Venerable Emmanuel D’Alzon – Closing Address at the General Chapter – 1873

Venerable Emmanuel-Maurice d'AlzonMy very dear Brothers,

We have just had another important meeting, whereby your religious life has been enhanced, and your zeal invigorated, whereby you have become more imbued with the principles that define us, and whereby your goal appears more clearly, and the means of attaining it become more precise. Strengthened by your help, your insights, and your common vision and desires I give thanks to God that I am the father of a family, tiny to be sure, but in which purification has resulted in choice, select members, capable of an even greater good.

Now that we are about to go our separate ways and return to our various tasks, allow me to add some brief remarks to what I said to you five years ago. At that time, I spoke to you about the spirit of Assumption. Today I would like to say something about the activity to which that spirit leads, an activity that may serve as a sort of prelude to what has already taken place.

I – A LOOK AT THE PAST

A. THE CHURCH AND ASSUMPTION SINCE 1868

At the time of the last General Chapter, we were mostly preoccupied with the democratic movement that was taking place and that seemed to dominate everything else. At the same time the Sovereign Pontiff was convoking the bishops of the Catholic world to an Ecumenical Council. To him, the situation seemed very serious, and the troubles of the Church great, caused by infernal conspiracies cleverly hatched by avowed enemies or disloyal brethren. It seemed urgent to him that the fulness of truth stand up against the absolute denials, by which the Revolution, in all its forms, seeks to crush the affirmations of our faith. Already, preoccupied by this democratic invasion, you had found it useful to participate in what is basically a popular work, the orphanage at Arras. Its director, in joining us, brought with him the wealth of his experience, of his work, and of his initiative. He showed us how, by paternal affection, uncouth dispositions can be polished, rough characters can be rendered more manageable, and the most rebellious souls be sanctified. This was only a beginning, but a beginning that already indicates the long road to be followed, the royal way of love for the little ones, the poor, and all the neglected.

Meanwhile the bishops made their way to Rome, and I had the honor of following my bishop. Like other leaders of young Congregations, I felt I had to go in order to find out what the Council would decide concerning their Congregations’ existence. Events did not allow the Council to consider questions dealing with religious families. Yet it was easy to see that Roman wisdom, no matter what was said, did not want to jeopardize rights that had been acquired. Rather, the Council favored an approach like the one used in war time, whereby leaders modify or improve their tactics and weapons and the discipline of their armies, and make a science of their art of waging war. However, the analogous policy of the Church arose from its experience in struggling against enemies who were becoming increasingly stubborn, ferocious, and clever. If the forces of evil were more numerous and better prepared, the Church wanted to have battalions that were more steadfast, more intelligent, more energetic. Consequently the newly organized recruits would surely be of help to the older monastic legions.

I was soon reassured and become concerned solely with the great question regarding the Pope. What a source of emotions and anguish! What subtleties, more or less theological! What diplomatic strategies, what threats, what fear in timorous hearts! If, as Pius IX said, a Council has three phases: the human stage, the stage of Satan, and the stage of God, you can believe that some feared that man and Satan were apparently about to have the upper hand. God was not about to appear, or so it seemed to our impatience. We have no idea how the Holy Spirit acts to turn the conscience of a true bishop, particularly when his natural inclination would be to worldly views and overly human decisions. Finally, your father had the immense joy of attending that solemn session during which were proclaimed and commented on, in all their richness, the words of the Savior: “You are Peter. I have prayed for you. Feed my sheep.” At that moment he also saw the storm darken the dome and the vaults of Saint Peter’s. He heard the thunder that some likened to that of Mt. Sinai. These were the portent of easily foreseeable troubles which God permitted, after the great Councils, as if to strengthen their decrees by the trial of temptation. In the past, every covenant required sacrifices. Each Ecumenical Council, which is a new covenant in truth between man’s spirit and God’s spirit, always claimed victims. Two months later, the Vatican Council had its mysterious immolation, and Assumption had the glory of offering the blood of one of its best sons.

