Jean-Baptiste-Henri Dominique Lacordaire
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The greatest pulpit orator of the nineteenth century b. near Dijon, 13 May, 1802; d. at Sorèze, 21 Nov., 1861. When he was only four years old he lost his father, and was thenceforth under the care of his mother, "a brave Christian " but no dévote. She came of a family of lawyers, and brought her son up for the bar. While still at school he lost his faith. From Dijon he went to Paris, to complete his legal studies under M. Guillemain. His first efforts at the bar attracted the attention of the great Berryer, who predicted for him a successful career as an advocate. Meantime, however, he regained his faith, and resolved to devote himself entirely to the service of God. He entered the seminary of Issy, 12 May, 1824, and in spite of the reluctance of the superiors, was ordained by Mgr de Quélen, Archbishop of Paris, 22 Sept., 1827. His first years in the ministry were spent as chaplain to a convent and at the Collège Henri IV. This work was little to his taste. Accordingly, when Mgr. Dubois, Bishop of New York, visited Paris in 1829 in search of priests for his diocese, he found a ready volunteer in the young Abbé Lacordaire. All arrangements were complete, but before a start could be made the Revolution broke out (July, 1830). The Abbé de Lamennais, at this time at the height of his reputation as a defender of the Church immediately offered him the post of collaborator in "L'Avenir", a newspaper intended to fight for the cause of " God and Freedom". The story of this famous journal belong to the article LAMENNAIS. Here it will be enough to mention that Lacordaire gladly accepted the offer, and abandoned his proposed journey to America. He and Montalembert, whom he first met at the office of "L'Avenir", were the principal contributors. Thei programme was to renounce all State protection and assistance, and to demand religious freedom, not as a favour, but as a right. They advocated free speech and a free press, and exhorted the Catholics to avail themselves of these weapons in defence of their rights. Their religious teaching was strongly Ultramontane. In the first sixteen numbers the leading article on seven occasions was from Lacordaire's pen. He did not write on abstract subjects; his line was to take some event of the day -- some insult to religion, some striking incident in the action of Catholics in other countries, notably Ireland -- and make this a text for the demand of religious rights. He possessed in a remarkable degree the qualities of a great journalist -- clearness, force, brilliancy, the power to discuss the graver topics of the day at short notice in limited space, and in a manner adapted to the general intelligence. Royalists and Liberals alike were assailed with a power and fierceness never before exerted in the cause of religion. Even at this long interval of time it is impossible to read his articles without feeling keenly their strength and vividness. His contributions, and not those of Lamennais, were the most aggressive.
When the paper was condemned by the bishops of France, it was Lacordaire who suggested the appeal to Rome and drew up the memoir to be presented to Gregory XVI . But it was he, also, who was the first to recognize that their cause was lost, and that they must bow to the pontiff's decision. He left Rome at once, 15 March, 1832, though Lamennais and Montalembert remained for some months longer. The three met again at Munich, and there, while at a banquet, they received the formal condemnation of the whole policy of "L'Avenir" (Encyclical "Mirari Vos", 15 Aug., 1832). On their return to France, Lacordaire went to stay at La Chênaie, in Brittany, where Lamennais had established a house of higher studies for ecclesiastics. He remained there for three months. It must be said, however, that the two men were at no time altogether cordial in their relations, and less than ever after their defeat. The system of philosophy adopted by Lamennais was never accepted by his colleague, who also refused to pay the homage which was expected from the inmates of La Chênaie. But the main cause of the contention which arose was that Lacordaire's submission was sincere, whereas Lamennais continued to speak strongly against Rome.
Lacordaire left La Chênaie, 11 Dec., 1832, and returned to Paris, where he was admitted to the circle of Madame Swetchine, who exercised a restraining influence over him as long as she lived. As the press was no longer open to him, he began to give religious lectures (conferences) at the Collège Stanislas (Jan., 1834). These were attended by some of the leading men of the day, but were soon denounced on account of the Liberal views expressed. The archbishop intervened, and insisted that the lectures should be submitted beforehand to censors. The correspondence which ensued led to a complete change in the archbishop's attitude. He now offered Lacordaire the pulpit of Notre-Dame, and there, in the beginning of Lent, 1835, the first of the famous conferences was delivered. Their success was astonishing from the very outset. The second series in the following year met with even greater favour. At the conclusion of these last conferences Lacordaire announced his intention of retiring from the world for a time, in order to devote himself to study and prayer. During a retreat at the Jesuit house of St. Eusebius in Rome, he resolved to enter the religious state. Even in his seminary days he had thought of becoming a Jesuit, but had been prevented by Mgr de Quélen. He now decided to enter the Dominican Order whose name of "Friars Preachers" naturally appealed to him. Meantime he preached a course of conferences at Metz in the Lenten season of 1838, which were equally successful with those of Notre-Dame. His "Mémoire pour le Rétablissement des Frères Prêcheurs" was preliminary to his reception of the habit at the Minerva in Rome (9 April, 1839). Next year he made his vows (12 April, 1840) and returned to France. The first house of the restored order was established at Nancy in 1843, a second at Chalais in 1844; a novitiate at Flavigny in 1848, and finally a French province was erected with Lacordaire as first provincial.
