François-Florentin Brunet was born in Bulgnéville, a small town in Lorraine, 11 May 1731. He entered the novitiate in Paris at age sixteen, 20 May 1747, and took his vows two years later. After his ordination he taught philosophy and theology at the seminary of Toul, and then became the superior of the seminary at Amiens, 1757 to 1772. He briefly governed the seminary at Soissons, then that of Châlons-sur-Marne. In 1787, he was assigned to the seminary of Poitiers, where he also exercised the office of visitor until the general assembly of 1788 elected him second assistant, replacing Michel-René Ferrand in that office.
A man of vast erudition, he is probably best known, even now, as the author of the monumental Parallèle des religions (three volumes, Paris, 1792), in which he examined, perhaps for the first time, the similarities among the great world religions. This massive work of approximately 4000 pages was intended not for experts but for what he called an elementary audience. His intention was to present the history of some thirty religions, concentrating on their temples, clergy, feasts, sacrifices, ceremonies and way they presented and named the deities. A highly methodical work, it was remarkable for its ecumenical outlook: both in the absence of ridicule of others, and in the presence of the scholarship of non-Catholic experts. In this, it was a work of the Enlightenment period, and it cost him more than ten years of preparation time. He must have spent every moment of his scarce free time working on it, in the midst of his other teaching and administrative duties. The sources he cites for the section on “paganism” (as contrasted with the monotheistic religions) are the major studies of his era.
At the moment of the sack of Saint Lazare, he was able to escape disaster in company with a student. He was recognized, however, and was captured by brigands the next morning (13 July). They took him and the student on a wagon into the city, but he was released by the police. He then returned to Saint Lazare until his departure in 1792 with the superior general, Father Cayla, and possibly Edward Ferris, along with the secretary general, Jacques-Antoine Le Sueur (1744-1802). Alexis Pertuisot, the first assistant, remained in France, probably unable to travel because of his age (he was seventy-seven). Carlo Domenico Sicardi, the fourth assistant, would leave for Turin a few days later (12 September), in company with four Daughters of Charity. They were bringing with them an unusual cargo: the heart of Saint Vincent in its silver reliquary hidden in the pages of a large book, together with a valuable painting of the saint, a quantity of his correspondence, and some of his clothing, all of which had been preserved piously at Saint Lazare. Once Brunet had arrived in Rome in 1794, he continued his work of advice and counsel to the superior general together with Edward Ferris. After the news of the death of the first assistant, Pertuisot, in 1795, Brunet automatically became first assistant, and Ferris, second. His life changed dramatically at the death of the superior general, 12 February 1800. A mere ninety minutes later, Brunet summoned the members of the house of Montecitorio to deal with this event. As mandated by the Constitutions, the first assistant was to open a box into which the late superior general was to have placed a small note on which he had written the name of the one whom he nominated as vicar general. The principal duty of the vicar general was to govern the Congregation until such time as a general assembly would meet, which the vicar general convoked, to elect a successor to the superior general. The Constitutions, however, did not foresee the case in 1800: it would be nearly impossible to hold a general assembly under the current circumstances within the six month period required in chapter IV, paragraph 3.
Death of Cayla
The difficulty was heightened by two further problems. The first was that Brunet was unable to locate the box containing the name. Further, even if he had the box, he did not have one of the two keys needed to open it. A legal dispute arose between Brunet and his Roman confreres, based on differing readings of the Congregation’s own law. Brunet started the issue when he claimed that he should be vicar general, since he was the first assistant. He cited the Constitutiones selectae, approved by Clement X, 1670, paragraph 12. The reply was that, according to the Grandes Constitutions of 1668, chapter 3, § 6, the possibility of appointing the first assistant as vicar general existed only when the one chosen by the late superior general to be vicar general was unwilling or unable. In addition, since the Constitutions did not specifically speak of a succession among other assistants, Brunet could not logically be “first assistant.” He had, in fact, been elected second assistant, although the first assistant, Pertuisot, had already died. Brunet countered that, according to decisions by the general assembly of 1703, the power would pass to the first assistant, or to the second, if the first were unable in the case of the illness or mental inability to administer the Congregation, and before a vicar general could be elected. All this should be submitted, in any case, to papal approval. In addition, the general assembly of 1736 decreed that should the vicar general die, be ill, or in any other way impeded for more than a couple of weeks, then the assistants in the house and other priests of the house where the boxes were kept, and who had at least six years since vows, should recognize the first assistant as vicar general. Should the other vicar general recover, then the first assistant would lose his authority ipso facto. Both parties, of course, felt that they were correct in their divergent interpretations.
The second issue arose because of an obscure decree of Pius VI, issued 26 January 1793. By this decree, the pope hoped to avoid problems of French émigré clergy in Italy, tempted to try to have some voice in the affairs of their Italian houses. Article 22 reads: “Since French religious fugitives are received only provisionally, they should not take it amiss if they have neither active nor passive voice in official acts and elections, except with a special permission from His Holiness, given by the secretary of state as requested by superiors. Nevertheless, they may be employed in functions depending on the free disposition of the same superiors.” The problem arose from an interpretation of this text given by Leonardo Ippoliti, superior of Montecitorio in Rome. The superior believed that Brunet would not be able to become vicar general since, living in an Italian house, this French émigré priest would have neither active nor passive voice.
Brunet justified his activities in relationship to this decree by reminding his Roman confreres that he had never voted (active voice) in Italian houses, nor was voted for (passive voice) for in any Italian house. He and the others with him had never claimed to be members of the Italian houses, and, it might be added, he was present in Rome at the invitation of the pope.
