Friday, September 2, 2016
In 1792, France was a powder keg waiting for ignition. The French revolution was in full swing and the Reign of Terror was fast approaching.The French monarchy had been trampled underfoot and the new leaders of the State hoped to fix things for themselves and their people. The Constituent Assembly had passed a law that hoped to bring the vocal Church under control in France.The hope was that the Church could be placed under the "enlightened" control of the State and be made to say and do things that supported the aims of the new rulers of France. This new rule involved an oath that clergy were required to take if they wanted to remain in France. In other words, the French revolutionaries only had room for a Church that played according to the new State's rules.
Most of the clergy in France refused to sign the oath and submit the Church to state control. It included a passage that invalidated any "bishop or archbishop whose see is established under the name of a foreign power." Not only was this person not welcome in France but it was also criminal to support or follow them. The State had outlawed the Kingdom that was "not of this world."They rounded up the resisting clergy and imprisoned some of them and detained others in their churches so that they could forcibly exile them from their new republic that was to be devoid of a free Church. For many of these ministers, their sanctuaries became their prisons.
While awaiting deportation, the ministers heard the mob approach their prisons and churches. They must have known that the mob was coming for them full of furor for the State and disgust for the actions of the Church. They must have suspected what was coming. They approached the church where Jean Marie du Lau was being detained and pulled the doors open.Jean was waiting for them at the entrance in his clerical vestments as he might await the body of a parishioner for a funeral. He stood at the front of his people but offered no violence or resistance. The mob asked, "Are you the archbishop?" Jean smiled--perhaps knowing what was coming--and confirmed that he was, indeed, the one they were looking for. When he answered, they hacked him to pieces with their pikes and swords. He died offering forgiveness instead of wrath.
They seized the sanctuary of the ministers and began holding a "trial" to determine their fate. Two-by-two, the ministers were paraded before the "judges" and questioned forcefully. They were ordered to take the oath and admit the right of the State to rule the hearts and minds of the people. When they inevitably refused the oath, they were sent down a narrow stairway to a garden. When they stepped through the door, an angry mob would tear them to pieces and brutally murder them. This bloody exercise in the power of the State--the power to take a life--continued until 191 priests and bishops had been murdered and martyred.
One of those martyred was Francis de La Rochefoucauld Maumont--the bishop of Beauvais.He was an invalid and aged minister who could no longer walk. He had been carried to the sanctuary by others on a stretcher and rested on it as others were ushered to their trial and martyrdom. They called his name and he responded,"I am here at your disposal, judges, and I am prepared for my death but I cannot walk to you. I would appreciate it if you would carry my cot wherever it is that you want me." They brought him before the self-appointed judges and he refused to take the oath. They carried him down the narrow stairs and he was murdered like all of his friends.
It is good for us to remember the deaths of these faithful men and their stance against control and for a free Church. They were not afraid of the deadly threats of the State because they were citizens and ministers of a Kingdom that was--at its essence--established under the name of a foreign power: Jesus Christ and a kingdom of love and forgiveness.