What Real Persecution Looks Like

There is a “soft” persecution of the Church in America. We see it in the press, in entertainment, and in political life as exemplified by B.H. Obama’s recent HHS mandate. What has been soft for years seems to be in a process of hardening, but we have a long way to go till we get the real thing.

Meanwhile, we can ponder what that looks like at the same time we enjoy stirring music from the pen of Francis Poulenc. It is the touching last scene of his opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites:

Gary Potter described the opera in the opening paragraphs of his article, “Crushing the Infamous One”:

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.”