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May 8 Jean Vianney rebuilding souls in the ashes of Revolution

The French Revolution became a concerted and violent attempt to build a new Society. Their attempts to De-Christianise the culture were concerted, rewriting the Calendar, abolishing festivals such as Easter and Christmas and substituting them with Festivals of Reason and Liberty.

The persecution of the Church was widespread and as The Revolution evolved into The Terror so much was destroyed, until the revolutionaries turned on themselves. Napoleans concordat re-established the Church and Jean Vianney was outstanding as a rebuilder of souls. His ministry of reconciliation attracted international attention.


France was in a time of great turmoil and transition. Only three years after John Vianney was born the French Revolution had begun with a general assembly representing the three estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and the commoners (Third Estate). This Third Estate formed a National Assembly which lead to the French Revolution. The abolition of the ‘ancien regime’, the church and the monarchy, was precipitated by the Storming of the Bastille (a fortress which acted as a royal prison in the heart of Paris). A draft constitution was prepared with the title of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which had been inspired by the American Declaration of Independence which had been written thirteen years earlier. The author of the new constitution, Lafayette was assisted by Thomas Jefferson. It was a shift from the feudal world into the emerging modern world and soon led to the cancellation of tithes due to the church and feudal dues to aristocratic landowners.

Church property was confiscated and the state assumed responsibilities such as paying the clergy and caring for the poor, the sick and the orphaned. Religious orders and monasteries were dissolved, while monks and nuns were encouraged to return to private life. Clergy were required to swear loyalty to the new Civil Constitution but only 24% complied. As this denied the pope authority over the French Church, the majority refused. Popular resistance against state interference, was strong in Normandy, Brittany and the Vendée, where the civilian population turned against the revolution.

The architects of the revolution were attempting to rewrite society, replacing the monarchy with the French First Republic and introduced a new calendar, with 1792 becoming "Year One". This was in effect an attempt to de-Christianise France but underestimate the depth of its roots. In October 1793, the Christian calendar was replaced and Festivals of Liberty, Reason, and the Supreme Being were scheduled. New forms of moral religion emerged, including the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being and the atheistic Cult of Reason. By Easter 1794, few of France's forty thousand churches remained open; many had been closed, sold, destroyed, or converted to other uses.

The revolution had entered the phase described as the Terror as mob rule was accelerating. In order to deal with counter-revolutionaries, the guillotine was invented by a physician as a quicker, more efficient and more distinctive form of execution. Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was instrumental in passing a law that required all sentences of death to be carried out by “means of a machine.” This was done so that the privilege of execution by decapitation would no longer be confined to the nobles and the process of execution would be as painless as possible. In reality it represented vengeance, Louis XVI was beheaded as the last King of France with Marie Antoinette. In his final months the King was referred to as Citizen Louis Capet.

The Reign of Terror began as a cynical way to harness revolutionary fervour, but quickly degenerated into the settlement of personal grievances. Victims of revolutionary violence, whether religious or not, were popularly treated as Christian martyrs, and the places where they were killed became pilgrimage destinations. The Guillotine soon became a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors sold programmes listing the names of those scheduled to die. Many people came day after day and vied for the best locations from which to observe the proceedings. Parents often brought their children. By the end of the Terror, an estimated 17,000 people had been decapitated by the guillotine, including many of the early revolutionary leaders including the infamous Maximilien Robespierre. By the end the crowds had thinned drastically. Repetition had staled even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored.

The anticlerical Terror forced many loyal priests to hide from the regime in order to carry out the sacraments in their parish. The Vianneys. travelled to distant farms to attend Masses celebrated by priests on the run. Realizing that such priests risked their lives day by day, a young John began to look upon them as heroes. He received his First Communion catechism instructions in a private home by two nuns whose communities had been dissolved during the Revolution. He made his First Communion at the age of 13 in a neighbour’s kitchen; during the Mass, the windows were covered so that the light of the candles could not be seen from the outside.