Saturday, July 7, 2012

July 07, 2012

“To Be French Is to Be Catholic” --- Not So

I was recently reading up on the Huguenots and came across a Google Book titled “The London Quarterly and Holborn Review,” which stated that people throughout time --- including Frenchmen --- believed that “to be French is to be Catholic.” It might seem that way to most of us as well. Yet the French Huguenots, who suffered for centuries on account of their faith, would find that observation very offensive. There has been a Protestant element, no matter how small, since the early 16th century. Some quick history:

Protestant thought first arrived in France around the 1530s. John Calvin quickly popularized the Calvinist religion, whose followers became known as Huguenots but who called themselves “Reformed.” The first few decades were punctuated by martyrdom and persecution. The 16th century was fraught with eight religious wars and the horrendous St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, and the 17th century held alternating decades of peace and war. The “Huguenot rebellions” took place in the 1620s. In the mid-to-late 1680s, King Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” turned against those who practiced Protestantism, taking their children, forbidding them to work, to worship, or to enjoy the most basic civil rights, and either imprisoning, killing, or sending to the galleys those who refused to submit.

After this was the “Church in the Desert,” where, from the early 1700s until the end of the century, Huguenot ministers risked their lives to spread the Gospel to Protestant families living in the “wildernesses” such as the mountainous Cévennes region. Every once in awhile, the king’s dragoons would ride into outdoor worship surfaces and round up Huguenot pastors for imprisonment and often death. Persecution finally ended in 1787 with the “Edict of Versailles.” By the time Napoleon came to power, there was equality for French Protestants, who were now considered full citizens, though their neighbors must have looked upon them with distrust. Throughout the 19th century and to the present day there has continued to be a “Reformed Church of France,” a plucky, resilient organization that has remained steadfast even under the tremendous weight of persecution. 

Perhaps the French Catholics who lived and died over the centuries even believed ‘to be French is to be Catholic,’ themselves. Perhaps they either did not know that there had once been a quite significant Protestant population or they chose to forget; after all, King Louis XIV, after his sudden and terrible “cleansing” of the Huguenots, declared France “free of Protestants.” Did the king truly think that all the Protestants not immediately killed had simply “disappeared”? It was convenient for French Catholics to believe their nation was under Catholic rule once more. They were desperate to believe it. It signaled some sort of “unity” and “peace” they were certain could only come with one state religion.

So, “to be French is to be Catholic,” though most of us might have believed so, is inaccurate. It certainly must have seemed that way to the Huguenots, though . . . they were forbidden the most basic aspects of their civil rights. They were forbidden to cultivate a French identity. They were different from their neighbors; a Spanish Catholic and an English Protestant, for example, felt right at home. For a French Protestant --- the very words seemed an oxymoron! --- that was an odd idea. I suppose besides feeling that they were invisible, that they had no voice, the Huguenots and their descendants must have found it rather amusing. Obviously they knew such sentiments were untrue . . . but they were forbidden to contradict them. 

So were there Huguenots hidden among the so-very-Catholic soldiers in the rugged wilderness forts of New France, tucked away in the settlements of belle Louisiane, lingering in New Orleans’ Vieux Carré? Did they quietly steal away to practice their faith while playing the part for the outside world? Did they surreptitiously fail to observe the ‘proper’ practices at work, at play, while eating and socializing? Did they exist among the French colonies in America as they had always tried to exist in France, fighting desperately for life and the right to be called ‘French’? We may never know. But it is easy to believe that they might have . . .

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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