Let us not forget it. Rome was a prisoner because France was vanquished. Assumption saw fit to show its fighting spirit by furnishing to this sad war as many military chaplains as we could, and then some. Sedan, Metz, Mainz, Paris saw you devoting yourselves on the battle-fields, in the sorrows of captivity, in the horrors of sieges, exposed to the assaults of the enemies of France and, sad to say, to the bullets of her children. You knew how to prove that you had religious courage. Still, under the bullets of the Prussians and of the army of Versailles, concerned Catholics asked themselves whether revolutionary plots might not be resisted and thwarted by a Catholic League.

B. SKETCH OF ASSUMPTION’S WORK SINCE 1870

The notion of a Catholic League, inspired by the bloody slaughter of the Commune, grew with astonishing rapidity. The Catholic Committee of Paris saw similar committees spring up throughout France. The Christian sap rose again very actively, a sure sign of the powerful vitality of the tree and of the merciful dispensation of Providence even in the midst of our most painful humiliation.

Part of the evil that poisons us undoubtedly comes from education. We tried in Revue de l’Enseignement chr├ętien, by crying out “Carthage must be destroyed”; we tried to make people realize the urgent need for a prompt remedy. Despite the hesitations of a possibly too human prudence, we were able to hold an Educational Congress. The second Congress has not yet been held; but when it is held, we want to lay an even stronger foundation for the first developments of our future freedom. Because of the political preoccupations of the moment, we were unable to do this to the extent that we wanted and that such an important question rightly demands.

While we tried, within our limits, to fight with the pen, we were also concerned with other Catholic projects: workers’ clubs, social centers, youth centers. Did we do everything we could? Evidently not. We were too few, yet many among you shared their experience and the result of their work at the impressive meetings in which the membership of the Congress of Workers’ Associations rose from sixty to three hundred, and from three hundred, to one thousand.

We needed financial resources in order to help some of the workers’ projects that were starting. We also needed prayer to allay God’s wrath. Expiation by prayer, expiation by intelligent almsgiving–two ideas blended into one, which was at the origin of Our Lady of Salvation. The Association organized public prayer, so necessary for France, and revived a number of other projects that had languished for of lack of funds. From its inception, the Association gave impetus to pilgrimages, which touched the heart of God. The Mother of God was, so to speak, forced to renew her miracles. The pilgrimages also made popular those public acts of faith that were no longer in style, or so we were told. My brothers, this is only a very brief outline of what you have accomplished, of the projects in which you have been involved more or less directly for five years. You haven’t been the only ones involved in these enterprises, but your cooperation, modest though it may have been, at least revealed your intention, determined your orientation, and characterized your spirit.

II – A PLAN OF ACTION

What are these first attempts compared to what is still left for you to do? “The journey will be long for you,” I say to you as the angel did to Elijah (1 Kings 19:7). What vast horizons open up before us! Let us try to provide some glimpses, some kind of initial plan. We summarize everything when we say that our goal is the restoration of Catholic mores by faith in Christian principles.

A. EXTERNAL ACTION:

THE RESTORATION OF CHRISTIAN MORAL ATTITUDES

Christian mores! They have tended to disappear. Voltaire’s sarcasm, the press and its obscenities, the pride of learning, impatience with the weight of God and any other kind of burden, the need to believe in nothing in order to affirm the right to do anything: such are the basic principles upon which the new social order has pretended to build. To mock everything: gold, pleasure, power; by robbery, orgy, and revolutions. To proceed by hate, lying, and violence. Is this not a summary of these new rights? Either we perish or we climb out of the abyss toward which Europe seems to be rushing.

