March 21, 2014

Blessed Apollinaris of Posat

A Swiss Capuchin Who Got Caught Up in the French Revolution

Feast Day : 2nd September

Revolutionary Paris: Not an Ideal Educational Venue for a Missione Studying Abroad!

Paris of 1789 was not an ideal setting for a Capuchin overseas student to pursue his studies in peace! Indeed, it was the fact that his superiors had sent him to study languages in France that led indirectly to the cruel martyrdom of the 52 year old Capuchin Blessed Apollinaris of Posat on the 2nd of September 1792.  Of course, Brother Apollinaris of Posat was not the only Catholic priest or religious hacked to death that fateful September day in the Paris’s Carmelite Priory and other centres of detention in the city, nor was he the only Franciscan.

 In all, some 191 Paris Martyrs of 1792 were beatified by Pope Pius XI on the 17th of October 1926; these included Blessed Apollinaris of Posat, a Swiss Capuchin Friar Minor, Blessed John Francis Burte, a Conventual Franciscan and Blessed Severin Girault, a Friar of the Franciscan Third Order Regular.

Raised by a Deserted Wife, Schooled by His Uncle, Educated by the Jesuits 

Though numbered among the victims of the French Revolution, Brother Apollinaris of Posat, was actually born in Switzerland on the 12th of June 1739 and baptised John James Morel. His palce of birth was the Swiss village of Prรฉz-vers-Norรฉaz, near Fribourg, and his parents were John Morel and Mary Elizabeth Maรฎtre. John James was the second of three children born to the couple. But before the third child was born, their father abandoned his wife and children and emigrated abroad. His deserted wife, Mary Elizabeth was left to raise the children on her own. John James’s uncle, Father Francis Joseph Morel, a Parish curate, took care of young John James’s early education, first at Prรฉz-vers-Norรฉaz and later at Belfaux, where Father Morel had become Parish Priest in 1752. From 1755 onwards John James attended Fribourg’s Jesuit College of Saint Micheal, while lodging with his mother who had become a professional midwife in that city in 1750. He excelled at his studies there and graduated in 1762. In July of that same year, he he took part in a public debate philosophical topics in front of a learned audience and won the approval of all present. Due to his keen intelligence and his piety, many of John James Morel’s contemporaries felt sure that he would become a Jesuit priest, but he himself had other ideas.

John James Morel Becomes Brother Apollinaris of Posat, a Capuchin Priest

Having made his Solemn Profession one year later, Brother Apollinaris immediately received the Minor Orders(Ordines Minores) of Porter, Exorcist, Lector and Acolyte and was ordained a priest at Bulle on the 22nd of September 1764. From 1765 to 1769 he moved to Lucerne, where he studied theology under Brother Hermann Martin of Reinach. There, too, his academic results were excellent. He publicly defended his thesis at Sion, in the canton of Valais, winning the acclamation of the many academics in attendance.

His Early Ministry as a Capuchin Preacher, Theology Lecturer and Director of Formation

From 1769 to 1774, he was undertook an itinerant preaching apostolate and also served as a curate in various Swiss parishes. During this period of time, he was stationed briefly in Sion, Porrentruy, Bulle and Romont. Towards the end of August 1774, he was appointed a lecturer at the Capuchins’ House of Theological Studies at Fribourg where he was also the Director of the Capuchin Seminarians. He fulfilled this ministry for about six years and also gave cathechetical instruction to the seminarians, young priests and lay brothers in the Fraternity. He also composed a number of treatises at this time, and one of these was dealing with the relationship between philosophy and theology was published posthumously in 1932. In 1780 he was appointed Vicar of the Sion Capuchin Fraternity and devoted himself, once more to the ministry of preaching. 