At all events, the matter quickly became moot. In the first place, Brunet brought the matter before Bishop (later Cardinal) Michele di Pietro (1747-1821), secretary of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, on the day following Cayla’s death. He explained that he had been in Rome for more than five years, had seen the pope, and was otherwise well known. He wondered whether the pope had called them to Rome just to take away their rights. The cardinals of this congregation agreed with Brunet’s request and his interpretation of the Constitutions, against the Roman Vincentians, and they decreed “standum esse constitutionibus,” that all should stand by the Constitutions. The pope confirmed this and “therefore asked me to be vicar general.” Further, the pope ordered that a general assembly be held within six months, as the Constitutions demanded. (This order was regularly repeated, but delays were commonly granted, given the impossibility of holding an assembly.) Brunet received the letter, dated 16 May, on the following day.
In the second place, on 21 June, the sheet was found, signed and sealed, on which, the previous 30 October, the last day of his retreat, Cayla had written Brunet’s name alone. At this point, all the members of the Roman house agreed that it was Cayla’s handwriting, but they objected that, according to the Constitutions, the senior assistant should have opened the box and unsealed the document in the presence of the members of the house. At length they agreed that the two wax seals were authentic, although Brunet had broken them to be able to read the paper. Another hurdle had been overcome, although the tension between the two sides, French and Roman, is clearly evident. Indeed, in several other letters after the death of Cayla, the vicar general mentioned intrigues to seek to deprive him of his new office.
It was only after receiving the papal decision that Brunet announced the death of Cayla to the rest of the Congregation. Di Pietro had earlier asked him to wait, since the issue was “troppo scabroso,” too tough, and so the Congregation of the Mission was strictly without a head from the date of Cayla’s death, 12 February to 16 May 1800. The discovery of Cayla’s paper with Brunet’s name was included in a postscript to the latter’s first circular.
According to Planchet, the heart of the Roman resistance was, surprisingly, Fenaja. However, his views were not universally shared. For example, Pio Scarabelli (1755-1843), the visitor of Lombardy, protested to Fenaja that, since the papal document dealt with a temporary issue (the lack of a superior general), it was not against the Constitutions. In Scarabelli’s view, Pius VI had prohibited émigré priests from assuming new powers, not ones they already had. He also registered his surprise that the Vincentian community of Montecitorio, the Roman provincial headquarters, was now speaking for the rest of the Congregation of the Mission without having done any consultation to obtain their agreement.
Brunet then had to set to work to develop his own administration. When Cayla died, he was the only assistant present. Pertuisot had died, and both Sicardi and Ferris were absent. As a result, he wanted to name Fenaja, the visitor of Rome. The two of them wanted to get Ferris to agree to nomination, since Brunet believed that Cayla probably had not accepted Ferris’s resignation. He then turned to Pius VII to confirm the decision. Legally, Brunet would need at least two assistants, at least according to canon law, and therefore was relying on Fenaja, who was present, and hoping to having Sicardi join him. Ferris was “in remotissimis Hiberniae partibus,” in far distant parts of Ireland, and consequently out of the picture. The pope agreed to this request.
Not long after, the pope named Fenaja a bishop, with the title archbishop of Philippi. In some way he was an accidental bishop since the pope had set his eyes on di Pietro to be vice-gerent of Rome, that is, the second in command after the vicar general of Rome. Di Pietro refused and asked his friend Fenaja to present his excuses. He was so effective that the pope accepted the refusal but appointed Fenaja in his place. The pope made use of his skills to handle the case of Scipione de’ Ricci (1714-1810), bishop of Pistoia and Prato. Following orders from the duke of Tuscany, Ricci convoked a synod in Pistoia, 18-28 September 1786, noted for its political Jansenist tendencies. Pius VI condemned the decisions of this synod by the bull Auctorem Fidei, 28 August 1794, but Ricci continued stubbornly. Thanks to the work of Fenaja, he recanted in 1805 when the pope had come through Florence. In recognition of his efforts, the pope named him patriarch of Constantinople, an honorary designation of the highest rank, although he did not name him a cardinal. In this era of Vincentian anomalies, Fenaja, vice-gerent of Rome, was himself an anomaly: an archbishop and assistant of the Congregation of the Mission simultaneously.
After securing the basis for his council, Brunet forged ahead to supervise the Congregation, such as it was. His challenges, henceforth, would come from two sides, the Roman Vincentians, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Both would dominate his plans for the rest of his six-year administration.
Remarkably, amid these concerns, he continued, as well, his work of research and writing, known from the publication of his five-volume exposition of theology, written in Latin and published anonymously in Rome, between 1801 and 1804. Its full title is instructive: Elements of theology adapted for the use of all Catholic schools in a new arrangement. He explained his purpose and methodology in the prefaces to the major sections. In general, he promoted a systematic study of theology, not just the dictation of texts by professors, along with vigorous debates by students divided into groups of ten or twelve. This method, taught with an eye to ecclesiastical history and sacred scripture would guarantee to prepare students well for their ministry. For him, practical theology (especially church law) was to be placed after a good grounding in the basics. This had been his own experience, and he recommended it to his readers.
Brunet remained in contact with some of the French confreres dispersed in various countries. We know of them because of their correspondence that has been preserved. Joseph-Mansuet Boullangier, (1758-1843), a survivor of the September massacres at Bons Enfants, had emigrated to London. There, he ministered to émigré French clergy, and was chaplain for the Count of Artois, the future Charles X, and brother of the slain Louis XVI. A second Vincentian correspondent was Jean-Claude Vicherat (1747-1805). He fled to Spain during the Revolution, and eventually returned to Constantinople to direct the restored Vincentian mission there.
