Reasons for the first journey

Colin always insisted that his main reason for going to Rome in 1833 was to fulfil a vow he had made to present the whole Marist plan to the Roman authorities – not necessarily for approval, but for testing and for reaction.

Father David describes the situation:

In 1832 (sic), in Rome, Fr Colin decided to submit to the Holy See the general but complete plan of the Society as he conceived it at that time, that is comprising four branches: the priests, the teaching brothers, the Marist sisters and the Third Order, all under one and the same superior. He wanted thereby to free his conscience of a vow he had made of attending to the foundation of the Society until its plan had been submitted to the very Holy Father. This was so as to fortify himself against a violent temptation of discouragement.  (OM 887:7-8)

Father David makes several significant points:

  • that Colin had made a vow to go to Rome;
  • that he planned to present a broad outline of the Society; third,
  • that he presented the whole Marist project; fourth,
  • that he took the vow in order to strengthen himself against discouragement.

The fact that Colin had made a vow which involved going to Rome was part of early Marist knowledge Mayet, Poupinel, Etienne, Séon, Convers, Maîtrepierre, Lagniet and David all make reference to it in various ways. (OM SH 224:2. 350. 351. 352.)

Colin himself, writing to Champagnat, says that “the purpose of my trip was exclusively to consult with regard to our enterprise, and to fulfil a vow I had made a long time ago of working at the project until it had been submitted to the Sovereign Pontiff. (OM 307)

In his letter to Archbishop de Pins, Colin goes further. He says: “Our intention, my Lord, has always been to submit the said project to our Holy Father the Pope; from the beginning we committed ourselves to that.” (OM 271:5) Gaston Lessard, in a study of this question, puts forward a good working hypothesis which dates the vow as 1819. (cf. “Le voeu d’aller à Rome.” 1986)

Lessard holds that Colin’s vow was to work for the Marist project until it was submitted to the judgement of Rome.

Colin never thought he would be the one to lead the Marist enterprise but, for various reasons, he did consider that he must work at the project until it was presented to the Holy See. Then he would be freed of his responsibility.

It is clear from the texts available that while Colin could have fulfilled his vow by writing to Rome, he regarded it as part of the vow to go there in person.

For Colin the explicit purpose of visiting Rome was to present the broad plan of the Marist project to the authorities – not necessarily to seek approbation of the Congregation. He made it clear that he had no intention of presenting details nor of seeking approval for the project.

Maîtrepierre wrote: “When Fr Colin went to Rome, he did not at all intend to have the Society approved.” (OM 752:38)

The Complete Project “I knew very well that it was not very prudent to present such a gigantic project”, Colin said later, in 1853. In fact his suspicion was well based.

When he looked back on the event, Colin said, “During my first trip to Rome, I presented the Society as a whole, with all its branches; people were dismayed… It seemed to me that everybody would laugh at me… It did not matter… I did not care… I wanted to know what Rome would think.” (Mayet 1:27)

Colin’s decision was to submit the complete plan of the Society, comprising four branches: priests, brothers, sisters and Third Order, all under the one superior.

Fr David also says that a compelling reason for the vow was “to fortify himself against a violent temptation of discouragement“.

One could imagine that this discouragement could have found its origin in two possible sources; one external to Colin, and the other internal.

Colin’s own temperament would have furnished enough internal temptation to discouragement. But on top of that, he would have needed to be strengthened against the external pressures he was feeling from bishops who at first were not encouraging in their attitude to the broad-based project.

Bishop Devie’s main concern was the renewal of his diocese. He had already released two priests from parish duties to form a diocesan missionary band based in Bourg, the largest town in the diocese (OM 354), and what compounded the issue was the newly forming Marist team in Cerdon was very much what Devie had in mind.

Colin, on the other hand, saw Marists as religious who would work in the local church for its renewal; but he also saw them as religious approved by the Pope for service in the Church anywhere in the world.

Bishop Devie applied pressure on Colin to give up what appeared to be his grandiose ideas however when Colin took a vow that if ever the Society had 30 members, he would have three thousand Masses said, Devie realised the importance for Colin that the Society was to be universal or not exist.

In the mean time, however, Devie was not making it easy for Colin.

