The Dialogue of the Carmelites, by Francis Poulenc, is one of the few operas composed in the past half century worth hearing. Poulenc based his 1958 work on a drama of the same title that was written by Georges Bernanos, probably best known in the English-speaking world for his novel, Diary of a Country Priest. For his drama, Bernanos drew on the ascertainable facts surrounding the arrest, imprisonment, and execution in Paris on July 17, 1794 (this was during the French Revolution), of sixteen Carmelite nuns, all of whom were beatified by Pope St. Pius X in 1906.
In terms both of music and theater, the last scene of Poulenc’s Dialogue is extremely moving. In live performances it can happen that an audience will sit in silence for at least several beats when the curtain falls, instead of bursting instantly into applause and cries of “Bravo!” as opera audiences commonly do. They will be that moved.
What is staged in the scene is the execution of the nuns. We see them going one by one up the steps of the scaffold to the guillotine. What we hear are their voices raised in the singing of the Salve Regina against soaring music of Poulenc’s composition, but with the singing and music punctuated by the terrible swish and thunk of the mechanical blade’s fall. With each fall the number of voices becomes fewer until there is only one, that of the prioress, Mother Teresa. The sound of it ends abruptly with a last awful thunk. What is amazing is the sense with which we are left, despite the depiction of their death having reduced us to emotional shambles, that these holy nuns have somehow triumphed.
Triumphed over what? Over the men who put them to death and the Revolution those men served? Surely not, if by triumph we mean the nuns conquered or vanquished. We know, after all, that the real Revolution (the ongoing novus ordo saeculorum ), as well as the one whose minions kill the Carmelites in the opera, has continued to unfold unto our own day and, in fact, is in power, in some form, everywhere in ex-Christendom.
The nature of the Carmelites’ triumph is suggested when we remember that the scene in the opera replicates in essential details exactly what transpired in reality in 1794, according to eye-witness accounts. In the opera, and Bernanos’ drama, the triumph is made clearest of all through the character of Constance, the youngest of the sisters. She is portrayed as having left the community, but then coming to the place of execution and stepping from the crowd to reveal her identity so that she becomes the first to mount the scaffold, as in reality she was first, “with the air,” as one witness put it, “of a queen going to receive her crown.”
It is through the artistic license of having Constance abandon her vocation and then embrace it anew, knowing that the consequence will be death, that Poulenc and Bernanos reveal the nature of the Carmelites’ triumph. That is, what the sisters do by dying is actually live the Faith they have professed. Thus do they conquer the tepidity, vacillations, doubts, and cowardice of any we see on the stage who would call themselves Christian but dare not actually live the Faith. Thus, also, did the real Carmelites of 1794 triumph not simply over themselves, if such triumph was necessary for any of the real nuns, but over the skepticism, irreligion, and outright apostasy, widespread in a society that professed to be Catholic, but could not truly have been — not as once it was, not any longer — otherwise the Revolution would not have taken place, or at least would not have succeeded.
We want to tell here the story of the real Carmelites, the ones beatified by Pope St. Pius X. Before we do, we need to talk about the Revolution and the life of the Faith in France at the end of the eighteenth century. We do this for no other reason than to show the heroism of the Carmelites’ martyrdom.
Heroism? What does this word now mean? Has the value of any other been more debased in recent time? It has become a cliché since 9/11 to refer to any and every policeman and firefighter as a hero. Equally, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it seems that every soldier serving in that country, even if he never does anything but run a computer at headquarters, is to be held a hero. Real heroes, however, are nothing if not exceptional.
Many other Catholics besides the Carmelites died during the Revolution, to be sure. In fact, since France was nominally a Catholic nation, as she still is, we can say there were no victims except Catholic ones, at least until the Revolution began eating its own. Of course, even Danton, Robespierre, and nearly all the other revolutionaries who themselves wound up under the blade of the guillotine, had once been Catholic. They had all been baptized, received First Communion, and been confirmed.
The exact number of men and women put to death by the Revolution in France will never be known, and is negligible, anyway, in comparison to the millions it has killed all around the world during the two centuries since. A reasonable estimate is about forty thousand. Some of them certainly were killed for no reason except that they were Catholic. However, if our sixteen Carmelites were beatified by Pope St. Pius X and others never have been, it is because they embraced their death in a way others did not. One thinks, for instance, of the scores of clerics murdered on September 2, 1792. They did not embrace their death. Most of them tried to run, but had no place to go. Were they heroes simply because they died? (We shall be speaking of these priests in a little time.)
In any event, it is as we have already said: In order to show the singularity of the Carmelites, we want to provide a context for their willing sacrifice. However, without crowding too much into one article, or so we hope, there is something else we also want to get at. It is to get at it that we shall first speak very briefly of the Revolution as an historical force. After that, we shall furnish the context in which the sacrifice of the sixteen Carmelites can be seen in its real glory — a glory that becomes that only if it is seen surrounded by much that was quite otherwise.
