Part Four: A Tale of Two Frenchmen
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney. Two men who could not have been more different, who never met, and yet whose lives were intertwined in such a way as to presage nineteenth century France. Jean Vianney was born in 1786, three years almost to the date before Louis XVI called the Estates-General and sparked the French Revolution. Talleyrand attended that assembly. He was thirty-two years old and riding high.
Talleyrand was born into nobility in 1754. His childhood was uneventful except for an accident which tumbled a heavy chest of drawers upon his leg and left him slightly lame the rest of his life. At sixteen, he was sent to St. Sulpice, that great seminary in Paris. He was ordained to the priesthood by his uncle, the archbishop of Rheims and two years later, at the age of twenty-six became the “agent-general” for all the clergy of France. It was the same year that he was inducted into the secret society of Freemasonry.
In 1788 Talleyrand was named bishop of Autun. This was done through the favor of King Louis XVI, whom Talleyrand would abandon one year later. It set a pattern. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord rode the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and its aftermath with the skill of a kayaker on a rated stream. He was always just one step ahead of disaster. So when things turned ugly at Versailles during the Estates-General of 1789 and the Third Estate revolted and declared itself a National Assembly, one of the first nobles to break ranks was Bishop Talleyrand.
When the National Assembly was forced to move to Paris, Talleyrand went along. He was one of only seven French bishops who signed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. When the Paris government turned on its own church in 1793, Talleyrand had already escaped abroad. He was a Republican émigré among monarchist émigré. Three years later, when a more conservative, business-oriented government, the Directory, was formed, Talleyrand was invited to return to France and act as its Foreign Minister. This he did with distinction and with an extraordinary income which came from bribes.
In 1799, the forty-five year old former bishop, now Foreign Minister lent his name and his fame to French general when he overthrew the Directory government in the Coup d’Etat de Brumaire. In gratitude Napoleon allowed Talleyrand to continue as Foreign Minister of his new government. It was Talleyrand who negotiated the Concordat of 1801 with Cardinal Consalvi and in gratitude for his serve Talleyrand was laicized by Pope Pius VII in 1802.
But what of little Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney? While Talleyrand was negotiating with potentates and princes throughout Europe, John Vianney was sent to a new school in town. It had just been established by the pastor, Father Balley, and was intended to help boys prepare for seminary study. Father Balley saw in little John the flicker of a vocation. But the priest soon realized that Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney was not the brightest candle in the candelabra. He assigned another child, Mattias Loras to tutor his friend in Latin. Mattias had little success in teaching Latin to John Vianney, though he would eventually leave France and find fulfillment in becoming the founding bishop of the diocese of Dubuque, Iowa.
While John struggled with the declensions and conjugations, Talleyrand hammered out the elements of the Treaty of Tilsit, which both Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander signed. In effect, it divided Europe between them, Napoleon getting all the good stuff. The emperor added a new title to Talleyrand’s already long resume. He was called “Vice-General-Elector.” Police chief Fouche noted, “until that time it was the only vice he did not have.”
But even the Vice-General-Elector could not hold Europe together for Napoleon. Russia, and the Papal States, refused to join his Continental System to punish economically the British. Guerrilla wars broke out in various countries. A serious was erupted in Spain. Young men were drafted and army was sent.
One such youth was John Vianney. Drafted and put in uniform he and his unit prepared to march off to Spain. The boy thought that it would be good for him to call on some divine protection and so he went to the local church to pray. Returning to the barracks a little later he found the building empty. The unit had marched off and left him behind. John ran and found a recruiting officer and reported the whole affair. The soldier gave John over to an even younger boy who knew the district. He would guide him to his unit. Instead, the child took John Vianney to a little mountain village, Noes. There a band of deserters hid out with the aid of the town mayor. The mayor welcomed John, assured him that he would be safe, and when he discovered that the youth had some schooling he appointed John Vianney school master of Noes. After fourteen months it was safe to go back home, though John’s father considered the whole affair a disgrace upon the family name.
Whether John Vianney was an army deserter or a misled youth who found himself in compromising circumstances is open to debate. For sure, he was not the only one to desert the emperor’s cause. While John Vianney was squirreled away at Noes, Talleyrand was parlaying with the emperor’s enemies, joining forces with the exiled Louis XVIII and the Bourbons. Napoleon fired him.
John Vianney returned to his studies, stood for his entrance exam to the seminary and failed it. On a second try he barely passed. The seminary was a cruel experience for John but he never wavered and was always supported by Father Balley, his old pastor. Finally, at age twenty-nine John Vianney was ordained by the Bishop of Grenoble. His first assignment was to assist Father Balley.
John Vianney was now in his element. He was a priest, serving God and serving the Church. Talleyrand was also in his element. He was an honored guest at the Austrian court where he joined former enemies, now allies, in creating a new Europe at the Congress of Vienna. He secured equal status for France at these talks. His eloquence caused former enemies to forget the twenty-six years of war and struggle and to look to an international cooperative union called the Concert of Europe. Prince Talleyrand would remain the rest of his life one of the five or six shakers and movers of European affairs.
Father Vianney? True to form he failed an exam which would have allowed him further studies. And in 1818 Father Balley died. Not knowing what else to do with this simple-minded priest, the bishop assigned him to the village of Ars, near Lyon to live out his life as an obscure country priest. He was thirty-two years old.
But John Vianney had gifts that only Father Balley had seen. He had deep spiritual insight and lived a life of virtue naturally. He saw a need to care for destitute girls in the area and helped to establish a congregation of sisters, the Helpers of the Holy Souls, to assist in this cause. Together with Mother Marie de la Providence he founded a home called La Providence for these girls.
John Vianney’s reputation as a spiritual director spread to Lyon and beyond. His catechism classes for children drew their parents as well. Eventually the church was filled with adults and children eager to learn about their faith, and that from a man who barely passed seminary.
In 1830 the Bourbon successor of Louis XVIII, Charles X, was turned out during the July Revolution. He was replaced by another king, Louis-Philippe, an Orleanists. He was backed by Prince Talleyrand, now seventy-six. To reward the old man the king named him French ambassador to Great Britain. In 1834, the eighty year old Talleyrand took to his deathbed. He called for a priest and received the Last Rites. The man who had bested King Louis XVI, the radical revolutionaries, the Directory, Napoleon, the Allies, and Charles X now bested the devil too.
Back in France, Father John Vianney was told by his bishop that he would no longer be required to attend the annual priests’ retreat as it would deprive so many of his spiritual services, “souls waiting him yonder.” In the last years of his life as many as 20,000 pilgrims made their way each year to Ars to seek the advise of John Vianney and to go to confession to him.
He died on August 4, 1859 and was declared by Pope Pius IX as “venerable” fifteen years later. In 1905 Pope Pius X beatified him and declared him a model for all parochial clergy. In 1925 the cure of Ars was canonized by Pope Pius XI. John Vianney had lived in a land of turmoil and violence, a land of persecution. And yet he was part of the revival of the Church which would shine brightly through the century, drawing countless souls to God. During his lifetime there would be many other saints and there would be three apparitions of the Blessed Virgin. Mary was moving in the land.