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The most desolate work of a sincere
Catholic priest is the study of the Holy Fathers. He does not make a step in
the labyrinth of their discussions and controversies without seeing the dreams
of his theological studies and religious views disappear as the thick morning
mist, when the sun rises above the horizon. Bound as he is, by a solemn oath,
to interpret the Holy Scriptures only according to the unanimous consent of
the Holy Fathers, the first thing which puzzles and distresses him is their
absolute want of unanimity on the greater part of the subjects which they discuss.
The fact is, that more than two-thirds of what one Father has written is to
prove that what some other Holy Father has written is wrong and heretical.
The student of the Fathers not only detects that they do not agree with one another, but finds that many of them do not even agree with themselves. Very often they confess that they were mistaken when they said this or that; that they have lately changed their minds; that they now hold for saving truth what they formerly condemned as a damning error!
What becomes of the solemn oath of every priest in presence of this undeniable fact? How can he make an act of faith when he feels that its foundation is nothing but falsehood?
No words can give an idea of the mental tortures I felt when I saw positively that I could not, any longer, preach on the eternity of the suffering of the damned, nor believe in the real presence of the body, soul, and divinity of Christ in the sacrament of communion; nor in the supremacy of the sovereign Pontiff of Rome, nor in any of the other dogmas of my church, without perjuring myself! For there was not one of those dogmas which had not been flatly and directly denied by some Holy Fathers.
It is true, that in my Roman Catholic theological books I had long extracts of Holy Fathers, very clearly supporting and confirming my faith in those dogmas. For instance, I had the apostolic liturgies of St. Peter, St. Mark, and St. James, to prove that the sacrifice of the mass, purgatory, prayers for the dead, transubstantiation, were believed and taught from the very days of the apostles. But what was my dismay when I discovered that those liturgies were nothing else than vile and audacious forgeries presented to the world, by my Popes and my church, as gospel truths. I could not find words to express my sense of shame and consternation, when I became sure that the same church which had invented those apostolical liturgies, had accepted and circulated the false decretals of Isidore, and forged innumerable additions and interpolations to the writings of the Holy Fathers, in order to make them say the very contrary of what they intended.
How many times, when alone, studying the history of the shameless fabrications, I said to myself: "Does the man whose treasury is filled with pure gold, forge false coins, or spurious pieces of money? No! How, then, is it possible that my church possess the pure truth, when she has been at work during so many centuries, to forge such egregious lies, under the names of liturgies and decretals, about the holy mass, purgatory, the supremacy of the Pope, ect. If those dogmas could have been proved by the gospel and the true writings of the Fathers, where was the necessity of forging lying documents? Would the Popes and councils have treasuries with spurious bank bills, if they had had exhaustless mines of pure gold in hand? What right has my church to be called holy and infallible, when she is publicly guilty of such impostures."
From my infancy I had been taught, with all the Roman Catholics, that Mary is the mother of God, and many times, every day, when praying to her, I used to say, "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for me." But what was my distress when I read in the "Treatise on Faith and Creed," by Augustine, Chapter iv. 9, these very words: "When the Lord said, 'Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come' (John ii. 4), He rather admonishes us to understand that, in respect of His being God, there was no mother for Him."
This was so completely demolishing the teachings of my church, and telling me that it was blasphemy to call Mary mother of God, that I felt as if struck with a thunderbolt.
Several volumes might be written, if my plan were to give the story of my mental agonies, when reading the Holy Fathers. I found their furious battles against each other, and reviewed their fierce divisions on almost every subject. The horror of many of them, at the dogmas which my church had taught to make me believe from my infancy, as the most solemn and sacred revelations of God to man, such as transubstantiation, auricular confession, purgatory, the supremacy of Peter, the absolute supremacy of the Pope over the whole Church of Christ. Yes! what thrilling pages I would give to the world, were it my intention to portray, in their true colours, the dark clouds, the flashing lights and destructive storms which, during the long and silent hours of many nights I spent in comparing the Fathers with the Word of God and the teachings of my church. Their fierce and constant conflicts; their unexpected, though undeniable oppositions to many of the articles of the faith I had to believe and preach, were coming to me, day after day, as the barbed darts thrown at the doomed whale when coming out of the dark regions of the deep to see the light and breathe the pure air.
