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Lacordaire: “To have a heart of fire!”

30 November, 1999

Lacordaire was a famous French priest and preacher of the 19th century. He had a marvellous grasp of the beauty of the Christian message. His somewhat eccentric personality is profiled here by John Murray.

People of faith received a severe battering during the years of the French Revolution, which began in 1789. The monarchy and aristocracy came to be reviled. Everything associated with the ancien regime was also jettisoned, including the Church. Religious orders were suppressed, and churches were closed. The Church in France went into hibernation for many years.

Henri Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire was born in 1802. By that time, local churches – especially in the countryside – were beginning to reopen, and religious life in France was starting to emerge from its cocoon. His mother saw to it that he was baptized and received some initial catechesis. Initially, Henri showed no great inclination to the Church. Instead, he studied law in his home town of Dijon. Yet, the memory of his mother’s lively faith continued to haunt him, and often his friends found him quietly praying in some local chapel. He admitted that he had ‘a most religious heart and a very incredulous mind’.

He knew deep down, however, that one day he would live a Christian life. ‘I fancy I see a man,’ he wrote, ‘groping his way blindfolded; the bandage is gradually withdrawn; he has a glimmering of the daylight, and at the moment when the handkerchief falls, he stands in the broad daylight.’

Need of guidance
Lacordaire felt that the ‘broad daylight’ in which he was standing was still in need of guidance. The nation which had sought ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ was also prey to various other philosophies, as the revolutionary years had shown.

Henri saw that the forces of atheism and rationalism were still around. His analysis of the Church at the time was equally sharp. ‘What do the priests in the parishes do?’ he asked ‘They maintain the knowledge of Christian truths among women, a few men, a few youths. From time to time, they withdraw from the environment of error a few souls. Shut up within their sanctuary, they are incapable of defending it from the attacks from outside.’
A time of turbulence
Lacordaire decided to give up the legal profession and become a priest. In the seminary he was a bit of a maverick, and often questioned the professors in class, but because of his brilliance and depth in prayer, he was accepted for ordination to the priesthood in 1827.

His first attempts at reform were marked by turbulence. He teamed up with a fiery old priest, called Lamennais, and together they produced a newspaper called L’Avenir, ‘The Future’. Its purpose was to attack the government where it sought to jeopardize the Church’s growing freedom. It also attacked the Church where it seemed to be weak and accommodating. Naturally, the attacks drew the ire of many, and within a year the paper was silenced by the Church authorities. Lacordaire accepted the decision, but Lamennais refused, and ended up not only leaving the priesthood but also the Church.

Notre Dame
Lacordaire then took a quieter and more withdrawn role. His reputation as a man of God and of outstanding intellect, however, drew many young Catholics to petition the Archbishop to allow Lacordaire to give a series of sermons during Lent in the great Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

After some hesitation the bishop agreed, permitting Lacordaire to preach without a prepared text. This was unusual for the time, since it was normal then to use prepared material, consisting more or less of the recitation of Church doctrines and moral teachings. This format tended to produce very little creativity, and so did not touch the minds and hearts of the young.

Every Sunday in the Lenten and Easter seasons of 1835, Lacordaire preached in the Cathedral, and not a seat could be found! People arrived hours before the sermon began in order to hear him. In his talks, he spoke about the nature of the Church, its prophetic teaching and the positive effects that Catholic teaching should have on society. He always spoke with great respect for his listeners’ quest for truth, yet he made no excuses for his disagreements with philosophies which denied the truth of the gospel.

Rome and the Dominicans
Despite his popularity with the young, there were still some who were deeply suspicious of this preacher. Loyal to the Church’s older ways, they considered him a dangerous influence, and could not separate him from his former ally, Lamennais. Many of his detractors were unrelenting, and the following year Lacordaire announced his retirement from the pulpit before a stunned congregation.

He went to Rome to study theology further, and to pray. There he met Pope Gregory XVI as well as a few cardinals who were sympathetic and supportive. It was while he was in Rome that he saw afresh the strength of the orders, especially the Dominicans – the Order of Preachers – who had been suppressed in France in 1790. He spent the next ten years trying to establish the Dominican order in France, having entered the order in Rome himself.

By 1849, there were several houses established throughout France. He resumed his conferences in Notre Dame during the seasons of Lent, Advent and Easter. People could see and hear for themselves what could happen when challenging, intelligent and creative preaching took place.
Sublime extravagance
One can imagine the effect of this great preacher as he spoke in eloquent tones. ‘Holiness is the love of God and of men carried to a sublime extravagance,’ he said. ‘That sublime extravagance dates from a yet higher and more unutterable folly: of a God dying upon a cross, his head crowned with thorns, his feet and hands pierced, his body bruised and mutilated.’

His most famous statement, perhaps, is that concerning the priesthood: ‘To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; to be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; to share all sufferings; to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer him their prayers; to return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; to have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; to teach and to pardon, console and bless always. My God, what a life! And it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.’

In later life, after a brief abortive attempt to enter politics and bring Catholicism into the public arena, Lacordaire retired permanently from public life to spend more time with his confreres. He took up teaching in the area of Toulouse and entered this field with the same enthusiasm as he had all others. He died on 20 November 1861, having spent his last few years in relative seclusion. To the end, he remained an enigma: why retire from society when he wanted to change it?

Prophetic voice
He remains a prophetic voice for changing times. When others wanted to bring about liberty and democracy without the gospel, Lacordaire was convinced of the need to be faithful to Christ in the pursuit of the same aims. Rationalism without God exalted humanity beyond its proper limits, and eventually led to each man following his own reason. There was no room for absolute truth in such a scheme.

Today, we live in a different era and another country. Yet we are experiencing something of the same vacuum which Lacordaire knew so well in his beloved France. The words of Pope Benedict XVI, written in an interview he gave some years ago and published in Salt of the Earth in 1996, could well have been said by the great French preacher:

‘I find very interesting the image of the black holes, of collapsing stars. The historical hour isn’t turning around, nor is this star becoming compact again, as it were, or returning to its accustomed size and luminosity. It would undoubtedly be false to expect that an historical shift should take place and that the faith will again become a large-scale mass phenomenon that dominates history. But I continue to believe that there are also silent revolutions, that the Church is once more, so to speak, reassembling herself from the pagans, and that in this sense the experience of Jesus and of his disciples repeats itself.’

This article first appeared in The Messenger (January 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.