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Theological Notebook: An Article on the French Terror and One Island's Role in that Anti-Clericalism

This was a new story for me, historically speaking. It took me quite a while, as an American, to come to understand the Catholic Church's slow and hesitant acceptance of democracy, particularly in the 19th century. We're so used to our own American mythos that democratic government seems "self-evidently" just. As an historian of ideas, you learn always to try to really look at the world through other people's eyes, and that reluctance to embrace democratic government begins to make more sense when you can see that "democracy" could be seen and understood as allowing the kind of domestic terrorism of the Terror in Republican France, or as the American willingness to (democratically) enslave half its population.

For French Catholics, small island is testimony to priests' suffering
By Jonathan Luxmoore
Catholic News Service

ILE MADAME, France (CNS) -- On a melancholy bend in France's Atlantic coast, a narrow causeway leads across choppy gray-green waters to a low-lying deserted island.

Ile Madame, in the River Charente estuary, is not mentioned in guidebooks, and few tourists venture here. For local Catholics, though, it remains a symbol of the violent anti-clericalism that erupted in their country more than two centuries ago.

"It's a small, desolate place -- but it speaks eloquently about testimony and suffering," said Msgr. Yves Guiochet, vicar general of La Rochelle Diocese. "At a time of secularism, when most people aren't interested in the church, it's a reminder of how to live faithfully as Christians, while also maintaining an attitude of respect and reconciliation to the society around us."

In April 1794, during the French Revolution, 829 detained Catholic priests, ages 28-77, were stripped of their breviaries and crucifixes and crammed aboard a pair of slave ships anchored off Rochefort to await deportation to Guyana.

Half the priests detained were diocesan priests from 35 departments of France, but some were religious, including Cistercians, Carmelites and Capuchins. Some had been marched 500 miles to reach the Charente mud flats. There was little food, and no medicine or doctors. Within nine months, two-thirds of the priests would be dead.

Survivors testified how the guards barred prisoners from praying and shot anyone found with religious objects, throwing the bodies into the water.

"The hand of God is here," one priest-chronicler recorded. "Death continues to take away our brothers, and the dead are immediately replaced by a great number of living. Bright faces, once shining with stoutness and health, are covered in dreadful pallor."

The priests' imprisonment followed the bloody suppression of a Catholic-led uprising in the Vendee region to the north; the uprising sparked violent reprisals. At La Rochelle, a Jacobin stronghold, "counterrevolutionary clergy" were hacked to death during transfer to a city prison.

At Nantes, too many death sentences were handed down for the local guillotine, so imprisoned priests were towed out into the River Loire aboard a barge with holes and drowned in what became known derisively as a "republican baptism."

Near Rochefort, the slave ships became infested, and locals complained of bodies being washed up on the mud flats, so that August a tent hospital was set up on the four-square-mile Ile Madame, and the surviving priests were rowed across.

"Compared to the hell of the ships, the island seemed a veritable paradise," one survivor later recalled. "Approaching the shore, I saw greenery, a hedge, some trees. A butterfly appeared and I spotted some birds. It was the height of joy. I felt myself reborn."

Battling starvation and typhus, however, 254 priests died on the island and were buried near the shore, earning Ile Madame the temporary nickname of Ile des Pretres (Priests Island).

In October 1995, Pope John Paul II beatified 64 martyred priests, including Father Jean-Baptiste Souzy, a former cathedral canon who died on Ile Madame after helping organize a spiritual life for fellow prisoners.

Today, their fate is remembered each August by a pilgrimage across the causeway from the mainland. A simple shrine to Mary stands on Ile Madame's single track, among windswept pines and gorse bushes, while a cross of stone marks the spot where four skeletons were found buried in the sand, amid rocks and seaweed.

Msgr. Guiochet said he thinks the island should be left this way, a place of memory without monuments.

Backpackers, in search of solitude, come to camp on Ile Madame, which is home to a single farm building, a long-deserted military bunker and a few sprawling fishing shacks.

But most vacationers head north across the estuary to the fortified Ile d'Aix, where Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, or south to the vineyards of Medoc and the provincial capital, Bordeaux.

Though 25 priests left written accounts of the horrors they witnessed on the island, the only surviving relic is a tiny crucifix, hastily cut from driftwood with a seaman's knife; the cross was secretly handed to priests as they lay dying. The anonymous sculptor had no time to finish it, and the cross is known locally as "Christ Without Arms."

"It's important for us today to know these priests had the courage to stay loyal to the church and found strength and peace in their faith," Msgr. Guiochet told Catholic News Service.

"The tragic story reminds us we should never despair of our own society, whatever misfortunes it inflicts on us. But we should also be vigilant in making sure such hatred never triumphs again," he said.
Tags: cultural, ethical, europe, historical, political, priesthood, secularism/modernity, theological notebook
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