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There are several imposing ceremonies
at the ordination of a priest; and I will never forget the joy I felt when the
Roman Pontiff, presenting to me the Bible, ordered me, with a solemn voice,
to study and preach it. That order passed through my soul as a beam of light.
But, alas! those rays of light and life were soon to be followed, as a flash
of lightning in a stormy night, by the most sudden and distressing darkness!
When holding the sacred volume, I accepted with unspeakable joy the command of studying and preaching its saving truth; but I felt as if a thunderbolt had fallen upon me when I pronounced the awful oath which is required from every priest: "I will never interpret the Holy Scriptures except according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers."
Many times, with the other students in theology, I had discussed the nature of that strange oath; still more often, in the silence of my meditations, alone in the presence of God, I had tried to fathom the bottomless abyss which, it seemed to me, was dug under my feet by it, and every time my conscience had shrunk in terror from its consequences. But I was not the only one in the seminary who contemplated, with an anxious mind, its evidently blasphemous nature.
About six months before our ordination, Stephen Baillargeon, one of my fellow theological students, had said in my presence to our superior, the Rev. Mr. Raimbault: "Allow me to tell you that one of the things with which I cannot reconcile my conscience is the solemn oath we will have to take, `That we will never interpret the Scriptures except according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers! We have not given a single hour yet to the serious study of the Holy Fathers. I know many priests, and not a single one of them has ever studied the Holy Fathers; they have not even got them in their libraries! We will probably walk in their footsteps. It may be that not a single volume of the Holy Fathers will ever fall into our hands! In the name of common sense, how can we swear that we will follow the sentiments of men of whom we know absolutely nothing, and about whom, it is more probable, we will never know anything, except by mere vague hearsay?"
Our superior gave evident signs of weakness in his answer to that unexpected difficulty. But his embarrassment grew much greater when I said: "Baillargeon cannot contemplate that oath without anxiety, and he has given you some of his reasons; but he has not said the last word on that strange oath. If you will allow me, Mr. Superior, I will present you some more formidable objections. It is not so much on account of our ignorance of the doctrines of the Holy Fathers that I tremble when I think I will have `to swear never to interpret the Scriptures, except according to their unanimous consent.' Would to God that I could say, with Baillargeon, `I know nothing of the Holy Fathers: how can I swear they will guide me in all my ways?' It is true that we know so little of them that it is supremely ridiculous, if it is not an insult to God and man, that we take them for our guides. But my regret is that we know already too much of the Holy Fathers to be exempt from perjuring ourselves, when we swear that we will not interpret the Holy Scriptures except according to their unanimous consent.
"Is it not a fact that the Holy Fathers' writings are so perfectly kept out of sight, that it is absolutely impossible to read and study them? But even if we had access to them, have we sufficient time at our disposal to study them so perfectly that we could conscientiously swear that we will follow them? How can we follow a thing we do not see, which we cannot hear, and about which we do not know more than the man in the moon? Our shameful ignorance of the Holy Fathers is a sufficient reason to make us fear at the approach of the solemn hour that we will swear to follow them. Yes! But we know enough of the Holy Fathers to chill the blood in our veins when swearing to interpret the Holy Scriptures only according to their unanimous consent. Please, Mr.Superior, tell us what are the texts of Scripture on which the Holy Fathers are unanimous. You respect yourself too much to try to answer a question which no honest man has, or will ever dare to answer. And if you, one of the most learned men of France, cannot put your finger on the texts of the Holy Bible and say, `The Holy Fathers are perfectly unanimous on these texts!' How can we, poor young ecclesiastics of the humble College of Nicolet, say, `The Holy Fathers are unanimously of the same mind on those texts?' But if we cannot distinguish today, and if we shall never be able to distinguish between the texts on which the Holy Fathers are unanimous and the ones on which they differ, how can we dare to swear before God and men to interpret every text of the Scriptures only according to the unanimous consent of those Holy Fathers?
"By that awful oath, will we not be absolutely bound to remain mute as dead men on every text on which the Holy Fathers have differed, under the evident penalty of becoming perjured? Will not every text on which the Holy Fathers have differed become as the dead carcass which the Israelites could not touch, except by defiling themselves? After that strange oath, to interpret the Scripture only according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers, will we not be absolutely deprived of the privilege of studying or preaching on a text on which they have differed?
"The consequences of that oath are legion, and every one of them seems to me the death of our ministry, the damnation of our souls! You have read the history of the Church, as we have it here, written by Henrion, Berrault, Bell, Costel, and Fleury. Well, what is the prominent fact in those reliable histories of the Church? Is it not that the Church has constantly been filled with the noise of the controversies of Holy Fathers with Holy Fathers? Do we not find, on every page, that the Holy Fathers of one century very often differed from the Holy Fathers of another century in very important matters? Is it not a public and undeniable fact, that the history of our Holy Church is almost nothing else than the history of the hard conflict, stern divisions, unflinching contradictions and oppositions of Holy Fathers to Holy Fathers?