Thus, as the unexpected contradictions of the Holy Fathers to the tenets of my church, and their furious and uncharitable divisions among themselves, were striking me, I plunged deeper and deeper in the deep waters of the Fathers and the Word of God, with the hope of getting rid of the deadly darts which were piercing my Roman Catholic conscience. But, it was in vain. The deeper I went, the more the deadly weapons would stick to the flesh and bone of my soul. How deep was the wound I received from Gregory the Great, one of the most learned Popes of Rome, against the supremacy and universality of the power of the Pope of Rome as taught today, the following extracts from his writings will show: "I say confidently, Whosoever calls himself Universal Priest, or desires so to be called, is in his pride the forerunner of Antichrist, because, in his pride, he sets himself before the rest." *
These words wounded me very painfully. I showed them to Mr. Brassard, saying: "Do you not see here the incontrovertible proof of what I have told you many times, that, during the first six centuries of Christianity, we do not find the least proof that there was anything like our dogma of the supreme power and authority of the Bishop of Rome, or any other bishop, over the rest of the Christian world? If there is anything which comes to the mind with an irresistible force, when reading the Fathers of the first centuries, it is that, not one of them had any idea that there was, in the church, any man chosen by God, to be, in fact or name, the universal and supreme Pontiff. With such an undeniable fact before us, how can we believe and say that the religion we profess and teach is the same which was preached from the beginning of Christianity?"
"My dear Chiniquy," answered Mr. Brassard, "did I not tell you, when you bought the Holy Fathers, that you were doing a foolish and dangerous thing? In every age, the man who singularizes himself and walks out of the common tracks of life is subject to fall into ridicule. As you are the only priest in Canada who has the Holy Fathers, it is thought and said, in many quarters, that it is through pride you got them; that it is to raise yourself above the rest of the clergy, that you study them, not at home, but that you carry some wherever you go. I see, with regret, that you are fast losing ground in the mind, not only of the bishop, but of the priests in general, on account of your indomitable perseverance in giving all your spare time to their study. You are also too free and imprudent in speaking of what you call the contradictions of the Holy Fathers, and their want of harmony with some of our religious views. Many say that this too great application to study, without a moment of relaxation, will upset your intelligence and trouble your mind. They even whisper that there is danger ahead of your faith, which you do not suspect, and that they would not be surprised if the reading of the Bible and the Holy Fathers would drive you into the abyss of Protestantism. I know that they are mistaken, and I do all in my power to defend you. But, I thought, as your most devoted friend, that it was my duty to tell you those things, and warn you before it is too late."
I replied: "Bishop Prince told me the very same things, and I will give you the answer he got from me; 'When you ordain a priest, do you not make him swear that he will never interpret the Holy Scriptures except according to the unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers? Ought you not, then, to know what they teach? For, how can we know their unanimous consent without studying them? Is it not more than strange that, not only the priests do not study the Holy Fathers, but the only one in Canada who is trying to study them, is turned into ridicule and suspected of heresy? Is it my fault if that precious stone, called 'unanimous consent of the Holy Fathers,' which is the very foundation of our religious belief and teaching, is to be found nowhere in them? Is it my fault if Origen never believed in the eternal punishment of the damned; if St. Cyprian denied the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome; if St. Augustine positively said that nobody was obliged to believe in purgatory; if St. John Chrysostom publicly denied the obligation of auricular confession, and the real presence of the body of Christ in the eucharist? Is it my fault if one of the most learned and holy Popes, Gregory the Great, has called by the name of Antichrist, all his successors, for taking the name of supreme Pontiff, and trying to persuade the world that they had, by divine authority, a supreme jurisdiction and power over the rest of the church?"
"And what did Bishop Prince answer you?" rejoined Mr. Brassard.
