Five Catholic priests have been beatified in France, 152 years after they were seized as hostages and shot in the street by rebels of the Paris Commune.
“The story of these martyrs offers a warning for today, but also a message of hope from a Christian perspective,” said Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.
“The circumstances to which they fell victim—with several dozen other people also massacred by revolutionaries in their violent folly—constitute a tangled and complex history. It mixes all kinds of issues, overlapping conditions, social ideologies and anti-religious sentiments, appeals to truth but also rivers of lies that poison mankind.”
The cardinal was preaching at the 22 April beatification Mass in the French capital’s Saint-Sulpice Church for Fr Henri Planchat, from the St Vincent de Paul Institute, and four other clergy executed by firing squad on nearby Rue Haxo in the final days of the Commune, a French revolutionary government that seized power in Paris in 1871.
He said the martyred priests had carried the cross of Jesus, like Simon of Cyrene, but also had “personally lived out Christ’s words by dying with him,” leaving vivid testimonies as they faced death.
The superior general of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, to which four of the clergy belonged, said they had faced imprisonment and martyrdom like New Testament apostles, while forgiving their enemies and “placing themselves with evangelical lucidity in the present time.”
“Their offering of life and forgiveness of those taking their lives fulfilled the faith they had received from their families, their home parishes and their congregation brothers and sisters,” Father Alberto Toutin said during the Mass, concelebrated by the president of the French bishops’ conference, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, and Archbishop Laurent Ulrich of Paris.
“During long, lonely hours in their prison cells, God accomplished his work, preparing them to be citizens of the ultimate homeland, while inseparably citizens of this nation—not sparing them suffering and violence, but sustaining them and making his power shine in their vulnerable flesh.”
The revolutionary Commune was declared on 18 March 1871, a year after worker groups in Paris had refused to accept France’s surrender to an invading Prussian army, standardising wages, commandeering empty housing for the homeless and turning the city’s factories into cooperatives.
Its leaders also targeted France’s predominant Catholic Church, abolishing religious education and using places of worship as political clubs, with one Communard newspaper, La Montagne, branding belief in God “a pretext for robbery and murder.”
The five priests—Henri Planchat, Ladislas Radigue, Polycarpe Tuffier, Marcellin Rouchouze and Frézal Tardieu—were among around 200 prominent figures detained as hostages against reprisals by the army of President Louis Adolphe Thiers, encamped at nearby Versailles.
They were executed with 40 others in the Commune’s Belleville stronghold on 26 May 1871, two days after Archbishop Georges Darboy of Paris also had been shot with five fellow clergy in the capital’s La Roquette prison.
The area was recaptured two days later when Thiers’ forces crossed the Seine river, summarily executing up to 20,000 men, women and children in what became known as the semaine sanglante, or “The Bloody Week.”
In his homily, Cardinal Semeraro said the fate of the martyred priests offered an “example and model” to contemporary Christians of how good prevailed, often “silently and discreetly,” with long-term benefits for “Christian renewal, founded on transformation of consciences, moral formation and prayer.”
Meanwhile, Fr Toutin said Fr Planchat and his fellow hostages had reflected vividly on their plight in letters and messages before their deaths, bearing out St Paul’s certainty that nothing could separate faithful Christians “from the love of God.”
“When faced with the possibility of death because of their faith in Jesus and service to the church, God’s words and promises took deep root in them—they saw with eyes of hope that God would not abandon them,” the Sacred Hearts Congregation superior general said during an April 23 thanksgiving Mass in his order’s chapel at Rue de Picpus in Paris.
“Supported by each other, by a generous network of laypeople and by the church’s prayers, they had courage to throw themselves confidently into the arms of God,” he said.
Despite its brutal suppression, the Paris Commune was seen by Karl Marx as the first “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and viewed as a source of inspiration by later radical agitators, including Vladimir Lenin, who lauded the Commune as a forerunner to Russia’s 1917 revolution.
The body of Archbishop Darboy, who was the third Paris archbishop to die violently since 1848, was later recovered and given a state funeral, while the ornate Sacred Heart Basilica (Sacré-Coeur de Paris) was built at Montmartre to symbolize the restored moral order.
Our Lady of the Hostages Church was dedicated on Rue Haxo in 1930 to preserve the memory of the executed clergy, led by Father Planchat, a Sorbonne University law graduate who became known as the “apostle of the suburbs” for his work among the Paris poor.
The beatification of the five priests, ranging in age from 48 to 64, was approved on 25 November 2021 by Pope Francis, who urged a round of applause for them during his 23 April St Peter’s Square address, praising them as “pastors inspired by apostolic zeal, united in their witness to the faith to the point of martyrdom.”
Agence France-Presse said France’s Paris archdiocese had been “cautious” in publicising the 22 April beatification, given continued sensitivities over brutality shown by both sides during the 1871 events, and had avoided describing the priests as “martyrs of the Commune.”
It added that the Mass at Saint-Sulpice, attended by 2,500, had been marked by a strong police and security presence in the Paris neighborhood of Belleville, where a Catholic procession in memory of executed clergy was violently disrupted by pro-Commune protesters in May 2021.
The priests’ postulator, Fr Yvon Sabourin, told Vatican Radio that Fr Planchat had never engaged in “political activity,” choosing to continue his ministry during the Commune, rather than flee Paris.
He added that the Commune forces had sought to neutralise Catholic priests in order to “draw the workers into the rebellion” and had arrived in large numbers to arrest them, fearing public protests.
The postulator said Fr Planchat had apologised for his absence in a letter to children he was preparing for first Communion, requesting their prayers as he awaited death.