Dissez, Father Paulinus
1908, January 25
Date of Birth: 1828, July 13
February 25, 1908
Fathers and Very Dear in Our Lord:
Last January 25th at the Baltimore seminary the venerable Father Dissez was called to God in the eightieth year of his life and the fifty-first of his service in that house.
By this twofold longevity he was separated quite a bit from the confreres whom he left after him; however, he had never been isolated among them as if he were a throwback to a bygone generation. He remained an integral and very active member of the community of directors and of that of the seminarians. But that was due especially to the liveliness of his faith and zeal which underlay the vitality of many of his other traits. The supernatural spirit was the outstanding character of his life and works. And so he gave to everyone, far and near, the impression of a true saintliness. This impression, on the news of his death, surfaced in quite different ways: here, very simply in the cry of a young seminarian, “What a good time Father Dissez will have now;” elsewhere, eloquently and solemnly as in a telegram from the Archbishop of St. Paul, “Father Dissez’ death makes the American Church view the passage of a saint from earth to heaven.”
Father Paulin Francis Dissez was born at Rodez on July 13, 1828, of a thoroughly Christian family richer in the gifts of spirit and mind than in those of wealth. His maternal grandfather, in going to work in his vineyard, would recite in turn the rosary and the Miserere. His father, first chanter of the Rodez Cathedral, had published a well-known hymn book which had, in its time, quite a vogue. Young Paulin, in his studies at the minor seminary of Rodez, was the contemporary and rival of Father Bonal and always remained on friendly terms with him.
After two years of Philosophy and two of Theology at Rodez, he came to spend another two at St. Sulpice, where, towards the end, he was ordained priest on May 21, 1853. The following year was that of his Solitude. You can understand that Solitude helped to inspire a great trust in his maturity; for he received his first assignment to the seminary of Lyon, and there was soon put in charge of a course of Patristic Dogma. Three years spent in this position sufficed to leave his students some memories of a remarkable liveliness, as several have indicated on hearing of his death. “He was,” said one, “a saint in the guise of a theological expert. We called him Doctor Subtillis. I can still hear him making superhuman efforts to reach in his clear voice the far reaches of the vast room, and to throw light on various errors. He succeeded well in what he was doing. In all phases of his life, even recreations, he was seen as a man who lived in God and barely touched the ground.” “Very devoted to his students,” said another, “he gave himself and spent himself without reckoning the cost. His, moreover, was an exemplary regularity; he never wasted the least bit of his time.” Still recalled are touching traits of perfect justice, of the spirit of obedience and of humility, traits which will long be remembered. Still spoken of are the penetrating power of his preaching, his angelic appearance (in spite of some slightly irregular features), the affectionate goodness which made other – for the pleasure involved – seek out his company.
The young Sulpician was certainly happy in a house where he was doing so well, when, at the end of three years – stirred up by what he was hearing about the needs of the Baltimore seminary and encouraged by his director – he volunteered to go to work there. Apostolic zeal alone was pushing him there, zeal that was the underpinning of his whole life. Father Dissez still avowed in his old age that the sacrifice had been great; but he quickly added that he had never regretted it. The ardor of his heart never cooled off in regard to his own loved ones nor to his fatherland. Eldest of two brothers and a sister, he was always – in spite of distance – their advisor and their mainstay, so much so that no family decision was made without his being consulted. “I did not yet even know my uncle,” said a niece of Father Dissez who became a religious, “and still I was convinced that he was a saint. He wrote me charming little letters which to me seemed to come from heaven.”
No one was ever more faithful than he in friendship, and I personally know that all his life he kept up a regular correspondence with one of his fellow-seminarians who is today Superior of the Piopus Fathers, Our confreres at Rodez, for their part, bear witness of the lively interest he continued to take in his diocese, his seminary, in the Church in France. On the occasion of the nominations for the filling of the Sees of Rodez and Mende, he wrote: “Pius X’s act, in himself consecrating such excellent bishops, is a great event which gives me hope for a happy outcome for the crisis which cuts across Church and nation in France.” In his visits to the Rodez seminary, he showed to his confreres, both for themselves and for their situation, the most affectionate feelings. The last time, thinking the seminary’s poverty had deepened, he even spontaneously made an offering to the Superior. In his part of the country it was often recalled that Cardinal Bourret, in speaking of Father Dissez, went so far as to apply to himself the words of St. John the Baptist: I am not worthy to unloose the strap of his sandal.
But it must be said that if Father Dissez seemed to have left all his heart at Rodez, he had in fact much more of it in Baltimore in the sense that he did there the real work of his vocation – to which he dedicated all his days and all his hours with a conscientiousness, an application, a zeal, and an affection which it would be difficult to outdo.
To form the priestly spirit in the souls of young men, to engage it and develop it in the souls of priests, was always in his eyes the main thing; and, before all else, he worked at it by example. You may be sure that for fifty years you never saw him miss an exercise or arrive at it late; and, feeble though he was in his last years, he did not give up going with the community to the offices at the Cathedral until the Superior expressly forbade him.
