each province and according to the country. Some of the characteristic forms of apostolate and others born of new discernment guaranteed cohesion of purpose and spirit.

There is no point in elaborating on the negative phenomena already mentioned: increase in average age, fewer—and in some places no— vocations; the fact that reinforcements do not compensate for aging religious. This demography could lead to a sense of fatalism and the acceptance of a decline. The Assumptionist Congregation, at the end of its one hundred and fifty years, is caught, just as at its beginnings, between realism and faith in itself.

Realism does not paralyze confidence. This latter has brought about something astonishing. One thinks of the alumnates that, in their poverty, were obliged to live, almost day-by-day, from the generosity of their benefactors. Daily bread, the Superiors pointed out, was a small miracle renewed each day. One remembers the first missionaries leaving for Africa with but a rudimentary preparation. Had they not become religious they would have been adventurers. In many cases they became a little of one and a lot of the other!

It seems to me, as the present writer, reflecting over a long period, that the principal characteristic of the Assumptionist past is fidelity— fidelity that is put to the test.

The founder is the father. His sons commit themselves to respect their father by transmitting the spiritual heritage and by remaining faithful to the gift of a charism, to the spirit, to a “doctrine,” and to apostolates that manifest an inheritance. The covenant with the founder and with his charism has to be regularly reviewed so that the sons always respect their property titles and remain faithful to their inheritance. Their fidelity to the founder once took the form of the repetition of pious formulae and of monastic practices. Then it underwent a necessary historical and psychological revision. For Assumptionists, at the end of one hundred and fifty years, Fr. d’Alzon is before all else “the founder,” whatever his stature as public figure, as man of faith, as servant of the Church. His legacy is first and foremost the Assumptionist charism. It does not preclude taking his personal life as an example; but this has to be constantly re-expressed and re-examined to avoid creating an unreal model based on “fundamentalist” interpretations. In this context the book that we have quoted, L’Esprit de L’Assomption selon Emmanuel d’Alzon, is to be recommended.

The Assumptionist Congregation has so far made a journey of fidelity, but it is a mature fidelity. Along the way opportunities for reorientation were not lacking. The “little family” was confronted by major political events over the last half-century. Everyone was affected by them, Assumptionists in the Balkans, Russia, Manchuria and North Africa, happened to be stationed there just when revolutions occurred. Their outreach to the Orthodox in those lands was therefore cut off. For their part, missionaries leaving for Chile, Brazil, Argentina, or Colombia had not foreseen that dictatorship and public violence awaited them. Nor had they anticipated that the politico-religious movement in favor of the poor and the exploited would determine the direction of their apostolate, painful as it was, in accordance with the Gospel.

The “Mission Beyond Borders,” conceived according to the most basic principle of evangelization, has itself been redefined since the last war in terms inspired by the more recent notion of under-development. It has further introduced the principle formulated by Paul VI: the development of the whole person and of all persons without distinction.

It was the Church, itself ever changing, that not only requested an updating of the text of the Assumptionist Rule, but also influenced the whole evolution of the Congregation. An attachment to the hierarchical Church, so strong in Fr. d’Alzon, became enriched by a solidarity with the Church as the People of God. Assumptionists can justly claim that the Second Vatican Council found in them a docility that was second nature.

A striking illustration of this evolution is the manner in which the Congregation’s ecumenical spirit has matured. Looking back, it is clear that Fr. d’Alzon and the first generation of his disciples did not give a perfect example of ecumenism. Our present understanding of the Church as one and apostolic allows us to make this judgment, without forgetting at the same time that some of the Assumptionist elders in the Near East had a premonition of ecumenism. They outlined some approaches and understood that Orthodoxy must be presented truthfully: its doctrine, its history, its liturgy, and its prayer. It was there that fidelity was to meet with a significant test. For, if it is possible to recognize that, by sending men (and women) to the East, the founder was placing them face to face with the great cause of the Church, his congregation had to reject the mentality of a Catholic re-conquest so as to convert itself to the hope of Christian unity.

