A French Saint for Former Slaves

Blessed Jacques-Desire Laval
Misters Chambay and Lecorgne / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Over the centuries, France has sent missionaries to many corners of the globe to preach and serve those who have never heard the Gospel before. One of them, Blessed Jacques-Desire Laval, is a more recent example.

Born into a pious family of simple farmers in 1803, Jacques initially decided to become a medical doctor. But after only four years of a medical career, he fell from a horse in an incident that could have killed him. Deeply affected, he “re-evaluated his life choices,” closed his practice, and went to study to become a priest.

After ordination, he was sent by his religious order to serve the people of Maritius. Slavery had only recently been outlawed on this island off the coast of Africa; helping the poor, uneducated freed slaves learn how to improve their living conditions became his life’s work. He also learned their language and served them through his medical knowledge.

Not only did sixty-seven thousand people eventually convert to the faith through Blessed Jacques’ witness, the respect he showed for people of other faiths earned their respect as well. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as Catholics, attended his funeral in 1864. He is commemorated by the Church on September 9, the date of his death.

Blessed Jacques, teach me how to show respect for all those around me.

A French Saint for the Poor

Bust of Antoine-Frederic Ozanam
Schaefer Frères / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

When most people think of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society—a charitable organization that currently serves needy people all over the world—they think of Saint Vincent de Paul. Father Vincent is indeed celebrated by the Church on another day in September, but he wasn’t the original founder of the organization that bears his name.

Blessed Antoine-Frederic Ozanam was born in Italy in 1813. His parents had fourteen children, though only three survived childhood. Frederic, as everyone called him, became a teacher, and he married and had a daughter. He was also an author, and one of the things he wrote about was how Christianity benefits both individuals and the communities in which Christians live. Putting his faith into practice in France, he founded an organization called the Conference of Charity in 1833 to serve the needy around him. That organization is now called the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and serves the needy in 153 countries, with an estimated 800,000 members.

Blessed Frederic died in the year 1853, but his service lives on in those who follow his ideals. He is remembered by the Church on the date of his death, September 8.

Blessed Frederic, help me find a way to serve those how are poor around me.

A French Saint for Trauma Survivors

Saint Cloud meeting the hermit, Saint Severin
Polmars, French Wikipedia; Public domain; Wikimedia Commons

When Saint Cloud (sometimes called Clodoald) was born in the year 522 in France, he was the son of a prince. His father, Clodomir, was killed in battle when he was still young, so Cloud and his two brothers were raised by their doting and faithful grandmother, Saint Clotilda.

However, dysfunctional families are not a modern invention. Two of Cloud’s uncles recognized that the only thing standing between them and control of the entire country was a little thing called murder. The two men arranged a meeting with Clotilda and then brutally and personally killed two of their own nephews in front of her. Cloud somehow escaped and lived as a hermit. The evil uncles apparently considered him no longer a threat, perhaps because of Cloud’s decision to enter religious life or perhaps because he was only eight years old at the time. Either way, the two men continued to live and control the country as they pleased.

But Cloud is not acclaimed a saint because he narrowly escaped an undeserved death. He spent the rest of his life in solitude, having learned enough about “the ways of the world” to prefer a life focused on God and bringing the Gospel to others. According to tradition, Cloud became a hermit under the direction of Saint Severin, retired to a more remote location when Severin died, and then returned to Paris. He became a priest there, but then became a hermit again, dying he was only thirty-eight years old. The Church commemorates him on the date of his death, September 7, 560.

Saint Cloud, teach me about the peace of Christ.

A French Saint of the Prisons

Engraved image of 19th century hulk by Louis Le Breton
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

During the French Revolution, some regions of France were safer for Catholic priests than others. Blessed Scipion Jerome Brigeat Lambert (1733-1794) had become a priest and vicar general for his diocese, but he fled to his hometown to escape the anti-Catholic violence that was sweeping the countryside. Unfortunately, officials from the Revolutionary government found him. When Father Scipion refused to take the oath of allegiance to the government, he was arrested and put in prison.

Fans of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s novel and a popular play and movie, will recognize the “hulks”, the unseaworthy ships that were docked in harbors and used as prisons in eighteenth century France. These wretched vessels were not only used to incarcerate those guilty of relatively trivial offenses, such as the fictional Jean Valjean, they were also used to incarcerate priests. The prison ships of Rochefort housed many Catholic clergy and laymen whose only crime was their faith. Scipion was one of them.

On September 4, 1794, Blessed Scipion died as a result of the mistreatment and starvation he endured during his imprisonment in the hulks. He was later acclaimed a saint by those who had lived with him and seen his faith, even in the terrible conditions of their imprisonment, proving that it’s possible to love God and neighbor even when imprisoned unjustly.

