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Colin and Pompallier

Pompallier’s letter to Colin has not been preserved, but this is how he quoted himself in a letter to Marcellin Champagnat a bit later:

You know what my purpose is in this important matter as I also made clear to Monsieur Colin in Belley. The mission itself, if I may put it this way, is in my mind of secondary importance. Obtaining the approbation of the Society, or at least permission to bring it under one central superior, is the main thing. If that happens, I shall be happy to leave for the ends of the earth, to those islands of the Pacific, and those poor savages who do not yet know Our Lord, but who, it is said, are well disposed towards the faith. Let us pray the Good Shepherd that everything develops according to his holy will. It is necessary that my superiors propose me for being one of those to be sent, so that I feel assured. I find it hard to understand why the Lord has chosen me for so great a grace.[1]

It defies one's sense of proportion that somebody would consider the opening of a vast new mission field less important than the approbation of a small society, something moreover that at the time they had not given up hope of obtaining anyhow.[2] How else is one to read this letter than as an inept attempt to win over Colin?

The letter reached Belley when Colin was out of town for a few days. When he came home, he was faced with a double fait accompli! Through the action of outsiders the Society was on the point of being committed to a foreign venture of frightening proportions. While Pastre simply wanted to present Rome with someone to take his place as ecclesiastical superior of the new mission, for Colin the stakes were very high. Was it a feasible proposition at all? Would the loose group of Marist candidates support the project? Would enough of them be ready to commit their lives to it?

Moreover, the man already asked to head that mission, Jean-Baptiste-François Pompallier, was someone who would not have been Colin`s first choice. That accepting the mission could quickly lead to the Roman approval of the Society was of course welcome news. All of this Colin had to learn from Pompallier himself, in a letter that must have struck him as remarkable to say the least.

He lost no time answering. The answer is from 3 August 1835. Gracefully apologizing for the delay, he does not waste a word on the unworthy suggestion that approval of the Society would be more important than the salvation of souls in the Pacific,[3] nor a hint of peevishness at the way things had been done. Without further ado Colin goes magnanimously to the heart of the matter: ‘I would be delighted to see you undertake that foreign mission. Don't refuse what the Lord himself offers you. Be full of courage’. Pompallier must have mentioned the contacts he already had made with his confreres. Hence Colin`s remark: ‘The same Providence will give you associates’. And, just to re-store the proper order of things: ‘You will be of great service to the Society by devoting yourself to the salvation of those poor heathens. This committal is what God seems to ask of the Society’.[4] This was leadership at its best, and with a finely balanced judgment. He encourages Pompallier to accept what is offered to him, and to do it as a Marist. He gives him the green light to seek associates, but, he is not yet ready to commit the Society. At the same time he acknowledges that the course of events could indicate what God’s will for the Society might be. In fact, he lets the membership decide, by volunteering!

Colin then takes Pompallier into his confidence by telling him that his agent in Rome (Trinchant) had not long before asked him to release men for a foreign mission venture. His answer had been that he was not in a position to accept as long as the Society had not yet been approved.[5]

Only then does Colin come to the interests of the Society, and in a nearly casual way: ‘If Mr. Pastre offers members of the Society to the Prefect of Propaganda to take his place in that mission, the offer will surely be well received, and can only be of advantage for the Society’.

Two points of advice for Pastre's answer: make sure he mentions the problem that you (Pompallier) have brought up (i.e., the matter of the pontifical approbation), and that he mentions the Brothers as well as the priests. ‘Both (les uns et les autres) can devote themselves to that mission’. Colin broadens the perspective. Fransoni, and consequently Pastre and Pompallier, were looking for priests. Colin is looking at the Society that for him and for Champagnat comprises the Brothers as well as the priests. He wants to involve the Brothers, also to avoid priests being put on their own at isolated posts.

Then, cleverly trying to get a grip on developments, he adds: in case Pastre decides to go ahead and presents you as a member of the Society to take his place, let me know, so that I can get our agent in Rome to deal with Propaganda directly. Unfortunately, before contact could be made, the trusted Trinchant, who had acted as Colin's agent, died in Rome on 24 August 1835.[6]

At the end, Colin's misgivings about Pompallier still get the better of him: ‘I must however say to you, don't pull out as things move on. We would do ourselves a bad service at the Roman court. I trust that the good Lord will strengthen you in this calling. For the moment I do not really see anybody but yourself to take up the position that is offered to you. Thus, be attentive. Have courage and trust in God!’.[7]


  1. OM, I, doc. 347 [5]. The letter is of 13 November 1835.
  2. In spite of the fact that, apart from the granting of some indulgences, they had heard nothing from Rome since Colin's return on the 21st of February, 1834 (cf. OM I, doc. 306), they still expected to receive at any moment at least the official permission to elect a central superior. Cf. OM I, p. 777 n. 1 & doc. 367 [2 & 4]: le bref que nous osons toujours solliciter.
  3. The hint was too gentle for Pompallier to pick up. He repeats it on several occasions: to Champagnat in February 1836, OM I, doc. 370 [3], in a letter to Colin from Le Havre, LRO, doc. 4 [3], and again, five years later, Pompallier to Colin 14.05.1840, LRO, doc. 59 [22].
  4. OM I, 340.
  5. This is the only mention in the available documents of such an offer. Nothing indicates that it was connected with Oceania, cf. OM I, p. 775, n. 1. The text suggests that Colin had not mentioned it to anyone (except, probably, his personal counsellor Cholleton, cf. above, p. 5).
  6. OM II, pp. 148 – 149
  7. Wiltgen, op. cit. p. 107. Amazingly, Wiltgen reads what is clearly meant to be a monition, as Colin ‘heaping praise on Pompallier's head’.

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