Like all nations, France is an enigma. Admired by Hilaire Belloc for being the eldest daughter of the Church, she is also the harlot who sacrificed her own sons and daughters on the anti-Christian altars of secularist revolution. She has produced great sinners and even greater saints.
Legend traces the roots of Christianity in France to the time of the disciples, with none other than Lazarus, whom Christ had raised from the dead, becoming the first bishop of Marseilles. In the second century, St. Irenaeus fought fearlessly to counter the threat of Gnosticism before being martyred in Lyons in 202 AD. Almost three hundred years later, Clovis, the first of the kings of France, was baptized, renouncing his paganism and establishing France as a Christian nation. It was in France, at the Council of Clermont in 1095, that Pope Urban II preached the necessity of a just war in the Holy Land to free the holy shrines of Christendom from the grip of Islam, thereby triggering the First Crusade. Almost two hundred years later, a French King, Louis IX, would die while leading his army on the eighth crusade.
Perhaps the zenith of French power, at least in terms of her relationship with the Church, was in the fourteenth century, during which the seat of the papacy was removed from Rome to Avignon. Such power was also made manifest in the edifices of gothic architecture that sprung up across the country in the Middle Ages, such as Notre Dame de Paris and the cathedrals at Chartres and Reims.
The roll-call of French saints is so vast that one hardly knows where to start or finish. To name but an illustrious few, she can count among her canonized sons and daughters Bernard of Clairvaux, Joan of Arc, Martin of Tours, Thérèse of Lisieux, Louis the King, Louis de Montfort, Vincent de Paul, Francis de Sales, and Jean-Marie Vianney. And yet, she also gave birth to John Calvin, without whom the Protestant rupture would not have so tragically ripped Europe apart, and René Descartes, whose break with scholasticism signaled the rise of modern philosophy and the abandonment of philosophical realism, thereby condemning the modern world to the reductio ad absurdum of radical relativism. Pascal, a contemporary of Descartes and a fierce critic of Cartesian error, championed the Church during a period of rising secularism and theological error. His defence of Christianity continues to resonate across the centuries of modern French history as a consistent counterpoint of sanity amidst the oscillations between anti-Christian revolution and religious rapprochement.
The eighteenth century began with the rise of irrational “rationalism” and ended when the “noble savagery” of Rousseau metamorphosed into the ignoble savagery of Robespierre and the militaristic imperialism of Napoleon. Yet, if the eighteenth century can be characterized as a descent into the abyss of revolution and war, the nineteenth century produced some eloquent critics of the so-called and self-named Enlightenment, the most notable of whom were François-René de Chateaubriand, Louis-Gabriel-Amboise de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre. The same century also saw the descent into decadence and the return to religion of such writers as Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Huysmans, their respective conversions spawning a Catholic literary revival in France which paralleled the similar revival across the channel in England.
One reason for this renewal of faith in France during the nineteenth century, in spite of the gruesome efforts to snub it out at the end of the previous century by the terror-mongers of the Revolution, was the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in Lourdes in 1858, the impact of which spread out from the Pyrenees until it reached the northern shores of the country, where, at the end of the century, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, described by St. Pius X as “the greatest saint of modern times”, would charm the world with the humility of her “little way” to Heaven.
Moving into the twentieth century, France has brought forth the existentialist avant-garde, epitomized in the lives and works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, but she has also been the birthplace of neo-Thomism through the works of Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson. She has also blessed the world with a veritable host of great Catholic writers in the past century, including, to name but a representative few, Georges Bernanos, Léon Bloy, Paul Claudel, Julien Green, François Mauriac, and Charles Péguy.
Perhaps the struggle between revolution and revelation in the turbulent and troubled heart of France can be epitomized in two of her daughters, Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil. Born in Paris within a little over a year of each other, in 1908 and 1909 respectively, de Beauvoir was a radical feminist who refused to have children, sexually abused her female students, and boasted of having an abortion; whereas Weil turned towards Catholicism following a mystical experience in Assisi. Such is the perennial war between revolution and revelation in the lives of two daughters of France. Such is the war at the heart of France herself.