Br Francois to the Brothers of Oceania, Saint-Genis-Laval, 25 December 1858
CSG 2. 330-344
Introduction and translation by Br Edward Clisby FMS
The chief purpose of this circular, the first addressed from the new mother house at Saint-Genis-Laval, was to bring the brothers of Oceania up to date with the progress of negotiations with the Holy See to obtain the Church's formal approval of the Institute, and to provide details of the superiors' visit to Rome for this purpose. Francois gives a brief history of these negotiations starting from 1836 , and the reasons why they now felt it opportune to push them to conclusion. These are spelled out in the Memorandum of 22 December 1857 of which he speaks  (rf CSG 2. 510-11).
The circular reveals how close the relationship between the brothers' and the fathers' congregations still was at this stage, six years after their definitive separation. In stressing the role of the Little Brothers of Mary 'at the service of the Marist priests in the Missions of Oceania since 1836' (Memo. par III, CSG 2. 508), the superiors certainly hoped their cause would be examined by the Congregation of Propaganda in charge of the missions rather than the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars which would normally look after it. They were encouraged in this hope by the active part played by the Congregation's prefect, Cardinal Alessandro Barnabo, in the early part of the proceedings. Francois and Louis-Marie had been introduced to him by Fr Claude Nicolet, the Society of Mary's procurator in Rome from 1856 to 1859, with whom they stayed and whose advice and contacts proved invaluable. At a time when new French religious congregations were not regarded highly in Rome, the favourable reception accorded the Marist brothers was undoubtedly due in part to their association with the fathers (rf Michel p 258). But in the end, it was the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars who were assigned their case.
Francois spent seven months in Rome and kept a record in his journal, a typescript copy of which has been published under the title 'Sur les Traces du Frere Francois, Pelerin de Rome' (the original in Carnet 305 in the AFM is simply titled: 'Voyage a Rome en 1858'). Apart from visits to the various prelates involved in the process, and audiences with Pope Pius IX, he spent his time in learning Italian, studying the Bible, and visiting churches and places of pilgrimage (over 150 places are mentioned in the journal, some several times). His companion, Louis-Marie, does not feature very much at all; it may be that, being the more intellectual and better educated of the two, he had other interests. He returned to France towards the end of April, anyway, leaving Francois alone to see to the affair.
Francois gives the reason for the long delay in . The brothers appear themselves to have contributed to it by giving a copy of the Memorandum to a French prelate who then communicated it to a correspondant of the French newspaper 'L'Univers'. The ensuing article did not help their cause (Journal p 89, rf note 1). This is probably why, too, the Pope decided to entrust it to the Bishops and Regulars rather to Propaganda as he had earlier seemed inclined to do. Although Francois would have been disappointed with the decision, he had the consolation of knowing that the same Congregation examining the brothers' Rules and Constitutions and other official documents, would also be examining the Society of Mary's new Rules and Constitutions drawn up by Favre . Nicolet had already mentioned this possibility in a letter to Favre on 27 March, noting 'the almost complete connection between their constitutions and ours' (Journal p 29, n. 1).
The text of the circular corresponds almost exactly with that of the draft in LFF (2. 313-319) except for a few additions (indicated by [ ] in this translation). Francois appears to have consulted his journal again before passing on the final version for publication. It was obviously intended copies should accompany the latest brothers sailing for the Pacific, Abraham and Ptolemee, who left France on 24 October.
Text of the Letter
- Very dear Brothers,
- I would like to have taken advantage of our Brothers ' departure for Oceania to send each of you a detailed letter about the more notable things which have happened in the Institute since I wrote to you in January last year. But since my journey to Rome and the Brothers' retreats took up all my time I was not able to. To give you some compensation for what you were deprived of, all the same, I have sent you in the meantime some printed Circulars together with a Memorandum on the Institute which we had drawn up for our negotiations to obtain the approbation of the Holy See. I included with them some medals indulgenced by our Holy Father the Pope which I am giving the Brothers as mementos.
