THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE ASSUMPTION: 19TH-CENTURY FRANCE
Every century has its own distinctive features. Even when we look back into time, it is not easy to discern its broad outlines. Nineteenth century France, Father d'Alzon's century (1810-1880) is paradoxical. It is a time of great contrasts: one world is disappearing and another is being born, not without pain, or conflict, or violent confrontations. The new world cannot find its way because it comes into collision with the habits or deliberate resistance of the partisans of the past. This is obvious in many areas.
DEMOCRACY AND BOURGEOISIE
Father d'Alzon was to experience various political regimes, several Revolutions (1830, 1848, 1870), several bloody repressions of working class demonstrations (1848, 1871). A return to former authoritarian forms of political life (1815, 1851, 1871) alternated with short innovative periods filled with liberal and democratic verve (1830, 1848, 1870). Violent crises flared up regularly: the three days of the Revolution of July, 1830 in Paris, known as the "Trois Glorieuses" which liquidated the conservative royalty, the days in June, 1848 as the "juin social", which swept away the liberal royalty, and the "bloody May" of 1871. While after that date the Republic was no longer contested as the recognized political regime, French political life remained troubled until 1914. Then the external danger that was Germany created a kind of national consensus which was baptized "the sacred union".
So we see that democracy was born in France in a climate of very strong political and ideological confrontations. The stakes were high. It was from this epoch that decisive victories stem: liberal Constitutions, universal male suffrage, the abolition of slavery, laws concerning the press and education, the beginnings of social and trade union legislation.
While France was more advanced politically, it was less advanced in economic matters than Great Britain. It was not until the reign of Louis Philippe (1830-1848) and above all until the Second Empire with Napoléon III (1852-1870) that a few precursory signs of industrial development and capitalism appeared: department stores, banks, railroads, corporations, industrial and agricultural machinery. The living conditions of the workers were hard, inhuman. The working class was taking shape and becoming aware of itself. But the social consequences of this transformation long remained poorly analyzed, violently repressed by the bourgeois power in authority, and not understood by the rural population which until the 20th century made up the majority of the active population of the country.
Father d'Alzon was viscerally anti-liberal by temperament and formation. He was a traditionalist. This rural aristocrat looked more readily toward the past than toward the future. Yet he was not the man of one regime or of one party. His Cause was God's Cause. That is why he accepted without nostalgic regret everything that was compatible with God's Cause. At the same time, he fought for this Cause through prayer, words, and action.
A SOLDIER'S LIFE DEDICATED TO A CHURCH IN COMBAT
In 19th-century France the religious problem was engrafted on the political problem: the men of the social movement, heirs of the rationalistic "philosophers" of the 18th century who incarnated the spirit of the Revolution, fought for a society founded on the rights of man without any explicit reference to God or to Christian morality. In matters of public concern, the tutelage of the Church which they vigorously combatted seemed intolerable to them. For them the Church symbolized the dogmatic and conservative spirit.
The option for or against God was to play a preponderant role in social and political life. Having become a decisive criterion, it finally came to mask the political problem: a system that rejects God or combats him cannot be good; it is unacceptable. That was Father d'Alzon's attitude. What he condemned was less the political ideas than the rejection of God. He was in God's camp. He openly vigorously chose God as he liked to say, and he defended him unceasingly and without respite with all the resources of his words and writings as the vicar general of his diocese (1835-1878), as the director of an educational institution, and as the founder of a religious congregation. D'Alzon took his stand for the God of Jesus Christ and for the defense of God's interests without being committed to any political party whatever.
Since Jesus Christ is inseparable from his Church, d'Alzon's party would be the Church united around the Pope, holy but also human and bearing the features and wrinkles of the times, Catholic and hence truly universal, apostolic and consequently militant. When he waged war for freedom of education which was monopolized by the State, for the defense of the rights of the Church or of God, he was fighting as a good soldier of God. In his milieu and in his position he personified the Church militant of the 19th century, ultramontane and anti-revolutionary. He symbolized the spirit of the "Counter-Revolution".