"Here is a big volume of manuscript written by me, containing only extracts from our best Church historians, filled with the public disputes of Holy Fathers among themselves on almost every subject of Christianity.
"There are Holy Fathers who say, with our best modern theologians St. Thomas, Bellarmine and Liguori that we must kill heretics as we kill wild beasts; while many others say that we must tolerate them! You all know the name of the Holy Father who sends to hell all the widows who marry a second time, while other Holy Fathers are of a different mind. Some of them, you know well, had very different notions from ours about purgatory. Is it necessary for me to give you the names of the Holy Fathers, in Africa and Asia, who refused to accept the supreme jurisdiction we acknowledge in the Pope over all churches? Several Holy Fathers have denied the supreme authority of the Church of Rome you know it; they have laughed at the excommunications of the Popes! Some even have gladly died, when excommunicated by the Pope, without doing anything to reconcile themselves to him! What do we find in the six volumes of letters we have still from St. Jerome, if not the undeniable fact that he filled the Church with the noise of his harsh denunciations of the scriptural views of St. Augustine on many important points. You have read these letters? Well, have you not concluded that St. Jerome and St. Augustine agreed almost only on one thing, which was, to disagree on every subject they treated?
"Did not St. Jerome knock his head against nearly all the Holy Fathers of his time? And has he not received hard knocks from almost all the Holy Fathers with whom he was acquainted? Is it not a public fact that St. Jerome and several other Holy Fathers rejected the sacred books of the Maccaabees, Judith, Tobias, just as the heretics of our time reject them?
"And now we are gravely asked, in the name of the God of Truth, to swear that we will interpret the Holy Scriptures only according to the unanimous consent of those Holy Fathers, who have been unanimous but in one thing, which was never to agree with each other, and sometimes not even with themselves.
"For it is a well-known fact, though it is a very deplorable one, for instance, that St. Augustine did not always keep to the same correct views on the text "Thou art Peter, and upon that rock I will build My church.' After holding correct views on that fundamental truth he gave it up, at the end of his life, to say, with the Protestants of our day, that `upon that rock means only Christ, and not Peter.' Now, how can I be bound by an oath to follow the views of men who have themselves been wavering and changing, when the Word of God must stand as an unmoving rock to my heart? If you require from us an oath, why put into our hands the history of the Church, which has stuffed our memory with the undeniable facts of the endless fierce divisions of the Holy Fathers on almost every question which the Scriptures present to our faith?
Would to God that I could say, with Baillargeon, I know nothing of the Holy Fathers! Then I could perhaps be at peace with my conscience, after perjuring myself by promising a thing that I cannot do.
"I was lately told by the Rev. Leprohon, that it is absolutely necessary to go to the Holy Fathers in order to understand the Holy Scriptures! But I will respectfully repeat today what I then said on that subject.
"If I am too ignorant or too stupid to understand St. Mark, St. Luke and St. Paul, how can I be intelligent enough to understand Jerome, Augustine and Tertullian? And if St. Matthew, St. John and St. Peter have not got from God the grace of writing with a sufficient degree of light and clearness to be understood by men of good-will, how is it that Justin, Clemens and Cyprian have received from our God a favour of lucidity and clearness which He denied to His apostles and evangelists? If I cannot rely upon my private judgment when studying, with the help of God, the Holy Scriptures, how can I rely on my private judgment when studying the Holy Fathers? You constantly tell me I cannot rely on my private judgment to understand and interpret the Holy Scriptures; but will you please tell me with what judgment and intelligence I shall have to interpret and understand the writings of the Holy Fathers, if it be not with my own private judgment? Must I borrow the judgment and intelligence of some of my neighbours in order to understand and interpret, for instance, the writings of Origen? or shall I be allowed to go and hear what that Holy Father wants from me, with my own private intelligence? But again, if you are forced to confess that I have nothing else but my private judgment and intelligence to read, understand and follow the Holy Fathers, and that I not only can but must rely on my own private judgment, without any fear, in that case, how is it that I will be lost if I make use of that same private and personal judgment when at the feet of Jesus, listening to His eternal and life-giving words?
"Nothing distresses me so much in our holy religion as that want of confidence in God when we go to the feet of Jesus to hear or read His soul-saving words, and the abundance of self-confidence, when we go among sinful and fallible men, to know what they say.
"It is not to the Holy Scriptures that we are invited to go to know what the Lord saith: it is to the Holy Fathers!
