THE sudden death of Henry IV left France in a renewed disorder, many-rooted in the struggle of the nobles against the monarchy, of the middle classes against the aristocracy, of the Catholics against the Huguenots, of the clergy against the state, of the young King Louis XIII against his mother, and of France against Austria and Spain. The fascinating and demonic genius who resolved all this chaos into order, defeated the feudal reaction, pacified the Huguenots, subordinated the Church to the state, saved Protestant Germany from collapse, broke the power of the encompassing Hapsburgs, and raised the French monarchy to domestic omnipotence and European supremacy was a Catholic priest, the greatest, subtlest, and most ruthless statesman in the history of France.

It was part of Henry’s tragedy that at his death his heir, Louis XIII, was a helpless boy of eight, and that the widow to whom he had left the regency was a woman of more courage than intelligence, willing to surrender the government to Italian favorites provided she might enjoy the sweets of life in swelling amplitude. She abandoned Henry’s plan of a war to the death against the Hapsburgs; on the contrary, she allied France with Spain by marrying her children to those of Philip III—her son Louis to Anne of Austria, her daughter Elizabeth to the future Philip IV. The will of Richelieu was to prove stronger than this mingled blood.

Henry and Sully had left 41,345,000 livres in the treasury. Concino Concini, his wife Leonora Galigai, the Duke of Épernon, and other thirsty courtiers gathered around this hoard and prepared to consume it. Sully protested but was overruled; he resigned in disgust, retired to his estates, and wrote memoirs of his beloved King.

The nobles saw in the corrupt incompetence of the central government a chance to restore their old feudal sovereignties. They demanded and obtained a convocation of the States-General, assuming that it would be, as usually in the past, their voice and weapon against the monarchy. But when it met, at Paris in October 1614, they were disconcerted by the strength and the proposals of the Third Estate—the untitled, untonsured mass of the people, represented then, as now, by lawyers, and expressing the power and the wishes of the middle class. Nobles and clergy, rating birth and ointment above wealth and law, challenged the new heritability of judicial offices, which was creating a rival nobility of the robe. The tiers état retaliated by asking for an investigation of the spacious gifts and pensions recently received by nobles from the government; it called for the correction of abuses in the Church; it objected to the application, in France, of the rigorous decrees of the Council of Trent; it demanded that the clergy be subject to the same laws and courts as the laity, that a check be put upon the further acquisition of realty by the untaxable Church, and that the clergy baptize, marry, and bury the people without charge; finally, it defended the absolute authority and divine right of the king over the claims of nobles to rule him and of the popes to depose him. This was an unexpected revolution. The troublesome delegates were placated with promises, and the assembly was dissolved (March 1615). The promises were for the most part forgotten, peculation and mismanagement were resumed, and no further States-General was called until monarchy, nobility, and clergy alike collapsed in 1789.

Nevertheless the French Catholic clergy now honored itself with sincere and effective self-reform. It was not always responsible for the abuses that disordered the Church, since many of these stemmed from the appointment of bishops and abbots by kings or nobles half pagan in life and sometimes skeptical in creed.1 Henry IV gave Huguenot Sully four monasteries for his private support, and made his mistress “Corisande” abbess of Châtillon-sur-Seine. Noble lords bestowed episcopacies, abbacies, and nunneries upon their younger sons, their illegitimate children, their brave soldiers, their favorite women. As the reform decrees of the Council of Trent were not yet accepted in France, there were few seminaries for the training of priests; any tonsured youth who could read the Latin missal and acquire the elements of liturgy was eligible for the sacerdotal office; and many bishops, who had been easy-living men of the world before being rewarded with sees, appointed to pastorates men of little education and less holiness. “The name of priest,” said a priest, “has become the synonym for ignorance and debauchery.”2 “The worst enemies of the Church,” said St. Vincent de Paul, “are her unworthy priests.”3

Père Bourdoise attacked the moral side of the problem by establishing (1610) the Communauté des Prêtres, which required all the priests of a parish to live together in simplicity and fidelity to their vows. In 1611 Père de Bérulle founded the Congregation of the Oratory, on the model of a similar foundation by St. Philip Neri in Italy; it became a seminary for training young priests to better education and dedication. In 1641 Fere Jean Jacques Olier organized the Sulpician order to prepare men for the priesthood, and in 1646 he opened the seminary and church of St.-Sulpice in Paris. In 1643 Père Jean (St. John) Eudes formed the Congregation of Jesus and Mary to fit men for the priesthood and missions. So were formed Bossuet, Bourdaloue, and Malebranche of the next generations, and the power and splendor of the Church under Louis XIV.

New religious orders revealed and revived the piety of the people. The Ursuline nuns entered France toward 1600 and undertook the education of girls; within a century they had 1,000 houses and 350 congregations. The Order of the Brothers of Mercy, founded (1540) in Spain by Juan de Dios (St. John of God), was welcomed into France by Marie de Médicis and soon provided thirty hospitals. In 1610 Jeanne Frémiot, Baroness of Chantai (St. Chantal), helped by François de Sales (St. Francis of Sales), established the Congregation of the Visitation of Our Lady for the care of the sick and the poor; by 1640 it had a hundred convents; by 1700 one branch alone had four hundred nunneries. All in all there were in France in 1600 some eighty thousand nuns.4

Two men stand out with special prominence in this Catholic revival of the seventeenth century. François de Sales took part of his name from the town of his birth, near Annecy, in Savoy. He studied law at Padua and became an official of the Savoy Senate. But religion was in his blood; he was ordained a priest, and undertook (1594) the difficult task of winning back to Catholicism the Chablais region, south of Lake Geneva, which had been Calvinist since 1535. In five years the mission was accomplished, partly by exiling the unconverted, but mostly by François’ persuasive piety, patience, and tact. Raised to a bishopric, he gave himself to teaching children and adults. When he visited Paris highborn women fell reverently in love with him, and for a time piety became fashionable.

