Home > Archives > 10 - 2010 > The Pontifical French Seminary at the crossroads of history
from issue no. 10 - 2010


The Pontifical French Seminary at the crossroads of history

by Pina Baglioni

Father Louis-Marie Lannurien, founder of the Pontifical French Seminary

Father Louis-Marie Lannurien, founder of the Pontifical French Seminary

The Pontificium Seminarium Gallicum is little more than a century and a half old. But before the gate, at 42 Via di Santa Chiara in Rome, halfway between the Pantheon and the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, history has run in spate: the 4,800 French seminarians who lived within these walls, have seen Papal Rome, the Rome of the Unification, Fascist and Republican Rome all parade before them. While in France the Second Empire, the Third Republic, the Vichy regime, the Fourth and Fifth Republic followed on one another. And, in this extraordinary sequence of events, students little more than teenagers were forced to abandon their studies and march to the battlefields during the Franco-Prussian War, the First and the Second World War.
Administered from its foundation by the fathers of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit as a bulwark of papal authority, it was one of the most significant outposts of ultramontanism, the current in nineteenth-century French Catholicism that “looked over the mountains”, i.e. at the Pope as the sole and undisputed authority within the Church. In opposition to neo-gallicanism, which instead defended the particularity of the traditions of the French Church, especially in the liturgical sphere, and whose representatives were active in Rome at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
Pope Pius IX immediately showed great interest in the French Seminary. So much so that on 14 July 1859, with the bull In sublimi Principis, he ratified canonical approval and engaged to be “protector forever”. The apparitions of Mary in the grotto of Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 strengthened the bond.
A few years later, between 1868 and 1870, the house on Via di Santa Chiara was to lodge some fifty guests, including bishops and theologians, come for Vatican I. All of them took a stance in favor of papal infallibility, the central theme of the Council. In opposition to the faction against infallibility, barricaded elsewhere, in Palazzo Rospigliosi and Palazzo Grazioli.
On 20 June 1902 the Seminary was given the title of “Pontifical” by Pope Leo XIII. In that period Father Henri Le Floch arrived in Rome as rector. Out of his ultra-conservative beliefs, he transformed the seminary into the Italian annex of Action française, founded by Charles Maurras, of whom the rector declared himself a fervent admirer. Under Father Le Floch an extraordinary increase in the number of seminarians occurred: while in 1904 there were 100, shortly before the outbreak of World War I they had already grown to 140, and by 1926 had reached 207, a record never again achieved in the history of the Seminary.
But admiration for Action française was to be fatal for Father Le Floch: on 8 September 1926 Pope Pius XI launched a public condemnation of the movement. From that moment it was no longer possible for Catholics to join the movement, or read its publications, considered dangerous for the faith and the upbringing of young people. Father Le Floch resigned from his post as rector and his resignation was immediately accepted by the Pope. He left Rome on 20 July 1927, leaving his seminarians in confusion. One of them in particular, Marcel Lefebvre, a student at the Seminary since 1923, a great admirer of Father Le Floch and the ideas of Charles Maurras.
After the ultramontanism of the first decades and the ultraconservatism of the period of Father Le Floch, the French Seminary was to become one of the liveliest workshops for renewal of the Church during the Second Vatican Council, thanks to figures such as the archbishop of Toulouse, Cardinal Gabriel-Marie Garrone. He was a capable organizer of the preparatory phase of the Council, and helped draft the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. Among the many French bishops who came to Rome for the Council, 44 were former students of the Seminary. Among them were the Archbishop of Dakar, the already mentioned Marcel Lefebvre, and Alfred Ancel, Auxiliary Bishop of Lyon. Trained under the same roof in the ’twenties, they were to experience different fates: from 1962 on, the former affirmed a radical critique of the Council, the consequences of which would lead in 1976 to suspension a divinis and excommunication in 1988; the latter was to bring his pastoral experience with the workers of Lyon to the attention of the Church.
One episode, perhaps, gives a better picture than others of the atmosphere in the French Seminary in the ’sixties: the arrival in the fall of 1963 of Bartholomew Archondonis, a young Orthodox deacon, sent from Constantinople to Rome by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to complete his studies in Canon Law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. It was the first time, after ten centuries, that an Orthodox had come to study in a Roman Catholic environment and institution. On 28 June 1995 Bartholomew again crossed the threshold on Via di Santa Chiara, in homage to the seminary of his youth. This time as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, during his official visit to Pope John Paul II.
After going through an alarming decrease in students from 1947 on, the Seminary grew back in the early ’sixties, reaching the figure of 108. From 1966 onwards, however, the numbers slowly began to cause concern again, dwindling to 54 in 1970.
One of the reasons for the crisis lay in the fact that some of the seminarians had expressed heated disagreement with the profound changes made in the liturgical sphere after Vatican II. After fruitless attempts to adapt, they decided to join the Saint Pius X Priestly Fraternity founded by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1970, and then his international seminary in Écône, Switzerland. In those same years eight other young Frenchmen departed to join the fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in Genoa by the Greek priest Theodossios Maria della Croce, under the protection of Cardinal Giuseppe Siri. In 1976, however, the reverse phenomenon occurred: some former seminarians and young priests expressed the desire to return to the Pontifical French Seminary because adversely affected by the suspension a divinis of Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre. The process of return to Rome was not simple: at first they were entrusted to the Vincentian Fathers to check the status of their theological studies, so as to prevent them forming an autonomous group in Via di Santa Chiara. But in the end, thanks to the support of their diocesan bishops and the benevolence of Paul VI, they managed to return to Rome.
“We had never resigned ourselves to the break. A break that had, indeed, led to suffering and wounds, but at the same time, had prepared the ground for the idea of a reconciliation in truth, in compliance with the entire conception of the doctrine of the Catholic Church as it was established in Vatican Council II” (Claude Dagens, Formation intellectuelle et mission des prêtres au Séminaire Français de Rome, in 150 ans au cœur de Rome. Le Séminaire Français, 1853-2003, op. cit., pp. 453-454).
To date, the achievement of the Pontifical French Seminary, over its 157 years of existence, is remarkable: of its 4,800 seminarians 195 have been consecrated bishops and 23 cardinals created. Those who figure among the “glories” include Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, Deputy Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, and Bishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations of the Holy See with States.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português