Alessandro Barnabò was born in Foligno, Italy on March 2, 1801. Ordained to the priesthood in March of 1833, he was vice-secretary of the Congregation of Propaganda in 1847-1848, then secretary from 13 of August 1848 until June 19, 1856. Created a cardinal in the consistory of June 16, 1856, he was prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda from June 20, 1856 until his death on Februar y 24, 1874.
Among his “Roman friends,” Alessandro Barnabò was the one with whom Bishop de Mazenod corresponded most often and with whom he was most closely linked by epistolary contact. We have found 81 of his letters directed to Alessandro Barnabò; two of these letters were written by Bishop Jeancard in 1861. This correspondence concerned almost exclusively the missions of Ceylon and Oregon, that is, the missions where his missionaries worked under the jurisdiction of non-Oblate bishops. We have seven of the original letters from Cardinal Barnabò, while extracts of other letters are to be found in the works of Rey, Rambert, etc.
Bishop de Mazenod mentioned him for the first time in an October 26, 1848 letter to Abbé Loewenbruck who was leaving for Rome. He tells him to warn Bishop Barnabò about the Blanchet bishops of Oregon, “headstrong men before whom everything must give way.” He adds that he himself hopes to go to Rome soon and discuss the other missions with Bishop Barnabò “a person whose acquaintance I have such a lively desire to make.”
Two features characterize this epistolary exchange: the friendship and affection that Bishop de Mazenod says he has for Bishop Barnabò and his outspokenness, we can even say his boldness, in expressing his assessments of the bishops of Ceylon and Oregon, as well as his insistence, one might even say his stubbornness, in submitting certain projects to Propaganda in the hope of bringing them around to his point of view.
Bishop de Mazenod met Bishop Barnabò a few times on the occasion of his trips to Rome in 1851 and 1854. Even before having personally met the secretary of Propaganda, Bishop de Mazenod already considered him a friend in whom he had great confidence. In an October 8, 1849 letter, he wrote: “My dear Bishop, I find it impossible to fully explain the ease with which I open my heart to you...” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 5, no. 11, p. 33) After having met him during his visit to Rome from the end of January to the beginning of April 1851, he thanked him on April 28 and said: “The memory of our friendship has settled into my heart and sustains my fraternal affection.” Or again on June 15: “One of the things that was the most pleasant in Rome was the opportunity of making your acquaintance and learning to appreciate your excellent qualities and to subsequently have established with you bonds of esteem, confidence and affection – and indeed if everything were said – of genuine friendship with which your fine character has touched my heart. Those who know me, know I do not lie.” On June 7, 1856, he congratulated Bishop Barnabò on being elevated to the cardinalate and reminds him that he is among “his dearest friends.” We find this kind of expression in almost all his letters right up until the August 12, 1860 letter in which the Founder wrote: “When I take the liberty of writing confidentially to Your Eminence, it is in order to open my heart to you in the freedom of the most complete trust. I leave aside all the customary precautions of formal language to state frankly and without circumspection everything I think about people and matters in general. In this disposition of my soul which places itself open before you, without fear and in all simplicity, you should not take offence over any of my thoughts, any of my judgments. I may be mistaken, undoubtedly, but I should not be blamed since the more harsh my appraisals the more will I have shown you my affectionate trust and my total friendship.” (Oblate Writings I, vol. 5, no. 70, p. 142)
This shared confidence explains the content of letters, the harsh judgments of persons and the emphasis Bishop de Mazenod placed on explaining and, perhaps we could say, striving to make his views and his projects prevail. Happily, Bishop Barnabò had developed an understanding of the Founder long before he received this confidential declaration. He never “took offence” at the content of the letters and, on the contrary, thanked the Founder for his communications and restated his esteem and his friendship. Let us briefly recall here what Bishop de Mazenod was advocating for the missions of Oregon and Ceylon.
Oregon. In all his letters, Bishop de Mazenod complained about the brothers Blanchet: Magloire Blanchet, initially bishop of Walla Walla and then of Nesqually and Norbert Blanchet, archbishop of Oregon. He acknowledged their zeal, but accused them of taking over everything: financial administration and control of the secular and religious clergy. In order to assure more independence for his Oblates, already in 1848, the Founder recommended Father Pascal Ricard, the Oblate superior, for the see of Walla Walla, then of Nesqually (Letters of November 23 and December 30, 1848, July 30, 1849, etc.).
The Oblates left Oregon in 1858 when their missions burned down. They went North to the territory where Bishop Demers, Bishop of Vancouver had been asking for them for a long time to evangelize the Amerindians. From 1858 to 1861, Bishop de Mazenod had incessantly recommended that Cardinal Barnabò should establish a vicariate of British Columbia and the entrust it to the Oblates. His efforts bore no fruit during his lifetime. It was only in 1863 that Father D’Herbomez was to be appointed vicar apostolic of the vicariate.
