Company of the Blessed Sacrament
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The Company of the Blessed Sacrament (French: Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement), also sometimes referred to as the Company of the Most Blessed Sacrament, was a French Catholic secret society which included among its members many Catholic notables of the 17th century. It was responsible for much of the contribution of the Catholic Church in France to meeting the social needs of the day.
It was founded in March 1630, at the Convent of the Capuchin friars on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré by Henri de Levis, Duc de Ventadour, who had just escorted his wife to the Carmelite Convent; Henri de Pichery, officer of Louis XIII's household; Jacques Adhemar de Monteil de Grignan, a future bishop, and Philippe d'Angoumois, a Capuchin. Among those who soon joined it, should be mentioned Père Suffren, a Jesuit, confessor to both Louis XIII and Marie de' Medici; also both the son and the grandson of Gaspard de Coligny, the Protestant admiral, as well as Charles de Condren, the second Superior General of the French Oratory, and founder of the College of Juilly . In 1631 this association adopted the name by which it is known. It was organized under the authority of a board composed of nine members, changed every three months, and which included a superior, usually a layman, and a spiritual director who was a priest. The associates met weekly and their organization was simultaneously a pious confraternity, a charitable society and a militant association for the defence of the Church. It was ruled by Baron de Renty from 1639 until his death in 1649.
The company was a secret one. Louis XIII covertly encouraged it but it never wished to have the letters patent that would have rendered it legal. The first archbishop of Paris, Gondi, refused his blessing to the company, even though Louis XIII wrote him a personal letter in 1631 requesting him to do so. The brief obtained from the pope in 1633 by the Count de Brassan, one of the members, was of no importance and the company, eager to secure a new one, was granted only a few indulgences which it would not accept, as it did not wish to be treated as a simple confraternity. Guido Bagni, papal nuncio from 1645 to 1656, often attended the sessions of the company but its existence was never regularly acknowledged by an official document from Rome. The rule of secrecy obliged members "[clarification needed]not to speak of the Company to those who do not belong to it and never to make known the names of the individuals composing it. New members were elected by the board and it was soon decided that no congréganiste, i.e. member of a lay congregation directed by ecclesiastics, could be eligible. Matters of an especially delicate nature were not discussed at the weekly meetings, these being frequently attended by a hundred members, but were reserved for the investigation of the board. The company printed nothing and the keeping of written minutes was conducted with the utmost caution. There were fifty important branches outside of Paris, about thirty being unknown even to the bishops.
Among other members were Francois Louis, Prince of Conti, the Marechal de Schomberg, the Baron de Renty, Magistrates Guillaume de Lamoignon, de Mesnes, and Le Fèvre d'Ormesson; Blessed Alain de Solminihac; Saint Vincent de Paul, Jean-Jacques Olier, and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet.
The association worked to correct abuses among the clergy and in monasteries in order to ensure good behavior in the churches and to procure missions for rural parishes, and it urged the establishment of a Seminary of Foreign Missions for the evangelizing of non-Catholics. It also endeavoured to reform the morals of the laity by encouraging the effective crusade of the Marquis de Salignae-Fénelon against duelling. Moreover, it was interested in the care of the poor, the improvement of hospitals, and the administration of those condemned to galleys and prisons; and, that the poor might have legal advice, it created what today is known as the secrétariats du peuple (public legal services). It protected the fraternities of shoemakers and tailors organized by the Baron de Renty and assisted St. Vincent de Paul in most of his undertakings. In 1652 when Louis XIV, conqueror of the Fronde, re-entered Paris and the city was flooded with peasants, refugee religious, hungry priests, the members of the Company multiplied their generous deeds, demanded alms from their fellow-members outside of Paris, sent priests to hear the confessions of the sick decimated by war, founded parish societies for the relief of the poor, and established at Paris a general storehouse stocked with provisions, clothing, and agricultural implements to be distributed among the impoverished peasants. At that time the Company spent 380,000 livres (equal 3,000,000 dollars) in charity each year. Finally, it was instrumental in bringing about the ordinance establishing the General Hospital of Paris where Christophe du Plessis, the magistrate, and St. Vincent de Paul organized medical care for the indigent.
Some historians have critiqued the Company's attacks on Protestants. The Company aimed to increase conversions and organized the preaching of missions to Protestants in Lorraine, Dauphiné, and Limousin and founded establishments in Paris, Sedan, Metz, and Puy for young converts from Protestantism. Moreover, it opposed Protestant attacks on Catholic doctrines and defended the Catholic populations in majority Protestant cities, such as La Rochelle. Finally, without seeking the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Company fought to prevent any further concessions beyond what the formal text of the edict demanded and its members sent documents to Jean Filleau, a Poitiers lawyer, who for twenty-five years issued "Catholic decisions" from a legal point of view, on the interpretation of the Edict of Nantes. The protestation of the General Assembly of the French clergy in 1656 against the infringement of the edict by Protestants was the outgrowth of a long documental work prepared by the members. In 1660 Lechassier, who was Maître des Comptes (Master of Accounts) and also one of the Company, forwarded to all the country branches a questionnaire imbued with a view to helping the inquiry, of thirty-one articles on the infringement of the Edict of Nantes by Protestants. The answers were collected by Toussaint de Forbin-Janson, Bishop of Digne, who took an active role in the Assembly of the Clergy, the result being that commissaries were sent into the provinces for the purpose of setting right these abuses. But, in its own turn, the Company violated the Edict of Nantes (of which Art. 27 declared Huguenots wholly eligible to public office), and, by secret manoeuvring, one day prevented twenty-five young Protestants from being received as attorneys at the Parliament of Paris. "The members thought they were doing right", explained Père de la Briere "nevertheless, if we consider not their intention, but the very nature of their act and of their procedure, it is impossible to doubt that they were guilty of an iniquity". According to the testimony of Père Rapin and the Count d'Argenson, these proceedings of the Company were the starting-point of the policy that was to culminate in 1685 in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
The year 1660 witnessed the start of the decline of the Company. In consequence of incidents that had occurred at Caen, it was vigorously attacked in a libel brought by Abbot Charles du Four, of the Abbey of Aulnay, and was denounced to Cardinal Mazarin by François Harlay de Champvallon, Archbishop of Rouen. On December 13, 1660 the members held a last general meeting at which, amid expressions of regret and deep emotion, it was decided to suspend their Thursday sessions and to add "ten or twelve elders" to the members of the board so that the company might continue to act provisionally. Then these elders and the board selected eight individuals who were to correspond with the country branches, one of the eight being Bossuet. On the same date Parliament issued a decree prohibiting all illicit assemblies, confraternities, congregations, and communities, but Lamoignon, a member of the Company and its first president, succeeded in preventing it from being designated by name. It seems that the meetings of the board and the elders were held regularly enough in 1664 to be instrumental in obtaining the banning of Moliere's comedy Tartuffe, but had ceased almost completely by 1665. The General Hospital and the Seminary of Foreign Missions continued to exist as legacies of this association, which Mazarin--and many hostile historians who came after him-- scornfully called the "Cabal of the Devout", la cabale des dévôts.