The religious in Central Europe, in Russia, and in Greece have taken stock. They know through experience how relationships between Catholicism and Orthodoxy are presented in the concrete details of everyday social life. They know what the situation of Catholics in the Oriental rite is, a situation that is one of a minority and controversial. But they are there as prophets of communion so that one day the “two lungs of the Church” may finally breathe as one. Nobody is in a better position to grasp the obstacles that need to be overcome on both sides. You will not find them making beautiful statements to please people, while taking little account of ethnic and cultural realities.

The Catholic press is another striking example of continuity and change. Just to compare a number of La Croix and of Pèlerin-Magazine today with the numbers of 1883 is a revelation. It is like comparing two papers that resemble each other only by their name and their stated Catholic ownership. Compared with the past, the press today is conceived in a different manner both in its professional operation and in its ideology. Fidelity means not disavowing one’s predecessors and, at the same time, learning from their errors and excessive “Catholic” zeal. The Assumptionist Catholic press deserves equal credit then and now, but journalism as a tool for apologetics has been dropped in favor of a journalism that does not seek to be anything but itself. When they founded a press, the Assumptionists had no idea how it would evolve. No one could imagine then that Catholic journalism itself would experience such innovations in theory and in practice. A daily newspaper called La Croix with the crucifix at the head of its first page is, indeed, ancient history.

Fidelity, tested in its convictions and by its apostolic methods, was also proven in the continuity of the life of the institute. Some rather unclear proposals were made for consolidation with other institutes, none of which finally materialized. The anti-religious activities of French politics threatened to entrap the Congregation in administrative complicity. Between compromise and total intransigence, decisions had to be made at short notice. Autonomy and freedom were at stake. Having opted for the “Diaspora” in the neighboring countries of France, the Assumptionists took the risk of having to adapt to the unforeseeable events of their time. We have seen how the internal crisis of 1922-1923 caused Rome to intervene to regulate the central government and require division into provinces. It was feared that the Congregation would remain for a long time under this supervision. Thanks to Fr. Quénard and to mutual understanding, peace and unity were gradually re-established for the greatest good of the Congregation’s life and mission. Finally, after the Second Vatican Council, the revision of the Rule of Life required a revaluation of language, which, even in the details of what was laid down, had for many years remained fixed and unchangeable. The new language, however, did nothing to endanger the founding spirit or the desire to live together.

This desire to live together presumes, first of all, the “desire to live.” The trials that accompanied the very struggle to keep the Congregation founded by Emmanuel d’Alzon alive began with the problems of definition, as the successive versions of the Constitutions and the changes in the “plans” of the founder himself illustrate. Those trials continued in the choice of apostolic work and in the promotion of those activities. But much depended on finding vocations and they did not present themselves in large numbers, even though for a time the alumnates provided an effective and decisive answer.

Today the Congregation is living a new phase. Awakening and discerning vocations, calling youth, and taking charge of their religious and intellectual formation are now under the care of religious and communities committed to this purpose. It requires a delicate approach. The question of “vocation ministry” and of the readiness to undertake it is a question of life and death for the Congregation. The answers vary according to the countries. But the desire to live has endured and has been reaffirmed.

A clear understanding of the Congregation’s past and of its present state is vital in order to prepare for its future, be it long or short. Such clarity requires that the whole picture be examined. What, in fact, determines the destiny of the Congregation? The Assumptionist mission is broad and generous: the coming of the Kingdom of God, “in us and around us.” This mission is not limited in time, but there is no guarantee that a congregation will last forever. Certain institutes have existed for centuries; others have disappeared. New ones have been founded in each century. The Assumptionist Congregation has reached one hundred and fifty years of existence at a time when new forms of consecrated life, of apostolic life, and of cooperation with the laity are developing. A new ideal presented by a founder gives birth to an institute. There are uncertainties and hesitations, but these can serve as stimuli more productive than a resigned acceptance of the status quo.