As July 4, 1776 is now celebrated almost as if the United States of America came into full-blown, flourishing existence in that one day, so it is more-or-less imagined that the French Revolution was accomplished on July 14, 1789 — Bastille Day. Everybody will certainly have heard of the War of Independence, but was it fought before or after July 4, 1776? As for the French Revolution, most know it involved the beheading of the king. Was that right after July 14, 1789?
In fact, of course, our liberal republic would not begin its official life until thirteen years after 1776. Between the enacting of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 that year, and the adoption of the Constitution and Gen. Washington’s being sworn in as the first president, is when the War of Independence was fought. Much else also transpired.
Years also passed between the “storming” of the Bastille in 1789 and the birth of the French First Republic. France remained a monarchy with Louis XVI as king until August 10, 1792. In other words, it was only after that date that there came into being the organized revolutionary police state whose charter was the Declaration of the Rights of Man on which most of the world’s written constitutions have been based ever since.
When our liberal republic finally began its official life, the U.S. had about as much importance in world affairs as has, say, Bolivia today. France, on the other hand, was a major power. Indeed, though chauvinism now prevents its being readily acknowledged, it was French ships and troops sent to this side of the Atlantic that really won the War of Independence for us. In grateful recognition of the fact, portraits of Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette hung in places of honor in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives until the English burned the Capitol in the War of 1812.
France’s leading position also made the Revolution that began to unfold in 1789 an event of world importance, whereas the transformation into an independent nation of England’s thirteen colonies on the North American eastern seaboard, though noted everywhere, did not matter very greatly anywhere outside America and England. This was more the case since, to Catholic Europe, England had broken from the international society or commonwealth of Christian states that men called Christendom when Henry VIII broke from the Church. All of her newly-independent colonies in America were Protestant. Joined in union as a republic, what else could they become except a liberal one? On the other hand, the government overthrown by the French Revolution was Christian. Thus would it become a model for revolutionaries in other lands with Christian governments, like Spain and Portugal and their overseas territories in the Americas.
That is why the Revolution that began to unfold in France in 1789 did not end when the monarchy was abolished in August, 1792. Not only was that monarchy restored in 1815, but there was Christian resistance to the Revolution elsewhere. So it was that 1848 saw revolutionary uprisings against still-existing Catholic governments in Habsburg Vienna, Rome (the pope had to flee his capital) and various German states as well as Paris.
Even after the triumph of the Western liberal powers and their ally, the Communist Soviet Union, in World War II, there continued to be pockets of resistance to the Revolution. Franco had stopped it cold in Spain and then managed to hold it largely at bay until his death in 1975. Salazar did the same in Portugal. So did de Valera in Ireland.
It can be said that the Revolution is still not over because, even now, when it has been in power nearly everywhere for decades, there are still a couple of countries where divorce remains illegal; in several, too, abortion still remains a crime; it will probably be some time yet before same-sex “marriage” is possible everywhere; here and there heads of state are not yet chosen by direct, popular election. This is to speak merely of formerly Christian lands. Outside ex-Christendom, nearly the entire Mohammedan world remains resistant to the tide of messianic democracy, high as it is.
Supposing that its sway one day becomes total and universal? The Revolution would still not be ended, it would still have before it the task to which it already must largely devote itself, especially in formerly Catholic nations. That is to make sure the life of no nation is ever again governed, as improbable as it now seems any ever could be, according to Catholic beliefs, laws, and principles.
Whatever, having reminded ourselves that the Revolution as an historical development has been unfolding for two centuries all around the world, from Europe to the Western Hemisphere to China, and that as Christians we today live not simply in its aftermath but under its sway, we shall now concern ourselves with the situation of the Church in France after the original outbreak, but before the monarchy was abolished, and then we will take a look at her situation once the organized revolutionary police state replaced the monarchy. Beyond providing in this way some background for the martyrdom in July, 1794, of the beatified sixteen Carmelites, we shall have this question in mind: Was the demolition of the Church or eradication of religion the primary object of the Revolution, which seems to be what many Catholics in America believe?
Doubtless they are strengthened in their belief because they have heard of Voltaire’s cry, ” Ecrasez l’infame !” “Crush the Infamous One!” By “Infamous One” he certainly meant the Church, but when Voltaire first penned these words (he would write them numerous times) they were not a call for revolution. They were more an expression of intense personal frustration. It outraged his sense of man as a “free” being that there should exist an institution of such power and influence — the Church — that its precepts, codified in law and buttressed by custom, could set limits on anyone’s behavior, beginning with his own. When he first wrote those words the outbreak of the Revolution was far enough in the future that it was, at least then, as unimaginable to most men as in our day it was inconceivable to most, even a few years before the event, that the Communist Soviet Union would soon disappear.* Though Catholics who believe the object of the Revolution was to destroy Christianity are not correct, as we shall see (at first there was not even any intention to overthrow the monarchy) it is certainly true that the notion that the life of society should be governed according to the “will of the people,” instead of God’s, is at odds with the idea of government that was held as long as Christian government existed — i.e., before the Revolution. It should be observed, however, that our own historical experience as a nation shows human will can replace God’s as the governing principle of society without padlocking the churches. In fact, we have seen in the U.S. that Christianity, or at least Protestantism, can be enlisted to fortify the notion that government should be conducted according to the “will of the people.” (From arrogating to yourself the right to decide what is genuine Christian teaching, it is but an additional step, intellectually, to believe that the right to determine the course of the life of society also resides in you, and “equally” in your fellow citizens.)
