FORBIN-JANSON, CHARLES-AUGUSTE-MARIE-JOSEPH DE, Roman Catholic priest; b. 3 Nov. 1785 in Paris, second son of Michel-Palamède de Forbin-Janson, Comte de Forbin-Janson, and his wife Cornélie-Henriette-Sophie-Louise-Hortense-Gabrielle Galléan, Princesse de Galléan; d. 11 July 1844 in the château of Guilhermy, near Marseilles, France.
A descendant of one of the greatest noble families in Provence, Charles-Auguste-Marie-Joseph de Forbin-Janson emigrated to Bavaria with his parents during the French revolution. Subsequently he went to Switzerland, spent some time in Paris in 1795, returned to Bavaria, and did not reappear in France until 1800. His family strongly supported the royalist cause. He remained convinced that the revolution had been caused by the conspiracies of freemasons and republicans.
Forbin-Janson reluctantly accepted the Napoleonic régime when in 1805 he took a post as a junior official (auditeur) with the Conseil d’État. But at the same time he joined the Congrégation de la Sainte-Vierge, a religious association organized in Paris in 1801. After it was dissolved by Napoleon in 1809, Forbin-Janson joined the Chevaliers de la Foi, a royalist secret society founded by Ferdinand de Bertier in Paris in 1810.
Forbin-Janson had by then become a seminarist. Because of the hostilities instigated by Napoleon against Pope Pius VII he had given up his career in government, and in 1808 had entered the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Paris. There he joined a secret devotional society of Jesuit inspiration. At that time there was a group of young clerics at Saint-Sulpice who were caught up in the idea of missionary work, and the impetuous Forbin-Janson was afire with these visions. He became close friends with Charles-Joseph-Eugène de Mazenod, who entertained similar dreams.
Forbin-Janson was ordained at Chambéry on 15 Dec. 1811. He became superior of the Grand Séminaire de Chambéry. As acting vicar general, he went to Rome in 1814, and there, after consulting Pius VII, he was persuaded to give up the hope of going to China and to dedicate himself instead to the re-evangelization of France, which in his eyes had become a godless country as a result of the revolution’s excesses. With Abbé David de Rauzan, he established the Société des Missions de France, based at Mont Valérien, to the west of Paris. This was the starting-point of the famous Restoration missions. Forbin-Janson, a man gifted with extraordinary facility in speaking, prodigiously active, and convinced that the restoration of religion was inseparable from restoration of the monarchy, drew on his burning zeal and fertile imagination to organize numerous dramatic religious demonstrations at which, according to his biographer Paul Lesourd, “political clericalism” was given free rein. The climax of a mission was the raising of a Calvary. Forbin-Janson had a great attachment to the huge cross on Mont Valérien, visible from Paris and the favourite place of pilgrimage for Parisians.
Church historian Jean Leflon has aptly characterized his activity within the Société des Missions de France: “Forbin-Janson more than anyone else, it must be admitted, overdid the boisterous spectacles for which he was often criticized; more than anyone else he sought grand effects, and combined the cause of the monarchy with that of the church from a sincere conviction that without the monarchy religion could not survive. Discretion was not his greatest virtue, and he was more than once found to be lacking in judgement. Authoritarian, unyielding, autocratic, he did not acknowledge differences of temperament, or [the need for] precautions or nuances; no obstacle stopped him, no set-back taught him a lesson.”
On 21 Nov. 1823 Forbin-Janson, who was much in the public eye, was named bishop of Nancy and Toul and primate of Lorraine. He was consecrated in the chapel on Mont Valérien on 6 June 1824. In Lesourd’s opinion he had none of the qualities needed to make a good bishop. Temperamentally unsuited to stay quietly within the narrow confines of a diocese, impatient of all administrative constraints, tyrannical, and abrupt in his dealings with his priests, he preferred to surround himself with colleagues from the Missions de France. He incurred the hostility not only of his clergy but also of the civil authorities, and of the public, where liberal opinion opposed to the government’s reactionary policy predominated. Consequently, when during the revolution of July 1830 the fall of Charles X was announced, the seminary and the bishop’s palace were sacked by rioters, and Bishop Forbin-Janson, away on a round of visits for confirmations, had to resign himself to leaving the diocese. He thought his absence would be temporary, but it proved permanent because the July monarchy of Louis-Philippe, rightly considering him a resolute adversary, refused steadfastly to allow him to return to Nancy despite his repeated requests. He received another severe blow when his political enemies destroyed the Calvary on Mont Valérien, to which he had devoted much attention and money.