As long as there are young men who really wish to live the Assumptionist life together and who wish to do so for a mission, the Congregation is alive. Even one active Assumptionist, living as such, can embody the whole Congregation. A tiny community in Asia is a seed sown in the earth with all the risks that such a gesture entails. The time of large battalions is over. This is clear in Western countries where the ancient “Christianities” are doing battle with secularism, a certain demoralization, indifference, religious ignorance, and unbelief in all its forms. In its diagnosis of a world to evangelize, a recent General Chapter outlined some of these serious cultural realities, full of ambiguity.

The countries of the Southern hemisphere have not followed the same path. We have already mentioned several times that Catholicism is changing hemispheres. We have seen the birth and the development of the Assumptionist Congregation in the Congo, in Madagascar and, after a period of problems in vocation ministry, in South America. In those countries the Congregation is, for the most part, young. Something is happening that cannot be reduced to statistics (religious professions, priestly ordinations) and nobody can say what all of this means, except that the Assumptionist Congregation, just like the Church, will no longer be what it was. Languages, apostolic priorities and commitments, having unpredictable effects on the Assumptionist identity, will shape it. Inculturation—the word in fashion—is the great unknown; it is barely understood by those who will embrace it in their own lives and interpret it in their world and in their local churches. Inculturation is the destiny of a congregation tuned in to diverse cultures and religious sensitivities, one that is expatriated both from its birthplace and from the European countries where it first blossomed. The swing from North to South has only just begun.

As we move into a new century, and even if this were not the case, a more intensive apprenticeship in internationality must take place. History has taught us this the hard way. It has become a major requirement of living together. This goes beyond cosmopolitanism, which, in any case, is being imposed on us by the restructuring of Europe and by globalization. The diversity of spoken languages alone must be recognized. The test for religious will be living in an international community. Some already exist. When one looks at the reality we are living, it is not enough to state the ideal. Nationalistic reactions, individual sensitivities, moods that result from a “pluri-cultural” or “pluri-ethnic” lack of privacy will not go away because of good intentions. Indeed, Assumptionists have been made aware of this precisely because of their geographic distribution and especially because of the swing to the South. Meetings of young Assumptionists from different countries, an initiative of the General Curia called CAFI (Assumptionist community of formation to internationality), were organized with the goal of sensitizing religious and facilitating the formation of “pluralistic” communities.

At the General Chapter of 1999, Fr. Richard Lamoureux, an American, was elected Superior General. He is the second American to be elected, Fr. Wilfrid Dufault having served as Superior General from 1952 to 1969. Both are “Franco-Americans,” former students and teachers of what today has become Assumption College in Worcester (Massachusetts). Richard Lamoureux, born in 1942, represents postwar America -more precisely New England where he was born, in the same city of Worcester. Fr. Lamoureux served as Provost of the college, director of formation for young religious, and for six years Provincial of the North American Province. In his General Council, there is now only one Frenchman; the other councilors are a Canadian from Quebec, a Chilean, and a Congolese. Internationality in the congregation’s general government has never been so pronounced and the French presence never so reduced. France, however, which now forms but one province, does maintain its numerical predominance. Further, it exercises wide internationality in practice by its involvement in South America, Madagascar, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Jerusalem, working as it does in collaboration with religious native to these regions or who come from other provinces. Not surprisingly, internationality characterized the General Chapter of 1999, first of all in the matter of the representation by elected delegates but also in the matter of organization of the Chapter and its method of procedure.

This Chapter was more focused on the 21st century ahead than on the one hundred and fifty years gone by, and this perspective determined the choice of themes and the manner of working. As invariably happens at meetings where the documents abound, where texts have to be written and committees are set up to review the texts and concrete measures, certain themes were not new. There were also geographical adjustments to be made in order to conform to the current configuration of personnel. Themes that were considered anew were: the notion of “apostolic community,” vocation ministry, the search for a greater association between religious and laity in order to share not only apostolic responsibilities but also the Assumptionist spirit, the option for justice, the education of youth, and social communication.

