Today we’r e going to observe Western civilization turning against its own builders. We’r e going to look at some of the forgotten episodes of martyrdom in the modern period. So join me for stories of tragedy and her oism today on The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization.
Welcome to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. I’m Thomas Woods. Today we’r e talking about Martyrdom, and we’r e talking about some of the forgotten episodes of martyrdom that have occurr ed within the Catholic world in the modern period. Some of them will be familiar to you, but others perhaps not, and yet each of them it seems to me should be known by everybody. Each of them would make an extraordinarily moving motion pictur e, and yet nothing so far. That’s a note to all you Catholic filmmakers out there. There’s no, there’s no short supply of movies of great heroism. Now, I’ve chosen particular episodes that I think ar en’t especially well-known, or deserve to be better known.
There are great many others, and at the end of this episode I’m going to give you some reading suggestions because if you’re like me, you just can’t tell what you should be reading. You don’t have 12 books by your bed or anything. You could always use a couple more. Well, I’m going to give you a couple at the end, but for right now I want to go back to the 16th century and tell you briefly a story you may already know, but r emind you of a figur e you may have forgotten. And I want to talk about King Henry VIII. King Henry VIII of England would have been the last person people would have expected to persecute Catholics.
After all, he wrote a book in defense of the seven Sacraments in 1521 against Martin Luther. He had no sympathy for Martin Luther whatsoever. Now, I’m not going to go through the story of his annulment and his various marriages, because then we’d be here for a whole other series, but for now we’ll simply say that King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage, marry another woman, and the Pope did not approve it but he did it anyway, and in fact, he took the Church in England and br oke it away from the Church around the world and declar ed that from now on, in the mid 1530s, that he the King of England would be the head of the Catholic Church in England. So the universality of the Church around the world was threatened by, in effect, this self-imposed act of schism. So, what happened after that? Well, of course, there were people who objected to this.
“What right do you have to do this? “Is the annulment of your marriage valid? “Is your power to claim that you ar e the head of the Catholic Church… is that something that has any roots in Church history? Can we abide this?” Now, many of you know about the story of St. Thomas More, the former Lord Chancellor who opposed what the king was doing and could not in conscience support him, and was executed. Now St. Thomas More, in the year 2000, was declar ed by Pope John Paul II to be the patron saint of politicians… which I thought was a particularly mischievous move, meaning that politicians should if effect be so committed to their consciences and to the truth as to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for them. But there is a forgotten figure in this story, and that’s Bishop John Fisher of Rochester.
John Fisher was a diminutive figure. He was a very old man, and frail and sickly, and he was the one bishop who had the courage at that time to stand up and say that he could not accept what the king was doing. Now, there have been great times of her oism among Catholic bishops in the history of mankind. For example, during the Fr ench Revolution, Catholic bishops wer e exemplary in many cases. But here we had just the one example of John Fisher. And he was loved by everyone. And on that day when he came out of the Tower of London, holding his small Bible as they led him to be executed, the people gathered and watched, and he add ressed them and told them, said to the Catholic people that, “I have come here to die for Christ’s Catholic Church,” and he was executed. But my, my favorite part of this is a popular story that followed thereafter, because his head, Bishop John Fisher’s head was placed on a pike and placed, along with the heads of some monks who had also resisted the king, on London Bridge. Now, during his life, John Fisher had been very pale in complexion and indeed sickly-looking, but in death, with his head on that pike, his face took on a reddish hue, such that he looked healthier and more alive than ever.
In fact, this was such a spectacle that people began making small pilgrimages to visit his head, such that the government finally just had to take it down. I sure hope that story is true, because they deserved to be r ebuked by John Fisher, even in his death. Now, 400 years exactly after the deaths of these two great men, in 1935, they were canonized, and so we call them St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. But I taught Western civilization at the college level in New York for seven years and I always looked for a good textbook, and the textbook always told us about the her oism of St. Thomas More, and of course, ther e’s the wonderful movie, A Man For All Seasons, but I never found a single textbook that told us about the sacrifice of John Fisher, this glorious bishop who had been tr eated so badly by the r egime, who had been maneuvered and manipulated into saying things that could be declar ed criminal and treasonous.
His is an extraordinary witness and we ought to have recourse to him very often. But even after the death of King Henry VIII in 1547, that wasn’t the end of the troubles people had in England, trying to follow the Pope. A couple of years later, around 5000 Catholics in England perished when the new king, Edward VI, took away their beloved Latin Mass. That was the Great Western Rising, and nobody’s ever heard about it. But coming closer to the present, I want to call to our minds the French Revolution, because episodes in the French Revolution regarding the Church are so vivid and so astonishing, you almost can’t believe these things happened. In fact, most people don’t even know about these events, but they ar e so astonishing and so almost sub humanly cruel that we can say, almost with confidence that surely there was a diabolical aspect to them.