Blessed Scipion, help me to forgive those who mistreat me.

Saint of the Day

The Martyrs of September

Saint of the Day

On September 2, the Church commemorates the “Martyrs of September”. To better understand these martyrs, it helps to better understand the French Revolution.

Though the American Revolution (1775-1783) preceded the French Revolution (1789-1799) by only a few years and though the two events are popularly assumed to be similar in their goals, the reality is far different. While Americans rebelled against the British crown for its refusal to treat them fairly as citizens, among other things, the genesis of the French Revolution was rooted in anti-Catholicism. Leading up to the outbreak of the French Revolution, many French thinkers and leaders openly rejected and mocked Christian faith and stirred up resentment against the French king and his government. It is not surprising that angry mobs eventually followed their lead and violently took control of the government. It is also not inconsequential that the Revolutionary government went so far as to make radical changes to the French calendar; the clear goal was to eradicate any Christian aspects of French culture, even including any references to the year of the birth of our Savior.

The Revolutionary government created a new civil constitution, which included a demand that all Catholic clergy swear their allegiance to France first and foremost, not the Catholic Church. The Vatican, of course, objected to this oath, and faithful Catholic bishops and priests refused to take it, leading to many arrests.

On the afternoon of September 2, 1792, in Paris, a violent mob of several hundred people, led by Revolutionary leaders, attacked four carriages carrying some Catholic clergy who had refused the oath, killing the priests with swords. The Revolutionary leaders then led the way to a nearby Carmelite monastery which was being used as a prison for 191 other Catholic clergy and vowed religious. Two of the more notable prisoners were Blesseds Francis-Joseph de la Rochefoucauld and Peter-Louis de la Rochefoucauld; the two men were brothers and also bishops. The archbishop of Arles, Blessed John-Marie du Lau d’Alleman, was the ranking ecclesiastic incarcerated with them.

When the mob entered the Carmelite monastery, they were carrying swords, pikes, and pistols. When the abbot (now Blessed) Hebert saw the mob approaching, clearly bent on executing some or all of the clergy, he asked for a trial; he was shot. The archbishop of Arles, Blessed John-Marie, fell to his knees in prayer, then rose and echoed the famous words of our Lord (John 18:4), “I am the man you are looking for.”

Although the archbishop and some men were killed outright, a pretense of a trial was set up for most of the other prisoners. None of them would accept the oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary government, and all of them were brutally killed. The executions took all night, and it’s said that the blood from the violence literally filled the gutters outside the building.

Since all 191 of these Catholic clergy and religious died for refusing to join a schismatic church, they are remembered today as martyrs and are all acclaimed as blesseds.

Martyrs of September, show me how to respond to violence with peace.

September: A Month for the Church in France

Baptism of Clovis, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Since the 1950s, many people living what used to be called “Christendom” have fallen away from faith in Christ. The nation of France is no exception. Although up to 80% of the French population called themselves Catholic as late as the 1980s, that number has dropped sharply in the decades since. Some say (pre-COVID19) that only 5% of French Catholics even attend Mass on Sundays.

But it wasn’t always that way. After all, France has often been called the “eldest daughter of the Church”. Why? When the early Church began to spread outside Jerusalem, it spread to Rome, but it also quickly spread to Gaul (modern France). We have records of Catholic communities in Gaul dating all the way back to the second century. In the year 496, France’s King Clovis converted to the faith through the encouragement of his Christian wife, Saint Clotilde, with a corresponding growth in Catholicism throughout the country. There are still some ancient Roman buildings standing in France that were converted into churches in the sixth and seventh centuries. In the year 800, Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, marking not only a strong relationship between the pope and the French king, but also between the Catholic faith and the French people.

Because there are so many French saints commemorated by the Church in the month of September, my blogs this month will focus on them. Note, however, that many of these holy men and women died as martyrs—at the hands of their fellow Frenchmen.

French saints of September, help me to remain faithful to Christ and His Church.

Uncomfortable Saints

Mary MacKillop:
N.N. / Public domain

All the saints should make us uncomfortable when we compare our all-too-human laziness with their heroic efforts in prayer, penance, and service of others. But some saints make us squirm because of the difficult trials they endured at the hands of other people. Three saints from the month of August fit in that category.

