“The sheep follow him, because they know his voice.
But a stranger they follow not, but fly from him,
because they know not the voice of strangers.” (Jn 10:4-5)
This little series is for the faithful who don’t so much seek pastors with the smell of the sheep, but who pray rather for pastors who have the sound of the Shepherd.
All who miss that tenor of apostolic zeal in certain pastors at present are invited to be encouraged by the ministry of those shepherds who have gone before us in history. Their words come across now as a fresh draught of clear doctrine in the midst of a salt waste of heterodoxy; an orienting breeze from some holy mountain in the midst of a tepid swamp of self-gratifying psychobabble and modernist nonsense.
They strengthen us because they are the words of those not content with this life, witness to a truly Apostolic courage in the preservation and extension of that Faith which alone can satisfy and save. We greatly need their prayers and inspiration.
“His disciples remembered that it was written,
The zeal of Thy house consumes me.” (Jn 2:17)
SETTING: You are a Catholic layperson, working for a living and raising a family in a fairly quiet suburb, just as your parents did before you. You’re trying to instill the Faith in your children, and you’re happy to have a humble but beautiful parish close by, with a faithful pastor who cares for his flock and preaches the Gospel with clarity and conviction. Confession and Holy Mass are the highlights of your week.
You had a wonderful Christmas this year, full of light and memories that will last a lifetime. The parish church was especially beautiful for Midnight Mass, with its simple decorations reflecting the piety and modest means of your community. Your family marked the coming of the New Year with joy and expectation.
You do not expect that before the year is through, everything will change.
Rumors of a growing threat will explode into the resignation of twenty thousand priests to a new and insidious doctrine and civil direction; thirty thousand more will be killed or exiled for refusing it. Forty thousand churches will be closed, demolished, sold, or sacked for secular use.
Your parish will be desecrated and destroyed, your kindhearted pastor publicly executed, and your family will barely escape to the surrounding countryside. Many of your neighbors and friends will resign themselves to the new situation, renouncing their Faith and receiving the new state-sponsored clergy into their parishes.
Since your family refuses to do the same, you are now out of work and in hiding, finding refugee priests from time to time that give you the Sacraments and strengthen your resolve to love and serve Christ and his Church to the end.
The blood of martyrs is the seed of future Christians.
In the midst of the spreading devastation, a ray of supernatural hope and strength shines from Rome: a letter has begun circulating from the Holy Father.
The letter is addressed to you and your family.
Its words are like life to you.
“…Beloved Children, We give you greeting and Our Apostolic Blessing.
Love, which is patient and kindly, as the Apostle Paul says, supports and endures all things… But if errors increase daily and reach the point of creating schism, the laws of love itself, together with Our duty, demand that We reveal to the erring their horrible sin and the heavy canonical penalties which they have incurred. For this sternness will lead those who are wandering from the way of truth to recover their senses, reject their errors, and come back to the Church, which opens its arms like a kind mother and embraces them on their return. The rest of the faithful in this way will be quickly delivered from the deceits of false pastors who enter the fold by ways other than the door, and whose only aim is theft, slaughter, and destruction.
…We have just learned of the war against the Catholic religion which has been started by the revolutionary thinkers who as a group form a majority in the National Assembly of France. We have wept in God’s presence, shared Our sorrow with the cardinals, and proclaimed public and private prayers. Then We wrote to King Louis, on July 9, 1790, and repeatedly encouraged him not to confirm the Civil Constitution of the Clergy which would lead his people into error and schism… but the National Assembly finally forced him to lend his authority to the Constitution…
…In the meanwhile, We were greatly consoled when a majority of the French bishops firmly opposed the Constitution… [for it] is composed of principles derived from heresy. It is consequently heretical in many of its decrees and at variance with Catholic teaching. In other decrees it is sacrilegious and schismatic… [and now] schism is being introduced and spread in the kingdom of France, which is so dear to Us… for the same reason pastors of first and second rank are being everywhere elected as the days go by, legitimate ministers are ejected from their positions, and ravening wolves are put in their place.
We are certainly saddened by this sorrowful situation. Therefore to hinder the spread of schism from the start, to recall to their duty those who have strayed, to fortify the good in their purpose, and to preserve religion in that prosperous kingdom… imitating the example of Our predecessors, We proclaim that each and every cardinal, archbishop, bishop, abbot, vicar, canon, parish priest, curate and member of the clergy, whether secular or regular, who has purely and simply taken the Civil Oath as ordered by the National Assembly is suspended from the exercise of his office and will act irregularly if he exercises his office unless he abjures his oath within forty days from this date. …We insistently urge them to retire from their ministry, to draw back from the way to perdition on which they are traveling at full speed, and never to allow strange doctrines which are opposed to the teaching of Christ, the tradition of the Fathers, and the law of the Church to be spread among the people by men inspired by the philosophy of the present age.
