Orthodox America


  A Roman Catholic Abbe Who Became an Orthodox Priest


The future Fr. Vladimir was born 1 December 1816, in the town of Blois, on the Loire River in central France.  René-Francois, as he was called, received an upbringing typical for a boy from a wealthy and respected family of that time.  From his first lessons with the local curé, he went on to seminary and completed the graduate program.  Even then he sensed the error of the scholastic approach, although it was still some time before he was sufficiently equipped to be able to repudiate it.

Ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1839, he was first an assistant pastor in a small country town, and later had his own flock elsewhere, where he organized a school for children. His scholarship-his work in the libraries, his love for reading and textual analysis-drew the attention of the local bishop.  It was at this time that the 32-year old Guettée came out with his twelve-volume History of the Church in France. Soon thereafter Guettée moved to Paris, where he found himself under attack by the cardinal of that city and the Jesuits, who vehemently objected to the strongly Gallican spirit of his History.

With the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin (1854), which likewise troubled many other clergy and laity, Guettée began publication of The Catholic Review, a journal in which he tried to refute this error.  As he himself later recalled, the issue forced him to reexamine the grounds for the Roman Catholic teaching regarding the papacy. "Here I began to look at the papacy first-hand. ... And I saw it for what it really was. ... I re-read the words of the most erudite defenders of the papacy, and I became convinced that it is based neither on Holy Scripture nor on the Tradition of the Church Universal."

Guettée's examination of the papacy opened his eyes to a whole system of errors, which, under his scrutiny, "collapsed like the walls of Jericho at Joshua's trumpets."

Increasingly disaffected by Roman Catholicism, Guettée would no doubt have wandered about in limbo for some time were it not for a providential encounter with Fr. Joseph Vassiliev, who served the chapel in the Russian embassy on rue Grenelle, and who assisted Guettée in his move towards Orthodoxy.  Fr. Guettée renamed his journal The Christian Union.  Initially published under the editorial guidance of Fr. Joseph, the journal attracted a number of collaborators, including the Russian slavophile, Alexis Khomiakov.  It held aloft the banner of Orthodoxy, deflecting the attacks and slanders of its adversaries, and exposing the Catholic propaganda spread by Russians who had fallen prey to the Jesuits. In its pages Vladimir Soloviev was soundly rebuffed for his Uniate pretentions. The journal likewise proved valuable in acquainting Roman Catholic theologians with the teachings of the Orthodox faith.

If Fr. Guettée had any lingering doubts concerning Orthodoxy, they were dispelled by Bishop Leonty of Petersburg, who came to Paris for the consecration of the Russian church. By this time no half-way solution such as Jansenism or Old Catholicism could satisfy Fr. Guettée.  He saw that outside of Orthodoxy, everything else simply wandered around or near the truth, but only Orthodoxy possessed it.

"From my conversations with His Grace," wrote Fr. Guettée, "it became clear that although formally I was not Orthodox, I was nevertheless a genuinely Orthodox writer....And I fervently desired to become Orthodox in deed, i.e., to belong to the Russian Church."  An exception was made and, by order of the Holy Synod, Guettée was received into the Orthodox Church in his clerical rank (under the present circumstances such economy would clearly be inadmissible).  "I became Orthodox," said Fr. Guettée, "without having read a single book about Orthodoxy, simply having studied the Fathers of the Church, the decrees of the first ecumenical councils, and the incontestable facts of the history of the Church."

In answer to those who scornfully referred to Orthodoxy as a "schism," Fr. Vladimir titled the first part of his theologico-historical work, The Schismatic Papacy. It was followed by a second volume, The Heretical Papacy.  Instead of any scholarly refutations or arguments, Fr. Guettée was showered with abuse, anonymous letters, threats.  Still, among the more perceptive and honest of the Roman Catholic theo-logians were those who understood the essence of these works.  An eminent German theologian responded, "This is one of those works which is absolutely irrefutable!" Fr. Vladimir became Orthodox from within, from study and reflection.  Apart from the services in the Russian Church in Paris, he was still not acquainted with the external aspects of Orthodoxy. Then he went to Russia, where he found himself immersed in a thoroughly Orthodox milieu. "Everything in the conduct of the services was majestic, solemn, superb-without being in the least theatrical!  Such a contrast to what we have become accustomed in the West.  This is what struck me first. In their profound simplicity of services, which transport the spirit back to the Church of the first centuries, the bishop, priest, deacon, and devout people comprise a single entity, offering praise to God and entreating His mercy."

At the recommendation of the professors of the Moscow Academy, Fr. Vladimir was awarded the rank of doctor of theology, and he was given a diploma written up by Metropolitan Philaret himself.  He also had the honor of being received by Tsar Alexander II.

His enthusiasm and love for Russian Orthodoxy did not mean, however, that in order to be Orthodox one necessarily had to become Russian, Greek, Serbian...  And this point of view, held by Fr. Guettée, was wholly shared by his Russian friends and supporters.

Returning to France he commenced work on his monumental History of the Church. The work was designed to show "what seems evident enough-that the Orthodox Church is the heir of the Early Church. And a faithful heir, having neither added to nor changed the doctrines of the faith.  For this reason this is the true Apostolic Church of Christ."

In order to work in peace, Fr. Guettée was compelled to emigrate from his native France. He moved to Luxembourg, and there managed to produce seven of the ten proposed volumes of his History.  His missionary accomplishments also include translation into French of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, with explanatory notes, and publication of An Explanation of the Doctrine of the Orthodox Church: Differences with other Christian Churches. His autobiographical book, Memoirs of a Roman Catholic Priest Who Became Orthodox (Paris 1889), was soon translated into Russian and, in view of Roman Catholic proselytizing efforts today, deserves to be reprinted. Guettée died March 10/23, 1892, at the age of 76.  His remains were brought back to Paris for the funeral and were buried in the Batignole cemetery. On the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, 1992, in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of his repose, clergy of the Russian Church Abroad served a memorial service at his grave.

Guettée's contemporary, Monseigneur Emile Boujeau, once declared, "Who in France could possibly take it into their head to become a Greek [i.e., Orthodox] schismatic!"  Abbé Guettée was not the only one to prove wrong the Roman prelate's contemptuous remark.  Roughly calculated, the number of Orthodox clergy in Western Europe, who, like Guettée, converted to the Faith, now exceeds the number of those born in the Faith.


From an article in Pravoslavnaya Rus', No. 9, 1992, which was compiled from materials in the Diocesan Messenger of the Western-European Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.  A more complete biography of Fr. Guettée was recently authored in French by Jean-Paul Besse (Lavardac 1992).

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