The year 2008 saw the 220th anniversary of the Flemish Peasants’ War. In 1798 the best of the Flemish people took up their weapons to defend the Catholic Faith against a new religion and social order that were forced upon them by a foreign occupier. This alone is reason enough to commemorate and bring to attention the heroic courage of the Flemish farmers.
From 1789 on, a bloody revolution raged in France against all the abuses of the “old regime.” From a religious viewpoint there was a schismatic movement, separated from Rome, moving towards a national church. But very soon the anger of the people turned against the priests; the Faith was blamed for exploitation and oppression. Rationalism, which had found its spokesman in the Encyclopedias for over ten years, and in the sarcasm of Voltaire, which had snapped at everything holy, taught that no truth forced from the outside could be accepted. Thus, in a “return to reason,” divine revelation was rejected. Under the slogan “freedom,” intolerance grew; a hatred and confusion not found in another era spread. On January 23, 1793, the French king ascended the scaffold. A year earlier, 1792, the armies from the south came to Flanders for the first time; in 1794 they definitively conquered the Flemish people from Austria. Flanders would experience the French “freedom.” Museums, churches, monasteries, libraries, stables, private safes, barns and fields: all plundered with an unusual anger. The Flemish people began to organize opposition. In 1794 and 1795, thousands of Flemish men, women, and children starved to death. In the soul of the Flemings a dogged anger arose against the new Republic.
Explicit persecution of religion had not yet happened. In 1795 the anti-religious storm calmed down a bit in France, during the establishment of the new rule named le Directoire. The regime of the guillotine, which, in 1793-94 with Robespierre, raged so severely against priests and nobles, was replaced with the (in theory unacceptable but practically milder) separation of Church and state. The tempering did not last. On September 4, 1797, the Directoire fell into the hands of extremists, who thought they noticed a revival of royalism. The next day, the laws of terror came into force again, and a few days later they demanded that every priest and civil servant swear hatred against the monarchy. This rule was not just a formality: In October 1797 the Flemish clergy was summoned to take the oath of loyalty. Almost 90 percent of the priests said “No!” The persecution ensued.
The churches were set ablaze or shut down, ceremonies stopped, and the clergy were hunted down like wild animals. Those who were captured were thrown into dungeons or banished to the Rhé or Oleron Islands near the French coast or deported to the hell of Guyana. The Flemish people, however, did not let their clergy get captured or starve to death without a fight: Of the 9,000 priests who were blacklisted, fewer than 1,000 fell, over a period of three years, into the hands of the tyrants. They hid in the woods, in chimneys, in barns, in attics. They disguised themselves as street-traders and craftsmen. What appeared to be a stable became a church; and a mug, a chalice. Mass was offered at night, quietly, but…it went on. “I have baptized all the little children,” wrote a priest of Tielt. In Tielt, French thieves broke into a farm at the end of the “Hoogstreet.” “Where is the priest hiding himself?” “Jan,” says the landlady, “these men need your help.” Jan was peeling potatoes. He laid down his knife and stood up. The French rats began their search for the priest under the guidance of…the priest!
In the year 1797 the rebellion of the people started to grow. The old combatants of the Brabant rebellion–when they had kicked Austria out of Flanders for a short time in 1789–started to feel their fists itching for battle. The old slogan began to turn around in their heads: pro aris et focis–For Altar and Hearth! But resistance would be difficult: To organize resistance from region to region in an occupied country without traffic would be a hard, almost superhuman task. Was there even a chance of success without foreign help? Austria had definitively handed Flanders to the young Napoleon at the peace treaty in Campo Formio, in October 1797. Would Germany help? England? Months dragged on with no response. The decision was made to fight by themselves.
In September 1798, an order suddenly came from Paris: all Flemings from the ages of 20-25 were to become soldiers for the Republic! The first batch: 200,000 men, in a land that did not know military service under the occupation of Austria. Fight, fight and fall for the godless Republic! They would fight indeed—but against the Republic, not for it. The boys did what their priests had done at first: hid. But then the bell rang: thousands of Flemings went to arms. England promised help. In the middle of October, 1798, the alarm bell rang, the flag with the cross flapped in the wind, and the horns blew: the battle broke loose.
The Peasants’ War was carried out by about 40,000 improvised soldiers. They had no cannons; only scythes, pickaxes, a few guns and a little money from England. The uprising spread as fast as a flame over Waas and Westland, Flemish Ardennen, Klein-Brabant, Hageland and the Kempen. The war took about 15,000 lives; “Not even one Fleming ducked for the bullet.” It lasted only about two months among the storms of the late autumn and in the biting cold of the hard winter. As an organized force, the Peasants’ War ended in bloodshed in Hasselt on December 5, 1798.
What was the Peasants’ War? It was the cultural battle of a small people for its highest values: its freedom, its Catholic family life, its religion. It was a defeat, but a defeat in which future generations at least saw and felt a victory of the spirit! For altar and hearth! No page of Flemish history is so full of love and suffering, grief and victory. This was 1798.
When the French troops penetrated the southern part of the Netherlands in 1794, they showed clearly with what kind of ideals the revolutionaries were inspired. A few churches and abbeys were burned to the ground, and crucifixes as well as images of saints were shot at on purpose. That was just the beginning of what the pious people of Flanders would come to expect. The southern part of the Netherlands stood on the brink of a true persecution of the Church.
