From One Epidemic to Another: The Character of Bishop Henri de Belsunce

May 13, 2020

The month of May 2020, marked this year by the coronavirus epidemic, is the occasion to evoke the character of Bishop Henri de Belsunce de Castelmoron (1671-1755). From May 1720 - the date of the appearance of the plague in Marseille - to May 1722, the date of the city’s consecration to the Sacred Heart, the bishop of the city of Marseilles displayed incomparable zeal in order to come to the aid of a wounded population. Historian Régis Bertrand gives a fascinating account.

On May 25, 1720, the merchant ship Grand Saint-Antoine dropped anchor in Marseilles from Syria. The tons of fabric and goods on board were unloaded onto the quays. A few weeks later, the plague appeared in the city.

The Bishop of Marseille, Msgr. Henri de Belsunce, reacted with heroism. This brilliant prelate, from a Protestant family returned to Catholicism after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, a former student of the Jesuits at the Louis-le-Grand high school in Paris, revealed an uncommon energy.

He immediately showed a great sense of organization, acting as a true pastor of his flock for which he was ready to give his life. The historian Régis Bertrand, his biographer, published in the Revue Codex a story retracing his three-fold action:

“First, he managed the religious of the diocese, that is, he replaced those who had fled or died, and established a permanent rotation with those who remained. Second, he provided material support to the most modest, threatened by misery because of the economic crisis induced by the epidemic. To help them, he depleted his episcopal revenues and his personal fortune. Third, he especially provided spiritual support to the sick: his main concern was that plague victims not die deprived of the last sacraments, nor by cursing God. Obsessed with this fear, he tirelessly roamed the contaminated quarters of the city, comforting the sick and administering the sacraments.”

Consecration to the Sacred Heart 

What is especially remembered about the bishop of Marseilles is the consecration of his diocese to the Sacred Heart. On the feast of All Saints 1720, Henri de Belsunce, repeating the gesture of St. Charles Borromeo in Milan, roamed through the city of Marseille barefoot, without miter and with a rope around his neck, as a sign of penance. Then he consecrated the whole diocese to the Sacred Heart of Jesus during an open-air mass—the churches being closed—in the presence of a large crowd.

As Régis Bertrand notes, this act was daring since the prelate defied the decision of the city’s magistrates, who were opposed to any gathering that risked spreading the epidemic. This gesture was also daring because it was unprecedented. Indeed, devotion to the Sacred Heart was relatively recent. Propagated for less than a century by the sons of St. John Eudes, it was fought by the Jansenist party, of which Bishop de Belsunce was a declared adversary. Besides, he considered the plague epidemic to be a chastisement from God, a punishment against the rebellious Jansenists.

The plague began to decrease during the following winter, but returned in two successive waves, in 1721 then in April 1722. The bishop then got the magistrates to go with him and carry out the consecration of the city. The civil power must also render its religious duties, because Caesar is no less subject to God than the rest of men. On May 28, 1722, the highest authorities in Marseille vowed to assist at the Mass of the Sacred Heart each year and to offer an imposing candle struck with the arms of the city. Shortly after, the plague epidemic disappeared for good.

In 2020, given the Covid-19 epidemic, Msgr. Jean-Marc Aveline, Archbishop of Marseille, decided to move the commemoration of the tercentenary of the city's consecration to the Sacred Heart to Palm Sunday.