In Tours a fine basilica was built on the site of a vast medieval church knocked down during the Revolution

I have been on holiday in France, which is one reason why I have not been posting much over the last week, and in the course of my travels I visited two holy places which perhaps ought to be better known to readers of The Catholic Herald.

The first was the Basilica of St Martin in Tours. Tours is a lovely old town by the banks of the Loire. St Martin died in the fourth century, and by 1789 there was a vast medieval church standing over his remains. You can tell how huge it must have been because the two remaining towers are pretty enormous. Anyway, along came the Revolution, and in an amazing display of fraternity, equality and liberty, the building was secularised and turned into a stable. Then the roof was stripped, and eventually the whole thing was knocked down. This happened to an awful lot of churches in France at that time.

Some years later, in the 1860s, the tomb of St Martin was rediscovered and a new basilica was built covering part of the site of the old one. This is the fine church that I visited, which is somewhat reminiscent in style of Sacre Coeur in Paris, which dates from about the same time. It was very pleasing to go into the crypt and see the tomb of St Martin surrounded by ex votos. It was also encouraging to see a large congregation at the Sunday Mass, people of all ages, a Mass celebrated with dignity, the music of which was animated (as they say) by Dominican nuns wearing full choir habits. I noticed too that many of the people receiving Holy Communion genuflected as they approached the sacrament.

All this would be deeply upsetting for those who hoped that Robespierre’s campaign of deChristianisation would have lasting effects in France. In fact wiser heads than Robespierre’s (Danton’s, for example) were of the opinion that the Revolution had made a terrible mistake in attacking the Church so violently; certainly the campaign of deChristianisation alienated a large tranche of French society. But those who do not acknowledge their mistakes are destined to repeat them, and the government in the early part of the 20th century was almost as bad as the Jacobins. Let us not forget that the French Church has had all its property confiscated and its religious orders exiled not once but twice, the second time by the government of Émile Combes. And yet, despite these efforts, which seemed pretty successful at the time, the French Church keeps on coming back. Now why is that?

I suppose there can only be two possible answers. One is that the campaign to extirpate Catholicism has simply not been thorough enough. But when you consider the facts – such as the Noyades – it becomes quite hard to sustain this position, and I have heard no one argue that there were too few guillotinings during the Revolution. The alternative position is to acknowledge that religious practice is a permanent feature of the human landscape, and that attempts to extirpate it are illogical and futile. I cannot see any feasible alternative to this position – there never has been a modern society that I can think of that has successfully abolished Catholicism. I would bet that there are Catholics, deep underground of course, even in North Korea.

One last point: supporters of the Jacobins would surely point out that the Revolution was committed to religious liberty in the private sphere. This I would dispute, as would most historians, but even if it were true, one would have to counter that religion cannot ever be a purely private matter. To tell someone to keep their faith private, behind closed doors, either in the home or in a church, is to be religiously intolerant. Freedom of religion necessarily entails freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of association; the French revolutionaries and petit père Combes, as the anti-clerical former seminarian was known, were certainly opposed to the last two.

I mentioned two French holy places; I will hold the second over for another day.