- We have been busy trying to get the Institute approved by the Holy See for a long time, my very dear Brothers. As the number of Brothers grows, the establishments multiply, and we spread to different countries, we become ever more aware of its importance and necessity for further strengthening the centre of the Congregation and the authority of the Superiors, and for assuring definite and unvarying direction in the government of the Institute. But in order to conduct these negotiations more confidently and draw greater advantage from them, we wanted to take the time necessary. We not only had to complete and properly coordinate the Rules and Constitutions, but we also had to give them trial and have them practised and experienced over several years. This was the constant example our venerable Founder gave us whenever there was question of definitively adopting some article of Rule.
- It is true that we were proposed for the Holy See's approbation once before, in 1836, conjointly with the Marist Fathers, by the Rev Fr Colin, who was Superior General of both groups at the time. But Rome judged it advisable to create two distinct Societies. The cardinal, charged with examining the affair took into consideration the facts that the Fathers and the Brothers were already quite numerous and had quite different aims and apostolates, and gave his opinion that one and the same Superior could not govern all, and that since each branch required a particular direction, it should also have a particular Superior. The Fathers' cause was therefore separated from the Brothers', and the Holy See restricted itself to approving the Fathers' Society and confiding to it the missions of Oceania.
- We were at first rather disappointed by Rome's decision, but we accepted it with respectful submission as coming from the authority of the Church and, in consequence, likely to contribute to the advantage and greater good of the two Congregations. That is what the Rev Fr Colin told us, too, in recalling all these things at the General Chapter in 1852. In fact, you know, my very dear Brothers, nothing has changed or even been disturbed in the normal development of the two Societies, and they have continued to be united and to do each other mutual service as before. The Rev Fr Colin always showed us the same kindness, the same care, and the same affection, and has given us proof of it at every opportunity, especially during these last years by assisting at many of our retreats. The Rev Fr Favre is also admirable for his kindness and fatherly solicitude towards us. In everything and everywhere, he shares our interests, and does us all possible service.
- This union and these close bonds with the Fathers have been very useful to us in Rome, and when we spoke of them to Our Holy Father the Pope at our first audience, he appeared pleased and desired them to continue. His Holiness gave us evident proof of this by charging Cardinal Barnabo, Prefect ot he Congregation of Propaganda, to examine the documents we laid before him and give him a report on them. The good Cardinal has done so with great interest and benevolence. He knows the Marist Fathers and has a high regard for them and has on several occasions told us how satisfied he is in his dealings with the Rev Fr Favre on matters concerning the missions of Oceania. Besides, we saw him frequently during our sojourn in Rome. His Eminence always received us with the utmost consideration and spontaneously provided information which could be of use or advantage to us...
- At present, moreover, our cause can be said to be in some sense identified with that of the Fathers in Rome. For not only is it the same Congregation which is responsible for examining the Rules and the Constitutions of the two Societies, but it is even the same Consultor who has to draw up the reports. The Rev Fr Favre is off to Rome soon on the matter and he has promised us he will attend to our business and keep us up to date on what is being done and what might further be expected of us to bring the affair to a successful conclusion. So everything contributes to cementing this union and tieing tighter the family bonds which have always existed between the Fathers and the Brothers.
- You will certainly want me, my very dear Brothers, to share with you, as you know I did with the Brothers on my return, something of our trip to Rome and the moving and interesting visits we paid to the numerous churches in and around the city. I am happy to tell the story again and I have noticed that the Brothers derive consolation and pleasure from listening to it. In fact I can say each one participated in it, for at the various stations and during my pilgrimages of devotion to the Basilicas and other celebrated sites in the capital of Catholicism, I had all the Brothers with me in spirit, together with their numerous families of children. I offered them all and recommended them all to the Lord, the Most Blessed Virgin and the saints to whom the churches were consecrated, or whose relics I had the advantage of seeing and venerating. Here, then, are some details of this eventful pilgrimage.