The vicar general shared with his correspondents his anguish over the defection of several confreres in France. As noted elsewhere, it is difficult to ascertain the exact figures, but only a modest percentage of Vincentians left their vocation. He also reported on his work to support the Vincentian overseas missions: the Middle East, Algiers and China, to each of which he sent out at least a few of his confreres to try to reestablish a Vincentian presence there.
A more difficult matter was the governance of the Daughters of Charity, whose superior general he also was. He began by sending out his New Year’s circular to their houses. In this letter, he announced that he had been named by Cayla, and that his nomination had been recognized by the Italians at Montecitorio, and by the pope. He made the obvious point that it would be impossible to hold a general assembly, and so he confirmed the powers of Mother Deleau. She would be helped by Laurent Philippe (1736-1811) as director; and Claude Placiard his assistant. Philippe had always had a strong commitment to the Sisters. Before the Revolution, he had been one of the confessors at their former mother house. During the time of their suppression, he had gone about in disguise to help their scattered communities. For example, he showed up one day at the door of the hospital of Moutiers Saint Jean dressed as a traveling salesman, asking the Daughters for a place to stay. One of them recognized him as her former confessor, and he was admitted. When Mother Deleau returned to Paris, he did the same and she sent him to Rome to consult with Brunet, who named him director, 1 November 1801.
The directors lived in a small building at the back of the Daughters new mother house, rue du Vieux Colombier. In a few years, Brunet would also share these lodgings. Given the special circumstances of those times, he determined that any Sister who had not renewed her vows for five years would have to quit the Company if she now refused to renew them. In a circular for the following year circular, Mother Deleau announced that Brunet had authorized the renewal of vows. Since the Sisters were not yet permitted to wear the habit, he urged them to dress modestly, in black, and to recover the spirit of the Company.
His principal concern, however, was the reestablishment of the Congregation of the Mission. The Daughters of Charity had, of course, already been restored, and it was just a question of time and tiresome negotiations that stood in the way of the restoration of the Vincentians.
An early and undated memorandum, although never sent, reflects Brunet’s thinking, probably in 1802. The reasons for urging recognition of the Congregation of the Mission by the French state and securing a mother house in France were two. First, a traditional relationship had existed with the Daughters of Charity, according to the wish of Saint Vincent; and second, the Congregation already had houses in Barbary, the Middle East, Constantinople and China. The interesting perspective is that one of their concerns was the care of the French in these lands. Vincentian houses were, in his view, “refuges of benevolence and humanity, ever open to French travelers and businessmen. Whether sick or healthy, they have always found the assistance of an active and compassionate charity.” Also the missioners were faithful translators, balanced mediators, with a knowledge of the country, and a good reputation among the local inhabitants. The Congregation was renowned for its help with diplomatic relations in times of misunderstandings with Turks and North Africans. The purpose of his appeal was to show the usefulness of the Congregation of the Mission to the needs of the State, in order to obtain official recognition once again. This perspective was often repeated during the next several years.
It is uncertain for whom Brunet intended this document, but it might have been for one of two Vincentians overseeing the interest of the Congregation in Paris. In the earliest months of negotiation, the responsible party in Paris was Jean-Jacques Dubois (1750-1817). At the time of the dissolution of the Congregation, he remained in France, and quickly returned to Paris to continue his priestly ministry, at first in secret and then openly. By 1802 he had been named pastor of Sainte Marguerite, a city parish where he remained until his death. To accomplish his mission, he suggested that he be named the “General Agent of the Missions of Saint Vincent de Paul,” with responsibility to supervise the foreign missionaries. Since vows were out of favor in post-revolution France, Dubois proposed a congregation without vows, to form young ecclesiastics for foreign missions. For a mother house, he proposed the former Jesuit house, rue Saint Antoine, even offering to leave his parish and work at the Jesuit church. It seems strange at this remove to see such a radical proposal for Vincentian life, with its emphasis on foreign missions, but this should be understood against the background of the Revolution, complete with new thinking characteristic of Napoleon’s plans. In fact, “according to what the First Consul had written to the archbishop of Paris, if our rules do not contain anything against the present laws, he will agree to our reestablishment, either to continue to direct the Daughters of Charity or for foreign missions.”
For some reason, Brunet passed the responsibility for continuing these negotiations from Dubois to Pierre-François Viguier (1745-1821). It is unknown how Dubois took this decision, but he continued to support the Congregation. Viguier had a distinguished career on the mission in the Middle East. He was the first visitor of Turkey and prefect-apostolic. His knowledge of the Turkish language was so profound that he published a grammar and then other books of theology and sacred scripture. Interestingly, he invented a cloth dye, used commercially with success in Vienna. He managed to secure the reestablishment of the Congregation at its central house, Saint Benoît, in Constantinople, before leaving in 1802 to return to Paris. He arrived in late 1802, and found lodging in Passy, a western suburb. He might have stayed with his confrere Dubois, but perhaps he encountered some difficulty with this. In any case, there was no Vincentian house in Paris at this date.