What needs to be done? Purify the air, poisoned by the miasma of immorality. To this end we commissioned steam locomotives to carry caravans of pilgrims to numerous sanctuaries. We sanctified these instruments of an often guilty industry and have used them to carry throughout France our repentance and our expiation. Such pilgrimages will obviously diminish in number, without ceasing entirely, whenever other kinds of manifestations prove more opportune. They are, after all, only immense processions, longer and more effective because they are more demanding. painful. By these pious journeys of her children, the Church regains possession of the public domain and of the open air. We now declare ourselves in full daylight. Christians who so declare themselves are close to becoming triumphant. Troubles in France have given Catholics the privilege of needing only to show themselves in order to conquer. So we showed ourselves in Paris, Lyons, Lourdes, La Salette, Marseilles and other places too numerous to mention. We showed ourselves in Grenoble and were insulted. But let us remember that insults and contradictions are also of value to Christians.

Now, after having affirmed our faith by these purifying journeys, after having proclaimed our right to emerge from the sacristy, is it not appropriate to re-enter our sanctuaries to offer greater adoration to the God who inhabits them and gives them life? The cult of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, nocturnal adoration, frequent communion, are customs to which we must return, because they bring weakened and exhausted souls back to the very core of the Church, to the divine principle of its life on earth.

I have already spoken about orphanages and agricultural schools. Oh, why do we lack workers! How many poor little souls there are to be rescued, who belong to the social class into which Jesus Christ himself was born. May God send many workers to labor in this part of the vineyard. When the vineyard has been adequately cultivated, revolutions will become impossible.

Another way to counteract the force of evil is by popular meetings. A moment ago, I spoke about workers’ clubs, but I now want to express certain reservations. Periodically gathering such groups of working men, without giving them strong direction, is very imprudent, in the eyes of those who do not want such groups to become simply a means of satisfying someone’s ambition. Leaders soon lose their popularity, or they keep it only by using means which they sooner or later regret. Experience shows that people band together in times of social unrest. Then groups break up when they no longer need to protect themselves by uniting, or when they no longer serve some political party. It is at just such a time of group decomposition, which I think is not far off, that we must start a number of new works.

The reorganization of the army creates new obligations for the clergy. Each young generation must pass through the barracks. What evil or what good will come from such a situation, if we are faithful to our vocation! Those among you who have heard the confessions of from eight to ten thousand prisoners of war, on the average, know that the soldier can be reached by the priest who knows how to speak to him in words that a soldier can understand, and that are especially worthy of God. I repeat that we are too few to say that such a ministry will be ours. But the sympathy that you have inspired among those admirable officers who want to have not only a military command but also an apostolate will enable you to accomplish even more than you are able to do personally. As you know, an Assumptionist religious should be dissatisfied with himself unless he has accomplished a hundred times more than he can. His rest must consist of trying to find out how to do a thousand times more. I urge novices to ponder this basic maxim of our Association. Thus, being fewer than fifty, we might count as if we were one thousand.

Besides the military circles, to which I draw all your attention, I would like to see the creation of guilds, in order, sooner or later, that they might replace the workers clubs. Are there any among you who have not heard about those admirable families of workers that, under the protection of a patron saint or of a great mystery, formed guilds? From apprentice to master craftsman, everyone found a place and encouragement in such guilds. I know there were abuses. I know about their despotism, imposed upon them by royal legislation that was too oppressive. Still, workers’ guilds must have had something excellent about them, because they became the prime targets of revolutionary destroyers.

Why not restore them? Learning from past mistakes, avoiding abuses, adapting them to present requirements, why not permeate them with the divine element of faith, which cries out to God, “My Father!”; of hope, which counts above all on heavenly riches; of charity, which unites hearts in the face of social animosity, of which Paris still witnesses the devastation?

One of us once mentioned that there are some things that we can do and others that we can only suggest. We will form such guilds when we can. Advice may seem to be something very small indeed; but dropped upon an active soul, it can be a very fruitful seed.