If that is the case, what element of Christian belief must be eliminated or at least obscured so as to sufficiently protestantize the religion that it can be made compatible with the Revolution? That is the question — the other matter besides the story of the beatified Carmelites — that we want to get at here.
Once the monarchy was abolished, and with it a thousand years of French history set aside (even if they could not be immediately obliterated), it took little time for the mob to do what mobs will: kill and destroy in the anarchic spirit that is always let loose when political authority collapses. The killing in France started on September 2, 1792.
We have said that it was only after August 10 that there came into being the organized revolutionary police state that replaced the authority of the unity of throne and altar, which was the heart of Christian government in France and everywhere else in Christendom, but it did not come into being overnight. The new revolutionary authority was still consolidating itself on September 2. Yes, there was a government; the Revolution had recognized leaders (the chief of whom at the moment was Georges Jacques Danton); and the government had ordered the arrest of hundreds of “enemies of the Revolution,” mainly royalty, nobles and clergy. However, by the end of August at least some officials of the government were aware of a thickening atmosphere of potential violence, and were sufficiently humane to worry about what could befall the prisoners if the government did not exercise tighter control very soon.
Two such, the new republic’s Minister of Justice and the Inspector of Prisons, went to Danton and voiced their fears concerning the vulnerability of the “enemies of the Revolution” being held at various sites throughout Paris. We know the exact words with which Danton — whether cynically or preoccupied with other matters, we do not know — brushed them off: ” Je me fous bien des prisonniers; qu’ils deviennent ce qu’ils pourront! ” (“I don’t give a damn about the prisoners; let them take care of themselves.”)
The first victims of September 2 were nineteen priests out of a group of twenty-four who were being transferred that morning to the prison of the Abbaye from a town hall that had served as their holding cell. Only their armed escort had kept them from being attacked by a mob in the street during the transfer. Much of the mob then ran ahead to the gates of the prison itself. There they clamored that summary “justice” be rendered on the priests. The point to grasp is that these priests were not singled out to become the first victims of September 2 on account of their being priests. They weren’t singled out at all. Their fate was accidental. If other “enemies of the Revolution,” either other clerics or members of the nobility, were the ones being marched to the Abbaye, they would have been the day’s first victims.
Without dwelling on the details of it, such as they are known, the mob’s “judgment” was rendered in a courtyard of the prison. The killers used knives, axes, hatchets, swords and a carpenter’s saw. It took an hour and a half to stab and hack to death and dismember the nineteen priests.
News of the killing spread quickly throughout the city and the ghastly event was surpassed by the massacre that soon took place at the Convent of the Carmelites in rue de Vaugirard where 150 clerics had been held for two weeks. Their jailer was an ex-monk become radical revolutionary, a Jacobin, named Joachim Ceyrat. He ordered a roll call of his prisoners. As each priest responded, he was briefly questioned by Ceyrat, who then passed “sentence.” In this way several priests (the fortunate ones of that day) were shot in a more-or-less orderly fashion, but as the remaining prisoners realized what was happening, some tried to escape by climbing trees in the convent garden and throwing themselves over the wall onto the pavement below. Most fled into the convent chapel. They ran. But there was no exit to safety from the chapel, nor even any means of barring the door. The priests were dragged out one by one and in batches and killed by the same type of weapons used at the Abbaye prison. What is perhaps most horrifying is that there was nothing frenzied about the killing. We can imagine the screams of the victims, but according to an eyewitness account the executioners did their work in a “profound and somber silence.” In all, 115 clerics were subjected to the hache vengeresse (the axe of vengeance) at the Carmelite Convent. They included the Archbishop of Arles and the Bishops of Saintes and Beauvais.
Many others besides clerics were killed on September 2. Among the victims were former officials of the fallen monarchy and a poor man named Champlosse, whose only crime was that he had been a valet of the king. The most illustrious victim of the day, the one whose murder is always featured in history books to illustrate the horrors of September 2, was the beautiful Princesse de Lamballe, a friend and confidant of Queen Marie Antoinette. Held in the prison of La Force, she had spent the time since her arrest reading devotional books and trying to calm others of the queen’s terrified ladies-in-waiting. Hauled before an improvised revolutionary “court,” she was commanded to swear an oath of loyalty to Liberty and Equality and one of hatred to the king and queen. When she refused to swear the second oath, a door was opened and she could see men with axes and pikes waiting in an alley outside. She was then shoved into the alley and the door slammed shut behind her. She was hacked to death in a matter of moments. Her head was cut off and stuck on a pike, and her private parts, carved out of her body, put on similar display. “Display” is the correct word because there was then an obscene parade through the streets of Paris to the prison where the queen herself was being held. When the mob demanded that Marie Antoinette come to a window to see her friend’s head, “so you know how the people avenge themselves on tyrants,” the Queen fainted.
