Imagine a slaughter of over 1,200 people in two days, almost 200 hundred of them Catholic priests. Imagine a slaughter performed by a maddened mob, a slaughter justified by the hope for a godless future where only the mind was of import. Well, this is what is commemorated on this day for the Feast of the Martyrs of September.
In the rancor of the late Summer of 1792, the revolutionaries who were building their great society in France were becoming more and more impatient with the pace of change. It seemed clear to many that King Louis XVI was only stalling on reforms in the hope that foreign monarchs might come to his rescue. Fredrick Wilhelm II of Prussia, for instance, didn’t want this revolution business spreading and saw the unrest in France as a chance to take Alsace and Lorraine.
Invasions into France by Prussia and Austria had already began in the Spring, and the French had already mobilized a larger but less organized army to meet the oncoming forces. Indeed, it was at this time that Roget de Lisle wrote “The Marseillaise,” which is today the French National Anthem.
Back in Paris various revolutionary factions came to an agreement that with war in the Northeast and so close to the capital, extreme measures needed to be taken against any royalist sympathizers. Though the constitution allowed for salaries for priests, the Legislative Assembly voted to strip priests and religious of their funds and throw them all into jail.
At the King’s palace, known as Château Tuileries, huge crowds demanded the King reverse his vetoes protecting the priests and imprison them as they were doubtless collaborators with the invading armies. One man, with sword pointed at the King who sat at a large outdoor table calmly and mildly perturbed, said,
I demand the sanction of the decree against the priests; …either the sanction or you shall die!
“Liberty, equality and fraternity” was the motto for the French Revolution but those words applied only to some. Despite the law, mobs of revolutionaries led by men like Georges Danton and Jean-Paul Marat rounded up priests and sent them off to be imprisoned at various monasteries within the city.
This was June, and the Assembly decided the King needed to be gotten rid of, so they called for national guards. The contingent from Marseilles sang “The Marseillaise” all the way to Paris, which is why it has its name.
In July, the city received a shock. The Duke of Brunswick-Lüneberg, Charles William Ferdinand, issued a manifesto pledging that the armies of the King of Prussia had their sites on Paris in order to liberate King Louis XVI from the revolution. He wrote:
The city of Paris and all its inhabitants shall be required to submit at once and without delay to the King…. Their Majesties declare…that if the Chateau of the Tuileries is entered by force or attacked, if the least violence be offered to…the King, and the Queen, and the royal family, and if their safety and liberty be not immediately assured, they will inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction.
The response from the revolutionaries? On August 10, a mob of nine thousand persons, eight hundred of whom were national guards, were sent by Marat and the Commune of Paris – a kind of city council – to depose the King.
Louis XVI was being protected by about 900 Swiss guards. In order to avoid bloodshed, he opened the gates to the Tuileries in order, one imagines, to try to calm the crowd down and listen. The mob refused to be swayed, though. The Swiss guards pressed them back. A shot was fired, and hell let loose. The Swiss were slaughtered or imprisoned, where they were later tortured and killed anyway. The cooks and servants at the palace were all killed. It was a festival of violence, and the Legislative Assembly charged with maintaining the constitution did nothing. The King and his family were imprisoned in the Temple.
The next day the Assembly ended all Catholic schools in Paris. The day after that it outlawed the wearing of religious habits or vestments in public. On August 18, the Assembly passed a national suppression of all Catholic institutions and religious orders, and ordered that any priests who did not swear an oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which in 1790 had already banned monastic vows, and had seized all Church property for the State, would have two weeks to leave the country. Some 25,000 priests left then, and so it was that the French Revolution had begun to supplant the Catholic faith in France with a new religion, a new faith in the State.
At this same time Marat and others in the Commune of Paris were pressuring the Legislative Assembly to just dispatch the prisoners right away. On August 19 he wrote in his newsletter:
The wisest and best course to pursue is to go armed to the Abbaye [a prison], drag out the traitors, especially the Swiss officers [of the royal guard] and their accomplices, and put them to the sword. What folly it is to give them a trial.
What folly indeed.
On Sunday, September 2, news reached Paris that the Prussians had taken Verdun. The path was open for the Duke of Brunswick to come and enforce the terror he had -promised if the King were harmed. Thus, it was now or never. A force had to be sent to meet the oncoming army, but the soldiers in Paris would not leave while all the sympathizers in prison still lived. Their new faith would not allow such heresy to remain. This is how William and Ariel Durant put it:
On September 2 [the new religion] put on its Sunday clothes, and expressed its devotion in diverse ways. Young and middle-aged men gathered at recruiting points to volunteer for service in the Army. Women lovingly sewed warm garments for them, and grimly prepared bandages for prospective wounds. Men, women, and children came to their section centers to offer weapons, jewelry, money for the war. Mothers adopted children dependent upon soldiers or nurses who were leaving for the front. Some men went to the prisons to kill priests and other enemies of the new faith.