Now at liberty, Forbin-Janson travelled about France preaching in retreats upon the request of bishops and superiors of religious communities. As he was in close sympathy with the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which had been founded to aid missionaries in the United States, his thoughts turned to North America. He was, in fact, receiving a steady stream of invitations from compatriots holding episcopal office there. He went to Rome, where Pope Gregory XVI approved his plan to go overseas and even entrusted him with an official mission.
On 18 Oct. 1839 Bishop Forbin-Janson landed in New York. In that era the spectacular missions through which Forbin-Janson had gained fame in France had their parallels in the revivals, both Protestant and Catholic, of the United States. As American historian Jay Patrick Dolan has shown, the religion of revivalism “was not exclusively a Protestant enterprise, but . . . also swept through Catholic America” and found its expression around 1830 in parish missions lasting one or more weeks. The initiators of these missions were mainly European Jesuits and Redemptorists, so that the tradition of European Catholicism in this field was linked with the practice of American Protestantism. The message delivered was evangelical in nature: the denunciation of sin, the threat of hell, repentance, conversion. But this evangelicalism, whose characteristics were also to be found in Protestant revivalism, had a specifically Catholic aspect: repentance was to lead to confession, and then to the Eucharist. It was a sacramental form of evangelicalism. Dolan also points out the further difference that the religion preached in the missions was strongly individualistic. It gave priority to a system of morality that taught submission, acceptance, and passivity in social and political matters, unlike the Protestant revival, which looked to prospects of success and progress.
Bishop Forbin-Janson’s activity in North America was thus part of an endeavour that would continue into the 20th century. After spending a little time in New York, where he came to the realization that his compatriots had no church to call their own, he initiated the building of a church dedicated to St Vincent de Paul. Then, travelling by way of Philadelphia and St Louis, he went to New Orleans, where he delivered the Lenten sermons in 1840. In a letter to a friend he noted that their success “exceeded all expectations,” despite his apprehensions, which had been roused by the existence of “eight or ten masonic lodges.” “In this Babylon of the New World,” these organizations kept “almost all men enchained,” and mounted an opposition to him that found expression in a hostile press and “anti-preaching” scenes at the very doors of the cathedral where he spoke.
After attending the fourth Provincial Council of Baltimore, held from 16 to 24 May 1840, Forbin-Janson gave free rein to the wanderlust that was well suited to his apostolic zeal, and set off again northwards, visiting various cities in the United States and Upper Canada. Next he went to Quebec, where he gave his first sermon on Sunday, 6 Sept. 1840, in the cathedral. There followed a two-week retreat with 5,000–6,000 participants regularly attending the daily sermons, each about an hour and a half long; as in the United States, it ended with the founding of a temperance society as a collective social commitment.
Many historians have examined the situation of French Canada at that time; they have remarked on the political exhaustion following the crisis of the 1830s, the apathy to religion, largely a result of the numerical and doctrinal insufficiencies of the clergy, and the upsurge of Protestant proselytism, a product of the zeal displayed since 1834 by French-speaking Swiss ministers and the founding in 1839 of the French Canadian Missionary Society [see Henriette Odin*]. Bishop Forbin-Janson’s stirring eloquence brought about a salutary reaction, or rather a religious revival which, bearing in mind the differences already noted, was similar to those south of the border. As a victim of the French revolution and the July revolution, which had had an influence on the rebellion of 1837–38 in Lower Canada, the French prelate by his very presence could only fix more firmly in people’s minds an apprehension of the misfortunes such upheavals produced. Furthermore, as an intransigent reactionary, he would prepare the way for the ultramontane clericalism that Bishop Ignace Bourget* of Montreal would use to full advantage in both the religious and the political sphere.
Forbin-Janson had agreed to preach also in Bourget’s diocese, and from the start of his preaching Bourget had seen his success at Quebec as a sign. As Bourget wrote to his clergy on 6 Oct. 1840, “Divine Providence has sent us the bishop of Nancy to create here what he has instituted to such advantage elsewhere.” To give the sermons more lasting impact and value, the French example of publishing reports of the Restoration missions was followed. Thus in December 1840 a weekly paper was launched, Prémices des “Mélanges religieux”, which from the end of January 1841 was titled Mélanges religieux [see Jean-Charles Prince*].
