French preacher and bishop; b. June 24, 1663; d. September 28, 1742
Massillon, JEAN-BAPTISTE, celebrated French preacher and bishop; b. June 24, 1663; d. September 28, 1742. The son of Francois Massillon, a notary of Hyeres in Provence, he began his studies in the college of that town and completed them in the college of Marseilles, both under the Oratorians. He entered the Congregation of the Oratory at the age of eighteen. After his novitiate and theological studies, he was sent as professor to the colleges of the congregation at Pezenas, Marseilles, Montbrison, and, lastly, Vienne, where he taught philosophy and theology for six years (1689-95).
Ordained priest in 1691, he commenced preaching in the chapel of the Oratory at Vienne and in the vicinity of that city. Upon the death of Villeroy, Archbishop of Lyons (1693), he was called upon to deliver the funeral oration, and six months later that of M. de Villars, Archbishop of Vienne. Joining the Lyons Oratory in 1695, and summoned to Paris in the following year, to be director of the Seminary of Saint-Magloire, he was thenceforward able to devote himself exclusively to preaching. As director of this seminary he delivered those lectures (conferences) to young clerics which are still highly esteemed. But a year later he was removed from his position at Saint-Magloire for having occupied himself too exclusively with preaching. Having preached the Lent at Montpellier in 1698, he preached it the next year at the Oratory of Paris. His eloquence in this series of discourses was very much approved, and, although he aimed at preaching in a style unlike that of his predecessors, public opinion already hailed him as the successor of Bossuet and Bourdaloue who were at that time reduced to silence by age. At the end of this year he preached the Advent at the court of Louis XIV—an honor which was in those days highly coveted as the consecration of a preacher’s fame. He justified every hope, and the king wittily declared that, where he had formerly been well pleased with the preachers, he was now very ill pleased with himself. Massillon, by command, once more appeared in the chapel of Versailles for the Lent of 1701. Bossuet, who, according to his secretary, had thought Massillon very far from the sublime in 1699, this time declared himself very well satisfied, as was the king. Massillon was summoned again for the Lent of 1704. This was the apogee of his eloquence and his success. The king assiduously attended his sermons, and in the royal presence Massillon delivered that discourse “On the Fewness of the Elect“, which is considered his masterpiece. Nevertheless, whether because the compromising relations of the orator with certain great families had produced a bad impression on the king, or because Louis ended by believing him inclined—as some of his brethren of the Oratory were thought to be—to Jansenism, Massillon was never again summoned to preach at the Court during the life of Louis XIV, nor was he even put forward for a bishopric. Nevertheless he continued, from 1704 to 1718, to preach Lent and Advent discourses with great success in various churches of Paris. Only in the Advent of 1715 did he leave those churches to preach before the Court of Stanislas, King of Lorraine.
In the interval he preached, with only moderate success, sermons at ceremonies of taking the habit, panegyrics, and funeral orations. Of his funeral orations that on Louis XIV is still famous, above all for its opening: “God alone is great “—uttered at the grave of a prince to whom his contemporaries had yielded the title of “The Great”.
After the death of this king Massillon returned to favor at Court. In 1717 the regent nominated him to the Bishopric of Clermont (Auvergne) and caused him to preach before the young king, Louis XV, the lenten course of 1718, which was to comprise only ten sermons. These have been published under the title of “Le Petit Careme “—Massillon’s most popular work. Finally, he was received, a few months later, into the French Academy, where Fleury, the young king’s preceptor, pronounced his eulogy.
But Massillon, consecrated on December 21, 1719, was in haste to take possession of his see. With its 29 abbeys, 224 priories, and 758 parishes, the Diocese of Clermont was one of the largest in France. The new bishop took up his residence there, and left it only to assist, by order of the regent, in the negotiations which were to decide the case of Cardinal De Noailles (q.v.) and certain bishops suspected of Jansenism, in accepting the Bull “Unigenitus“, to assist at the coronation of Louis XV, and to preach the funeral sermon of the Duchess of Orleans, the regent’s mother.
He made it his business to visit one part of his diocese each year, and at his death he had been through the whole diocese nearly three times, even to the poorest and remotest parishes. He set himself to reestablish or maintain ecclesiastical discipline and good morals among his clergy. From the year 1723 on, he annually assembled a synod of the priests; he did this once more in 1742, a few days before his death. In these synods and in the retreats which followed them he delivered the synodal discourses and conferences which have been so much, and so justly, admired. If he at times displayed energy in reforming abuses, he was generally tender and fatherly towards his clergy; he was willing to listen to them; he promoted their education, by attaching benefices to his seminaries, and assured them a peaceful old age by building a house of retirement for them. He defended his clergy against the king’s ministers, who wished to increase their fiscal burdens, and he never ceased to guard them against the errors and subterfuges of the Jansenists, who, indeed, assailed him sharply in their journal “Les Nouvelles Ecclesiastiques”.
Thoroughly devoted to all his diocesan flock, he busied himself in improving their condition. This is apparent in his correspondence with the king’s intendants and ministers, in which he does his utmost to alleviate the lot of the Auvergne peasantry whenever there is a disposition to increase their taxation, or the scourge of a bad season afflicts their crops. The poor were always dear to him: not only did he plead for them in his sermons, but he assisted them out of his bounty, and at his death he instituted the hospital of Clermont for his universal heirs, the poor. His death was lamented, as his life had been blessed and admired by his contemporaries. Posterity has numbered him with Bossuet, Fenelon, Flechier, and Mascaron, among the greatest French bishops of the eighteenth century. As an orator, no one was more appreciated by the eighteenth century, which placed him easily—at least as to preaching properly so called—above Bossuet and Bourdaloue. Our age places him rather lower. Massillon has neither the sublimity of Bossuet nor the logic of Bourdaloue: with him the sermon neglects dogma for morality, and morality loses its authority, and sometimes its security, in the eyes of Christians. For at times he is so severe as to render himself suspect of Jansenism, and again he is so lax as to be accused of complacency for the sensibilities and the philosophism of his time. His chief merit was to have excelled in depicting the passions, to have spoken to the heart in a language it always understood, to have made the great, and princes, understand the loftiest teachings of the Gospel, and to have made his own life and his work as a bishop conform to those teachings. During Massillon’s lifetime only the funeral oration on the Prince de Conti was published (1709); he even disavowed a collection of sermons which appeared under his name at Trevoux (1705, 1706, 1714). The first authentic edition of his works appeared in 1745, published by his nephew, Father Joseph Massillon, of the Oratory; it has been frequently reprinted. But the best edition was that of Blampignon, Bar-le-Duc, 1865-68, and Paris, 1886, in four vols. It comprises ten sermons for Advent, forty-one for Lent, eight on the mysteries, four on virtues, ten panegyrics, six funeral orations, sixteen ecclesiastical conferences, twenty synodal discourses, twenty-six charges, paraphrases on thirty psalms, some pensees choisies, and some fifty miscellaneous letters or notes.