Saint-Sulpice in History

The Society of Saint Sulpice at the heart of the revolutionary instability

The period of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799 and beyond remained an often tragic time for the Catholic Church, which the Society of Saint Sulpice survived, but not without its own trials. How did the Society’s members experience this troubled time? What were the bases for recommencing the Society’s ministry after the signing of the Concordat between the French Republic and the Holy See in 1801?

Beginning in 1782, the Superior General of the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice, was Father Jacques-André Emery. A moralist and canon lawyer by formation, he knew how to reform the Major Seminary of Paris, which his predecessors since the middle of the 18th century had always found impossible to accomplish. The force of his temperament and his vigorous ascetical life, coupled with his capacity to know perfectly how to plan ahead, permitted him to have increasing authority with his contemporaries. He very quickly perceived the dangers of the Civil Constitution for the Clergy, voted on the 12th of July 1790 and approved by King Louis XVI on August 24th of the same year. With the triumph of Gallican and Jansenist ideas, he saw in it an evident risk of dividing the Church. In his mind, the principle of remaining tied to the Bishop of Rome, advocated by Father Jean-Jacques Olier, could not be called into question. This principle must have been well established among the Sulpicians, because several months later Father Emery rejoiced that no member of the Society had taken the oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution.

The Vatican II Council has been labeled by the historian John O’Malley, S.J. “the biggest meeting in the history of the world.” We Sulpicians rejoice in the remembrance today of “good Pope John,” as he is often called. We also have reason to celebrate the participation of some of the members of the Society of Saint Sulpice in the historic event of Vatican II.

Most significant among the Sulpician participants of Vatican II was Cardinal Paul-Émile LÉGER (1904-1991), the Archbishop of Montreal. He became a major voice for reform at the time of the council. We will recall some of the details of his participation in a later article.

From France, a significant figure was the Archbishop of Strasbourg, Jean-Julien WEBER (1888-1981), a biblical scholar who was instrumental in getting the Dominican scholar Yves Congar invited to the council as a peritus. Weber also made several contributions to the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.

Symbol of Service to the Universal Church

Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement on the Feast of the Epiphany of an upcoming consistory to create twenty-two new cardinals provides a convenient backdrop for some Sulpician history.

Throughout its 370 years of existence, some people have remarked that the Society of Saint Sulpice’s influence historically has extended beyond what our small size might imply. This is largely due to our specific ministry of initial and ongoing formation of priests.

Normally, the Society eschews the acceptance of ecclesiastical honors. Our founder, Father Jean-Jacques OLIER himself, refused to be named a bishop several times. Yet in Sulpician history numerous confreres have been named bishops by the Holy See. Some of them were founders of dioceses and became quite influential in the Church. Though it was never expected than any Sulpician would become a cardinal - a prince of the Church - five Sulpicians, in fact, have been so honored. We will take a closer look at these five figures in chronological order.