Ven. Prosper Guéranger and the Refounding of Solesmes

Tomorrow, July 11, is the feast of St. Benedict and the anniversary of the refounding of St. Peter’s Abbey of Solesmes, France in 1833 by Ven. Dom Prosper Guéranger and five other priests. Apart from the Benedictines, you may wonder why this event has significance. Solesmes became a great center of renewal for the entire Church and its refounding brought forward a larger than life figure, who would oversee this renewal. Guéranger (1805-1875), originally a diocesan priest, literally saw a local, beloved church in crumbles, a medieval abbey, whose remnants were meant for demolition, and felt a call to restore not only that building, but also to begin a new way of life as a monastic. His response, reminiscent of St. Francis, entailed not only a restoration of one particular building, but a propping up of the Church itself.

The crumbles that Guéranger noted were of the Abbey of Solesmes, noted for its medieval statuary. This was only one small piece of the general destruction of the Church wrought by the French Revolution and Napoleon. The Corsican tyrant had seen to the nearly complete extermination of monasticism from Europe, deeming contemplatives useless to society. As Guéranger was ordained a priest in the early nineteenth  century, the Benedictines were on the verge of extinction in France. He would oversee a return of monasticism not only to France, but also to Europe more generally.

It is frankly hard to underestimate the influence of Guéranger on the Church as a whole in the nineteenth century and beyond. Besides resurrecting the Benedictines, he battled the remnants of Gallicanism and Jansenism, initiated the liturgical movement, paved the way for the declaration of the Immaculate Conception and Papal Infallibility, and instructed generations of Catholics through his monumental, The Liturgical Year.

“Prayer is man’s richest boon,” begins Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year, a work for which he is probably best known. This work is testimony to Guéranger’s lifelong study and devotion to the Roman liturgy. It is hard to believe that when Guéranger was first ordained he had to receive special permission to say the Mass of the Roman rite, instead of the widespread Gallican rite of France. Guéranger would champion the Roman rite with great success in his homeland, but also proposed it as the center of spirituality for lay Catholics. The Liturgical Year provides a daily guide for Catholics to pray and meditate on the prayers of the Mass and breviary and to enter more deeply into the liturgical seasons.

Solesmes would also become the center of the renewal of Gregorian chant. Guéranger related that “the great impressions of the soul were meant to be sung,” and that “Christians … cannot be content to recite things; they must sing them” (quoted in Solesmes and Dom Guéranger, 95). In order to assist the Church in this end of praising God in song, Guéranger began another great work of rebuilding, dedicating Solesmes to the restoration of Gregorian chant. This was no easy task, as the ancient melodies and methodology had grown corrupt, to the point that Guéranger remarked that “authentic chant was ‘forgotten, mutilated, changed, altered’” (ibid., 104). To overcome this problem, the abbot turned to medieval manuscripts, and, with the aid of his monks, set about a great program of restoration. This project would reach a pivotal moment when Pope Pius X entrusted Abbot Joseph Pottier, a protégé of Guéranger, with the restoration of Gregorian chant for the entire Church, which produced the Vatican Edition of the Graduale Romanum.

Like the restoration of chant, Solesmes was also influential in collecting and promoting the works of the Church Fathers. Guéranger sent one of his monks, Dom Jean Baptiste François Pitra, on missions across Europe seeking manuscripts. Pitra collaborated with Migne in his monumental Patrologia series. Pitra was also known for his work in archeology and the Eastern Church, spending seven months in Russia and overseeing new liturgical books for Eastern rites. Pius IX named Pitra a Cardinal and appointed him librarian of the Vatican Library, confirming the universal importance of the work of Solesmes.

In addition to supporting liturgical reform and Patristic study, Guéranger played an important role in preparing the faithful for the proclamation of two important dogmas in the nineteenth century. The first is the Immaculate Conception, which was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854. Four years prior, Guéranger composed a short treatise on the doctrine at the request of the Papal Nuncio to France for Pope Pius himself. He concludes the treatise with the point that “from all that we have thus far established the conclusion follows that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin is part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church… [and] that any assault upon this belief would be a gross insult to the Spouse of Jesus Christ” (On the Immaculate Conception, St. Michael’s Abbey Press, 119).

