Past and Future Martyrs?

Last year, hundreds of thousands of French citizens descended on Paris to march in favor of traditional marriage. They were taking part in the Manif Pour Tous – the “Demonstration for All” – in response to the Mariage Pour Tous bill legalizing same-sex marriage. Recognizing that marriage is not merely “the recognition of love between two people, but an institution which protects the dignity of parents and children, and which regulates parentage,” the Manif marches have been impressive in their turnout, vastly outnumbering similar demonstrations in the United States.

Paying little heed to the will of the people, the government pushed the legislation through – to widespread public outcry. Accompanying this show of legislative force were displays of physical force, with marchers (including women, children, the elderly, and even priests) being tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten, or arrested by gendarmes in riot gear.

One route taken by demonstrators began at Place de la Bastille and down Rue Diderot, ending at Place de La Nation, where final speeches were made before participants peacefully dispersed. This square, a little over two centuries ago today, is the same place where French citizens – high- and low-born alike – opposed to the newfound regime were made to spill their blood for the sake of La République. Among the victims was a remarkable group of Carmelite nuns.

Many know the story (which was the subject of a play by Georges Bernanos and an opera by Francis Poulenc). On the day following the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, 1794, sixteen Carmelites from Compiègne, singing the Veni Creator – the hymn sung at their profession – mounted the scaffold one by one, and were beheaded. The Revolutionary Tribunal had produced as proof of their treason a picture of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, along with one of the deposed king, taken from the convent wall.

Four years earlier, the Assemblée Nationale had demanded that the Carmelite Order justify its existence. Mother Nathalie of Jesus addressed the company thus:

In the world they like to broadcast 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.

The long penitential season for Carmelites begins on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and lasts until Easter. In 1792, the nuns of Compiègne were disbanded and forced from their beloved Carmel back into the world. Only a few months before, they had together agreed to offer themselves as victims to divine justice to restore peace to France and to the Church. They renewed their offering daily, continuing to meet in secret for two years dressed as laywomen and convening for common prayer.

Discovered in June of 1794, they were imprisoned in the Conciergerie, where other clergy and religious awaited their fate under the blade of Madame La Guillotine. (Ironically, the one Carmelite of royal blood escaped death because she happened to be away; she became the martyrs’ first historian.) On July 17, the day after the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, they were called before the tribunal and, in the very city where St. Joan of Arc three centuries earlier had been abandoned and handed over to the enemy, they were condemned to die.
Reverend Mother Émilienne, Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, wrote:

[T]he youngest of these good Carmelites was called first and . . . she went to kneel before her venerable Superior, asked her blessing and permission to die. She then mounted the scaffold singing Laudate Dominum omnes gentes [the psalm sung by St. Teresa of Avila 190 years earlier on founding the new Carmel]. She then went to place herself beneath the blade. . . . All the others did the same. The Venerable Mother was the last sacrificed. During the whole time, there was not a single drum-roll; but there reigned a profound silence.

Another witness said the nuns looked radiant, as if they were going to their weddings.

Ten days later, Robespierre would be executed on the same spot, and the provisional revolutionary government would come to an end. The Carmelites’ sacrifice – together with countless others killed for the faith in revolutionary France – had risen up as a sweet oblation to God.

In 1906, Pope St. Pius X beatified the Carmelite martyrs, whose bodies are buried in a common grave in Cimetière de Picpus, 500 meters from Place de la Nation. An inconspicuous plaque on the cemetery wall serves as their epitaph, engraved with the name of each sister mortes pour la Foi.

Their story is but one among many that played out all over France during the Reign of Terror, when a republic founded on the lofty ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood – loosed from all Christian moorings – inevitably wound up crushing the defenseless opposition underfoot.

And today we see disturbing hints of the Fifth Republic following in the footsteps of the First, establishing a regime, in the name of a man-made “equality,” that can only end up destroying civilization, by destroying the family. Even more disturbing, the government has shown itself all too willing to use any political means necessary – and where that fails, any physical means necessary – to impose its will.

As usual, the media largely turn a blind eye, proving that the tricolor borne aloft by Marianne in Delacroix’s famous painting – standing for the republic’s tripartite motto – is today, as it was then, little more than propaganda.

It may very well be the case – and perhaps sooner than we imagine – that the martyrs of yesterday will serve as a witness to the martyrs of tomorrow. And not only in France.

Christine Niles graduated from Oxford University and Notre Dame Law School. She is a host at Forward Boldly Radio, whose episodes can be found here.