Soon, Brunet was to exult: “[Viguier] is doing wonders in Paris for our reestablishment.” Behind the scenes, the government ministers, particularly Jean- Etienne Portalis, a Catholic and minister of ecclesiastical affairs, had been drawing up various reports for Napoleon concerning the reestablishment of the various congregations. One idea was to fuse all the foreign mission communities into one. This proposal was made to the future superior of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, Thomas Bilhère, but he was unable to guarantee his cooperation, because the Society, like the Congregation, had not yet been reestablished. Besides, the members of the Congregation took vows, and the Foreign Mission Society did not. Consequently, Brunet authorized Viguier to accept any foreign missions offered to the Congregation. Portalis, therefore, composed memoranda describing the history and advantages for France of the Congregation, and made proposals about missions in China, the Middle East, Algeria and Tunis, Ile de France (Mauritius) and Reunion, and Madagascar. It appeared, in fact, that matters would soon be settled. Indeed, in March 1803 Viguier suggested that Brunet consider moving to Paris. His proposal to acquire the former Jesuit church, Saint Louis, plus their residence as a place to train missionaries for the Vincentian overseas missions, was taking shape, albeit slowly. A few months later, however, it was clear that the picture was more complicated than first imagined. For one thing, Brunet’s informants believed that they had reasons to distrust Napoleon’s promises to Viguier. He himself told the vicar general not to hurry back, and Brunet, in any case, did not have the funds to pay his passage even as far as Marseilles.
Discussions advanced a little by the following year, 1804, such that Brunet believed he would have the promised church, Saint Louis, and annual subsidies from the government. These funds would be spent for living expenses, education and preparation of missioners, and for the mission of Algiers. In the government’s thinking, Brunet would be known as the “director,” since the title “superior” was contrary to the ideal of equality. In addition, the Vincentian candidates would also receive lessons in astronomy, painting and watch making to prepare them for overseas missions. Had the Congregation accepted these revolutionary organization and programs, its Constitutions and other legislation would have been completely overturned. It appears that Brunet and his advisors must have been ready to allow this, although reluctantly and only in view of changes in the future to return to the tradition of Vincent de Paul. There is little documentary proof of this, however. In fact, Jacques-André Emery (1732-1811), superior general of the Society of Saint Sulpice from 1782 to 1808, and a leader in the Catholic revival in Paris, had invited Brunet to discuss with him possible future work in French seminaries.
Reestablishment of the Congregation
At last, however, the great day arrived, 27 May 1804 (known in the Revolutionary calendar as 7 prairial an XII), when Napoleon issued the decree authorizing the reestablishment of the Congregation of the Mission. Despite changing circumstances over the years, this document has been fundamental to the existence of the Congregation of the Mission in France, and indeed throughout the world.
Interpreting this decree, however, was another matter destined to drag on for years. Its very language was either imprecise or ambiguous, perhaps both, as an examination of its eleven articles will show.
- Art. 1: There will be an association of secular priests, who, under the title of Priests of the Foreign Missions, will be responsible for missions outside of France.
- Art. 2: The director of the Foreign Missions will be named by the emperor.
- Art. 3: Its central house [établissement] and seminary will be located in Paris in a building granted them.
- Art. 4: The church dependent on this building will be erected as a parish church, under the invocation of Saint Vincent de Paul, staffed by the director of the mission, who will fulfill parish functions. The assistants and other priests on duty will be taken from among the Missioners.
- Art. 5: Nevertheless, the assistants will remain at the disposition of the director of the missioners, who will be able to place them in the missions where he will judge it useful to assign them.
- Art. 6: Students may be admitted into the mission house to receive instruction relative to the purpose of this establishment, and they will learn foreign languages. The number of these students may not exceed the amount stipulated.
- Art. 7: The director of the missioners may assign missioners only outside of France, in all places where he will judge it proper, after having obtained the necessary authorizations and passports.
- Art. 8: The director of the missioners will receive from the archbishop of Paris documents naming [him] vicar general for the Iles de France and Reunion, and the head of the mission in these islands will henceforth carry the title of pro-vicar general.
- Art. 9: An annual amount of 15,000 francs is granted to this establishment, payable quarterly by the public treasury, counting from the first of the next [month of] germinal.
- Art. 10: It will then receive provision for the retirement of aged or sick missioners.
- Art. 11: The Councilor of State responsible for all matters concerning worship is responsible for the execution of the present decree.
These articles changed radically the composition and the purpose of the Congregation of the Mission. John Carven has presented an analysis of two earlier versions of these same articles, showing the main points of difference between the competing perspectives of the ministry of the interior, and the ministry of foreign affairs. In general, the final document was shorter, less precise, and even ambiguous. The greatest ambiguity lay in the identity of the congregation to which it referred. The earlier versions mentioned, in article one, “Missionaries or Lazarists.” The name in the final document, “Priests of the Foreign Missions,” ran the extreme risk of confusion between the Lazarists and the members of the Foreign Mission Society of Paris.
Carven believes that Napoleon used ambiguous language precisely to avoid the opposition of radicals and thereby allow the reestablishment to take place. The choice of “director” instead of “superior” illustrates his tactics. A strict reading of the decree leads to the conclusion that the government was to appoint the “director” but in fact, the government had decided to approve the choice made by the Congregation in a general assembly. In addition, an examination of the preliminary and subsequent documents shows that the intent of the decree was to refer to the Congregation of the Mission, such as an explicit mention of Brunet as “Vicar General of the Lazarist Priests.” These regrettable ambiguities would lead several French Vincentians to the conclusion that the document did not refer to them and that, in fact, the Congregation had not been reestablished. Without them, however, it is likely that the Council of State would not have approved the emperor’s initiatives.
Pierre-François Viguier, Brunet’s representative in Paris, immediately asked for a clarification of article two. “Since the nomination of the director by the emperor has as its goal the conservation of his work and not its destruction, it is unrealistic that His Majesty would give to the missioners a chief who was not someone of their choice, and who would not suit them.” The response to this letter is unknown, but Viguier’s point was respected in practice.
