Capuchin priest (1747-1794)
During the French Revolution 829 priests and religious were condemned to the prison ships at Rochefort for refusing to swear the oath required by the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy”. They endured such harsh living conditions and such brutal and degrading treatment that 547 of them died within ten months. Among these heroes of the faith and ﬁdelity to the Pope and to the Apostolic See, St John Paul II beatiﬁed the servant of God Jean Baptiste Souzy and 63 companions on 1stOctober 1995. In this group were two Friars Minor and three Capuchins: Jean Louis de Besançon, Protase de Sées, and Sébastien de Nancy.
Protais de Séez was on the same infamous ship, the “Deus-Associés,” as Blessed Juan-Louis de Besançon. Similarly, not a great deal is know about his background. Born on 3 April 1747 he was baptised the next day in the parish of Saint-Pierre in Seéz (Orne). He parents and relatives were well-off. His father, Simon Bourdon was a cartwright and his mother was called Maria Louise Le Fou. There is no particular information about his childhood, His Christian formation nurtured in him the vocation to the religious life. In his twenties, he entered the Capuchins at Bayeux where he made profession on 27 November 1768 and received the name Protais. He was ordained priest in 1775. According to the little data known from the archives he lived for a little while in the friary at Honfleur, near the sanctuary of Notre-Dame des Grâces which he directed. On 29 November 1783, he was in the friary at Caen and in 1789 he was secretary of the Provincial Minister of Normandy.
His final destination, as provincial secretary and guardian, was the convent at Sotteville near Rouen. The municipal police found him there with the fraternity when they came to conduct an inventory of the friary and demand the loyalty oath to the civil constitution of the clergy. With his confreres he refused and on two separate occasions he underlined his will to persevere in the religious life, particularly on 26 August 1791 during the final inventory of the friary. The following year the friars were expelled and thrown on to the street. Br. Protais wished to remain in Rouen. Refusing the option of taking flight, he found hospitality with a gentleman whom he compensated with a little of his pension and alms received for Masses celebrated.
His tenacity earned his arrest on 10 April 1793 and he had to undergo an inquiry by two zealous “citoyens”. The triviality and superficiality of the process shows, as usually happens, the flimsiness of such trials. Unfortunately, history is full of such trials. Fortunately, the transcript has been kept. Protais answered with great freedom, and the text is clear about his desire to faithfully follow his religious life. He is reserved where the trail deals with his involvement with others.
In the search of the house where he had taken refuge a number of manuscripts and printed books were found, grounds for an accusation against him, because these texts defended non-compliance. Like a good Norman, he did not offer any further explanations that could have compromised anyone else. Nor did he reveal the name of any person with whom he celebrated Mass in secret. His is an attitude that is uniquely religious in facing risk and danger. His focus was an honest, simple, clear faith and he did not adopt any political position. The effect, however, was immediate. He was locked in the old seminary of Rouen Saint-Vivien. The revolutionaries used it for temporary detention. There he waited for a final sentence. This arrived on 10 January 1794: “citizen” Juan Bourdon, or Br. Protais, is condemned to be deported to Guyana for having celebrated Mass illegally and for being in possession of suspect documents.
On 9 March he was transported to Rochefort. He arrived on 12 April. After he was searched he was deprived of whatever he still had: a gold watch in a small box – (this may have been a pyx) – as well as 1303 lire. On board the infamous “Deux-Associés” he shared the fate of the other prisoners. The desolate picture of sordid suffering, agony and death that made up day to daily life in that prison was the same as that described for Blessed Jean-Louis Loir. After four months Br. Protais died of a contagious disease during the night between the 23 and 24 August. A survivor has left us this testimony: “He was a religious of great merit, praiseworthy as much for his in his initiatives in favour of his deported confreres as for his physical and moral endurance – but above all for his firm faith, prudence, balance, consistency and other Christian and religious virtues.”
Translation based on the article in Costanzo Cargnoni, Sulle orme dei santi, Rome, 200, p.186-188
From the testimony of a contemporary eyewitness
Claude Masson: Manuel d’éducation chrétienne, Nancy: 1815, vol. III, pages 330ff passim
Resembling Christ in his Passion
To our gaolers we were nature’s refuse, bereft of any and every human right, who could be trampled on like vile insects- with impunity.
God allowed all this in order to increase the reward of our sufferings, by giving us the gift of resembling more closely his divine Son in his passion. Nothing consoled us in our sufferings, nothing gave us greater strength in our trials, than the thought of Jesus reigning in heaven, looking down from his throne heedful of our struggles ‐ he who before us and on our behalf had been bound, scourged, slapped, covered with spittle, crowned with thorns, given gall and vinegar to drink, and nailed to a cross, around which his enemies stood, insulting and cursing him. This spiritual vision of our redeemer ﬁlled our hearts with sweetness beyond words: now we hardly noticed our surroundings at all, except that they gave us sound reasons for joy. We thought ourselves blessed to have been chosen in preference to so many others to imitate our Divine Master. We reﬂected on the fact that throughout the centuries Jesus had willed that every dogma of the faith be in a certain sense maintained and strengthened in the Church by means of the blood of many martyrs, their number varying according to the importance of the truth being attacked. We then considered it a true honour for us to be persecuted and sacriﬁced so as to strengthen the teaching of that spiritual authority, independent of worldly power, which the will of God had entrusted to the Apostolic See and to the bishops in general.
Some time previously the Lord had manifested the holiness of one of his servants, Father Sebastian, a Capuchin from a house in Nancy, who had come to die on a ship. One morning we saw him kneeling, his arms crossed, his eyes raised to heaven and his mouth wide open. At ﬁrst we did not pay him any attention because we were used to seeing him praying like that, even while he was ill. Half an hour passed and we were amazed to find him still in such an uncomfortable position, which was hard to maintain at that moment because the sea was rough and the ship was rolling heavily. At ﬁrst we thought he was in ecstasy, and drew nearer to observe him more closely, but after touching his face and hands we realised he had actually rendered his soul to God while m that position.
We then summoned the ship’s crew, who were unable to contain their cries of admiration and their tears at such a sight. It was then that their faith was reawakened in their hearts: many of them baring their arms, displayed to the assembled company the image of the cross, branded into their ﬂesh with a hot stone, and they made the resolve to return to the religion they had abandoned.
you gave your martyrs,
Jean Louise, Protase, Sébastien, and their companions
the grace to remain faithful
and to pardon
despite dismaying hardships and suffering.
Through their intercession
may we always remain faithful to your Church
and seek to be reconciled with one another.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.