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The bishop and the superior

There is no doubt that Pompallier was sincerely committed to the Society of Mary, even though, as a bishop, he would not be answerable to the religious superior, and hence could not be professed with the other Marists. The Cardinals Sala and Fransoni explained this to him in Rome, and Pompallier wanted to be in the same position towards the Society as he would have been, had he been a professed member of the Society before his promotion. He intended to make an appropriate declaration when the others would take their religious vows.[1]

Once the official papal recognition of the Society of Mary been received, two decisions had to be made. Where, in Belley or in Lyon, would the retreat take place at the end of which the Marists would elect their first superior general and make their first profession? And, where, in Belley or in Lyon, would the central administration be established? Neither of the two questions would have become an issue, had the two bishops, of Belley and Lyon, not publicly announced their claims, at which the divided loyalties among the Marists flared into the open. That happened just before Pompallier’s departure for Rome. Unfortunately, Pompallier showed himself to be insensitive to the delicate position that religious bishops have within the religious congregations to which they belong.[2] In his first letter to Colin from Rome, dated 9 June, he wrote:

We shall need a lot of adjustments in our relations to the bishops, now that we move out from under their jurisdiction according to the Brief that has given us our autonomy. Especially towards Lyon we need to be most accomodating in my view. Even though it is true that the Church of Lyon has often made things difficult for us, you know, dear superior, what she has suffered when this undertaking was gravely compromised by the behaviour of its first leader and only founder… From what I have always heard Lyon was the first cradle of the Society, and in the present situation she can be of great advantage to us… Wish that one day the General of the little Society could reside in Rome, near the Supreme Pontiff.[3]

Meddling by Pompallier was the last thing Colin needed in this tricky situation, and there surely was no cause to rake up the sad story of Courveille. We can only imagine that he had heard somebody in Lyon making this nasty remark in the heat of the argument. As if the poor archdiocese had suffered more of the affair than the Marists themselves![4] When Colin did not answer, Pompallier was annoyed.[5]

In the meantime the controversy had come to a head. The contemporary documents are suspiciously silent on what exactly happened, but from later narratives it is clear that feelings ran high. Colin feared that, on the point of being established in fact as well as in law, the Society might as yet break up. Nor was he sure that all the aspirants would turn up for the retreat.[6]

Bishop Devie
Colin panicked and rushed to the Marist sisters to ask for their prayers. In their parlour, looking up at the statue of the Blessed Virgin, he suddenly knew what to do: hold the retreat in Belley and tell de Pins that the motherhouse would in due time be established in Lyon.[7] While relations with Lyon had remained cool and touchy,[8] Bishop Devie in Belley and Jean-Claude Colin had, after some difficult years, come to appreciate each other. They had become friends.[9] Devie felt that he and nobody else had wholeheartedly promoted the Marists. He had given them a house of their own, and really been their protector and guide. Three times, in 1830, 1831 and in 1834 the common Marist retreats had been held in Belley.[10] He accepted Colin’s decision, but took it for granted that he would at least preside at the retreat, the professions and the election.[11]

Archbishop de Pins, although only apostolic administrator, always firmly upheld the prerogatives of the Primatial See of the Gauls. He could boast of having opened the way for the new missions of Oceania[12] and of having created the opportunity for the little Society of Mary to become a congregation of pontifical rank. Anyway, moving to Lyon was the only sensible thing to do. Colin himself had expressed this view already several times.[13] Now that the superior general would have to oversee foreign missions, the need to move from the relative isolation of Belley was even more obvious and Colin wrote accordingly to Archbishop de Pins, who, on that pledge, agreed with Belley as the place for the vows and the election.[14] Reversing his preference in January that same year, Colin immediately started looking around for a suitable place in Lyon, but he was in no hurry to move himself. Later on he always thought back of ‘his little cell and the seclusion of Belley’. He did not move until autumn 1839.[15]

Five weeks later, after his consecration, evidently not aware of the way Colin had in the meantime solved the problem,[16] and insensitive to what Colin may have meant by not answering the first letter, Pompallier made things worse by writing that he had consulted Cardinal Castracane on the question of where to establish the general administration. The Society, Castracane had said, was still in its infancy and should grow and develop in the places where it was born. Lyon may have been a trying mother, it still was the cradle of the Society, where it enjoyed protection and that allowed it a share of its vocations and resources. The Society should gratefully honour and trust Lyon in preference to the neighbouring dioceses. That is where the General should reside until such time as Rome claimed him.[17] Wise words of a friend of the Society! Not so wise of Pompallier to involve the Cardinal.


  1. OM I, doc. 401. The declaration Pompallier later made can be found in OM I, doc. 404.
  2. As told by Colin himself in 1850: OM II, doc. 709. Cf. above, pp. 10f.
  3. OM. I, doc. 395 [11].
  4. OM. II, doc. 689 [12], cf. Kerr, op. cit. pp. 216ff
  5. OM. I, doc. 398 [1].
  6. The only hints, possibly, are remarks that Colin makes to Champagnat about Terraillon, the spokesman of the Lyon group. Champagnat and Terraillon were likely to meet regularly. Colin writes (11.04): ‘Tell Terraillon that I love him all the same’ (OM I, doc. 380 [1]) and (06.07) ‘Get Terraillon to examine before God what Mary has the the right to expect from him’ (OM I, doc. 396 [5]). Cf. OM I, doc. 396 [1] & footnote 1.
  7. OM II, doc. 677. Kerr, op. citi. p 294.
  8. OM II, doc. 625 [20].
  9. Cf. OM I, doc. 311. OM II, doc. 547 [39], & p. 335, n.s. Cf. RMJ, doc. 130.
  10. OM II, doc. 701 [4] & doc. 703.
  11. OM I, doc. 403 [1]. OM II, doc. 750 [13].
  12. Cf. OM IV, p. 335, & n. 3. In a letter of 20 April 1840, after he had abandoned his position as apostolic administrator of Lyon, he bitterly complained of the lack of appreciation on the part of the Pope, among other things for his involvement in the missions of Oceania of which he saw himself as the originator. Cf. Colin Studies I, p. 45. Nor was he the only one to think so. The first mention of the missions in Oceania in the foremost Catholic newspaper in France, L`ami de la religion, on 13 August 1836, says the mission is entrusted to ‘missionaries of the diocese of Lyon’. Somebody must have tipped them off because three weeks later the mission is said to be entrusted to the ‘Congregation of the Priests of Mary’. Cf. Colin Studies II, p. 57.
  13. In May 1833 (OM I, doc. 271 [1]) & in November 1834 (OM I, doc. 328 [3]).
  14. OM I, doc. 403 [1].
  15. OM I, doc. 358 [1]. cf. OM I, doc. 409 [2]. Nearly all Colin’s letters are sent from Belley until the autumn of 1839. The Index pro Societate Mariae for 1873 (the oldest one at hand) says of the Domus Generalitia: ‘Primum Bellici, ab Electione canonica primi Praepositi Generalis die 24 Septembris 1836 fundata, Lugduni decursu Novembris 1839 translata fuit’. On Colin`s later nostalgia for Belley, cf. Coste (ed.), A Founder Acts (FA), doc. 217 [1].
  16. The actual dates of the happenings are not sure, but this is the more likely sequence of events.
  17. OM I, doc. 398 [5].

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