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Jean-Baptiste-François Pitra

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Cardinal, famous archeologist and theologian, b. 1 August, 1812, at Champforgeuil in the Department of Saône-et-Loire, France; d. 9 Feb., 1889, in Rome. He was educated at Autun, ordained priest on 13 December, 1836, and occupied the chair of rhetoric at the petit séminaire of Autun from 1836 to 1841. From his early youth he manifested indefatigable diligence which, combined with brilliant talents and a remarkable memory, made him one of the most learned men of his time. The first fruit of his scholarship was his decipherment, in 1839, of the fragments of a sepulchral monument, discovered in the cemetery of Saint-Pierre at Autun and known as the "Inscription of Autun". It probably dates back to the third century, was composed by a certain Pectorius and placed over the grave of his parents. The initials of the first five verses of the eleven-line inscription form the symbolical word ‘ichthús (fish), and the whole inscription is a splendid testimony of the early belief in baptism, the Holy Eucharist, prayer for the dead, communion of saints, and life everlasting. He published the inscription in "Spicilegium Solesmense" (III, 554-64).

In 1840 Pitra applied to Abbot Guéranger of Solesmes for admission into the Benedictine order but, to accommodate the Bishop of Autun, he remained another year as professor at the petit séminaire of Autun. He finally began his novitiate at Solesmes on 15 January, 1842, and made his profession on 10 February, 1843. A month later, he was appointed prior of St-Germain in Paris. During his sojourn there he was one of the chief collaborators of Abbé Migne in the latter's colossal "Cursus patrologiæ". Pitra drew up the list of the authors whose writings were to find a place in the work, and collaborated in the edition of the Greek writers up to Photius, and of the Latin up to Innocent III. At the same time he contributed extensively to the newly founded periodical "Auxiliare catholique". In 1845 he had to break his connexion with the great work of Migne, owing to the financial difficulties of the priory of St-Germain, which finally had to be sold to satisfy the creditors. Pitra undertook a journey through Champagne, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and England in the interests of his priory. At the same time he visited numerous libraries in these countries in search of unpublished manuscripts bearing on the history of the early Christian Church. The fruits of his researches he gave to the world in his famous "Spicilegium Solesmense" (see below).

His many great archæological discoveries and his unusual acquaintances with whatever bore any relation to the Byzantine Church, induced Pius IX to send him on a scientific mission to the libraries of Russia in 1858. Before setting out on his journey he studied the manuscripts relative to Greek canon law, in the libraries of Rome and other Italian cities. In Russia, where he spent over seven months (July, 1859- March, 1860), he had free access to all the libraries of St. Petersburg and Moscow. On his return he made an official visit of the twenty Basilian monasteries of Galicia at the instance of the papal nuncio at Vienna. After arranging his writings at the monasteries of Solesmes and Ligugé, he was called to Rome in August, 1861, to consult with the pope on the advisability of erecting at the Propaganda a special department for Oriental affairs and to make a personal report on his findings in the libraries of Russia. Pitra was also chosen to supervise the new edition of the liturgical books of the Greek Rite, which was being prepared by the Propaganda. He was created cardinal on 16 March, 1863, with the titular church of St. Thomas in Parione. As his residence he chose the palace of San Callisto where he continued to live the simple life of a monk as far as his new duties permitted.

On 23 Jan., 1869, he was appointed librarian of the Vatican. He drew up new and more liberal regulations for the use of the library and facilitated in every way access of scholars to the Vatican manuscripts. Above all, however, he himself made diligent researches among the manuscripts and published many rare and valuable specimens in his "Analecta" (see below). At the Vatican Council in 1870, he ably maintained against the inopportunists that the Catholics of the Greek and Oriental Churches upheld the papal infallibility. After the accession of Leo XIII (20 Feb., 1878) he supervised the edition of a catalogue of the Vatican manuscripts, of which the first volume, "Codices Palatini Græci", appeared in 1885 and was prefaced by Cardinal Pitra with a laudatory epistle addressed to Leo XIII. On 21 May, 1879, he was appointed Cardinal-Bishop of Frascati and for five years laboured incessantly for the welfare of his diocese, which had been greatly neglected. On 24 Merch, 1884, he was transferred to the episcopal See of Porto and Santa Rufina to which was annexed the dignity of subdean of the Sacred College. On 19 May, 1885, Abbé Brouwers published in the "Amstelbode", a Catholic journal of Belgium, a letter of Pitra, which the hostile press construed into an attack upon the policy of Leo XIII; but Pitra soon satisfied the Holy See of his filial devotion.