The Chapter did more than look more deeply at previous themes and make adjustment on particular points. At the time, the Roman correspondent of the newspaper La Croix did not hesitate to give as a title to an article on the deliberations, “The Assumptionists Rediscover Themselves.” Rediscovery occurs in many different circumstances: a social group experiences a loss of awareness, then rediscovers its purpose; a family makes a new inventory of what it has, because it is no longer sure of what lies ahead; a religious congregation takes a fresh look at itself, questions itself on its vocation and identity, and with hope in its heart, grasps once again the meaning of its life: the passion for the Kingdom (One may be forgiven the grandiloquence—it is heard too at Chapters!). For Assumptionists, this is not just a question of words, but one of “re-foundation,” a word current in the English-speaking world. It is a process that is even more radical than “re-discovery.” At the centenary of the congregation’s foundation, Cardinal Marty presented a challenge to the Assumptionists: “You are heirs, be founders.” This exhortation is treasured by the Assumptionists who feel honored by it. But where do they go from there: create a new building; reexamine the foundations of the old? The wager is never-ending: renewal and fidelity, but a fidelity that is creative.

This notion of rediscovery and refounding is ambitious and has yet to be realized; but one thing is certain: it depends on a return to the charism. This has been a preoccupation for some time. Claude Maréchal, the predecessor of Richard Lamoureux, was its persevering apostle, not letting himself be intimidated by some skeptics. The Chapter took no account of the skeptics. Its reflection on the charism was a high point. It was well handled. There was hope and approval. There were, however, hesitations because of the words. One has to choose words carefully in order to clarify a policy. The words in question were: “re-think the charism,” “re-appropriate the charism,” and, simply, “appropriate.” This last word was deemed most suitable both for the individual religious and for a congregation that wishes to be seen as having a charism proper to itself yet relevant to the present times. So the charism was, at the Chapter, unraveled again, both for those present and for those outside. The text that emerged was applauded. It has the merit of recalling, in words that owe much to Bruno Chenu, former editor-in-chief of La Croix, what the charism of a congregation consists in: a gift of the Spirit, the spiritual intention of a founder, a gospel path for them to take, a call to re-interpret and adapt the original vision.

Every Assumptionist is called by the Rule of Life to be “a man of faith and a man of his times.” Inspired by the charism for the Kingdom, Emmanuel d’Alzon has shown him how to interpret the signs of the times. He did so with ideas and convictions based on the rights of God and of the Church. His faith was radiant; his analysis of the period in which he lived relied on certain interpretations that history has not corroborated and which can be surprising and at times embarrassing. But his sincerity, his good intentions, and many of his intuitions, were as sound as his faith. Today’s Assumptionist Congregation, like a Church that holds evangelization as a priority, is confronted by the signs of what is known as “modernity.” These signs must be interpreted if its resolve to unfold and communicate its charism is to bear apostolic fruit. It is not an infallible interpreter; no one can see clearly what is yet to come.

“If you wish to extend the Kingdom of God”, wrote Fr. d’Alzon, “do not suppose that you will not have great disappointments. The prophet who has not suffered, what can he do, and the one who has not been tempted, what does he know?”[60]

History makes one familiar with disappointment and indeed with failure. But those who have faith in themselves and in their mission do not lose courage.

Now that the Assumptionist Congregation has taken stock of its shortcomings and its weaknesses as well as of its qualities and achievements, it enters a stage of transition. The swing from North to South is releasing new energy and engendering new optimism. One has only to think of the vitality of the young—and of the fidelity of the old! What is coming is “a breath of fresh air,” to quote the most recent General Chapter. The celebrations of the 150th anniversary, which commenced in Rome in May 1999, commemorate a past but, even more, affirm a future.

Lucien Guissard

May 31, 1999

 

 

Bibliography

Books

Gérard Cholvy, Etre chrétien en France an XIXe siècle (1790-1914), Seuil, 1997. A study that interprets the century of the foundation of the Assumptionists.

Emmanuel d’Alzon, Écrits spirituels, Rome, 1956, 1,503 pages. A selection of texts by the founder.

