In last Sunday’s Gospel reading Jesus gave three commands to Peter: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Follow me!” Each of these came after Peter publically professed his love for Jesus. In today’s Gospel, Jesus declares: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
I wrote this reflection shortly after attending a performance of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera is based on a screenplay written by George Bernanos depicting the martyrdom of 16 French nuns.
Two monasteries of nuns had been arrested by the French Revolutionary Government and imprisoned in Cambrai, about 100 miles north of Paris. One group was Benedictine nuns who had left England after Henry VIII had suppressed religious life, only to be caught up in the French Revolution. The other group was French Carmelites who refused the government’s command to disband and to close their monastery. The Benedictines reported that the Carmelite nuns, during their imprisonment agreed to take a vow of martyrdom. They offered themselves as victims to God for the peace of France and the Church. The Carmelites were tried and condemned as traitors. They were taken to the Place de la Nation in Paris and there guillotined on July 17, 1794.
There are several accounts of their deaths. The youngest in the community was the first to proceed to the scaffold. As Sister Constance, the novice in the community, began her walk to the guillotine she intoned a hymn to the Holy Spirit, Veni Creator Spiritus. The nuns joined her as, one by one, they walked to their deaths. The last of the nuns sang the Salve Regina, the Hail, Holy Queen. The mother superior, Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine, the superior of the community and the last to be executed, continued singing until her death. Their bodies were buried in a mass grave outside of Paris. Ten days after their martyrdom, the Reign of Terror ended.
As I watched this sacred drama I could not get Jesus’ words to Peter out of my mind: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Follow me.” I thought of Jesus’ proclamation this week: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me!” I thought of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded on the beach in Libya on February 12, 2015. I thought of the terrorist attack on the two Churches in Sri Lanka on Easter morning that took the lives of 253 Catholic Christians.
Before writing this reflection, I read Jesus’ proclamation over and over again: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.” For 2000 years brave Christians have accepted the call: “Follow me!”
I ask myself today, “What does it mean for me to be a Christian?”