After visiting the Oblates in ND du Laus, whose communitarian failings had left Eugene in an unhappy state, he reached Switzerland. His first stop was Geneva – in the Protestant part of the country, and he was horrified to experience, at first hand, the effects of the Reformation, whose extent he had never understood before.
…We arrived very early in this capital of error. I can give you no idea of the painful impression that I felt. The sight of the Catholic Church where I hastened to go and adore Our Lord, only served to aggravate my anguish; the smallness of this church, in the center of a city so remarkably well built, its apparent poverty in the midst of so many riches; the thought that the fine building of St. Peter is in the power of the heretics, everybody I met in the streets marked with the sign of heresy, all contributed to chill the soul and throw me into a deep sadness.
Letter to Henri Tempier, 26 July 1830, EO VII n 349
Again, we need to suspend passing judgement according to today’s standards on attitudes of two centuries ago. Let us remember that it took another 150 years after Eugene’s writings for the word “ecumenism” to first enter into Christian vocabulary. So, from the Roman Catholic theological point of view, the only possibility that existed in Eugene’s time was conversion of the “heretics” and “schismatics” to the true faith enshrined in the Catholic Church.
We also need to remember that Eugene had had hardly any contact with Protestantism. His early years were in southern France and then in what is Italy today – both officially totally Catholic, with insignificantly tiny pockets of non-Catholics. We will see some change of attitude later, when he was Bishop of Marseilles and when he was sending missionaries into predominantly Protestant countries.
After having judged with great severity the heresy and the errors in which the Protestants lived, one is surprised to find here and there in the writings of Bishop de Mazenod judgments that are much more moderate and positive. Twice he calls the Protestants “our errant brothers,” and twice “our separated brethren.” Yvon Beaudoin, “Mgr de Mazenod et les Protestants” in Vie Oblate Life 58 (1999), p 522-523