"Just as you did, by expressing his fears that my too great application to the study of the Bible and the Holy Fathers, would either send me to the lunatic asylum, or drive me into the bottomless abyss of Protestantism."
I answered him, in a jocose way: "That if the too great study of the Bible and the Holy Fathers were to open me the gates of the lunatic asylum, I feared I would be left alone there, for I know that they are keeping themselves at a respectable distance from those dangerous writings." I added seriously, "So long as God keeps my intelligence sound, I cannot join the Protestants, for the numberless and ridiculous sects of these heretics are a sure antidote against their poisonous errors. I will not remain a good Catholic on account of the unanimity of the Holy Fathers, which does not exist, but I will remain a Catholic on account of the grand and visible unanimity of the prophets, apostles, and the evangelists with Jesus Christ. My faith will not be founded upon the fallible, obscure, and wavering words of Origen, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, or Jerome; but on the infallible word of Jesus, the Son of God, and of His inspired writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, and Paul. It is Jesus, and not Origen, who will now guide me; for the second was a sinner, like myself, and the first is for ever my Saviour and my God. I know enough of the Holy Fathers to assure your lordship that the oath we take of accepting the Word of God according to their unanimous consent is a miserable blunder, if not a blasphemous perjury. It is evident that Pius IV., who imposed the obligation of that oath upon us all, never read a single volume of the Holy Fathers. He would not have been guilty of such an incredible blunder, if he had known that the Holy Fathers are unanimous in only one thing, which is to differ from each other on almost everything; except, we suppose, that, like the last Pope, he was too fond of good champagne, and that he wrote that ordinance after a luxurious dinner."
I spoke this last sentence in a half-serious and half-joking way.
The Bishop answered: "Who told you that about our last Pope?" "Your lordship," I answered, "told me that, when you complimented me on the apostolical benediction which the present Pope sent me through my Lord Baillargeon, 'that his predecessor would not have given me his benediction for preaching temperance, because he was too fond of wine!'"
"Oh yes! yes! I remember it now," answered the bishop. "But it was a bad joke on my part, which I regret."
"Good or bad joke," I replied, "it is not the less a fact that our last Pope was too fond of wine. There is not a single priest of Canada who has gone to Rome without bringing that back as a public fact from Italy."
"And what did my Lord Prince say to that," asked again Mr. Brassard.
"Just as when he was cornered by me, on the subject of the Virgin Mary, he abruptly put an end to the conversation by looking at his watch, and saying that he had a call to make at that very hour."
Not long after that painful conversation about the Holy Fathers, it was the will of God, that a new arrow should be thrust into my Roman Catholic conscience, which went through and through, in spite of myself.
I had been invited to give a course of three sermons at Vareness. The second day, at tea time, after preaching and hearing confessions for the whole afternoon, I was coming from the church with the curate, when, half-way to the parsonage, we were met by a poor man, who looked more like one coming out of the grave, than a living man; he was covered with rags, and his pale and trembling lips indicated that he was reduced to the last degree of human misery. Taking off his hat, through respect for us, he said to Rev. Primeau, with a trembling voice: "You know, Mr. le Cure, that my poor wife died, and was buried ten days ago, but I was too poor to have a funeral service sung the day she was buried, and I fear she is in purgatory, for almost every night I see her, in my dreams, wrapped up in burning flames. She cries to me for help, and asks me to have a high mass sung for the rest of her soul. I come to ask you to be so kind as to sing that high mass for her."
"Of course," answered the curate, "your wife is in the flames of purgatory, and suffers there the most unspeakable tortures, which can be relieved only by the offering of the holy sacrifice of mass. Give me five dollars and I will sing that mass to-morrow morning."
"You know very well, Mr. le Cure," answered the poor man, in a most supplicating tone, "that my wife has been sick, as well as myself, a good part of the year. I am too poor to give you five dollars!"
"If you cannot pay, you cannot have any mass sung. You know it is the rule. It is not in my power to change it."
