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Massillon History: Jean-Baptiste Massillon

The Story of Jean-Baptiste Massillon (1663-1742)

For information on Jean-Baptise Massillon and the Massillon Museum's 2015 book Massillon Connection: A Pioneer Woman, a French Bishop, and a Village on a River, click here!

Taken from the Massillon Museum's 1976 Spring Bulletin.

The following was taken from the account on Father Massillon in the “Dictionary of French Letters, 18th Century.” The many-paged account was received from Paris through the efforts of Jim Urbas, and was translated by Mrs. Richard Merchant.

Jean-Baptiste Massillon was born at Hyeres, France, on June 23, 1663, the son of the notary, Francois Massillon (or Masseillon – generally used even in Paris until 1699). He began his studies with the Oratorians in that city and followed them to Marseilles.

At twenty-two years of age, in spite of his father’s desire for him to take over his job, Massillon entered the Oratory, with the emotions that he proclaimed to the end of his life: “Great God! Prominence and fortune have not stained the choice I made in choosing you. I flatter myself that my vocation in the Church is the work of your Holy Spirit.”

Toward his thirtieth year, he ascended to the pulpit in the church of his congregation and in the churches of Vienna. His great preaching began in 1698, but in 1704, Massillon disappeared from the royal pulpit and did not reappear until 1718 in the chapel of the Tuileries, to give ten brief sermons composed in six weeks: his famous “Small Lenten Worship.”

The Regent name him on November 11, 1717, to the Episcopal seat of Clermont, vacant for ten years; he was crowned December 21, 1718, in the presence of the young king, Louis XV, who offered him the cross and ring.

Two months later, he passed through the door of the French Academy, where his position as Oratian had previously stopped him. “The Academy,” says the “Journal de Trevous,” “has a rule not to receive in its body any religious person, although he might have merit.” In vain, “The Court and the City” had sought the election of Father Massillon, while these “gentlemen” refused, as they had done before. But finally promoted, the Bishop of Clermont replaced at the French Academy the Abbot of Louvois, and thanked his electors.

He arrived in Clermont in February of 1721, and was to be an excellent bishop, conscientious in his duties. His diocese was vast and included the diocese of Moulins. He edited a catechism for the children of Auvergne, and exhorted the clergy at annual synods, where he pointed out his duties clearly but with kindness: “My authority is not an authority of domination, but of work, of solicitude and of tenderness.” He set up for the sick and old priests what he called “his little Hotel des Invalides.” In 1741, nearly 80, he returned to Thiers to stop an epidemic, to give some help, and to summon doctors and religious persons. In the village which surrounded his chateau at Beauregard, he organized the domestic work by obtaining a spinning wheel for each family and advancing them loans for the purchase of seeds and animals. Before his death he was able to witness: “My diocese that I found so full of troubles is today the most peaceful in the kingdom.”

He remained so totally in his diocese that he returned to Paris only once, in 1723, to give the funeral sermon for the Princess Palatine, mother of the Regent. During his last years, without grand style of living, always peaceful, welcoming, always spiritual, edifying, and more and more beloved, Massillon devoted himself to re-reading his sermons, transcribing and correcting them.

Finally, in September of 1742, stricken with apoplexy at Beauregard, he died in piety, establishing for posterity the great Hotel-Dieu for the poor at Clermont.

His body was buried in the cathedral there, but the cathedral at Nimes also had a mausoleum where a statue of him was erected to show that city’s gratitude to the illustrious bishop.

Hyeres, the birthplace of Massillon, erected a statue with the epitaph: “This is one of the best, most lovable and virtuous men whom the history of literature and the French Church can honor.”

It is impossible to list his preaching among the types of literature that one is able to classify. It was usually in these forms: homily, sermon, panegyric, or funeral oration. As a rule it dealt with the dogma and morality which inspired the Evangelist. Massillon tried, however, to preach differently from his predecessors.

The uncontested triumph of the great orator was his moral sermon. He was led by his clean taste and own experience in the world, by “anatomies of the heart,” and, especially by the apostolic desire to correct and cure.


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