Lacordaire, Jean-Baptiste Henri
LACORDAIRE, JEAN-BAPTISTE HENRI
Dominican preacher, refounder of Dominican Order in France; b. May 12, 1802, Recey-sur-Ource (Burgundy); d. Nov. 21, 1861, Sorèze. His father, a physician like many of his ancestors, died when Jean-Baptiste was only four. His mother was deeply committed to providing the best care and education for her four children. At the lycée Lacordaire attended, he came under the influence of a bright but unbelieving teacher. Within a short time, the impressionable young student lost his Catholic faith. He had, however, acquired a love of the ideals of the French Revolution, liberty, equality, and fraternity, which would endure throughout his life. In 1819 Lacordaire entered the law school at Dijon, where his exceptional talent for public speaking blossomed. Early in his law school career, Lacordaire was very much influenced by the writings of J. J. rousseau on religious and political issues. He adopted a deistic understanding of God and saw religion, especially Christianity, as important because of its social utility. He parted company with Rousseau's political views after he became involved with a group of conservative, monarchist, and mostly Catholic students known as the Société d'Études. This group, founded in 1821, strongly supported the Bourbon Restoration. Influenced by these students, Lacordaire rejected Rousseau's notion of the social contract and instead committed himself to government based on a constitutional monarchy because it alone seemed capable of maintaining a balance between liberty and authority. As a result of his association with this predominantly Catholic group, Lacordaire became increasingly open to Catholicism and preoccupied with questions of religious faith. He completed law school at Dijon and moved to Paris in 1822 in order to begin a legal apprenticeship.
Conversion and Early Priesthood. Although Lacordaire's legal career in Paris got off to a bright and promising start, he was very troubled interiorly. He suffered from the Romantic melancholy that was typical of his generation, from the Romantic need for religious belief that was frustrated by the inability to believe. His "cold" reason seemed to rule out religion while his Romantic imagination, his "extremely religious soul," yearned to believe. By early 1824, it was apparent that his heart would be the victor. He wrote to a friend: "Would you believe it, I am every day growing more and more a Christian." His conversion to Catholic Christianity was soon completed. He described it in this Romantic fashion: "I remember having read the Gospel of Matthew and having cried one night: when one cries, one soon believes." From the beginning, his Catholic faith was profoundly related to his concern for the betterment of society. He believed that society could only have balance, just laws, authentic progress, and perfection through the Catholic Church.
Lacordaire entered the Sulpician seminary near Paris on May 12, 1824. Despite misgivings by seminary officials about his political views, which were untypical of French priesthood candidates of his era, he was ordained as a priest of the archdiocese of Paris on Sept. 22, 1827 by Archbishop de quÉlen. He was soon offered an important position in Rome but declined becoming instead chaplain of a Visitation convent. He received a supplementary assignment in 1828 when he was appointed assistant chaplain of a secondary school. These two tasks allowed him ample opportunity to pursue the study of theology. By the end of the 1820s Lacordaire was seriously considering the possibility of becoming a missionary to the United States because of its separation of church and state. He had received an offer from Bishop John Dubois of New York, an exile from revolutionary France, to become vicar general of his diocese and rector of the diocesan seminary.
Political Involvement. In 1830, Lacordaire abandoned any plans to leave France for the United States when he joined with Félicité lamennais, a priest who was one of the leading ultramontanists and Catholic political liberals in France, and a few others of like mind in the project of reconciling the Catholic Church and modern liberal society. They decided to fight for the cause of "God and liberty" by publishing a nationally distributed Catholic daily newspaper called L'Avenir. From the first issue of Oct. 16, 1830, the editors sought the support of all, Catholic or not, who believed in freedom of religion, education, and the press. They also argued that church and state should be free from mutual interference. The newspaper also advocated the freedom of religious orders to exist. L'Avenir soon found itself confronted by enemies on all sides. Secular liberals distrusted Catholic liberals. The predominantly conservative Catholic population of France distrusted liberals of every kind. The bishops, who were generally Gallican, disliked both the ultramontanism and the political liberalism of Lacordaire, Lamennais et al. The editors, fearing that L'Avenir would be unable to survive such widespread opposition, decided to appeal to Pope gregory xvi for support. They believed that their staunch ultramontanism would bolster their case. They were mistaken: the pope issued the encyclical Mirari vos (Aug. 15, 1832), condemning L'Avenir, without mentioning it by name, and its entire project of reconciling Catholicism with such modern ideas as separation of church and state and freedom of religion and the press. The editors promptly accepted the papal condemnation and permanently ceased publication of their newspaper. In 1833, Lacordaire quietly resumed his chaplaincy at the Visitation convent.
