On the Feast of St. Bartholomew we read the beautiful, intimate Gospel of St. John, Chapter 1, verses 45-51. This Gospel describes the calling of Nathaniel, the choosing of an Apostle mentioned by no other Gospel. Why Nathaniel? This is the Hebrew name of Bartholomew, which was his Greek name. How odd for the Jews to have to adapt to a foreign culture in their own land! But their native land was occupied by the Roman army and the lingua franca of the Mediterranean was Greek. Growing up in New York City, I remember some of my Jewish neighbors having two names: once for gentile society, their civil name, and another affirming their own identity. So the friend I knew as Bobby, Robert, was Reuben in his family and synagogue; his brother Paul might really be Saul and their dad, Abe was Avrahim. So our Bartholomew was Nathaniel among his own people.
The Gospel is for me a wonderful moment of intimacy and humor: Philip is trying to introduce Nathaniel to Jesus (Yeshua or Joshua, by the way) of Nazareth, as the long hoped for Messiah. “Nazareth? Can any good come from Nazareth?” To me, Nathaniel sounds like a New Yorker talking about Trenton. And Jesus has enough moxy to get a kick out of the remark: “Here’s a true Israelite: he doesn’t beat around the bush.” Antagonism is so easily absorbed and deflected–on both sides. They don’t need to define themselves by keeping someone else down.
How different was the situation in France–in all of Europe–in the Sixteenth Century. Europe was divided by the Reformation, the reform of Christianity–being called for since at least the Fifteenth Century; but the reform ended up removed from the authority of the Papacy. In all fairness, the Popes had been dragging their feet on the issue. The Catholic Party itself was still recovering from the Conciliar Movement of the previous century which envisioned an ecumenical as authoritative and not answerable to the Pope. Not everyone in the Vatican bureaucracy wanted a reform and those who did couldn’t quite agree on it’s shape. In the meantime, the number of Christians breaking away from Catholicism were increasing and monarchies saw such diversity as undermining the state. The Holy Roman Empire has resolved the issue with the decision at Augsburg in 1555: cuius regio, eius religio: whoever controlled the territory, his religion would prevail. Thus the Duchy of Bavaria became Catholic, because the Ducal family was Catholic; the vast majority of their people supported Protestantism. Thuringia became Protestant because their Duke was Protestant though the population favored Catholocism. In these pre-revolutionary days, church was tied to the state and there was no freedom of conscience recognized by any authority.
In France, the Royal Family was Catholic, but so was the powerful Guise family, an aristocratic house competing with the Crown for power and certainly surpassing it in wealth. It was advantageous to the Crown to permit the French Calvinists, the Huguenots, to flourish under aristocratic patronage to balance off the Guise cabal. It was also in the Crown’s interest to support consistently no one side. There are examples of conventional Catholicism reduced to externals and being far from vibrant in this culture. And there were Huguenots who were as ambitious and power hungry as the Guise family. And the Catholic kings were as self-seeking and self-indulgent as anyone in the Sixteenth Century, their lives totally unaffected by the Faith, their deviousness reflecting anything but the Gospel. Both sides were convinced that they were right and defined themselves by the other, defined themselves as an enemy. They needed an enemy, a villain, to be right.
The facts about the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre are murky. It is clear that the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, was aware of the plans; it is unclear whether her son, King Charles IX was forced to accept a fait accompli against his better judgement or was convinced. It is said that the Huguenots were planning an uprising to kill the king and the signal was the ringing of the bell at the church of St. Germain-l’Auxerrois , which had formerly called the royal family to prayer. Or was the bell rung by the Catholics? In any event when the bell sounded, on 24 August, 1572, the slaughter of some 10,000 Calvinists in Paris commenced turning into an act of mob violence.
The aftermath was as dramatic and confusing as the massacre. It is said that a Te Deum was sung in the Papal Chapel, but it was also explained that the Pope had received news that Charles IX had been murdered and only celebrated because that news was contradicted as false. In England, when the French ambassador next appeared in the court of Elizabeth I, he found the Protestant court dressed in black; they all turned their backs on him as he proceeded to the throne. Of course, the Queen minced no words with him when she dismissed him.
In the Nineteenth Century when Europe asserted the right to conscience, the St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre surfaced in Meyerbeer’s Opera, Les Huguenots and in Victor Hugo’s novel, Reine Margot; both works sought to represent both sides as human beings, both sides as frail and fallible and to question the violent need to create and eradicate enemies. The St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre was described as a national tragedy, a national crime and not an expediency.
Clearly we have come a long way. I just would be reluctant to congratulate myself on ecumenical dialogues and sympathetic listening offered to other Christians. As long as I define myself over and against others, as long as I require an “enemy” to tell me who I am, I haven’t come all that far.