The French Revolution began in 1789, and within a year, and indeed two years, the Church found that her property was “nationalized’”, which is a nice way of saying ripped away from her by the government. Priests were required to take oaths of loyalty to the new government. Not all did so, understandably. Monasteries were suppressed, and by the way, they were suppressed on the grounds of religious freedom. So in the name of religious freedom, you cannot be free to be a monk. So you go figure that out. Well, this type of thing went on early on. This is the so-called moderate phase of the revolution, but as time went on, the revolution grew more and more explicitly anti-Catholic. In fact, by 1793, things had grown almost hysterically worse. 1793-1794, it’s there that we see what became known as the “Reign of Terror”, and here, if you were a Catholic and were outspoken about it in some way, you could be in trouble just for that.
You could be called a fanatic because you were found praying the rosary or because you had sheltered a priest who had refused to take that oath of loyalty. There wer e terrible crimes carried out against ordinary Catholics, young men, sick and healthy, women and men together, children, all subject to the same terrible crimes. For example, the drownings at Nantes. Thousands of Catholics perished in the drownings at Nantes, which consisted of taking people in boats out into the River Loire, and then the tormenters in the boats would jump to other boats and before doing so they would open up holes in the initial boat so that the boat would sink and the people on it would drown. The man who carried this out, Jean Baptiste Carrier, said, “Never have I had so much amusement as in seeing the last grimaces of priests as they die.”
Beyond the dr owning at Nantes, we have the shootings at Angers. We have the martyrs at, of, who are called the martyrs of Avriere, 100 of whom were beatified by Pope John Paul II and many favors have been won through their inter cession. But there, the martyrs of Avriere wer e marched to some ditches that had been d ug, and it was decided that the way to deal with these unruly Catholics was to line them up against the ditches and to shoot them all so that they would fall into the ditches and perish. Many female religious went to their deaths in this way, singing songs to the Lord as they did so and forgiving their captors and tormentors. In the midst of all this, ther e was also the de-Christianization Campaign, de-Christianization Campaign in France.
Now, what did that consist of? During the fanaticism of de-Christianization, a new calendar was introduced, because of course, if we want to de-Christianize the country, we certainly can’t have a calendar data from the life of Christ. So instead, we’r e going to date our calendar from the year we killed our king. That’ll be the year 1. And the week became ten days long, not seven, so it became impossible for the Catholic people, after a time, to know what day was Sunday. Well, thankfully, most people never adopted this silly calendar, but that was an example of the hostility toward the Catholic people. But beyond just that, bizarre ceremonies wer e carried out. Statues of saints were guillotined. The names of streets that had the word “saint” in them had the word “saint” removed.
Churches were vandalized everywhere, property destroyed, as an attempt to try to wipe out the Christian inheritance. In fact, even worship itself was discontinued in all but the remotest areas of the country. Here was de-Christianization. In fact, even the priests who had taken the oath of loyalty to the regime were now told that was not enough. If you want to show that you are loyal to revolutionary France, you must abjure your ordination altogether. Many of them refused to do that. Thousands of them fled the country. 10,000 priests went to England alone. England, an anti-Catholic country at that time, welcomed them, and in fact, as some historians have said, like Michael Davies… in fact, what the result of that was, was that English people got to see Catholic priests for themselves.
They no longer heard about Catholic priests just in caricature. They met these men for themselves and saw how heroic they were and what they were able to do, and it astonished them how great these men were. And this experience they had meeting all these Catholic priests went a long way in the 19th century toward lifting the restrictions against Catholicism in that country. But this is not even the worst of what happened to Catholics. A war of extermination was waged in the Vendee region of France, and this episode has been almost entir ely forgotten. It was not forgotten by Pope John Paul II, who visited the Vendee region, spoke about the Vendee region in a French visit in 1996. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about those men and women, what the Pope had to say, and more examples of heroism, when we come back to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. So I’ll see you in a minute. (music) (music) Welcome back to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization.
I’m Thomas Woods. Today we’ve been talking about cases in which Western civilization, in effect, has turned against her own builders, and we’ve seen the suffering that Catholics have endured in a great many contexts. And I’m just giving the tip of the iceberg, I promise, of what has happened to Catholics over the centuries that nobody knows about. Now we started off talking about the French Revolution, and I mentioned that the Vendee region of France was subject to a particularly vicious campaign during the revolution. The Vendee was the area that was most resistance to the French revolutionaries and orders were given to go into the Vendee and exterminate these people.
