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From modernism to Vatican II

· The first biography of Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, protagonist of Catholic 20th century ·

On Thursday, November 17 at the Institut français, Centre Saint-Louis in Rome, the conference, “Le Cardinal Tisserant. Une figure française à Rome,” will be held. Participants include Etienne Fouilloux, author of the first biography of the cardinal, entitled, “Eugène, Cardinal Tisserant (1884-1972). Une biographie (Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2011, pp 717, 39 euro). We publish a review and an excerpt from the volume.

With his taste for precision and accuracy, Cardinal Eugène Tisserant (1884-1972) could not bear misspellings of his last name – the tendency to change the final “t” to a “d” – due to its similarity to the more common name, “tisserand” or “weaver,” and also to the name of the celebrated French astronomer of the second half of the 1800s, François Félix Tisserand, expert on comets and moon craters and author of the Traité de méchanique céleste in four volumes. “My name is written Tisserant,” the future cardinal wrote to his parents on December 23, 1908, in a distinction which might seem like carrying coals to Newcastle, considering his interlocutors. In reality, it was an early sign of his zeal in demarcating and defending an identity. Because that small detail prefigured the misunderstandings of which he would be victim for years.

For Paul I. Murphy and René Arlington, authors of La Pope ssa (1987), Tisserant is a bearded and uncouth man, irascible and pleasure-seeking, who does not hesitate to enter Pius XII’s rooms in his absence, put his feet on the table and smoke a cigar; “an enormous priest” who incarnates, “ the most crude expression  of the moral degradation of the hierarchy of the Church,” whom Sister Pascalina Lehnert is forced to slap, in order to bring him down a notch. For others, Tisserant is a genius of intrigue, emulator of Machiavelli and Mazzarino, a “grey eminence” and even a secret agent involved in the most obscure conspiracies of the Church and the State in the 20th century. The horrible caricature of these fantastical distortions seem to demand an enquiry into the truth.

Who was this French ecclesiastic who in the course of the 1900s occupied high-profile roles in the Roman Curia? For more than 60 years, from 1908 to 1971, under six different Popes, from Pius X to Paul VI, Tisserant carried out essential work: as one of the main figures of the “second modernization” of the Vatican Library under Pius XI; then, from 1936, as the man in the Curia responsible for the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches during difficult decades which witnessed the victory of communism in Eastern Europe and the rebirth of nationalistic Islam on the ashes of European colonialism, in the near East.

But from 1938, Tisserant also presided over the Pontifical Biblical Commission,  “which this ancient alumnus of the Dominican school in Jerusalem made an instrument of liberation for exegesis. Resistant to Nazism during the Second World War and to communism during the “cold war,” he acquired a deserved reputation for originality in the heart of the Curia. In 1946, he took on pastoral responsibility for the diocese of Porto and Santa Rufina, which in the space of twenty years, was transformed into a model of religious vitality on the doorstep of Rome.

As Deacon of the Sacred College in 1951, he played an important role during the two sedi vacanti , in 1958 and 1963. He participated in four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, directing the Council of the presidency, before being asked to accompany Paul VI on his travels throughout the world.”

Few historians like Fouilloux are able to offer us a biography like this one, for which – one could say – his whole lifetime has prepared him. Because Tisserant, too, is eminently a man at the crossroads of different worlds, between East and West, but also between tradition and modernity, erudition and engagement, between passionate national sentiment and convinced Catholic and ecclesial identity.

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