Not only does Guéranger uphold the doctrine beautifully, but the manner in which he proposed the solution is no less important. He argued specifically for the authority of the Papacy to proclaim it. Rather than needing the definition of an Ecumenical Council, “there remains, then, the judgment of the Roman Pontiff, to whom Jesus Christ has entrusted such great power, by the very constitution of the Church, that the decision of a General Council are only of value after he has confirmed them” (ibid., 115). Guéranger argued that a matter of such importance must rest upon the infallibility of the Church, rather “than something human in the Church’s belief,” that is, upon a tradition not dogmatically formalized (ibid., 120).

Guéranger’s solution to the question of the Immaculate Conception, resting on papal authority, also furthered his lifelong opposition to Gallicanism. He noted that “this sovereign and divine authority has been undermined in France,” but would be bolstered again through an infallible declaration of the Pope on Mary’s preservation from all sin (ibid., 117). This brings us to the second point of Guéranger’s service to the development of doctrine: Papal Infallibility. His book, The Papal Monarchy, published in 1869 shortly before Vatican I’s proclamation, was written in response to a two volume work of the Bishop of Sura, Henri Maret, a theologian and dean of the University of Paris, who had subordinated the authority of the Pontiff to the Ecumenical Council. Pius IX wrote a Brief in response to Papal Monarchy, stating to Guéranger that “in Our estimation, you have rendered an extremely useful service to the Church” (The Papal Monarchy, Loreto Press, xxiii).

Guéranger clearly had the development of doctrine in mind as he wrote the work: “The faithful [should] desire the development of the Creed, so that they might enter more and more into the possession of the truth” (ibid., 123). As in his defense of the Immaculate Conception, Guéranger provides an a comprehensive exposition of the foundation of Papal Infallibility, beginning with Scripture and working through the tradition, demonstrating that the past teaching of the Pontiffs and Councils themselves have laid the groundwork for a new and definitive proclamation. He also argues for a consensus fidelium (communis)on the doctrine, found in theologians, especially the scholastics, faithful Christians, and, most importantly, in the Saints. In conclusion, Guéranger sought to overcome the somewhat widespread caution of those who recognized the truth of the doctrine, but found its proclamation inopportune. His response, once again, comes down to truth: how can it be beneficial to the faithful to keep them from a fuller articulation and profession of the truth? (cf., ibid., 234).

Ven. Guéranger’s influence on the Church of his day is truly staggering: restoring religious life, reforming the liturgy of France, restoring Gregorian chant, collecting the work of the Fathers, and making a serious contribution to the development of doctrine of two separate dogmas! The life of Dom Prosper Guéranger is truly one of rebuilding the Church from the ruins of the French Revolution and the lingering corruption of the Gallicanism which preceded it. Guéranger is therefore a model for all of us to renew our own spiritual life, to reinvigorate our liturgical prayer, and to deepen our study and fidelity to the Church’s doctrinal teaching. In age of great disintegration, Guéranger can be a model of rebuilding for all of the faithful!

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

  • Andrew

    R. Jared, you wrote a fine article; but I must correct you; there was someone else who defended the Immaculate Conception of Mary long before Doms Prosper Gueranger, Blessed John Duns Scotus at the debate at the University of Paris in 1303. I suggest you give the proper credit where it is due.

  • ForChristAlone

    My wife and I were on a vacation to France with our two sons ages and 9 many years ago and included Solesmes on our itinerary. Unable to stay with the monks because we were a family, we stayed instead with the Benedictine sisters across the road. We were fortunate to hear Gregorian chant sung by the monks at this venerable monastery. It was wonderful to introduce ours sons to the patrimony of the Church. From here, we moved northward to Mont St Michel. We pray that the restoration of the liturgy continues to move forward.

  • Chantons

    Of course the Solesmes congregation house in the USA is clearcreekmonks.org

  • Tantem Ergo

    As usual I learn something rich when I visit Crisis magazine! My husband is French and we have just started to discover the joys of the incredible Catholic history of this country. Thank you Professor Staudt.

  • Dubh

    In response to Chantons, I believe the monastery of nuns in Westfield, Vermont, is also a member of the solemnes congregation.

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