When Brunet received this decree from Viguier, he was understandably perplexed and found more reasons than ever to plan his return to Paris. He confided his hopes to Vicherat in Constantinople: that the Congregation would first go with foreign missions; seminaries would come later if bishops call for the Vincentians to staff them. In this, “we should imitate our holy founder,” by listening to the bishops. He also acknowledged that the Jesuits might return to their former house and, if so, then the Congregation would need another house. This issue, too, would drag on for more than a decade.
His plans to return to Paris were postponed for various reasons, especially the decision either to travel with the pope’s entourage to Napoleon’s coronation, or to travel separately with Cardinal Joseph Fesch. The cardinal was then Napoleon’s ambassador in Rome but had been named Grand Chaplain of the empire, and would be responsible for all foreign missions, principally those of the Congregation of the Mission. Brunet worried also about what he could do in Paris, where he would live, and whether he would be forced to take some sort of oath that he might find objectionable. As it happened, he secured a good carriage, paid for by his friend the cardinal, and left 31 October. In Paris, he found plenty to do, lodged temporarily with his confrere Dubois at Sainte Marguerite, and was not obliged to any problematic oaths.
Return to Paris, Sicardi Vicar General
Travel plans and details were as nothing compared to the storm aroused by his decision to leave Rome. The difficulties it provoked nearly led to the division of the Congregation into two or more parts.
This grave problem arose on the day after Brunet had decided on his departure. His assistant, Sicardi, and probably others, realized that if the vicar general moved to France, he would not have the assistants required by constitutions, and hence “he will no longer be able to govern the Congregation of the Mission.” According to the Constitutions, chapter II, paragraph 2, when a superior general traveled, one of the assistants should accompany him. Sicardi was evidently unwilling to leave for France with Brunet, and Fenaja was unable to leave because of his office. Sicardi then proposed that the first assistant, Sicardi himself, should remain in Rome and govern ad interim, with his assistants Ansaloni, Bistolfi, Archbishop Fenaja, and a Frenchman, Hector- Hippolyte Passerat, who had been expelled from France for not taking the required constitutional oath. In addition, Sicardi proposed that Brunet be, instead, assistant for foreign missions only, given that the Congregation had been reestablished in France for foreign missions and that France alone had foreign missions, with only a few non-French on these missions, such as a couple of Italians in Algeria. In this arrangement, Sicardi would remain responsible for the rest of Europe. He conveniently overlooked one detail: Brunet, with his council, had decided to grant the visitors of the Congregation special powers to govern their own provinces without having recourse to the vicar general, should this become necessary in this unsettled period.
In view of all of this, and without the least consultation of Brunet, Pius VII named Sicardi vicar general one week later, evidently in place of Brunet, who had left “never to return.” Further, Sicardi received the responsibility to “rule and govern this same Congregation” for as long a time as the Holy See wished. As such, he was vicar general of the entire Congregation of the Mission and all its houses, wherever they were (since the Congregation had no houses in France, nor legal existence), namely in Italy, Germany, Poland, Spain, and Portugal. The pope also confirmed Sicardi’s assistants: Archbishop Fenaja, and Fathers Ansaloni, Bistolfi, and Passerat; and his admonitor, Sebastiano Bertarelli. The decree also confirmed the link between the superior general of the Congregation and the direction of the Daughters of Charity. This brief Quum uti accepimus, must have exploded like a bombshell over the heads of the struggling French Vincentians. Sicardi, doubtless with the help of Archbishop Fenaja, had engineered a real coup d’état, by getting the pope to strip Brunet of his title and responsibility. In the view of some observers, however, Sicardi had proposed himself, equivalently voting for himself. As such, following Vincentian legislation, he should have lost active and passive voice, and be disqualified from any future office in the Congregation. This vindictive opinion never carried any weight.
Jean-Baptiste Etienne, no disinterested commentator on this matter, felt that Sicardi was the chief intriguer, bent on “preparing in that capital of the world, the installation of the seat of the head of our two families, a goal pursued for more than a century, but which Providence has always impeded.” Etienne was doubtless referring to the conflicts that erupted at the general assembly of 1703 over the same issue: the identity of the Congregation of the Mission as French.
In his new role as vicar general of the entire Congregation, Sicardi issued the first of his circular letters on 25 November 1804. He explained that Brunet had left Rome to go to France, to stay there and not to return to Italy. In August, before leaving, Brunet met with his council (Sicardi and Fenaja), and “we agreed unanimously, with the help of other older priests of this house [Montecitorio] and determined that the office of leadership belongs to the first assistant, according to the decrees of general assemblies confirmed by popes.” Now, on the date of writing, Brunet had been gone three weeks, and nothing had changed; he had not consulted his assistants any further. Thus Brunet could no longer govern as he ought, according to Vincentian laws and constitutions, since he had no means to do so. Sicardi continued that Brunet had no admonitor or assistants legitimately elected by a general assembly, whereas he, Sicardi, together with Ferris, had been legitimately elected. Without assistants, Brunet could make no important decisions, dismiss members, admit externs to live in our houses for a notable period of time, etc. Further, since the vicar general could not appoint his own assistants and admonitor, or visitors, any acts of his would be null (irritae). Sicardi then mentioned his consultation with Fenaja and other senior members of the house of Montecitorio, and that he had passed on their recommendations to the pope. Pius VII issued his brief 30 October 1804. It took some time for the import of this papal decision to sink in. By the middle of 1805, however, Cardinal Fesch, representing the French imperial government, began his offensive against Quum uti accepimus. He had proven himself a friend of Brunet’s, and was often known to have dined with him. In his statements, the cardinal claimed that the reasons given by the Vincentians at Montecitorio were purely gratuitous. He himself, as archbishop of Lyons, had restored the Vincentian house at Valfleury; further, there was also a house in Lyons, although without subjects yet, managed by a former Capuchin. Besides, several members were already at work on “internal missions,” that is, the popular missions, and were available to bishops. Outside the territory of France, but within the French empire, the Congregation also had houses at Piacenza, Genoa, Savona and Sarzana. All this shows that the Congregation of the Mission in fact existed in France. The cardinal proposed that Brunet should have the right to designate his successor in the way foreseen by Saint Vincent in the case of a superior general. Although the founder did not plan for this exact case, in which a vicar general might designate a successor and name his assistants, this measure was necessary at the moment. And most important, “the French Government will never tolerate the Missioners recognizing any head outside of France....” The alternative was either to divide the Congregation into two, or to return the generalate to Brunet. Without spelling out the dangers any further, he closed by alluding to the wishes of the omnipotent Napoleon: “These reasons, as well as others which cannot be ignored. . . .”
