With the spate of violence against Christianity recently, particularly against Catholic churches, it appears we’re in the midst of an upsurge of Christian persecution in the western world. Throughout Christian history there have been many periods of persecution. We have several amazing examples of how Carmelites have responded during times of persecution. The themes in the examples below is a wonderful roadmap for all Carmelites to follow and to ponder in our current times:
• Forgiveness: our Carmelite saints forgave their persecutors wholeheartedly
• Offering: they made themselves and their suffering as an offering for others
• Calm acceptance: they accepted their fate as the will of God and found peace and joy in doing the will of God
• Prayer: they prayed for others even in the midst of their trials, especially praying for those persecuting them
The Martyrs of Compiegne
During and after the French Revolution the Catholic Church was persecuted mercilessly. The revolutionary government passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790 which made it illegal to live a religious life. In 1792, all women’s monasteries were ordered closed. The Carmelite nuns were forced to leave the monastery and live in the community. However, they continued to follow their Carmelite community life spread out amongst four separate apartments, wearing civilian clothing. The Prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, had by this point already “suggested to the community that they commit themselves to martyrdom, and offer themselves as a sacrifice for France and for the French Church.” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martyrs_of_Compi%C3%A8gne ) The Reign of Terror began in 1794 and the Carmelites were arrested on June 22nd, and tried and executed by guillotine on July 17th. They were transported through the streets of Paris for 2 hours, during which time they sang hymns such as Salve Regina. None of the sisters showed fear and they forgave their guards. Each sister asked permission to die from the prioress and kissed a statue of the Virgin Mary before mounting the steps and they each died while singing Psalm 117, “Laudate Dominum”. The oldest sister, 78-year-old Sr. Mary of Jesus Crucified was heard to say “I forgive you, my friends. I forgive you with all that longing of heart with which I would that God forgive me!”
Ten days after the martyrdom of the 16 Carmelites, the Reign of Terror ended. Mother Teresa of St. Augustine’s axiom “Love will always be victorious. The one who loves can do everything” came to fruition.
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
Born in France in 1880, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity entered Carmel in 1901 in Dijon. The French government was still very much anti-Catholic and the persecutions continued. Catholic education was outlawed and Church property was being confiscated. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity’s Carmelite community prepared for the worst by making plans to move to Belgium under cover in civilian clothes if need be. Elizabeth wrote to her mother asking her to send her the pattern she used to make skirts, writing “Our Reverend Mother must have told you that because of recent events we are taking a few precautionary measures in case we should have to leave our dear cloister”. Elizabeth shared the following in a letter to her aunts: “Thank (God) for having called your little Elizabeth to Carmel for the persecution; I do not know what awaits us, and this perspective of having to suffer because I am His delights my soul. I love my dear cloister so much, and sometimes I have wondered if I don’t love this dear little cell too much, where it is good to be “alone with the Alone.” Perhaps one day He will ask me to sacrifice it. I am ready to follow Him everywhere, and my soul will say with St. Paul: ‘Who will separate me from the love of Christ?’ I have within me a solitude where He dwells, and nothing can take that away from me!” (L 162)
Blessed Titus Brandsma
Blessed Titus Brandsma was arrested and martyred for speaking out against the Nazi ideology in German-occupied Holland in 1942. He remained calm, peaceable and forgiving throughout his ordeal, which included being subjected to medical experimentation at Dachau before being lethally injected in July 1942. While in prison he was requested by the Gestapo to write a paper on why the Dutch people, especially the Catholic people, rejected National Socialism. Titus held no ill-will against the German people and wrote at the end of his letter “God bless the Netherlands. God bless Germany. God grant, that both nations will once again stand next to each other in total freedom, in recognition of him and for the sake of his glory, for the salvation and blossoming of such closely allied people.” He would often ask his fellow prisoners to pray for their captors. When one fellow Dutch prison complained, and asked how they could be expected to pray for the Nazis, Titus responded “You don’t have to pray for them the whole day! The good Lord will be happy with one prayer”.
St. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)
St. Edith Stein, the patron saint of Europe, was a Jewish German who converted to Catholicism as an adult. Although she wanted to become a Carmelite, she was instead persuaded to utilize her talents as an educator (she had a Doctorate in Philosophy). She was forced to leave teaching in 1933 due to German laws against Jews and was able to enter the Carmelite convent in Cologne and took the name of Sister Teresa Benedict of the Cross. In 1938, Germany intensified its persecution of the Jews and St. Edith found refuge at the Carmelite convent in Echt, Holland. However, in 1942, in retaliation against the Dutch bishops who had openly condemned the Nazi treatment of Dutch Jews, all Jewish converts to Catholicism were rounded up from convents and monasteries in Holland and deported. Edith and her sister Rosa were sent to Auschwitz where they were gassed on August 9, 1942. Her last words heard in Echt were to her sister Rosa, “Come, we are going for our people.”
She had written the following three years earlier: “Even now I accept the death that God has prepared for me in complete submission and with joy as being his most holy will for me. I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death…so that the Lord will be accepted by His people and that His Kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world.” Even earlier, in 1930, she wrote the prophetic words “Every time I feel my powerlessness and inability to influence people directly, I become more keenly aware of the necessity of my own holocaust.“
An eyewitness account of her demeanour while in prison and transported to Auschwitz is as follows:
“Among the prisoners who were brought in on 5 August, Sr. Benedicta stood out on account of her great calmness and composure. The distress in the barracks and the stir caused by the new arrivals was indescribable. Sr. Benedicta was just like an angel, going around among the women, comforting them, helping them, and calming them. Many of the mothers were near to distraction; they had not bothered about their children the whole day long, but just sat brooding in dumb despair. Sr. Benedicta took care of the little children, washed and combed them, looked after their feeding and their other needs. During the whole of her stay there, she was so busy washing and cleaning as acts of loving kindness that everyone was astonished.”
Our Carmelite saints show us the way to respond in times of persecution. Forgiveness, offering of ourselves, prayer, and calm acceptance can only come from a deep and abiding love of God and neighbour.
Since man’s life on earth is a time of trial, and all who would live devotedly in Christ must undergo persecution, and the devil your foe is on the prowl like a roaring lion looking for prey to devour, you must use every care to clothe yourselves in God’s armour so that you may be ready to withstand the enemy’s ambush. Rule of Saint Albert, Chapter 18