Expert Answer Forum
History of Fenelon QUESTION from Jean Burle June 7, 2000 Who is Fenelon? Was he faithful to the Church? Did he have an opportunity to converse or read St. Teresa of Avilla and or John of the Cross?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on June 11, 2000 Dear Jean Francois de Fenelon, known simply as Fenelon,(born: 6 August 1651 died: 7 January, 1715), was a prominent French clergyman of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Just like G.K. Chesterton and Cardinal Newman, Fenelon is a Catholic who is often quoted, more so in French than in English.
In his youth, he was a brilliant student, and entered the seminary de Saint-Sulpice in 1672 and was ordained in 1675. He tended to be of a delicate and gentle disposition. One of his first major works was the direction of a house of Nouvelles Catholiques, that is, a house for Protestant women converting to the Catholic faith. At the time, France was about 10% Protestant. In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, thereby making the Protestant Faith illegal. Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, the leading Catholic figure of the time and religious advisor to the king, suggested that Fenelon be sent to Saintonge, a Protestant area, in order to bring Protestants to the Faith. Fenelon would only agree to do so if all troops and signs of compulsion were removed so that he could make converts of their own free will.
In 1689, Fenelon was appointed tutor to the heir of the throne, the Duke of Burgundy, grandson of King Louis XIV. By all accounts, the duke was an absolute terror; extremely arrogant and obstinate. Through his firm but gentle methods, Fenelon broke through to the child. One way in which he tried to teach the child was by writing Telemachus, a fictional story about Telemachus' search for his father, Ulysses, of mythological fame. The story was intended to give lessons in self-control and prepare the prince for his future position.
In 1696, Fenelon was consecrated Archbishop of Cambrai, one of the most important sees of the realm. At this point, his fortunes began to change through his association with Madame de Guyon, a mystic who put down her teachings in writings. Her writings were condemned by a commission that included Fenelon's good friend, Bossuet. It issued what became known as the thirty-four Articles d'Issy, which Fenelon signed. These articles briefly explained and corrected Madame Guyon's errors. Later on, in accordance to the commission's decision, Bossuet wrote another work, Etats d'oraison (States of Prayer) an explanation of the thirty-four articles. Fenelon refused to sign this work because he felt his honour did not allow him to condemn Madame Guyon twice. In order to clarify his views on the Articles d'Issy, he published Explication des Maximes des Saints (An Explanation of the Maxims of the Saints). The king of France appointed a commission to look into the work, but Fenelon submitted it to the Vatican for its judgement. It was condemned by the Holy See on March 12, 1699 for propositions which, while not outright heretical, were, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
as containing propositions which, in the obvious meaning of the words, or else because of the sequence of the thoughts, were temerarious, scandalous, ill-sounding, offensive to pious ears, pernicious in practice, and false in fact. What is admirable in all this is Fenelon's quick acceptance of the judgment, and his submission to papal authority. Some cite evidence from his correspondence to maintain that he never sincerely retracted, but the whole tenor of his life seems to indicate an unquestioning loyality to Rome.
To punish him, King Louis XIV banished him to his diocese. Without complaint or regret, Fenelon engrossed himself in the pastoral care of his flock. When Jansenism began to rear its ugly head, he engaged in relentless polemics against it. Throughout his active life, he found time to carry out a voluminous correspondence with many of France's highest dignitaries, as well as anyone who sought his advice. He also wrote a number of religious, spiritual and philosophical works. In total, his writings and correspondence fill 33 volumes. One of the things for which he's most remembered is that he was a master of the French tongue; he wrote on a wide variety of subjects: poetry, language, philosophy, politics, etc. His talent was rewarded by his induction in 1693 to the Academie Francaise, the most prestigious appointment bestowed on Frence intellectuals.
As to whether he had the opportunity to read St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross (sixteenth-century mystics): I couldn't tell you for sure. However, given that he was one of the brightest men in France, I doubt he would have purposely neglected to read either of these masters of the spiritual life. As St. Teresa of Avila was especially popular in France in the seventeenth century, and it seems unlikely that someone so learned wouldn't have at least some kind of familiarity with them.
For more information, you can consult the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Fenelon.
I also have a link with some of his Spiritual Letters.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
Back to Index Page