“God has strange ways of sweeping his threshing floor,” was how St. John Vianney summed up France’s revolutionary years and their tumultuous effects on the Church. Recent productions of the musical drama “Les Miserables” at the Ocean State Theatre in Warwick and the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket have reminded Rhode Islanders of the tempestuous times in France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The French Revolution and its reign of terror gave way to Napoleon’s two decades of continental pillage which was followed by riots that toppled King Charles X in 1830 and King Louis Phillippe in 1848. Napoleon III’s Second Empire was finished off by the Franco-Prussian War which led to the horrors of the Paris Commune in 1870. For almost a century, French society was in turmoil. The religious congregations of France especially shared in the suffering. Over two hundred martyrs were famously slaughtered in a Carmelite cloister in 1792. Most religious houses were eventually closed and their inhabitants made to flee to friendlier regimes. One such flight was recorded by a nun from the Trappist Abbey of La Valsainte. Expelled from France, the Trappists sojourned briefly in Switzerland, Bavaria, Austria, Poland, and, amazingly, Russia. Czar Paul I, who first welcomed the nuns, had a change of heart and expelled them from his empire. After more months of traversing Europe, many found refuge in southern England and some eventually arrived in the United States.
Denied their cloisters, these religious sisters experienced decades of stage coach travel, the indignities of country inns, the uncertainties of weather, the scarcity of food and, especially, a complete lack of cloister and community life. They did happily if amazingly attract religious vocations during their flights across Europe. Even amid turmoil, they strove to “preserve their holy estate,” by their dedication to prayer and community. Clearly their sacrifices were not negligible. One Cistercian nun, reflecting on these unsettled years and on the words of St. John Vianney quoted above, made these observations in her memoirs: The threshing floor of the Lord, the whole of Christendom, needed this long ordeal to be purified of the accumulated dross of centuries of routine, struggles for influence, battles for ideas, compromises with civil authorities, unbridled luxury of the wealthy, exploitation of the poor, and long-endured blatant social inequalities, in a word, the general neglect of the demands of the Gospel.
The present twenty-first century Western world has not endured the bodily martyrdom that thousands of French clergy and religious experienced two centuries ago. But the religious consensus that our Catholic and Protestant ancestors built up during Christianity’s second millennium sustains a social martyrdom every day. Sabbath observance, enshrined even in civil law during the lifetime of most readers of this column, has completely disappeared. Abortion, once criminally forbidden, is now constitutionally protected. Marriage has gradually been eroded first by divorce, then by cohabitation, most recently by re-definition. Even Christian burial is today handled more with dispatch than with deference. Religion is understood more as an individual, spiritual inclination and less as a response to divinely revealed truth.
The religious congregations that fled France in the early nineteenth century made substantial contributions to the wider world in the early twentieth century. The Catholic communities of England, Ireland, America, and Canada especially benefited from the ministry of these men and women fleeing homeland persecution. The Trappists founded their monasteries; the Daughters of Charity established their hospitals; the Sulpicians erected their seminaries. Again, God brought good out of evil, light out of darkness, truth out of error. The prophecy of Malachi read this Sunday is particularly appropriate: Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays. The Church has survived and been strengthened by individual and corporate persecution from the likes of Attila the Hun, Robespierre, Bismark, and Stalin. Catholicism can best face modern secular tyrants by admitting and correcting the Church’s own “general neglect of the demands of the Gospel.”