Catholic Church: Target of French Revolutionaries
Often when the history of the French Revolution is retold, it is often ignored just how violent a revolution it was. Many French lives were lost due to execution and death in the civil war and foreign wars. During the infamous Reign of Terror alone, which lasted a little over 10 months beginning in September of 1793, it is estimated that 300,000 people were arrested, 17,000 killed, and 10,000 died in prison.
Even before that bloody year, numerous executions and murders had taken place in the name of liberty, fraternity, and equality.
The Catholic Church was a particular target for the revolutionaries, and many clergy were among those who were executed. This is the story of one young priest who was martyred in the early part of the French Revolution.
From the New World to the Old World
Although he died in France, Bl. André Grasset (1758 - 1792) was not born there, he was born in New France. His father and mother had immigrated from Montpellier, France to Quebec in 1749. Three years after arriving in the New World, they relocated to Montreal where Msgr. Grasset worked as a secretary for two of the royal governors.
On April 3, 1758, André was born. He was the second child of five born to the second wife of his father who had remarried in Montreal after his first wife had died. However, the young child was not destined to grow up in the New World.
In 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed by the Great Britain, France, and Spain. The treaty ended the Seven Years War, which is better known as the French and Indian War in the North American theater. (Although the French called it the War of Conquest.) Great Britain had won the war, and as a result, France gave up its North American territory of New France. Interestingly and, what would prove to be, ironically, Great Britain agreed in the treaty to protect Catholicism in the New World territories.
However, having served two royal governors, Msgr. Garret thought that it would be wise to return to France which he did with his family shortly after the news of the signing of the treaty reached Montreal. He settled his family in Sens which is about 75 miles southeast of Paris. Young André began his education in earnest, and he excelled as a student.
In order to provide them with a more complete classical education, his father sent André along with his brothers to the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris. After discerning a call to the priesthood, André continued his studies and, in 1783, he was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Sens. In recognition of his talents, the bishop placed him in the cathedral as a canon and treasurer.
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The Revolutionaries Persecute the Church
In the early years of Fr. André's priesthood, the winds of revolution had already begun to swirl and what began in Paris soon began to spread throughout France.
In a flurry of activity, the National Assembly passed many pieces of legislation which were designed to weaken the Catholic Church. First, in 1789, the Church was prevented from collecting a 10% tithe. A few months later, a law was enacted that abolished monastic vows. Next, the property of the Church was placed at the disposal of the government. Early the next year, in 1790, the government passed a law to abolish all religious orders, and all religious were encouraged to return to public life as ordinary citizens.
However, the French Revolution was not just concerned about the power of the Catholic Church, it wanted to supplant all religion. The goal was to replace the religion of the old regime with the Cult of Reason. This man-centered civic religion was celebrated with ceremonies in which the altars of churches, including the venerable Notre Dame of Paris, were replaced with altars dedicated to philosophy or reason.
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Swear Allegiance to the Church or the State
To further achieve this goal, in 1790, the National Assembly passed the Civil Constitution on the Clergy. The first part of the act placed the selection of bishops and priests in the hands of the people. The second part of the law required clergy to renounce the authority of the pope and the bishops by swearing ultimate allegiance to the state.
Of the roughly 130,000 priests in France about 30,000 forsook the Church and took the oath of allegiance to the state. The vast majority who refused were in the rural parts of the country outside Paris. About five of the 130 bishops in the country took the revolutionary oath.
By 1792, when it became clear that the majority of the priests would not comply, the National Assembly ordered the deportation of all priests who would not take the oath.
When faced with the choice to take the revolutionary oath or not, Fr. André refused. He then, in early 1792, joined sixty other priests in the Paris residence of the Eudist fathers. This was no hiding place. Instead, the priests had gathered together for support, prayer, and reflection.
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Willing to Die for the Church
The legislative assembly, in order to strengthen its position, had begun to declare war on foreign powers, including Austria. Any remaining clergy were considered potential supporters of the enemies of the state because of their refusal to take the revolutionary oath.
Along with over ninety-two other priests and at least three bishops, Fr. André was taken captive and imprisoned in a Carmelite convent which had been converted to a jail.
Then on September 2, 1792, the imprisoned men were brought before government officials assembled at the convent. Each priest was given the opportunity to once again forsake the authority of the pope and the bishops and to swear fealty only to the revolutionary government.
After a priest refused, he was shoved down a small staircase to the garden where a bloodthirsty mob murdered each priest with knives, swords, and pikes. Their bodies were then thrown in the well or in ditches near to the convent. Because Fr. André could not go against his conscience, he, too, was killed. It is estimated that he was one of around 190 clergy who were martyred that day.
In 1926, Pope Pius XI beatified these September 1792 martyrs including Fr. André Grasset of Montreal.
The image shows the location of Bl. André Grasset's martyrdom.
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Feast Day: September 2 (Memorial)