The martyrs are a valiant minority. They
are not the crowd. They will never be. However
they always had and will always have an incredible
effect on the mind and heart of Christians.
After all, the first Christian martyr is
none other than Jesus Christ himself.
We all know that the French Revolution was
one of the central events in Western civilization.
The cry of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"
dominated the streets. The old regime was
destroyed. However, the revolution soon spun
out of control and began to murder itself.
During one voracious stretch of senseless
revolutionary paranoia, 1,376 individuals
were guillotined in only 47 days! Among them
sixteen Carmelite nuns. They were buried
in a common grave in a makeshift cemetery.
Their lives should have been buried in the
earth of oblivion and yet somehow they did
not. Thérèse of Lisieux kept at least three
images of these martyrs in her books, and
joined enthusiastically in the 1894 celebrations
for the centenary of their martyrdom. The
German Gertrud von Le Fort wrote a beautiful
novel, with the enchanting title 'Song at
the Scaffold' in 1931, just when Adolph Hitler's
National Socialist party was gaining unprecedented
power. George Bernanos, one of the most original
writers of the Catholic Church of his time,
wrote a sscreenplay about these sisters,
entitled 'The Dialogues of the Carmelites',
which was the basis of an opera of Francis
Poulenc. It was first performed in 1957 at
La Scala in Milan.
There is a touching portrait of the illiterate
lay sister, Sister Francis Xavier, last to
make her profession in the community in 1789.
Warned by the prioress of the dangers of
becoming a religious at this time of turmoil,
she replied, "Oh, my dear good Mother!
You can rest easy about me, for as long as
I've got the happiness of getting consecrated
to my God, that's all I wants [sic]! So don't
go upsetting yourself about me, my dear good
Mother, because … come on now … the dear
Lord himself is going to take care of all
The question that needs to be answered is
obviously why were sixteen simple women,
who spent their lives praying and doing penance
for others, killed. The official reason was
because the gendarmerie found within the
monastery a portrait of the king and images
of the Sacred Heart similar to those used
by reactionary groups.
The prosecutor accused them of "halting
the progress of public spirit" and of
being "fanatics". Mother Henriette
de Jesus, renowned for her great beauty and
strong personality, stood up and asked what
'fanatics' mean! The irritated judge vomited
a torrent of offenses against her, and then
said: "It is your attachment to your
Religion and the King." Hearing these
words, she replied, "I thank you for
the explanation." Then, addressing her
companion Carmelites, she said: "My
dear Mother and my Sisters, we must rejoice
and give thanks to God for we die for our
Religion, our Faith, and for being members
of the Holy Roman Catholic Church."
Four years before, in 1790, in a diatribe
in front of the Assemblée Nationale, one
of the leaders of the revolutionaries M.
Garat- l Aine expressed himself thus, "The
rights of man will they thus be won? This
is the real question. Religious orders are
the most scandalous violation of them. In
a moment of fleeting fervor, a young adolescent
pronounces an vow to recognize henceforth
neither father nor family, never to be a
spouse, never a citizen; he submits his will
to the will of another, his soul to the soul
of another; he renounces all liberty at an
age when he could not relinquish the most
modest possessions; his vow is a civil suicide.
Religious life, especially religious obedience,
simply makes no sense to the enlightened."
Active orders might be tolerated because
they provide education or medical care; contemplative
orders are, to the rationalist, a mere absurdity.
Two years before, the Sisters had pledged
in a communal liturgy to offer their lives
for the sake of peace. God must have accepted
Mother Prioress, Teresa of St. Augustine
tried her best to avoid the others from being
guillotined. "If then you require a
victim, here I am; it is I alone whom you
should strike, my Sisters are innocent."
The President: "They are your accomplices."
That was it. The nuns were sentenced to the
Sister Charlotte of the Resurrection, seventy-eight
and an invalid, having been thrown roughly
to the pavement from the tumbrel, was heard
to speak words of forgiveness and encouragement
to her tormentor. "I learned from a
person who was a witness to their martyrdom
that the youngest of these good Carmelites
was called first and that she went to kneel
before her venerable Superior, asked her
blessing and permission to die. She then
mounted the scaffold singing Praise the Lord
all you nations. She then went to place herself
beneath the blade allowing the executioner
to touch her. 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 of the nuns, "They
looked like they were going to their weddings."
Within ten days, by July 27, 1794, Robespierre
and the provisional revolutionary government
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission
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