As for the new revolutionary government’s reaction to the atrocities of September 2, it was summed up the next day by Danton. It is really to recall what he said, not to establish that the Revolution was murderous, that we have described some of what took place on the Revolution’s first killing day. “The executions were necessary to appease the people of Paris,” he declared. Thus the victims were “an indispensable sacrifice.” Further, ” Vox populi, vox Dei , is the truest and most republican adage I know.”
Even if in practice it may be systematically ignored, where is the government anywhere in ex-Christendom today that does not at least invoke this “adage” as its fundamental guiding principle?
Priests as well as nobility may have been among the principal victims of the violence that followed the fall of the monarchy in 1792, but when the Revolution began in 1789, and for some time after, there was no notable episcopal or clerical voice raised against it. The Church in France did not immediately see events as a threat to her interests, let alone her existence. On the contrary. To be sure, once the clergy and religious came under active persecution, there were priests and religious who opposed the Revolution, and we now rightly venerate some of them as saints. The fact remains that such opposition did not at first exist. Further, though to speak of it contrasts sharply with the picture that would be presented by many in years to come, the truth is that the great majority of French bishops and priests, when they finally had to choose whether they would be for the Revolution or against it, defected to the new order.
In many or most cases their motives were probably similar to those of all the bishops and priests who went into the Church of England when Henry VIII set it up — another defection of the clerical majority that some still prefer to forget. Opportunists saw a way of getting ahead in their careers. Others feared what might be done to them if they did not defect, especially as the persecution intensified. A few believed they could moderate developments by collaborating with the new authorities. Most probably saw it as not mattering very much if they defected. After all, things looked, at least at first, as if they would go on largely as before. So what if they now celebrated Mass as, in effect, servants of the new state? Would it not still be the Mass?
Let us at this juncture examine our own souls. Are we entirely morally justified if we condemn these priests, the ones who served as priests of the “constitutional Church” when the Revolution set it up, and the Catholics who attended their Masses, for shirking their duty, for being faithless? Would many of us have acted differently? Perhaps we might think of a situation that has existed in our own day — in China until recently and, to a considerable extent, still today. There are not many Catholics in China in relation to the country’s vast population, but they are certainly more numerous than the Catholics in the Republic of Ireland, for instance. During the years when the Communists were actively persecuting the Faith, these Catholics had the choice of seeking out Mass celebrated in the so-called underground Church, and running a real risk to themselves if they did. Or, they could attend Mass celebrated (according to the Tridentine rite, let it be noted) in the state-sanctioned “patriotic” Church. As a Chinese Catholic, would you never attend the state-sponsored Mass? Let us sharpen the question. Suppose you could not get to any Mass, but somebody on your factory assembly line slipped you a consecrated host. Would you really care who consecrated it? This was very like the situation faced by clergy and laity in revolutionary France.
Of course, in France, after 1789, baser human weakness also had its role in clerical conduct, especially when it came to religious. How else explain it that when the revolutionary Constituent Assembly declared their vows to be null and void, monks who still remained in the great monasteries would flood out of them? This, like other developments of which we speak, touches on a truth it is not pleasant to face: Though it might look otherwise to us, like the supposed “golden age” of the Church in the U.S. before Vatican II, the life of the Faith in pre-revolutionary France was not as robust as it should have been. A great deal of corruption existed, and so did far too much licentiousness. France, of course, was also the center in continental Europe of the Enlightenment. Its ideas had their influence among Catholics. If that scandalizes a reader, he ought to reflect that today even fewer of the faithful are unaffected by the very same notions.
The situation was especially deplorable in the episcopacy. Though his natural talents exceeded those of most other bishops and most other men, Charles-Maurice de Tallyrand-Perigord can be taken as exemplifying all that was most wrong with too many members of the French episcopacy of his day.
Tallyrand was born an aristocrat in 1754. A childhood accident having left him permanently lame and therefore unfit for training in the military arts, he was educated for a career in the Church with absolutely no temperament for it. His ordination to the priesthood came in 1779. He never would anywhere attempt to serve as a pastor of souls but occupied, and did brilliantly in, several posts of an administrative nature, notably ones having to do with Church finances. At the same time, and even in a Church wherein many of her clerics were more than simply lax, he became notorious for his personal immorality. (Though he often maintained what amounted to a private brothel, the most eminent churchman in the country, no one less than Grand Almoner of France, Cardinal Prince de Rohan, was removed from his office and banished from court only when it became known that he schemed to make the Queen herself his mistress.) Nevertheless, in 1788, Tallyrand was named Bishop of Autun by King Louis XVI and was consecrated to that office in January of the fateful year 1789. He never visited his diocese except to be elected by its clergy as their representative in the Etats Generaux (States-general).
