St. Mary Seminary and University
Feast of the Sulpician Martyrs
September 2, 2020
Let me begin by saying how happy I am to be with all of you this afternoon. The longer the COVID-19 pandemic imposes isolation upon us, the more avidly we recite the words of Psalm 133: “How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers dwell together as one” (133:1). In that spirit, I join Fr. Brown and the seminary faculty in offering a very cordial word of greeting to our returning seminarians and a word of warmest welcome to new faculty and seminarians from near and far. Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Seat of Wisdom, may this wonderful and growing seminary community be blessed in the year ahead!
We begin this year of formation by celebrating the feast day of the Sulpician Martyrs. To be clear, this feast is not about seminarians who were martyred by the Sulpicians! Rather, we celebrate today eight courageous Sulpician priests who suffered martyrdom in 1792, in the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution. In the most extreme circumstances, those priests exemplified the teaching of Fr. Olier on the spiritual life and they continue to exemplify for us what it means to be “ardent yet gentle heralds of the Gospel” (Opening Prayer, Mass for Priestly Vocations).
Martyrdom in the Spirit of Fr. Olier
Throughout France, a great persecution of the clergy and the faithful had commenced. An aggressive drive was underway to secularize the Church and French society. One might say that the “world” as understood in today’s reading from John’s Gospel—a world at odds with God and opposed to his purposes – was on the move. Many bishops, priests, seminarians, and devout laypersons suffered death because they refused to take an oath in support of the civil constitution of the clergy, a constitution that radically reconstituted the Church and restricted her freedoms. Executions of the clergy and faithful took place in four places in France, but the largest number, 95, took place at a Carmelite Convent in Paris. Among those martyred at that Convent were the eight Sulpician priests, Bernard, Jacques-Gabriel, and their companions.
The Office of Readings for this feast describes how their massacre unfolded. These priests were praying Vespers in a small garden in the convent. While they were at prayer, the killers burst into the convent, striking down with blunt force anyone in their way. Father Bernard, Jacques-Gabriel and their fellow priests, knowing what would befall them, withdrew to the sanctuary, gave one another absolution, and recited the prayers of the dying for one another. By all accounts, they did this – not with mortal anguish – but with great serenity – for they were glad to lay down their lives for Christ.
As these priests faced their earthly demise, the teaching of Fr. Olier surely resonated in their hearts, namely, that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, they were to reproduce in their own lives the sentiments and dispositions that filled the sinless heart of Christ our Savior –sentiments and dispositions manifested by Christ in the mysteries of his life. Perhaps they thought of their calling to represent Christ as head and shepherd of his Church, their calling to continue Christ’s life of holiness and self-giving love here on earth, indeed to reproduce Christ within themselves for the life of the world. As they prepared for death, the words of Jesus surely resonated in their hearts: “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20-21). These Sulpician martyrs would live those words to the uttermost.
Not long thereafter, these priests, two by two, were led to their deaths. A local official observed the amazing serenity and charity of the condemned priests. When it was each of the priests’ turn to face execution, he would calmly descend the steps to the place of his death, holding a Breviary or the Scriptures, and giving every indication that he desired to give his life for Christ. Their demeanor – courage, charity, and calmness – deeply impressed that local official. Later he would say that those priests were so courageous that, “[They] went to death with the same joy they would have had were they going to their weddings.” So it was, that they lived out the words we heard from the First Letter of Peter, “If you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of your persecutors, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:14-15). Thus, did they reproduce in their own hearts the gentleness of Jesus who was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and who, from cross said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:24).
The Impact of Their Example Upon Us
I cannot prophesy what challenges lay in the future for you or for the Church. But this we know: persecution and martyrdom will always be part of the Church’s life. Today, in many parts of the world, Christians are under severe persecution and Pope Francis has spoken of the “polite persecution” of Christians in the West. Yet, even if we were to live out our priesthood in the most tranquil of circumstances, we, like the Sulpician martyrs, would nonetheless be called to reproduce in ourselves the Paschal Mystery, the dying and the rising of Jesus. We, no less than they, are called to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, asking the Spirit to fashion in our depths the sentiments and dispositions that are proper to the heart of Christ our Savior.
This is at the very heart of priestly formation. If, one day, you would re-present the mysteries of Christ at the altar, then you must be formed to reproduce in your own life his dying and rising. If, one day, you would effectively proclaim the Word of God far and wide, you must become “ardent yet gentle” heralds who live what you proclaim, and who are always ready to offer respectfully the reasons for your hope – with the same serenity and inner joy evinced by the Sulpician martyrs.
Whatever else the future may hold, you will be asked to expend yourselves in self-giving love, in pastoral charity for those you will be privileged to serve in parishes and other ministries. Whether or not you lay down life in witness to Christ, you are be asked to give of yourselves without counting the cost. Today we ask the Sulpician martyrs to intercede for us so that we will imitate their unflagging zeal to the very end of our lives.
Jesus Living In Mary
As we begin this new year of formation, let us offer the prayer Fr. Olier gave us, the same prayer that was on the lips of those courageous Sulpicians: “O Jesus, living in Mary, come and live in your servants, in the spirit of your holiness, in the fullness of your power, in the perfection of your ways, in the communion of your mysteries. Overcome every oppressing force, in your Spirit, for the glory of the Father. Amen.”