- We first sent Their Lordships, the Bishops of the dioceses where our Brothers are established, a Memorandum on the Institute, asking them for letters of recommendation to the Holy Father. Then we prescribed the saying of special prayers, and recommended the Brothers to have Masses said in their houses to ask the blessing of the Lord and the protection of the Blessed Virgin for our project. We left O. L. of the Hermitage, Br Louis-Marie and I, on the 6th February 1858. We stopped a day in Lyon to see His Eminence and the Rev Fr Favre, then we caught the train for the Mediterranean and arrived at Marseilles. There, on visiting the celebrated chapel of Notre-Dame- de la Garde, we commended our journey once more to the Blessed Virgin. We admired the numerous ex-votos witnessing to Mary's goodness and patronage towards those who invoke her. We also admired the views of the sea and the city for a short while. The same day we embarked for Civita Vecchia. Our crossing was quite pleasant, apart from the usual tribute one pays the sea, like so many others. On our boat we met a French priest, a missionary in America, going like us to Rome. He proved very friendly and obliging and we had his jovial and agreeable company until we reached our destination. We were welcomed by Fr Nicolet with the attentive kindness and affectionate cordiality he is noted for. He had been in Rome since Monsignor Bataillon's visit and the Rev Fr Favre had generously advised him in advance of our arrival. We soon found ourselves at home and perfectly comfortable with him on all counts. The good Father rendered us great service. As he was already well acquainted with the city and the customs of Rome, as well as with the Italian language, he served as our guide and interpreter every time we needed one, and helped us become familiar with the administration of the Roman Congregations. Our first visit, naturally, was to St Peter's in the Vatican. On arriving in the immense square in front of the vast, magnificent Basilica, the largest in the world, we encountered Our Holy Father the Pope on his way by carriage with his cortege to the Church of the Jesu to make the devotion of the 40 hours. Immediately we went down on our knees and received His Holiness' blessing. Then we visited, in succession, Saint Mary Major, Saint Mary of the Angels, Saint John Lateran, and the other chief churches of Rome, admiring the beauty and richness of the decorations and, at the same time, venerating the numerous precious relics which enrich them, in particular the touching reminders of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, and the other illustrious saints who lived in the city or had their houses there. These houses are today converted into churches or oratories.
- We did not, however, lose sight of our main objective, and waited impatiently to begin negotiations. As the Marist Fathers are more familiarly known to the Congregation of Propaganda because of their frequent dealings with them in relation to the missions of Oceania, we were keen that this Congregation should be the one responsible. That is why, in concert with Fr Nicolet, we decided first to pay a visit to His Eminence Cardinal Barnabo, Prefect of the Congregation, to explain to him the purpose of our trip, and to consult him about what we should do. After having a look at out petition to the Holy Father, the fundamental statutes we wished to present to the Holy See for approval, and the Memorandum on the Institute, His Eminence told us we would need first of all to ask an audience of His Holiness and present our documents ourselves, as the Congregation of Propaganda could only become involved by the Pope's express command.
- It was on the 1st March, the month consecrated to St Joseph, that we had the happiness of kneeling at His Holiness' feet for the first time. His Holiness first presented his ring for us to kiss and then allowed us to kiss his slipper. It was a very solemn occasion for us. We had done our best to prepare ourselves and we had received Holy Communion in honour of St Joseph that day with this intention. But we were received with such kindness that the slight fear and apprehension we had felt on entering, gave way immediately to the reassuring feeling of filial trust, and we felt quite at ease while still full of respect. The gracious appearance, modest manner, and tender and affectionate words of the Holy Father only increased this (feeling) as our interview with him continued and as we communicated to him [in succession] our request for approbation [the letters of the bishops, the fundamental statutes, and the Memorandum on the Institute].
