For the modern informed Catholic, the miraculous and the holy do not necessarily go hand in hand. Among many of the devout, confusion often exists as to whether miracles are real, whether they are from God or from somewhere else, and whether questionable people are profiting from them. In our time, places like Medjugorje have become beacons of controversy in regard to the miraculous. Whereas many pundits and clerics fight over whether these happenings are authentic, it is clear that to be “miraculous” is not enough. The institutional “seal of approval” is necessary for such phenomena to be deemed truly Catholic.
This has been the case since the legendary thaumaturgical battles between Simon Magus and St. Peter, but perhaps it has not always been as clear as it is today. In modern history, the greatest threat of the supernatural emerged in France some decades prior to the revolution of 1789. There, miraculous happenings not only confused the faithful in the religious realm but also were seen as a threat to the social order. While now a minor historical footnote, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, the events at a cemetery in a poor neighborhood in Paris shook the religious complacency of much of 18th-century Europe. Known as the Convulsionaries of St. Médard, they are mentionable not only as a fascinating historical curiosity, but they are a predecessor of our current religious situation, and perhaps a sign of things to come.
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First, some background concerning that modern theological bête noire: Jansenism. Modern scholars can spend a lifetime trying to wrap their heads around the heresy that inspired such modern pillars of culture as Jean Racine and Blaise Pascal. From my own limited studies of it, I think it can best be summarized as a movement of Augustinian literalists turned “Catholic Taliban.” They were a group of French clergy and laity who saw the writings of St. Augustine as the only pillar of truth against the decadence of modern lies (embodied best in the Jesuits) and sought to combat the corruption of their contemporary ecclesial order with the practices of the patristic church.
The popularity of Jansenism was heightened and protected in France due to controversies between the French crown and Rome concerning the historical privileges of the Gallican Church. After much back and forth — including the razing of the convent at Port Royal, the spiritual capital of the movement — Pope Clement XI in 1713 issued the bull Unigenitus, condemning various Jansenist theological propositions and sending the movement on the defensive nationally.
This is where the unlikely figure of François de Pâris entered into the picture. Born in 1690, he gave up on following his father in a lucrative legal career to go into the clergy. While devout and pious, he was also a militant Jansenist, going so far as to call the Unigenitus bull “the work of the devil.” For being on the wrong side of the ecclesial divide, and because he would not swear allegiance to the papal edict, he was only ordained a deacon, and he exiled himself to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Paris. There, he became devoted to works of mercy and asceticism, gaining a following among the people. Upon his death in 1727, his funeral was attended by hundreds from around the surrounding neighborhoods. It was there that his cult began, which would endanger the religious order of the Ancien Régime.
The miracles began the very day of his interment at the cemetery of the church dedicated to St. Médard. A woman came to touch his bier with her paralyzed arm, and it was healed instantly. From there, the notoriety of his grave grew: The blind saw, the lame walked, and the skeptical were converted. People came from all over the city and from all over France seeking healing at the grave. Not only this, but people began to “convulse” at the gravesite. Crawling under a space in his grave or rubbing dirt from it on their afflicted body parts, they would fall to the ground and writhe like epileptics until cured. Within a short period of time, the cemetery was covered with convulsing bodies that would be cured through their physically terrifying fits.
The events at St. Médard divided the French Church and intelligentsia. The anti-Jansenist faction, including the Jesuits, decried the miracles there as the work of the devil. Jansenists, while often ambivalent about the chaotic spectacle in the run-down Parisian faubourg, nevertheless interpreted the events as a sign of God’s being on their side. Many of the bourgeois intellectuals of the nascent Enlightenment, looking to debunk any sign of superstition, were left puzzled. Even the avowed anticlerical Voltaire was brought in to testify regarding the miracles worked at the grave of the Jansenist deacon. He was unable to provide any explanation regarding the cures there, and he famously wrote of the events:
The Jansenists . . . in order to give a satisfactory proof that Jesus Christ had not assumed the habit of a Jesuit, filled Paris with convulsions, and attracted great crowds of people to witness them. The counsellor of parliament, Carré de Montgeron, went to present to the king a quarto collection of all these miracles, attested by a thousand witnesses. He was very properly shut up in a château, where attempts were made to restore his senses by regimen; but truth always prevails over persecution, and the miracles lasted for thirty years together, without interruption.
News of the events made it even into the general consciousness of European philosophy, with mention of them in David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
Many of the miracles were immediately proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theater that is now in the world.
In the face of this phenomenon of uncontrollable notoriety, the French crown did the only thing that could be done to keep social and religious order: On January 27, 1732, it shuttered the cemetery, placing troops at its gates. On the wall of the place, one of the most famous lines in historical graffiti appeared:
De par le roi, défense à Dieu
De faire miracles en ce lieu.
[The king to God:—To keep the peace,
Here miracles must henceforth cease.]
While this was a near-fatal blow to the cult of François de Pâris, it by no means ended the movement, but rather drove it underground. People would join together in secret séances inspired by the memory of the deacon, but these would become more and more bizarre and masochistic as time went on. Not only would people writhe and convulse as they had done at the now-shuttered grave, but they would voluntarily subject themselves to beatings with clubs, pins, knives, and even swords. Some would place boards on their bodies and invite dozens of people to stand or jump on them for extended periods of time. There were even cases of suffocations and crucifixions, all under the pretense of being in a state of near religious ecstasy. The spectacles were interpreted as being manifestations of the sufferings of the Jansenist true faith under the papal yoke. Only years of persecution by government authorities and the inner tensions of the movement itself finally consigned the convulsionary movement to its status as an insignificant footnote in the annals of French history.
Are the events at the cemetery of St. Médard in the 18th century an isolated incident, the last gasp of medieval religious atavism on the eve of the Age of Enlightenment? Or are they a sign of things to come? As stated above, controversies over apparitions at Medjugorje, the charismatic movement, statues crying blood, and a steady line of newly minted seers seem to betray a seedy preternatural underbelly of modern Catholicism. Not only that, but outside the developed world, Christianity in all forms seems to have an insatiable thirst for the miraculous in the form of unexplained healings, exorcisms, and religious attitudes that magnify local superstitions rather than refute them. (On this subject, I recommend Darren Wilson’s recent documentary The Finger of God.)
As with the St. Médard events, prodigious phenomena may still present a threat to ecclesial and doctrinal order. Signs and wonders must still in this day be weighed against the tenets of faith, reason, tradition, and authority. The fate of Christianity in the 21st century may not depend upon how we refute skepticism, but rather on how we assimilate and interpret the inevitable emergence of the miraculous.