A Much Calumniated Catechist of the Youth

A year later, in 1781, he was sent as Vicar to the Capuchin Friary in Bulle. As it happened, the mayor of Bulle wanted his two children instructed in philosophy. Brother Apollinaris undertook this task, carrying it out in a little schoolhouse he set up beside the Friary. Other youngsters also attended this little school, but sadly such educational endeavours on the part of Brother Apollinaris met with the disapproval of many of his Capuchin Confreres and of some of the town’s lay people. The Brothers felt such school teaching activity disturbed the silence of the friary. And among the lay opponents, a considerable number were political foes of the mayor. Soon libelous rumours began to spread like wild fire and, to preserve peace, Brother Apollinaris asked for a transfer to the Altdorf Friary where his Novice Master was Guardian at the time. However, in 1785, he became Director of a school attached to the friary at Stans and at the same time he taught catechism to the children of the nearby village of Bรผren. His talents as an apostle and his capacity to explain doctrine in an interesting way appealed to many young students and there was always a long queue before his confessional. After the midnight Office of Readings in choir, he usually did not go back to bed, but applied himself to study, prayer and meditation for the remainder of the night. Soon, however, his apostolic activities in Stans also aroused the suspicions of local enemies of the faith. These disciples of the Enlightenment, who upheld the centrality and supremacy of the law of the State, began to spread calumny about Brother Apollinaris’s teaching, saying that his catechism lessons were unorthodox, to say the least. Nor did they stop at ridiculing the content of his teaching but they also did their best to undermine the his moral reputation. Although the local mayor publicly offered Brother Appolinaris his support, the calumnous campaign against him had become so vehement that even the Order’s Ministers called on him to account for himself. Wishing to allay any further difficulties that might arise for his Confreres, they transferred him to Capuchin Fraternity of Lucerne on the 16th of April 1788. 

Man proposes but God disposes! 

Shortly afterwards, the Provincial Minister of the Capuchin Province of Brittany in France, Brother Victorinus of Rennes happened to passing through Lucerne and came to hear of Brother Apollinaris’s hardships; so he invited Brother Apollinaris to join the French Capuchins in their missionary work in Syria. Brother Apollinaris saw this proposal as a providential opportunity. And so, in autumn 1788, he made his way to Paris to learn Middle Eastern languages at the Marais Capuchin Friary. For Brother Apollinaris of Posat, a Swiss Capuchin and prospective missionary, this stay in Paris for language-learning purposes, was only meant to be a temporary stopover on his way to Syria, but a completely different fate had pre-ordained for him by Divine Providence, unfolding in the events of history. 

Ministry to German-speaking Immigrants

Paris was destined to become Brother Apollinaris’s last field of apostolic activity and the altar of his sacrifice. After the storming of the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed it would claim the lives of many Catholic priests, religious and laity, including the life of Brother Apollinaris. A shortage of priests had arisen due to oppression of the Church, the mass arrest of clergy and the suppression of all Religious Orders. For this reason, the Guardian of the Marais Friary entrusted the pastoral care of over five thousand German speakers in the French Capital to Brother Apollinaris, who knew German. He became the curate responsible for the German speaking faithful in the parish of Saint-Sulpice and chaplain to those incarcerated at Tournelle. When the friary at Marais was closed, he had to find accommodation in a house of lay persons. In the meantime he and the other priests of Saint-Suplice refused to take the oath of loyalty to Civil Constitution of the Clergy. 

Once More the Subject of False Rumours Which He Vehemently Denied

But just as he had often been the subject of false rumours in his native Switerland, so now a baseless slander that Brother Apollinaris had taken the oath was making the rounds in Paris. When this rumour reached the ears of the Capuchin Ministers, they were not slow to express their disapproval. Therefore Brother Apollinaris immediately set out to put the record straight. On the 23rd of October 1791 he wrote an article for the publication, ‘L’Ami du Roi(The King’s Friend)’, in which he denied emphatically that he had taken the oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. He declared that he would rather “die a thousand times rather than appear to have made the oath to the new Constitution.” In a small treatise entitled ‘Le sรฉducteur dรฉmasquรฉ(The Unmasked Seducer)’, which he composed, he declared that obedience to the Church is equal to obeying the Holy Spirit who speaks through the hierarchy and added that “we must listen to the Church and not the Paris Town Hall. It is eternal wisdom which commands us!” 