These words were said by the curate with a high and unfeeling tone, which were in absolute contrast with the solemnity and distress of the poor sick man. They made a very painful impression upon me, for I felt for him. I know the curate was well-off, at the head of one of the richest parishes of Canada; that he had several thousand dollars in the bank. I hoped, at first, that he would kindly grant the petition presented to him without speaking of the pay, but I was disappointed. My first thought, after hearing this hard rebuke, was to put my hand in my pocket and take out one of the several five-dollar gold pieces I had, and give it to the poor man, that he might be relieved from his terrible anxiety about his wife. It came also to my mind to say to him: "I will sing you high mass for nothing to-morrow." But alas! I must confess, to my shame, I was too cowardly to do that noble deed. I had a sincere desire to do it, but was prevented by the fear of insulting that priest, who was older than myself, and for whom I had always entertained great respect. It was evident to me that he would have taken my action as a condemnation of his conduct. When I was feeling ashamed of my own cowardice, and still more indignant against myself than against the curate, he said to the disconcerted poor man: "That woman is your wife; not mine. It is your business, and not mine, to see how to get her out of purgatory."
Turning to me, he said, in the most amiable way: "Please, sir, come to tea."
We hardly started, when the poor man, raising his voice, said, in a most touching way: "I cannot leave my poor wife in the flames of purgatory; if you cannot sing a high mass, will you please say five low masses to rescue her soul from those burning flames?"
The priest turned towards him and said: "Yes, I can say five masses to take the soul of your wife out of purgatory, but give me five shillings; for you know the price of a low mass is one shilling."
The poor man answered: "I can no more give one dollar than I can five. I have not a cent; and my three poor little children are as naked and starving as myself."
"Well! well," answered the curate, "when I passed this morning before your house, I saw two beautiful sucking pigs. Give me one of them, and I will say your five low masses."
The poor man said: "These small pigs were given me by a charitable neighbour, that I might raise them to feed my poor children next winter. They will surely starve to death, if I give my pigs away."
But I could not listen any longer to that strange dialogue; every word of which fell upon my soul as a shower of burning coals. I was beside myself with shame and disgust. I abruptly left the merchant of souls finishing his bargains, went to my sleeping-room, locked the door, and fell upon my knees to weep to my heart's content.
A quarter of an hour later, the curate knocked at my door, and said, "Tea is ready; please come down!" I answered: "I am not well; I want some rest. Please excuse me if I do not take my tea to-night."
It would require a more eloquent pen than mine, to give the correct history of that sleepless night. The hours were dark and long.
"My God! my God!" I cried, a thousand times, "is it possible that, in my so dear Church of Rome, there can be such abominations as I have seen and heard today? Dear and adorable Saviour, if Thou wert still on earth, and should see the soul of a daughter of Israel fallen into a burning furnace, wouldst Thou ask a shilling to take it out? Wouldst Thou force the poor father, with his starving children, to give their last morsel of bread, to persuade Thee to extinguish the burning flames? Thou hast shed the last drop of Thy blood to save her. And how cruel, how merciless, we, Thy priests, are, for the same precious soul! But are we really Thy priests? Is it not blasphemous to call ourselves Thy priests, when not only we will not sacrifice anything to save that soul, but will starve the poor husband and his orphans? What right have we to extort such sums of money from Thy poor children to help them out of purgatory? Do not Thy apostles say that Thy blood alone can purify the soul?
"Is it possible that there is such a fiery prison for the sinners after death, and that neither Thyself nor any of Thy apostles has said a word about it? Several of the Fathers consider purgatory as of Pagan origin. Tertullian spoke of it only after he had joined the sect of the Montanists, and he confesses that it is not through the Holy Scriptures, but through the inspiration of the Paraclete of Montanus that he knows anything about purgatory. Augustine, the most learned and pious of the Holy Fathers, does not find purgatory in the Bible, and positively says that its existence is dubious; that every one may believe what he thinks proper about it. Is it possible that I am so mean as to have refused to extend a helping hand to that poor distressed man, for fear of offending the cruel priest? "We priests believe, and say that we can help souls out of the burning furnace of purgatory, by our prayers and masses: but instead of rushing to their rescue, we turn to the parents, friends, the children of those departed souls, and say: 'Give me five dollars; give me a shilling, and I will put an end to those tortures; but if you refuse us that money, we will let your father, husband, wife, child, or friend endure those tortures, hundreds of years more! Would not the people throw us into the river, if they could once understand the extent of our meanness and avarice? Ought we not to be ashamed to ask a shilling to take out of the fire a human being who calls us to the rescue? Who, except a priest, can descend so low in the regions of depravity?"