Not so much a parliament as the framework of one, the Etats Generaux consisted of three “estates” or bodies of representatives of the nobility, clergy and bourgeoisie, which were advisory to the monarch. When deputies of the Third Estate (the bourgeoisie) convened in a tennis court in Versailles in June, 1789, and resolved to constitute themselves the main component of a National Assembly, it signaled the beginning of the Revolution and its eventual outcome much more truly than the “storming” of the Bastille the following month. (Today we often speak of the press and other news media as the “Fourth Estate.” The term dates from these days of pre-revolutionary France. There was no official Fourth Estate, but men spoke of it in recognition of the power of the news media of that time.)
It was as a member of the Assembly that Tallyrand exercised his influence on the early course of the Revolution and we shall come to that in a few moments. First, we want to trace the rest of the amazing career of the Bishop of Autun.
We begin to do so by noting that he privately expressed reservations about the Revolution in its earliest stages. He even advised King Louis to dissolve the very National Assembly of which he would become president in 1790. In other words, it was only when he decided the movement toward democracy could not be stopped that he joined it. In April, 1791, he ceased to function as a bishop (to the extent he ever had) when he was excommunicated by Pope Pius VI. A few months later he was sent to London on a mission to win English support for the Revolution. He failed at winning positive support, but did secure a promise of neutrality from the government of Prime Minister William Pitt. This was important because there was a growing military threat from Austria, whose Emperor, Joseph II, was the brother of Marie Antoinette. (It would not do if England attacked France at the same time as Austria.) While he was in England, the revolutionary faction to which Tallyrand belonged was replaced in power by a more radical one whose leader was Maximilian Robespierre. Tallyrand thought it prudent to put more distance than the English Channel between himself and the bloodletting that now began in France and which history knows as The Terror. He sailed to the United States and remained here until after the fall of Robespierre, returning to Paris in 1796.
Tallyrand was named Minister of Foreign Affairs and had as his patron, Barras, one of the members of a dictatorial junta called the Directory, which then ruled France. He also perceived that another member of the Directory, Napoleon Bonaparte, was the Revolution’s real rising star and soon attached himself to him. After Napoleon seized power in a coup d’etat that Tallyrand helped prepare and ruled France initially as First Consul (1802), and then as Emperor (1804), Tallyrand served as his Foreign Minister. Meantime, the pope lifted his ban of excommunication on Tallyrand and laicized him. Thereupon Napoleon, who wanted at least the appearance of respectability in the men around him, insisted that Tallyrand make an honest woman of his long-standing mistress, an English divorcee, by marrying her. Napoleon also made him a prince of the Empire and enabled him to accumulate a huge fortune.
Tallyrand would resign as Foreign Minister in 1807 but remained influential in the First Empire until, ever attentive for signs that any ship on which he was embarked might be sinking, he broke with Napoleon in 1814. He then opened a line of communication to the exiled Bourbon, Louis XVIII, maneuvered himself into a position where he could assume the presidency of the provisional government that followed Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, and there helped engineer the restoration of the monarchy, for which service he was rewarded with the office (again) of Foreign Minister.
Having made himself by now the indispensable man in French politics and diplomacy for whoever was in power, he was the chief adviser to the insurgent, Louis-Philippe, in July, 1830, when this latter’s revolution, which Tallyrand helped to plan, overthrew France’s last legitimate king, Charles X, and replaced him with Louis-Philippe’s own liberal monarchy. The new king made Tallyrand Ambassador to England, where he fashioned the famous entente cordiale that has governed Anglo-French relations ever since.
In 1834, at age eighty, and having been a high official of the Church, the monarchy, the First Republic, the Directory, the Consulate, the First Empire, the monarchy again and, finally, the liberal regime of Louis-Philippe, Tallyrand finally retired from public life. In the “magnificent solitude” (his words) of his country estate, he wrote his Memoires. The book is remembered today for nothing but one of its lines, the one in which Tallyrand justified his life by claiming he “never betrayed a government which had not betrayed itself first.”
It must be said that a few hours before his death in May, 1838, the lifelong turncoat disavowed everything he had ever done that was hurtful to the Church and is supposed to have died fully reconciled to the Faith, but perhaps it should also be noted that the priest who attended him was the young Felix Dupanloup. Years later, as Bishop of Orleans, Dupanloup was a leader of the opposition to the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility at Vatican Council I.
Inasmuch as this article is not a biography of Tallyrand, the one reason to trace his career, as we have done, is that its course shows us the type of man who could become a bishop in pre-revolutionary France and thereby offers a look at the condition of the French Church in those years. The look is not of the entire Church, but does enable us to see that her condition was far from altogether healthy.