- When the Holy Father had had a quick glance through all these documents, he asked us if we had no printed or more detailed Rules. We presented him then with the two volumes of the Rules and Constitutions. He received them and considered them, addressing us some pleasant words, and adding that he would read and examine these documents himself in private and then pass them on to the Congregation specially concerned with them. At this point we made known to His Holiness our wish that it be the Congregation of Propaganda, and he appeared to be agreeable. The Holy Father then asked us some questions about the Institute and we replied as best we could.. After that I asked His Holiness if he would be so kind as to grant his apostolic blessing to all the members of the Society. He did so in terms expressing all his tenderness of heart [and his ardent desire that the Brothers be always filled with the Spirit of God and do much good among the children confided to them]. We withdrew then, our hearts full of consolation and penetrated with the liveliest confidence. That same day we went to give Cardinal Barnabo an account of this excellent audience. His Eminence was delighted (with it), and five days later he informed us that the Pope had passed our dossier on to him with the order to examine it and make him an official report. We were very pleased. This report, however, was not presented to His Holiness until some time later, because the days the Cardinal had his regular audience with the Holy Father, were preempted in turn by the feast of St Joseph, the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin and by Holy Thursday. [As a result, every time we visited him, His Eminence could only repeat that he had not yet had the audience with the Pope.] Finally, on the 9th April, the Cardinal told us he had seen the Pope the previous day and given him his report on our case. His Holiness was still well disposed towards us, but he had not yet named the Congregation which would be definitively in charge of it. He added that, as we had indicated to the Holy Father we would have to return to France in the near future, His Holiness had replied we could do so without inconvenience, seeing that the matter could be conducted equally well even when we were not in Rome.
- We understood then that it would still take some time to reach our cherished goal. The presence of Br Louis-Marie was indispensible for making the arrangements necessary to receive the Brothers at retreat in the new house of Saint-Genis-Laval. So we decided, on Cardinal Barnabo's advice, to ask His Holiness for a second audience, the better to learn his intentions.
- On the 15th April we had the happiness once more of presenting ourselves before the Holy Father. He received us with even more kindness and affection than on the first occasion. We offered him the Rules, the Constitutions and the School Guide bound together in a single volume with His Holiness' coat of arms imprinted on it. He appeared pleased with it and displayed great interest in our case, but added that he was waiting for a letter from Paris before he could proceed further with it. I then asked him for a new blessing for all the members of the Institute and he gave it, praying for the sanctification and the mutual edification of the Brothers and for the good education of their children. Finally, after agreeing that I should prolong my stay in Rome, His Holiness bade Br Louis-Marie, who was going back to France, a pleasant journey.
- The letter from Paris mentioned to us by the Holy Father was a response from the Apostolic Nuncio, who had been asked for some privileged information. It was a long time coming and I was beginning to feel worried, when at last I was informed it had arrived and it was favourable. Cardinal Barnabo was once more charged by His Holiness with examining all the details and making him a report. When this was done, the Holy Father decided it would be the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars who would from then on be in charge of carrying out the definitive examination of our cause, following the usual course. As soon as I was notified of this decision, I went with Fr Nicolet to see Monsignor Bizzari, the secretary of the Congregation. He gave us a very good reception, raised not the slightest difficulty, and told us that, when he had received our dossier, he would familiarise himself with it and take responsibility for it. I had the pleasure of taking it to him myself a few days later, as Cardinal Barnabo preferred I pass on with it a letter outlining everything already done on our behalf. Following the good Cardinal's advice, I also paid a visit, with Fr Nicolet, to His Eminence Cardinal della Genga, Prefect of the Congregation mentioned. His Eminence received us very cordially and asked us questions about the Institute and the establishments. He appeared so pleased with our replies that we came away very happy and hopeful. The Rev Fr Favre recently advised us to write to His Eminence recommending our cause once more. He would like to present our letter to him himself and exert himself in our favour. He leaves for Rome on December 26th.
