Recollections of My Youth/The Petty Seminary of St. Nicholas du Chardonnet/Part II

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The Petty Seminary of St. Nicholas du Chardonnet/Part II[edit]

About the month of April, 1838, M. de Talleyrand, feeling his end draw near, thought it necessary to act a last lie in accordance with human prejudices, and he resolved to be reconciled, in appearance, to a Church whose truth, once acknowledged by him, convicted him of sacrilege and of dishonour. This ticklish job could best be performed, not by a staid priest of the old Gallican school, who might have insisted upon a categorical retractation of errors, upon his making amends and upon his doing penance; not by a young Ultramontane of the new school, against whom M. de Talleyrand would at once have been very prejudiced, but by a priest who was a man of the world, well-read, very little of a philosopher, and nothing of a theologian, and upon those terms with the ancient classes which alone give the Gospel occasional access to circles for which it is not suited. Abbe Dupanloup, already well known for his success at the Catechism of the Assumption among a public which set more store by elegant phrases than doctrine, was just the man to play an innocent part in the comedy which simple souls would regard as an edifying act of grace. His intimacy with the Duchesse de Dino, and especially with her daughter, whose religious education he had conducted, the favour in which he was held by M. de Quelen (Archbishop of Paris), and the patronage which from the outset of his career had been accorded him by the Faubourg St. Germain, all concurred to fit him for a work which required more worldly tact than theology, and in which both earth and heaven were to be fooled.

It is said that M. de Talleyrand, remarking a certain hesitation on the part of the priest who was about to convert him, ejaculated: "This young man does not know his business." If he really did make this remark, he was very much mistaken. Never was a priest better up in his calling than this young man. The aged statesman, resolved not to erase his past until the very last hour, met all the entreaties made to him with a sullen "not yet." The Sto ad ostium etpulso had to be brought into play with great tact. A fainting-fit, or a sudden acceleration in the progress of the death-agony would be fatal, and too much importunity might bring out a "No" which would upset the plans so skilfully laid. Upon the morning of May 17th, which was the day of his death, nothing was yet signed. Catholics, as is well known, attach very great importance to the moment of death. If future rewards and punishments have any real existence, it is evident that they must be proportioned to a whole life of virtue or of vice. But the Catholic does not look at it in this light, and an edifying death-bed makes up for all other things. Salvation is left to the chances of the eleventh hour. Time pressed, and it was resolved to play a bold game. M. Dupanloup was waiting in the next room, and he sent the winsome daughter of the Duchesse de Dino, of whom Talleyrand was always so fond, to ask if he might come in. The answer, for a wonder, was in the affirmative, and the priest spent several minutes with him, bringing out from the sick-room a paper signed "Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Prince de Benevent."

There was joy--if not in heaven, at all events in the Catholic world of the Faubourgs St. Germain and St. Honore. The credit of this victory was ascribed, in the main, to the female grace which had succeeded in getting round the aged prince, and inducing him to retract the whole of his revolutionary past, but some of it went to the youthful ecclesiastic who had displayed so much tact in bringing to a satisfactory conclusion a project in which it was so easy to fail. M. Dupanloup was from that day one of the first of French priests. Position, honours, and money were pressed upon him by the wealthy and influential classes in Paris. The money he accepted, but do not for a moment suppose that it was for himself, as there never was any one so unselfish as M. Dupanloup. The quotation from the Bible which was oftenest upon his lips, and which was doubly a favourite one with him because it was truly Scriptural and happened to terminate like a Latin verse was: Da mihi animas; cetera tolle tibi. He had at that time in his mind the general outlines of a grand propaganda by means of classical and religious education, and he threw himself into it with all the passionate ardour which he displayed in the undertakings upon which he embarked.

The seminary Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet, situated by the side of the church of that name, between the Rue Saint Victor and the Rue de Pontoise, had since the Revolution been the petty seminary for the diocese of Paris. This was not its primitive destination. In the great movement of religious reform which occurred during the first half of the seventeenth century, and to which the names of Vincent de Paul, Olier, Berulle, and Father Eudes are attached, the church of Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet filled, though in a humbler measure, the same part as Saint Sulpice. The parish of Saint Nicholas, which derived its name from a field of thistles well known to students at the University of Paris in the middle ages, was then the centre of a very wealthy neighbourhood, the principal residents belonging to the magistracy. As Olier founded the St. Sulpice Seminary, so Adrien de Bourdoise, founded the company of Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet, and made this establishment a nursery for young priests which lasted until the Revolution. It had not, however, like the Saint Sulpice establishment, a number of branch houses in other parts of France. Moreover, the association was not revived after the Revolution like that of Saint Sulpice, and their building in the Rue Saint Victor was untenanted. At the time of the Concordat it was given to the diocese of Paris, to be used as a petty seminary. Up to 1837, this establishment did not make any sort of a name for itself. The brilliant Renaissance of learned and worldly clericalism dates from the decade of 1830-40. During the first third of the century, Saint Nicholas was an obscure religious establishment, the number of students being below the requirements of the diocese, and the level of study a very low one. Abbe Frere, the head of the seminary, though a profound theologian and well versed in the mysticism of the Christian faith, was not in the least suited to rouse and stimulate lads who were engaged in literary study. Saint Nicholas, under his headship, was a thoroughly ecclesiastical establishment, its comparatively few students having a clerical career in view, and the secular side of education was passed over entirely.

