The Temptation to Despair & The Spirit of the Vendée

As I was reading through a backlog of articles and news stories in preparation to write this reflection, I received a phone call from one of my oldest friends. After referencing all that is transpiring in the Church, he asked with a nervous laugh how it is that I’ve not yet fallen into despair.

“To be honest,” I said, “I’m not sure. It’s tempting.”

On a recent visit to the confessional, I mentioned this temptation, and how it can affect my resistance to other sins. “I know it’s not an excuse, Father,” I said, “but sometimes when I look at the state of the Church, and see heretics running everything, and there are no consequences for any of it, I can’t help thinking, why do I have to follow all the rules and try so hard if they don’t?” His advice to me, among other things, was to be careful how many websites I read about what is happening in the Church, so I can avoid becoming overwhelmed. Under the anonymity of the confessional, he didn’t know who I was, and I wasn’t inclined to tell him that I’m in charge of one of those websites. And we don’t even publish half of what is newsworthy in that regard.

As I continued my conversation with my friend, I said something I’ve been saying a lot lately — to friends, to family, even to some of you who have written to me recently. “I’m seeing this despair spreading everywhere. Christ made promises about His Church, and they’re being broken. And while I think the way people are feeling is a natural consequence of that situation, I also strongly suspect that there is a profound spiritual component at work. The enemy is spreading the lie: ‘See? Look what is happening in the Church! Why do you stay? Why are you so naive that you continue to believe it could be true?'”

And then, as I was saying it, I was struck by a parallel I hadn’t considered. A week or so ago, as I was praying a decade of the rosary with my children, I decided to read a reflection on the mystery we were about to contemplate — the Agony in the Garden. The reflection was taken from Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and one aspect in particular came back to me as I discussed the situation with my friend:

[Jesus] fell on his face, overwhelmed with unspeakable sorrow, and all the sins of the world displayed themselves before him, under countless forms and in all their real deformity. He took them all upon himself, and in his prayer offered his own adorable Person to the justice of his Heavenly Father, in payment for so awful a debt. But Satan, who was enthroned amid all these horrors, and even filled with diabolical joy at the sight of them, let loose his fury against Jesus, and displayed before the eyes of his soul increasingly awful visions, at the same time addressing his adorable humanity in words such as these: ‘Takest thou even this sin upon thyself? Art thou willing to bear its penalty? Art thou prepared to satisfy for all these sins?’

Satan knows better than anyone how to cause us to doubt. How to point to the deepest flaws and most egregious obstacles in even the most faithful plan, and to use them to trip up our resolve.

The Revolution Shall Not be Televised

In the midst of this weakness, in this moment of doubt, we see a growing backlash against those intrepid few who are standing firm against error in the winds that now blow through the Church. Today I read a new article by Robert Mickens, a papal fanboy and English Editor of La Croix International. Entitled, Opposition to Pope Francis: It’s time to call off the dogs, the piece seeks to break the spirit of papal critics by enlisting the Pope Emeritus to distance himself from their critiques. He is, of course, mistaken in his impression that Pope Benedict is a hero of the traditionalists — after all, it is he who left his post and in so doing, abandoned us to the wolves — but he drives home certain points worth noting.

His primary tactic is to minimize the scope of the opposition:

The good news is that, as best one can tell, those who are rowing against the current helmsman of the Barque of Peter are part of a very tiny, if noisy, minority.

The bad news is that they are mostly found among the Church’s ordained workforce – men who serve as priests and bishops.

The most recent Vatican statistics claim that there are some 1.285 billion members of the worldwide Catholic community. Among them nearly 416,000 are priests and another 5,300 are bishops – only about .03% of all baptized Catholics.

And even in this subset, the number of those who actively oppose the pope is most likely marginal. It is a minority within a minority.

It is impossible to state the exact numbers. However, we can identify certain discernible traits and trends. For example, opposition to Francis is emanating most energetically from the English-speaking world, certain parts of Europe and in areas of Africa where the pope’s critics tend to be younger (under the age of 50), doctrinally rigid and liturgically “retrodox” members of the clergy.

People in the anti-Francis camp also show tendencies toward a very narrow understanding of the application of Canon Law, a slavish devotion to liturgical rubricism and an outdated Euro-centric view of the world that is rooted in classical Greco-Roman philosophical systems.

