“I die in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed” wrote Queen Marie Antoinette in the early morning hours before her execution on October 16, 1793. She penned these words in her final letter, written to her sister-in-law Princess Elisabeth, the youngest sister of her husband, King Louis XVI, who had been brought to the guillotine less than nine months earlier in January. In her letter to her sister-in-law, she decried the lack of priests in France who could supply the sacraments and therefore entrusted herself to the mercy of God: “Having no spiritual consolation to look for, not even knowing whether there are still in this place any priests of that religion (and indeed the place where I am would expose them to too much danger if they were to enter it but once), I sincerely implore pardon of God for all the faults which I may have committed during my life. I trust that, in His goodness, He will mercifully accept my last prayers, as well as those which I have for a long time addressed to Him, to receive my soul into His mercy.”Share
In the final lines dedicated to her sister-in-law (who herself faced the guillotine less than seven months later, comforting her companions with words of pious encouragement as they approached the scaffold), the Queen stated: “Perhaps they will bring me a priest; but I here protest that I will not say a word to him, but that I will treat him as a total stranger.” At first glance, these last words of the Queen to her sister-in-law would appear shocking, especially since she had just offered her valediction as one dying “in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion.” However, a knowledge of the development of the French Revolution will help us to realize that by the time of the Queen’s execution in 1793, there were two very different types of Catholic priests (and by extension two different types of Catholics) in France.
In the midst of the French Revolution, France’s Constituent Assembly was no longer satisfied with manipulating the minds and hearts of the French people. Its design on the souls of all Frenchmen was manifested in July of 1790 with the passage of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The Civil Constitution directed the French government’s authority over Church property, dissolved remaining monastic orders, and called for the popular election of bishops and priests. The Constitution essentially made the Church an agent of the state. The Constitution seriously affected the conscience of the deeply-Catholic King Louis XVI who was induced to accept its passage. His reticence was only exacerbated when he received warnings from Pope Pius VI to reject the Constitution.
Soon after, the passage of the Constitution was not enough. The Constituent Assembly eventually decreed that all clergy must swear an oath accepting the Civil Constitution. The King wavered until finally granting his sanction to the oath in December. Perhaps more than any other, this decision would weigh on his soul for the last two years of his life; and, recognizing the gravity of his decision, he agonized over whether he could make his Easter duty and receive Holy Communion because of it the following year. He even went so far as to write to the Bishop of Clermont for guidance. (Read more.)