"Would it be possible that, in our Holy Church, the Word of God would be darkness, and the words of men light!
"This dogma, or article of our religion, by which we must go to the Holy Fathers in order to know what `The Lord saith,' and not to the Holy Scriptures, is to my soul what a handful of sand would be to my eyes it makes me perfectly blind.
"When our venerable bishop places the Holy Scriptures in my hands and commands me to study and peach them, I shall understand when he means, and he will know what he says. He will give me a most sublime work to perform; and, by the grace of God, I hope to do it. But when he orders me to swear that I will never interpret the Holy Scriptures except according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers, will he not make a perjured man of me, and will he not say a thing to which he has not given sufficient attention? For to swear that we will never interpret anything of the Scriptures, except according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers, is to swear to a thing as impossible and ridiculous as to take the moon with our hands. I say more, it is to swear that we ill never study nor interpret a single chapter of the Bible. For it is probable that there are very few chapters of that Holy Book which have not been a cause of serious differences between some of the Holy Fathers.
"As the writings of the Holy Fathers fill at least two hundred volumes in folio, it will not take us less than ten years of constant study to know on what question they are or are not unanimous! If, after that time of study, I find that they are unanimous on the question of orthodoxy which I must believe and preach, all will be right with me. I will walk with a fearless heart to the gates of eternity, with the certainty of following the true way of salvation. But if among fifty Holy Fathers there are forty-nine on one side and one only on the opposite side, in what awful state of distress will I be plunged! Shall I not be then as a ship in a stormy night, after she has lost her compass, her masts, and her helm. If I were allowed to follow the majority, there would always be a plank of safety to rescue me from the impending wreck. But the Pope has inexorably tied us to the unanimity. If my faith is not the faith of unanimity, I am for ever damned. I am out of the Church!
"What a frightful alternative is just before us! We must either perjure ourselves, by swearing to follow a unanimity which is a fable, in order to remain Roman Catholics, or we must plunge into the abyss of impiety and atheism by refusing to swear that we will adhere to a unanimity which never existed."
It was visible, at the end of that long and stormy conference, that the fears and anxieties of Baillargeon and mine were partaken of by every one of the students in theology. The boldness of our expressions brought upon us a real storm. But our Superior did not dare to face or answer a single one of our arguments; he was evidently embarrassed, and nothing could surpass his joy when the bell told him that the hour of the conference was over. He promised to answer us the next day; but the next day he did nothing but throw dust into our eyes, and abuse us to his heart's content. He began by forbidding me to read any more of the controversial books I had brought a few months before, among which was the celebrated Derry discussion between seven priests and seven Protestants. I had to give back the well known discussion between "Pope and Maguire," and between Gregg and the same Maguire. I had also to give up the numbers of the Avenir and other books of Lamenais, which I had got the liberty, as a privilege, to read. It was decided that my intelligence was not clear enough, and that my faith was not sufficiently strong to read those books. I had nothing to do but to bow my head under the yoke and obey, without a word or murmur. The darkest night was made around our understandings, and we had to believe that that awful darkness was the shining light of God! We rejected the bright truth which had so nearly conquered our mind in order to accept the most ridiculous sophisms as gospel truths! We did the most degrading action a man can do we silenced the voice of our conscience, and we consented to follow our superior's views, as a brute follows the order of his master; we consented to be in the hands of our superiors like a stick in the hands of the traveler.
During the months which elapsed between that hard fought, through lost battle, and the solemn hour of my priestly ordination, I did all I could to subdue and annihilate my thoughts on that subject. My hope was that I had entirely succeeded. But, to my dismay, that reason suddenly awoke, as from a long sleep, when I had perjured myself, as every priest has to do. A chill of horror and shame ran through all my frame in spite of myself. In my inmost soul a cry was heard from my wounded conscience, "You annihilate the Word of God! You rebel against the Holy Ghost! You deny the Holy Scriptures to follow the steps of sinful men! You reject the pure waters of eternal life, to drink the waters of death."
In order to choke again the voice of my conscience, I did what my Church advised me to do I cried to my wafer god and to the blessed Virgin Mary that they might come to my help, and silence the voices which were troubling my peace by shaking my faith.
With the utmost sincerity, the day of my ordination, I renewed the promise that I had already so often made, and said in the presence of God and His angels, "I promise that I will never believe anything except according to the teachings of my Holy and Apostolic Church of Rome."
And on that pillow of folly, ignorance, and fanaticism I laid my head to sleep the sleep of spiritual death, with the two hundred millions of slaves whom the Pope seem at his feet.
And I slept that sleep till the God of our salvation, in His great mercy, awoke me, by giving to my soul the light, the truth, and the life which are in Jesus Christ.