Beginning of Preaching Career. Lacordaire's brilliant preaching career began in early 1834 with a series of conferences given to the students of the Collège Stanislas in Paris at the suggestion of Frédéric Ozanam. As his reputation grew, more adults than young students came to these conferences. Among his attentive listeners were such literary figures as chateaubriand and Victor hugo. His audience was impressed by the eloquence, enthusiasm, and commitment that he brought to his presentation of religious themes. To a generation that loved liberty, Lacordaire spoke of it as a tree that God himself had planted in the Garden of Eden. However, some of the clergy denounced him to the archbishop of Paris as a preacher of novelties rather than of orthodox Christianity. Consequently, Archbishop de Quélen suspended his conferences but later dramatically vindicated Lacordaire by giving him the prestigious task of preaching the 1835 Lenten conferences at Notre Dame Cathedral. In his sermons there, he expressed his concern for the social problems of his era and offered Christianity as the only adequate solution to these problems. He continued his popular and influential preaching at Notre Dame during Lent of 1836. At the conclusion of those conferences, he resigned from his preaching position at Notre Dame and retreated to Rome for study and meditation.
Dominican Vocation. During a retreat made with the Jesuits in Rome in May 1837, Lacordaire began to seriously think about the possibility of becoming a religious. In August of that year, he discussed the possibility of refounding the Dominican Order in France with Prosper Guéranger, who was himself engaged in restoring the Benedictine Order in France. Lacordaire was very impressed with the Dominican emphasis on preaching and with the order's democratic structure. He definitively decided to join the Order of Preachers during a retreat in France at the Abbey of Solesmes in June 1838. To win public approval for the restoration of an order that was still technically illegal in France, he wrote his Essay on the Re-Establishment in France of the Order of Preachers in which he eloquently appealed to his compatriots' love of liberty for support of an institution that he believed had historically been characterized by liberal and democratic constitutions. With two French recruits, Lacordaire began his novitiate year at the Dominican convent of La Quercia near Viterbo, Italy, in April 1839. He wrote an important Life of St. Dominic while still a novice. After completing theological studies in Rome, he returned to France where, on Feb. 14, 1841, he preached from the pulpit of Notre Dame Cathedral in his Dominican habit to an immense congregation which included Archbishop de Quélen as well as many government officials. Lacordaire continued to preach throughout France and Belgium, even resuming his acclaimed conferences at the Parisian cathedral. During the revolutionary year of 1848, he served briefly as a deputy of the National Assembly. The Dominican Order officially restored the Province of France in 1850 in recognition of the great growth in vocations and the establishment of new convents in that country during the 1840s. Lacordaire was appointed as provincial.
Alexandre Jandel, one of Lacordaire's early recruits, was appointed head of the Dominican Order in 1850 by Pope Pius IX. Long-standing differences between the two friars on questions of religious observance soon surfaced. Jandel emphasized the necessity for a strict and rigorous interpretation and observance of the Dominican constitutions while Lacordaire emphasized an "admirable freedom" at the heart of Dominican life which allowed for mitigations in the observance for the sake of the primary end of the order, preaching. In 1852, the issue of the night office brought the two superiors into open conflict. Jandel believed that, according to the constitutions, the office of Matins could be celebrated no later than three a.m. Lacordaire had instructed the friars of his province to celebrate that office at four a.m. in order to allow for adequate sleep, given the demands of their ministries. Jandel then informed the superiors in the French province that he was revoking Lacordaire's directive.
In 1852, Lacordaire, who had always been concerned about the religious education of the young, founded a men's community of Third Order Dominican teachers. Two years later, he accepted responsibility on behalf of the Dominicans for an historic boys' college at Sorèze near Toulouse. He made himself the head of that school, a post that he held for the rest of his life. When his term as provincial ended in 1854, he became more deeply involved in the direction of the college while continuing to do some preaching. He was elected provincial for the second time in 1858. His failing health led to his resignation as provincial in August 1861. On Nov. 21, 1861, he died at Sorèze.
Bibliography: h. lacordaire, Essay on the Re-Establishment in France of the Order of Preachers (Mémoire pour le Rétablissement en France de l'Ordre des Frères Precheurs), ed. s. tugwell (Chicago 1983); La liberté de la parole évangélique: écrits, conférences, lettres, textes choisis et présentés par a. duval et j.-p. jossua (Paris 1996). p. batts, "Lacordaire's Understanding of 'Restoration' in Relation to his Refounding of the Dominican Order in 19th Century France" (D.Th. diss., St. Paul University [Ottawa] 1999). b. bonvin, Lacordaire-Jandel, la Restauration de l'Ordre Dominicain en France après la Revolution (Paris 1989). b. chocarne, The Inner Life of Père Lacordaire, trans. a. drane (New York 1879). j. t. foisset, Vie du R. P. Lacordaire, 2 vols. (Paris 1870). h. d. noble, La vocation dominicaine du P. Lacordaire (Paris 1914). l. c. sheppard, Lacordaire: A Biographical Essay (New York 1964).
[p. m. batts]