His spiritual direction was that of a priest whose spirit and life are entirely based in the supernatural order, but who knows how to tailor his lessons to the soul’s development and to take into account all the demands of practical living. He lived habitually in the presence of God, so much so that to explain the prayer of simple contemplation he said: “One spends all one’s time in prayer, as in the moments which follow Communion, in looking at Our Lord. Little by little, one comes to extend that disposition to all the hours of the day.” To a confrere who inquired how he was always able to make the Sign of the Cross so perfectly, he replied: It is very easy; I think about what I am saying.”
He practiced to perfection all Sulpician devotions, and the maxim: Sacerdos alter Christus [The priest is another Christ] seemed to dominate his thoughts. In his last years especially, his subjects for prayer all concerned themselves with the formation of Jesus Christ in priestly souls.
But this elevated sanctity of soul and life did not keep him from reaching down to young men and good priests who were not rising as high as they might. A few months ago, to a visitor annoyed by the noise which the seminarians were making in their games, he replied: “Let them have a good time. They are young and they need their recreation.”
This man of God, so austere himself and so detached from the world in his interior life, also understood the forms of Christian living which are consonant with the social environment in which American Catholics and priests exist. The Archbishop of Dubuque, having come from his distant diocese to preach at Father Dissez’ funeral, publicly rendered him this significant tribute: “I found him so American, in the best sense of that word, that in all the vicissitudes of a career of thirty-seven years as missionary and bishop in this land, I have always congratulated myself that he was my director.” Father Dyer, on the occasion of Father Dissez’ golden jubilee in 1903, underlined at that time in his tribute the virtue which gleams with the pure spirit of the Gospel, the spirit of Our Lord, to widen and brighten the spirit, the heart, and all the praiseworthy feelings.
Father Dissez was generous of what was his, and he was paid back in kind. The filial veneration with which he was seen to be surrounded was likely to make – particularly an outsider – one think that his appearance (a bit odd by reason of certain details of dress) was a parody of himself. No one at the seminary seemed to be aware of it. In Father Dissez was seen only the soul, the heart, and the spirit, the holy priest, the director, the friend, the teacher.
As for the last title, he also rendered great service in the teaching of Moral Theology and Canon Law. During the five years following his coming to Baltimore, he was in charge of the less difficult courses of Philosophy and Physics; but starting in 1862 – up to the failure of his health – for about forty years he continuously held the chair of Moral Theology with the exception of the year 1884/85 when he was kept in France by an illness contracted in the course of the voyage he had made to get there.
To that teaching, which the delicacy of his health never made easy, he added in time a correspondence even more burdensome as his reputation as a theologian grew, especially in the United States. Up to the last weeks of his life he was being consulted on cases of conscience, and he was responding to those who sought his opinion.
But there can be no doubt that nothing was more remarkable about his teaching than the care he took all his life to prepare anew each of his classes as if he were treating the subject for the first time, thus making his students benefit from the developments of the science and from his own experience. With this approach he was also always able in his lectures to sustain the interest and attention which could keep a class awake. By this constant work, Father Dissez had put together notes ample enough to provide matter for several volumes. It did not seem, however, that he ever thought of having any book published. The essential functions of Sulpician ministry were enough to fill up his life in a most satisfying way. Indeed, in a light vein, a serious and very beautiful tribute was paid to him on the day of his golden jubilee, a tribute whose purpose was to call attention to the priests whom he had formed by the hundreds, if not by the thousands: Non ab uno disce omnes, sed ex omnibus unum Dissez.*
After declining gradually, mostly from nervous exhaustion, this venerable confrere’s health, always observable, still seemed good in the last months. In January he caught cold; and at the time the students had just left for their mid-year vacation. He one day felt himself so weak that on leaving dinner he had to retire to his room. That was January 23rd. Yet towards two o’clock, he fell into a troubled sleep during which he tried to murmur some prayers. In the evening the time seemed to have come for administering the last sacraments to him; and Cardinal Gibbons, notified, hastened to the bedside of his old teacher who remained his dear friend. Father Dissez had recovered enough consciousness to be able to speak some edifying words to the community gathered around his bed. It was about seven o’clock in the evening. Soon after, sleepiness overtook him; and without agony he rendered his last breath at two o’clock in the morning as the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul was getting under way.
The funeral was held on January 28th, at the same time as that of a young seminarian who also had just died. Cardinal Gibbons, obliged to go to Boston to confer the pallium on the Archbishop there, before leaving, had come to bid a last farewell to the mortal remains of Father Dissez. Several bishops honored the funeral with their presence; and in spite of the absence of the seminarians – still on vacation – the seminary chapel was filled with a good number of the clergy.
The Mass was chanted by Bishop Curtis, the Cardinal’s Auxiliary; a sermon was preached by the Chancellor of the Archdiocese; the absolution was given by Archbishop Keane of Dubuque, who also conducted the burial service in the little cemetery on the seminary grounds; and he said aloud, before leaving: “Farewell, Father Dissez; may you always be for us a light, a guide a consoler.”
Let us also, Fathers, ask of this holy confrere (while still praying for him) that he obtains for our family some worthy heirs of his virtues. Let us strive to walk in his steps. In France and in America, saints will always be the greatest treasure of our works.
I renew to you the expression of my thoroughly devoted sentiments in Our Lord.
Superior of St. Sulpice