Every single person who was moving should be killed. People should be bayonetted and hacked to bits. They were order ed to do that, but the people of Vendee stood up and resisted the best they could. And when Pope John Paul II was in France in 1996… he was ther e, incidentally, to observe the 1500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis, who was the, the Frankish king who accepted Christian baptism and thus bestowed upon France the title of “The Eldest Daughter of the Church”… the Pope was there to commemorate that, but he spoke about the particular sacrifice of the people in the Vendee. And he said, “You who were born in the land of the Vendee are the heirs of men and women who were courageous enough to remain faithful to the Church of Jesus Christ at a time when her freedom and independence were threatened.
“In the numerous acts of witness that have come down to us, it is moving to see that the people of the Vendee remained attached to their parishes and their priests in spite of the cruelty of persecution.” Now, today, if you even say the word Vendee, with how many people will it ring bells? Essentially none. These are episodes that are in serious danger of being forgotten. No one has taught them in the first place, but if we have respect for all peoples, we need to know about the sufferings of all peoples. Now, I’d like to make particular mention of what happened to Catholics at the beginning of the Russian Revolution because of course, most Russians, inasmuch as they Christians, were in the Orthodox Church.
So we sometimes forget about the fate of the Catholic Church because it was relatively not so numerous, but still I’m interested in this episode because of how much it reveals about anti-Catholic persecution and modern atheistic governments. Now, we’re talking about the late 19-teens into the early 1920’s. These are the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, when the communists have taken over and Lenin is in charge. Now, initially, what they did was they made it a crime to engage in religious education to anyone under 18, so you can’t form the minds of the children.
The communists will form the minds of the children. They also made it illegal to do a variety of things. They made it very difficult, if not impossible for the Church to own property. They established atheistic pr opaganda and encouraged and foster ed atheistic pr opaganda all over the place. In fact, in some cases, chur ches wer e replaced with public r estr ooms as a way of, of showing, well, the greatest possible disdain to the Christian faith of the people. I have a friend who, around about the early 1980s, perhaps the late 1970s, was being taken on a guided tour of Russia and the tour guide was giving the usual pr opaganda, look at the religious freedom we encourage in Russia, look at all of our chur ches, and my friend impertinently asked, “Oh, how many of them were built since 1917?” Total silence, of course. He was never invited back, needless to say. That’s an unaskable question.
But early on, the early 1920s, you start to see a campaign against the Catholic churches in which the regime is claiming, “We need to take the valuables out of these churches,” anything that might be made out of precious metals, because Russia, in large part thanks to the stupidity of its government, was suffering fr om a devastating famine and the claim was, “We need to melt these sacred vessels down to sell them to make money to provide for famine relief.” Well, clearly this was an attempt to break the Catholic churches, to show who was in charge. They didn’t actually need that money for famine relief, because the United States and other places wer e sending famine relief money to Russia. And we now know, now that the Soviet archives have been opened up, that the government was taking that food aid money and using it to buy machine guns from Germany.
They didn’t need the money for this purpose, and in fact, Pope Benedict XV, who was Pope fr om 1914-1922, even made an offer to the Russian government. He said, “The Vatican will give you an amount of money equivalent to the value of those vessels if you just leave them alone.” He never got an answer to that offer, which is all you need to know. And so, in effect, storm troopers mar ched into chur ches and began vandalizing them. Most churches were vandalized. The only ones who weren’t were ones where it was determined that ther e was nothing sufficiently of value there. Now, beyond this, we have cases of priests being executed or imprisoned just for doing normal priestly functions, pr oviding religious education or trying to pr event the storm troopers from taking their vessels.
One priest, for example, got down on his knees and begged his congr egation to block and protect the Tabernacle. He was tried and convicted of falling demonstratively on his knees. Did you know that was a crime? That’s apparently a crime, and that r eminds us that in these revolutionary r egimes ther e is no respect for law whatsoever. Law is what the judge says it is. In fact, in Russia, historian Richard Pipe says, “Russia was the one, first country on earth to ever outlaw law.” That if you wanted to be a judge in Russia, all you needed to do is be literate. You didn’t need to have any legal training, because, “We don’t need legal training. “We don’t need previous pr ecedent and pr evious law. “All we need is somebody with a good communist revolutionary conscience who knows how to mete out communist justice in one case after another.”
