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Setting the Marist missions on an exceptional course

From the day Pompallier had told Colin of the invitation to accept a nomination for the leadership of the new mission, Colin had been determined that his own reservations about him should in no way affect the attitudes of his confreres. There is no trace in the available documentation that he shared his fears with anyone. During twenty years, in all his difficulties with the bishops of Lyon and Belley, he had always avoided the confrontation and always submitted to their authority. It was a constant feature of his spiritual and administrative convictions that Marists should relate to the bishops in such a way that these will consider them as their own, tamquam suam. As from 1842 this expression appears in all the drafts of the constitutions and he often referred to it.[1]

In January 1836, trying to deal with the threatening break-up of the Society, he wrote to Champagnat: ‘Let us keep up our courage and seek to give our enterprise a more uniform and strong direction with all the means that prudence and submission to Our Lordships the Bishops allow for…. The spirit of the Society is one of humility, self-effacement and commitment’.[2] When he wrote those words, he must have foreseen that very soon he might have to deal in this way with Pompallier too!

In his letter to the missionaries as well as in the one to Pompallier, Colin, almost casually, mentions that Pompallier was to be not only their bishop but their religious superior as well: ‘Obey Mgr. Pompallier as your bishop and your superior’. And in the post-script: ‘Mgr. Pompallier, or whoever he will appoint, will be your superior’.In the letter to Pompallier, underlined by Colin himself: ‘You are their bishop and their superior, they owe you respect and obedience on both counts’.[3]

What Colin did here is more than advising. In all their casual appearance, his words are clear-cut and unambigious. He knows what he is doing and expresses something he is quite decided upon. He is defining the structure of the mission. He appoints a vicar apostolic who is not a professed Marist, over whom he has no authority, who is canonically not a member of the Society and thus juridically cannot bear office in the congregation, to be the superior of a group of religious. We know Colin as a past master of letter writing and these letters were not written in haste, or on the spur of the moment. He had worked on them during ‘several days of prayer’.

How exceptional was Colin`s decision, apart from appointing a non-professed to be superior? Ever since the erection of the Sacred Congregation De Propaganda Fide in 1622 it was policy of the Holy See to entrust where possible specific mission territories to religious institutes and to appoint, usually on recommendation of the superiors general, alongside of the religious superiors who up to that time had fulfilled the other role as well, separate ecclesiastical superiors directly answerable to the Holy See. This system of double, parallel jurisdiction, whereby the ecclesiastical superior directed the missionary activity and the religious superior guarded over the welfare of the religious missionaries, was explained in detail to Pompallier when he was in Rome to be consecrated a bishop.[4]

Of course, there is common sense in Colin’s decision. He was dealing with a small group of eight men. Nobody could guess where and how they would be able to establish themselves. Difficult choices would have to be made. The obvious thing was to put all authority into one hand. Father Coudrin had done the same with the first group he sent to Hawaii in 1826 by allowing Fr. Alexis Bachelot to continue in his function of religious superior when he was appointed prefect apostolic. However, when the Picpus Fathers started their mission in the islands of the south-east Pacific, in 1833, under Bishop Rouchouze, Coudrin appointed Fr. Liausu to be the religious superior.[5] We do not know if at this time Colin was aware of the way Coudrin had handled the question. There is no indication that he tried to find out. Five years later he certainly knew.[6] But Colin knew about the regular Roman procedure, and still, he followed his own intuition.

Did he discuss his decision with the men beforehand? The insistence with which, in the very same letter, he urged Pompallier to consult his missionaries would be less than sincere, if he had not done so himself on so crucial a matter. That he is not blind to the human realities of exercising authority, is evident when he reminds Pompallier that consulting the men ‘will interest them in your enterprises and foster unity’. He knows only too well that, a few years earlier, the community of Valbenoîte had preferred not to have Pompallier as its superior.[7] Moreover, in none of the replies of the men to Colin there is a hint of surprise at the arrangement. We can conclude that Chanel, Servant, Bret and Bataillon, who in any case may not all have shared Colin’s reservations about Pompallier, were consulted and were prepared to accept the arrangement. This would explain why there is only a casual reminder, at the end of Colin’s letter. They knew Pompallier, they were aware of his limits but seem to have been at ease with him. He had the impression that they felt free to give their points of view.[8]

Did Colin discuss it with Pompallier beforehand? Unlike the missionaries Pompallier repeatedly expressed his surprise. From Le Havre he reminded Colin that, as explained to him in Rome, it is ‘the Holy See itself that judges it appropriate for all missions staffed by religious, to establish two separate jurisdictions’. He now had to go against the instructions he got in Rome and showing his hesitation he wrote: ‘I don`t think I am going against the intentions of the Holy Father, when I accept this delegation’.[9] A few months later, from Santa Cruz, Pompallier wrote to Fransoni: ‘I accepted the office, but let me know if I should give it up so that I then can be occupied exclusively with the mission’.[10] We must conclude that Colin did not discuss it with him beforehand and dropped it on him as a surprise. Pompallier accepted, gracefully and gratefully.[11]

On 22 February 1837 from Santa Cruz, Tenerife,[12] possibly repeating the earlier letter of 16 February, Pompallier asked Cardinal Fransoni: would it have been better not to accept the delegation? Evidently he was prepared to come back on his acceptance, should Rome consider his superiorship a hindrance to his work as a vicar apostolic.[13]

Why did Colin set the mission in Oceania on such an exceptional course? Was it an inexperienced Colin, carried away by the euphoria of the moment? Was it his uncompromising interpretation of obedience as Kerr suggests?[14] Surely a bit of both. Ten years later Colin said: ‘These distant missions need unity above all else in the beginning, and this is one way to ensure it. I am not sending men out there to dispute about what they think are their rights’.[15]

But to get a man so loyal to Rome, to go against established Roman practice, there must have been more to it. At the background, and what probably tipped the scales, can only have been that Colin, always distrustful of his own feelings, was attempting the impossible to build a facile relationship. He was leaning backwards not to give any opening for discord.

Unfortunately, what in 1836 began as common sense and as nurturing a delicate relationship, grew into a matter of principle; and into an exceptional structure of governance with enduring negative consequences for the missionaries, for the Society and for the Church in the Pacific Islands.

Desk of Colin.jpg


  1. Coste, AT, fasc. II, p. 34 l. 3; FS, 119 [7].
  2. OM I, doc. 358 [5].
  3. CS, docs. 4 & 5.
  4. LRO, docs. 4 [6]. Cf. below: Excursus A, The Ius Commissionis and the Diarchy, pp. 43f.
  5. Wiltgen, op, cit., p. 20 & 90.
  6. Colin to Pompallier, 21.10.1841, CS, doc. 305 [6].
  7. Cf. above, p. 6.
  8. LRO, doc. 6 [10].
  9. 05.11.1836, LRO, doc. 4 [4 & 6].
  10. Quoted from Wiltgen, op. cit., p. 131. Cf. Roach, op. cit., pp. 23 – 32.
  11. LRO, doc. 4 [3].
  12. ACPF, Oceania vol. I, f. 389. Wiltgen, op. cit. p. 131.
  13. Kevin Roach, op, cit. p. 27, comments: ‘Fransoni did not do so for we find Colin instructing his subjects to regard the bishop not only as their ecclesiastical but also their religious superior’, whereby Roach overlooks that Colin did so in October 1836, four months before Pompallier’s letter to Fransoni. There is no evidence that Colin consulted Rome.
  14. Kerr, op. cit., p. 302.
  15. FS, doc. 119 [10].

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