Mickens goes on to explain that it is not only clergy who oppose the pope, but

also small groups of the baptized faithful that are also highly critical and even disparaging of him. They demonstrate similar characteristics of the rebellious clergy. They, too, tend to be younger, fundamentalists when it comes to church teaching and promoters of a pre-Vatican II liturgy and ecclesiology.

These papal critics are loud and disruptive. They are also organized and tenacious. But let’s get something straight – they are also minorities within both the clergy and the laity. [emphasis added]

His observations immediately call to mind the recent words of His Eminence Cardinal Burke, who, in recounting St. Thomas More’s opposition to King Henry VIII, said:

“In the Church now, even as then, where people argue about, ‘many people want this, and not many bishops are speaking up to correct this confused idea about the indissolubility of marriage, and that the Church has to change and so forth,’ and St. Thomas More is a sign for us that the truth never changes, and that it doesn’t matter how many people are in favor of a lie, it doesn’t make it the truth.” [emphasis added]

But Mickens, it seems, is attempting to plead with the Vatican apparatus — whom inside sources have told me have absolutely no concept of how to gauge the influence of Internet opposition — to downplay the influence of blogs and social media:

But they’ve [papal critics] made themselves seem more representative of the overall Catholic population by capitalizing on social media and using the large megaphone that cyberspace provides. In this way, they have successfully deceived far too many people (especially in the mainstream media) into believing that the Church is equally divided into two groups – one that loves Pope Francis and one that cannot stand him.

I won’t deny the truth of this statement. We are in the minority. There’s no question about that. But we are a vocal and energized minority, and I can tell you that in the past month, we’ve logged 325 visits from The Holy See — a city state with a population of only 1,000 people.

They know we are watching. And they are watching the watchers.

The Spirit of the Vendée

In a 2004 review of two books on the Vendee, Anne Barbeau Gardiner offered a succinct summary of this incredible 18th Century story:

Given the growth of militant anti-Catholicism in the West, these two books are highly recommended. The authors prepare us for what lies ahead if this juggernaut proceeds unchecked. In western France in the 1790s a similar state of affairs led to the persecution of the Church under color of law, and then when Catholic peasants in Vendée dared to resist this persecution, the ruling atheists ordered the entire population of that region to be exterminated — men, women, and children. They sent out the army in “infernal columns” to “depopulate the Vendée.” [Reynald] Secher says the minimum number of casualties is around 118,000, while [Michael] Davies thinks the number is closer to 250,000. The genocide of the Vendeans is not well known outside of France, but it truly deserves to be. It teaches a valuable lesson, that visceral hatred of Catholicism, left unchecked, can turn to genocide.

Eerily enough, those who carried out the genocide in Vendée gave glimpses of that perverse mentality later found among the Nazis. They cast women and children into ovens, made use of human skin for clothing, and burned women to collect their fat. The gruesome details of these atrocities are attested facts. Indeed, the atrocities were often recorded by agents of the government.

The suffering and death of the Catholics in Vendée was not in vain. They achieved a glorious victory. In the end, because of their heroic example, the anti-Catholic persecution of the 1790s was a failure. The Church in France was supposed to have been eradicated. Instead, she rose to new life. As Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In 1801, when Napoleon granted freedom of worship to all the Catholics of France, it was seen as the victory of the Vendée.

In a talk given this past August in the Vendée region of France, Cardinal Robert Sarah said that the Frenchmen of the Assocation of Puy du Fou — who keep the memory of the Vendeeans alive — must continue their work, because

In the face of the dictatorship of relativism, in the face of thought terrorism which – once more – wants to tear God out of the hearts of the children, we need to find again the freshness of spirit, the joyful and ardent simplicity of these saints and of these martyrs.

Sarah continued:

My brothers, we Christians need this spirit of the Vendeans! We need this example! Like them, we need to leave our sowing and our furrows in order to fight – not for mere human interests, but for God! Who still today will rise up for God? Who will dare to confront the modern persecutors of the Church? Who will have the courage to rise up without weapons except the rosary and the Sacred Heart in order to face the death columns of our time which are relativism, indifferentism, and the disdain for God?