M. de Quelen was very well inspired when he entrusted the management of this college to M. Dupanloup. The archbishop was not the man to approve of the strict clericalism of Abbe Frere. He liked piety, but worldly and well-bred piety, without any scholastic barbarisms or mystic jargon, piety as a complement of the well-bred ideal which, to tell the truth, was his main faith. If Hugues or Richard de Saint Victor had risen up before him in the shape of pedants or boors he would have set little store by them. He was very much attached to M. Dupanloup, who was at that time Legitimist and Ultramontane. It was only the exaggerations of a later day which so changed the parts that he came to be looked upon as a Gallican and an Orleanist. M. de Quelen treated him as a spiritual son, sharing his dislikes and his prejudices. He doubtless knew the secret of his birth. The families which had looked after the young priest, had made him a man of breeding, and admitted him into their exclusive coterie, were those with which the archbishop was intimate, and which formed in his eyes the limits of the universe. I remember seeing M. de Quelen, and he was quite the type of the ideal bishop under the old regime. I remember his feminine beauty, his perfect figure, and the easy grace of all his movements. His mind had received no other cultivation than that of a well-educated man of the world. Religion in his eyes was inseparable from good breeding and the modicum of common sense which a classical education is apt to give.

This was about the level of M. Dupanloup's intellect. He had neither the brilliant imagination which will give a lasting value to certain of Lacordaire's and Montalembert's works, nor the profound passion of Lamennais. In the case of the archbishop and M. Dupanloup, good breeding and polish were the main thing, and the approval of those who stood high in the world was the touchstone of merit. They knew nothing of theology, which they had studied but little, and for which they thought it enough to express platonic reverence. Their faith was very keen and sincere, but it was a faith which took everything for granted, and which did not busy itself with the dogmas which must be accepted. They knew that scholasticism would not go down with the only public for which they cared--the worldly and somewhat frivolous congregations which sit beneath the preachers at St. Roch or St. Thomas Aquinas.

Such were the views entertained by M. de Quelen when he made over to M. Dupanloup the austere and little known establishment of Abbe Frere and Adrien de Bourdoise. The petty seminary of Paris had hitherto, by virtue of the Concordat, been merely a training school for the clergy of Paris, quite sufficient for its purpose, but strictly confined to the object prescribed by the law. The new superior chosen by the archbishop had far higher aims. He set to work to re-construct the whole fabric, from the buildings themselves, of which only the old walls were left standing, to the course of teaching, which he re-cast entirely. There were two essential points which he kept before him. In the first place he saw that a petty seminary which was altogether ecclesiastical could not answer in Paris, and would never suffice to recruit a sufficient number of priests for the diocese. He accordingly utilised the information which reached him, especially from the west of France and from his native Savoy, to bring to the college any youths of promise whom he might hear of. Secondly, he determined that the college should become a model place of education instead of being a strict seminary with all the asceticism of a place in which the clerical element was unalloyed. He hoped to let the same course of education serve for the young men studying for the priesthood, and for the sons of the highest families in France. His success in the Rue Saint Florentin (this was where Talleyrand died) had made him a favourite with the Legitimists, and he had several useful friends among the Orleanists. Well posted in all the fashionable changes, and neglecting no opportunity for pushing himself, he was always quick to adapt himself to the spirit of the time. His theory of what the world should be was a very aristocratic one, but he maintained that there were three orders of aristocracy: the nobility, the clergy, and literature. What he wished to insure was a liberal education, which would be equally suitable for the clergy and for the youths of the Faubourg Saint Germain, based upon Christian piety and classical literature. The study of science was almost entirely excluded, and he himself had not even a smattering of it.

Thus the old house in the Rue Saint Victor was for many years the rendezvous of youths bearing the most famous of French names, and it was considered a very great favour for a young man to obtain admission. The large sums which many rich people paid to secure admission for their sons served to provide a free education for young men without fortune who had shown signs of talent. This testified to the unbounded faith of M. Dupanloup in classical learning. He looked upon these classical studies as part and parcel of religion. He held that youths destined for holy orders and those who were in afterlife to occupy the highest social positions should both receive the same education. Virgil, he thought should be as much a part of a priest's intellectual training as the Bible. He hoped that the elite of his theological students would, by their association upon equal terms with young men of good family, acquire more polish and a higher social tone than can be obtained in seminaries peopled by peasants' sons. He was wonderfully successful in this respect. The college, though consisting of two elements, apparently incongruous, was remarkable for its unity. The knowledge that talent overrode all other considerations prevented anything like jealousy, and by the end of a week the poorest youth from the provinces, awkward and simple as he might be, was envied by the young millionaire--who, little as he might know it, was paying for his schooling--if he had turned out some good Latin verses, or written a clever exercise.

In the year 1838, I was fortunate enough to win all the prizes in my class at the Treguier College. The palmares happened to be seen by one of the enlightened men whom M. Dupanloup employed to recruit his youthful army. My fate was settled in a twinkling, and "Have him sent for" was the order of the impulsive Superior. I was fifteen and a half years old, and we had no time to reflect. I was spending the holidays with a friend in a village near Treguier, and in the afternoon of the 4th of September I was sent for in haste. I remember my returning home as well as if it was only yesterday. We had a league to travel through the country. The vesper bell with its soft cadence echoing from steeple to steeple awoke a sensation of gentle melancholy, the image of the life which I was about to abandon for ever. The next day I started for Paris; upon the 7th I beheld sights which were as novel for me as if I had been suddenly landed in France from Tahiti or Timbuctoo.