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Spring Books

Barat found ways to move sisters out of cloisters


By Phil Kilroy
Paulist Press, #550, $34.95 hardcover


Despite its length and formidable evidence of scholarship, this book does not qualify as a good cure for insomnia. It is an interesting story of a life, refreshing in its honesty, and scrupulously documented. It is hard to put the book down at times.

Madeleine Sophie Louise Barat, founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart, was born in 1779, just 10 years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, in Joigny, France, a little Burgundian town in the valley of the Yonne. The region of the Yonne was one of the most Jansenist areas of France. Sophie, as she was called, grew up in an environment of Jansenism, which emphasizes predestination, denies free will and maintains that human nature is incapable of good. She received a classical education from a priest-brother who recognized her gifts and became her spiritual guide. Unfortunately, his Jansenistic rigidity and ascetical demands both damaged her health and left her with an image of God as cold, harsh and critical. Only slowly, under the influence of other guides, was she able to throw off her Jansenist heritage and internalize the image of a warm, generous and loving God as symbolized in the heart of Jesus Christ.

Sophie lived through almost a century of revolutionary change. By the time of her death in 1865, she had spent 63 of her 85 years in leadership of her community and had developed, from its small beginnings, an international community of 3,359 women in the service of education in Europe, North and South America and North Africa.

Sophie Barat was a woman closely involved in the events of her times. Her experience provides a window onto the life of the church in France and Rome, and especially onto the lives of religious women during this period. In the aftermath of the revolution, many religiously motivated women from all over France founded small communities focused on addressing social needs, primarily in education and health care. Thirty-five of such communities, including the Society of the Sacred Heart, were founded between 1800 and 1820, and six more were initiated each year between 1820 and 1880.

The accomplishments of these women were all the more remarkable for occurring in a period when women were viewed as secondary and inferior to men. In France, the Napoleonic Code imposed rigid legal subordination on women in the family and in the state. In the church, religious groups of women were expected to be cloistered and subordinate to male ecclesiastical superiors.

As a work of history, Phil Kilroy’s biography of Barat is quite an achievement. Commissioned by the superior general to celebrate the bicentennial of the Society of the Sacred Heart in the year 2000, it is written entirely from primary source material found in civil and ecclesiastical archives in France, Rome and the United States.

Its chronological organization gives the reader a comprehensive picture of a very real person at different periods in her life. Sophie emerges as one who grows in wisdom in the context of her times, who is faithful almost to a fault in her relationships, who struggles with the day-by-day problems associated with her leadership role and with her constant health problems. She can be impetuous and impatient, but she is also shrewd in sizing up people and situations and waiting for the right moment to act. She can be critical of clergy and bishops (not without reason), but she is loyal to the church and to the pope. She is accused of both Gallicanism, a movement originating with the French clergy that favored the restriction of papal control, and ultramontanism, a policy that absolute authority in the church should be vested in the pope. However, she persists in her vision of a society whose mission to communicate the love of God as symbolized in the heart of Christ transcends the boundaries of France.

To implement this vision and respond to the many calls for her educational services, Sophie realized that the prevailing monastic model of religious life for women, with its grilles and strict enclosure, was inappropriate for the mission of the new society. In addition, her leadership style was relational and, while she kept in touch with the members through letters and visits to communities, she realized that as the society grew she needed a less centralized governmental structure. A model similar to that of the Jesuits would allow for delegation of authority to provincial superiors and modifications of cloister rules so members could go from place to place in response to the needs of the times. But the attempt to adapt the original constitutions provoked serious controversy.

A major section of the book -- nine chapters and about 150 pages -- covers the 10-year period between 1834 and 1844 and the story of the complex internal crisis of the society over the constitutions of 1839, a crisis very much linked to the Gallican-ultramontane tensions between France and Rome. An anecdote describes well the atmosphere. The Gallican archbishop of Paris, Denis Affre, insisted on asserting control over Sophie’s movements as superior and over the affairs of the society in France, in defiance of Rome. The bishop of Besançon, Césaire Mathieu, Sophie’s friend and adviser during this period, had to use his own secretary as mail courier to safeguard the privacy of their correspondence. Sophie was constantly being watched, and Affre intercepted letters to her. Affre even went so far as to call the attention of the government to the proposed constitutional changes. The government, sensing a violation of French law and prerogatives, in turn threatened to suppress the society in France.

Given such a tense political situation, which also divided the members of the society, Sophie had to move to defuse the situation. Working behind the scenes with Mathieu, she succeeded in obtaining the pope’s permission to nullify the proposed constitutional change and revert to the original document. This was granted, along with a provision for the appointment of vicars (rather than provincials) to assist her in government.

The above part of the story is a real page-turner, but given the amount of space devoted to it, the last two chapters of the book seem disproportionately short -- they cover 21 years of Sophie’s life in only 41 pages. Perhaps the author was facing a deadline and pressure to complete an already long volume. One can only wonder what other interesting material is in the archives.

There are a few other problems with the book. While the material is reflective of what is in the sources -- frequently Sophie’s own correspondence -- there is a certain amount of repetitiveness that could perhaps have been avoided by better copyediting. Better copyediting and proofreading would also have caught several instances where meaning is compromised because a word is left out of a sentence, a punctuation mark is missing or a word is repeated.

But all in all, this is a significant contribution to the history of the church and of religious life. It is not a book to take to the beach in the summer, but it can be read profitably during the springtime rains.

Sacred Heart Sr. Theresa Moser is assistant dean at the University of San Francisco. She spent a year in France while working on her Ph.D. dissertation and visited the birthplace of Madeleine Sophie Barat in Joigny. Her e-mail address is moser@usfca.edu

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001