Were we to speak of the entire Church, we should have to talk about the peasantry and some of the lesser clergy who served them. The Faith ran deep enough in them that peasants rose up against the Revolution in various French locales, very notably in the Vendee region in 1793. This, even as thousands of peasants rose in England against the religious and political revolution imposed from above by Henry VIII. If the latter were betrayed by their bishops, with the glorious exception of St. John Fisher, the consequences were not as disastrous as when the peasant Cristeros were betrayed by the Mexican episcopacy in the twentieth century. The Cristeros, after all, were on the verge of winning (for their story, see From the Housetops , Nos. 55 and 56). England’s Catholic peasants, by contrast, were nowhere near being a match for Henry’s ruthlessness and, being also without spiritual leadership, their revolt collapsed.
It was much the same with the peasants of France. We can only dream of what could have happened if the bishops of their day had been typified by the seventeenth century’s Bossuet instead of the eighteenth’s Tallyrand, by a bishop whose vision of the good society was of one recognizing itself as ruled by Christ, instead of a bishop whose vision — so far as he had one — extended no further than trying to discern opportunistically which man or party of men was most likely to rule in ever-changing circumstances. Alas, during most of Christian history, which is to say ever since the first centuries of the Church, it has seldom been the case that the Church has found herself governed by those of a kind she needed in a moment of great crisis — the kind who would avert it. The right bishops always tend to arrive on the scene only after the damage has been done — only after the Albigensians had already established their anti-church, the Protestants had already revolted, or the Revolution already had begun to unfold. Today we await the advent of those who will purge from the supernatural Body of Christ the maladies introduced by these past post-conciliar decades’ “apostasy within.”
Be that as it may, we should not wonder that when Ven. Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon and his Assumptionist Fathers began organizing pilgrimages to Lourdes in the nineteenth century, the pilgrimages were conceived not simply as expiatory for the sin of the Revolution, but also in penance for the Church’s eldest daughter having gone so far astray before 1789. (For the story of Ven. Fr. d’Alzon and the Assumptionist Fathers, see “Thy Kingdom Come,” From the Housetops , No . 53).
Given that in its first years the Revolution was so far from being overtly anti-Christian that an aristocratic bishop, albeit one as worldly as Tallyrand, could serve as president of the National Assembly, it should not surprise us that when conflict finally arose between the Church and the new political order it had nothing to do with any threat posed by the Revolution to the Church’s moral or religious teaching. The conflict was over money.
France’s military support of the Americans in our War of Independence against England had cost too much. Added to that debt, economic dislocations caused by the Revolution itself soon brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Where was the new republic to find the funds to keep itself going?
Bishop Tallyrand, President of the National Assembly and former Church financial official, had an idea: Seize the wealth of the Church. Suddenly, it should go without saying, the Church in France decided she did not like the direction the Revolution was going.
In light of the French Church’s complacency in the early stages of the Revolution, it is easy to be cynical about her alarm as soon as she saw her wealth threatened. We may even be correct to suppose that some bishops were chiefly alarmed because what they saw threatened was the income derived from dioceses they never visited. However, we need to keep in mind that the modern state as we now know it was only right then coming into being. The ancient unity of throne and altar, or Church and state, had only just been sundered, and, in fact, in many ways the dissolution was not yet complete. Indeed, the separation of Church and state would not be codified in law in France until the twentieth century (in 1905). No one yet imagined the state as the entity on which citizens would depend to provide for needs when they could not provide for themselves. Under the old unity of throne and altar, which had prevailed as long as Christian government existed, it was mainly the Church who cared for the poor through her network of hospitals, orphanages, schools and other charitable institutions. A prince might decree into existence a new hospital and provide the funds for its construction, but it would be staffed by the members of a religious order, not employees of the state. They did not yet exist in any number. Yes, the Apostle Judas went too far when he protested against St. Mary Magdalene’s “wasting” her precious ointment on Our Lord instead of selling it to the benefit of the poor. It does not mean that the French Church lacked grounds for genuine concern as to how she could do her charitable work if she were stripped of her wealth. In other words, it was not simply on account of greed that she was moved to react against Tallyrand’s idea. Far from it.
Eight decades later the Holy See itself would face the very practical problem of having to continue its good works, as well as maintain its independence in the world, when the Revolution seized the main source of its wealth, the Papal States. Not every solution to the problem it has tried since then has been a happy one, as witness the banking scandals early in the current pontificate, but that is another subject.
It is also beyond the scope of this article to detail the struggle that took place in France between Church and state once they came into conflict. It is enough to say that in the Year of Our Lord, 2005, the Catholic churches of France remain property of the state. That was the outcome of the struggle. The victory of the state “separated” from the Church, that had divorced itself from God, was sufficiently decisive to persuade most Frenchmen, and most men beyond the borders of France, that the affairs of this world and the world itself could not possibly be ruled by God. If He exists at all, His rule must not extend beyond heaven. To say that so many, even among those who called themselves Christian, came to think this way, as most still must do — else there would be no compulsion, for instance, to “liberate” lands like Iraq from the rule of regimes deemed insufficiently reflective of the “will of the people” — brings us close to identifying the element of historical Christian belief that must be eliminated or obscured in order to make the religion compatible with the Revolution. Perhaps the reader already sees for himself what it is, but for the moment we shall refrain from confirming his surmise. We want instead to turn finally to the story of the sixteen beatified Carmelites killed by the Revolution on July 17, 1794.
