The Carmelite Nuns of Compiègne Wore Priestly Collars

As with the Martyrdom of St. Charles Lwanga and his companions we today remember a group of martyrs whose story is not nearly as well-known as it should be. And as with Lwanga and the Ugandan martyrs, the martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne speaks urgently to our own age, and offers instruction:

After the fall of the constitutional monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI in 1792, Maximilien Robespierre created rituals to honor the Cult of the Supreme Being even as he led the Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror from 1793 to 1794 — dedicated to eliminating enemies of the Republic.

The Carmelite nuns of Compiègne were just such enemies, although all they wished to do was remain true to their vows to pray, live and work together in a cloistered community. In Robespierre’s view, these nuns were counterrevolutionaries.

Say “French Carmelites” and some people will equate them with the Virgin Martyrs, but not in the excellent way they ought; instead, they will roll their eyes and say something about “mewling, simpering, weak women who hold us back” and they will be exactly wrong. The Virgin Martyrs of the early church were warriors and some of the bravest saints in our canon, because they were willing to face down a society that held them as little more than chattel, to be bartered off for land or connections, and declare themselves as emancipated in Christ and belonging to him alone; they took control of their own destinies and were living, breathing signs of contradictions to the prevailing culture. No wonder they confounded so many as they chose death over a life of compliance, no wonder they converted so many, too.

These Carmelites of Compiègne were a sign of contradiction, too, against a trend of raging secularism and a government that shouted “liberty” with one breath and “be silent” with the next, all while applying a boot to the necks of any who dared to continue talking or living in a manner “incorrect” to the times. Yes, they should speak to us today; in fact, they are shouting at us.

For me, personally, they have been a sign of contradiction in another sense, as well, particularly as we watch people make imagined victims of themselves because they think they’re being “denied” things that are no one’s “right” — the fantasy, for instance, that one must wear a Roman Collar and have a pulpit in order to have any power or priesthood in the church. The history of the church has given lie to the prevailing narrative that “the church suppresses women” which is demonstrably false. Like countless women before them, martyred or not, the Carmelites of Compiègne were magnificent priests; they happened to wear privileged collars born of sharpest steel. Their lives and deaths challenge us to better-understand what we lose when we get too caught up in clericalism to recognize the collars we are already offered, and need only consent to wear.

I wrote about that in this column for The Catholic Answer:

What was beginning was [Catherine de Hueck's] priesthood. She spent the rest of her life championing the oppressed, the poor and marginalized in America’s ghettos, and preaching the Gospel so unapologetically that she was pelted with rotten vegetables. “Preach the Gospel without compromise,” she would say, “or shut up.”

The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne remind me of de Hueck. Offered enticements to compromise, they refused. Dispersed and de-habited, they quietly continued their subversive activity of prayer and worked out their priesthood, “preaching” all the way to the guillotine. They didn’t shut up until the blade fell. Our disoriented modern sensibilities equate nuns with meekness, not strength; it discounts the power of their priesthood (and the priesthood of all laywomen) because it is informal, unadorned. For some, priesthood is a prize of attainment rather than a surrender to service — a right to be won, rather than a gift bestowed. Unless their preaching is done from behind a pulpit, they think, it is devalued and illegitimate.

Catherine de Hueck might have called the pursuit of female ordination a distraction and a waste of opportunity when there is so much to be done, when we are all called and the work of our priesthood is already before us. The Carmelites of Compiègne understood this, as did St. Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Avila, Elisabeth Lesuer and Sister Dorothy Stang, none of whom waited for someone to hand a priesthood to them.

What is your collar made of?

Both of the pieces excerpted here come from the same issue of OSV’s award-winning Catholic Answer Magazine. If you’re not subscribing to it, you really should, particularly if you have tween and teen kids; it is an excellent resource, and perfect for keeping just “lying around” in places where kids get bored and will pick up anything to read.

Dialogue of the Carmelites

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  • wc4mitt

    This story has been written, filmed, made into an opera, etc. It actually has been better publicized that most martyrs history other than Joan of Arc. I am a Carmelite.

  • wc4mitt

    P.S. St.Teresa of Jesus, Founder and Mother of Discalced Carmelites and Doctor of the Church would be mightily offended to hear of her Nuns being referred to as priests. Our Mother Teresa had a great reverence for priests and especially for the Church. Her nuns were never referred to as priests. She wanted her nuns to be ‘as strong men’ i.e, not wimpy women but never priests. Women have their own role in the Church as St. Teresa of Jesus proved within her own life and sainthood.

  • Romulus

    The Carmelite martyrs did offer their own lives, as reparation for the sins of France. Nevertheless, the reference to them as priests — simply to underscore a metaphor about steel collars — strikes me as strained and gratuitous. It’s suggestive of the post-conciliar version of clericalism, supposing that our faith is actuated because somehow we ALL do priestly stuff. It is a silliness which we ought to have put behind us by now.

    I do understand there is a certain priesthood of the laity, from our baptism into Christ and anointment both then and at confirmation. I still think it’s a stretch in this context.

  • Lesley Hughes

    Women do not require the title “priest” in the Church in order to be held up as examples of spiritual strength…

  • KyPerson

    I have to agree. It’s a bit of a stretch.

  • Roki

    The word “priest” is ambiguous, and it’s sometimes difficult to be clear about the “priesthood” of Baptism and the “priesthood” of Holy Orders.

    What they have in common is that every priest offers sacrifices (Hebrews 8.3, 10.11, etc.).

    The priesthood of Baptism allows us to offer our own lives as sacrifice to God, pleasing and acceptable. We offer ourselves in union with Christ.

    The priesthood of Holy Orders, however, offers Christ’s own sacrifice. An ordained minister is not, in his ordained capacity, offering himself; he is offering Christ. When he offers himself, he does so insofar as he is baptized, in exactly the same way any lay Catholic does. (This is why a priest needs to receive sacraments like Penance and Anointing from another, because he receives sacraments as a baptized Christian, exactly like everyone else.)

    So yes, these nuns made the most perfect and pleasing priestly offering possible; but the connection to the “priestly collar,” which usually is an image of ordination, could be confusing. That said, it fits neatly with the manner of their martyrdom (I like the image of a “collar of sharpest steel”). Chalk it up to artistic license.

  • ginanakagawa

    The story of these wonderful, holy and brave women always brings tears to my eyes. May God give us such strength in the coming days. May we know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world as these women did and share the joys of Heaven.

  • Terrye Newkirk

    I am horrified.

  • shieldsheafson

    Jesse Norman – Salve Regina