Subsequent Arrest and Detention as a Non-jurist Priest

His hard-line public stance against the Civil Constitution of the Clergy provoked outrage on the part of the authorities and on 1st of April 1791 he had to leave the church of Saint-Surplice and take up a clandestine ministry. Hunted as an outlaw, he had to shelter for a time in the abandoned buildings of the Meudon Capuchin Friary, outside Paris. Some time afterwards, he was able to go back into the city and find lodging in the house of one of his friends. On the 27th of April 1792, he wrote a letter the Abbot of Altdorf, Dom Valentine Jann, and recorded his heartfelt readiness to undergo martyrdom in a literary style that is reminiscent of Saint Paul the Apostle’s Letters and the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. “Rejoice with me,” he wrote, “join me in glorifying the Lord. We are amid insurmountable difficulties, but we do not succumb; we are exhausted, but do not despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; beaten, but not lost. Do not weep over me therefore. I am the wheat of Christ. It is necessary that I be ground by the teeth of the wild beast to become pure bread.” On the night of the 13th of August 1792, he administered the last sacraments to a poor man who was dying and on the morning of the 1st of September he celebrated Mass to prepare himself for martyrdom. Then, appearing before the commissaries of Luxembourg Palace which had been converted into a prison, he handed himself in. insisting that, despite the fact that he had never taken the oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, he was not a conspirator. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned in the church of the Carmelites, already jam-packed with one hundred and sixty recalcitrants. One of the detainees who escaped the 2nd of September massacre has left us this beautiful written testimony about Brother Apollinaris, saying that Brother “Apollinaris arrived in that prison with a contentment and joy that surprised those who were already shut away there. From that moment he was the edification of everyone. Most went to him for confession. He was continuously busy either praying or giving heart to anyone who was down and to encourage anyone who longed for martyrdom. He did not spare himself in anything. He tried to make himself useful to everyone, whether in preparing the beds, that often were only crates, or to set the tables placed in the middle of the church for meals. He sought to do the lowliest tasks like sweeping the church, the only space allowed, or to empty the tubs placed in the side chapels for bodily needs.” 

“These priests went to their deaths with the same joy as someone going to a wedding!”

In Paris, over a very short space of time that lasted between the end of August and the first days of September 1792, the Legislative Assembly, which was the successor to the National Constituent Assembly, dissolved into chaos and the Paris Commune, i. e. city council (where the infamous George Danton was Minister for Justice) mobilised a mob of ‘Sans-culottes’. These ‘Sans-culottes’ became the ill-fated detainees’ judge, jury and executioner. They decided to eliminate the ‘Counter-Revolutionary’ clergy and religious and on the 31st of August 1792, a decree of deportation was issued to conceal a massacre that had already been secretly scheduled for the following Sunday. For the prisoners, Saturday was a day of intense prayer in preparation for imminent martyrdom. The following day, to a rumour spread abroad that Prussian soldiers, under the command of the Duke of Brunswick, were marching on Paris, and, responding to this, Danton organised the armed resistance and ordered the extermination of those assembled in prison. Because of this, citizens all over the city were seized with terror. On the afternoon of September the 2nd, 1792, ‘Sans-culottes’ thugs who had earlier killed some forty clergy when they broke into the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery gathered the remaining prisoners in the Church and staged a mock trial. Called forward two by two, each prisoner was asked if he had taken the oath. If the answer was ‘No’, he was either run through with the sword or mercilessly stabbed to death with sabres and daggers. The terrible massacre only finished at six in the evening, and as a result one hundred and thirteen martyrs were left lying in lake of blood. The Capuchin, Brother Apollinaris of Posat, was among the dead. With the other victims he was buried without ceremony in an open pit that had been dug beforehand in the Vaugirard Cemetery. The commissary who presided over the executions, unable to repress his astonishment, said; “I do not understand anything any more. These priests went to their deaths with the same joy as someone going to a wedding!”

“There is a baptism I must receive and I look forward to the time of its arrival. If the seed of grain does not fall into the earth and die, it remains a single grain … As a man, I am afraid. As a Christian I hope. As a religious I rejoice. As shepherd of those five thousand souls I am jubilant because I have not taken the oath at all. We can do everything in him who strengthens us. All my enemies, my persecutors present, past and future, I embrace them and give them the kiss of peace as my greatest benefactors … Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! In truth, in truth I tell you, soaked with the blood of so many martyrs France will soon see a re-flowering of religion on her soil.” - Blessed Apollinaris of Posat

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