I was intending to continue our Saturday memories of Vatican II, but the tragic events in Paris are probably running dominating our attention today, in terms of the evil conspired, the sufferings endured, and the calamities anticipated. Watching the TV coverage early this morning I was reminded of one of history’s most famous (if unauthenticated) quotes, “Paris is worth a Mass,” attributed to King Henry IV of France, and the bloodshed that surrounded that supposed quote.
The setting of the quote is the second half of the sixteenth century, when Europe was ablaze in what were known as “religious wars” sprung from the Reformation. In France this warfare took the form of conflict between Roman Catholics and French Huguenots (Protestants of Calvinist persuasion.) In one of those politically motivated marriages so common at the time, the French King Henry II (Catholic) and his wife Catherine de’ Medici (Catholic) arranged for their somewhat unruly daughter Margaret of Valois (Catholic) to marry the heir to the throne of Navarre, Henry (Huguenot.) This marriage took place with great solemnity in 1572 in Notre Dame Cathedral, and a large number of Huguenot nobility attended the wedding.
What happened next, on St. Bartholomew’s feast day, August 24, 1572, has come down to us in history as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It seems that the Catholic crown opted to eliminate several Huguenot leaders by assassination, but in the process unleased a violent outburst of Catholic rage, primarily against Huguenots but also against a deteriorating economic environment. While historians disagree on the exact nature of the event, it does appear that the heavily-Catholic population of Paris was outraged at the marriage rite which, incidentally, did not have the blessings of Rome given the variant Catholic-Huguenot faiths of the two parties.
The massacre itself was of extreme scale. I checked multiple sources for the numbers of those killed. The event in the city of Paris is believed to have killed about 2000 over several days. Unfortunately the mania spread like a wave throughout France. The sources estimates range between another 2000 and 100,000 fatalities. The latter number may seem high, but historians do note that residents of the city of Arles refused to drink from the Rhone River for three months because of corpses floating downstream from the city of Lyons. Perhaps even more regrettably, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was a prelude to another quarter century of more organized warfare between Catholic and Huguenot forces.
The man who finally brought a measure of peace to this religious turmoil was ironically the man whose wedding probably occasioned the massacre, Henry of Navarre, who again by the curious politics of blood and interests became King Henry IV of France. Henry was already having second thoughts about the political folly of war over religion. He remained married to Margaret, of course, but fidelity to the bed was not his strong suite. (He was known as “The Gay Old Spark.”) He grew particularly close to a mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, who urged him to become a Catholic because she could not stand to see him despised by his Catholic subjects. It is in this context that Henry is supposed to have made his quote that “Paris is worth a Mass.” If Sunday attendance at Mass would strengthen his standing, he would do it. He returned to the faith of his Baptism. In 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes which essentially established freedom of conscience throughout the realm and protected the rights of Huguenots. Again, in one of history’s ironies, Henry IV was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic.
I received a letter the other day from an old college buddy who asked, a bit tongue in cheek, whether the “Man from Nazareth” and his little band intended the expansion of his message into the Catholic monolith with all its barnacles of sin and imperfection, or how we as descendants of Jesus can be obtuse to such things as homophobia. (We don’t beat around the bush much in our conversations.) I replied that the Church has been poorly helped by its pride and artificial certitudes where none exist. Yesterday reminded me that religions of all kinds can be misused by their culture, for reasons of power, fear, economics, or in some cases group pathology.
I do not believe for a minute that the extremists of ISIS are motivated by anything resembling holy religion, though they claim a motive of “purifying the West.” The religious veneer is useful in recruiting and building esprit de Coeur, and Islam theology’s concept of the caliphate (religion and civil life as one weave) can, unfortunately, be understood to mix societal disenchantment with pseudo-religious fervor. We know that recruiting of terrorists targets the fringes, the friendless teenager looking for a family/community and a north star. Masters of terror target their prospective in some of the same ways as pedophiles do. They are no more religious than a bad priest grooming his next victims.
But ISIS is the latest of a long history of individuals and groups who have played religious creeds like a fiddle for other agendas, almost always their needs fulfillment—whether that be escape from fear to megalomania. It is hard to imagine that King Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism resulted from a reading of The Imitation of Christ unless his mistress Gabrielle read it to him at bedtime. His conversion was a calculated strategy in the direction of national unity; the fact that life did get better for the French during his reign does not mask the cynicism of the act.
When we are seeing on TV today is pathology run wild, headed by an ideology that is absent both religious wisdom and any tendency toward honest introspection. While the options for dealing with armed sociopaths are extremely limited, the option of protecting our own religious traditions from gravely sinful abuse by humility, good works, honesty and penance are always at our finger tips. Last night was a bad night for Paris. But so was August 24, 1572.