One of the greatest crimes of the French Revolution was its efforts to separate the Church in France from the pope. The effort to disconnect French Catholicism from the Holy See was launched as early as 1790, when the Constituent Assembly of the Revolution enacted a law called the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy”. By this law the government made bold, on its own, to restructure the Church in France, and to make the offices of bishop and pastor subject to political election, bypassing the popes completely. In 1791 Pope Pius VI condemned such a law as essentially erecting a schismatic French church, exempt from papal jurisdiction. It came to be called the “Constitutional Church”.
How did the French Catholics react to the Civil Constitution? The government, knowing that the Catholic Church would object, early passed another law demanding that all bishops and priests take an oath of allegiance to the Civil Constitution, under severe penalties.
What resulted from these pressures was a divided French church. Some priests rallied to the Constitutional Church, took the oath, and accepted political election as bishops and pastors. Most of the bishops, however, and the major percentage of the priests, and the men and women religious declined to do so!
Branded thenceforth officially as enemies of the state, these “non-jurors” took flight. Most of the bishops and at least 30,000 priests and religious either fled France voluntarily or were driven out. (A number of them migrated to the United States and became outstanding leaders. Among these priests were John Cheverus, who would be named the first bishop of Boston in 1808; and Benedict Joseph Flaget, whom Pope Pius VII appointed at the same time to be the first bishop of the diocese of Bardstown – now Louisville.) But many other loyal priests remained in hiding at home, doing their best in secret to provide for the spiritual needs of their flocks.
One of the noblest of the “non-jurors” who remained in France was the Abbe Noel Pinot. He had been ordained a priest of the diocese of Angers in 1771. After serving zealously as assistant pastor at two churches, he was named pastor in 1788 of the little rural church of St. Aubin at Louroux-Beconnais. He had held this pastorate scarcely two years when the Civil Constitution was enacted. Refusing the oath, Abbe Pinot was exiled from his church by the government, and forbidden to come any closer to it than eight miles for the next two years.
What was the pastor to do? Refusing to abandon his flock, he went into hiding for the next couple of years. In disguise and at great risk, he managed to get back to his parishioners to take care of their needs. Some of the priests of his diocese had unfortunately taken the schismatic oath. He succeeded in persuading several of them to renounce it.
In 1793 a revolt broke out against the revolutionary government in La Vendee, a region of western France where its leaders, rural, Catholic and monarchist, had achieved some initial victories. Father Noel hurried back publicly to his parish. But the government armies eventually defeated the insurgents, so he once more took to flight. However, the police pursued him intently, not only because he had broken his exile, but because he had led fellow diocesan priests to renounce their oaths to the schismatic church. At last he was betrayed to his pursuers by his own Judas – a man for whom he had done many kindnesses.
The police seized Father Pinot when he was about to say Mass, and took him off to prison vested in his chasuble. For a week they held him prisoner, severely mistreating him. When he absolutely refused to take the required oath, he was finally sentenced to beheading by the guillotine.
On February 21, 1794, Abbe Noel Pinot was led off to the scaffold, still clothed in his priestly vestments. En route, it is said, he kept repeating the psalm-verse that priests used to recite at the beginning of Mass: “Introibo ad altare Dei”; “I will go in unto the altar of God.”
Pope Pius XI declared Father Noel “Blessed” in 1926. He had died for the papacy. He had also proved that it is more important to have quality than quantity in the priesthood. Yet we who so lack priests today may well hope that this good priest with the Christmas name who gave his all for the Church will intercede in heaven for an increase of worthy vocations to the diminished priesthood of our own time.
–Father Robert F. McNamara