Ceylon. The Founder’s concerns for the missions of Ceylon were more numerous and more complicated. The Oblates went to Ceylon in 1847 at the request of Bishop Bettachini, the vicar apostolic of Jaffna. Bishop de Mazenod was always grateful for that, but he often complained about the vicar apostolic. His first reason for complaint was that the vicar apostolic wanted to keep for himself the whole sum of money contributed by the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Next, he complained because the vicar apostolic invited the Jesuits to establish themselves in the vicariate and especially because, from 1849 to 1856, he refused to have Father Semeria appointed as his coadjutor. Bishop Bettachini stood firm and Bishop de Mazenod, for his part, never ceased pressing Bishop Barnabò to appoint Father Semeria a bishop. Bishop Barnabò understood and approved the Founder’s project, but he did not impose his views on Bishop Bettachini. Father Semeria was appointed co-adjutor in 1856, then vicar apostolic of Jaffna in 1857, after Bishop Bettachini’s death.
In 1851, at the express request of Propaganda, four Oblates were sent to the vicariate of Colombo. Bishop Bravi, a Sylvestrine, coadjutor of Bishop Gaetano Musulce, opposed their coming and caused all sorts of problems for them thereafter. Bishop de Mazenod soon pressed Cardinal Barnabò to send more Oblates to Colombo with a view to one day entrusting this vicariate to them. Upon the death of Bishop Bravi in 1859, the Founder wrote several letters recommending that Bishop Semeria be transferred to Colombo. But after leaving the see vacant for two years, Colombo was conferred upon Sillani, a Sylvestrine. It was only in 1883, after the death of Cardinal Barnabò that Father Bonjean, o.m.i., was appointed to Colombo.
South Africa. It was Cardinal Barnabò who, in 1850, suggested the vicariate of Natal to the Founder. The Founder accepted immediately by withdrawing his priests from Algeria where, he wrote in his March 28, 1850 diary entry: “The ministry allotted to our missionaries in Algeria is not the one we should be exercising.” The question of Africa is rarely mentioned in the Founder’s correspondence with Propaganda.
The cardinalate. In 1859 Cardinal Barnabò became Bishop de Mazenod’s roman confidante in the course of an affair that was rather painful for Bishop de Mazenod. In July, Napoleon III presented him for the cardinalate. The news spread quickly in France and Bishop de Mazenod received congratulatory messages from all over, but was astonished that there was no reaction from Rome. He was quite aware that in the matter of elevation to the cardinalate, Rome considered it of prime importance that this remain a secret until the Sovereign Pontiff officially promulgated it. He was worried about it and subsequently wrote to Cardinal Barnabò on August 26. He began his letter with these words. “Today, I am turning to a friend who shares my heartfelt love for many years already and who, for his part, has shown me so many tokens of his kindness...” He asked him to try and find out what the Pope thought of his being presented for the cardinalate.
The cardinal answered that he was still very much in the Pope’s favour and that he agreed with the presentation, but he was upset with the Emperor who did nothing to defend the Papal States. Bishop de Mazenod thanked him in a September 15 letter and stated that henceforth he was at peace with regard to the Holy Father’s attitude toward him. He waited patiently to see the outcome of the affair. He was not elevated to the cardinalate in the consistory of September 26. The very next day, he did not conceal his hurt feelings from the cardinal. “I accept with resignation the immense humiliation inflicted upon me before the whole world by a hand that is very dear to me.” He went on to say that this “lesson” means very little to the Emperor, but “is hard for the bishop, the one most devoted to the Holy See and who, for more than fifty years, never ceased giving proof of that devotion at his own personal cost. I do not say that to complain, “ he added. “God preserve me from that! But it eases my suffering to be able to pour it into your kind heart.”
The Cardinal and the Oblates after 1861
After Bishop de Mazenod’s death, Cardinal Barnabò continued to take an interest in the Oblate missions. Several times he received Father Fabre on the occasion of his visit to Rome in December 1862 (Missions, 1863, p. 275, 279, 566-567, 583), as well as Father Augustin Gaudet in 1865 (Ibid., 1865, p. 485) and Bishop Grandin in 1874 (Ibid., 1874, p. 136, 140), etc.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.
Lettres de Mgr de Mazenod à la S. Congrégration et à l’œuvre de la Propagation de la foi, 1832-1861, Écrits oblats, I, vol. 5, passim.
LEFLON, Jean, Eugène de Mazenod, vol. III, Paris, 1965, passim.
METZLER, Joseph, o.m.i., “Präfekten und Sekretäre de Kongregation in Zeitalter de Neueren Missionsära (1818-1918); Alessandro Barnabò” in S.C. de Propaganda Fide, Memoria Rerum, vol. III, I, p. 40-48.