- However, the period of the retreats was coming up and Br Louis-Marie was urging me to return to France to assist with them and satisfy the Brothers' wishes to see me. I wanted a more positive idea of where our case stood, and I approached Monsignor Bizzarri to find out. He replied that he was so busy preparing the different causes the Congregation had to examine and conclude in the last two sessions before the holidays, that it did not seem possible ours would be passed before this time. But after the holidays it would be among the first issues raised, and if I had to return, Fr Nicolet could represent us in Rome to follow up our affair and communicate to us any observations made.
- With that, my departure was assured, and I made haste to ask of the Holy Father an audience for taking leave. His Holiness did not keep me waiting and I took this as a further sign of his fatherly interest. So when I presented myself before him, it was like a good father receiving his little child. He gave me a blessing again, with all the Brothers, and after some encouraging words, which revealed all the kindness of his heart, His Holiness informed me they would press our cause more vigorously after the holidays. Before I withdrew I tried my best to express to the Holy Father how satisfied and how happy I had felt during my stay in Rome, in visiting the churches, assisting at the ceremonies, and seeing all that was being done for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. I told him also how sensible I was of the good reception accorded me by the Cardinals and other persons I had had occasion to visit, and added that this would be for me and all the Brothers a powerful motive for encouragement and zeal, for submission and devotedness to the Holy See. Then the Holy Father responded, 'It is very necessary to be always attached to the centre.' Admirable words, and ones that have a profound meaning for religious. Their salvation and perfection depend on their submission and attachment to those God has set up to govern them and who represent him on earth.
- I left Rome on August 21st, and had the advantage of travelling as far as Marseilles with an Assumptionist Father from Nimes I knew personally. I had had very frequent and friendly communications with him during my stay in Rome, so I felt very much at ease with him. Our crossing was pleasant enough, we disembarked at Marseilles on August 23rd in the afternoon, and I caught the train to Lyon almost immediately. The next day I arrived at Saint-Genis-Laval but I was there only three days. I was in a hurry to go to Beaucamp to see the Brothers of the North Province at the start of their retreat, and then return to Saint-Genis for the end of the first retreat for the Brothers of the Centre Province. I wanted the consolation of seeing them too, and to assist at the solemn blessing of the new house. This was to take place on the 8th September, that is, the day after the close of the retreat. It was actually on the beautiful day of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin that we had this impressive ceremony. Fr Pagnon, Vicar General, came to say Mass for the community and deliver a homily appropriate to the occasion. Afterwards, he proceeded to the general blessing of the whole house in conformity with the Ritual. He was accompanied by the Rev Fr Favre, Fr Lagniet, Fr Matricon and many other Fathers. The parish priest of Saint-Genis and his curate, the Mayor, and most of the parish priests of the canton were there too.
- During the blessing, the community chanted the responses demanded by the Ritual in alternate choirs. When the ceremony was over, all went in procession on to the terrace, where Fr Chatel, the retreat preacher, spoke a few words inpromptu, to everyone's pleasure. He remarked on the coincidence of this house being blessed on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, since it was destined to be the nursery, as it were, of the Society [Institute]. A great number of subjects would be coming there to begin a new life and grow in the virtues of their state, the better to accomplish the aim of their vocation by giving children a Christian education. At dinner the community was given Deo Gratias and you can imagine the Brothers' joy and satisfaction. The day ended with a magnificent evening service with benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Providence willed that the Brothers on the second retreat should also have their share of happiness and tender joy. In fact, Monsignor Lyonnet, bishop of Valence, who is from the Lyon diocese and is a personal friend of the parish priest of Saint-Genis-Laval, was pleased to pay us the honour of a visit the day retreat closed. His Lordship celebrated the community Mass, addressed the Brothers a few words, and then presided at the ceremony of the vows. The good Bishop came to give the Deo Gratias to the Brothers himself, and on his return, told the parish priest how pleased and how satisfied he had been with the day.