…We now address you, who with few exceptions know your duty to your flocks, and publicly professed it, disregarding human calculations. You judged that the greatest care and labor should be given to counter the greatest dangers. We apply to you the lavish praise given by Leo the Great… ‘Although I heartily share your loving labors for the observance of the Catholic faith, and I regard the attacks of the heretics on you as attacks on my person, I realize that your invincible constancy by the strength of the Lord Jesus Christ in the evangelical and apostolic teaching is reason for joy rather than for sorrow‘ …Indeed as We consider you, We are consoled and strongly urge you to stand fast in your purpose. To this end, We remind you of the bond of spiritual marriage which unites you to your churches and which only death or Our Apostolic authority can dissolve, according to the provision of the canons. Stay with your churches, then, and never leave them at the bidding of ravening wolves whose plots you have condemned in holy zeal as you unhesitatingly performed the tasks of lawful authority.
Next We address you, beloved sons, canons of excellent chapters. Subject to your archbishops and bishops, as is right, you form one clerical body as limbs which are united with their head, which the civil power is unable to destroy or overthrow. You have won great praise in following the remarkable example of your prelates: never turn aside from the right road, on which you are set, and never allow anyone in false bishop’s garments with a company of subordinates to take possession of your churches. For if the churches are deprived of their bishops, they will be your concern alone, despite all new plots hatched against you. Therefore, united in mind and counsel, keep as far from you as possible all intrusion and schism.
We also address you, beloved sons, parish priests and curates, who in great numbers and firm virtue have performed your duty far differently from your colleagues who, overcome by weakness or swept away by the tide of ambition, have gone over to the service of error. We hope that these men will soon return to their duty on receiving Our admonition. Press on bravely with the work you have begun, and bear in mind that the appointment you received from your lawful bishops can be taken from you only by them. Consequently, even if you are removed from your place by the civil power, you will still always be the lawful pastors, in duty bound as far as you are able to keep off the thieves who try to sneak into your place with the sole aim of destroying the souls entrusted to your care, whose salvation you will have to account for.
We address you too, beloved sons, priests, and other clergy and ministers of France. Since you have been called to the Lord’s work, you ought to stay close to your lawful pastors and be firm in faith and doctrine. Above all, avoid and condemn the sacrilegious intruders.
At length We beseech you all, beloved Catholic children, in the kingdom of France; as you recall the religion and faith of your fathers, We urge you lovingly not to abandon it. For it is the one true religion which both confers eternal life and makes safe and thriving civil societies. Carefully beware of lending your ears to the treacherous speech of the philosophy of this age which leads to death. Keep away from all intruders, whether called archbishops, bishops, or parish priests; do not hold communion with them especially in divine worship. Listen carefully to the message of your lawful pastors who are still living, and who will be put in charge of you later, according to the canons. Finally, in one word, stay close to Us. For no one can be in the Church of Christ without being in unity with its visible head and founded on the See of Peter.
To inspire all to fulfill their duties more ardently, We implore the heavenly Father to send you the Spirit of counsel, truth, and constancy. As a pledge of Our paternal love, beloved sons, venerable brothers and beloved children, We impart to you the Apostolic blessing.
Given at Rome in St. Peter’s under the Ring of the Fisherman on April 13, 1791, in the 17th year of Our pontificate.”
-Pope Pius VI
EPILOGUE: Within two years of this letter, Paris will witness the public execution of three Catholic bishops and more than two hundred priests in the span of just two days. Consecrated men and women in Nantes and Lyons will be stripped, tied together, and drowned, in what the revolutionaries call “republican weddings.”
Hundreds of thousands of Catholics will be systematically exterminated in the genocide of the Vendée. The Carmelite Sisters of Compiègne, the Ursulines of Valenciennes, and scores of nuns from other orders will win the crown of martyrdom at the handle of the guillotine – and so speed to their Lord, forever to make intercession for us.
Martyrs of the French Revolution, both known and unknown, pray for us.
For Further Reading:
Full text of the above letter Charitas of Pope Pius VI, April 13, 1791 here
Zeal according to the Catholic Encyclopedia and the teaching of St. Thomas
Some Catholic accounts of the French Revolution here, here, and here