It is common knowledge that in France on the eve of the great revolution of 1789 there were a number of Catholic religious, priests and bishops who could scarcely be called “good shepherds.” In contrast to these worldly churchmen, there were other clerics who made up for the weakness of their brothers by defending the faith even with their lives.
Best known among these Christian heroes were the clerics executed in September, 1792. Once established, the revolutionary government had claimed the “republican” right to take control of the Catholic Church in France. In 1790 it enacted a “constitution” or law that denied to the pope any authority over French Catholicism. Each French priest and bishop was ordered to take an oath to uphold this law. Some priests did so. Most of them decided they could not, because they would then be denying the universal authority of the popes. For this refusal they would eventually suffer. The “liberty” for which the French Revolution was fought, was not very consistent.
As the Revolution moved on, its leadership came more and more into the hands of extremists. In 1792, the radical Jacobins determined to punish with death not only the aristocrats, but clergy who had refused the oath.
The “non-jurors” – those who had refused the oath – were arrested en masse in August, 1792, and herded into several Parisian monasteries out of which the resident monks had been driven. These prisoners were priests, bishops and religious from many dioceses. Then on September 2, a band of violent armed men, perhaps 150 in number, was sent by the “Committee of Vigilance” to one after the other of these temporary prisons. One detail arrived at the Abbey of St. Germain just when a number of prisoners got there, transferred from other places of detention. The executioners shot them down in cold blood. Then they went to the old Carmelite monastery, where another group of cutthroats joined them. They ordered all the prisoners to come out into the garden, even the oldest and most disabled. The clerics had already discussed once more the question of taking the oath, and all had agreed they could not and would not subscribe to it.
Now the gang fell upon the first priests they met and cut them down. Then they called out, “The Archbishop of Arles!” Archbishop John du Lau of Arles was praying in the chapel. When summoned, he came out and he said, “I am he whom you seek.” Thereupon, they cracked his skull, stabbed him and trampled him underfoot. Then the leader set up a “tribunal” before which the imprisoned were herded and ordered to take the oath. All refused; so, as they passed down the stairway, they were hacked to pieces by the murderers. The bishop of Beauvais had earlier been wounded in the leg. When summoned, he answered, “I do not refuse to die with the others, but I cannot walk. I beg you to have the kindness to carry me where you wish me to go.” For a moment, his courtesy silenced the assassins. But, when he, too, refused the oath, he was killed like the rest.
Later on the purge was carried out elsewhere in France. Some 200 clergymen fell that September, and they were only a small percentage of the 1500 clergy, laymen and laywomen who were massacred in 1792 alone.
Pope Pius XI beatified 191 of the priest martyrs, in 1926, assigning to them the title of “Blessed John du Lau and Companions, Martyrs.”
They had been the helpless victims of wild revolutionary ideology. As usual, however, their heroism in the defense of the papacy was remembered long after the names of their blood-thirsty executioners had been forgotten. They saved the reputation of France as “eldest daughter of the Church.”
— Father Robert F. McNamara