François de la Chaise, S.J., 1624 – 1709: Requiscat in Pace

For a certain kind of tourist, one major draw to Paris is  Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise cemetery.

Well, we all have our slightly ghoulish sides, I suppose, and graveyards are generally peaceful places, even those with lizard kings and other assorted hell-raisers.

The cemetery itself was a creation of the First French Republic, Bonaparte declaring that even the non-Catholics of the world had the right to be buried somewhere.   Not that France at the time was overflowing with non-Catholics.   1804 being one of those Age of Reason years, the authorities felt no need to consecrate the place, and so good Catholics (and presumably even bad Catholics hedging their bets) stayed away in droves.

Faced with this clear and utter flop, the Public Relations folk stepped in. How to make the neighborhood desirable?  You bring the artists in, of course.  Officials dug up  Molière (a comic playwright – fitting, no?) and re-potted him on the hillside.  Still nothing. Okay, let’s go the romantic route, make a memorial for Abelard and Hèloise.

It appears to have done the trick – we are talking France, after all, and who better to combine religion and l’amour than those two?  The place hasn’t looked back since. You want in? Take a number.

So who was Father of the Chair, and what’s his connection to this particular necropolis?

Initially, none. It was officially and simply called the Cemetery of the East.  It was locals who re-dubbed it after the dead cleric, whose residence, a gift of the king, used to be on the grounds, back when it was still rural.  A pleasing prospect with a good view of the city.  Louis XIV went there to watch the fighting during the Fronde.

François’ father himself was a noble family, his father being the Seigneur de la Chaise. François was one of twelve children and sent to study with the Jesuits at age ten. He excelled.  In due course he became rector at the University of Lyon where his lectures were a hot ticket among the youth thirsting for that kind of talk.  For fun, he collected ancient coins.

In his fifties he was tapped to become confessor to Louis XIV, which, given that fellow’s private life must have been something of a full time job.  Women, mostly.  The Father’s sweet and gentle nature were a good fit for a king who didn’t want to be overly encumbered by regrets.  (Though the king did on occasion remonstrate with the fellow, accusing him of being a little too virtuous.  “It’s not that I am too good, it’s that you are too tough.”)

Of course if the king had paid attention to the admonitions, he wouldn’t have had this kind of problem in the first place.  As it was, the king’s private life blew up rather badly, for which see The Affair of the Poisons.

(Short form – Madame de Montespan the king’s long time good time girl in a bid to keep the king’s favors went over to the Dark Side, engaging in black masses and worse.  She was cashiered,  and replaced by the upright, not to say priggish Madame de Maintenon, who married the king in secret, and over saw a quieter atmosphere at court ever after.  And who should be present at this secret wedding but Father De la Chaise himself, ready to help de Maintenon reign in the worst excesses of the now chastened king?)

Of a more serious order is the question of the cleric’s role in the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.   Louis, shown the error of his earlier ways, was open to suggestion on the matter of religion, specifically, in denying civil rights to Protestants.  Maintenon was all for it (or not, depending on your sources), as was de la Chaise (or not, depending on your sources). The idea was to create a monolithic, one-minded and therefore strong France, pleasing to God.

It didn’t work out that way.  The revocation gave hotheads a free hand, and far from creating a stronger, more unified France, it precipitated a  exodus of honest, hardworking, clever Huguenots who carried their honesty, industry and cleverness to the material and social benefit of other countries far and wide.   Much like Ferdinand and Isabella’s kicking  Jews out of Spain in 1492.

General consensus, after a lot of angry propaganda by partisan historians, is that he was genuinely a kindly sort of fellow, not readily flummoxed by excesses of human nature (much less his alarming charge, King Louis).  He believed that conversion could be done by peaceful means, by persuasion.  A man must live in hope.

He died aged eighty five, having spent thirty four of them tending to the spiritual health of the king.

Oh, and he’s not buried in Père Lachaise.  His crib is in the crypt at the Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis.

Requiscat in Pace

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