Significant French Dominicans of Modern Times

August 13, 2015

In the 19th century and early 20th century, a number of French Dominicans were at the center of a worldwide revitalization of the order.  Fr. George Christian, O.P. of the Province of St. Joseph has translated a number of works by or about these friars, including Henri-Dominique Lacordaire’s Life of St. Mary Magdalene, Joseph-Théophile Foisset’s Life of Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, Étienne Vayssière’s Devotion to St. Dominic, and Bl. Hyacinthe-Marie Cormier’s Instructions for Novices and Life of Alexandre-Vincent Jandel.  Fr. Christian’s translations of a number of Pere Lacordaire’s writings may be found at Works of Lacordaire, a collaborative project undertaken by friars and lay Dominicans.  In the following essay, Fr. Christian reflects upon the lives of these reformers and their significance for contemporary Dominicans.

Three Brilliant Sons of St. Dominic

In this modern age, following the French Revolution, Providence has greatly blessed the Church, especially in France, as well as the Dominican Order.  Three friars successively shone brightly in this period: Henri-Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861), Alexandre Jandel (1810-1872), and Bl. Hyacinthe-Marie Cormier (1832-1916).  Each, in his own way, worked out his salvation and enriched the Order by his life and his work.

It should be noted that Lacordaire and Jandel were diocesan priests before their contact with the Dominicans.  Thus, they carried the baggage of secular and seminary learning, not to mention their personal inclinations.  Lacordaire, by his own admission, lost his religion while in college and university (our high school and college). From this personal experience, he concluded that the youth of his time needed religious instruction.  At one point, having expanded upon this idea, his opening of an elementary school led to a lawsuit on freedom of education.  In considering religious life, he was faced with two major choices: either to join the Jesuits – who were somewhat tolerated by the government – or the Dominicans, who did not then exist in France.  The Dominicans won out, though not without cost to Lacordaire.  He entered the Order in Rome with the purpose, a chimera according to many, of re-establishing it in France, the country of its founding.  Through many vicissitudes, he succeeded in getting started.

It was clear that Lacordaire’s vision included an active ministry for the friars. But then the question arose: what practices of religious life would be suitable for friars devoted to education?  This led him into conflict with Jandel, who was more in tune with monastic practices.  Consequently, according to the latter’s views about religious life, the hour for the midnight office held an important place.  This came to be the hallmark of his conflict with Lacordaire.  At one time, Lacordaire’s viewpoint prevailed – and with it, a lesser disruption of the sleep pattern – at another Jandel’s.  Finally, as a compromise, the Pope allowed the establishment of “houses of strict observance” that followed Jandel’s more monastic views, including his choice of the hour for the midnight office.  In time, and with experience, these houses disappeared and were absorbed into the “regular” houses.  In his travels and activity, Lacordaire wore the Dominican habit and made it a welcome sight on local French streets, as opposed to the ridicule it had experienced before disappearing.

Despite the controversy between Lacordaire and Jandel, we dare not overlook the contributions of the latter to the Order.  To make Dominican religious life more uniform, Jandel had to make it known; to make it known, up-to-date official documents were needed.  Therefore, as Master of the Order, he had all Dominican liturgical books revised and published, from the Antiphonarium to the Completorium to the breviary.  In order to gauge the conformity to the religious practices of the Order he hoped to achieve, Jandel undertook a visitation of most of the provinces.  During his travels, he had only two complaints: first, that in every convent, the beds were too short! (Perhaps he was particularly tall for the time).  Second, he expressed dismay at having to wear “secular clothes” when visiting England. On the whole, however, he was pleased with what he saw of the Order.

By foresight or by Providence, Jandel chose the sickly Cormier as his socius, or assistant.  What a blessing for his administration!  He soon became aware of Cormier’s methodical style, his attention to detail, and his care in recording everything. When one examines Cormier’s early years, one notices what a strong influence they had on his life as a religious.  One has only to read his Instructions for Novices to find an echo of his youthful practices.  Moreover, given his gentle nature, he was eminently capable of smoothing over differences in the practices of convent after convent, province after province.  With his orderly mind, he was also able to offer suggestions helpful to Jandel.

Concerning Cormier, one must note that he always accomplished first what he asked of others.  In every action, he strove toward humility, yet he was never stingy with his counsels.  In his apostolic zeal, he helped several communities of sisters with their constitutions and practices.  Moreover, he revitalized the Dominican college in Rome so thoroughly as to be considered the founder of the Angelicum in its present form.  There is much for contemporary friars to learn from looking to our forebears.

Image: Théodore Chassériau, Henri-Dominique Lacordaire au couvent de Sainte-Sabine à Rome, 1840, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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