On the same day, Brunet sent his own memorandum to the pope about the revocation of the brief. He claimed that it had no validity, being based on false information, for he had not left Rome before the decree was issued, but only one day later. This, of course, was very slender reasoning. Nevertheless, his proposed solution was his reinstatement as vicar general, the faculty to name a successor and his assistants, and the nomination of Sicardi as pro-vicar general.
In a masterpiece of papal diplomacy, Pius VII simply skirted the main issues. He gave an allocution of 25 June in which he hailed the reestablishment of the two congregations of Saint Vincent. Nevertheless, the problem of organization, which the pope had caused but chose not to mention in his speech, remained to be solved.
Fesch repeated his recommendation that Brunet write against Sicardi’s original proposal, and Sicardi, in turn, responded officially to Brunet’s original request (9 July 1805). A month later, 11 August, the vicar general then proposed that Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, secretary of state, seek a way to reconcile the parties. Brunet took up Fesch’s recommendation and wrote Pius VII to remind him that he had confirmed Brunet in his office and that the offices of the Holy See knew of his trip to Paris, which he took only on the direct orders of Cardinal Fesch. Brunet believed, in addition, that the members of the Montecitorio house had pledged their obedience to him before his departure. All this, in his view, pointed to intrigues against him. During this time, Brunet wrote to Fesch to tell him that, after Napoleon’s audience with the pope in Paris, he had agreed to reestablish the Daughters of Charity, and the Congregation of the Mission, “. . . as it was before, even among the poor people of the countryside, according to its charter.” Fesch also sent this letter to Consalvi, adding his own letter of support.
As if to strengthen Brunet’s hand in these negotiations, Napoleon confirmed him as superior of the Mission on 30 September 1805. Brunet had already named Jacques-Pierre Claude (1738-1819?) as his assistant and was relying on Viguier as his secretary, and LeMaire as procurator (or treasurer), a job he fulfilled permanently after 7 October 1808. A lay brother formed the final member of this group, which lived, as best one can tell, at the small house behind the buildings of the Daughters of Charity on rue du Vieux Colombier.
The exchange of letters and memoranda continued through November, and December, with Brunet repeating this same information in a further letter to the pope.
Sicardi Pro-Vicar General
After this flurry of correspondence, the pope issued another decree in the brief Tua in Galliam, 13 May 1806. By it, Pius VII reestablished Brunet in his rights as vicar general, removing Sicardi from this position, but granting him the new title of pro-vicar general. Brunet had suggested this title, but it was an unfortunate choice since the term, as used in canon law from about the seventeenth century, referred to an administrator acting in place of the title holder, with powers delegated by the superior. This further ambiguity may have compounded Sicardi’s confusion and mistrust. This same brief also granted Brunet’s request for special faculties to name a successor and assistants, but with the proviso that he receive the approval of the visitors (Spain, Portugal, Poland, Rome, Lombardy), and confirmation by the pope. The visitor of Spain, Felipe Sobiès, took the position that he could not accept Brunet as vicar general, again, without having an authentic copy of the brief. This measure was more than understandable, given the tense atmosphere between the Italians and the French.
Although it might seem that this papal decree would put an end to the conflict, Sicardi and his council did not give up easily. The core of their objection was found in an ambiguous phrase in Tua in Galliam: “…ita tamen ut, tuo hujusmodi durante munere, praenominatus Carolus Dominicus pro-vicarii functiones loco tui, tibique subjectus, in Urbe exerceat….” Sicardi read this as meaning that, during Brunet’s office, “the aforementioned Carlo Domenico [Sicardi] would exercise, in Rome, the functions of pro-vicar, instead of you, but subject to you.” In his opinion, therefore, Brunet had only the title, while Sicardi had the responsibilities. He went so far as to state that to him alone pertained the exercise of power, even declaring null all the acts which the Vicar General would make contrary to this decree. On the other hand, Brunet read the phrase as meaning that Sicardi would exercise the functions of pro-vicar, in place of him, in Rome, since confreres of certain countries could not have contact with the Congregation’s authorities in France. In both interpretations, Sicardi was supposed to be subject to Brunet.
The vicar general then wrote to Sicardi a stiff letter telling him to obey the papal decree, and forbidding, “in virtue of holy obedience, MM. Ansaloni and Bistolfi to regard themselves as assistants of the Congregation, and to exercise their functions, since they were named in virtue of a brief now annulled [Quum uti accepimus].”
For his part, Sicardi was not so compliant. He launched two major complaints against Brunet in a memorandum to the pope, dated sometime in September 1806. The first was that before Brunet left for Paris, he had not arranged for assistants, as he should have according to the Constitutions of the Congregation. As a result, he is “irregolare,” unable to act and lacking any authority. What Sicardi did not say, however, was that he could have accompanied the vicar general to Paris but chose not to. (However, it would have been difficult if not impossible for Archbishop Fenaja, vice-gerent of Rome, to abandon his papal responsibilities to accompany Brunet.)