Once conquered, Flanders was incorporated in 1795 and considered a part of France. All new laws of France counted for the new territory. The government was at first reluctant to introduce all anti-clerical laws. They did not want to turn the Flemish people against them, especially not when the French had not full power and control in every region. Nevertheless, at the end of 1794, the first churches were claimed and transformed into “temples of Reason.” Different houses of God were violated by acts of desecration.
From September 1796 onwards, abbeys and monasteries were disbanded, their goods taken into custody. Only female monastic orders dealing with education and the care of the sick were left untouched. The main goal of the revolutionaries was to banish the Church from society: all external signs of religion should be exiled from public life. Processions were forbidden: no more religious ceremonies outside the doors of the church. The French even tried to prevent the pious Flemings in Brugge from kneeling down before the chapel at the yearly ceremony of the Holy Blood, but the Catholics did not allow themselves to be chased away. The bells could not call the believers to religious services anymore; statues of saints and crucifixes, which decorated uncountable street corners and house fronts, were removed. In Brugge, a Marian city, the old statue of Our Lady at the corner of the city hall was destroyed. The resistance against all these measures grew: the people went on pilgrimage ostentatiously.
In 1797 the clergy was forced to swear an oath of hate against the monarchy and to swear an oath of loyalty to the Republic. The clergy of Flanders refused this unanimously. Now the aggressor showed its real face. The “Beloken Tijd” started: All goods of the parishes as well as the property of the Church were confiscated. Even secular associations and seminaries were abolished. In most regions, the churches were all shut down. Only in the department of the Leie (the present province of West-Flanders), most churches were simultaneously re-opened and they would not be closed anymore. Only sworn (or “juring”) priests could lead the ceremonies.
The persecution of the clergy and the closure of churches was the prelude of a real demonic work. The remaining golden and silver consecrated goods were sent to the “Money factory” in Paris; paintings and statues of tremendous artistic value–untouched by previous plundering–were transported to French museums. Expensive books and writings were scattered here and there. The furniture was destroyed; remarkable woodcuttings sold as firewood; marble pillars and communion rails destroyed and sold like clods of stones. Nothing remained safe from the desecration of iconoclastic fury.
The refusal of the majority of the clergy to swear the oath in this region led to schism; a small number of sworn priests, loyal to the Republic, stood against the priests loyal to the Church of all times. Those who refused to swear the oath awaited arrest and deportation. The Flemish clergy went into hiding. They did not intend to let themselves be captured, and they could not abandon their loyal flock. The era of the catacombs was thus born again. Priests were outlaws, hunted down by the French. Real round-ups and raids followed one after the other–but this was without taking into account the people. In almost every village and town, priests could find a good and safe shelter. The population went to extremes to keep their priests out of the claws of the French. This was not, however, without any risk. The republicans tried to choke out religious life, but normal services went on. Priests walked disguised down the streets to hand out the sacraments.
Tirelessly the priests stayed faithful to their vocation. One of the many confessors of faith at this time was Fr. Charles Nerickx. Fr. Nerickx founded first a shelter in Ninove and from 1798 onwards, a hospital in Dendermonde, where his aunt was a nun. (Nuns in hospitals were “of public use” and therefore not hunted down.) He was a priest first, everywhere and always. At 2:00am daily he offered the Holy Mass for the nuns. He studied and prayed frequently. When the French searched the hospital–which happened several times—he would disappear into a small shelter in the attic. Even in the garden he had a good hiding place: in the chicken coop.
During the Peasants’ War, some prisoners were brought to the hospital to await their execution. Fr. Nerickx devised a way to help them; the nuns would inform the prisoners of his plan. When they went to their execution, they walked under a specific window. Fr. Nerickx instructed them to raise their arm if they were contrite and wished to receive absolution. Fr. Nerickx would later be sent to America where he founded the Sisters of Loretto.
The situation was not tense and dangerous everywhere. Here and there were some small islands of a little peace and rest. The deep-rooted loyalty of the believers to the faith of their ancestors was unshakable. To spread discord, the government allowed a limited number of “sworn” priests to celebrate in a few churches. But this had an opposite effect: A sworn priest wanted to remove something from the tabernacle at St. Salvator in Brugge to prevent the believers from worshipping the Most Holy Sacrament. He was prevented from doing so, however–by the bell ringer and a milk woman. Once on the street he was attacked by the people. Women shouted: “Beat the schismatic priest dead.”
In a Catholic school in Brugge a Sister refused to follow with her students the Mass said by a sworn priest; together with other Sisters she left the monastery and started their own school. In the still open churches in Brugge the people gathered and prayed the Rosary and the Litany of Our Lady very loudly. Step by step, some para-liturgical services arose. On the altars, candles were lit, the organ was played, and the normal hymns of the Mass were sung. A clearer refutation of the sworn clergy was not thinkable.
In the meantime, Napoleon was committing his revolt in 1799. He made a concordat with the Holy See in 1801. Pope Pius VII hoped to see a new dawn of peace as churches were opened again and the persecution seemed to have stopped. But Bonaparte added a huge number of conditions to the concordat, the 77 Organic Articles. For many, these were unacceptable. For everything, the approval of the state was needed. Even holy days were dictated by the concordat. Many priests and believers who had risked their lives during the persecution for the true faith took up their weapons again. The Church of the Concordat was for them the Church of Napoleon, not the Church of Rome. Resistance arose mostly in Brabant and West-Flanders. The persecution in Flanders was a time of heroism and love, the time of the new catacombs and martyrs, a time of battle to keep the Catholic Faith. This era is untaught in schools today. Even the Church no longer speaks of it because of political correctness and ecumenism.