Meantime, in the Advent of 1843, the conferences were resumed at Notre-Dame, and continued with one break until 1852. At first King Louis Philippe endeavoured to prevent the resumption of the conferences, but the new archbishop, Mgr Affre, was firm, and merely required that the preacher should wear a canon's rochet and mozetta over his Dominican habit. The interest in the conferences was greater than ever. It was noted that the orator had gained in depth and brilliancy by his years of retirement. And here it will be well to describe briefly the nature of the conferences and the causes of the extraordinary interest which they aroused. The old-fashioned sermon -- text, exordium, three points; and peroration -- dealt with dogmatic or moral subjects, and was addressed to believers. It reached its highest perfection at the hands of Bossuet, Bourdaloue, and Massillon. The clergy in the first part of the nineteenth century went on preaching as before, speaking of the same subjects bringing forward the same arguments, using the same methods; forgetting all the while that they had to appeal not only to believers but also to infidels. It was Lacordaire's merit that he discerned the necessity of a complete reform, new subjects, new arguments, new methods must be adopted. The matter must be apologetic, and, as apologetics vary according to the nature of the enemy's assaults, it must be adapted to meet the attacks of the day. With the rare insight of genius, Lacordaire began where the ordinary apologist ends. He took the Church as his starting-point, considering her as a great historical fact, and drawing from her existence, her long-continued duration, and her social and moral action the proof of her authority. Thus the first conferences in 1835 treated of the Church's constitution and her social activity. In the second course he went on to speak of the doctrines of the Church viewed in their general aspect. When he resumed the conferences in 1843 he spoke of the effects of Catholic doctrine upon the human mind, upon the soul ( humility, chastity, and other virtues ), and upon society. Again, before treating of God he took Christ for the subject of the best known of all the series (1846). From the Son he passed to the Father (1848), proving the existence of God and dealing with His work of creation. From God he descended to man and the doctrine of man's Fall and Redemption (1849-50). The coup d'état prevented the continuance of the conferences in Notre-Dame, but a further course was delivered at Toulouse in 1854, treating of life, natural and supernatural.
So much for the subjects. The form of the conferences was quite unlike that of the ordinary sermon. There was no opening text, or prayer, no firstly, secondly, thirdly; no pause between the divisions. After a short exordium, indicating the subject to be dealt with, he plunged at once in medias res , and let his subject grow upon his hearers. His voice, feeble at the beginning, gradually grew in volume until it rang through the vast vault of the cathedral, sometimes breaking out into a cry which thrilled the hardest hearts. His gestures were graceíul and yet full of vigour, his dark eyes flashed out the fire that was burning within him. His words were the choice of the moment, coming freely to his lips after careful preparation of the matter and the main lines of his discourse; indeed, his most brilliant passages were inspired by some movement among his audience, or some sudden emotion within himself. We can understand the state of prostration produced by such delivery, and how his strenuous efforts tended to shorten his life.
The govermnent of Louis Philippe came to an ignominious end in Feb., 1848. In his opening conference of that year, delivered while the barricades were still standing, Lacordaire welcomed the Revolution in language which was greeted with prolonged applause. Now at last he hoped to carry out his old programme of " God and Freedom" -- without the youthful excesses that marred the policy of "L'Avenir". A new paper, "L'Ere Nouvelle", was started under his editorship, but he wrote little in its columns. He realized that his strength lay rather in speech than in writing. In the elections he accepted a nomination for Paris, but obtained only a small number of votes. He was, however, returned for the department of Bouches-du-Rhône. He took his seat on the Extreme Left, clad though he was in his Dominican habit. A few benches below him sat his former friend and master, now his bitter foe, Lamennais. The invasion of the Assembly by the rabble convinced him that his dream of a Catholic republic was not to be accomplished. He resigned his seat 18 May, and some months later gave up the editorship of "L'Ere Nouvelle". He did his utmost to prevent the Church from becoming identified with the Empire established by Napoleon III. For this reason he refused to continue his conferences in 1852, though urged to do so by Mgr Sibour. His last discourse in Paris was delivered in the church of Saint-Roch in 1853. It was a sermon on the text: "Esto vir" ( 1 Kings 2:2 ), and was an outspoken attack on the new Government. After, this it was impossible for him to remain in Paris. For the rest of his life he had charge of the military school of Sorèze, in the department of Tarn, where he inculcated the duties of manliness and patriotism as well as religion. Though he was devoted to his youthful pupils he naturally felt that he was exiled and silenced. In 1861 (24 Jan.) he was called out of his obscurity to take his seat in the Academy -- an honour which cast a gleam of brightness over his last days. It was at this time that he uttered the famous words: "J'espère mourir en religieus pénitent et en libéral impénitent." Towards the end of the year (21 Nov.) he passed away at Sorèze, after a long and painful illness, in his sixtieth year.
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Lacordaire was of middle height, sparely but strongly built. He always objected to sit for his portrait, but one day at Sorèze he submitted. He is represented seated, and absorbed in prayer, with his hands crossed one over the other, for the Elevation bell was ringing in the church when the portrait was taken.
Besides his "Eloges funèbres" (Drouot, O'Connell, and Mgr Forbin-Janson ) he published: "Lettre sur le Saint-Siège"; "Considérations sur le système philosophique de M. de Lamennais"; "De la liberté d'Italie et de l'Eglise", "Vie de S. Dominique"; "Sainte Marie Madeleine" (the two last-mentioned works contain many sublime passages, but are of little historical value). Mme Swetchune said of him: "On ne le connaítra que par ses lettres." Eight volumes of these have already been published, including his correspondence with Mme Swetchine and Mme de la Tour du Pin, and "Lettres à des Jeunes Gens", collected and edited by his friend H. Perreyve in 1862 (tr. Derby, 1864; revised and enlarged ed. London, 1902). Amongst Lacordaire's most celebrated works are his "Conferences" (tr. vol. I only, London, 1851), "Dieu et l'homme" in "Conférences de Notre Dame de Paris" (tr. London, 1872); "Jésus-Christ" (tr. London, 1869), "Dieu" (tr. London, 1870).
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