Most of the priest-martyrs of the Reformation period were Englishmen. But France, too, had its Catholic heroes in those all-too-unecumenical days. Two Frenchmen who have been beatified are Jesuits: the priest, Father James Sales, and the lay brother, William Saultemouche. They were the victims of a group of fiery French Protestant Huguenots.
Sales, born in Auvergne, France, in 1556, was the son of a servant of the bishop of Clermont. The bishop helped the father to send James to the Jesuit college of Clermont. While attending the college, James decided to enter the Jesuits, and did so at the age of seventeen. Saultemouche, also born in 1556, was a servant to the same college, having joined the Society as a lay brother a few years later.
When James had finished his training as a Jesuit, (he was ordained in 1585), he already yearned for the crown of martyrdom. Hence, he asked to be sent as a missionary to the Indies. But the general of the Jesuits, Fr. Claudio Aquaviva, saw that Fr. James was needed even more at home. “In France,” he wrote to the zealous young priest, “you will find all that the Indies have to give.” Time verified the prophecy.
It just so happened that the Cevennes mountain country of central France at that time was a stronghold of the French Calvinistic Protestants, called Huguenots, and religious fanaticism had reached a peak. French Catholic forces succeeded in recapturing Aubenas in 1592, and the Catholic mayor of Aubenas asked the Jesuits to send him one of their priests to preach a course of Advent sermons, and to have discussions with some of the local Calvinist ministers. The Jesuit provincial assigned the task to Fr. James, and appointed Br. William to be his companion and assistant. Before departing for the assignment, James, knowing that he was risking his life, tied around his neck a relic of St. Edmund Campion, the English Jesuit who had been martyred in his own homeland just a few months before. Did Fr. Sales have a premonition that he would soon lose his own life? At least, when he bade farewell to the porter of his Jesuit house, he said, “Pray for us, dear brother, we are going to face death.”
The missionary finished his Advent course, but the mayor begged him to stay on until Easter, because there were so few priests available in the district. James had preached effectively and won many back, but by that fact angered the enemy.
Early in February 1593, however, Huguenot guerrillas launched a new attack on Aubenas, hoping to recover control of the town. The sound of their gunfire awoke the two Jesuits. Fearing for the worst, Fr. James and the lay brother went at once to the chapel and consumed the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, afraid, quite reasonably, that the invaders would desecrate it.
Finally the Huguenots broke into the town, and came in search of Fr. Sales, whom they considered their principal enemy because of the sermons in which he had denounced their heresies. They seized the priest and dragged him before a tribunal of Calvinist ministers. Presiding over the tribunal was one Labat, who had a particular grudge against Father James. It was no true trial but a bitter theological discussion. The “judges” ordered him to deny the articles of his faith, especially his belief in the Blessed Sacrament. When he refused and defended Catholic teachings, he was taken outside and shot pointblank with an arquebus. Earlier he had told Brother William to escape, which he could easily have done. But Saultemouche refused to abandon Father James. He threw his arms around the wounded priest, but the furious executioners brutally assaulted both with every sort of weapon. Brother William was stabbed to death with eighteen thrusts of the dagger.
This was an ugly illustration of fanaticism at work–a mindless zeal that even Catholics sometimes show when they deal harshly rather than lovingly with those who disagree with them. Error may have no rights, but people “in error” do. On this occasion the fanatical convictions of a small group brought to Father James and Brother William the crown of everlasting life.
In 1926 Pope Piux XI declared the two victims of Aubenas to be true martyrs to Catholic faith, especially faith in the Real Presence.
–Father Robert F. McNamara