It would be tedious to give a detailed account of Bishop Forbin-Janson’s prodigious activity in Trois-Rivières, Montreal, and the surrounding region, or at New York, where he returned periodically to preach and to monitor progress in the building of the church to St Vincent de Paul. Suffice it to say that in his sermons he employed the spectacular methods adopted during the Restoration. Wishing to call forth an act of faith, he would try to secure it as the outcome of the anguish and terror he created, in effect seeking an emotional acquiescence that often ran counter to a freely willed acceptance of the message. Forbin-Janson’s theatrical eloquence drew immense crowds, and in letters to, friends and in L’Ami de la religion, the quasi-official journal of the French clergy, he did not shy away from dithyrambic accounts of miracles of contrition (never were so many tears shed as during those weeks of retreats!), submissiveness, and fervent sympathy which consoled him for the disappointments suffered in his ungrateful native land.
The supreme consolation of Forbin-Janson’s apostolate in Lower Canada and his sweetest revenge was the raising of an immense cross on Mont Saint-Hilaire that was a happy counterpart to the one on Mont Valérien which had been destroyed. He wanted to make it an imposing monument that would be at once religious and national. Through a skilled Belœil carpenter and voluntary labour parties the 100-foot cross sheathed with metal was finally raised. Its shaft 6 feet wide and 4 feet through was lit through openings and people could climb ladders to the top. The cross was inaugurated and blessed with great ceremony on 6 Oct. 1841.
This was the crowning achievement of an apostolate that Bishop Forbin-Janson had carried out at a furious pace in some 60 localities from Lower Canada to the Maritimes. His frenzied labour, on top of the journeys he had made over vast stretches of the United States, had exhausted him. He had a premonition that his days were numbered when he sailed from New York on 8 Dec. 1841 for Europe.
Bishop Forbin-Janson was returning with a glowing memory of his “dear Canadians with their hearts of gold and their silver steeples.” This ardent legitimist, knight errant of the Bourbons, and reactionary supporter of the ancien régime against revolutionary liberals who had laid waste his homeland and destroyed his career as a bishop, had in Montreal turned his attention to the fate of the Patriotes whom agitators, acting on principles that raised his hackles, had led astray and who, after being imprisoned and sentenced to transportation, on 28 Sept. 1839 had taken the road to exile. Before leaving, the French prelate had waited in vain for the arrival of Governor Sir Charles Bagot to plead their cause. Back in Europe, he considered that efforts there might have more chance of being effective, and on 15 Aug. 1842 he went to London. His intervention with the colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, on behalf of his “poor Canadians,” probably was, as he believed, what set in motion the measures of clemency that brought an initial group of 38 exiles back to their native soil in January 1845.
Forbin-Janson’s trip to England had been preceded by one to Rome in January 1842. To reward him for the marvellous achievements of his apostolate in North America, news of which had reached him, Gregory XVI named him an assistant to the papal throne and a Roman count. But the pope was unwilling to involve himself in the dispute between Louis-Philippe’s government and the bishop who, blind to all opposition, was stubbornly intent upon returning to his diocese. Refusing once more to resign, Forbin-Janson would die with the official title of bishop of Nancy.
When he returned from Rome, Forbin-Janson nurtured a plan to establish a charitable work that would interest Christian children in Europe in the fate of the young Chinese. He thought of attaching it to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, but the central council of that body at Lyon thought the project would be in competition with its own efforts. He therefore had to resign himself to founding a separate, independent organization, the Œuvre Pontificale de la Sainte-Enfance, on 19 May 1843. From then on he devoted his declining strength to travelling around France and Belgium securing approval from bishops and collecting subscriptions. Only utter exhaustion put an end to this consuming zeal. He made up his mind to go south, to rest at his brother’s home near Marseilles. And he, who in so many terrifying sermons had preached on the need to prepare for death, was himself taken by surprise, without the sacraments or a will, on 11 July 1844. He was buried in the cemetery of Picpus in Paris, which was reserved for the members of the nobility who had been beheaded, their descendants, and their connections. Right to the tomb Bishop Forbin-Janson protested against the crimes of the revolution. By a strange paradox, it was Dominican Henri Lacordaire, a priest persuaded by political realism to oppose completely the deceased bishop’s reactionary attitude, who was called upon to deliver the eulogy in the cathedral of Nancy on 28 Aug. 1844.
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