His second complaint was that although the Congregation of the Mission had one small house in Paris, this could in no way be regarded as the proper existence of the Congregation in France. Besides, the Vincentians there were not doing the work proper to the Congregation in France: clergy formation, popular missions. He deftly concluded that were the Congregation of the Mission restored to what it was before, Sicardi and his assistants would be the first to rejoice. He also faced the issue of Ferris, whom Brunet claimed to be still an assistant. Sicardi held that superiors general must live with the assistants or their substitutes, but this was impossible since Ferris had been absent for eight or nine years. In fact, Brunet had informed Sicardi that he had named as his assistants Pierre Claude and Claude-Joseph Placiard and as admonitor, Laurent Philippe. It is unclear whether he considered either Ferris and/or Sicardi as continuing as assistants, even though absent. In a letter of 6 September, Consalvi informed Brunet that the pope had approved of this list of assistants and the admonitor, and added, without really resolving the ambiguity: the pro-vicar general lives in Rome, represents you and acts dependent on you.
Sicardi responded at the same time to Brunet. Since he was pro-vicar, he was going to keep his assistants, despite Brunet’s formal prohibition, since he needed their advice. He related that he had told Consalvi to call him whatever he wanted: “Vicaire, ou Pro-vicaire général, commissaire, député, représentant,” but according to the Constitutions. He added, for Brunet’s benefit: “I have always been attached to the Congregation of the Mission, never intrigued, but acted faithfully. I am attached to your person and reputation. I did what I felt I had to.”
He was not so conciliatory in his reply to Consalvi. Sicardi claimed that Brunet’s explanations touching his person were an insult and that Fesch had forced the pope to change his own earlier brief—a change that provoked amazement on the part of others. The central point of this letter, however, was his contention that Brunet had the right only to transmit orders to the pro-vicar general, who in turn would pass them on to Congregation. In any case, he claimed that Brunet merely supposed that the Congregation existed in France, while Sicardi had reason to doubt it since he probably had not received official notification. A disgruntled copyist added the following note to the archival text of this document: “We can see that Father Sicardi wished to be the unchallenged master of the field.”
This entire affair would continue until yet another brief, issued in 1807, put the situation on a new footing. It would not help Brunet, however, since it would arrive after his death.
Napoleon and Foreign Missions
The vicar general had other concerns during this same period, the chief of which was securing a mother house for the Congregation. As mentioned above, Napoleon’s decree authorizing the reestablishment of the Vincentians in France involved the grant of a mother house (articles 3-4). Earlier versions of the same document specified that “the establishment and the seminary will be situated in Paris, in the house of the former Jesuits, rue Saint-Antoine.” However, by the time of its publication, the decree merely spoke a mother house, but Napoleon signed another decree granting Saint Louis to the Congregation of the Mission, 3 August 1804, and a supplementary decree forcing the school then in the Jesuit buildings to move elsewhere. The Vincentians were ready to take over Saint Louis in March 1805, but this had to be abandoned since the Lycée could not move because their building had been designated for other uses. In view of this, Cardinal Fesch favored a return to the former Saint Lazare, while others preferred the Daughters’ mother house at the rue du Vieux Colombier. Brunet had earlier asked for the return of Saint Lazare, particularly since it had not been entirely sold off, and was therefore open to a claim by the previous inhabitants. This problem of the mother house would not be settled, however, in Brunet’s lifetime.
Since the Congregation had been reestablished (principally) for foreign missions, Brunet had much to do to manage them. The great issue at stake here, however, was that of administration: were these missions sent by and supported by the imperial French government, or were they missions of the Church, under the direction of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide)? As can readily be imagined, the government’s position was that the missions were French.
During the years of Brunet’s vicariate, the Congregation was slowly recovering its position in various mission territories, as will be explained below in more detail under the heading of individual provinces. By way of example, however, the confreres were able to resume their work in Constantinople by October of 1802, even before the official recognition of the Congregation of the Mission in France. A year later, Napoleon decreed some financial assistance to the Congregation at Aleppo, until such time as the Vincentians would be reestablished in France.
Meanwhile, Napoleon was developing one of his grandiose plans to rationalize and control the missions of France. The emperor was intending to subsume all foreign missions under a single “corporation.” This was believed to be the intent of his decree of reestablishment of the Congregation, about which, being the largest missionary community and being secular, he used the language he did.
One of the outcomes of this decision was the ambiguity regarding the other missionary communities, particularly the Foreign Mission Society of Paris. Two of their members had met with Brunet in Rome (20 July 1804) to examine whether their two congregations had been fused ipso facto. They disagreed on the answer but agreed that this new arrangement would spell the end of the foreign missions and even of the Church, inasmuch as Napoleon was keen to place civil power above ecclesiastical, apostolic, authority.