Danton, a mountain of a man who’s ugliness was rivaled only by his remarkable ability with rhetoric, addressed the Legislative Assembly and asked for the permission to kill. He said,
The tocsin we shall sound is not the alarm signal of danger; it orders the charge on the enemies of the France. To conquer we have to dare, to dare again, always to dare – and France is saved.
Dare they did. At 2:00pm that same day thirty priests were being transported to the Abbaye jail. As the carriages arrived, they were attacked. The guards joined in and all the priests were killed. But the mob had only started. They continued to the former Carmelite convent at which 150 priests, religious and one layman were being held.
Blessed John Mary de Lau, the Archbishop of Arles, Blessed Francis Joseph de la Rochefoucauld, the Bishop of Beauvais, his brother Blessed Peter Louis, the Bishop of Saintes and several others were praying Vespers in the chapel when the mob attacked. Nearly all were killed with only about 40 who were let go or who managed to escape. Says Fr. Butler:
Among the victims were Blessed Ambrose Augustine Chevreux, superior general of the Maurist Benedictines, and two other monks; Blessed Francis Louis Hébert, confessor of Louis XVI; three Franciscans; fourteen ex-Jesuits; six diocesan vicars general; thirty-eight members or former members of the Saint-Sulpice seminary; three deacons; an acolyte; and a Christian Brother. The bodies were buried some in a pit in the cemetery of the Vaugirard and some in a well in the garden of the Carmes.
At one point the mob brought the priests forward to face a mock judge and to be invited to take the oath once again. When the oath was refused, the priest was sent down a gauntlet of swords, pikes, cudgels, foul language and spittle.
Eventually these demonic actors became tired. So they stopped, only to take up the work the next day. The mob went to the Lazarist seminary where many other priests were held. They too lost their life, one of them being thrown out a window. When there were no more priests, the mob moved on to other prisoners. All in all, the September Massacre lasted three days, with death figures between 1,247 and 1,368. Of these 191 were Catholics who refused to compromise their faith, and so were beatified in 1926 by Pope Pius XI.
For my part, I cannot help but wonder where we are today. The bitterest of atheist anger that is seemingly so often leveled against Christians concerns me. Matthew Archbold notes how the great atheist movie “The Ledge” bombed at the theatre, but isn’t it astonishing that an atheist felt a ham-fisted, propagandist movie was necessary in the first place? Then the venerable William Odie notes how the London Times has just so matter-of-factly decided that God doesn’t exist. Take all that with the news from Illinois that the State may break ties with Catholic Charities there because they won’t place children for adoption with homosexual couples…never minding the fact that the policy also extends to non-married hetero couples. Then of course there is the attack against conscience from Health and Human Services requiring health-care plans to cover contraceptives.
I’m not saying that I suspect priests or you or I will be rounded up tomorrow and slaughtered. What I am saying is that the world hates us. The devil and the world want to see us fail, and while the tools of the enemy may not be swords and pikes, the attack on the family and on conscience is an attack nonetheless. The motivation and the end are the same.
But also, there is hope. The list of martyrs on this day, which you can find below, reminds us that our sufferings are minor compared to theirs. A bishop from a troubled African nation visited recently, and he related how he lost a few priests in the civil war there. The rebels were not particularly anti-Christian. They just wanted to throw their weight around and so killed a couple of priests. Such perspective is good for us. We are not being shot at.
Furthermore, we are reminded of the consolation of heaven, that sweet homeland which deserves the kind of dedication to take a priest to lay their life down. Do I love heaven and the Christ who is King there enough? About this King, do I serve Him well? Am I a loyal subject, or a revolutionary who wants to do my own thing, carry on my own revolution.
I thought you should know that Jean-Paul Marat was murdered by a young woman named Charlotte Corday on July 13, 1793 while he was taking a bath. As she was taken up to the guillotine to die, she is reported to have said, “I killed one man to save 100,000.” Well, perhaps we might forgive her her moral relativism. It was a tumultuous time.
As for Georges Danton, he converted to the Catholic Faith thanks in part to his wife. He was arrested by the revolution for daring to demand that the continued massacre of people end. So on April 5, 1794 he was guillotined, though not before prophesying the mess left behind. He said:
I leave it all in a frightful welter; not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men!
The “poor fisherman” remark was probably a reference to St. Peter, and Robespierre was also executed just was a few months later.
I leave you with the list of the beatified, commemorated on this day.