Today, as we see our beloved Catholic Church joining in joint celebrations with Lutheran Protestants of the 500th anniversary of The Reformation — one of the most damaging events to have ever befallen mankind — we can see that the spirit of the Vendée is indeed alive and well to this day in the Church. Yesterday in Brussels, a group of young men (and one young woman) knelt in the Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula to pray the rosary in protest of a service “with the United Protestant Church in Belgium, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.” They continued to pray as the pastor attempted to preach his sermon until they were physically removed by police.

You heard that correctly: Catholic young people were removed from a Catholic Cathedral for praying the rosary in protest of an ecumenical service that brought Protestants into the church to celebrate anniversary of the Reformation — and specifically, the anniversary of Martin Luther’s publication of his “95 Theses”. Recall what Pope Leo X said about Luther’s theology in his condemnation, Exsurge Domine, written in 1520:

[B]ecause the preceding errors and many others are contained in the books or writings of Martin Luther, we likewise condemn, reprobate, and reject completely the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin, whether in Latin or any other language, containing the said errors or any one of them; and we wish them to be regarded as utterly condemned, reprobated, and rejected. We forbid each and every one of the faithful of either sex, in virtue of holy obedience and under the above penalties to be incurred automatically, to read, assert, preach, praise, print, publish, or defend them.

And it is in this spirit that these young protesters came. It is in this spirit that they handed out a leaflet explaining the reason for their protest:

“Our Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula is a Catholic building built by our fathers to be a House of God, for the celebration of the holy Mass, for the praise of God and the saints.

“The occupation of our cathedral by Protestants to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is therefore a profanation.

“Indeed, the so-called Reformation was really a revolt: under the pretext of combating abuses, Luther rebelled against the divine authority of the Catholic Church, denied numerous Truths of the Faith, abolished the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments, rejected the necessity of good works and the practice of Christian virtues. Finally, he attacked the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints, the religious life and monastic vows.

“This terrible revolution was a great tragedy for Christian society and for the salvation of souls. And the Lutheran errors are still heresies today because the Truth is eternal.”

You can see the video of their protest here:

The group consisted of 11 young people in a cathedral where hundreds, if not thousands, were gathered to honor the memory of one of the most tragic events in all of Christendom. They were, as Robert Mickens would say, “a minority within a minority”. And yet they brought that service to a stand still. They continued praying as the organist and the congregation attempted to drown them out. And in virtue of their protest ending in forcible removal from the church at the hands of the police, it was their story — their message — and not that of the celebrators of the Reformation that caught international attention.

Dieu, le Roi!

Mickens hints, in his attack on faithful protesters, that a central problem is their attachment to the Church’s ancient liturgy:

Most of the opposition to Pope Francis is coming from Catholics who are devoted to celebrating the Tridentine Mass. And many of them are from fringe groups that Benedict, first as a cardinal and then as pope, moved persistently to bring into the mainstream of the Church.

His most monumental act was to issue a papal “motu proprio” in 2007 to normalize the pre-Vatican II liturgy. He said part of the reason he did so was to bring about “an interior reconciliation at the heart of the Church”. Francis has shown no attachment to the Old Mass, but he has done nothing to restrict it.

Members of these reconciled groups of Tridentine Mass enthusiasts, however, have betrayed Benedict’s intention to “regain reconciliation and unity” in a divided Church. And, instead, by their attacks on the current pope, they have intensified the divisions.

Mickens isn’t the first to make such comments about the liturgy in recent days, and I take them as a threat. But as Pope Benedict told us, the ancient Mass was never abrogated, and “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

Mickens goes on to say that Benedict should “break his silence once more” and remind the critics of Francis — as he said to the cardinals upon his resignation in 2013 — to “be completely docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope”.

But as we all know, the Holy Spirit does not choose the pope. Ratzinger himself once admitted before his own election to the papacy, when he said:

“I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope…I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”

He continued:

There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

And here we stand, before an obvious example of a pope the Holy Spirit would not have picked — except, perhaps, to help bring this Modernist crisis at last to a close by exposing it for the fraudulent Christianity it is. So no, we will not be silent. We will not give in to despair. We will, like the Vendeeans before us, stand firm against overwhelming odds, shouting our battle cry: Dieu, le Roi!  God, the King!

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