By March of the next year, Napoleon moved ahead by placing the Congregation of the Mission, the Foreign Mission Society, and the Spiritans under Cardinal Fesch, “Grand aumônier de l’empire.” These congregations would divide up the various regions of the world, the Congregation of the Mission for China and the Middle East, the Spiritans for Africa, the West Indies and the Indian Ocean, the Foreign Missions Society in southeast Asia, etc. The emperor had wanted initially to have the missionary communities subjected to the archbishop of Paris but, in negotiations with the pope, it was determined to distinguish between missions in the archdiocese, for which the communities would be subjected to the archbishop, and missions abroad, to be subject to the Church. Napoleon agreed to authorize separately the three missionary communities, provided that the general direction of the missions be the responsibility of the Grand Chaplain. Portalis, minister of foreign affairs, prepared the ground for the emperor’s decision, claiming that “Since the Revolution, foreign superiors living in Rome have taken over all that concerns the missions. The government’s interest is that matters return to their first state, and that, as a result, our missions be directed by a national superior. . . . This direction is too important to be able to be confided to a superior would not be bound by his place to the good of the State.” Following this new arrangement, Brunet received his appointment as a member of the ecclesiastical council of the grande aumônerie. This council had been established 27 March 1805, and consisted of the grand chaplain, the first chaplain, three bishops, a vicar general, and the superiors of Saint Sulpice (Emery), the Missions Etrangères de Paris (Billière), and the Vincentians (Brunet), as well as a secretary. Brunet clearly had been co-opted, willingly or not, into the workings of the state.
He continued to plan and make decisions for the missions. A copy of a report from Viguier, dated 13 December 1804, addressed to an unnamed correspondent in the government, perhaps Pein, provides some details of the planning for China. Brunet had asked Viguier to go there with three or four French missionaries: a clock maker, a painter and physician, an astronomer and a mathematician. He felt that the missionaries had to arrive before the British, to secure the rights of the French mission. To manage this, they would need government funds, since the passage was expensive and they would need additional funds for food, clothing and supplies. He explained to his correspondent that Brunet not be called “director,” but rather “vicar general,” to gain the allegiance of Italian, Spanish and Polish Vincentians. He felt that any change in the identity of the Congregation could ruin the Daughters of Charity as well. In another letter, written shortly before his death, Brunet authorizes the internal seminary (novitiate) in China, and confirms the superior of Macao.
Brunet does not seem to have had a great deal to do with the Daughters of Charity, despite the fact that he lived at their provisional mother house, rue du Vieux Colombier. The issues concerning the Sisters and their schism following meddling by officials of the archdiocese of Paris will be treated elsewhere. One of the reasons was that, since he was in Rome, he left their government to others. For example, their director, Laurent Philippe, presided over the assembly in August 1802 that extended another term to Mother Deleau, even though the Daughters of Charity would be officially reestablished only 16 October of that year. In October of the next year, Brunet had Pierre Claude (1738-1819?) move from Saintes to Paris to help in the direction of the Daughters. At the death of Mother Deleau, 29 January 1804, it became necessary to hold another assembly. Brunet authorized it, and it was held the following 21 May at Vieux Colombier. The Sisters elected Sister Deschaux to be superioress general. Thanks to their simpler constitutional structure, at least the Daughters of Charity never had to suffer from the same problems that their Vincentian brothers did, apart from the intrigues about the rival vicars general. Within a year the Sisters were authorized once again to wear the habit, whose color for the moment was black. It would change to the more familiar blue-grey only in 1835.
Despite Napoleon’s clear preference for regularizing the French foreign missions, it gradually was becoming clear to Brunet and his confreres that the Congregation still had a role to play in France. As mentioned above, Pius VII and Napoleon agreed that the Congregation of the Mission would gradually be able to resume its former works within France, possibly under the guise of preparing and supporting foreign missionaries. Such candidates as the Congregation had would be sent to various seminaries, staffed in one way or another by the Vincentians, “for the missions.” The minister of foreign affairs would pay their expenses, in view of the missions. This was in 1805. By the following year, Napoleon issued a decree assigning funds to the bishop of Troyes for missions in his diocese, to be given by members of the Congregation of the Mission. The obvious inference is that the Vincentians were, despite Napoleon’s charter, also allowed to conduct popular missions as well as foreign missions. At about the same time, the diocese of Amiens handed over the major seminary again to the care of the Vincentians. Dominique Hanon, a future vicar general, took over in August 1806. In fact, Vincentians were already working at this influential seminary, but were not responsible for its administration.
The request for three missioners for a mission in the Vendée region, in the diocese of Poitiers, in late 1806, brings to light an important concept concerning their purpose. Father Placiard, who handled the request, acknowledged that the primary purpose of the mission was to convert souls. Nevertheless, an important second purpose was to destroy prejudices against the current pope and “against our emperor and king.” It is undoubtedly for this second reason that the Napoleonic government, and Napoleon himself, look favorably on Vincentian missions. Through these layers of control, Napoleon was trying to assure a tranquil reign for himself, and he therefore looked on the Congregation of the Mission as useful to the goals of the State. It is exactly here that the Congregation found its opportunity to play a role again in France: its usefulness to the State.
Doubtless in view of his advanced age—he was seventy-five—Brunet signed his last will, 1 August 1806. We learn from this document that he had a modest sum in cash, 8041 francs, plus a yearly income of 620 francs. In addition, he had other funds in Paris and Rome, kept for the Congregation, and intended for the passage and support of missionaries to China and other lands. The superioress general of the Sisters had likewise deposited some sums with him. This action was providential, since he was dead within six weeks, dying on 15 September 1806 at Vieux Colombier. He was buried at the Vaugirard cemetery.
What can be said of Brunet? He was upright, cheerful and pleasant, but also somewhat shy and retiring. Because his situation was weak both in Rome and in Paris, he had to make use of stronger and more influential persons, in particular, Cardinal Fesch. He was probably not the right person for the job, since he was more a man of books than a diplomat. His six years as vicar general must have offered many moments of serious reflection, since they had been so filled with hopes and anxieties, to say nothing of rejection and acceptance in the face of the intransigent positions of certain of his Italian confreres of the Roman province. He had lived in the Congregation of the Mission for fifty-nine years.
Claude-Joseph Placiard (1756-1807)
Continue with Claude-Joseph Placiard (1756-1807)