On August 8, the Australian saint, Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), is celebrated by the Church. Few founders of religious orders have been so painfully tried by the Church herself as was Mary. As the founder of a teaching order of nuns, she discovered that a priest who was serving at one of her schools was sexually abusing children. She promptly reported him to Church authorities, who sent him back to his native Ireland. But because the reason for the dismissal was kept secret by Church leaders, another priest misunderstood her actions and motivations, and he found a way to take revenge through her bishop. His vindictiveness ultimately led to Mary being excommunicated from the Church and deprived of the sacraments for a year. It was a deeply painful trial, and not the only one she suffered as a founder and mother superior.

On August 14, the Church remembers the 813 men of Otranto, Italy, who were ordered to convert to Islam or die when their town was invaded by Muslim Turks in the year 1480. When the men said no, all of them were brutally killed. Since this was the last, and failed, attempt by the Turks to conquer Italy, these brave and faithful men are often credited with saving all of Christian Europe. Most of the relics of these martyrs are still in the city’s cathedral.

One could feel deep sympathy with Blessed Victoire Rasoamanarivo (1848-1894) of Madagascar on her feast day August 21 for many reasons. For example, she was persecuted by her family for converting to Catholicism and later faced persecution by the government when Catholic churches, schools, and orders were closed for political reasons. But her most painful trial had to have been the marriage that her family arranged for her; her husband was a womanizer, a heavy drinker, and violent. Only after twenty-four years of marriage, during which time she prayed, prayed, and prayed some more for her husband, did he repent, ask for her forgiveness, and accept baptism.

All three of these saints suffered heartbreaking trials in their lives. Thanks be to God, they can help us when we do the same.

Saintly Teens

Museo Nacional de Arte / Public domain

When my book about saints first came out, a good friend who has a lot of grandkids encouraged me to write a book about teenage saints. Such a book is much-needed for Confirmation gifts, she said. Maybe someday I will write such a book, but August 6 is the perfect day to talk about two pairs of teens whose faith in Christ should put adults to shame.

Blesseds Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa were born and raised in Uganda and became Catholics when they were only eleven and fifteen, respectively. These two boys were so devoted to their faith that they even taught other children in their village about the Good News. But within a few years of their conversion, in the year 1918, local leaders ordered Christians to stop teaching the Gospel. When the two boys, still in their teens, refused to obey, they were executed with spears and knives.

But bravery in the face of violent persecution is not a modern invention. Sixteen centuries earlier, Saints Justus and Pastor were Christian schoolboys living in Spain. When the Roman emperor Diocletian ordered a crackdown against the Church in the year 304, Justus (who was only thirteen years old) and Pastor (who was only nine) not only refused to renounce their faith in Christ despite torture, they encouraged one another while they were being tortured. The man who had been sent by the authorities to locate and execute Catholics in their city was so humiliated by the public bravery of the two boys that he had them taken away and beheaded in secret. Was he afraid that their supernatural faith in God was contagious?

No one knows for certain, but as the Church celebrates Saints Justus and Pastor on August 6, it’s impossible not to imagine the four teenagers, good-naturedly comparing their experiences in Heaven.

Though Saints Justus and Pastor are commemorated by the Church on August 6, Blesseds Daudi and Jildo are commemorated on September 18.

Holy Martyrs, teach me your courage in standing up for the Gospel.

Saints of 1936

Most Americans know very little about the Spanish Civil War. During this violent time in Spain’s history, the anti-Catholic government openly persecuted Catholic churches, religious orders, and individuals. (For more information, see volume 6 of Warren Carroll’s excellent series, A History of Christendom) In August of 1936, this persecution was particularly brutal, which is why the Church’s calendar is particularly full of Spanish martyrs during that month.

On August 3, 1936, Blessed Salvador Ferrandis Segui* was arrested and shot because he was a Catholic priest. On August 8, 1936, Blessed Zephyrinus Jimenez Malla, a businessman and Dominican tertiary, was executed for hiding priests from the authorities. On August 19, 1936, nine Carmelite sisters were martyred together. On August 20, 1936, Blessed Maria Climent Mateu, a laywoman who was active in her church through the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and the Catholic Women’s Trade Union, was stabbed to death. The charges against these individuals had nothing to do with committing any serious crimes, but everything to do with their Catholic faith.

The Spanish Civil War and its persecution of Catholics lasted from 1934 to 1939, and it certainly was not limited August of 1936, although hatred of the faith was particularly virulent then. For example, the Church also celebrates Blessed Henry Morant Pellicer (a priest) on October 4, Blessed Joseph Llosa Balaguer (a layman) on October 7, Blessed Joaquin Pina Piazuelo (a religious brother) on November 10, and Blessed Jose Aparicio Sanz (a priest) on December 29, among many others.