Siméon Vailhé, a.a., Vie du Père Emmanuel d’Alzon, Maison de la Bonne Presse, 2 vol., 1927. Biography.

André Sève, Christ Is My Life: The Spiritual Legacy of Emmanuel d’Alzon, New City Press. Easier to read.

Historical Colloquium, under the direction of René Rémond and Émile Poulat: (Emmanuel d’Alzon dans la société et l’Église du XIXe siècle,) Centurion, 1982.

L’esprit de l’Assomption d’après Emmanuel d’Alzon, collective work, under the direction of Fr. Claude Maréchal, Superior General, Rome, 1993.

Pamphlets

The Assumptionists, Men of faith on mission to the world, Rome. Under the direction of Fr. Claude Maréchal, Paris (79, Denfert-Rochereau Avenue, 75014), by a team of religious, headed by Fr. Patrick Zago, former provincial superior of France. Preface by René Rémond.

Les Oblates de l’Assomption, Mother House (203, Lecourbe Street, 75015 Paris).

Richard Richards, a.a., D’Alzon: Fighter for God, N.Y., 1974. Richard Richards, a.a., The Assumptionists, 1980.

Reviews

Itinéraires augustiniens. An introduction to the spirituality of Saint Augustine.

L’Assomption et ses oeuvres: trimestrial, illustrated. Presentation of the communities; articles on the apostolic activities; portraits of the religious, etc. (79, Denfert-Rochereau Avenue, 75014 Paris).

 

 

Appendix

Organization of the Congregation

1. The local communities

Each community has a superior who is supported by a council. The local chapter is made up of all the members of the community and meets at least once a year.

2. The province

•          provincial;

•          provincial council: the provincial and those appointed to assist him.

•          provincial chapter: the provincial council and the elected delegates of the communities;

•          the council of the province: the provincial council and the delegates elected by the provincial chapter.

The Congregation is present in twenty-six countries (editor’s note: 32 countries in 2011). The religious are grouped into:

•          nine provinces: France, Netherlands, North America, South America, North Belgium, South Belgium, Spain, Africa, and Brazil;

•          one vice-province: Madagascar;

•          three regions: England, Italy and Quebec;

•          one vicariate attached to the Superior General: Colombia.

The regions are attached to a province.

3. The general governance

•          superior general;

•          general curia: the superior general, his assistants, the general officers (general bursar, secretary general, procurator general to the Holy See);

•          general chapter: the general curia, the major superiors of the whole Congregation, and the delegates elected by the provincial chapters; every six years;

•          council of the Congregation: the major superiors and the general curia; once a year

The duties and responsibilities of each level of government are defined in the Rule of Life under the title Our Community Organization.

List of Superior Generals

Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon: died in 1880

Fr. François Picard: 1880-1903.

Fr. Emmanuel Bailly (brother of Fr. Vincent-de-Paul): 1903-1917.

[Fr. Joseph Maubon], vicar general: 1917-1923.

Fr. Gervais Quénard, named by the Holy See in 1923, elected by the General Chapter in 1929, re-elected in 1935, then in 1946 (after the years of war); resigned in 1942.

Fr. Wilfrid Dufault: 1952-1969.

Fr. Paul Charpentier: 1969-1975.

Fr. Hervé Stéphan: 1975-1987.

Fr. Claude Maréchal: 1987-1999

Fr. Richard Lamoureux: 1999-

 

 

Notes



[1] Emmanuel d’Alzon dans la société et I’Église du XIXe siècle. Historical symposium (December 1980), under the direction of René Rémond and Émile Poulat; especially the expose by Jean-Marie Mayeur.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Examples: the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (1816); the Marists (1816); the Fathers of Betharram (1831); the African Missions of Lyon (1856); the Salesians (1859); the White Fathers (1868). Fr. Lacordaire reestablished the Dominican Order in France in 1843; Dom Prosper Guéranger reorganized the Benedictine Order in 1837.