TURNING INCREASINGLY TOWARD THE MASSES
Paying close attention to the events and great stakes of his time. always ready to fly to the help of his sovereign under attack, Father d'Alzon would harden his tone over the years to destroy the enemies of God waiting in ambush on every side. His zeal would be even bolder: he was to launch a veritable counter-offensive on behalf of the common people and he found the appropriate means to reach out to them.
Fr. d'Alzon's journey corresponds to the course of Catholicism in France. In time he became more and more conservative. Like the society of his own time he showed he was incapable of inwardly espousing the audacities of the great ideals of 1789 and to work out, without a preestablished model, possible political and social translations that would take into account both the past and the burgeoning aspirations of the time. That was the same plan that Lamennais had, but his personal journey and his condemnation in 1834 would strengthen the power of his detractors. It was not only the man who was being condemned but also the program he incarnated! This was to be a severe blow for E. d'Alzon who was ordained to the priesthood the year of the condemnation of his intellectual mentor. But at that moment already as in the future he put his trust totally in the Church and rejected liberalism even more. He was to hold to this attitude throughout his life.
The same convictions would inspire him to different programs throughout his life. With experience and the passing years, he was to broaden his horizons. The Founder then opened himself more vigorously with his new family, and thanks to it, to the ever-renewed calls of the Spirit. The first works, such as education-teaching, were not abandoned but beginning in 1870 new paths were to be explored.
A less elitist and more popular approach developed in the Assumption thanks to the reciprocal influences of men whom Emmanuel d'Alzon had guided in their religious vocation. Like Abraham, the Assumption would go forth from the shores of its infancy and venture out into a new world which was mostly unknown to it but which it felt beloved of God. Fr. d'Alzon became a pilgrim himself in his old age and never ceased encouraging his sons and daughters to reach out to the masses for a new birth of the Gospel. Encouraging disadvantaged youth to enter the service of the Church (the alumniates), the public affirmation of Jesus Christ (the pilgrimages), the obsession with the unity of the Church and the return to the fold of the vast land of Russia, newspapers within the grasp of everyone (Le Pèlerin, La Croix), the Christianization of the poor of the cities: these were the great concerns of the moment. In response to the pessimism of constantly renewed memories and embellished pictures of the past, the young Assumption now fought the fight of optimism turned toward the present yet in order to achieve a renewed apostolic and yet combative action.
THE BURDEN OF AN APOSTOLIC LIFE
At the time of his death (1880), like Augustine confronting the barbarians, Emmanuel d'Alzon, his high school in Nimes under attack. could have believed his life's battle was lost. The earthly city, once again controlled by passions, fought with him to his very door over the area of liberty he wanted to win for the Church. The unity that he had sought with all his strength solely on the basis of faith for a Christian society seemed lost in a land hostile to the Catholics of his own country. But is it not his claim to greatness that he unremittingly sowed without knowing the time of the harvest?
A true son of his time, E. d'Alzon committed himself to it with all of his Mediterranean ardor. And in response to God's call, he fashioned a way of life for himself and for those who would come after him, the Augustinians of the Assumption who were to be "apostolic monks". They were to evangelize their own milieus boldly while listening intently to the voice of God celebrated in apostolic prayer.
Emmanuel d'Alzon lived this charism before transmitting it to others. His strength lay in reading the Gospel and in the yearning for God in the writing of his rapidly changing and tormented century. His passion was to live "the combat of faith" which assumed the name of kingdom in his life, since Love is absolute. Thanks to this combat he was able to override the rigidity of traditions and heritages and to welcome the changes that anticipated the future.
On November 21, 1880, the dying Father d'Alzon kept in his heart the faith of the Church in the apostolic activities that his heirs would maintain and develop. It was not given him to reap the harvest he had sown. But was he not always ready throughout his life, day after day, to meet the demands of the Adveniat Regnum Tuum without wanting to see or harvest the fruits of his labors?
Fr. Jean-Paul PERIER-MUZET, a.a.