Cardinal Pitra was one of the most learned and pious members of the Sacred College. Besides being Librarian of the Holy Roman Church and member of various Roman congregations and cardinalitial commissions, he was cardinal protector of the Cistercians, the Benedictine congregation of France, the Benedictine nuns of St. Cecilia at Solesmes and of Stanbrook in England, the Eudists, the Brothers of Christian Schools, the Sisters of Mercy of St. Charles in Nancy, and the Sisters of the Atonement in Paris. The following are his literary productions:—(1) "Histoire de Saint Léger, évêque d'Autun et martyr, et de l'église des Francs au VIIe siècle" (Paris, 1846), one of the most complete monographs on the Church of the Franks during the seventh century; (2) "La Hollande catholique" (Paris, 1850), consisting mostly of letters concerning Holland and its people, which he wrote while travelling in that country in 1849; (3) "Etudes sur la collection des Actes des Saints par les RR. PP. Jésuites Bollandistes" (Paris, 1850), a complete history of the "Acta Sanctorum" of the Bollandists, preceded by a treatise on the hagiological collections up to the time of Rosweyde (d. 1629); (4) "Spicilegium Solesmense" (4 vols., Paris, 1852-1858), a collection of hitherto unpublished works of Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church and other early ecclesiastical writers; (5) "Vie du P. Libermann" (Paris, 1855; 2nd ed., 1872; 3rd ed., 1882), a very reliable life of the Venerable Paul Libermann, founder of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Libermann had been a personal acquaintance of Pitra; (6) "Juris ecclesiastici Græcorum historia et monumenta" (2 vols., Rome, 1864-8), containing the canonical writings of the Greeks from the so-called "Apostolic Constitutions" to the "Nomocanon", generally ascribed to Photius. With its learned introduction and its many notes and comments, the work forms a complete history of Byzantine law; (7) "Hymnographie de l'église grecque" (Rome, 1867), a dissertation on Greek hymnography, accompanied by numerous Greek hymns in honour of Sts. Peter and Paul; (8) "Analecta sacra Spicilegio Solesmense". The first volume (Paris, 1876) contains Greek hymns; the second (Frascati, 1883), the third (Venice, 1883), and the fourth (Paris, 1883) contain writings of ante-Nicene Fathers; the fifth (Paris, 1888) is composed of writings of the Fathers and of a few pagan philosophers; the seventh (Paris, 1891) contains writings bearing on the canon law of the Greeks and was published posthumously by Battandier, who had been Pitra's secretary; the eighth (Monte Cassino, 1881) contains the writings of St. Hildegard; the sixth, which was to contain Greek melodies, has not been published; (9) "Analecta novissima" (2 vols., Frascati, 1885-8), a second supplement to "Spicilegium Solesmense". The first volume contains a French treatise on papal letters, bullaria, catalogues of popes etc., and a hitherto unpublished treatise on Pope Vigilius by Dom Constant. The second volume is devoted to writings of Odon d'Ourscamp, Odon de Châteauroux, Jacques de Vitry, and Bertrand de la Tour, four medieval French bishops of Frascati; (10) "Sancti Romani cantica sacra" (Rome, 1888), a collection of hymns written by Romanos, the greatest Byzantine hymnodist. Pitra presented this work to Leo XIII on the occasion of his sacerdotal jubilee. In addition to these works Pitra contributed numerous archæological, theological, historical, and other articles to various scientific periodicals of France.


     CABROL, Histoire du Cardinal Pitra, bénédictin de la Congrégation de France (Paris, 1893), tr. into German by BÜHLER in Studien und Mitteilungen aus dem Benediktiner- und Cistercienser-Orden, XXVII-XXX (Brünn, 1907-9); BATTANDIER, Le cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pitra, évêque de Porto, bibliothécaire de la Sainte Église romaine (Paris, 1896); CABROL, Le Cardinal Pitra. Ses travaux et ses découvertes in Science catholique (1889), tr. in The Lamp (1899); Bibliographie des Bénédictines de la Congrégation de France (Paris, 1906), 120-31.

About this page

APA citation. Ott, M. (1911). Jean-Baptiste-François Pitra. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Ott, Michael. "Jean-Baptiste-François Pitra." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to Fr. John Hilkert, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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