Since some estimate that more than six thousand Catholic priests and religious were executed during the Spanish Civil War, along with many members of the laity, this list of blesseds is both too long (even one martyr is a tragedy) and too short (there are many more than can be listed here). But in the month of August we can remember that less than a century ago, it was a brutal time for the faithful Catholics of Spain.

* All the blesseds described in this post are included in my book, “Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year.”

Are They Martyrs of Marxism?

Globetrotter19 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
A memorial site to the victims of Communism, Budapest, Hungary

Should the people who have died during recent violent protests be considered martyrs of Marxism? To answer that question, it’s important to first define some terms.

Since riots began occurring—and recurring—in our country, the word “Marxist” has often popped up in the news. At least one prominent leader involved in these violent, destructive protests has described herself as a “trained Marxist.” But what is a Marxist?

What is a Marxist?

For those of us who are not experts in this field, I would recommend two books that have helped me understand the economic systems of Marxism, Communism, and Socialism. For an excellent but easy-to-read explanation of the topic, see Can a Catholic be a Socialist? [The Answer is No—Here’s Why] by Trent Horn and Catherine R. Pakaluk. For a detailed understanding of the history of Communism from a Catholic perspective, see the always brilliant Dr. Warren Carroll’s The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution. What is the bottom line? While the individuals promoting these economic systems may have lofty goals about eliminating poverty and helping those in need, the methods they use—abolishing private property and giving the government control over the economy (as described in the first book)—inevitably result in a brutal, dehumanizing way of life for those who live in such states (as described in the second book), particularly Christians.

What is a martyr?

The Church currently has a careful, detailed process by which someone is declared a martyr and/or a saint. That process involves documentation, testimony, and careful research into the life of the individual to ensure that the person truly lived a holy, heroic life of virtue, and in the case of most martyrs, died specifically because of “hatred of the Catholic faith.”

An exception proves the point: Saint Maria Goretti is considered a martyr of purity. She was not killed by Alessandro Serenelli because he hated her Catholic faith, but her Catholic faith inspired her to fight back when he attempted to rape her. To be declared a martyr by the Church today, it must be clear that the person was killed specifically because he or she was a faithful Catholic, typically because of a refusal to deny a personal faith in God through some physical and/or verbal act.

Martyrs under Marxism

In my book about saints, I only included three men who have been formally beatified and declared to be martyrs under Communism by the Church. Blesseds Aloysius Stepanic, Nicholas Tsehelsky, and Roman Lysko were all Catholic priests living in eastern European countries when they were arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately executed by the Soviets, precisely because they were faithful Catholics and faithful priests.

It is indisputable that many thousands (perhaps even millions) of Christian men, women, and children in the twentieth century suffered pain, starvation, exile, imprisonment, torture, and death at the hands of Communist governments because of their faith. The true number of these faithful followers of Christ will never be known by us because totalitarian governments are so effective at hiding the evidence, though even mass graves cannot be hidden forever. For example, almost a hundred years ago, those who were sympathetic to Communism—most notably a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New York Times—successfully hid the fact that the Soviet Union intentionally starved three million Ukrainian men, women, and children to death. Fake news is not a recent invention.

Because of the large numbers of Christians who have suffered and died under Communism because of their faith, it would be impossible for the Catholic Church for formally investigate them all. So while these men and women may not fit the formal definition of martyrdom, that doesn’t mean their sufferings are unimportant or that their faithfulness should be overlooked. Ultimately, the Church is the Bride of Christ, and she cares for all her members as children. She is particularly devoted to presenting examples of holiness to them, hoping that they too will be inspired by the martyrs and other saints to follow in the footsteps of Christ and live holy lives, even in times of persecution. The saints, blesseds, venerables, and servants of God are held up to us by the Church, not because we can add anything to their happiness in Heaven, but because we can benefit by their examples.

What we can learn from them

Therefore, while the Church may not be able to precisely identify every person martyred under Marxism and while it may be a stretch to give the title of martyr to victims of recent riots, that doesn’t mean we should forget them. We can honor the Christians who lived in fear, died in labor camps, or were executed outright for keeping the faith, now and in the past, by learning what Marxism, Socialism, and Communism really are, rather than just the slogans they use, and finding out how these systems treat people of faith. Then we can pray for all the martyrs to show us how to do what Jesus would do.

All you martyrs under Communism, show us how to respond to violence with the peace and truth of Jesus Christ.

Note: On July 31, the date on which this post is being published, the Church commemorates Blessed Cecilia Schelingova, a religious sister who endured arrest and torture and who ultimately died because of the mistreatment inflicted upon her by the Soviets. Her crime? As a nurse, she helped priests who were being persecuted by the government. See her story here.