Maitrepierre wrote that the founder “had vowed to labour at the work of the Blessed Virgin until he had presented it to Rome, but it was impossible to obtain permission to go to the sovereign Pontiff; Bishop Devie even refused him permission to travel to Lyons.” Maitrepierre then adds an interesting comment: “But when the Society was at stake, he felt under the impulse of an authority that was above that of his Bishop. Since he could not obtain permission to leave for Rome to fulfill his vow, he wrote directly to the Pope.” (OM 752)

The Founder felt the need to submit the whole plan to the Holy See, “for the sake of the progress of the enterprise…. Were it only to settle the ideas of our ecclesiastical superiors, some of whom at times want the Society one way, and others another way. (OM 268)

The letter to Rome was handled by Cardinal Macchi, who then wrote to Bishop Devie.

Mayet relates the sequence:  “The Bishop told Fr Colin: “So you want to go to Rome?” Father answered, “My Lord, I vowed that I would labour at this work until the Holy See had manifested what it thought of it.” The Bishop said, “Oh, you had made this vow. I did not know. Go to Rome.” (OM 819)

Fr Colin’s account of the interview with the Bishop puts the whole question of the vow into its context.

In 1842, Colin said to Jean-Marie Millot, before leaving, I told the Bishop: “If you refuse me permission to go to Rome, I will not go; but please, for God’s sake, do not refuse me.”

“Go, since you want to, but you will obtain nothing.”

“I am not going in order to obtain anything. I am going so as to meet an obligation in conscience, a promise I made to God, and, if I obtain nothing, to be free then and be able afterwards to do what I want.”  (OM 524)

It would be misleading to interpret Colin too literally. While he said that the purpose of the voyage was simply to “consult with regard to our enterprise”, without “seeking official approbation”, and that he “would present the rule later on” (OM 307), Colin did not intend to come to Rome empty-handed.

Jean Coste suggests that “it is possible that, prior to the journey, the approbation of the Society was one of the basic reasons for under¬taking the trip, even though the Marist aspirant prudently refrained from saying that they hoped for approbation.” (Lectures. p.94)

Colin had in fact been working on a Rule ever since the Cerdon days, and it was an outline of this that he was to work on in Rome and to present to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars.

He intended to lay before the authorities “the constitutions of the society of priests of Mary, almost completely touched up; we shall speak to you of a new congregation, already numerous, of religious women under the name of Mary, and of a body of Marist brothers, upon the model of the brothers of Christian schools, which already has eighteen establishments.” (OM 268)

This is not the place to present a history of the Rule (cf J. Coste “Studies on the Early Ideas of Jean-Claude Colin. I.” Maristica 2 p.16) but it is useful to remember three influences at work in Colin up until this time of his first visit to Rome.

  • First was the experience of the Cerdon years, where Colin was helped by spiritual consolation to write down the early ideas of a Rule, working at night in the small closet at the foot of his bed. (OM 819:42 839:36) These notes were collected in a bulky notebook, of which nothing remains.
  • The second influence was the experience of his years as a missioner in the Bugey. From this experience he wrote the “Instructions to Missionaries”. (OM 581:2 687 821:40) These are not preserved as such but the main ideas can be found in “A Founder Speaks” under “Missions”.
  • The third influence was his experience in the College at Belley during which, in 1829, he drew up the “Advice to the Staff”. The riginal text has been preserved.

Between 1830 and 1833 Colin revised what he had written. While he was in Rome, following the advice of friends he had made in the Curia, he retouched the essentials and rewrote them in the form of the Summarium Regularum which he presented to the Sacred Congregation for Bishops and Regulars.

This first journey of Colin to Rome led him to three major  “discoveries” regarding the Rule and Constitutions.

  • First, he discovered the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Until this point Colin had had no guideline for writing the Constitutions, as he had often stated, other than his reflections on the early Church (FS 42:3 117:3 119:9). In subsequent years the Jesuit Constitutions were to become a major influence in his writing of legislation.
  • Second, Colin discovered in the Roman Curia certain persons who would be of help to him, particularly Cardinal Castracane, Cardinal Fransoni, and Father Trinchant.
  • Third, Colin discovered in Rome an openness and breadth of vision that he had not previously found in the Church in  France. The Sulpicians, for example, encouraged him to make the Rule more suitable for human beings. It was probably this experience that lay behind his later remarks: It was there (in Rome) that I learned the maxim, “Law was made for man.” If I cannot save him with the law, I shall try to save him without it.  (FS 163:2)

I follow the same approach as they, the Romans, do. I am very fond of those principles: “All for souls” and “Salvation before law.” (FS 95:31)