[4] When reviewing the book of Gaétan Bernoville, Les assomptionnistes, Msgr. Jean Calvet entitled his article: “Gentlemen of the Kingdom of God”, and lauded “the spirit of chivalry” of d’Alzon (La Croix, May 3, 1957).

[5] D’Alzon chose this motto after reading the Constitutions of the Sister Servants of Jesus Christ, said to be of Marie-Thérèse. They were implanted in the diocese of Nîmes in 1837 thanks to d’Alzon.

[6] Écrits spirituels, p. 156

[7] Écrits spirituels, p. 163.

[8] P. Siméon Vailhé, a.a., Vie du P. Emmanuel d’Alzon.

[9] This analysis is based on an excellent monograph by Fr. Pierre Touveneraud.

[10] Nîmes with Fr. Emmanuel Bailly as provincial, Paris with Fr. Picard as provincial, and Adrianopolis with Fr. Galabert as provincial.

[11] Emmanuel d’Alzon dans la société et l’Église du XIXe siècle, Colloquium of History, op. cit.

[12] Un mâitre spirituel du XIXe siècle, Rome, 1958

[13] Écrits spirituels, p. 389.

[14] Écrits spirituels, p. 1064.

[15] From the Latin alumnus, “student.” The students of these schools were called “alumnists. An alumnate was a school for junior and senior high school students interested in a religious vocation. In general, these students came from families of very modest means.

[16] collège corresponds to secondary school or high school in some English-speaking countries. It represents that level of education which prepares students for university studies.

[17] Not long after he had founded the center, Fr. Roger had both legs amputated due to a disease, but he continued from his wheelchair to run the center, combining a profound compassion for the poor of the city with a relentless efficiency in providing for their needs. The contribution of the English Province to education would be incomplete without mention of Brother James Conlon, who, with a doctorate in Mathematics, taught in the university and eventually participated in the first Assumptionist foundation in Kenya.

[18] Translator’s note: Fr. George Tavard, a world-renowned scholar, was a conciliar peritus at the Second Vatican Council, where he was involved in preparing the decree on ecumenism. He has taught theology at Catholic and Protestant institutions in the United States, Canada, and Kenya. He is currently a member of several international and national dialogues with the Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists. He is the author of over 50 books, including Holy Writ or Holy Church: The Crisis of Protestant Reformation and many others on theology and ecumenism as well as numerous articles.

[19] Most Rev. Bossïlkov, Passionist and bishop of Nicopoli, was also with them. (Translators note: Pope John Paul II recently canonized him as a martyr).

[20] Écrits spirituels, p. 186.

[21] Écrits spirituels, p. 1072.

[22] See Patrick A. Croghan, a.a. The Peasant From Makeyevka, 1984.

[23] 1906-1936.

[24] For further information on the history of the Assumptionists and Catholicism in Russia, see two works by Fr. Antoine Wenger, a.a.: Rome and Moscow (1900-1950), Desclée de Brouwer editions (1987), and Catholics in Russia, according to the archives of the KGB (1920-1960), same editor (1998).

[25] Bayard, 1958

[26] The Gulag Archipelago, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn appeared in Paris in 1974 published by Le Seuil.

[27] Translators note: He was associate pastor to Most Rev. Pie Neveu at St. Louis-des-Français and served all Catholics in Moscow, both native and foreign.

[28] The last French Assumptionist in the Soviet Union was Fr. Jean de Matha Thomas, pastor of Saint-Louis-des-Français in Moscow, from 1947-1950.

[29] Translator’s note: The last American Assumptionist, Fr. Norman Meiklejohn, left Moscow in 1999 at the time the French Assumptionists re-founded there. Seven other Americans served there: Antonio Laberge, Joseph Richard, George Bissonnette, Louis Dion, Eugene Laplante, Phil Bonvouloir, and Robert Fortin.

[30] Translators note: Seven Trappist monks stationed in Tibhirine, Algeria, were brutally assassinated by a group of radical Islamic terrorists on March 27, 1996.

