Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Pope's Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican

By Charles A. Coulombe, 250 pages, $26.95.

Like an Indiana Jones' movie, The Pope's Legion starts moving from the get-go and doesn't stop until the very last. The Zouaves themselves lived life like this. As a besieged fighting force they hardly had the chance to stand still.

These fighting men found meaning even when the tide of civilization had turned against them and the Catholic Church. Especially in retrospect, their fighting is something of a Greek tragedy. The military battles could never, in the end, go their way.

The pro-papal Zouaves were put together to fight the unification of Italy, since this movement demanded the papal territories. Though not all the unificationists were anti-Catholic, as a whole this movement was anti-clerical and sought to make Italy modern and post-Christian.

Coulombe, excellent at holding various threads of the story together at the same time, compares these men and their romantic, Christ-centered spirituality, to the Crusaders. The author also spends time discussing the Italian, European, and international political and cultural situation in which the Zouaves were fighting. From the vantage of hindsight, these politics make the work of these fighters seem ever-more tragic: they were in reality fighting not only the Italians under Victor Emmanuel II, Garribaldi and Cavour, but the whole mindset and policy of the U.S. and Europe.

Given the forgotten nature of the Zouaves, Coulombe serves readers well by spending a great deal of time on the beginning of this fighting legion. French allies in Algeria, a Berber mountain people called the Zwawa, in 1838 “became a regiment under the already distinguished Major Lamorcière. Wearing their native dress of baggy trousers, short vests, and native headgear, the Zouaves, as the French called them, were an imposing sight.” Eventually French soldiers joined, and the Zouaves became a part of the French military.

Years later, when the Italian unificationists were brutalizing their way into the papal territories, Lamorcière, a faithful Catholic, voiced the anxiety of the Catholic world, which was rapidly mobilizing to the side of the steadfast papacy with echoes of the crusades:

“Christianity is not merely the religion of the civilized world, but the animating principle of civilization...The revolution to-day threatens Europe as Islamism did of old, and now, as then, the cause of the Pope is that of civilization and liberty throughout the world.”

Not only echoes of the crusades here, but anticipation of the Catholic Church's fight with Eastern European communism, where Pope John Paul II and the Church represented freedom in the face of another variation of modern thought.

Lamorcière helped the papacy establish the Pontifical Zouaves, who were initially filled in 1860 with 15,000 volunteers from every Catholic country, which in the case of the Netherlands and a few others, led to the stripping of citizenship.

Coulombe's love of the Zouaves and the cause, and his respect for the sacrifices of the men, make this book a spiritual as well as historical read, as he ties courage, faith, and honor to the Catholic faith. He offers countless mini-portraits of the men, who came from all classes and yet all entered at the lowest rank.

Many men had had previous military careers; many went right after graduating from school; and none did it in order to gain personally. When off duty, the men could be found not at the pub but in churches. After the wars had finished, many became priests, though some continued the life of adventure and soldiering.

Coulombe gives these men an aura of chivalry in the heat of battle as well:

“Having secured Crocetti, the Franco-Belgians, Swiss, and carabinieri assaulted Cascini. But the Sardinian artillery and infantry rained down on them a hail of shot and shell. Falling back upon Crocetti, the papal troops found themselves hotly pursued by Sardinians charging down the slopes; they turned round and attacked with bayonets – the Sardinian charge faltered and broke, with the defenders fleeing back the way they had come under cover of fire.”

The Zouaves, and the papacy itself, were as much victimized by the indifference of their supposed friends and allies – such as France or Austria – as by the zealousness of the Italian nationalists. Had things been more evenly matched, Cavour and his fellows would never have won given the heart of the Zouaves.

Because Coulombe is such a romantic, perhaps this book is less than critical of the Zouaves themselves. A deeper look at some of the negative aspects of Catholicism, the papacy, and this fighting force would have given a fuller sense of the situation. Why, for instance, did so many people in Italy and other historically Catholic countries dislike the papacy and the Church so much? The Pope's Legion reflects to a great degree the siege mentality that Catholics often have in the face of modernity. This means that only one aspect of the story has been told.

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