The Abbey-Principality has recently been sent a copy of an important letter of Mgr. Joseph-René Vilatte (1854-1929) (who would become Prince-Abbot Joseph III of San Luigi in 1899). The letter is dated 29 December 1893 and is addressed to Prince Guy de Lusignan (1831-1906), a Patron of the Order of the Crown of Thorns.
At the time of writing, Vilatte had been Grand Master of the Order of the Crown of Thorns for just six months, having succeeded the Rev. Gaston Fercken. The Order was the first Western-style order of chivalry to be established under the Orthodox Church rather than Rome, when in 1891 the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Peter IV approved the refoundation under Fercken of the former medieval Order of the Crown of Thorns. In 1899, it would unite with the separate branch of the Order that had been founded in 1883 by the first Prince-Abbot of San Luigi. Vilatte was consecrated Metropolitan for the Old Catholics of America by the Syrian Orthodox Church in 1892.
The letter makes it clear that problems had arisen in the Order under Fercken. According to Vilatte, Fercken had appointed as members of the Order several Parisian journalists. Mutual jealousies ensued and the Order found itself the victim of controversy and outright falsehood in the Parisian press. These developments had clearly occasioned Prince Guy’s concern and prompted him to write to Vilatte, who was at that time at his American missions in Wisconsin.
In writing, Vilatte directs a few barbs towards Rome which in his view had departed from Catholic faith and tradition in the First Vatican Council (1870) of still-recent memory. He speaks of the Order “refusing the infallible Pope’s blessing”, referring to the doctrine of Papal infallibility which had been central to the decrees of the First Vatican Council and which he did not accept. He then makes it clear that the Order of the Crown of Thorns is a Catholic order without being either Roman or Papist, since it had turned to Orthodox authority in the place of a fallen Rome.
A full transcript of the text of the letter follows:
Je suis profondement chagriné de voir les mensonges qui sont publiés dans les journeaux de Paris, au sujet de notre Saint Ordre.
Mais je puis vous assurer que depuis que j’ai l’honneur d’être le grand Maître de l’Ordre de la Couronne d’Epines, pas un seul français a été reçu dans l’ordre par moi. Les personnes qui ont demandés leur admission depuis 6 mois ont étés refuses elles étaient tous de Paris.
Si quelques personnes sont indiqués de notre Ordre la faute retourne sur mon predecesseur le Rev. Fercken. Qui malheureusement a reçu des journalistes qui sont jaloux les uns des autres. De là les mensonges etc etc.
Pour le future je puis vous assurer que l’ordre marchera dans le progrets et pour la défense de Jesus crucifié.
La France est un pays romain, soumise au Pape de Rome, il suffit pour notre ordre de la couronne d’Epines de refuser la benediction du Pape infaillible pour que les journaux français soient en harmonie avec le Pape de Rome pour maudire et mépriser les Ordres religieux qui sont Catholiques sans être romains ou papiste.
Dans l’espérance que vous comprendre la situation de notre St. Ordre. J’ai l’honneur de vous informer que pas un seul français a merité l’honneur depuis 6 mois d’être reçu par moi dans l’Ordre, et que personne a Paris pas selon que dans les autres pays n’a le droit ou l’autorité de conferer les brevets.
Dans l’espérance Monseigneur, que Dieu et la très St Mère vous combleront de benedictions pour cette nouvelle année.
J’ai l’honneur de vous saluir
+J R Vilatte
This is translated into English as follows:
December 29, 1893 United States
To His Royal Highness
Mgr. Guy de Lusignan,
Paris – Neuilly
I am deeply saddened to see the lies that are published in the newspapers of Paris, about our Holy Order.
But I can assure you that since I have the honour of being the Grand Master of the Order of the Crown of Thorns, not a single Frenchman has been received in the order by me. The people who applied for admission in the past 6 months were refused; they were all from Paris.
If some people are indicated to be in our Order the fault goes to my predecessor the Rev. Fercken. Who unfortunately received some journalists who are jealous of each other. From them come the lies etc etc.
For the future I can assure you that the order will work for the benefit and for the defense of Jesus crucified.
France is a Roman country, subject to the Pope of Rome, it suffices for our order of the Crown of Thorns to refuse the infallible Pope’s blessing, for the French newspapers to be in harmony with the Pope of Rome to curse and despise Religious Orders which are Catholic without being Roman or Papist.
In the hope that you will understand the situation of our Holy Order. I have the honour to inform you that for 6 months not a single Frenchman has deserved the honour of being received by me in the Order, and that no one in Paris, nor in other countries, has the right or authority to grant its brevets.
In the hope, Monseigneur, that God and the Blessed Mother may fill you with blessings for this new year.
I have the honour to greet you
+ J R Vilatte