[31] Écrits spirituels, p. 163.

[32] Écrits spirituels, p. 1440.

[33] Claude Soetant. “Fr. d’Alzon, the Assumptionists, and the Pilgrimages,” in Emmanuel d’Alzon in the Society and the Church of the XIXth Century, Historical Colloquium, 1980, op.cit.

[34] Translator’s note: NDS is the acronym for Notre-Dame du Salut (Our Lady of Salvation)

[35] Écrits spirituels, note from 1878; p. 1424.

[36] Écrits spirituels, note of 1878; p. 1424.

[37] On the origins of La Croix and La Bonne Presse, see Charles Monsch in the Acts of the historical colloquium: Emmanuel d’Alzon dans la société et I’Église du XIXe siècle, 1980, op. cit.; and Acts of the historical colloquium, also directed by René Rémond and Émile Poulat: Cent ans d’histoire de la Croix (1883-1893), Centurion, printed in 1988.

[38] The Monk.

[39] Founder of the Salesians

[40] Translator’s note: Bayard press is the current name of what began as La Bonne Presse.

[41] The Assumptionists outside of France did not imitate the Bonne Presse. There was a project in Brazil; it started off badly and did not succeed. The La Croix de Belgique, however, deserves a mention, even though it has now disappeared. It was a weekly for parishes. There was a Flemish edition, Het Kruis (La Croix). In Bulgaria, Fr. Marie-Germain Reydon tried to launch a popular press.

[42] Review founded in 1919, which publishes in their entirety pontifical documents, texts emanating from episcopal conferences and religious organizations, as well as diverse documents dealing with ethics and other religious.

[43] See: A historical study by Fr. Yves Guillauma, a.a. : “A center of Catholic press at the Liberation: the Maison of the Bonne Presse,” in the collective work, Le pari de la presse écrite, under the direction of Lucien Guissard (Bayard Editions, 1998); also doctoral thesis defended at the Sorbonne, on November 26, 1998, by Marie-Généviève Massiani on “La Croix and the Vichy regime, from June 1940 to November 1942.”

[44] 97 newspapers and magazines in the world, 16 magazines in France just for young people; an extremely important senior citizen monthly, Notre Temps; and another dear success: Prions en Église. In 1999, a new review for senior citizens was launched, Bel Age Magazine.

[45] December 23, 1998

[46] Albert Failler, for the centenary of the Institute, in Revue des études byzantines, volume 53, year 1995; the author retraces the whole history.

[47] Circular of lune 16, 1874.

[48] Bulletin of Ecclesiastical Literature of Toulouse.

[49] Well-known historian of the origins of Christianity.

[50] Fr. Burg undertook the writing of a history of the review. It was published by Valkhof Pers in 1999 with the title of Dat allen één zijn: Het Christelijk Oosten: 1948-1998.

[51] Translators note: Fr. Patrick was one of several scholars appointed by Pope John Paul II to a commission to study the possibility of greater unity with the Orthodox Churches.

[52] A special commission has been put in charge of reflection and animation of ecumenical matters for the Assumptionists, the COIA (acronym for: International Assumptionist Ecumenical Commission).

[53] See page 108.

[54] Translators note: Fr. Ernest Fortin, an American Assumptionist, is an internationally renowned scholar, having lectured widely in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He is appreciated for his understanding of Christian political thought especially that of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante. He has written voluminously on Saint Augustine, on the problem of human goodness, on his hermeneutics of love, on the patristic sense of community, on the proper way to read Augustine, etc. Before his retirement in 1997, he taught at Boston College, a Jesuit university, and was the director of the Institute of Policitics and Religion.

[55] Editors addition

[56] Young Christian Workers.

[57] Translator’s note: Favela is a Portuguese word that means “slum.”

[58] A school of 1,500 boys, from 8 to 18 years of age; it takes in 125 street children who come from broken families (1998 figures).

[59] Fr. Madina founded similar centers in Panama and in Costa Rica

[60] Letter to the Novices. Écrits spirituels, p. 158.

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