This past week was the feast of St. Bartholomew (one of the 12 apostles of Jesus). On Sunday I had the unique opportunity of participating in a walking tour with The American Church in Paris commemorating the 440th anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris. Perhaps this was one of the darkest days in Christian history, especially for the relationships between Catholics and Protestants. Our guide explained the rise of the French Protestants in Paris, known as the Huguenots and our group was fortunate to have a direct descendent of a Huguenot leader (and survivor of the massacre) with us as well.
For history buffs, here is a brief historical overview of the events:
The massacre in 1572 was a targeted group of assassinations directed against the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants), during the French Wars of Religion. The massacre took place six days after the wedding of the king’s sister Margaret to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre(the future Henry IV of France). This marriage was an occasion for which many of the most wealthy and prominent Huguenots had gathered in largely Catholic Paris.
The massacre began on 23 August 1572 (the eve of the feast of Bartholomew the Apostle), two days after the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. The king ordered the killing of a group of Huguenot leaders, including Coligny, and the slaughter spread throughout Paris. Lasting several weeks, the massacre expanded outward and into the countryside. Modern estimates for the number of dead vary widely, from 5,000 to 30,000.
The massacre also marked a turning point in the French Wars of Religion. The Huguenot political movement was crippled by the loss of many of its prominent aristocratic leaders, as well as many re-conversions by the rank and file, and those who remained were increasingly radicalized.
There are some commendable books on the French War on Religion, but for a concise complementary reading you can head to Wikipedia’s article here:
It was interesting to learn how politically driven these Wars of Religion were. Most of the people associated really did not understand the theological differences (or many similarities) between the two ways of Christian faith. Protestantism was simply seen as a new threat and thus needed to be eliminated. Behind the scenes there were enormous power plays going on with marriages and family associations. Also worth mentioning is that no side really was innocent. Both religious parties were guilty back then in different ways.
In his sermon on Sunday, Rev. Scott Herr of The American Church in Paris stated the following in reference to this event:
“It’s a stark example of the Church getting it wrong. And when we got it wrong, we get it spectacularly wrong. This is not a day to criticize the Roman Catholic Church. This is not a day to assume any high moral ground because we are Protestants. But it is a time to clarify the basis of our koinonia, our fellowship, and with whom, with what we are participating at our deepest levels of being. I would suggest to you that anytime we align ourselves with a group that excludes, dehumanizes, or degrades other human beings in the name of God, we are committing a holy massacre over and over again. How did Jesus put it, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”
Since those times, the city of Paris has made great strides toward reconciliation between Catholicism and Protestantism, especially during the reign of Napoleon. He was rather progressively conciliatory for his day and granted freedoms of religious expression to Protestants and Jews, both of which had previously been illegal.
This experience has caused me to reflect on modern-day tension between religions. I wonder how realistic it is for people of different faith to love one another when still today brothers and sisters in Christ vehemently (and sadly still at times violently) oppose one another. When Christians are divided (theologically, politically, socially) and cannot find common ground as family members) it does not bode well for the unification of humanity as God’s sons and daughters.
Clearly we have progressed (at least in the West) from the days when kings ordered the slaughter of innocent people. However, in our own way we still engaged in these wars on religion. Christians battle those of different faith and even within the Christian faith, we remain divided. While some might argue for theological differences, in my experience most divisions are politically charged and socially driven, not theological. While the Holy Spirit intends to bring unity (within diversity) we often reject those divine promptings in favor of distinguishing the “in” group and the “out”… or in other terms who is “right” and who is “wrong” on various issues.
I love history because it affords us the opportunity to lean from the past and not make the same mistakes. So may we continue to learn about what happens when religion is propped up over and above love and grace; when we let personal agendas and political propaganda motivate us more than grace and mercy.
May the grace and peace of Christ compel us toward loving kindness to people of all faiths and propel us to unification within Christianity, in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. Amen.