Today (i.e. 24th August) is customarily celebrated throughout western Christendom as St Bartholomew’s Day, commemorating the Apostle usually identified as Nathanael. Early church historians such as Eusebius relate that Bartholomew carried out a mission in India, which, given the then flourishing spice trade routes across the Arabian Sea might not be as fanciful as it sounds. The origins of Christianity in India are still shrouded in mystery, and likely to remain so. Of course, the Apostle Thomas is also connected with mission to India.
Collect for St Bartholomew's Day
O almighty and everlasting God, who didst give to thine apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach thy Word; Grant, we beseech thee, unto thy Church, to love that Word which he believed, and both to preach and receive the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
More infamously, St Bartholomew’s Day also commemorates a massacre perpetrated in France in 1572 by Roman Catholics against the evangelical Christians popularly known as Huguenots. Beginning on the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day and continuing over several weeks as the violence spread out from Paris to the countryside, modern historians estimate the number of dead at up to 30,000. Instigated by Catherine de Medici, the mother of King Charles IX, the massacre was begun six days after a royal wedding which had brought many prominent Huguenots to Paris. The plotters planned to use this occasion to effectively rob the French evangelical movement of its leadership. Respected English church historian, Owen Chadwick, states that as news of the massacre and the circumstances spread across Europe, it "imprinted on Protestant minds the indelible conviction that Catholicism was a bloody and treacherous religion" (Chadwick, H. & Evans, G.R. (1987), Atlas of the Christian Church, Macmillian, London; p113). The massacre led to c. 200 000 Huguenot refugees fleeing their homeland to England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and eventually even as far afield as America and South Africa.
Is there any point bringing up these unpleasant details in our day? Shouldn’t we “forgive and forget?” Certainly those with Huguenot ancestors may well feel that this event should not be forgotten or merely consigned to history, for it then loses its power to teach us today concerning religious tolerance. But we certainly don’t want to encourage bitterness or ill-feeling today on the basis of an event that happened so long ago, and acknowledge that the descendants of the Huguenots should be prepared to forgive as our Lord teaches in his prayer. But then the event has not exactly been dealt with by Roman Catholic authorities in a manner that is open to the facts and therefore respectful of the memory of the dead and conducive to reconciliation.
Certainly, an apology was issued by Pope John Paul II at a World Youth Day mass in Paris on August 24, 1997. However, the apology failed to frankly acknowledge the role of the Papacy in inflaming religious hatred across Europe at the time and specifically inciting French Roman Catholics to murder Huguenots. As even the Catholic Encycopedia acknowledges, it was the dream of Pope Pius V to end the religious disunity brought about by Rome's response to the Reformation by the power of the sword, and he urged the King of France towards that end as far as the Huguenots were concerned. But Pope John Paul did not mention this history in his apology. Instead, he referred to the “very obscure, political causes” of the event. He also failed to mention the gleeful response of the Vatican to news of the massacre - a service of thanksgiving was held in Rome and a medal struck by the Vatican to commemorate the massacre is on display in the British Museum; it is inscribed ‘The Slaughter of the Huguenots, 1572’. We can well understand why the present-day Papacy - the same institution implicated in the massacre - may wish to gloss over its part in this event at the same time as it offers an apology, but Biblical teaching on reconciliation indicates that until such unpleasant facts are faced squarely and acknowledged by the Papacy, the Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy remains an open wound on the Body of Christ.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that "the confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible." Well may we say to the Papacy then, 'Physician, heal thyself!'
The Huguenot Cross - note the dove, symbolising the church living under the cross.