The action I suggest to you is based on certain ideas: the principles of faith. I know that today such principles are excluded from society, and I need furnish no further proof than the shameful treatment of the Sovereign Pontiff. Jesus Christ, in the person of Pius IX, is a prisoner of the Revolution. Kings do not want to admit that, since the preaching of the Gospel, their rights rest upon divine justice. And the teaching of this truth, in its loftiest expression, is entrusted to the Apostolic See. The effort to which I invite you is based on a number of Christian ideas, on a doctrine that only yesterday was the object of a great decision, which Prussia, unable to destroy it even after having vanquished France, has tried to persecute. Despite derision, despite persecution in the press, despite the bullets of the Commune, this doctrine seems to have grown because God seems to have said, “The hour of your triumph has come.”

Such ideas must be disseminated and made available to everyone. To accomplish this, suitable means are necessary. One of us has successfully tried to give courses for workers. More should be given, by ourselves or by our friends. After the workers come the members of the middle class. Despite their greater vanity, they are no less ignorant of their religion. The workers were brought up by teaching brothers; the bourgeois were educated in one state-run school or another. We know well enough what the chaplains were able to teach them and what the professors then proceeded to unteach them. Therefore, if possible, you will begin classes for the middle class. Who knows? The fear they still have may cause them to rally round your word.

What can I say about education except that, more than ever, we must hold fast to the principles of Assumption and very carefully ward off any misguided spirit that would refuse to accept our point of departure, our plans, and our objective.

I might say the same about the publications that some of us have become involved in. Let us admit that the Revue de l’Engseignement chr├ętien did not accomplish everything that it could have. I blame myself first, in order to have the right to blame others. Such a situation must cease, and for my part, I promise to do everything that I can. After all, there were some marvelous results. To the Revue we owe the first Congress, which posited some very Catholic principles, despite the liberal moderation of many. We hope that a second Congress will soon be held, possibly within a year. We will prepare it as well as we can. If the religious movement corresponds to other movements, perhaps we can expect that its results will repay us for the troubles caused by a longer wait. When will the day come when these efforts result in a Catholic University? True, the obstacles are many, and the opposition is strong. Yet it seems to me that we have overcome more than that since the beginning of the century.

In 1801, the Church was captive. Suddenly there arose a man destined to crush the Revolution, although later he became its slave. But he reopened our churches and delivered religion from a thousand problems. Since then the Church of God has continually won greater freedom, has cast off many shackles, and it will cast off many more if only we will it.

I have not yet mentioned our foreign missions. Although Australia is temporarily set aside because certain contractual obligations have not been met, great good is being done in Bulgaria. There is an association of employers and apprentices, and a school with two hundred boys enrolled. Both have had lasting success. Our Oblate Sisters have helped us very effectively in a hospital, a clinic, a boarding school and other schools. All this is in its opening stage, but it is a valuable outpost against Greek and Russian schism. We will be accused of rashness. How puny we are compared to the giant that we are attacking!

The Church today has three enemies: the Revolution, Prussia, and Russia. And Russia is not the least formidable of them. Yet, what an immense field of activity it opened for us! What Jesus said to his unsophisticated disciples I say to you: “The harvest is rich” (Mt 9:37). The disciples became apostles and conquered the world. Decide, my brothers, whether you want to conquer Russia and bring its vast harvest into the granary of the Father. I tremble as I speak thus to you. Yet something within me cries out that, if Assumption wants to, it can reap the harvest, with God’s help.

B. INTERNAL ACTION:

A MORE DEFINITIVE ORGANIZATION OF THE INSTITUTE

I have just been speaking about external action and how we must prepare for it. But what preparation do we ourselves need? Like me, you have thought that the main objective of the Chapter was the establishment of an aristocracy of talent, knowledge, and virtue, placed at the head of our religious family. It takes a lot of nerve to speak in such a way, when one is presiding a group like this one. But I do not speak of what exists, but rather of what must come to be.

Another point: the preparation of the members of the Congregation, accepted, if possible, already as youngsters. This thought, which was that of the Council of Trent when dealing with the question of the transformation of the clergy in those unhappy days, is obviously supported by such a precedent. We will receive in our minor seminaries, from earliest youth, all those young people whom our efforts and the charity of the faithful will allow us to welcome. How numerous these chosen ones would be, if only financial resources were as abundant as are the vocations!