The career of Vincent de Paul followed less traditional grooves. He began as a swineherd, but somehow he found his way to a Franciscan college in Gascony. His father, longing, like every Catholic parent, to get his family into Paradise by dedicating a child to the Church, sold a yoke of oxen to send his boy to study theology at the University of Toulouse. There Vincent was ordained priest (1600). On a voyage in the Mediterranean he was captured by pirates, and he was sold as a slave in Tunis. He escaped, went to Paris, served King Henry’s divorced Margot as chaplain, and then became spiritual director to Mme. de Gondi. With funds provided by this lady he organized missions among the peasantry; after nearly every mission he established a conférence de charité for the relief of the local poor; and to provide for the continuance of these foundations he organized the Congregation of the Priests of the Mission—often called the Lazarists from the Priory of St. Lazarus that served as their headquarters in Paris. As M. de Gondi was commandant of the French galleys, Vincent took to preaching to the galley convicts. Shocked by their hard-ships and diseases, he opened hospitals for them at Paris and Marseille, and aroused the conscience of France to better treatment of the prisoners. He persuaded well-to-do women to give periodic service in the hospitals; he raised large sums for charitable distribution; and to administer these, and help his “Ladies of Charity,” he organized (1633) the Sisters (whom he preferred to call the Daughters) of Charity—now serving humanity and their Church in many quarters of the world.

Physically unattractive, poorly garbed, resembling some wrinkled, bearded rabbi, “Monsieur Vincent,” by his labors for the poor, the sick, the criminal, won the hearts of nearly all who knew him. He collected great sums, established hospitals, asylums, seminaries, homes for the aged, retreats for laymen and priests; volumes have swollen with accounts of his benefactions. During the Fronde of 1648–53 and the blockade of Paris he supervised the feeding of fifteen thousand destitute persons; here, however, dogma overcame charity, and he required a confession of Catholic faith as a condition of receiving food.5 He joined in the campaign against Port-Royal, but tried to soften the persecution of its nuns.6 When he died, half of Paris mourned him; and satisfaction was universal when the Church (1737) enrolled him among her saints.

Through him, and François de Sales, and the undiscourageable Jesuits, and the ardent service of innumerable women, French Catholicism experienced under Louis XIII a rebirth of vigor and devotion. Old monastic orders returned to their rules; nunneries reformed themselves; now began Port-Royal and its Jansenist saints. Mysticism found new advocates and practitioners of absorption in direct contemplation of God. The young King, caught in the fervor of the age, solemnly placed France under the protection of the Virgin Mary, “in order,” said the royal edict, “that all his loyal subjects might be received into Paradise … such being his good will and pleasure.”7 Watchmen continued, as in medieval France, to awaken the Parisians each morning with a call to prayer for the departed dead:

Réveillez vous, gens qui dormez,

Priez Dieu pour les trépassés.8

But the conflict of creeds continued bitterly. Marie de Médicis adhered faithfully, despite her piety, to the Edict of Nantes, but neither Catholics nor Huguenots were disposed to tolerance. The Pope, his nuncio, and the Catholic clergy denounced the government for permitting heresy. Where Catholics dominated they disrupted Protestant services, destroyed Protestant churches, homes, sometimes lives;9 children were forcibly taken from Huguenot parents on the ground that the parents prevented them from fulfilling their desire to become Catholics.10 Where Protestants dominated they retaliated in kind. They excluded the Mass from some 250 towns under their rule;11 they demanded that the government prohibit Catholic processions in Protestant territory; they ridiculed, disturbed, sometimes attacked such processions; they forbade Protestants to attend Catholic baptisms, marriages, or funerals; and their ministers declared that they would withhold the Sacrament from parents whose children married Catholics.12 Said a famous freethinker, “While the Catholics were theoretically more bigoted than the Protestants, the Protestants became more bigoted than the Catholics.”13 The preachers rivaled the Catholic clergy in suppressing heresy and criticism; they excommunicated and “delivered up to Satan” (but did not burn) Jérémie Ferrier for having made fun of ecclesiastical assemblies; and their writings attacked Catholicism in “works which, for bitterness of feeling, have hardly ever been equaled, and which it would certainly be impossible to surpass.”14 Fearing repeal of the Edict of Nantes, and resenting the alliance of France with Spain, the Huguenots strove to make their part of France politically independent and militarily secure, with its own army and its own laws.

When Louis XIII visited Pau (1620) he was shocked to find not one Catholic church in which to perform his devotions.15 The young King looked with alarmed resentment upon a faith that threatened to divide not merely the soul but also the body of France. He searched anxiously, amid his court, for a man with enough iron in his blood to transform this sundering chaos of creeds and powers into a strong and united nation.

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