It would take too long to give the thoughts which tortured me during that terrible night. I literally bathed my pillow with my tears. Before saying my mass next morning, I went to confess my criminal cowardice and want of charity towards that poor man, and also the terrible temptation against my faith which tortured my conscience during the long hours of that night! And I repaired my cowardice by giving five dollars to that poor man.
I spent the morning in hearing confessions till ten o'clock, when I delivered a very exciting sermon on the malice of sin, proved by the sufferings of Christ on the cross. This address gave a happy diversion to my mind, and made me forget the sad story of the sucking pig. After the sermon, the curate took me by the hand to his dining-room, where he gave me, in spite of myself, the place of honour.
He had the reputation of having one of the best cooks of Canada, in the widow of one of the governors of Nova Scotia, whom he had as his housekeeper. The dishes before our eyes did not diminish his good reputation. The first dish was a sucking pig, roasted with an art and perfection as I had never seen; it looked like a piece of pure gold, and its smell would have brought water to the lips of the most penitent anchorite.
I had not tasted anything for the last twenty-four hours; had preached two exciting sermons, and spent six hours in hearing confessions. I felt hungry; and the sucking pig was the most tempting thing to me. It was a real epicurean pleasure to look at it and smell its fragrance. Besides, that was a favourite dish with me. I cannot conceal that it was with real pleasure that I saw the curate, after sharpening his long, glittering knife on the file, cutting a beautiful slice from the shoulder, and offering it to me. I was too hungry to be over patient. My knife and fork had soon done their work. I was carrying to my mouth the tempting and succulent mouthful when, suddenly, the remembrance of the poor man's sucking pig came to my mind. I laid the piece on my plate, and with painful anxiety, looked at the curate and said: "Will you allow me to put you a question about this dish?"
"Oh! yes: ask me not only one, but two questions, and I will be happy to answer you to the best of my ability," answered he, with his fine manners.
"Is this the sucking pig of the poor man of yesterday?" I asked.
With a convulsive fit of laughter, he replied: "Yes; it is just it. If we cannot take away the soul of the poor woman out of the flames of purgatory, we will, at all events, eat a fine sucking pig!" The other thirteen priests filled the room with laughter, to show their appreciation of their host's wit.
However, their laughter was not of long duration. With a feeling of shame and uncontrollable indignation, I pushed away my plate with such force, that it crossed the table and nearly fell on the floor; saying, with a sentiment of disgust which no pen can describe: "I would rather starve to death than eat of that execrable dish; I see in it the tears of the poor man; I see the blood of his starving children; it is the price of a soul. No! no, gentlemen; do not touch it. You know, Mr. Curate, how 30,000 priests and monks were slaughtered in France, in the bloody days 1792. It was for such iniquities as this that God Almighty visited the church in France. The same future awaits us here in Canada, the very day that people will awaken from their slumber and see that, instead of being ministers of Christ, we are the vile traders of souls, under the mask of religion."
The poor curate, stunned by the solemnity of my words, as well as by the consciousness of his guilt, lisped some excuse. The sucking pig remained untouched; and the rest of the dinner had more the appearance of a burial ceremony than of a convivial repast. By the mercy of God, I had redeemed my cowardice of the day before. But I had mortally wounded the feelings of that curate and his friends, and for ever lost their goodwill.
It is in such ways that God was directing the steps of His unprofitable servant through ways unknown to him. Furious storms were constantly blowing around my fragile bark, and tearing my sails into fragments. But every storm was pushing me, in spite of myself, towards the shores of eternal life, where I was to land safely, a few years later.