Counting on Divine Providence we have already begun. God has blessed us. Our initial success invites us to continue. We will continue and thus be able to add our present students to those who, from various locations and age groups, will knock at our door, asking for a place in our home. With the care appropriate for each one, we will introduce them to our house of discernment: first, those who, before coming to us, gave themselves up to the occasionally bitter joy of experiencing storm or shipwreck; and then those who, solicitous to be a bit more like the younger brothers of the angels, did not believe that they had to stain their spotless robe in the world, at the risk of tasting later the tearful bread of repentance.

With every passing day, the formation of both types will become stronger, more consistent, more attentive, more rigorous. Experience has warned us, and we want to learn from its sad lessons. Today we are a family; tomorrow we will be a people. Such a transformation requires very energetic supervision. We have no doubt that the transformation will be a happy one, but it will be so only if it takes place the way all truly religious growth does.

I have spoken of the need to revive Christian moral attitudes with the help of the great principles of faith. Therefore, we need saints, but saints enlightened by Catholic learning. Consequently, after novitiate, for those who have already completed their classical studies, we require many years of study of Sacred Scripture, of philosophy, and of theology, with frequent examinations. This will produce, we hope, men whom learning will not intoxicate, as sometimes happens, because they will have placed their study in the context of religious holiness.

CONCLUSIONS

I have summarized almost everything that we have done since the last Chapter; I have also indicated what we would like to do, which is practically infinite. Before I finish, let me give you three pieces of advice.

In a way, the first springs from the present situation. Christianity is in full crisis. We have already suffered much, and now we see victory at hand. Let us take advantage of it and not drive away those who wish to join our ranks. I know some people who are so convinced of the perfection of their own way of doing things that they condemn everything that does not conform to it. This is a kind of modern puritanism which, by a process of exclusion, will become egocentric, like a clique. As for us, we should attract rather than become small by our lack of trust. May trust be one of our principal means of bringing about the victory of truth. We are not owners of truth, only its servants. Isn’t the cause of truth God’s cause? And the cause of God is His alone.

My second piece of advice is not to count too much on success. Open your history books. What do you see, if not victorious peoples quickly falling into ruin? As things are now, we can count on some immediate success. And I fear. Let us be watchful and remain always in the true light: “While you still have the light, believe in the light, and you will become sons of light” (Jn 12:36). The great evil of our day is darkness, lies. Let us remain in truth. Let us serve truth, witness to it, spread it. Then we will have done our job and will not have succumbed to illusion.

My third piece of advice is that you shed the kind of prudence that is often a disguise for shameful laziness. “Prudent” sometimes means fainthearted. Now more than ever is the time to repeat with Bossuet, “Faith is daring.” Our faith must be bold, though some might call us foolhardy. Real prudence is the queen of the moral virtues; and a queen commands, acts, and, if necessary, fights. Some have transformed prudence into a frightened old woman. Such prudence wears bed slippers and a dressing gown, has a cold and coughs a lot. Conventional prudence, I do not want! You must not heed such prudence. As far as I am concerned, I will always trust totally in God’s Providence, even if that makes me die in a hospital, abandoned by all.

My young brothers, I do not want to end these remarks without saying a few words to you. From what Assumption has already done, you can tell that, with God’s grace, she can do still more. But that depends on you. Your elders have given you the example; you have to follow it. Why not do what they have done? To be sure, they have more experience than you in doing good. But why not imitate their ardor? They will share their experience with you. Your ardor, placed at their disposition, will increase their strength and yours tenfold. Is there anything in this world more noble, more beautiful, more grand than the life-work to which they invite you? I continue to look, but I find nothing greater.

So follow in their footsteps. If you outrun them, they will not be jealous. They have borne troubles that you seem destined not to experience. So what? God will reward us all. No matter how many the crowns, they will always be more than we can expect. God will make them beautiful and glorious, not in proportion to our merits, but to his mercy and his love.