Their convent was located in Compiegne not far from Paris, a town best known today as the place where the Germans surrendered to France in World War I, and where the French surrendered to Germany in World War II. Dating from 1641, the convent was the fifty-third Carmelite house founded in France following St. Teresa’s reform of her order.
The first thing for us to remark concerning the Compiegne Carmelites is that, unlike so many other communities, they resolved to continue their religious life, in secret if need be, when the Revolution began to seize Church property and disband the orders. Thus, when their convent was raided in August, 1790, and they were ordered to discard their habits, the sisters were ready. They quickly divided into four groups, each taking up residence in a different patron’s house, but all located near the same church in Compiegne — the church where they would worship together when Mass was celebrated. Thus until June, 1794, would they endeavor as best they could to continue in their life of sacrifice, silence, prayer and work.
Except for one thing, that is really all that can be said of the Compiegne Carmelites during this period after they were driven from their convent and until they were arrested. The life of Carmelites, after all, is not very eventful. What else can be said of it except that it is supposed to consist exactly of sacrifice, silence, prayer and work? Such a way of life does not produce much of a record for historians to trace.
As for the exceptional thing from this period that we do know about, it was this: At Easter of 1792, the prioress, Mother Teresa, told the sisters she had found in the convent archives the account of a dream a member of the community had in 1693. In the dream the earlier Carmelite had seen the entire community “called to follow the Lamb.” However, in 1693, Louis XIV was king and there was no force in society challenging his rule by divine right or that could threaten the very life of a religious community. The heresy of Quietism did trouble the life of the Church in those days. It attracted, for a time, even the great Cardinal Fenelon. But Quietism, insidious as it was, had not constituted a direct menace to the corpus of Catholic belief, the deposit of Faith, in the same way as did the notions of the Enlightenment that were spreading everywhere a century later. It was these notions that accounted for present political developments — ones resulting, for instance, in the seizure by the government of the Compiegne convent. Mother Teresa, a perceptive and intelligent woman, understood all this. So it was that she concluded that the dream of 1693 could in fact prophesy the fate of the community in her day. If so, surely it was a fate that could be avoided. The sisters need only do what so many other French religious were doing: abandon their vocation. On the other hand, fate could be seen as destiny, and destiny can be fulfilled.
So it was that Mother addressed the sisters in these terms: “Having meditated much on this subject, I have thought of making an act of consecration by which the community would offer itself as a sacrifice to appease the anger of God, so that the divine peace of His Dear Son would be brought into the world, returned to the Church and the state.”
The proposal of their superior, the idea of consciously making a sacrificial offering of themselves to God, was discussed by the sisters and agreed to by all except the two oldest. Why they hesitated is not known. In any case, after news reached the community of the massacres of September 2, 1792, the two set aside their reservations. They joined themselves to the other sisters so that together all offered themselves as a holocaust.
Given that their offering would soon enough be accepted and inasmuch as we have emphasized its singularity, we hasten to say now that we do not want to go too far in our emphasis. If the impression were given that the Compiegne Carmelites were entirely alone in faithfulness, it would be wrong. When, in 1790, the National Assembly, with Bishop Tallyrand as president, had demanded to know why religious orders should not be suppressed and their properties seized, the prioress of another Carmelite community, Mother Nathalie of Jesus, gave a spirited response. We have to admire the way she took the political rhetoric of the day — “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” — and shoved it back in the teeth of the revolutionaries:
“The most complete liberty governs our vows; the most perfect equality reigns in our houses; here we know neither the rich nor the noble and we know only the Law. In the world they like to proclaim that monasteries contain only victims slowly consumed by regrets. But we proclaim before God that if there is on earth a true happiness, we possess it in the dimness of the sanctuary and that, if we had to choose again between the world and the cloister, there is not one of us who would not ratify with greater joy her first decision. After having solemnly declared that man is free, would you oblige us to think that we no longer are”?
What with an entire society to reshape, an entire people to transform, to tear up from their Christian roots and make to rally around the twisted tree of “liberty,” time passed before the All-Seeing Eye of the Revolution took notice that there was still a little community of Carmelite nuns in the provincial town of Compiegne who remained dedicated to the true freedom of which Mother Nathalie wrote. However, by June, 1794, notice was taken. On the 22nd of that month, the police broke into the residences of the nuns, smashed the devotional objects they still possessed, and arrested them. All sixteen Carmelites were then transported to Paris and incarcerated in the prison of the Conciergerie to await trial for such crimes against the state as possessing an altar-cloth with designs honoring the monarchy — to wit, the fleur-de-lis .
