Know your Martyrs
By Sr. Elvira Garro, S.H.M.
The French Revolution broke out in 1789 in an apparent hostile environment for the Church. The confiscation of Church goods and the expulsion of religious orders rapidly ensued. In 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy condemned by Pius VI, was approved, and converted the French Church into a national and schismatic Church, separate from Rome. The clergy was divided by a sworn oath: priests who swore on the Civil Constitution, thus becoming employees of the State, and “refractory priests” or “non-jurors,” who remained faithful to Rome. The latter group were removed from their duties, and parishes were handed over to “jurors” (priests who took the oath). Those who did not take the oath were threatened with dismissal, deportation, or the guillotine.
Many priests faithful to Rome were exiled, while others hid in order to clandestinely attend to the flock entrusted to them. Thus, a “church of the catacombs” was born: a barn, a basement, a castle moat, and the woods were all places where Mass was celebrated and sacraments received. The faithful and the priests knew that their life was in danger, but they preferred death to denying Christ and His Church
The Republic advanced, relentless in its pursuit to eradicate any trace of Christianity from the French society. The “god of Reason” was enthroned in the cathedral of Paris and the Christian names of some places was substituted for other names that had nothing to do with the faith. Religious education was prohibited in schools and the Julian calendar was changed to a Republican calendar. The week no longer had seven days, but ten, in order to take away the importance of Sunday and its consideration as a time of rest, the day of the Lord. From then on, the days of the week were to make no reference to Saints, but instead to animals, plants and work tools. Religious feast days were replaced with Republican celebrations and Churches were desecrated, bell towers removed, and so on.
In September of 1792, priest massacres began and citizens were encouraged to hand them over: a hundred pounds offered to anyone who denounced one of them.
Movements were formed throughout France in order to fight against the Republic, among them the Vendée, in western region of France, which rose up like a new crusade to defend the rights of God. One elderly Vendéen recounted years later, “Despite our outrage, we didn’t do anything as long as they left us with our priests and churches. But when we saw the evils they committed against God, we rose up to defend Him.”
The faith had taken deep root among the Vendéens, especially following the Monfortian missions. Love for the Cross, the Blessed Sacrament, and the Rosary were deeply impressed in their hearts. When the Revolution unleashed its hatred towards Christ on society and on the Church, the people rose up to defend what they loved and respected, even if it meant martyrdom. They did not make use of weapons, but they held fast to the beads of their Rosaries, and some battalions recited it up to three times a day.
In the face of the Republican cannons, these poor people had only their staffs. In the face of guns, they had only their sickles! They had no military uniform, but they did have something which united them together: the emblem of the Sacred Heart embroidered in red on their chest, and on their caps, the initials of Jesus Christ the King.
The Republican army howled with hellish fury on the Vendéens. The orders from Paris were plain and clear: exterminate the Vendée and make of it an immense cemetery to serve as a warning to all of France. The so-called “infernal columns,” columns of the Republican army that lived up to their name, marched towards the Vendée filling it with horror and death, indiscriminately massacring the Vendée population. General Westermann, known as the butcher of the Vendée, recounted what happened after the battle of Savenay in December of 1793, where 6,000 Vendée prisoners were exterminated: “Following the orders given to me, I crushed the children under the legs of horses, slaughtered women... I did not take a single prisoner... I exterminated them all.” Three hundred thousand men, women and children were victims of the terror. Incredible amounts of extreme cruelty were recorded, such as those perpetrated by General Amey in Mortagne, who roasted Vendéens with their children in bread ovens, “so that they do not give light to more bandits.” More than twenty drowning posts were created along the Loire. In Pont-au-Baux alone, three thousand women were thrown into the water and drowned.
The Vendéens had launched themselves into battle with great generosity, offering themselves as sacrifices. Some even dressed in suits as if they were going to a wedding, because they were sure that beyond death, the Heart of Jesus would be their only homeland.
On February 19, 1984, St. John Paul II beatified eighty-four Vendéens who died for their faith by being shot in Champ-des-Martyrs d’Avrillé, and another fifteen who were guillotined in Angers. In his homily, the Holy Father said, “They are some of the many martyrs who accepted death at the time of the French Revolution, because they wanted to preserve their faith and religion in full adherence to the Roman Catholic Church: priests who refused to take an oath that they considered schismatic, and who did not want to abandon their pastoral duties; lay people who remained faithful to those priests, to the Mass celebrated for them, and the manifestations of veneration to Mary and the Saints.”
“It is now in the heart of every family, of every Christian, of every man of goodwill that an interior Vendée must arise! Every Christian is, spiritually, a Vendéen! Let us not allow generous and gratuitous giving to be stifled within us. Let us learn, as the martyrs of the Vendée, to draw this gift from its source: in the Heart of Jesus. Let us pray that a powerful and joyful interior Vendée may arise in the Church and in the world! Amen!” - Cardinal Robert Sarah
© HM Magazine nº206 January-February 2019