In fact, one government official said to the Russian leader, Lenin, “Our commissariat of justice really should be renamed the commissariat of socialist extermination, shouldn’t it?” And Lenin said, “Yes it should, but we can’t say that.” So that’s how they come up with crimes like falling demonstratively on your knees. A r evolutionary judge simply makes this stuff up as he goes along. So the first show trials in Russia were not under Stalin, when Stalin would take potential political rivals or fellow communists and put them on trial and accuse them of treachery and force them to engage in ridiculous and obviously absurd confessions. Those ar e sometimes thought of as the first show trials, where the job was to humiliate the accused before executing him. The first show trials were actually under Lenin, when priests wer e put on trial for having defended their pr operty or having carried out the simplest and most benign of priestly functions.
The job was to humiliate and break these people, and yet again this is forgotten. This is beyond forgotten. What about Spain in the 20th century during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939? What happened there? In terms of Catholics, we have some of the most grotesque atrocities carried out by people. For example, one historian tells us, in Spain which of course is one of Europe’s most staunchly Catholic countries, large numbers of Catholics wer e just butchered solely for being Catholic, unlike the martyrdoms in most parts of the world, whole sectors of the religious community were liquidated. At least 6,832 priests and religious were martyred, including 13 bishops.
In the 20th century probably no country witnessed so much bloodshed among its clergy. Another source, an incalculable number of laypersons wer e killed because of their religious associations, either as well known churchgoers, members of fraternal and charitable religious organizations, or as the fathers, mothers, br others, sisters, and friends of clerics. Some were killed because they professed their faith by wearing some outward symbol of belief, perhaps a religious medal or a scapular. Some were killed for acts of charity, for granting refuge to clerics attempting to escape this terrible fury. It is impossible to determine the number of these laypersons who were slain for their faith. And nor was the anti-clericalism limited to killing.
Thousands of churches were burned. Religious object were profaned. Nuns’ tombs wer e opened and the petrified mummies displayed to ridicule, and religious ceremonies were burlesqued. Indeed, practically any imaginable anti-clerical act was not only possible, but likely. And still another writer tells us, as they entered a village, that is, in effect, anti-Catholic storm troopers, you may as well call them, their first object of attack was the Church. There the communists and their henchmen would r ound up the priests and religious, as well as anyone who pr otested, wreak all kind of destruction and sacrilege and then pour round after round of ammunition into the tabernacle of the parish church. Now, unfortunately, my friends, we could go on and on. We could talk about the sacrifices Catholics made under the terrible Nazi regime, about the thousands of priests interned at Dachau. We could talk about the sufferings in Mexico.
There’s so much we can talk about, because there were sufferings all over the world in the 20th century. In Africa, all over the world, people perished because of their faith. Now, unfortunately, this is largely a forgotten story. The Black Book of Communism does tell a lot of the atrocities of the communists, and that is a very important thing, because people, in effect, don’t seem to care, or have forgotten about these crimes. But that book doesn’t r eally give us the information we might want about people who died specifically because ther e were Catholics, and not just because they were anti-communists. So the book I would recommend is a book by Bob Royal, Robert Royal, called Catholic Martyrs of the 20th Century, Catholic Martyrs of the 20th C entury, and he gives a history of what happened in the 20th century around the world, and he says that in terms of people we can clearly identify as having specifically died for the faith, it’s in the hundreds of thousands.
We can’t forget those people. And these are people who gave the same witness as those people in the early centuries, who helped their own persecutors. These are people who, when they died, they forgave these people and they blessed them. That’s why Tertullian said that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians”, because people are so moved by their testimony. Pope John Paul II quoted the words of Christ, “Blessed are You when they insult you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. “Rejoice and be glad. For your reward is great in Heaven.” And the Pope said, “How well these words of Christ fit the countless witnesses to the faith in the last century, insulted and persecuted but never broken by the power of evil. “Where hatred seemed to corrupt the whole of life, leaving no escape from its logic, they pr oved that love is stronger that death.”
Within terrible systems of oppression which disfigured man, in places of pain, amid the hardest of privations, through senseless marches exposed to cold and hunger, tortured, suffering in so many ways, they loudly proclaimed their loyalty to Christ crucified and risen. Countless numbers refused to yield to the cult of the false gods of the 20th century and were sacrificed by communism, Nazism, by the idolatry of state or race. Many others fell in the course of ethnic or tribal wars because they had rejected a way of thinking foreign to the Gospel of Christ. Some went to their death because, like the Good Shepherd, they decided to remain with their people despite intimidation.
On every continent and throughout the entire 20th century, there have been those who preferred to die rather than betray the mission which was theirs, and they did so in the Spirit of Christ. But their stories have been forgotten. We need to remember them, because these stories can inspire, and they in fact can move people to conversion. Well, next time we’r e going to wrap up our series and look at what the Church has done for the West and how we can tell mor e people about it. So join me next time. Thanks.