At the trial where they were condemned to death mere hours before the sentence was carried out, it was suggested to the sisters that their lives might be spared if they denied any emotional attachment to the royal family.
Mother Teresa spoke on behalf of the community: “If that is a crime, we are all guilty of it; you can never tear out of our hearts our attachment to Louis XVI and his family. Your laws cannot prohibit feeling; they cannot extend their empire to the affections of the soul; God alone has the right to judge them.”
Another “crime” of which the sisters were accused was that they maintained a correspondence with priests who had gone into exile rather than swear an oath to the “constitutional” Church. The sisters readily admitted their “guilt” on this score.
There was one last charge. The sisters were accused of “fanaticism.” We know from the record of the proceeding that it was not Mother Teresa but another member of the community, Sister Henriette, who spoke to this charge. She addressed the revolutionary tribunal’s prosecutor: “Citizen, it is your duty to respond to the request of one [who is] condemned. I call upon you to answer us and tell us just what you mean by the word ‘fanatic.’”
“I mean,” replied the man who held the lives of the sisters in his hands, “your attachment to your childish beliefs and your silly religious practices.”
How did Sister Henriette now respond? She ignored the prosecutor. “Let us rejoice, my dear Mother and Sisters, in the joy of the Lord that we shall die for our holy religion, our faith, our confidence in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.” Not simply was she acknowledging the inevitability of the sentence of the revolutionary tribunal. She was recalling the act of consecration they all had made two years before.
Now here is something wonderful. On July 16, not knowing that the next day they would be tried and executed, the sisters asked permission to wash the secular garments they had been forced to wear and which had become filthy during the month of their imprisonment. While the garments dried, they donned the only other clothing they possessed, their habits. So it was that, when that very night they received their summons to appear before the revolutionary tribunal, it was unmistakably as nuns in religious garb that they were dressed. Still dressed as such — still showing to the world this outward sign of what they were — would they then die.
We have said that Sister Constance was the first to go, and Mother Teresa the last. Each execution, from the moment a sister laid her head in position until the killing machine was adjusted to fit the victim and its blade fell, took about two minutes. It all happened around eight o’clock in the still-bright light of a midsummer evening.
We have the impression, mostly from movies, probably, that the crowds who gathered around the guillotine for the Revolution’s executions were always raucous. Perhaps on occasion they were, but it had not been the case when King Louis was beheaded in January, 1793. On that occasion it was more as if the entire city of Paris — indeed, the entire nation of France — held its breath as if waiting to see if some cataclysm might follow the outrage. It was much the same when the Carmelites, dressed in their habits, died. Apart from the sisters’ own singing — not simply the Salve Regina , but the Miserere , a Te Deum and Veni Creator Spiritus — a profound silence prevailed. That was except for one voice that was heard to cry out, “Look at them and see if they have not the air of angels! If these women do not go straight to Paradise, then no one is there!”
The sisters left behind a kind of testament. While being held in the Conciergerie they composed a hymn. It was written in pencil and the manuscript given into the care of a laywoman who would survive The Terror. Here is a nice touch: The words are to be sung to the music of the Revolution’s anthem, The Marseillaise. In English, they read in part:
Give over our hearts to joy, the day of glory has arrived,
Far from us all weakness, seeing the standard come,
We prepare for the victory, we all march to the true conquest,
Under the flag of the dying God we run, we all seek the glory;
Rekindle our ardor, our bodies are the Lord’s,
We climb, we climb the scaffold
and give ourselves back to the Victor. . . .
Make us feel even in these places,
the effects of your power. Sustain your children,
Submissive, obedient, dying,
Dying with Jesus and in our King believing.
“In our King believing.” The reference surely is not to Louis XVI. He was dead. No, the reference must be to Jesus Christ Himself, He Who reigns in heaven, yes, but also over the world. He tells us He does: “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth.” To recall this is to come directly to the true object of the Revolution and the element of Christian belief that must be eliminated or obscured in order for the object to be attained.
The object is not the destruction of religion, but, quite simply, power; the absolute power that can be exercised by men only when they substitute their will — the leader’s will, or the will of the workers and peasants, or the “will of the people” — for God’s. There is no need to destroy religion for human will to become supreme. All that is necessary is to deny or obscure that Christ is King, not merely over individual souls, but over the world itself, as well as Heaven; to deny or obscure it, and then make other men forget who He is. How? By denying or obscuring His very divinity, by replacing Christ as God with Christ as Great Teacher or Friend or Great Architect or Life Force or Nature. Most insidiously, He can be replaced simply (as by how many who call themselves Christian?) by “God,” as if the Incarnation had never taken place.
When men again remember that Christ is God and that as God He and He alone is King, the true Ruler of society, so that it is understood even presidents are subject to Him however loudly it has been proclaimed their power derives from the “will of the people,” the past two centuries will start to be turned back and the sway of the Revolution reach its end.
Blessed Carmelites of Compiegne, obtain for us and all who call themselves Christian the grace of acknowledging that your King in Heaven is ours on earth.