- This year I wanted to see as many Brothers as possible to tell them about my voyage and all I had done and seen in Rome. So I hurried to speak to them, in public and individually, as they arrived for the retreat, so I could also assist at the one at Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux which was beginning at almost the same time. I had the satisfaction of seeing the Brothers there too reunited in great numbers, and, although their conditions were very cramped, they were to be admired for their piety and recollection. This house is making good progress; there are more postulants than ever. Br Jean-Baptiste went there for the feast of the Immaculate Conception and told me on his return there must be all of fifty. It is the same with the novitiate of La Begude where I went after the retreat at Saint-Paul. True, I could not see all the Brothers together there, since they had already gone back to their establishments, but I saw those of the house and the nearby establishments. In everyone's opinion, this house leaves nothing to be desired in the way of piety, silence, regularity, and good spirit. Br Malachie always runs things admirably; he is loved and esteemed by all who know him.
- The Brothers of the Scholasticate, to the number of about 60, are at present at the Hermitage, and all are very happy. [They have the good Fr Ruf as chaplain; they have some fine ceremonies there, especially on the great feasts] On my return from the Midi, I went there to see them and make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Fr Champagnat. These places are always dear to the Brothers and especially to those lucky enough to live there.
- The day of the Immaculate Conception we had a beautiful celebration at Saint-Genis-Laval. Thirty postulants received the habit. Fr Bojolin, Vicar General, presided at the ceremony, and afterwards there was a solemn Mass with deacon and subdeacon. Vespers was sung at the usual hour and in the evening there was a magnificent benediction service. The chapel and the whole house were lit up. The city of Lyon also stood out that day for its beautiful illuminations, and so did the parishes in the vicinity and along the banks of the Saone. All that is very consoling and gives reassurance for the future of our homeland entirely consecrated and devoted to our tender and good Mother.
- You can see, my dear Brothers, what special graces, extraordinary favours, and marvellous protection the Lord extends to our dear Society. We are now in a special way in the hands of the Sovereign Pontiff, the head of the universal Church. He has received us with so much kindness, blessed us in such a paternal fashion, and desires so much that we be all good religious, so as to sanctify ourselves, edify one another, and work efficaciously for the glory of God and of his Church. Let us strive, then, to acknowledge all these benefits by doing our best to conform to the plans Divine Providence has for us. Let us never forget we have been called to a state of holiness and perfection, and that we ought to be holy in our whole way of living, as he who called us is holy. Following the counsel of the Apostle Saint Peter, let us strive to justify our call more and more by good works, so that in this way we may never fall into sin nor into the snares of the devil, but may merit a favourable reception from God and a great reward in the eternal kingdom of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. [cf 2 Peter 1: 10-11]
- As the end of the year draws near and we will soon be beginning a new one, I take the opportunity to renew my very sincere wishes for your happiness. The Brother Assistants and all the other Brothers join me in wishing you a good and happy year. Everyday we pray the Lord to pour on you the most abundant blessings, to keep you in his love, and to make more and more progress in it, so that after this brief pilgrimage, we may have the happiness of being all reunited in a blessed eternity.
- It is with these sentiments I embrace you very warmly in spirit, and that I leave you with confidence in the hands and under the protection of our lovable Mother. I recommend you to present my respects and pass on my best wishes for a good New Year to the Fathers you are living with.
- In the union of prayers and works I am,
- Your very devoted
- Br Francois. Superior General.
- Among other visits, he records two from Soakimi Gata, one of the Oceanians studying at Propaganda (rf L 120-1). On his second, 2 August, the young islander still bore the marks of the smallpox which had brought him to death’s door, and carried off his companion, Motesito Ha, in April that year (Journal p 101)
- The Latin formula introducing permission to speak at table where meals were normally eaten in silence.
- Francois had placed the application for approbation from the Holy See under the special patronage of the Immaculate Conception. This was the year the Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, introducing herself by this title. By coincidence, the day Francois and Louis-Marie arrived in Rome to promote their cause, 11 February, was the date of the first apparition at Lourdes.
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